Diabetes, heart disease, and chronic pain are on the rise worldwide. They’re serious chronic (long-term) conditions that share some commonalities.
For one thing, diabetes and heart disease are both considered “lifestyle” diseases. Lifestyle diseases tend to occur in people with certain lifestyle habits (i.e., not-so-awesome nutrition and exercise habits, etc.). And chronic pain is linked to both of these “lifestyle” diseases. For example, the Australia Institute of Health and Welfare published a report that showed that 64.5% of people with chronic back problems also report another chronic condition. The most common chronic conditions stated were cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
While there are several links and risk factors for chronic disease and persistent pain, we’re going to focus on inflammation. We'll start by defining inflammation, and then I’ll give you some tips on how to tap into some of your lifestyle habits to change for good.
NOTE: None of these are a substitute for professional medical advice. If you have any of these conditions, make sure you’re being monitored regularly by a licensed healthcare professional.
What Is Inflammation?
Inflammation gets a lot of bad press, but it’s not always a bad thing. As in most areas of health, it’s the balance that’s important.
Inflammation is a natural process that our body uses to protect against infections, irritants, and damage. Inflammation helps our bodies eliminate damaged cells and tissues and helps them to repair. It also helps to reduce the cause of the damage, for example, by fighting the infection.
The word inflammation comes from the Latin word “inflammo,” meaning “I set alight, I ignite.”
Inflammation is a natural process to protect and heal our bodies. However, it can become self-perpetuating and stick around way longer than necessary. This long-term (chronic) inflammation is often associated with several health conditions and persistent pain.
Acute vs. Chronic Inflammation
When inflammation happens in a big way, for a short time, this is known as “acute” inflammation. Signs of acute inflammation include redness, heat, swelling, pain, and loss of function.
These short durations of active inflammation can help the body to heal injuries and infections.
When the injury heals, or the infection goes away, inflammation typically goes away too. However, sometimes, your immune system gets turned on and stays on after the "crisis" has passed.
Over time, this can damage healthy cells and organs and cause constant pain in muscles, tissues, and joints. It’s this type of inflammation linked to conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and persistent pain. It’s also linked with many other concerns related to the body, brain, and even mental health concerns.
Chronic low grade inflammation is increasingly seen as a part of other orthopaedic conditions such as osteoarthritis — once considered a ‘cold’ wear and tear problem (as opposed to the far more overt and ‘hot’ inflammation of rheumatoid arthritis).
— Frozen Shoulder, Cocks (Noijam.com)
Testing For Inflammation
Inflammation stems from the immune system’s response and also involves our blood vessels (arteries and veins) and other molecules.
One of these molecules is the infamous “free radical.” These highly reactive molecules (oxidants) help to fight infectious agents and also help cells to communicate. But, when they are in overdrive, and they aren’t counteracted with many antioxidants, they can tip the balance and cause damage to healthy cells.
There are several other inflammatory molecules, one of which can be measured with a blood test. This is C-reactive protein (CRP). CRP is considered one of the “markers” of inflammation. This “inflammatory marker,” when found in a blood test at high levels, indicate that there is inflammation in the body.
High blood levels of inflammatory markers like CRP are associated with increased risk of diabetes and heart disease. Some researchers believe that levels of inflammatory markers in the blood can actually predict whether someone is going to develop diabetes or heart disease eventually.
As I mentioned, there are several inflammatory molecules. And a lot of inflammation is not easy to detect. Some of the molecules (markers) stay localized to specific tissues and systems. Unfortunately, the more localized inflammatory markers are only detectable with complicated, expensive, invasive testing. But even then, biology is messy, and the tests are not always super reliable. Even people with severe inflammatory diseases do not always get an accurate result.
5 Tell-Tell Signs That You Have Chronic Inflammation:
Excessive mucus production (i.e., always needing to clear your throat or blow your nose)
Ongoing digestive issues: including bloating, abdominal pain, constipation, and loose stool
Chronic Inflammation & Diabetes
Diabetes is a complex condition of metabolism where our bodies don’t manage blood sugar levels very well.
Blood sugar levels naturally go up and down throughout the day. Up after we eat; and down when we’re hungry. In a person with optimal blood sugar control, when blood sugar levels get high, insulin is released. This tells our cells to absorb sugar out of the blood to level it out.
But when the control of the blood sugar levels isn’t as good, for example, when it stays too high for too long (i.e. because of insulin issues), this can lead to diabetes. And having diabetes can have many long-term health consequences like amputation, blindness, and kidney disease.
About 95% of diabetes is type 2 diabetes (T2DM), formerly known as “adult-onset” diabetes. This is because there are a whole host of nutrition and lifestyle habits, when done for years and decades, contribute to this diagnosis.
These nutrition and lifestyle habits can promote excess body fat and inflammation, and lead to an imbalance between insulin need and insulin production.
Inflammation is thought to be a key factor when it comes to diabetes. It can negatively affect insulin-producing cells. It’s also one of the causes of insulin resistance. In fact, some researchers argue that virtually all of the factors that promote diabetes are linked with inflammation.
Chronic Inflammation & Heart Disease
Heart disease is a major cause of death in countries such as Australia, the US, Canada, and the European Union.
The link between inflammation and heart disease was discovered back in 2006. The first stage of heart disease is called “atherosclerosis.” Complications of heart disease include things like heart attacks. Inflammation is a key issue linked with both atherosclerosis and heart attacks.
Atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) starts when there are too many “free radicals” inside the blood vessels. This can be from high blood sugar, high levels of oxidized fats in the blood (from too many free radicals), low levels of homocysteine (an anti-inflammatory molecule), etc.. These lead to damage of the inside surfaces of the blood vessels allowing buildup of plaque (including immune system cells) which increases chronic inflammation. This plaque narrows the inside of the blood vessels and can lead to complications like heart attacks. And after a heart attack, inflammation rises to even higher levels.
Research is underway specifically targeting inflammation to try to reduce heart and blood vessel injury, reduce the worsening of heart disease, and to promote healing.
Inflammation & Chronic Pain
Chronic or persistent pain is complicated and very dynamic. When it comes to inflammation, keep in mind that multiple cells are involved in the release of inflammatory mediators. The release of these mediators are part of the cell-to-cell communication that can generate pain.
Let’s take a quick look at one way chronic inflammation can contribute to persistent pain.
Specialized nerve cells play an essential role in the inflammatory process and tissue homeostasis — think muscles, tendons, ligaments, and fascia. Pain researchers describe one group of specialized neurons, the IV afferent neurons, as having the ability to “taste” the local tissue chemistry. When they taste inflammation, they are activated. When the flavor is anti-inflammatory, these neurons are inhibited or modulated.
What’s fascinating is that cells can release both pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory mediators and in doing so, determine the “flavor” of the tissue chemistry that is “tasted” by these specialized neurons. And nutrition can be a determining factor that generates the tissue “flavor” of inflammation.
A lot of chronic pain is the result of chronic inflammation, and the evidence is quite strong that your diet can contribute to increased systemic inflammation.
— Dr. Fred Tabung, "Can diet heal chronic pain?"
Inflammation & Body Fat
There are different types of fat in the body, and various places fat tends to occur. Two types of fat are in the body, brown fat and white fat. The brown fat is highly vascularized, is found in the neck and shoulder regions in adults, and tends to burn energy as well as help in body temperature regulation. There is also an indication that this type of fat helps control the body’s triglycerides and cholesterol, and may reduce atherosclerosis. The most common fat in the body is the white fat, this is the stuff in the belly and is the majority of the “flab” we have.
Excess body fat, especially the white fat in the abdomen and around the internal organs, is linked with both diabetes and heart disease. In fact, excess body fat also increases the body’s need for insulin, and negatively affects insulin-producing cells.
But that’s not all.
Body fat itself can promote the activation of immune cells. The fat tissue can even produce its own inflammatory markers. This is particularly true for internal fat around the belly, liver, and heart. Plus excess body fat can change the biomechanical loading of a joint, which may accelerate degenerative joint diseases such as osteoarthritis.
But it’s the inflammation aspect of increased body fat that might explain why high levels of body fat are associated with osteoarthritis in non-weight bearing joints such as hands, where biomechanical loading isn’t weight related as it is in the knee.
Losing weight (i.e., excess body fat) reduces inflammation in belly fat as well as the rest of the body, and can help you to change the way that you move.
Anti-Inflammatory Eating4-WEEK COURSE & GROUP COACHING PROGRAM
Sarah Ferreira, the nourishing guru in the Embodied Wellness Membership, offers a 4-week program on Anti-Inflammatory Eating. She dives into some of the known and suspected nutritional factors that play into inflammation and providing you some insights as to what you can do about it.
There is a lot of evidence that improving nutrition and lifestyle can help many factors associated with chronic diseases, including reducing inflammation.
In fact, according to the NIH:
“People with insulin resistance and prediabetes can decrease their risk for diabetes by eating a healthy diet and reaching and maintaining a healthy weight, increasing physical activity, not smoking, and taking medication.”
“The main treatment for atherosclerosis is lifestyle changes.”
Here are several ways you can upgrade your nutrition and lifestyle.
A nutritious diet promotes health, reduces the risk of many chronic diseases, and can reduce inflammation.
Some areas that are being researched now are anti-inflammatory diets and foods.
