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Improve your digestion, improve your health

If you have ever experienced a stomachache, you would likely want the pain to end soon and you may have a visceral understanding that digestive health is important to well being. On the other hand, if you hardly ever experience digestive issues, then you may take your ease of living almost for granted and be surprised when faced with the need to adjust your eating habits or lifestyle. What we eat and what happens thereafter is a living relationship we have with food and ourselves. Ideally, we have a good appetite to seek and enjoy food regularly to nourish ourselves, and after we have eaten, the food is digested and assimilated in a reasonable amount of time, with the waste eliminated easily. Ideally, food goes in one end and comes out the other, nice and easy.

There is wide variability in digestive capacity. Some people seem to be able to drink black coffee, alcohol and eat all the spicy food they want. Others seem to have a limited variety of food they can eat without consequence. Some people are very diet oriented and are always seeking to find more control on their diet to reach various goals they have. The most interesting explanation I have read in terms of diet seeking behaviour was in a Traditional Chinese Medicine textbook which references a deficiency in digestive ability causes the person to become overly obsessed with their diet. It could also be a chicken or the egg question, does the diet seeking behaviour start in the body or the mind? You certainly need plenty of mental energy to plan and adhere to a diet, especially restrictive ones. Culturally, we seem to be constantly drawn to the latest diet that promises weight loss, brain function, more energy along with age defying benefits.

I consider the digestive system to have several components- a mechanical, structural portion, a chemical component, and a neurological component. The mouth, tongue, esophagus, stomach, pancreas, liver, gallbladder, small and large intestines would be the mechanical structural component. The chemical component would be digestive enzymes, stomach acid and the various secretions needed to digest and assimilate food, and the gut bacteria could included here as well. The neurological portion of the digestive system is a component we are learning more about, which could encompass our mental and emotional health, one example being the vagus nerve (here’s an interesting video on the vagus nerve: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5d6e_Un6dv8) starting in the brain with feedback also coming through the gut. There is the enteric nervous system exists within the gut and has many mechanisms of feedback and function. We need all of these components functioning well to have optimal digestion. The food we eat is a variable we have the most control over. What eat and how it affects our health is a non linear equation and process, so there are a many aspects to consider.

We can all strive to have optimal digestive health which in simple terms is being able to enjoy food with a healthy appetite, digest the food eaten with ease, feel energized, have no bloating, gas, pain, and eliminate the waste material on a daily basis with ease and minimal smell.

Having studied nutrition and Traditional Chinese Medicine and knowing the benefits of healthy eating, I don’t like to prescribe diets to anyone. I believe it is best for a person to improve their eating habits by becoming more mindful of their body, appetite and lifestyle. I do my best to lead by example at every opportunity- I order the side of veggies when we’re out for dinner, I balance the sweet treats I like to enjoy with exercise, and I work at having a good relationship with food, which involves being enthusiastic about eating.

In cases of illness, allergies or skin conditions, it is helpful to make dietary changes to help alleviate the condition. In my acupuncture practice, the most common benefit experienced after relaxation is improvement in digestion. A patient may not come in with a digestive complaint, but they are able to note that their digestion improves with acupuncture treatment. It could be less propensity toward soft stool or diarrhea, improvement in acid reflux symptoms, relief from bloating, constipation, gas, or pain. The question becomes, how does acupuncture affect digestion? Acupuncture improves digestion by stimulation of the nervous system directly through the selected acupuncture points and indirectly through the relaxation response, which activates the rest and digest branch of the nervous system. The nervous system can respond instantaneously, although habitual stimulation for an optimal or dysfunctional state needs training over time.

Your digestive system is also very much related to your immune system, so improving digestion can also improve your immune health, which also relates to the skin. Your skin is the exterior of your body and the stomach and intestines are the exterior tube within the body. It takes processing before what we eat is taken into our internal organs. We are what we eat along with when and how we eat. We need to eat food for fuel and to rebuild/repair our cells on a daily basis. We also need adequate amounts of clean water to thrive. Food needs to be eaten at appropriate times to provide the right fuel for activity. Often overlooked, food is best eaten in a relaxed state to optimize digestion, which is a process that requires energy itself.

