Thinking Our Way to Good Health

A few years ago, I attended a talk by Dr. Lisa Rankin and found my way to her New York Times best-selling book Mind Over Medicine. She made the argument that we can heal ourselves by the power of thought and provided research to back it up. I’m taking a deeper dive on the subject through the aegis of Dr. Joe Dispenza’s You Are The Placebo: Making Your Mind Matter.

Dispenza tells us that our bodies are phenomenal apothecaries. They produce a wide array of substances that maintain our biological systems, remodel bones, heal wounds, respond to threat, avert pain, foster sleep, enhance immune function, elevate mood, and so on. This marvelous machinery can keep us in fine fettle without pharmaceuticals. However, to function at peak efficiency, we need to manifest the right physical, mental, and emotional energy.

As discussed in an earlier post on epigenetics, we are not held hostage by our genetic endowments. Environmental factors play a significant role in genetic expression. In fact, the overwhelming majority of our genes activate (or deactivate) based on what we think, feel, do, express, ingest, or experience. Of course, to the extent that we perceive our lives through a fixed lens and react to circumstances with the same neural architecture, we will head toward a very specific genetic destiny. But if we are willing to adjust our beliefs, perceptions, and interactions with the environment, we can chart a different course.

Dr. Dispenza provides a simple flow diagram to trace the connection between thoughts and bodily well-being. Let’s work through this flow with a concrete example.

changing the body through thought

Suppose I have an upcoming meeting with a co-worker who has consistently been a thorn in my side and whose behavior has proven disruptive to my team’s work. Based on past experience, my thoughts about the meeting trigger an expectation of conflict. My neural network releases chemical messengers (neuropeptides) that trigger the production of the stress hormone cortisol. With a hefty dose of cortisol coursing through my veins, cell receptor sites trigger intracellular environments that upregulate DNA expression in a way that mobilizes energy (glucose), elevates heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing, halts tissue growth and repair, boosts immune response, blunts pain receptors, and sharpens sensory perception. This state proves protective when induced by a bona fide threat of short duration. But it results in diminished health when sustained for an extended period of time.

Thoughts, emotions, and events act like epigenetic engineers. They control our physiological responses. And here’s the kicker: Our bodies cannot distinguish between having an experience and just thinking about one. A scary movie can get us just as juiced up as a physical threat. On the downside, it’s a call to avoid unnecessary stimulation in our entertainment choices. On the upside, it provides a mechanism to set an intention to be healthy, craft a mental picture of that state, and think our way into positive outcomes.

A new field called psychoneuroimmunology explores the effect of thoughts and emotions on the immune system. For example, laughter causes the production of chemical messengers that dock on the cellular wall. Receptors respond to the electromagnetic energy and stimulate the production of anti-inflammatory proteins epigenetically to quelch infection. Fancy that!

If we want to reap the benefits of forwarding thoughts, emotions, and actions, we may need to rewire our neural pathways. Neurons make and break connections in our brains dynamically. The more we repeat thoughts and behaviors, the stronger the neural connections, and the more automatic they become. As such, it should come as no great surprise that of the tens of thousands of thoughts that cross our minds daily, 90% are the same as the previous day. These recurrent thoughts drive the same behaviors which yield the same experiences, emotions, and biochemicals and give rise to the same health-affecting gene expression. If we want to establish new patterns, we need to break old habits.

Expectations play a powerful role in health outcomes. As noted in Dr. Rankin’s work, patients who believe that a drug or treatment will help them generally get positive results even if they’re given a placebo. Among other things, placebos can trigger the release of endorphins, the body’s natural pain killer. This phenomenon also works in reverse. Patients expecting bad results usually get them (a.k.a., the nocebo effect). In case studies of patients with terminal illness, those who refused to accept their grim prognoses and remained optimistic experienced better outcomes than those who surrendered to their diseases. Deep-seated positivity drove a new set of thoughts which opened up new possibilities. If we want to avail ourselves of this form of physiological programming, our belief in the power of thought must take root at a conscious and subconscious level.