One diet has a lot of science supporting its health promoting, emotional well-being improving, and life-extending properties. This is the Mediterranean diet. The Mediterranean diet includes a lot of vegetables, fruits, and legumes; some fish, whole grains, tree nuts, and dairy; and small amounts of olive oil, tea, cocoa, red wine, herbs, and spices. It also has low levels of red meat and salt, and a low glycemic index (it doesn’t raise blood sugar very high).
The Mediterranean diet can lower the risk of diabetes and adverse effects of obesity, even without weight loss. One of the reasons why it is thought to be because of its anti-inflammatory properties.
Foods that are often consumed in the Mediterranean diet contain substances that are both anti-inflammatory and antioxidant. Substances like polyphenols, flavonoids, pigments, unsaturated fats (including omega-3s), and anti-inflammatory vitamins and minerals like vitamin E and selenium. These foods may also help to improve insulin sensitivity, quality of blood lipids, and the gut microbiota.
Many anti-inflammatory effects of these foods have been demonstrated in a lab or in animals. Extra-virgin olive oil, tree nuts, and cocoa have been associated with anti-inflammatory effects, like reducing blood levels of CRP, in people.
Even when we look at individual components in a food, we should keep in mind that it’s the whole diet, with all foods and lifestyle components that help to promote health. One or two individual aspects don’t have the same effect as a holistic approach to improving overall nutrition and lifestyle.
Inflammation - Sugar & Starch
Excess sugars and starches put stress on our blood sugar levels and increase our risk of chronic diseases. They also promote inflammation in the body.
Animals who eat sweets and white bread, and drink a lot of sugar-sweetened beverages have higher levels of inflammatory markers like CRP. Studies in people also show that diets low in sugar and starch have lower than average levels of CRP.
One possible reason is that more sugar and starch may increase the production of inflammatory molecules and free radicals by giving immune cells more fuel and increase their activity.
You can upgrade your nutrition in this area by eating fewer sugars (especially “added” sugars) and starches (especially “refined” carbohydrates).
Inflammation - Dietary Fat
Some lab and animal studies show that increased levels of saturated fats can increase the production of inflammatory markers and free radicals. Meals with unsaturated fats seem to reduce the inflammatory response after the meal.
Unsaturated fats like omega-3’s from fish seem to be particularly healthful. People who eat more fish tend to have lower levels of atherosclerosis and heart disease. Why? Fish-based omega-3 unsaturated fats reduce the source of inflammation and increase the number of anti-inflammatory molecules.
Tree nuts are another excellent source of unsaturated fats and anti-inflammatory polyphenols. While nuts do contain a fair amount of fat, many studies show that people who regularly eat nuts do not tend to have a higher BMI (body mass index) or more body fat. Even adding nuts to the diet doesn’t seem to promote weight gain compared to the amount of calories they contain. And that is if there is any weight gain at all, because many studies show no weight gain after adding nuts to the diet.
Why don’t fat-containing nuts promote weight gain? Several studies show an increase in the resting metabolic rate in people who eat nuts - they seem to burn more calories even when they’re not active. This may be because of the type of fat (unsaturated), protein, fiber, and/or the polyphenol content in the nuts.
You can upgrade your dietary fats by eating more fish and nuts. Fish and nuts contain unsaturated fats that have anti-inflammatory effects. They can also enhance insulin sensitivity and even improve the health of insulin-producing cells.
When it comes to fish oil supplements, many studies show a reduction in risk factors for heart disease by improving the way our bodies metabolize fats and its ability to “thin” the blood. However, fish oil supplements have mixed reviews when it comes to reducing inflammation. They can be helpful for some, but I recommend eating the fish itself.
Inflammation - Dietary Fiber
People who eat more fiber tend to have lower risks of diabetes and heart disease. There are a few ways this is thought to work, one is from reduced inflammation. This is because people who eat more fiber, fruits, and vegetables tend to have lower levels of CRP.
In fact, animal studies show that eating fiber reduces the levels of inflammatory markers and also reduces excess body fat.
This effect can be because fiber slows down the absorption of food from the body, reducing blood sugar spikes. It can also be because of its interaction with the friendly microbes in our gut.
Foods that are high in fiber include whole grains, legumes (i.e., beans and lentils), cocoa, seeds (e.g., sesame), tree nuts (e.g., almonds), avocados, raspberries, and squash.
Inflammation - Moderate Exercise
Regular exercise helps with many chronic diseases, as well as helping to reduce inflammation.
Just 20 minutes of moderate exercise (like fast walking) can stimulate the immune system in a way that creates a chain reaction of anti-inflammatory..
I’ll let you in on a little secret. I’ve been interested in the power of the gut since 1999 after a friend introduced me to the book, "The Second Brain." This technical (a.k.a. dry) read sparked my interest and got me thinking about the gut-nervous system interaction. Fast forward a couple of years, and the term microbiome became a hot topic in certain geeky gut realms.
But really, it wasn’t until recently that we started to understand just how much our gut and brain interact. Some people still believe that our brains controlled everything that we do, consciously and subconsciously.
I rarely say this, but they’re wrong! Or at least they’re not fully right.
Some of us have a sense that there is a connection because we often feel emotions in our gut. For example, when we’re scared we can get a “knot” in our stomach. Or, feeling sad or anxious can affect our appetite and the number of bathroom trips we need to make. Plus, many digestive issues often come with mood issues.
Recent research confirms a gut-brain connection, a.k.a. “axis.” This microbiome-gut-brain axis is stronger and different than we had imagined. And with new technology, we’ve been able to study the gut microbes in a way that was not possible just a few years ago.
The most powerful path to our brain is through our gut.
— Kelly Brogan, M.D.
Let’s talk about how your gut microbes, your gut itself, your brain, and your mental health are all interconnected and influence each other! Plus, we’ll dive into some “mood foods,” as well as stress-reducing activities that can help with gut issues.
The Gut + Microbiome
We know that our gut (a.k.a. digestive system) plays an essential role in all aspects of health — including brain health and mental health. This is because it digests and absorbs nutrients from our food, and gets rid of waste. Without enough nutrition and all our essential nutrients, we get deficiency diseases (that are not nearly as common now as they were just a few hundred years ago). When our gut does its job absorbing what we need, and keeping out what we don’t (and what’s harmful), it helps to nourish every single cell in our bodies.
Our gut also houses our amazing friendly microbes! The gut microbiota (i.e. a collection of microbes) is mostly bacteria, but there are also yeasts and viruses there, too. In fact, there are as many microbes that live in our gut as there are (non-red blood cell) human cells in our entire body! The gut microbiota is sometimes called a “superorganism!”
Here's one thing to keep in mind: In this post, we’re talking specifically about the gut. However, the microbiota doesn’t live solely in our intestines. It resides in our intestines, in our mouth, on our flesh, etc. To put into context just how vast this range of microorganisms is: we have trillions of tiny bacterial cells residing within our bodies (99% of which live in the gut), significantly more than we have human cells in the body. And, this microbial ecosystem makes up to anywhere from two to six pounds of a 200-pound adult’s total body weight, according to estimates from the Human Microbiome Project.
These microbes are symbiotic, or friendly, because they perform functions that enhance our health. They:
● Help break down certain nutrients we can’t use (e.g. fiber) and turn them into nutrients we can use (e.g. short-chain fatty acids);
● Crowd out bad microbes we ingest that can cause disease, and this reduces the risk of serious gut infections;
● Make certain essential vitamins, like vitamins B12 and K that are needed for good health; and,
● New research shows they also have a profound effect on other parts of our bodies - like our brain and mental health.
As I mentioned, the microbiome is the collection of the genes contained within the microbiota. And technology developed in the early 2000s has allowed testing of hundreds of millions of gut microbiomes, where we used to be able to test just a few dozen. We now know that one person can have 1,000 strains with a total of over 1,000 trillion individual microbes in their gut.
Researchers don’t yet know what microbes make up an “optimal” gut microbiota.
How do the gut and microbiome connect with the brain and mental health? Observations About The microbiome-gut-brain axis
There are a lot of interconnections that we’ve seen over the years that point to this microbiome-gut-brain axis.
First of all, our gut’s main job is to digest and absorb nutrients from our food and get rid of waste. There are a lot of nutrient deficiency disorders which have brain and mental health connections. For example, insufficient amounts of omega-3 fatty acids and certain B-vitamins are linked with brain and mental health issues.
Second, many digestive issues seem to be associated with some mental health issues. Higher-than-normal percentage of people with certain bowel diseases develop mental health symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Another observation is through those friendly gut microbes. Lots of people report psychological side effects after taking antibiotics. Antibiotics are often necessary to treat harmful bacteria. But, they don’t only wipe out those bad bacteria, they also wipe our friendly gut microbes, too. But here’s the rub. According to a study published in Cell in Sept. 2018, adding a probiotic supplement after your antibiotic regimen can actually hinder your gut’s ability to return to normal. So even in the gut, it’s all about balance.
And what about the effect of stress on our gut?Stress can affect our appetite and even change the gut microbiome. Research shows that altered gut microbes are associated with mental health symptoms.
Some studies are starting to show that probiotic supplements may help with stress and some mental health symptoms. So, probiotics still have their place. But we’re still learning about who, how, and when they’ll be the most beneficial.
As you can see, there are a lot of ways our guts and brains affect each other. But, how can this be? Howis it that these microbiota-gut-brain connections actually work?
