Author Archives: Maren

Whole Food Plant Based Diet Boosts Immune Function

covid-19This week’s reporting on COVID-19 tells us that over 1.5 million US residents have tested positive for the disease and over 90,000 have been confirmed to have died from it. Such figures fail to count those who have not presented symptoms sufficient to warrant testing nor those whose deaths fell outside the net of COVID-19 tracking. The elderly and those who are immunocompromised represent a disproportionate percent of deaths. And there is no end in sight.

As a member of a household with above-average risk of severe infection, I’m paying close attention to actions we can take to help our bodies prepare for the “fight of their lives” should it come to it. A prime focus centers on our diet. Here’s why…

Scientists tell us that the COVID-19 virus enters the body principally through the nose and mouth; it uses lung tissue as its initial breeding ground. So, the first line of defense against the invader must be the mucosal membranes of the oral cavity and respiratory tracts. These membranes fight infection by secreting Type A antibodies (called secretary immunoglobulin A or SIgA). According to a study published by the University of Western Sydney, we can boost our SIgA response by consuming mushrooms. Healthy volunteers who added one cup of mushrooms to their daily diet showed 50% more Type A antibody secretion than the control group. [See Note 1.]

Should a virus break through mucosal membrane fortification, the body’s innate and adaptive immune responses go into action. Our innate immune response avails itself of natural killer cells that target pathogens, including viruses responsible for common respiratory infections. The adaptive immune response designs and produces antibodies that are custom-tailored to combat specific invaders. For proper functioning, the adaptive response must be sufficiently nimble to ramp up production during the window of opportunity in which the infection can be contained without going on overdrive and recklessly attacking its own vital tissues.

I used to think that the immune system was something that was genetically pre-determined. You either had a good one, or you didn’t. But it turns out that its functioning has a great deal to do with the quality of the microbiome in our intestinal tract. As discussed in a prior post, the microbiome plays an active role in digestion, vitamin and amino acid production, and metabolic regulation. With advancing technology, scientists can now trace the extent to which the microbiota and immune system work symbiotically to provide for the body’s response to microbial threat and maintenance of overall health. [See Note 2.] In short, a well-functioning microbiome provides the means for favorable gene expression and serves a crucial role in immune homeostasis. To that end, we must pay close attention to what we eat.

vegan dietHere are a handful of evidence-based recommendations:

Eat 5-7 servings of fruits and vegetables daily. While immune function tends to decline in older adults, one study considered the possibility that older adults are simply getting too few servings of fruits and vegetables daily. It traced the efficacy of vaccine-induced antibody response in two groups of older adults: one ate 5 or more servings of fruits and vegetables daily, and the other only 2. The former demonstrated a 2.5x boost in immune response versus the latter. [See Note 3.] Word to the wise: Eat a colorful assortment of produce to maximize phytonutrient diversity and make your meals interesting.

Make sure your diet includes plenty of fiber. Undigested complex carbohydrates elevate production of short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) that serve as energy sources for the gut microbiota and intestinal epithelial cells. Epithelial cells serve as gatekeepers that permit absorption of healthy substances into the body and block entrance to harmful ones. To that end, load up on whole grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables.

Add immune-boosting superstars to your diet, notably mushrooms, bitter greens, garlic, green tea, and kiwifruit.

Add a tablespoon of ground flax seeds to your daily regimen. They’re loaded with anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids and aid in the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins like A, D and E, all of which are crucial for immune health.

Avoid highly processed and fried foods as they increase inflammation, deplete nutrients, and dampen immune response.

Finally, a study published through the CUNY School of Public Health explored the health advantages of a strict vegan diet over vegetarian or healthy omnivore alternatives. [See Note 4.] It found that the vegan microbiota showed reduced levels of resident microbes with pathogenic potential and a greater abundance of protective species. The vegan microbiota was also associated with reduced inflammation and lowered the risk of arteriosclerosis.