We can also shape our destiny with the power of intention. By conscious choice, we can give our actions and experiences new meaning and thereby install new “wiring.” For example, when we engage in a daily recounting of things for which we are grateful, our minds tend to be on the lookout for things to add to our lists. As Bing Crosby told us in a hit song of 1945:

You’ve got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
Latch on to the affirmative
Don’t mess with Mister In-Between

The Brave New World of Choice Architects

Have you ever thought about how many decision points that cross your path on a given day? Turn on the TV and you’ll find a mind-numbing panoply of channels with live and streaming viewing options. A quick glance at your Smartphone reveals dozens of news and social media feeds vying for your attention. A simple trip to the grocery store presents tens of thousands of products from which to choose. We may relish our freedom of choice, but our lives would come to a grinding halt if we stopped to consider all available options!

Enter the choice architect. Folks in this nascent profession organize the context in which we make decisions in such a way that it alters our behavior in predictable ways without forbidding any options or significantly changing our economic incentives. For example:

  • A cafeteria’s layout and tray size determine in large part the type and quantity of food patrons choose to consume.
  • The default option on retirement plan enrollment impacts the number of employees who avail themselves of this opportunity. Those who must consciously opt out of the program tend to save more than those who must consciously opt in.
  • Sweden’s Vision Zero and the Netherlands Sustainable Safety provide examples of innovative street design that cause drivers and pedestrians to make better choices at troublesome intersections, thereby saving lives.

Drs. Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein provide a window into this fascinating subject matter in NUDGE: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. They begin by recounting a host of shortcuts we use when making decisions:

  • We use rules of thumb to avoid having to stop and think deeply about what we are doing or deciding.
  • Starting points (a.k.a. anchors) exert a strong influence on our decision process. If we believe a product should cost X, we’ll be resistant to any upward pressure on pricing. But if we’re introduced to a premium version of the product, we’ll be prone to action when given the option to purchase a less expensive one.
  • We assess the likelihood of risk by how readily an example comes to mind (a.k.a. availability), not by its actual mathematical probability. For example, vending machines kill many more people than sharks, but the publicity surrounding shark attacks makes us fear them more.
  • We render judgments based on stereotypes… even when our social consciousness admonishes not to.
  • We tend toward optimism and overconfidence when assessing our ability to complete a project in a given time frame (a.k.a., “above average” effect).
  • We have loss aversion – i.e., our pain at losing is twice the amplitude of our joy at winning.
  • We tend to stick with our current situation rather than make changes (a.k.a. the “status quo” effect)… which is what makes default settings so powerful.
  • Framing influences thought processes. For example, we feel much better about a surgical procedure that carries a 90% success rate over one associated with a 10% failure rate, even though the two metrics are equivalent.
  • We make mindless choices based on what is in front of us – e.g., shoveling junk food into our mouths on autopilot just because it’s there.
  • We follow the herd. Social influence is powerful! Moreover, groups tend to stick with established protocols even as new conditions and needs arise.
  • Priming improves the ease with which certain information comes to mind. It can also motivate us to action. It can take the form of a suggestion, sensory input (e.g., a visual cue), or an intention. It can also be associated with removing barriers and making something really easy to do.

All of the foregoing gained footholds across thousands of years as human beings figured out what they needed to survive. The more complex our lives, the more we look for ways of lowering our cognitive load. A benevolent choice architect can make our lives easier. The authors argue that this discipline is especially useful for decisions that are difficult and rare, for which feedback is absent or delayed, and for which decision makers have difficulty translating the options into terms they understand.

So, what are the characteristics of benevolent choice architects? They make it easy for folks to choose options that is most likely to result in the choosers’ highest good which still providing the means to explore alternate paths. These choices may be guided by filters that narrow the playing field. They are attentive to default settings – e.g., one-time purchase versus auto-renewals, regular versus custom installation. And they present signals and/or incentives that are consistent with the desired actions.

Of course, “bad actors” could avail themselves of the same behavioral science research to achieve their own aims. The authors argue for developing rules to control fraud and abuse and elevate transparency and neutrality.

We may bristle at the thought of choice architects controlling our lives, but we are definitely subject to their influence. “Nudges” are everywhere, even if we do not see them. A such, it behooves us to align ourselves with reputable individuals and organizations and trust that their gentle nudges steer us in the right direction. A few practical suggestions:

  • Bolster your savings through payroll deductions, especially if the company offers to match your funds!
  • Improve your health by hanging out with healthy people. You’ll eat better quality food and exercise more.
  • Focus on news outlets that dedicate “air time” to interesting and/or inspirational stories; take a break from the anxiety-inducing headlines. Don’t make the latter easy to access or grab your attention.