The stomach needs to be warm with adequate acid to have optimal digestive fire power. It appears that no one has improving digestive fire as they get older, the tendency is for digestive power to grow weaker with age. There is an element of habit and lifestyle that influences this slowing down. For example, eating cold, raw food requires more digestive energy and over time can cause backup, diminish digestive power and create further weakness. Consistent overeating also causes backup in the digestive system over time. The general thinking in TCM is to eat warm, cooked foods most of the time, especially in winter and have raw foods more in the summer for optimal digestion. This is dietary advice I have been able to adhere to for many years myself, as I enjoy real food and liquid meals like smoothies are unappealing to me. Moderate amounts of all foods can be healthy. Vegetables and fruit are required on a daily basis.

Whether you experience digestive issues or not, it is to your benefit to optimize your digestive health through your diet and lifestyle. Exercise is hugely beneficial, as it maintains circulation and encourages regular elimination. If you need help, consider acupuncture as a form of treatment that stimulates your nervous system to affect the digestive system and naturopathy as a form of treatment that can modulate the digestive system chemically through supplementation prescribed. It is best to consult a health professional who can assess your needs and help tailor your diet and lifestyle, so you can feel your best. Jumping onto the latest diet is not a long term formula for optimal health and wellness, anything restrictive or extreme is generally unsustainable and could cause health issues. Quote me on this: It is healthier to have some pizza, sweets and an occasional drink than the ‘achievement’ of the no sugar, low carb and no alcohol program. Cheers!

Sleep Well

We all know that 7-8 hours of quality sleep is ideal for our physical, mental and emotional health. How many of us have struggled with sleep? This is a struggle that most of us will encounter with varying degrees of frequency. Habits are a major component to our sleep along with awareness of stressors, and what we need to do to unwind at the end of the day for restful sleep. I have a flexible work schedule, so I’m not too attached to specific routines, although habits are always a priority. For sleep, I find it is very important to have routines that let your body and mind know you are preparing for rest and sleep. It could be as simple as having some herbal tea, brushing your teeth, washing your face and a little reading. Anything that helps you relax at the end of the day is helpful, since sleep is a letting go process. 

Here is a sleep meditation that I have enjoyed and shared (it’s ok if you fall asleep within minutes!): 

https://music.apple.com/ca/album/celestial-sleep-healing-sound-for-rest-relaxation-crystal/1538626410?i=1538626411

Modern life comes with electricity, plenty of ‘artificial light’ and screen time. Prior to our ability to have light on demand beyond sunset, humans needed to keep to what sunrise and sunset provided. There seems to be some variance in what times we feel best and this can be looked at with this questionnaire: 

https://www.chronotype-self-test.info/index.php?sid=61524&newtest=Y&lang=en

Keeping to a schedule where you feel best and rely on an alarm clock minimally will improve your sleep quality, energy level and general well being. 

The general advice for good sleep is to stop screen time an hour before bedtime, sleep in a cool, quiet, dark room, have your dinner well digested and stop caffeine intake before 3pm. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, insomnia, is differentiated between inability to fall asleep, waking in the night and being unable to fall back asleep, and general unrestful sleep. Some people tend to feel hot at night, others cold. Some enjoy their dreams and others are disturbed by the types and amount of dreams they have. Some need to urinate more than once in the night. Some wake far too easily and find their sleep restless. Some sleep for 8 hours and wake up foggy and lethargic. Ideal sleep is being able to fall asleep easily and wake 7-8 hours later refreshed and full of energy. This may not happen too often for some, but there is always hope that sleep can be improved. TCM acupuncture is very helpful for improving sleep, as it helps to calm the nervous system and treat the underlying conditions that cause poor sleep quality. 