The microbiome-gut-brain axis is a complex one. It involves connections between nerves, biochemicals, and the immune system itself. And that’s what we know now - this is a hotbed of research and our understanding of how it all works will continue to deepen and grow over time.
Let’s look at each one separately.The nerve connections of the microbiome-gut-brain axis:
In terms of nerves themselves, there are a few ways the microbiome and gut connect with the brain.
First, your gut has a lot of nerves and is sometimes called the “second brain.” All these 200-600 million nerve cells together form their own nervous system called the “enteric nervous system.” These nerve cells control the intricate functions necessary for your digestive system to do its job — from the release of digestive enzymes, to movement of food through it, to the blood flow around it that picks up the absorbed nutrients. The gut uses its own brain to function optimally.
The second nerve connection between your gut and your brain is through the vagus nerve. This nerve physically connects our gut with our brain.
The vagus nerve is part of the nervous system that controls the body subconsciously, called the “autonomic” nervous system (it works “automatically”). This system is divided into two parts: sympathetic and parasympathetic. The sympathetic part controls our “fight or flight” reactions. The parasympathetic part, containing the vagus nerve, controls our “rest and digest” functions. Which makes sense, considering it links the digestive system to the brain.
The vagus nerve has recently been shown to send about 80% of the information from your gut up to your brain - and not from your brain down to your gut as we previously thought!
The information traveling to the brain through the vagus nerve is from the gut as well as its microbiota. I think you should read that again and let it sink in: the information traveling to the brain through the vagus nerve is from the gut as well as its microbiota.
The second way the microbiome and gut link to the brain is through biochemical connections.
The brain, in right profile with the glossopharyngeal and vagus nerves and, to the right, a view of the base of the brain. Photolithograph, 1940, after a woodcut, 1543.
The biochemical connections of the microbiome-gut-brain axis:
In addition to the physical nerves that surround our gut (enteric nervous system), and the nerve that carries info from our gut and microbiota to our brain (vagus nerve), there are biochemical connections. The first type of biochemical that sends information from our gut to our brain are neurotransmitters (i.e. the chemical aspect of the nervous system).
“Neurotransmitters” are just that - transmitters of information between nerve cells. They’re chemical messengers that allow nerve cells to communicate with each other. One of the most famous mood-affecting neurotransmitters, serotonin, is made in the gut. Serotonin is sometimes called the “happy” neurotransmitter because it seems to be lower in people with depression. Research shows that 80-90% of serotonin is in the gut, not in the brain! It plays an essential role, promoting the movement of food through the gut (peristalsis).
Another biochemical connection is between our gut microbes and our brains — through their metabolites. Our gut microbes need to eat, and in the process, they produce compounds (i.e. metabolites). These include short chain fatty acids from dietary fiber, as well as amino acids from dietary protein. As mentioned earlier, they also create the essential vitamins B12 and K. All these microbial compounds travel throughout our bodies and can reach and affect our brains.
The third biochemical connection between our microbiome, gut, and brain, is through stress hormones. Our HPA-Axis (Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis) starts in our brains and uses hormones like cortisol to affect other parts of the body, including the gut. Research shows that stress hormones tell immune cells in the gut to secrete compounds that can cause inflammation and tiny “leaks” in the gut (permeability).
In addition to the physical nerve connections and the biochemical ones, the microbiome-gut-brain axis also uses the immune system.
The immune + inflammatory connections ofthe microbiome-gut-brain axis:
Our immune cells travel throughout our body looking for unwelcome invaders like harmful bacteria and viruses. Just like most of our neurotransmitter serotonin is located in our gut, most of our immune system is there, too. This is because our mouths are a huge portal for the outside world to get into our bodies. We can easily swallow disease-causing microbes which need to be dealt with by our immune system. So, it makes a lot of sense that most of our immune system is located around our gut.
When our immune cells start working to attack invaders, they can cause inflammation.
If our immune cells become overactive, this can cause autoimmunity and excess inflammation. Autoimmunity is when our immune cells mistake our own cells as harmful ones and then attack them. This can also affect our moods.
All three of the connections, nerve, biochemical, and immune system, are part of the complex microbiome-gut-brain axis!
There is a clear 2-way street between our gut and our brains, even though the details are still being discovered as we speak. From what we know already, let’s talk about what we can put in our gut to feed our moods, and what we can do mentally to help our gut.
Food + Mood and The microbiome-gut-brain axis
Yes, it’s possible to affect our brain and moods with the foods we eat. In fact, this is a new area of research called “nutritional psychiatry.” This research is pretty fascinating. And, I adore the idea of supporting our well-being through nourishment instead of trying to conquer it through chemicals. Foods are chemicals, but there's something a bit more integrative about this approach. It feels less divisive and destructive. Meaning: it puts our faith back into the genius of these complex and dynamical systems that are our bodies.
So, what do we already know about food + mood?
I've already written about this in another post. But let's take a wee look at some of the science here as well.
We know that a healthy diet is linked with a lower risk of mental health issues. Several recent high-quality studies suggest that what we eat is a “modifiable risk factor” for depression and anxiety. This means that what we eat affects our risk of mental health issues, and we can control (modify) what we eat.
The essential components of a healthy diet include a lot of nutritious and fiber-dense foods. In fact, what we eat is the main thing that influences our gut microbes (remember, our microbes like to eat fiber!). Components of a healthy diet include:
Fruits and vegetables
Whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds
Fish, poultry, lean red meat, eggs
Perhaps not surprisingly, foods associated with poorer mental health include processed, sugary, salty, fried, fast, and high-fat foods, as well as sugary drinks.
A recent randomized clinical study shows that what we eat can help improve symptoms of people who already experience depression!
Have you ever wondered why you hold your breath when doing something new?
We often take our breath for granted, usually breathing in and out 12-16 times every minute without being aware of it. Most of us only notice our breath when something happens to prevent us from breathing normally, or when we intentionally bring our attention to our breath as part of a mindfulness practice.
And yet, we are always somewhere in the cycle of breathing.
There is a funny thing that often happens when I am teaching an Awareness Through Movement class. I find that students stop breathing. Typically, I notice first, and then I instantly take a conscious breath myself. Then, at the very next moment, I cue the class to notice their breath. What typically follows is a big class sigh and a couple of chuckles. It's a funny thing to be holding your breath as a collective. Some people ask why. Others don't. But most assume that they are holding their breath because of a 'bad habit.'
Now, to be honest, I am not interested in judging good or bad. But I am interested in helping others to understand what it is that they do (awareness). Then, I help them find many more ways to do what they do with greater efficiency, power, and ease (creating options). And one thing I know for certain: the breath is typically a good indicator of how much effort is being used. Graceful movement is typically accompanied by a fluid ebb and flow of breath.
Our breath is one of the life-sustaining motions in our vast repertoire of movements.
— Bonnie Ginitis
All that said, even I have wondered, "why all of this breath holding?" It certainly doesn't seem as though decreased oxygen levels would be beneficial in learning. Does it?
Before we go on, I want to make sure to clarify that in this post we're diving into the relationship between learning and holding your breath. There are many reasons why people hold their breath on a day-to-day basis: habits, posture, anxiety, elevated stress, feeling threatened, and even the anticipation of something joyful. Habitual holding of the breath might be a worthy blog post in the future.
But let's muse a bit on what learning, movement, and holding your breath have to do with one another.
A Little Developmental 'Did You Know?'
Did you know that you made your first breathing movements at just the wee age of 8 weeks after fertilization? Now granted, these movements were sporadic, but they played a crucial role in both the development of your lungs and the various muscles associated with breathing.
Here's the kicker...
Really, there are two interesting developmental tidbits to go along with this.
This is the part that really gets me excited: your breathing movements and other movements were independent of one another and non-coincidental. Basically, if you moved, then you stopped your breathing movements. That's right! You would either move or you would breathe (technically, you would make breathing movements as you got your Oxygen via the umbilical cord.)
This either/or organization went on, more-or-less, until about 23 weeks. At that time, some nifty central pattern generators (which are located in your brain-stem) began to act in harmony. That happened so that you could do more complex activities, like breathing movements and arm movements. (Piontelli, 2010)
At this point, you might be asking yourself, "what does all this fetal development have to do with me?" In short, maybe something, maybe nothing. But isn't it fascinating that a pattern that occurred so early on in your experience can show up again later in life?
Improve Your Learning-Moving-Breathing ExperienceFirst:Be Grateful.
Your breath is a wonderful barometer for your quality of mind, movement, and emotional well-being. So, when you catch yourself holding your breath, give a big ol' nod of gratitude to this biological cue for bringing you back to the moment. Take pause. Sense your contact with the surfaces beneath you. Observe your breath. And by all means, let go of any unnecessary or parasitic effort. Then, when you're ready, begin again.
You can use this strategy when finding your breath is paused in an Awareness Through Movement class, while studying for an exam, practicing an instrument, or with any other form of learning. Remember, these pauses will help you to work with your biology to support your learning. In other words, you'll be working smarter, not harder.
Next:Focus on Awareness & Appropriate Effort
The word effortless is used a lot by those in the Feldenkrais world. But our ideals of 'effortless' can be a bit confounding. Some people interpret effortless as this kind of complete surrender. Others approach it with a blind eye — only focusing on the work of a specific part, or a specific themselves.