A Life Journey in Two Stages

A good friend put me on to a book by American Franciscan priest, writer, and spiritual director Richard Rohr entitled Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. It’s an interesting read.

Rohr’s theological convictions suggest that we each have a divine spark that animates our lives and establishes purposeful blueprints for engagement with the world. Our journey of discovery proceeds in two stages. During the first stage, we build ego structures (“containers”) that provide our sense of self, our sense of place, a means to navigate our way in society, and a sure-footedness when following the disquieting path of growth. In the second stage, the focus shifts away from the container toward the contents they are meant to hold.

containerOur containers are comprised of the laws, traditions, customs, boundaries, and moral codes that govern our societies. We assimilate them through our families, group affiliations, civil and religious authorities, and close associates. Healthy environments provide the right set of elders to guide our steps and the right limitations and freedoms to foster spiritual growth. A Rohr says:

“None of us can dialogue with others until we can calmly and confidently hold our own identity. None of us can know much about second-half-of-life spirituality as long as we are still trying to create the family, the parenting, the security, the order, the pride that we were not given in the first half.”

That being said, Rohr cautions against contexts that demand unquestioning followers by dominating leaders. We must wrestle with rules and authority to understand when and where they prove useful, and when and where to part company with them. We must also push beyond our comfort zones and leave the family nest (however defined) to find the “pearl of great price,” our true selves. Rohr characterizes this self as the indwelling Spirit that confers true enlightenment, discernment, and union between ourselves and everything else. It enables us to find a deep meaning in our everyday experience.

What are the tell-tale signs of those who have transitioned successfully into the second stage of life?

  • They experience life as spacious and alive with possibilities. They contribute creatively and proactively to their communities because they forged strong containers in which to incubate and realize their visions.
  • They are not compelled to protect, defend, prove, or assert their identities. They will accept the mantle of leadership but are not concerned with public affirmation or praise. They are content to simply be “part of the dance.”
  • Their daily life reflects prayerful discernment. They do not get swept up in reactivity. They fight only that to which they are called directly and for which they have the requisite “equipment.” They withdraw energy from foolish or evil pursuits.
  • When facing difference, they look for the “both-and” solution rather than be trapped in an “either-or” mentality.
  • They accept pain and discomfort as a normal part of life and do not fixate on eliminating them. They let go of hurts and failures and lean into forgiveness instead of punishment for others’ transgressions.
  • They influence others simply by being who they are.

Getting from the first to the second stage of life requires inner work. It calls for us to deconstruct the presentations of ourselves that reflect what others want from us, what garners worldly rewards, and what unduly shapes our identities. It takes a healthy dose of critical thinking – and perhaps an able guide or two – to recognize our “shadow selves” and see what lies beyond them. It’s humbling work but one that carries a big upside. When we recognize our shadow personas, they lose their power to control us. We stop giving away our inner gold to others.

Rohr laments that too many individuals and institutions get stuck in the first stage of life. They’re averse to the leaps of faith that attend to a life in continual growth and development. The familiar and habitual become falsely reassuring. As such, they build increasingly rigid containers and lose sight of the broader, deeper world in which their divinely-inspired souls might find a freedom of expression. They lose the capacity to give themselves away without strings in service to others. Rohr views Jesus as a second-half-of-life man embedded in a first-half-of-life culture. His radiant light provided a path to transcendence.

I understand what it means to be enmeshed in a cultural identity that “works” and the daunting task of unearthing a more authentic self. It takes faith and a measure of courage to stand apart from the cultural norms and chart a different course. The journey brings heartache and joy, confusion and certainty, loss and renewal. Though I’ve stumbled and fallen along the way, a firm foundation has enabled me to “fall upward” and not fall apart. I may never “arrive,” but I’m content to spend the rest of my life on the path.

Another Round of Spring Cleaning

Every year, I build up a head of steam to go through the house and purge things that no longer serve our interests. I’ve pursued this agenda largely by myself with token contributions from my husband. But I managed to enroll him wholeheartedly in the project this year with a commitment to share in the festivities.