Notes:

  1. https://nutritionfacts.org/video/boosting-immunity-while-reducing-inflammation/
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5541232/
  3. https://nutritionfacts.org/video/boosting-immunity-through-diet/
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4245565/

Tidying Up

It’s that time of year again – Spring cleaning! And given that we’re under quarantine due to COVID-19, we have plenty of time to dive right in!

This year, I decided to avail myself of the one of the world’s leading experts on the subject, Marie Kondo. Her book – The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing – presents the basic principles behind her renowned KonMari Method.

She begins by admonishing readers to take this exercise seriously; half-hearted cleaning won’t get the job done thoroughly and completely. She also advocates a two-step process: discarding all non-essential items, and then figuring out where everything should go.

clean closetTo get into the right mind set for discarding, it’s helpful to set a clear intention for the exercise. It goes beyond the simple, “I want a tidy home” or “I want less stuff.” We’re challenged to explore the reasons why tidiness and having less stuff matter. For me, it’s two-fold. On a practical level, I anticipate that my husband and I will downsize substantially in the coming years, and we can’t take all this stuff with us. But on a deeper level, I realize that the old stuff needs to be cleared out to create space for the next chapter of our lives to unfold.

The KonMari Method proceeds from the assumption that we choose what we should keep rather than what we should discard. In particular, we place each item in our hands and ask, “Does this spark joy?” If it does, keep it; if not, discard it. She tells us not to be distracted by thoughts of being wasteful. An item may still have a useful life or contain helpful information. But if it doesn’t engender a sense of enthusiasm when held in one’s hands, it can be thanked for its service and released to a new home. (She even suggests giving a celebratory send-off to things that will depart from the house!)

The KonMari Method processes items by category, not by room. She reasons that most of us spread items across multiple rooms. Unless and until you can see everything that you’ve got in one place, it’s hard to make rational decisions about what should stay and what should go. She always follows the same sequence when working with clients:

  • Clothes, in the following order: tops, bottoms, clothes that are hung, socks, underwear, bags, accessories, clothes for occasions, shoes
  • Books, in the following order: general, practical, visual, magazines
  • Papers, keeping only those currently in use, required for a limited time, and required indefinitely
  • Miscellaneous, in the following order: CDs/DVDs, skin care products, make-up, accessories, electronic equipment, household equipment, household supplies, kitchen goods, other
  • Mementos

The final category proves the most difficult and is saved for last. By the time people reach this stage, they have gained confidence in their ability to discern what truly matters in the here and now, and what has come to the end of its useful life. As she says:

“Truly precious memories will never vanish even if you discard the objects associated with them… No matter how wonderful things used to be, we cannot live in the past… [Moreover], by paring down to the volume that you can properly handle, you revitalize your relationship with your belongings.”

Having identified what you love and what you need, the next phase entails finding a spot for everything while making the habit of using all of it. (Dust is a sign of stagnant energy!) Clutter accumulates when it’s too much effort to put things away or it’s unclear where they belong. By taking the time to store things in a logical, convenient, consistent manner, it’s easy to maintain the system and forestall backsliding. She’s big on storing clothes vertically in drawers so you can see everything at a glance. She also creates compartments in drawers to create space for specific items, often availing herself of empty shoe boxes and other small containers.

The KonMari Method goes beyond establishing a tidy house. It’s an act of restoring balance among the people, their possessions, and the house they live in. It helps us focus on what we want and need in our lives and diminishes craving for worldly possessions. And, of course, it encourages us to devote our time and energy to that which lights us up.

Wife, Mother, Professional

During the past few weeks, millions of workers lost their jobs and applied for benefits. Economists from the University of Michigan expect unemployment rates to top 15% amid a sharply declining domestic gross national product. It’s hard to draw inspiration at times like these, but I’ve found some by reflecting on my mother’s life and how she soldiered on during trying times.

Mom spent her formative years in a country wracked by the Great Depression. Her parents earned a subsistence living as officers in The Salvation Army, and the family moved frequently to serve missions around the country. It was a difficult life, and the lack of constancy contributed to a lifelong tendency toward shyness.

jean murrayEconomic necessity compelled Mom to join the work force as soon as she graduated from high school. She was sharp as a tack, a superb communicator, and a phenom with typing and shorthand. Even so, she faced substantive competition at every turn from folks who had far more work experience.