For me, I prefer the term 'appropriate effort' as it eludes to active participation. It also allows for a bit of space to explore or question (and in a fun and curious way) the quality of our effort. And when all is said and done, finding the appropriate effort tends to leave us feeling as though what we are doing is effortless. We tend to feel more in the flow.
Now:Enjoy A Feldenkrais Lessons
One of my favorite Awareness Through Movement lesson themes are the Differentiating The Parts Of The Breath and the Sea-Saw Breathing lessons.
You see, these lessons help us to separate the use of the secondary movements (and muscles) of breathing, from the act of breathing itself and from other movements. I know, I know, the thought of this just might make your eyes cross. But, the experience of this provides an incredible foundation for being able to maintain your breath when you are deeply focused or when you are learning something new.
In addition, these lessons can help you to feel more buoyant and more erect (a.k.a. better posture) without conscious effort. Plus, they are phenomenal for relieving an achy back or a stiff neck. Oh...and let's not forget that it can do wonders for that nagging feeling of almighty stress.
I invite you to make a little space and time to do the audio lesson below.
You can always play with what you've learned here today. Maybe try a bit of seesaw breathing while waiting in line at the grocery store or while you're paused at a red light. Then again, it is always beneficial to revisit the whole lesson from time-to-time, so please feel free to bookmark this page and come back whenever you like.
I also love hearing about people's experience with the lessons. What they discovered. How they felt (physically, emotionally or otherwise). So I would be tickled pink if you shared your experience in the comments below.
Have you ever had a moment of subtle resistance? Well of course, we all have. Here is a little trick I learned while exploring Awareness Through Movement and again while sitting on my cushion. To be frank, it has helped me in just about everything I do.
Recently I noticed I was reluctant to start dinner. Strange. I love to cook. I love to eat. I have a big beautiful box of fresh veggies from my local CSA. So, why on earth was I resisting this?
What I noticed, was that I was furrowing my brow and experiencing this tightness in my chest, shoulders, and neck. And all this tightness was seeping right into my attitude. My mind even felt tight.
Resistance is resolved through becoming unnecessary.
— Moshe Feldenkrais, The Potent Self
I thought about it and took a bit of a ‘Feldie’ approach to see if I could find at least three choices. Here are a few of the choices I came up with:
I could choose not to cook because I wasn’t enjoying it.
I could push myself through it because I ‘knew’ it was good for me, even though I disliked it at the moment.
I could simply let go of the tightness.
Now, I have to admit that my first compulsion was to choose #1. But, in the blink of an instant I was reminded of the quote below and was instantly swept away in a moment of awe for the beauty of development.
So, I returned to the moment. And it hit me — tension can be a lot like the grasping reflex: a simple response where I contract against a stimulus, be it a thought or a moment. So, I chose to grow my learning and let go of the tightness.
It was awesome!
The infant may make a fist and then carefully open it again – or take hold of one hand with the other. This can go on every day for long hours, for weeks or even months... Letting go is more difficult. That has to be learned separately. The infant often strives for weeks until he has mastered the movement of letting go easily and reliably.
— Dr Emmi Pikler
I just noticed where the tightness was, and then chose to let it soften. I noticed my breath and chose to let it deepen. I noticed the parts of myself that were connected with the floor, and then I chose to let them take more support. What was left was a more relaxed body, and even more relaxed mind.
In the end, it was actually the shift in my attitude that ended up being most important. I could now approach cooking with a sense of ease, a hint of exploration and bit of happiness. All of which I couldn’t do when I was tight. So then I smiled, did a little happy dance, and things got even better.
So I started applying that to everything I did: while writing this blog I noticed tightness, I let go of the tightness and smiled — and the writing became instantly more enjoyable. Yay!
Every moment became instantly better.
What I later realized, was that I didn’t dive into why such resistance. Although sometimes insight is delicious. Sometimes, it simply isn’t necessary. So rather than pondering the ‘whys’ of why something I love is bringing me tension, I simply chose to shift my attention to my sensation and free my body to free my mind. In doing so the resistance melted away like coconut oil at 76°F.
A few tricks for letting goNotice the tightness.
Ask yourself if it is necessary. If not, let it go. You can give this attention to the body and to your mind. You have periods during the day where you can be mindful: work, driving, walking, reading, cleaning, talking, biking, etc.
Let your attention stay on this breath and notice where you move as you breathe in and as you breathe out. Between you inhale and exhale, pause your breath and wait for the urge to breathe again. Explore for a few breaths or a few minutes.
Accentuate what is.
I have said before and I will say it again, 'the best way out is often through'. You can practice this right now. Pause for a second and lightly clench your jaw or fist, and then slowly let it go and enjoy the softening. It’s that easy. Now do it with your shoulders -accentuate the tension a wee bit, then let it soften. Then try the muscles around your eyes.
Feel your connections.
One of your oldest and dearest support systems is always with you—gravity. From time-to-time, allow yourself to be fully supported by mother earth or anything you are in contact with (chair, bed, floor, another living being, etc).
Mental health issues have a huge impact on society. Some suggest that their impact is larger than any other chronic disease, including heart disease or diabetes. And if you suffer from persistent pain, then you're four times as likely to have depression or anxiety than those who are pain-free.
There are so many factors involved in complex conditions like mental health issues and persistent pain. But today, we're going to look at just one of these factors — inflammation.
First, we’ll go over a few of the links between inflammation and mental health. Then, we’ll talk about some exciting research into natural approaches - things like foods, nutrients, and lifestyle upgrades - and how these are related to better mental health.
NOTE: None of these are a substitute for professional medical advice. If you have any of these conditions, make sure you’re being monitored regularly by a licensed healthcare professional.
What Is Inflammation?
The word inflammation comes from the Latin word “inflammo,” meaning “I set alight, I ignite.”
Because inflammation can become harmful, it has gotten a lot of bad press lately. However, inflammation isn’t always a bad thing. As in most areas of health, it’s the balance that’s important.
Inflammation is actually a natural process that our body uses to protect against infections, irritants, and damage. Inflammation helps our bodies eliminate damaged cells and tissues, and helps them to repair. It also helps to reduce the cause of the damage, for example, by fighting the infection. Inflammation that happens in a big way, but for a short time can help the body to heal these injuries and infections.
On the other hand, lower levels of inflammation sometimes stick around longer than necessary. This long-term “chronic” inflammation can cause damage over time. Often, there are few, if any, signs or symptoms. It’s this chronic inflammation that is linked to many conditions including mental health, heart disease, and diabetes.
Inflammation mostly comes from our immune system’s response to infections and injuries. It also involves our blood vessels (arteries and veins) and other molecules. A few of these inflammatory molecules, or “markers,” include free radicals (oxidants), cytokines, and C-reactive protein (CRP).
So, what are the links between inflammation and mental health?
Inflammation & Mental Health
There are many factors linked to sub-optimal mental health, just as there are many factors linked to complex pain. One of these is inflammation.
In terms of depression, the link with inflammation was first discovered back in 1991. With respect to bipolar disorder, the link between it and immune dysfunction was proposed as far back as 1981.
NOTE: While there are many links between inflammation and mental health issues, it’s not the only connection. Others include:
Research shows that inflammation may be a factor for about one-third of people with depression. This article focuses specifically on the links between inflammation and mental health.
Inflammation And Mental Health
First of all, some mental health issues are associated with increased inflammatory markers like cytokines and CRP. For example, people with depression tend to have higher levels of cytokines. In fact, some of the inflammatory markers found in the blood are known to reach the brain.
High levels of inflammation may also inhibit recovery in people who experience mental health symptoms.
In fact, some researchers believe that levels of inflammation may actually be able to predict negative mental health outcomes.
While inflammation may be part of the cause of mental health symptoms for some people, it can go in both directions. Mental health issues may also increase some of these inflammatory markers.
Some animal studies show that stress can cause a significant increase in inflammatory markers. Even people who are stressed tend to have increased levels of inflammatory markers and lower levels of anti-inflammatory markers.
Inflammatory Illnesses And Mental Health
Inflammatory illnesses like allergic and autoimmune diseases, as well as metabolic conditions (e.g. heart disease, diabetes, and obesity), are associated with higher rates of mental health symptoms.
And this link also goes both ways - people with mental health symptoms are more likely to get metabolic-related conditions.
This link between mental health symptoms and metabolic conditions has led some researchers to coin the term “mood-metabolic syndrome.” This is meant to reflect the fact that they’re linked to each other, and also that these links can go both ways.
Inflammatory Medications And Mental Health
People who take certain inflammatory medications are at increased risk of developing mental health symptoms. On the other hand, some medications used to treat depression (e.g. SSRIs) reduce levels of some inflammatory markers.
Inflammatory Diets And Mental Health
There is growing evidence that people who eat a high-quality diet tend to have a better sense of well-being and better mental health. This includes better moods and lower stress. Certain anti-inflammatory diets have lower rates of mental health issues.
This also means that studies show links between unhealthy eating patterns and mental health issues. Inflammatory diets (which we’ll go into more detail below) are associated with higher rates of mental health symptoms.
Foods And Moods
Evidence for a link between what we eat and how we feel is fairly new. The first studies to be published on this were as recent as 2009. This new area is called “nutritional psychiatry.” The relationships between foods and mental health are complex, and we’re just starting to understand them. While many studies show a link, all of them don’t.