All of us have different perceptions of sleep. Our society values productive work, so sleeping minimally can be a badge of honour. Some people insist they need only a minimal amount of sleep. Others like taking sleep aids sometimes to a fault, since the body becomes less sensitive to any sleep aid over time. Mother’s Little Helper, anyone? Some of us can sleep on planes and through various noises, but no snoring, please! I have observed in myself and have had many clients report their sleep is less sound around the full moon, so there is natural variance in sleep quality. Longer daylight hours in the summer months brings longer waking hours and less sleep for the season. Winter is conducive to hibernation. Anyone raised kids? That’s a phase where sleep is likely deprived! 

Sleep quality is also something we perceive differently. I generally sleep well, although I work at this and have tried all sorts of sleep aids to improve sleep. This is not medical advice or endorsement of any product, just sharing of knowledge of remedies tried. 

Sleep Aids: 

Mother’s Little Helper is a tea available at Davids Tea. It is a blend and contains valerian, which has not worked for me in other formulations, but Mother’s Little Helper works well for me. 

SleepyTime Tea by Celestial Seasonings- this is a classic formulation that has a relaxing effect perhaps tied in with the ritual of having a cup of tea, and I prefer this tea over others. 

Vitamin D- I started taking vitamin D at night after dinner in March and have found it to be helpful for higher quality sleep 

5 HTP- a serotonin and melatonin precursor, it helps with restful sleep 

Chinese herbs- I have found various patent herbal formulations to be tremendously helpful in being able to stay asleep more soundly. The herbs work best with some professional guidance, where a TCM practitioner is able to assess your condition and constitution. 

Wherever you are in relation with sleep, it is a most important health habit to prioritize, as it is the time your body regenerates itself. Quality, restful sleep makes life good!

Eat, Move and Sleep with the Seasons

I love tropical fruit and strawberries. My good friend Emily suggested I eat fruits more in season back when we were in school for Phys Ed. I took her advice to heart and have made an effort since then to choose fruits and vegetables in season, although I do admit to buying berries year round if available.

Practicing and studying Traditional Chinese Medicine, I have learned that it is ideal to eat more cooked, warm foods in the winter and cool, raw foods are best in the summer. This makes it easier for the body to digest the food we eat, as we work harder to stay warm in the winter and could use a little help to stay cool in the summer.

The amount of sunlight changes with the seasons and our sleep patterns can go along with that. Sleep a bit more in the winter and a bit less in the summer.

When I first studied psychology, we did a short questionnaire to determine how much of a morning or evening person we were and I was surprised to learn I was in the middle. This appears to be genetic to an extent. Here is a questionnaire to take and find out your type:

https://www.cet-surveys.com/index.php?sid=61524

Be sure to scroll down after you get your results, as the questionnaire will list your estimated peak time of melatonin production and your ideal bedtime. Provided that you are able to answer the questions based on your true ideals(you must know them somehow), it is ideal for you to keep a sleep schedule based on the bedtime listed. I have known since the start of university that I am not a morning person, and this has not changed at all!

Exercise in the winter is different, as the weather makes it difficult to go for a bike ride or run, walks are possible, although not the same. Winter activities like skating, snowshoeing, cross country skiing, downhill skiing, and snowboarding are great when available. Ordinarily, one could exercise at the gym, which are unfortunately closed at this time. That leaves us with home workouts for now. No better time then winter to get into more mindful movement like yoga and tai chi, which fulfills the need for movement in a mindful way.

Cooperation Kindness and Peace

It has been an entire month of staying home for me. Major unexpected life change. Surprisingly, I have been okay, but I wouldn’t call it fun. Seems we’re all searching for a new normal, and the answer is not forthcoming with much uncertainty still on the horizon.