Late on a Friday afternoon, she submitted a job application along with a couple dozen other women. She was told that they’d get back to her the following week and schedule an interview should her candidacy merit consideration. She decided not to wait. Come Monday morning, Mom showed up at the company’s front door ready to go to work. She got the job and never gave them pause to regret it.

She met the love of her life at Sutro’s Ice Skating Rink in San Francisco. They married in a private ceremony at the family home and settled into a one-bedroom apartment. They lived on my father’s salary to provide flexibility for Mom to stay home once the children arrived. They didn’t buy a car until they were able to pay for it with cash.

Mom turned her attention to full-time parenting while my older brother and I were pre-schoolers. Shortly after I entered kindergarten, she returned to work to help us maintain a home in the area’s premier school district. She also began taking courses at the local junior college to fulfill a life-long dream of attaining her baccalaureate degree.

In the late 1960s, Mom took the opportunity to become a full-time student at San Francisco State University. Then in her mid-forties, she found herself front-and-center amidst the counter-cultural revolution and anti-war protests that characterized the era. Despite a rough commute, student strikes, and on-campus violence, she stayed the course and graduated summa cum laude in 1970.

Mom spent the balance of her career as an eligibility worker with the County of San Mateo. In this capacity, she helped the less fortunate identify opportunities for governmental aide and provided fiscal oversight for selected programs within the county hospital system. Her coworkers and clientele had nothing but high praise for her dedication and efforts.

No matter how busy she was with school or work, Mom never missed a beat on the home front. She took excellent care of the house and its inhabitants, volunteered at school, church, and civic functions, helped with homework, and participated actively in our musical, athletic, and social activities. She was also Dad’s sounding board professionally and his partner in life, parenting, home renovation, and landscaping. One wonders how she got it all done!

Beyond her prodigious accomplishments, I stand in awe of the determination that got her through the tough times and kept her moving forward. She mustered the courage to do things that were decidedly uncomfortable for her. She took on unpleasant work assignments to be responsive to her family’s fiscal needs. She never backed away from a challenge and spent a lifetime learning new things and honing her skills. Moreover, she was committed to putting forth her best work no matter what was asked of her.

Having lived an exemplary life, Mom finished her earthly journey three months ago today. Her final years were difficult, but she did her best to put on a brave face and carry on. May she rest in peace.

The Artist’s Way

the artist's way

“Every blade of grass has its Angel that bends over it and whispers, ‘Grow, grow.’”
– The Talmud

Prevailing wisdom tells us that artists are born, not made. If you happened to win the genetic lottery and scored all those creativity chromosomes, you had the potential to become a great director, actor, painter, photographer, musician, writer, and such. Otherwise, you might as well get used to living an ordinary life. Right?

WRONG!

There’s an artist in all of us waiting for the opportunity to find expression. Our mission – should we decide to accept it – is to give that artist the time, energy, attention, and encouragement to flourish. Julia Cameron just might be the person to help us do that.

Julia is an award-winning poet, playwright, filmmaker, composer, and author who has written thirty books. Most noteworthy among her writings is The Artist’s Way, a collection of essays, inspirational quotes, and tools to help readers nurture their creative gifts.

According to Julia, the starting point for creative recovery entails commitment to three foundational practices:

  • Morning Pages, or three pages on standard sheets of paper written out long hand immediately upon awakening. These are streams-of-consciousness designed to empty out whatever’s in the brain. They’re written as fast as the hand can move across the page without thought or editing. In my practice, I find that they help me release stuff on which I’ve been ruminating as well as get me to pay attention to topics and issues that seem to crop up repeatedly.
  • A Daily Walk to help the brain experience a bounty of sensory experience and allow time to fill up on creative thoughts and impulses. Ideally, one takes a particularly long walk weekly in an extra special place.
  • A Weekly Artist Date to spend time with, and nurture, the artist within us. These dates do not have to be lavish or spendy, but they do need to be pursued without companionship. Just you and your artist!