One study concluded:
“Our data support the hypothesis that high dietary quality is associated with good emotional well-being.”(Meegan et. al, 2017)
What foods are associated with worse moods?
These not-so-healthy dietary patterns include higher intakes of:
Saturated Fat And Processed Meats.
Refined Sugars And Starches.
Fried And Processed Foods.
People who eat this way tend to report more mental health symptoms than those who eat a more health-promoting diet. And, several recent studies consider poor eating habits to be a risk factor for some mental health issues.
Not surprisingly, these not-so-healthy foods are also linked with higher inflammatory markers like CRP. And several studies show that improving the diet can reduce levels of CRP.
In fact, some studies show that the higher the “inflammatory factor” of the diet, the higher the risk for mental health issues.
One dietary pattern that’s been studied a lot is the Mediterranean diet. This diet includes a lot of vegetables, fruit, whole grains, legumes, fish, and olive oil. It also contains a lot of nutrients and fiber. Eating a Mediterranean-style diet is associated with lower levels of inflammatory markers and a reduced risk of mental health issues.
This complex association between food and mental health can also go both ways. Mental health symptoms can also influence appetite and food choices. And it’s likely that other factors such as obesity, exercise, food insecurity, and use of alcohol and tobacco are probably involved as well.
It is unclear as to exactly how these eating patterns affect mental health - inflammation is definitely one possibility. Nutrition can impact how our immune system functions, and this can affect levels of inflammation and mental health issues. It could also be through the effects of the nutrients themselves, and even directly through the digestive system (microbiota-gut-brain axis).
Better Foods For Better Moods
In fact, it’s not just “associations.” A recent clinical study found that when people start eating a healthier diet, they can actually reduce some of their mental health symptoms!
This study is particularly interesting. It’s called the SMILES trial.
The SMILES Trial
What makes the results from the SMILES trial strong is that it was an actual experiment. It didn’t just ask people what they ate, measured their inflammatory markers, and what their symptoms were. It was “interventional” - people agreed to actually change the way they ate!
The researchers say:
“...this is the first RCT [randomized control trial] to explicitly seek to answer the question: If I improve my diet, will my mental health improve?”(Jacka et. al, 2017)
Here’s how it worked:
The SMILES trial recruited 67 people with depression and poor dietary quality to a trial for 12-weeks. These were people who reported a high intake of sweets, processed meats, and salty snacks; and a low intake of vegetables, fruits, lean protein, and dietary fiber.
Half of them were asked to:
Eat more vegetables, whole grains, fruit, legumes, low-fat unsweetened dairy, raw and unsalted nuts, fish, lean red meat, chicken, eggs and olive oil.
Eat fewer sweets, refined grains, fried food, fast food, processed meats and sugary drinks.
Drink no more than two glasses of wine per day (with meals, preferably red wine).
This half of the participants who upgraded their diet were also given seven professional nutrition counseling sessions.
The other half of the people in the SMILES trial were given social support. They were “befriended” and discussed sports or news, or played cards or board games. There was no nutrition support, nor any dietary recommendations given to people in this group.
The researchers found that in 12-weeks the people who improved their diet actually also improved some mental health symptoms! They said:
“We report significant reductions in depression symptoms as a result of this intervention… The results of this trial suggest that improving one’s diet according to current recommendations targeting depression may be a useful and accessible strategy for addressing depression in both the general population and in clinical settings.”(Jacka et. al, 2017)
It would be great for other, larger trials to confirm these results. In the meantime, eating a more health-promoting diet is helpful for so many conditions, not just mental health conditions!
Improved Nutrition For Improved Moods
Is there something special in these foods that may help with moods? We know the brain needs enough of all essential nutrients in order to function properly. And insufficient levels are linked with the stress response and the immune response.
Eating nutrient-dense foods is the best way to get nutrition. Foods are complex combinations of nutrients. Supplementing with individual nutrients is not the same as eating a healthy diet.
Let’s go over a few key nutrients for better moods.
B-vitamins such as B6, B9 (folic acid), and B12
People who tend to be low in B-vitamins are more likely to have mental health issues. Higher intakes of vitamin B6 (pyridoxine) and B12 (cobalamin) may reduce risk.
With folic acid, in particular, the connection may be due to its different forms. “Folic acid” is the inactive form of vitamin B9. Our bodies naturally converted it into the active form (called L-methylfolate) by the enzyme methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase (MTHFR).
Once folic acid has been activated, it goes to the brain and is used to make neurotransmitters like serotonin, melatonin, dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine.
Interestingly, many people with mental health issues are unable to convert folic acid into its active form. One study tested supplements with the active form of folic acid (L-methylfolate) on people with mental health issues. While some people had a moderate improvement, the people who also had inflammation (higher levels of CRP) had an even greater improvement.
Vitamin D is well known to help absorb calcium for strong bones but has many other functions too. In terms of immunity, vitamin D can reduce inflammatory molecules in people with certain infections and inflammatory diseases. Vitamin D has a number of roles within the brain. Vitamin D plays a role in circadian rhythms and sleep, and influences the growth of nerve cells in the developing brain.
There is growing evidence that people who tend to be low in vitamin D also tend to have more mental health symptoms. In fact, some (but not all) studies show that vitamin D supplementation can improve mood scores and reduce mental health symptoms.
Vitamin D is the most commonly deficient nutrient in Western countries. It’s known as the “sunshine vitamin” because our skin makes it when exposed to sunlight. It is also found in a few foods and as a supplement.
Minerals (Calcium & Selenium)
Low intake of calcium is associated with mental health symptoms, while high intake is associated with lower rates of mental health symptoms.
Depression has been associated with low blood levels of the essential mineral selenium. Low intake of selenium is also associated with an increased risk for depression.
Omega-3 oils are healthy fats found in many foods such as seafood, nuts, legumes, and leafy greens. They have been shown to reduce inflammation.
Some (but not all) studies suggest that the omega-3 fats, specifically those found in fish and fish oil, have mental health benefits.
Healthier Lifestyle For Happier Moods
Foods aren’t the only thing that can be upgraded to improve your mental health and inflammation. Your lifestyle can have a big role too! Research has shown that both exercise and sleep are important factors that can improve moods and inflammation.
Moving More + Exercise
People with mental health issues are more likely to lead sedentary lives. This is another factor that can increase levels of chronic inflammation.
There is a lot of evidence that exercise helps to reduce the risk, and symptoms, of mental health issues. Regular exercise reduces inflammation. We know this because CRP levels are lower in people who regularly exercise, than those who do not. Plus, people who exercise at a higher intensity have even lower levels of CRP.
I encourage you to reduce the amount of time you are sedentary and take active breaks.
Sleep plays a vital role in our physical and mental health. Lack of enough high-quality sleep is very commonly associated with mental health issues. People who experience insomnia are at higher risk for later developing mental health issues.
Lower amounts of sleep can affect the immune system and increase chronic inflammation. Increasing levels of CRP and inflammatory cytokines have been measured with sleep deprivation.
If you’re not getting at least 7 hours of sleep each night, start trying to make it a priority.
Inflammation is one of several factors that is linked with mental health and mood issues. It may be a factor for up to one-third of people who suffer from these.
The link between inflammation and mental health issues is thought to go both ways - inflammation can contribute to mental health and mood issues, and vice..
There is no life without movement. From the blood that pulses through our veins to the actions required to gather and consume food, your mind and body are intimately connected. And while your brain is the master control system for your body’s movement, the way you move can also affect the way you think and feel.
Some of the functions for movement are obvious — like hunting and gathering. Other critical aspects of movement may be less obvious — like the way movement acts as an extension of your cardiovascular system or primary pump for your lymphatic system. And then there are all the other ways movement impacts you emotionally, mentally, and socially.
Your health & your life depend on movement.
— Buffy Owens
There’s a lot I could say about movement. But for today, we'll focus on the importance of moving more in everyday life (i.e. more movement, less exercise).
The human body, with approximately 640 muscles and 206 bones, is made to move. But in general, we humans seem to be moving less and less.
You've probably heard that sitting is the new smoking. There’s been some decent research that indicates that time spent sitting down directly correlates with longevity, insulin sensitivity, heart health and more. Those who spend more time sitting down versus being up and about are more likely to experience health problems and possibly an earlier death. This is independent of exercise habits. Those who sit the most have the most health issues, even if they exercise regularly.
How big of a risk increase are we talking?
Just for giggles, let's talk numbers. Some studies estimate that every extra hour you spend sitting in front of the TV each day is associated with an 18% increase in heart disease death and an 11% increase in death from all causes. Another study framed it this way: every hour of TV you watch after the age of 25 reduces your life expectancy—at least statistically—by almost 22 minutes. Feeling the fear & guilt yet? If so, don't worry, we're not going to dwell on the negative for too long.
DID YOU KNOW In less than two generations, physical activity has dropped 32% and research suggests adults spend about 60% or more than 8 hours of their waking day being sedentary! What we do in our leisure time doesn’t come close to making up for what we’ve lost.
Ok. Ok. So we now know that sitting constantly is creating disease. But here's the deal-y-oh, standing constantly also creates disease. The problem is not sitting per se, it’s prolonged stillness and a lack of variation in your daily routine.The problem is being sedentary.