There are clear advantages to pursuing “right-sizing” at our stage in life:

  • We have a history with things that we’ve held on to for years (if not decades) that we know we won’t use. It’s not hard to add them to the list of things that will move on to their next emanation, although it takes a little effort to find them new homes. Just this morning, I bid good-bye to nearly-new home canning supplies that have been sitting in storage for years, casualties of a brief enthusiasm that failed to take root. I found the new owner through my Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) group, and she’s really excited about using them.
  • We’ve got a clearer sense of how we’ll spend our time going forward and can identify things that don’t fit into those plans. For example, we’re gradually moving beyond the Do-It-Yourself stage of life and have far less need for building supplies. It’s still tempting to go down the I’ll-hang-on-to-it-just-in-case rabbit hole, but we’re far less likely to get tagged by that impulse.
  • We’re a little more serious about looking for a smaller place to live. We’re getting rid of things a little at a time now versus face a monumental task when downsizing is upon us.

Having been-there-done-that during the past few years, we didn’t spend too much time going through things inside the house. The big challenge was the garage, territory that has been subject to my husband’s purview throughout our married life. It needed attention! It was full of stuff with little organizing principle to inform a search when looking for something. I was fairly certain that it had a lot of dated supplies that would need be taken to the toxic waste site. And the floor space was so cluttered that you very nearly needed a pole vault to get from one place to another.

We had to move the cars out of the garage to create workspace for sorting through materials, placing like items together, figuring out what to keep and what to discard, and setting things aside to move along. Quite a bit of stuff wound up in discard piles – toxic waste, scrap wood and metal, spare parts we no longer need, duplicate tools inherited from my father, sports equipment we no longer use. Everything else needed sensible places on our shelves. It was a BIG job that we spread out over 5 working sessions. The end result proved really satisfying. Now we simply need to maintain it!

I completely understand why folks don’t put the time and effort into Spring cleaning. It’s a tedious job. It’s easier to ignore accumulated stuff in closets, storage cubbies, and the garage and assume that you’ll get to it someday. But it really does feel good to “lighten up” and make the commitment to consume less going forward.

Taking On a “Stretch”

This past weekend, I joined 11 other singers in my first recital in more years than I have fingers and toes to count. It was a joyful occasion for my voice coach given that this form of exhibition had been suspended for two years due to the pandemic. She enjoys showcasing her students’ talents while creating a venue toward which we might set performance goals.

I have always wanted to perform Sous le dôme épais (a.k.a. the Flower Duet) from the opera Lakmé by Léo Delibes. It has been sitting on my bucket list for years awaiting a willing operatic soprano with whom to partner. When my teacher agreed to serve that role, I set about the business of (finally) learning the mezzo-soprano part. Suffice it to say, it was a big stretch for my aging vocal cords. Beyond learning the French lyrics, I had to work a relatively dormant vocal range to hit all the notes… and I mean work! I chose a second piece – The Monk and His Cat by Samuel Barber – in a more comfortable range but with the challenge of adapting to a peculiar piano accompaniment and somewhat odd timing.

How did things go? I didn’t quite get there on the Flower Duet. I was good as gold for most of the material but couldn’t navigate the highest notes when tightening up in performance. It was disappointing, to say the least, though I give myself points for having taken on the stretch. And while my execution on the other piece wasn’t flawless, I was pleased with the overall performance.

So, what does this experience have to do with the blog’s overall theme of healthy lifestyles?

FIRST: As discussed in the post Cultivating a Healthy Brain at Any Age, our brains need stimulus and challenge to maintain build their “muscle mass.” When we acquire new skills and knowledge, our brains respond by strengthening and diversifying our synaptic connections. The more agile the neural network, the less likely we’ll face cognitive impairment as we age. I may not have enjoyed all of the prep work leading to the recital – or even the results that I was able to achieve – but I know that my efforts paid dividends for brain health.

SECOND: Goal-setting made my practice sessions more intentional. I didn’t just log the hours when getting ready for each lesson. I knew I’d been standing up in front of others to render these pieces, so I worked harder on the rough spots and extended my practice sessions when I didn’t quite have them. Having fallen short in a couple of areas, I know which adjustments I’ll need to make to improve on the next go round.