The book proceeds with a 12-week process designed to kick-start each reader’s creative recovery. While there’s no substitute for reading the book and going through your own process, here are a few “a ha” moments that I had while taking this journey:

  • You cannot become a good artist unless you are willing to start out as a bad one. Give yourself time to take baby steps; support yourself emotionally along the way. Negative self-talk is the artist’s enemy.
  • Don’t let blocked artists and/or crazymakers disrupt the artist journey. Create a safe space and protect your budding artist from shame.
  • Take seriously the fact that the Universe has your back. Be willing to take the leap of faith and trust that it will be there for you.
  • In order to have self-expression, you must have a self to express. Morning pages introduce you to the “real you” versus the one put out for public display.
  • Be generous with downtime; the artist needs time to recharge. Say “YES” to yourself.
  • Serious art comes out of serious play.
  • Art is not about thinking something up; it’s about getting something down. Show up. Take small and simple creative steps daily.
  • Learn to survive your creative injuries by mourning the losses, learning from them, and moving on to the next act of creation.
  • Procrastination is not laziness, it’s fear – fear of a dry well, fear of tedium, fear of failure, fear of disappointing oneself or others. Counter that impulse by making the creative process fun.
  • Art needs time to incubate, to sprawl and be ungainly before settling into itself. Don’t get fixated on the finish line; enjoy the journey.
  • Creativity is a spiritual practice. It brings its own rewards.
  • We cannot chart our artistic process or try to control it. As author André Gide tells us: “One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.”

How I Learned to Love Cooking

In my last post, I talked about our recent decision to buy a share in Community Supported Agriculture. It’s something we’ve been wanting to do, and it’s a good year to do it. But, of course, when you get all that fresh produce, you’ve got to figure out something to do with it!

i love cooking

I wasn’t born a cook and was never much interested in it. I took up the mantle as a teenager to help my parents. They both worked full time, so I pitched in and got dinner on the table as they returned home from their days’ labors. But it was all pretty mundane stuff, and Mom did all the grocery shopping and planning.

My cooking and eating habits stayed pretty basic throughout college and grad school, and I became a frozen dinner, fast food, and dining out aficionado during my working years. I was really, really busy and didn’t want to spend much time in the kitchen. Now and again I’d build up a head of steam and prepare something amazing. But the day-to-day grind of meal preparation just didn’t interest me.

In summer 2015, I read Chris Guillebeau’s book entitled The Happiness of Pursuit: Finding the Quest That Will Bring Purpose To Your Life. In it, he reflects on his 10-year quest to visit every country in the world and encourages readers to identify adventures that will enrich their lives and satisfy inner longings. I took his advice and opted to prepare every recipe in the most challenging cookbook on my bookshelf.

In truth, I didn’t have inner longings around cooking. But I’d just seen the movie Julie & Julia and figured this quest would be something that I could manage on top of all my other responsibilities.

I’m proof positive that gourmet cooking takes a LOT of time in the kitchen. Mercifully, Spike provided able assistance and saved my proverbial bacon on numerous occasions. (Of course, he had a vested interest in food getting on the table!) But it turned out to be a lovely way to spend our evenings together. We spent more time talking and less time vegging out in the front of the TV.

I learned that cooking from scratch was far more flavorful than cooking with short-cuts. There is a material difference in taste between fresh herbs and dried herbs and between bottled garlic and fresh garlic – well worth the incremental food preparation time. Moreover, those complex recipes turned out to be mouth-wateringly flavorful, and it wasn’t as hard to prepare them as I feared they might be.

The quest has introduced Spike and me to several new ingredients – e.g., celery root, chanterelle mushrooms, spaghetti squash, calvados, gruyère cheese, to name a few. By stretching our boundaries, we became much more familiar with the inventory at our local grocers and in the farmer’s market. I’m awestruck by the bounty of food that we enjoy in the Pacific Northwest!