But how do we define being sedentary versus being active? The phrase “sedentary behavior” comes from the Latin word “sedere,” which means, “to sit.” More specifically, the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity defines sedentary behavior as:
"Sedentary behavior is any waking behavior characterized by an energy expenditure ≤1.5 metabolic equivalents (METs), while in a sitting, reclining or lying posture. In general this means that any time a person is sitting or lying down, they are engaging in sedentary behavior. Common sedentary behaviors include TV viewing, video game playing, computer use (collective termed “screen time”), driving automobiles, and reading."
So now that we have a working definition of sedentary behavior, let's take a look at some ways to integrate more movement into your life today!
How Often Should We Move?
A growing body of scientific literature shows that moving around for just two minutes every 20 minutes has tremendous health benefits. But you've got to be moving around! One paper published showed that simply standing for two minutes didn’t do much good. But getting up and moving around, specifically a slow walk, was key to reaping the benefits.
One of the easiest ways to get more moving in your day is to set a timer during those times when you're sedentary — working at a computer, knitting, writing, reading, watching T.V., etc. By repeatedly setting a 20-minute timer and then getting up and walking around for two minutes throughout the sedentary portion of your day can completely negate the health detriment of prolonged sitting.
Can't-do every 20 minutes? Then shoot for moving for 5 minutes every 40 minutes. This can sometimes be an easier rhythm to start with and then you can always transition to the 20-2 option.
Here are a few things to do during those two minutes:
Walk for at least 20 feet and then make sure you walk to a window. Look out on the horizon. It'll feel nice and your eyes will thank you. Then walk yourself to get a glass of water for a bit of hydration goodness.
Do some air squats or play with standing up and sitting back down in a chair several times before you stroll around.
Walk up and down your favorite set of stairs.
Put on your favorite song and shake your derriere like you just don't care. A good ol' fashioned dance party is a wonderful way to move & groove.
If you've got the space and you're proficient at rolling, then roll around on the floor for a few then walk it out for two.
Yoga your thing? Do a few sun salutations or some variation.
Stretch your arms high above your head or hang from a bar for a bit... but then keep on strollin'.
The above list is just a glimpse of some of the ways to move throughout your day. If you want more inspiration, make sure to download the Activity Intensity List. It's plum full of movement inspiration.
To wrap it up, I want to make sure to emphasize that the goal is to incorporate consistent and gentle movement throughout the day is in addition to some form of more moderately-intense activity at least a few times a week. I’m absolutely NOT saying that lifting weights, getting some heart-thumping cardio, or a challenging hike aren’t good for you! Of course, they are, there are tons of benefits to including more rigorous exercise in your life.
I like to think of it as expanding one's movement repertoire — from the power of gentle movement to the human need to diversify and intensify movement for optimal health.
Blood sugar is literally that: the sugar in your blood. Your blood contains all kinds of important nutrients and other substances that you need to be healthy. Including glucose (i.e. sugar), which is a crucial energy source for your brain and your red blood cells. Blood is the liquid transporter that distributes these compounds to all parts of our bodies.
Sugar (a type of carbohydrate) is one of our body’s main fuels. The other two fuels are fat and protein. I call it “fuel” because our cells literally burn it to do work. It’s this “biochemical” burning of fuel in all of our cells that is our metabolism.
So, how does blood sugar get too high?
In this post, I’ll talk a bit about blood sugar balance, insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, and pain. Then I’ll give you 10 proven strategies that can help manage blood sugar level naturally. The good news is that blood sugar levels are responsive to diet and lifestyle upgrades.
You have the power to help manage your blood sugar with these key strategies!
A Bit About Blood Sugar Balance
Our body strives to be in balance. It exerts a lot of energy to make sure that our systems are all running smoothly. Our digestive system, nervous system, cardiovascular (heart & blood vessels) system, etc. And this includes our blood too. Our bodies try to balance our blood pressure, blood volume, blood sugar, etc.
There is a normal and healthy range of sugar levels in our blood. The problem doesn’t start until these levels are out of range, i.e. too high for too long.
Here’s how our bodies strive to maintain optimal levels of blood sugar:
We eat a food containing carbohydrates (i.e. sugar and/or starch). This includes whole foods like fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes. But it also include processed and refined foods as well.
Our digestive system breaks down the sugar and/or starch into smaller sugars like glucose. These smaller sugars are then absorbed into our bloodstream. This naturally raises our blood sugar level.
When our blood sugar gets too high, the pancreas (a gland in our digestive system) sends out insulin. Insulin is a hormone that tells our muscles, liver and, ultimately, fat cells to grab that sugar from the blood. These cells use the sugar they need for energy now, and store the rest for later.
The muscles and liver store sugar (e.g. glucose) temporarily. When we need it, our muscles and liver give up their sugar into the blood. This happens, for example, when we haven’t eaten for a few hours, we’re exercising, or we’re under stress.
As you can see, the amount of sugar in your blood is constantly flowing up and down. Up when we eat; down when the insulin tells the cells to pull it out of the blood. Then up again when we eat again and/or start using some of the stored glucose. And down again as it’s used (burned) or stored.
This is all good and healthy! This is what we aim for.
The problem is when the balance is thrown off. When the blood sugar ups and downs become unhealthy. When the “ups” get too high, and they stay there for too long.
Too much blood sugar can cause heart rate issues (arrhythmias), and in extreme cases, even seizures. Too high blood sugar for too long can eventually cause long-term damage to organs and limbs.
A healthy blood sugar balance is key.
A common way our blood sugar gets too high is when we eat a lot of sugar or highly processed carbohydrates (breads, pastries, pasta, etc.) in a short time. Our digestive system absorbs as much sugar from our food as possible. This is an evolutionary thing. We inherited this from thousands of years ago when food was scarce and the next meal was unknown. Our bodies adapted to crave, absorb, and store as much sugar as possible in one sitting, because it didn’t know how long it would be until the next meal. It’s a survival mechanism.
Over the years, if we frequently eat a lot of sugar and have increased body fat, our bodies can change. The muscle and liver cells start ignoring insulin’s call to absorb sugar from the blood. They become “insulin resistant.” When this happens, the sugar stays in the blood for a lot longer than normal. Blood sugar levels become too high for too long.
But this doesn’t stop the pancreas from releasing even more insulin. When this happens you have the paradox of high blood sugar and high insulin.
Some symptoms of insulin resistance are:
Fatigue & drowsiness after meals
Intense cravings for sweets after meals
Sugar cravings that don’t go away, even if sweets are eaten
Constant hunger and thirst
Difficulty losing weight
Waist girth equal to or larger than hip girth
Wandering aches & pains
Trouble falling asleep
Too-high levels of both blood sugar and insulin is not a healthy place to be in. In fact, it can be dangerous and lead to pre-diabetes, and eventually type 2 diabetes.
Type 2 diabetes is a long-term (a.k.a. “chronic”) condition of too high blood sugar, insulin resistance, and inflammation. It increases the risk of many serious conditions like heart disease, kidney disease, blindness, and amputation. Not to mention the number of medications often prescribed to try to keep blood sugar balanced.
Does high blood sugar impact your pain?
Another problem with high blood sugar is that it promotes the production of advanced glycation end-products, or AGEs. AGE compounds are sometimes called Glycotoxins because they can easily bind with many different cell types and cause damage, oxidative stress, and inflammation. These compounds prematurely age our bodies and have been linked to several serious health concerns and degenerative diseases such as arthritis. In fact, people with diagnosed diabetes are nearly twice as likely to have arthritis. OUCH!
But that's not all.
Those with diabetes can also experience diabetic neuropathy, a type of nerve damage that can occur if you have diabetes. The nerve damage is caused by high blood sugar and the damage can occur anywhere throughout your body. However, for most, diabetic neuropathy damages nerves in their legs and feet. For some people, these symptoms are mild; for others, diabetic neuropathy can be incredibly painful and even disabling.
The good news about blood sugar imbalance
The good news is that improved blood sugar balance can be achieved with clean eating and lifestyle improvements! What you eat, how you eat it, how much exercise and sleep you get, and how you handle stress are all factors that you can improve.
CAUTION: If you’re already diagnosed, and/or taking medications or insulin injections, make sure you speak with your doctor and/or pharmacist before making any changes. They may also want to monitor your blood sugar levels a bit closer when you start making diet and lifestyle upgrades.
10 tips for keeping blood sugar balanced
Here are my 10 best tips to help you better balance your blood sugar with diet and lifestyle upgrades.
#1Stop eating and drinking things that are mostly sugar
First things first. If a food or drink is mostly sugar, please try to reduce, or even cut it out of your diet. I’m talking sweetened beverages (e.g. soda pop, juice, energy drinks, candy, etc.). Many desserts, breakfasts, and even seemingly-healthy choices like some granola bars often have a lot of sugar.
Significantly reducing these will give you the most bang for your buck when it comes to better blood sugar levels. That’s why it’s my number one recommendation.
#2Don’t eat too many carbohydrates
Your body digests starches by breaking them down into sugar. By reducing the amount of sugars and starches (carbohydrates) you eat, you can reduce that blood sugar spike that happens right after you eat. This has been shown in many studies.
It’s been said that one of the strongest predictors of blood sugar response is the total amount of carbohydrates in a meal. Reducing your overall carbohydrate intake can help to reduce your blood sugar levels.