THIRD: I have good intel for setting new goals. I’ve no doubt that another surge in effort could address some foibles that showed up last weekend. But I also know that the extra work may not be the best use of my time. I need to step back and ask myself: Is improvement in that area really important to me? Would I gain a tangible health benefit in its pursuit? Or, is there another road to travel that would prove more useful, inspiring, or interesting?

Am I Truly Healthy?

physiciansI’ve been getting annual check-ups with my doctor for as long as I remember. They weigh me, check a few vital signs, and (perhaps) do some lab work to see if everything seems normal. With rare exception, I’m pronounced healthy and sent on my way.

I take my health seriously. I try to do my part to maintain my body in good working order. I wish I could take comfort in the send-off from my conventional doctor and assume that I really am AOK. But after watching Wondrium’s Hacking Your Healthcare with Dr. Mark Hyman, I’d call to question whether tradition medicine sets the “normal bar” too low. A leading expert in functional medicine, Dr. Hyman argues for a bit of discernment re: standard healthcare metrics.

According to Dr. Hyman, reference ranges for laboratory tests represent two standard deviations from the mean and capture ~95% of the population. With a generally healthy population, this approach rightly flags folks whose results fall outside the norms. However, when the population as a whole experiences declining health – as is the case in the United States – the ever-changing references ranges provide a false sense of security for those whose results seem normative. They simply tell you that you’re no more or less sick than most folks. We should be interested in markers for optimal health.

Here are some of the standards to which Dr. Hyman and his associates adhere:

  • Resting heart rate between 60 and 80 beats per minute. Too high and the patient may be a risk for heart disease; too low and he or she may have a thyroid issue. That being said, a preferred metric is Heart Rate Variability (HRV) – i.e., a measurement of the time intervals between heartbeats – as it is highly correlated with longevity.
  • Blood pressure between 100/60 and 120/80. Too high and the patient is at risk for heart disease or stroke; too low and he or she may experience fatigue, brain fog, and/or dizziness.
  • Body temperature between 97.7–98.6°F. If too low, it might suggest a thyroid malfunction.
  • Waist-to-Hip measurement no greater than .9 for men and .8 for women. [Body Mass Index (BMI) isn’t useful for muscular athletes!]
  • Fasting Glucose between 70 and 80, not just <100 and Hemoglobin A1C <5.5 (i.e., average sugar over past 6 weeks) to assess risk for diabetes. [Note: Food fixes it!]
  • Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH) between 1 and 2, although the complete picture of thyroid function calls for examination of Free T3, Free T4, Anti-TPO antibodies, Anti-Thyroglobulin antibodies, and Reverse T3.
  • hsCRP (a marker of inflammation) should be <1.0 (ideally <0.7).

Dr. Hyman asserts that that there is no better drug than nutrition. Unfortunately, Americans have become overfed and undernourished due to disproportion consumption of process foods in lieu of whole foods. As a result, 90% of us are deficient in essential vitamins and minerals as defined by Recommended Daily Allowances (RDAs). A comprehensive micronutrient test tells us where we stand and provides guideposts for the necessary dietary adjustments.

With heart disease a major risk factor for long-term illness and death, Dr. Hyman takes a keen interest in cholesterol. Traditional panels set target ranges for HDL, LDL, and triglycerides; however, they provide zero insight regarding particle size or oxidation. It’s the tiny and/or damaged (rancid) particles that cause all the grief. These insights can be obtained via the NMR Test from LabCorp or the Cardio IQ test from Quest. If problems surface, lifestyle changes can be a good course of action. Per Dr. Hyman, commonly-prescribed statins have unpleasant side effects and confer little benefit for most people over 5 years.

Our bodies accumulate toxins through environmental exposure (e.g., paints, solvents, petrochemicals, pesticides, etc.), food sources (e.g., mercury-contaminated fish), dental repairs (e.g., mercury filings), and others. Fat tissues store toxins and may leech them out to excess during weight loss. High toxicity can manifest as fatigue, muscle/joint pain, troubled sleep, skin issues, and malodorous stools. An Organic Acids Test can provide insights into the body’s toxic load, among other things. A heathy diet, vigorous (sweaty!) exercise, saunas, and hot baths can prove effective for detoxification. The Environmental Working Group website provides lots of free resources to help minimize toxic exposure.