We realized early on that the quest would go slowly if we had to eat all of the food that we prepared. So, we started inviting people to dine with us, given fair warning that they’d be noshing on food we’d never made. Suffice it to say, the fellowship was even better than the food, and the food was really good. In the process, I’ve gotten over my fear of being a sub-par hostess. No one judges me. They’re just happy to eat, drink, and be merry!

I’ve learned to suspend my tendencies toward perfectionism and beating myself up when things don’t go well. We had a few mishaps in the kitchen, and we sampled a few recipes that didn’t send us over the moon. Oh well! No big deal! I have confidence in my ability to improve on my technique and the discernment to know when it’s not worth the effort.

I’ve since worked my way through 8 other cookbooks and am closing in on 1,400 total new recipes sampled. Being a “test kitchen” takes the drudgery out of meal preparation and helps turn ordinary evenings into date nights. Spike still helps me in the kitchen, and we still enjoy a good chat while we’re cooking.

I’ll look forward to the day when our social distancing restrictions get lifted, and we can have friends over for dinner again!

Community Supported Agriculture

As noted in an earlier post, my husband and I are dedicated locavores who regularly patronize the Beaverton Farmer’s Market. I love milling around the fruit and vegetable stands, and it is great fun to interact casually with all the other locals who share our enthusiasm.

Our favorite weekly pastime has been disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. The usual crowds will not allow for a safe distance to prevent viral transmission. We don’t want to roll the dice and hope that we’ll avoid infection or weather it successfully should we succumb. Since we’re still committed to supporting local farmers, our next best strategy is to buy a share in Community Supported Agriculture (CSA).

community supported agriculture

Farmers create CSAs to establish patronage for their wares. In return for advance payment for a season’s worth of produce, they provide a weekly allotment of fruits, vegetables, flowers, or other items at designated pick-up locations. This arrangement helps them manage their cash flow and handle marketing efforts before spending really long days in the field. Their shareholders get ultra-fresh, ultra-healthy, chemical-free food along with exposure to new vegetables and new ways of cooking. They also develop relationships with the farmers who grow their food.

In the best of all worlds, farmers receive a great income for their labors, and shareholders reap the bounty of a delicious harvest for however long the season lasts. Should nature conspire against the farmers and yields run lower than anticipated, shareholders agree explicitly to get a little less value for their dollars. That’s where the “support” comes into community supported agriculture. It’s a commitment to support local farmers in plenty and in want. I think it’s a fair and reasonable deal. They put themselves on the line every year to provide for our bodily nourishment. It’s only right that we put our dollars on the line to provide for their financial security.

Whether you are a patron of a farmer’s market or a CSA shareholder, you are in partnership with Mother Earth and the future generations that she’ll support. By purchasing organically grown, locally produced fruits and vegetables, you’ll contribute to:

Attentive care of the soil on which life depends: According to a Cornell University study, it takes 20 years for less than a millimeter of soil to replenish itself naturally. Organic farmers help Mother Nature along by ensuring that they do not needlessly deplete the soils’ nutrients and by planting nutrient-rich cover crops to replenish this living organism. Cover crops also protect the land from top soil run-off. According to the United Nations, poor soil management globally accounts for loss of a third of the world’s arable land and could reach a point of crisis within the next few decades.

Protection of our groundwater and marine habitats: According to the US Geological Survey, roughly 25 metric tons of nitrogen, phosphate, and potassium flood U.S. soils annually to boost yields. The excess leaches into the soil and contaminates our groundwater. Moreover, the runoff contributes to algae blooms in our major waterways, oceans, and the Gulf of Mexico which disrupt our marine ecosystems.

Reduction in use of pesticides and herbicides: According to the NIH National Library of Medicine, the U.S. consumes ~1 billion tons of pesticide annually, and in 2014 alone, farmers sprayed enough glyphosate to apply 0.8 pounds per acre of cultivated cropland. While these products boost yields, they carry a hidden cost in the integrity of our natural resources and our health.

Reduction in CO2 emissions and their attendant impact on global warming: Food travels within 50-100 miles of your table, not hundreds of miles by plane, train, or automobile.