#3Choose “low glycemic” starches
If you’ve already cut out a lot of sugary foods and want to reduce your starch intake, then start by ditching the “high glycemic starches” (i.e. ones that raise your blood sugar too high).
As you can imagine, researchers have measured how fast and how high blood sugar increases with different foods. Foods that are “high glycemic” quickly raise blood sugar quite high. “Low glycemic” foods raise blood slower and to a smaller extent.
This “glycemic effect” is the result of the components in the food itself. Things like the amount of carbohydrate, the type of carbohydrate (i.e. sugar vs starch), and what other nutrients are in the food (i.e. protein, fibre, etc.) as well. The fibre, fat and protein in a food slows down the digestion and absorption of the carbohydrates, so the blood sugar rise slows down too. This results in a lower “glycemic effect.”
High glycemic foods (i.e. ones to avoid) include sugary foods, as well as starchy foods like white bread, many pastas, and rice. Low glycemic foods include ones that are higher in fibre, fat and protein. Examples are meat, seafood, eggs, legumes, sweet potatoes, and non-starchy vegetables.
NOTE: Eating a low glycemic food along with a high glycemic food will help to slow down the blood sugar rise from the higher glycemic food. It’s not just the single food that matters, but the rest of the meal also affects your blood sugar.
Which leads us to…
#4Eat more fiber
You’ve heard that “fiber makes you regular,” right? It’s so healthy. Most people don’t eat nearly enough. The recommended daily intake of fiber for adults is 21 g – 38 g per day.
This nutrient is not just for “regularity” and gut health, but also for blood sugar balance too. It works by mixing with the carbohydrates in your meal, and slowing down the absorption of the sugars from those carbohydrates.
Some of the highest fiber foods include cocoa powder, flaxseeds, & legumes. So, feel free to add a delicious spoon of cocoa powder to your smoothie, sprinkle flaxseeds on your cereal, and/or add some legumes to your soup or salad.
#5Eat your protein and fibrous vegetables first
Since blood sugar is affected by the amount of carbohydrates you eat, studies have also looked at the order in which you eat different foods.
A few small studies looked at adults with type 2 diabetes. They all had the same meal, but some were asked to eat their protein and fibrous (i.e. non-starchy) vegetables first; while others ate their carbohydrates first. They found that people who ate the protein and vegetables first had better blood sugar control. One of the studies also showed lower levels of post-meal insulin when the carbohydrates were eaten last.
Another study found these blood sugar benefits to be true even in people without type 2 diabetes.
It’s thought that when we eat carbohydrates first, we start digesting them right away. But, if we eat them after our protein and fibrous vegetables, they have a chance to mix in with the rest of the food in your stomach. This can slow down their absorption, which slows down how fast and high our blood sugar gets after we eat.
The effects of changing food order hasn’t been tested in many big studies, but it seems to be a simple and safe habit to get into to help our bodies better regulate blood sugar levels.
Try to eat your protein and fibrous vegetables first, and starches last.
#6Fruit is OK ...especially dark berries
Unless your doctor or health practitioner has said otherwise, or you have an intolerance to them, fruit and the fruit sugar “fructose” are generally ok. Fructose has a lower glycemic index than glucose (regular sugar). By replacing your glucose intake with whole-food fructose sources, you can reduce the average levels of blood sugar over two to three months period.
A diet high in fruits and vegetables is great for your health. They contain phytochemicals (phyto=plant), vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Eating whole (not processed or juiced) fruits can help with blood sugar balance. Berries are particularly good, as they contain a lot of fiber and not a lot of sugar. Not to mention that they’re delicious!
Berries, especially dark berries, contain pigments known as “anthocyanins.” These dark-colored pigments have lots of health benefits including helping sugar metabolism in people with insulin resistance. They can also improve your ability to think, and their antioxidant effects are linked to reduced DNA damage.
You can get enough anthocyanins from a regular serving of dark berries, so give them a try.
#7Seasonings that support healthy blood sugar
Vinegar: Try having 1/2-1 tablespoons of vinegar shortly before or with a meal that contains sugars or starches.
Because a recent analysis of several studies (a meta-analysis) showed that the vinegar can lower the blood sugar by up to 60% and the insulin by up to 130% compared tothe same meal without vinegar. This worked for insulin-resistant people. Even healthy people had a significant benefit.
Cinnamon can help to lower blood sugar levels and improve insulin sensitivity. This effect can happen with even less than one teaspoon per day.
It’s thought that cinnamon works by slowing the emptying of the stomach. Slower emptying means slower absorption and slower blood sugar rise after a meal. Cinnamon also contains antioxidant polyphenols (plant chemicals) that may improve insulin sensitivity.
#8Get enough good quality sleep
Our bodies are wired to work along the sun’s schedule. The objective is to wake up when the sun comes up, and get tired when it goes down. Not enough sleep can affect many of our body’s systems, including negatively affecting our blood sugar levels and insulin sensitivity. It can also increase appetite and promote weight gain.
Even one or two nights of poor sleep can affect our blood sugar levels.
Regularly getting enough good quality sleep is a great step toward helping our bodies manage blood sugar.
#9Get your move on
Remember how insulin tells your muscle cells to pull some sugar out of your blood to store for later? Guess what it’s storing it for?
By moving with vigor (i.e. exercising) and burning that stored sugar, you not only improve your blood sugar levels, but you can also reduce insulin resistance. Win-win-win.
This means your muscle cells, especially when they’re moving, absorb and burn more sugar from the blood. This goes for both medium- and high-intensity exercise.
#10Manage your stress
Remember we talked about a couple of those things that release sugar stored in the liver and muscles, and delivers them back to the blood? Things like not eating for a few hours, and when we’re under stress. Let’s talk about the blood sugar effect of stress hormones like cortisol.
The reason stress hormones release stored sugar is to prepare for the “fight or flight” reaction. Your body becomes physically ready to fight or run. And to do this, you need fuel in your blood, i.e. sugar.
How can you reduce stress? Relaxation techniques like deep breathing, meditation, and yoga can help to reduce stress and lower blood sugar levels.
If your blood sugar is creeping up, there are some food and lifestyle upgrades you can make for better health. But you don't have to do them all at once. Pick just one thing from this list that you feel comfortable with changing and start there. When you've got that one integrated into your life, add another.
Which of these will help you to better control your blood sugar levels?
Quick Note: There are several medical, diet, and lifestyle approaches to managing medical conditions. None of the strategies that are offered on this blog are intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. If you have any of these conditions or are taking medications for it, please make sure you’re being monitored regularly.
Ahhhhh….the jaw! This lesson is one of the lessons from a series of Jaw Lessons that I share in the BODY+BRAIN Membership. The title of this MP3 nugget of jaw moving goodness is “The Connections & Movements of The Jaw.” You see, I am almost positive that you know in your mind and mouth that the jaw has an impact on your teeth and other mouthy parts. But did you also know that the jaw and its movements play a pivotal role in balance — physically and emotionally?
The upper jaw, part of the cranium, connects most intimately with the spine and back of the body. Every movement the upper jaw makes reverberates through the spine. But we will explore that a bit more in another lesson.
The lower jaw (a.k.a. the mandible) connects most intimately with your body-core, rib basket, and sternum. See if you can imagine this glorious network of soft tissue that connects the jaw to the clavicle (a.k.a. collar bones), sternum (a.k.a. breastbone), hyoid bone, the upper two ribs, and so much more.
Now, remember, none of these parts exist as an island. For instance, the hyoid bone and the upper ribs utilize your vast tissue network connected to your cervical spine, shoulder blades, and more. All of this can have a direct impact on your breathing and head placement. …and that head placement is oh so very important to balance.
When your jaw joints are out of balance and/or the muscles are working hard (i.e. tight), your body attempts to compensate to maintain balance. The muscles in your head and neck that work together with jaw muscles will pull against each other and your bones — often resulting in an imbalance in the vertebrae of your neck. If you maintain this over time, this imbalance can be transferred down the spine into your back.
I could go on and on about the interweaving of tissue and movement. But instead, I am going have you take a quick look at the image below. It isn’t everything, but it is a good place to begin to see some of the parts that can be directly impacted by the jaw.
The sensation of effort is not a measure of the work done but an indicator of the degree and quality of organization producing the effort.
— Moshe Feldenkrais, Mind & Body Article
But what does the jaw have to do with emotions?
Your avenue of expression includes your jaw, tongue, throat, and the surrounding muscles and bones that play an intimate role in making faces and creating the sound necessary to communicate your thoughts and emotions. Freedom of physical movement in the jaw is your avenue of expression. Immobility is silence.
Just think about those moments when you are holding back saying something for one reason or another. I bet you purse your lips, clench your jaw a bit (or a lot), and press your tongue against the floor or roof of your mouth. Heck, this mighty grimace is even known as ‘biting your tongue’!
Or what about those moments when you are laughing hysterically. What is your jaw doing then? I bet it is as open and free as you are at the moment.
The book is only available in Hardback format; which brings me a special kind of sensorial gratification. As I hold the book in my hands, I can feel the strength of the binding and the subtle texture beneath my fingertips. The simplicity of the firm black and white cover delights my minimalist spirit as the title begs me to delve into a koan-istic approach to moving and learning.
As I flip through the dense and fibrous pages, I digest each word of somatic wonder. My mind starts to bend towards a deeper realization that this work, The Feldenkrais Method®, is so much more than movement. What we discover about ourselves can reverberate throughout our lives.