I will use my voice here to encourage cooperation, kindness and peace. In my limited interactions with people this month, I’ve seen plenty of the unpleasant side of humanity. In the age of information, we now have a culture of armchair critics and experts who feel their knowledge gained from social media or the news is enough to warrant their incessant judgement of others. Believing that you know better than everyone else is a sign of ego leading the way. No one has any experience in handling a global pandemic, caused by a virus with some semblance to the common cold with potential lethal effects, so logically, people with education in this field, doctors and scientists need to be the leaders to interpret the situation. Of course there will be differing opinions with the ideal being discussion and collaboration.

I’m about to enter practice in traditional chinese medicine, which is considered as alternative health. I will declare that I believe in integrated medicine that would be the purpose of advancement of human knowledge-to learn and create innovative solutions, with collaboration being most effective. We all have a choice every moment to take a step towards being peaceful.

Acceptance, gratitude, love, reflection and intention

As 2019 comes to a close it is natural to take some time to reflect on all that has happened this year and decade in the movie of your life. In order to grow and evolve, acceptance of the present moment is necessary. In that acceptance we can find gratitude and love for all that we have. With reflection we may find there are things to change and let go of: the end of a year is the perfect time to clean up and let go. In preparation for a new year, we can come to a state of intention which is loving, kind, beautiful, creative, expansive, infinitely abundant and receptive (to quote Wayne Dyer The Power of Intention)

Best wishes for a fresh start to a new decade of making life good-

Follow Your Bliss

Follow your bliss is an often repeated line and for good reason. We all need a compass to guide us and the question is what do we use as the compass?

A couple months ago I shared this quote with a friend:

If one advances confidently in the direction of his own dreams, and endeavours to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours

Thoreau (I found it in a Wayne Dyer book)

My friend referenced a quote with similar meaning by Joseph Campbell, so I read the book the Power of Myth and came across:

Q: Do you ever have this sense when you are following your bliss, as I have at moments, of being helped by hidden hands? 

A: All the time. It is miraculous. I even have a superstition that has grown on me as the result of invisible hands coming all the time-namely that if you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in the field of your bliss, and they open the doors to you. I say, follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be. 

What is the bliss to follow? It is yours to know. I believe it is your own inspiration that you are guided to by following your inner knowing. It may not seem known to you yet, and it is a constant process in meditation to feel, hear, know, and see your inner compass. Your dreams can be guiding feelings.

Mental Health

This month, it came to mind many times how important it is to monitor and maintain our mental health. How can that be done? The practice of meditation gives us an opportunity to observe ourselves and our thoughts. If our thoughts are habitually negative, repetitive, obsessive or generally stuck on a loop(in the past or future)-it requires change, and the change may require the assistance of a professional should it prove challenging to make the change on our own.

Earlier this month, I heard the song Electric Love by BORNS and right away I thought of Gary Glitter Rock and Roll. I made a playlist with songs that had a similar drum and guitar line for my cycle class. In checking the song credits, I learned that Rock and Roll was featured in the movie Joker (which I had plans to see as soon as I learned I had just missed the premiere in Italy) and there was backlash due to Glitter being in jail for pedophile crimes. Glitter’s crimes were news to me and there is the view that his music should not be played, as that supports a pedophile in earning royalties. I had already made and shared the playlist for my class so I decided to go ahead and use the opportunity to raise awareness of the issues to child abuse and mental health, as we need every one to pitch in to improve the human condition.

I saw Joker last week and felt it was a well done film that provided a view of mental illness. There is a scene where Joaquin Phoenix in his brilliant performance as Arthur Fleck/Joker tells his social worker ‘all I have are negative thoughts’. While it is not possible to have only positive thoughts, it is an important practice for us to watch the nature of our thoughts and thinking:

Watch your thoughts, they become your words; watch your words, they become your actions; watch your actions, they become your habits; watch your habits, they become your character; watch your character, it becomes your destiny.”