Tens of thousands of families have joined CSAs over the past few decades. In fact, they’re so popular in the Pacific Northwest that I had a difficult time finding a farmer who had available shares for purchase. Suffice it to say, I’m glad that I finally got off the dime and signed up for a June through October season. It does the planet, the farmer, and my household good!

What Science Has Told Me About COVID-19

As an alumnus of UC San Diego, I’ve had the privilege of attending two webinars recently on the coronavirus pandemic courtesy of Dr. Robert “Chip” Schooley, a professor and researcher at the UCSD Medical School. I’ve also checked out a couple of articles that inform my current perspective. Here’s what I discovered.

The Chinese Health Ministry has shared data regarding infection rates and disease severity. Risk factors for morbidity include older age, hypertension, chronic lung disease, diabetes, and obesity. Researchers are evaluating the degree to which drugs used to treat these conditions might have an impact on the presentation of the disease.

covid-19 age distribution and morbidity rates

While this chart is instructive, the US experience may deviate given differences in general health and lifestyles between the populations. Morbidity may also be affected by access to healthcare facilities for the gravely ill.

The disease takes root initially in the lungs. It takes awhile before viral agents manifest in the nasal and pharyngeal cavities, the sites where current tests check for infection. As such, a person could test negative for COVID-19 simply because the virus has not yet migrated to the upper respiratory tract.

Viral shedding begins 2 or more days before symptoms appear and persists throughout the course of the disease (see below). Widespread testing in Iceland revealed that half of the persons infected with COVID-19 did not manifest symptoms whatsoever. Bottom line: You, your friends, family members, co-workers, et al may feel fine yet you could still be carriers of the disease and infect others. Keep your distance and wear personal protective equipment!

covid-19 in throat and sputum

This unfortunate reality plagued a 120-voice community choir at its final rehearsal on March 10, 2020. Sixty choristers showed up for practice, none of whom had the slightest indication of illness. Chairs were set apart widely to give each singer ample breathing room. No one touched or hugged other members. Yet 45 attendees took ill, 27 tested positive for COVID-19, and two died from complications related to the disease.

You don’t have to be in close contact with an infected party to contract the virus. The virus can survive in aerosol form (i.e., suspended in the air) for upwards of 2 hours. It can also remain viable on inanimate objects for hours to days after deposit from a human host. If someone else touches the infected surface and then touches his or her face, the virus can establish itself in the new host. Word to the Wise: Wash your hands vigorously immediately after contact with a suspect object. Disinfect surfaces. Don’t touch your face!

Most states have placed restrictions on its citizens’ movements, closed non-essential business establishments, and denied gatherings in excess of 10 people. They’ve asked folks to “shelter in place” to the maximum extent possible. They want to tamp down the spread of the disease and make sure that our health care systems can accommodate persons with severe viral symptoms. Here’s why:

covid-19 hospital readiness

I don’t know if we’ll be able to hold infection rates to 20% over an 18-month period, but our household will do its part to make that objective a reality.

Meanwhile, there are multiple immunology groups around the country working on vaccines as well as treatment options for those who become infected. UCSD is active in this pursuit. Moreover, the UCSD School of Engineering is exploring options for 3-D printing of face masks and the use of UV light to sterilize used masks. They are also looking at ways to speed the production of ventilators.

A return to normalcy rests in the hands of able scientists and researchers. As Dr. Schooley said: “The virus will continue to circulate unless we get a vaccine to get it under control.

Harvard Weighs in on Nutrition

I just finished reading an article1 about Dr. Frank Hu, professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. He and his colleagues created the following Healthy Eating Plate based on the best available scientific evidence:

healthy eating plate

Vegetables: Eat lots of them – the greater the variety the better. Potatoes, French fries, and tater tots don’t count.

Fruits: Eat plenty of fruits of all colors.

Whole Grains: Eat a variety of whole grains; limit refined grains (e.g., white rice, white bread).

Healthy Protein: Choose fish, poultry, beans, and nuts; limit red meat and cheese. Avoid bacon, cold cuts, and processed meats.