There is practically no limit to the quality of performance that Awareness Through Movement will not transcend. The process of self-direction is being improved, and not any particular movement. The particular achievement is incidental and is a prize gained for better learning.
— Moshe Feldenkrais, The Elusive Obvious pg. 110
Reading the above quote, I reflect on my own experiences doing Awareness Through Movement® as well as those that I've observed in others. I am reminded that learning is a gift of life, and one of the most powerful kinds of learning is that of knowing oneself.
How We Move
I love how the ways we work with ourselves during a class begin to reverberate throughout our lives. For many it means moving more slowly, doing less and sensing more! For most, this is something new.
For others, it means moving more— moving with more variety, moving with more grace, and moving with more spontaneity. It means tapping back into one’s inner compulsion to move when there’s been too much stillness and rest when there’s been too much action. It means getting back to knowing one’s self and trusting the cues we receive from our internal landscapes.
How we move can bring us pain or pleasure. How we move can help us to satiate our more primitive needs like eating and procreating. But how we move can also bring us more into the moment and deeper into our experiences of ourselves and our world.
How We EngageHow we engage with ourselves impacts how we engage with others.
Now to be forthright, I’ll admit that I am bringing all of my past experience and interests into my Feldenkrais practice — personally and professionally. Long before I became a Feldenkrais Practitioner®, I began meditating. What really enticed me about the Feldenkrais Method was that it seemed to be an expression of meditation in motion. To be clear, I mean more than simply sitting on the cushion, just as I mean more than movement. These forms of practice offer direct ways to understand how we, as individuals, engage with life.
One thing that has become abundantly clear, is that continuing to explore Awareness Through Movement® can help us to embody the principle of Non-Judgement while refining our ability to discern — our sensations, what feels right for us, and the delicious subtleties of each engagement with life. As our judgement decreases and our discernment grows, we become more curious.
This curiosity seems to soften our edges somehow. Before we know it, our relationships change and a general sense of freedom begins to permeate our lives.
Learning is a gift of life. One of the most powerful forms of learning is learning to know oneself.
— Buffy Owens
How We Change
Before my meditation and Feldenkrais practices, I often found myself doing things I didn’t want to do, just out of habit. Even if I wanted to change, I couldn’t figure out how to do it easily. In fact, and I hate to admit it, in my twenties a big part of “personal development” was the game of “Find what’s wrong with yourself and fix it” repeated over and over again.
That perspective was damning for two reasons. First, personal growth felt like a struggle. Frankly, I am sure that my belief at the time was “if it isn’t hard, it isn’t worth it" ...or some b.s. like that. Second, this perspective sets the stage for always looking for what isn’t working. YUCK! And perhaps at a more subtle level, viewing growth through this lens was an extension of a deep-seeded belief that I was somehow broken. OUCH!
Fast forward through several years of Meditation and Feldenkrais explorations and something big shifted. I WAS NO LONGER CHASING THE FIX. I no longer looked for what wasn’t working, but instead celebrated what was working and started seeing the brilliance in all that I did — even honoring those pesky ‘bad habits‘ as strategies that served me well at some point in time. More than that, I started to see myself as whole and no longer broken.
I am not sure exactly when this change happened. I imagine it was more of a gradual change over time…but a BIG change nonetheless.
So do tell, my fellow meditator or mindful movement maker…What changes have you discovered within?
If you suffer from complex pain, then you know what it's like to feel tense. Even tending to your home can feel like it takes excessive physical effort. And, the quality of your efforts is impacted by your ability to relax.
There are a variety of relaxation techniques and activities to choose from. Progressive Muscle Relaxation is one that is easy to learn and yields a variety of benefits — developing a sense of well-being, lowered blood pressure, decreased muscle tension, less anxiety and fatigue.
The general intention of Progressive Muscle Relaxation is to hone in on your ability to relax by intentionally comparing relaxed and tense states. In turn, this can help to reduce anxiety and stress by bringing awareness to and then releasing the physical aspects (i.e. muscle tension).
Muscle tension is commonly associated with stress, anxiety, and fear. It’s a natural part of the fight, flight, freeze, and delight process that helps our bodies prepare for potentially dangerous situations. Even though some of those situations may not actually be dangerous, our bodies respond in the same way. Unfortunately, the stress response can become chronic. And chronic stress can be hazardous to your health.
I bet there are times when you don’t even notice how tense your muscles have become until you start to ache — perhaps you clench your teeth slightly so your jaw feels tight, or maybe your shoulders or back start acting up. Well, I’m here to tell you that there are many tell-tell signs that stress is taking over — either as an immediate response or as an ongoing state. Just take a look at the two lists below.
Physical Signs Of Chronic Stress
Increased or irregular blood pressure
Shallow, rapid breathing
Change in blood sugar
Lack of energy
Back or neck ache
Knot in stomach
Emotional Signs Of Chronic Stress
Feeling of ‘emptiness’
Lack of concentration
Feeling hopeless or helpless
Lowered psychological resistance
Like anything in life, growing your ability to calm takes practice. Taking time to practice the Progressive Muscle Relaxation technique for a few weeks, will help you to develop the capacity to use it quickly and effectively whenever you’re feeling stressed or anxious. Add in a little dose of mindfulness that includes noticing any of the above symptoms and …voilà you’ll refine your ability to notice what your feeling and to have the ability to shift your state when it’s necessary.
A quick word for the wise: Don’t be in a rush to shift your state. Take a moment to feel your stress response. Only then actively seek to relax or calm yourself.
Now, back to the Progressive Muscle Relaxation Technique.
There are two basic parts to progressive relaxation: 1) the activation and holding of a specific muscle group, and 2) the relaxation or letting go of the action with the exhale.
Preparing For Relaxation:
When you are first beginning to practice Progressive Muscle Relaxation exercises, start by doing the practice resting on your back on a firm surface if possible. You can place a padding or pillow beneath your head and a pillow or two under your knees. This will allow some of your postural muscle to release so that you can more easily access the calm/relaxed state.
Keep in mind:
Physical injuries. If you have any injuries, or a history of physical problems that may cause muscle pain, always consult your doctor before you start.
Select your surroundings. Minimize the distraction to your five senses. Such as turning off your phone, the television, and turning down the lights.
Make yourself comfortable. Sit or lay on a surface that is firm, yet comfortable. Make sure you have support for your head. Wear loose clothing, and take off your shoes.
Internal mechanics. Avoid practicing after big, heavy meals, and do not practice after consuming any intoxicants, such as alcohol.
The Progressive Muscle Relaxation Process
It’s important to note that there are different ways of practicing progressive relaxation. The one we’ll explore to encourages a slow release of the muscles. However, during another session, you might want to explore a quick release rather than a gradual unfurling.
First, bring your attention to a muscle group, I suggest starting at your feet and working your way up. As you focus on a muscle group, simply notice what you feel — your contact with the floor, a general sense of tension or ease. Then gradually begin tensing the muscle group; hold that tension for five seconds. Then relax your muscles with a long, slow exhale so that the tension feels like it’s draining from your body. As you move through the process, tell yourself or visualize “all the tension is draining from my body.” After you release a muscle group, pause and rest in this relaxation for at least 10 seconds before you go on. This can be repeated several times before moving on to the next muscle group.
1. Right foot and lower leg – Keeping the heel down, curl the toes back until tension can be felt in the ankle and calf muscle.
2. Right upper leg – Tense the top of the upper leg (quadriceps) and the bottom of the upper leg (hamstring).
3. Left foot, lower leg and upper leg – Repeat the process identified in numbers 1 and 2.
4. Hips and buttocks – Squeeze your buttock muscles
5. Right hand and forearm – With the palm down, lift the hand until tension can be felt in the top of the hand, the wrist and the forearm.
6. Right upper arm – Tense the bicep and tricep.
7. Right shoulder – Shrug the shoulder toward the ear and roll the head toward the shoulder so that shoulder and ear are touching.
8. Left hand and forearm, upper arm and shoulder – Repeat the process identified in numbers 5, 6 & 7.
9. Chest – Beginning with the abdominal area, fill the lungs with air while feeling the tension in the chest area. Breathe out from the top of the lungs (upper chest) down through a contracted abdomen.
10. Neck – Be careful as you tense these muscles. Face forward and then push your head gently into the floor.
11. Jaw area – Without damaging the teeth, bite down until tension can be felt in the jaw area.
12. Mouth – Purse the lips as if whistling.
13. Eyes and cheeks. Squeeze your eyes tight shut.
14. Forehead – Wrinkle the brow.
You’ll likely feel more relaxed at the end of your first session. However, it can take several weeks to attain a full relaxation response. Don’t worry, you’ll make progress daily as you acquire the skill. You’ll also begin to redefine what relaxation is to you as you deepen your capacity to calm and quiet your system.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation Precautions
If you have a history of muscle spasms or ongoing pain from an injury, talk to your doctor first. There’s a chance that tensing your muscles too tight could make your muscle spasms worse.
Also, if you have low blood pressure then you’ll want to get up very slowly when doing this or any other relaxation exercise. Make sure to transition to lying on your side and rest there for a moment. Then come up to sit, and pause there for a moment. Finally, slowly find your way up to stand when you feel ready. Remember that standing up too quickly could make you feel lightheaded or faint.