The class concludes with an 8-point prescription for optimal health:

  1. Eat wholesome foods
  2. Maintain a positive outlook
  3. Be proactive in the face of change
  4. Detox your mind to sustain emotional health
  5. Be in contribution to the world around you
  6. Take time to experience joy
  7. Make movement a daily routine
  8. Spend time with friends and loved ones

Naming Emotions and Experiences

The latest Brené Brown book – Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience – had me waiting in a very long queue at the Beaverton Library. Her research, her distinctive voice, and her passion for improving the human condition resonate with me. They help me make sense of the world and improve my experience of it.

In this latest book, Brown serves as a cartographer who explores the land of human emotion and experience for purposes of creating a map the rest of us might follow. This enterprise began by asking 7,500 people to identify all of the emotions that they could recognize and name when they’re experiencing them. The average person only came up with three – glad, sad, and mad. To say the least, Brown deemed this lack of emotional literacy highly problematic.

“Our connection with others can only be as deep as our connection with ourselves. If I don’t know and understand who I am and what I need, want, and believe, I can’t share myself with you. I need to be connected to myself, in my own body, and learning what makes me work.”

In short, if we are unable to name our emotions and experiences and discern their relationship to feelings, thoughts, and behaviors, we’re navigating the journey of life without a map. By contrast, when recognize and label our emotions and experiences accurately, we enjoy greater emotional regulation and psychosocial well-being.

Brown organized findings according to states of being when emotions or experiences arise. It afforded her the opportunity to draw distinctions between sensibilities and how they operate in those contexts. Here are the topics covered:

  • Places we go when things are uncertain or too much: stressed, overwhelmed, anxiety, worry, avoidance, excitement, dread, fear, vulnerability
  • Places we go when we compare: comparison, admiration, reverence, envy, jealousy, resentment, schadenfreude (i.e., experiencing joy at other’s misfortune), freudenfreude (i.e., experiencing joy at another’s good fortune)
  • Places we go when things don’t go as planned: boredom, disappointment, regret, discouraged, resigned, frustrated
  • Places we go when it’s beyond us: wonder, awe, confusion, curiosity, interest, surprise
  • Places we go when things aren’t what they seem: amusement, bittersweet, nostalgia, worry, rumination, cognitive dissonance, paradox, irony, sarcasm
  • Places we go when we’re hurting: anguish, hope, hopelessness, despair, sad, grief
  • Places we go with others: compassion, pity, empathy, sympathy
  • Places we go when we fall short: shame, guilt, humiliation, embarrassment, perfectionism
  • Places we go when we search for connection: true belonging, connection, disconnection, insecurity, invisibility, loneliness
  • Places we go when the heart is open: love, heartbreak, trust, betrayal, defensiveness, flooding, hurt
  • Places we go when life is good: joy, happiness, calm, contentment, gratitude, foreboding joy, relief, tranquility
  • Places we go when we feel wronged: anger, contempt, disgust, dehumanization, hate, self-righteousness
  • Places we go to self-assess: pride, hubris, humility

Brown asserts that knowing and applying the language of human experience are prerequisites for supporting meaningful connection with ourselves and others. The practice of meaningful connection entails:

  • Developing grounded self-confidence with a commitment to continuous learning and improvement
  • Acting with courage and integrity to present your authentic self when being with other people and committing to walking side-by-side with them
  • Practicing story stewardship by asking people how they are feeling, listening deeply, and honoring the sacred nature of their lived experience

As Brown says, “story stewardship is not walking in someone else’s shoes; it’s being curious and building narrative trust as they tell you about the experience of being in their own shoes.” Learning the language of emotion and experience makes this task possible.

Gut Health

My journey of well-being has provided a glimpse into the inner working of my digestive track. I’ve shared my newfound knowledge in posts entitled Our Guts Have Minds of Their Own, The Marvelous Microbiome, and SIBO and Leaky Gut. I added to my intestinal intelligence through Wondrium’s Gut Health with Dr. Mary Pardee. This 26-lesson course covers the mechanics of digestion, strategies for maintaining a heathy gut, gut pathologies, and gut testing and treatment. While there was a fair amount of overlap with what I’d read previously, I managed to come away with a few new insights.

digestive systemIf you’re curious about your gut health, your daily constitution provides a pretty good indication on how things are going. A healthy poop should be soft, brown, S-shaped, and the length of the wrist crease to elbow crease. It might be tinged red, orange, or green based on foods eaten recently –  e.g., red beets, squash, dark leafy greens. It should not be particularly malodorous or greasy. And it should not be bloody. Dietary adjustments and fluid intake can cure a multitude of sins. Bloody stools should be brought to a doctor’s attention.