Water: Drink water, tea, of coffee with little to no sugar. Limit milk/dairy and juice. Avoid sugary drinks.

Healthy Oils: Use modest amounts of olive oil or canola oil for cooking and in salads, as needed. Limit butter. Avoid trans fats.

Unlike the U.S. Government’s Eating Plat, the Harvard version does not have a specific provision for dairy, and it places far greater emphasis on vegetables.

Dr. Hu and his colleagues are as concerned about our health as they are the health of the planet (which are, of course, inexorably intertwined). According to the article, food production accounts for 80% of deforestation, 70% of fresh water use, and 30% of human-generated greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Meat and dairy production account for 80% of the food industry’s GHG. Moreover, it takes 11 times more fossil fuels to produce a single unit of animal protein than it takes to produce a comparable amount of grain-based protein.

If eating meat were deemed healthy, there’d be a painful trade-off between bolstering human health and bearing the environmental cost. But it turns out that meat isn’t that healthy. Findings from the 2012 Health Professionals Follow-Up Study and Nurses’ Health Study revealed that increasing one’s consumption of meat by a single serving per day elevates morbidity risk by 13-20%.

Hu has published several papers on plant-based diets but claims that it does not have to be vegan or vegetarian. As I’ve read elsewhere, meat as a condiment instead of prominent occupant of the plate seems to be alright (though processed meats are not good!)

Hu and his colleagues face an uphill battle in gaining governmental traction on their recommendations. Powerful political and commercial interests stand in their way. And, to be sure, there are still randomized, double-blind studies to be done to solidify their research. But as Hu says: “Globally, if we always just wait for the absolute proof or conclusive evidence, then it’s going to be disastrous. It’s going to be too late for both human health and the environment.”

 

1 See Diet Science: Healthy Humans, Healthy Planet by Jacob Sweet in Harvard Magazine, March-April 2020

De-Stress With Mindfulness

My last post focused on the pandemic and the actions that my household is taking in response to it. This week, things have gotten more serious. Monday, our governor issued an executive order that calls for home isolation except to secure food and prescription medicine. Workers associated with essential services may go to work; all others must telecommute. It’s a troubling time.

In the midst of all this turmoil, I attended a virtual class on stress management and the immune response courtesy of my local Yoga/Tai Chi studio. Master Brian started the session by reminding us that we cannot control external circumstances. In fact, it creates stress and strain if we try to control them. We’ll get tossed about in waves of thoughts and emotions tied to outside events and information. We’ll lose our ability to stay grounded, to see things clearly, and to take right action. And we’ll weaken our ability to combat infection disease should we be exposed to it.

say no to stressThese observations resonate clearly with a post I wrote two-plus years ago entitled Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. It provided high level findings from Dr. Robert Sapolsky’s book by the same name. In it, he notes that chronic stress gives rise to hypertension, excess fatty acids/glucose/cholesterol, digestive disruption, bone disintegration, immune system suppression, memory decline, and sleep deprivation. In short, it damages vital systems, weakens the body’s defense mechanisms, and elevates the risk of illness and death.

While I’m seeing products that purport to bolster immune response fly off the shelves, I’m not hearing many folks talk about stress management and its role in bolstering immunity. Yet I suspect that managing stress is a far more effective strategy for immune system support than loading up on supplements.

Our exposure to news outlets and social media isn’t helping. It’s all gloom and doom. I get it; the pandemic is frightening. Its global impact has been devastating, and there’s no end in sight. We may need to hear how bad things are to get with the program on making sacrifices to keep ourselves and others safe. And yet a steady diet of that kind of reporting is not good for stress management. If you’ve already got the message, it’s probably best to be a little less informed.

be mindfulWe need to create space between all that external stuff and our conscious awareness. When the gap is small, things that happen outside can hit us and knock us off our feet. They can take over our consciousness and stress us out. When the gap is large, we can simply watch what’s happening and remain unaffected. We can live in a state of total presence. We can let go of expectations tied to the external world and focus on the power and centeredness of our interior life.