The above quote is credited to Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu and there are similar versions in the words of others. The practice is the same, we need to monitor our thoughts and thinking to steer in a healthy direction for our mental health.

What kind of a human do you want to be?

A couple summers ago I took on the challenge of ‘you need a trainer’ from an awesome trainer J.S. The sessions were at a gym where they measured your body composition as a marker for progress. It was uncomfortable getting on a scale that ‘analyzed’ your fat content with an extremely lean trainer and I am a fit person myself! I was reminded that we are all so much more than a measure of percentages of muscle, fat, and bone. I posed the question to myself, if I were to assign percentages, what kind of a human do I want to be?

I want to be 72% Wonder Woman, 7% ridiculous 7 year old kid and the remaining 21% is always up for development and evolution. Having a concept of what you stand for as a human being is actually very important, as it will clarify your dreams/purpose, which will inspire you on how to lead your life on a daily basis. Once you know who you really are and what you want to become, then all the various challenges you face in life can be seen as various tests of character and strength.

Ps. 7 year olds are among the most enthusiastic humans I’ve seen, so great to keep our inner child alive and well

Recipe: Homemade granola bars

I have been buying granola bars the past year or so to throw into my bag as a quick snack between meals in my busy schedule. The best part of the granola bars is it comes in a wrapper and is fairly indestructible, otherwise it felt like they could be healthier and more satisfying.

I looked at many recipes and decided to try the one from Oh She Glows, as the recipes do work. I made some modifications, adding a little honey makes for a sweeter bar, so here is an easy recipe for nutritious homemade granola bars:

1 1/2 cups quick cooking oats

1/4 cup old fashioned rolled oats

3 very ripe bananas mashed

8 pitted dates chopped

Honey to taste if more sweetness is desired

1 tsp vanilla extract

1 tsp ground cinnamon

pinch of sea salt

1/2 cup pumpkin seeds

1/2 cup sunflower seeds

1/2 cup raisins

1/2 cup walnut or pecan pieces

1/4 cup chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease a 9 by 13 inch baking dish or pan with coconut oil.

In a large bowl, mash bananas and add dates, cinnamon, vanilla and salt. Stir in oats until well combined. Fold in pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, raisins, nuts and chocolate chips. Pat mixture into baking dish. Use a spatula to smooth out to even thickness.

Bake for 25-30 minutes or until lightly brown. Let cool and cut into squares or bars. Store in an airtight container or freeze wrapped in desired airtight packaging. Enjoy on the go!

Recipe: Gluten Free Banana Bread

Recently a client gave me a piece of her favourite banana bread. Her absolute favourite recipe after many years of baking. Truly outstanding. She was kind enough to share the recipe and it comes all the way from Australia! I went to try the recipe and had eaten enough wheat in recent times, so I tried making it gluten free. First it was dry, then I forgot xanthan gum and on the third attempt, replacing the walnuts with chocolate chips, it turned out amazing! Here is the recipe, be sure to use mini loaf pans, the smaller volume increases odds of success, as gluten free baking can be finicky. Also check for doneness sooner than you think, as this banana bread goes dry very quickly while baking.

1 3/4 cups gluten free flour blend (I used millet, chickpea, sorghum, rice, banana and teff flour, more types of flour is better)

1.5-2 teaspoons xanthan gum

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

3-4 very ripe bananas

1/2 cup brown sugar

2 eggs

1/4 cup butter, melted

1/2 cup semi sweet chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a medium bowl, stir together dry ingredients. In another medium bowl, mash bananas then whisk together with sugar, eggs and melted butter. Fold dry ingredients into the banana mixture and mix with a wooden spoon until just blended. Stir in chocolate chips. Pour batter into 3-4 greased mini loaf pans. Bake for 20-30 minutes, checking for doneness at 15 min. Tops will be cracked, if a fork comes out sticky, the loaves can sit in the oven that is off for a few extra minutes to finish cooking. Enjoy at room temperature and store in an airtight container.