As covered in the post Drink Water, there’s all kinds of reasons why we should consume an adequate amount of fluid daily (though not to excess at any one time). Dr. Pardee suggests that we take in most of our water between meals. The liquid we drink at meal time can dilute our stomach acid and make it less effective for processing food and killing off bacteria. Older adults are particularly vulnerable in this regard as stomach acid drops as we age. It’s best to confine meal time beverage intake to a handful of sips just to keep things moist.

How we eat is as important as what we eat. Digestion begins with the sight and smell of food; they make our mouths water. Saliva moistens food upon entry into the oral cavity and also starts the process of breaking it down chemically. Of course, chewing represents the most effective form of breakdown. We should transform solid food into the consistency of baby food before swallowing. Big chunks of food are challenging for the stomach to process into a form acceptable by the small intestine.

Meals should benefit from focused attention. When we’re mindful of what we’re eating, we’re more likely to sense satiety and less likely to overeat. Mindful eating also helps us notice whether we’re actually hungry or eating for some other reason – e.g., boredom, stress. It also provides the means to really savor our food and be grateful for its nourishing presence.

Speaking of stress, it’s not a good idea to chow down when in the grips of a fight, flight, or freeze response. In this state, the body shuts down nonessential functions and directs its energy and blood supply to the muscles. It does not want mess around with digestion until the threat has passed. As such, stress eating really, really does not make sense!

Regular exercise supports strong motility along the digestive track. As we move, our food moves through our bodies. This movement prevents an overgrowth of bacteria in the gut and can avoid painful elimination. Dr. Pardee suggests that we aim for 10,000 steps per day. A good night’s sleep also supports motility by elevating cortisol first thing in the morning to a level that stimulates bowel movement. For those with chronic motility issues, fresh ginger, ginger capsules, and ginger tea (2-3 tea bags per cup steeped 10 minutes) may prove helpful.

As with other experts in the field, Dr. Pardee is big on a healthy eating to promote a healthy gut microbiome. Ideally, three-quarters of the plate for every meal includes a varied array of non-starchy vegetables. Daily fiber intake should trend upwards of 100 mg daily through natural sources. (The average American only consumes 15 mg of fiber!) A generous supply of herbs provides potent antioxidants (e.g., polyphenols) to quell systemic inflammation. Fermented foods help the gut garden thrive. And for good measure, eliminate dairy and go easy on nuts.

While probiotics have become a staple of the microbiome conscious, they don’t colonize the gut; they’re transient. They may help reduce anxiety, lower cortisol levels, or support pain management while working their way through the system, but they’re not a panacea for a gut that’s off kilter. Healthy eating, regular exercise, and good sleep habits are the gut’s best friends.

The Wheel of Awareness

While perusing Daniel Siegel’s book Aware: The Science and Practice of Presence, I came across a useful metaphor that has helped me get my head wrapped around mindfulness. He calls it the wheel of awareness.

wheel of awarenessThink of the center of the wheel – the hub – as consciousness, or that state of being aware of one’s external environment and internal sensations and processes. Siegel refers to it as knowing. It’s that part of us that has the capacity for awareness.

Consider the rim to include all of the things about which consciousness might be aware. Siegel labels it the knowns. The rim contains:

  • Input from our 5 senses – i.e., sight, sound, taste, smell, touch
  • Interior signals from the body – e.g., breath, heartbeat, digestion, body temperature
  • Feeling states – e.g., happy, sad, angry, calm, anxious, excited, lethargic
  • Mental activities – e.g., planning, analyzing, remembering, imagining, ruminating
  • Relational sense – i.e., interconnectedness

The spoke on the wheel represents the precise stream of energy and information to which we direct our attention at any given moment. Experienced meditators have the ability to direct sustained attention toward one thing at a time. Novice meditators may find that their spokes flit around at a dizzying rate. The consistent practice of meditation slows this activity down and enables the meditator to differentiate elements of consciousness and discern relationships between them. It has the capacity to alter neural structures.