Admittedly, I’m not stellar when it comes to practicing presence. I get distracted easily, and unfavorable news can cause me to ruminate and worry. So, I’m making a point of developing habits and practices that run counter to my ingrained tendencies. I’m journaling in the morning to get the noise out of my head, onto paper, and then into the “circular file.” I’m tuning in to my daily Yoga-Tai-Chi (on-line!) class to encourage the practice of presence. And I’m establishing routines that create a sense of normalcy despite living in decidedly abnormal times. It all helps.

I’ve read and written about meditation but haven’t started a practice of it. It’s an auspicious time for me to work on quieting my body and mind. One step at a time. One day at a time.

A Pandemic Hits Home

This past week sent shock waves through our nation once again. I’ve experienced them before. I witnessed the oil crisis of the 1970s with long lines at every gas station. I lived in the SF Bay Area during the Loma Prieta earthquake and its aftermath. We’d moved to Raleigh NC in time to catch Hurricane Fran and the devastation it wreaked on our town. And I joined the nation in mourning the loss of life and sense of security with the terrorist attacks of 2011. I know the anxious feeling that uncertainty brings, and I tell myself that we shall get through it. But I surely do not like it.

covid-19The World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic one week ago. Federal, state, and local governments have been taking action to restrict travel and establish a measure of social distancing in an attempt to contain the outbreak. As a country, we are scrambling to establish appropriate testing protocols and capacity to identify and (I hope) quarantine affected parties. We have a pressing need to flatten the growth rate of infection so as not to overwhelm our healthcare system. And yet some folks do not take the disease seriously based on the relatively small numbers of confirmed cases reported to date.

Here’s why I take it seriously:

  • Confirmed cases are likely grossly underreported given the relatively small numbers of tests performed to date.
  • Many people present mild symptoms and, therefore, do not realize that they are carriers of the disease.
  • The virus appears to have staying power on surfaces that have come into contact with an affected person, thereby increasing its transmission rate.
  • Death rates are disproportionately high, especially for older persons. (My husband and I are older adults!) Those with severe symptoms often require hospitalization to avoid becoming a statistic. They may require a lengthy convalescence and may not recover fully.
  • The growth rate of cases has been exponential; demand for hospital intervention can rapidly outpace capacity.

I had an especially nasty bout with the flu 5 years ago. While it did not rise to the level of hospitalization, I have a keen sense for how “severe symptoms” present and the reality of never quite getting back to “normal” again. I have no desire to experience that again!

We’ve opted to practice social distancing and home isolation. We’ll venture forth to address necessities, e.g., to secure food and prescription medicine. We’ll maintain a discrete distance from others when out and wash our hands thoroughly upon our return. In short, we’ll err on the side of caution to protect ourselves and others.

Meanwhile, we’ll take the opportunity to attend to some long-standing projects that have been on the “to do” list but just never gurgled up to high priority. For example:

  • We’ve reached out to our attorney to update our estate plans. We have been meaning to do it for ages. While I don’t anticipate them having to go into effect, we’ll feel comforted in knowing that we’ve done a yeoman’s job preparing for worst-case scenarios.
  • We’ve updated our emergency suppliers to hold us over if we need to shelter in place for 2-4 weeks.
  • We finished planting all the trees and shrubs for our updated front and back yards. We’ll pay closer attention to them going forward. It’s great exercise!
  • I’ll be catching up on sewing projects that have been nagging at me for weeks (if not months!)
  • We’ll finally get around to going through our closets and garage to identify things that we no longer use or need. I’m not sure when we’ll be able to dispose of them, but at least the hard work of going through everything will be behind us!
  • We’ll both catch up on “office work” that proves time-consuming, mildly tedious, and worth doing.
  • We’ll exercise consistently, eat well, and get plenty of rest.
  • We’ll make the most out of the quality time that we get to spend together.
  • We’ll practice gratitude for all the things that we have and be mindful of others whose predicaments are more precarious than ours.

I’m still unsettled by the uncertainty that surrounds me. But I will do my best to keep this household healthy and upbeat. Fortunately, having a blissfully ignorant, unerringly jubilant Scottish terrier helps!