“Where attention goes, neural firing flows, and neural connection grows.”

A receptive consciousness allows for focused attention, open awareness, and kind attention toward whatever arises. One lives in the relative calm of the hub and doesn’t get lost or stuck on the rim, buffeted about by the knowns of life. The hub is the source of awareness, reflection, choice, and change. This receptive consciousness also senses energy and information flow with more focus, clarity, depth, and detail.

The book offers several practical suggestions for developing mindfulness. One simple technique that leverages the aforementioned insights follows:

  • Find a comfortable position in which you can sit with dignity and ease. You may close your eyes or adopt a fixed gaze on a neutral object.
  • Focus on the breath without trying to control it. Just breathe in and out naturally.
  • Take a few moments to notice each of the five senses. What are you seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, or feeling in this moment (if anything)?
  • Conduct a body scan – from the tips of your toes to the top of your head – and take note of any sensations that arise.
  • Notice feelings that crop and where they might reside in the body.
  • Pay attention to thoughts that come into consciousness (and how quickly they tend to disappear!)
  • Turn the sense of awareness back in on itself – i.e., notice the one who is noticing!
  • Finish with statements of kind intention for yourself and for other beings – e.g., May I (all beings) live with meaning, connection, and equinity. May I (all beings) be healthy. May I (all beings) be free from harm. May I (all beings) flourish and cultivate a grateful heart.

10 Tools for Embracing Finitude

In my last post, I summarized key recommendations from Oliver Burkeman’s book Four Thousand Weeks that carry the intent of helping us make the best use of our limited time on earth. He reinforces these principles in the closing section of the book with ten tools for embracing our finite existence.

  1. what matters mostSet boundaries. We can’t do everything, and a life spent cramming productive activities into every moment isn’t all that fulfilling. No one really cares if we’re a paragon of productivity and achievement or an ordinary bloke leading and ordinary life. Make tough choices. Don’t add a project to the “to do list” until another one comes off. Confine work to a set schedule and stick to it.
  2. Serialize, serialize, serialize. Focus on one big project at a time. Our brains are not wired for multitasking and work far less efficiently in the attempt. Moreover, a multi-project horizon suggests a lack of focus on what’s truly essential. Focus on what matters most and let the non-essential fall away.
  3. Make choices about where to pursue excellence and where to accept mediocrity. Put energy into that which truly matters and get comfortable with showing up and participating in areas of lesser significance. Check in on this distinction from time to time as priorities shift.
  4. Pay closer attention to what has been completed than what has yet to be done. The “to do list” will never empty out. Why feel weighed down by future responsibilities when it’s possible to revel in accomplishment?
  5. Consolidate your caring. Choose which causes, issues, charities, and/or political interests are most meaningful and direct time and resources to them. Dial down the calls for action and funding from all others.
  6. Embrace boring, single purpose technology. A digital “to do list” may promise to make life simpler, but it carries the risk of distraction with other apps when managing it. Manual “to do” and grocery lists work just fine. For that matter, consider getting rid of all those distracting apps from the mobile phone. Make it a tool, not an entertainment device.
  7. Find ways to enjoy the mundane. The endless search for novelty and excitement makes us anxious, unsettled, and unhappy. Joy and satisfaction await those who learn to plunge more deeply into the life they already have.
  8. Be curious. When beset by boredom, anxiety, fear, etc., don’t run away from it by seeking distractions. Explore how the feeling manifests in the body and mind, how it morphs into other sensations, and what happens next. We may realize just how fleeting these sensations really are. We may also learn a bit more about ourselves.
  9. Cultivate spontaneity. Don’t wait until work is out of the way to say YES to an interesting experience. Don’t wait until there’s enough money in the bank to be generous. Acting on impulse can be a good thing from time to time.
  10. Practice doing nothing. Stillness may bring forth poor choices to relieve boredom and anxiety. Go ahead and be a little bored and anxious. It’ll pass. Settle down and reflect before taking action… or just get comfortable with sitting there. It’s OK. Need a little help? Check out Tom Hodgkinson’s book How To Be Idle: A Loafer’s Manifesto for an amusing take on the subject.