How many saber-toothed tigers tried to maul you to death today? Hopefully, the stressors in your life don’t involve an apex predator chasing you through the bush, as was the case for our cavemen ancestors. Still, stress affects us the same way it did them. We are wired for stress physiologically much the same way we were millennia ago, with our primordial fight or flight response well alive within us to keep us alert and safe.
Though not all stress is bad, we need a break from bad stressors, otherwise our health may begin to deteriorate.
Modern humans battle bad stressors that might not seem like a fight or flight scenario — staying in an unhealthy or challenging relationship with a partner; financial hardships; job dissatisfaction; drug and alcohol abuse; nagging in-laws — all this distress may cause the body to:
• Elevate blood pressure
• Increase heart rate
• Slow down digestion and metabolism
• Flood the bloodstream with chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol
• Tense up muscles
Have a white-knuckle commute on the freeway to work every morning? Welcome to this modern life’s version of the caveman being chased by the saber-tooth tiger. Though you might not have to flee your car and run, the same chemical cocktails are coursing through your body as the caveman’s.
Cortisol is one of those chemicals. Like adrenaline, it helps us deal with stress, but too much of it can be harmful to the body. Research has linked it to body fat storage around the abdomen. In turn, piling on the pounds around the belly can lead to heart disease.
Excessive cortisol flooding the bloodstream can lead to adrenal exhaustion. Some doctors believe that adrenal exhaustion (think: someone who is constantly tired) is the main culprit behind every chronic disease. Dr. Lawrence Wilson isn’t alone in thinking that the mainstream medical profession often fails to recognize adrenal burnout as a real health concern.
WebMD reports that 75 to 90 percent of all doctor visits are stress-related, but in its assessment of stress on the body, nowhere does it mention adrenal fatigue due to excess cortisol, which is sometimes referred to as “the stress hormone.”
Failing to cope with bad stress, and thus severely fatiguing the adrenal glands (which rest over the kidneys), has a domino effect on the body’s many symptoms and functions, including:
Hormonal (hormonal pathways can be disrupted)
Musculoskeletal (you won’t burn fat as efficiently and gain muscle)
Immune (adrenal fatigue from bad stress wreaks havoc on the immune system)
Digestive (bad stress slows digestion, chronic digestion problems may arise)
Cardiovascular (adrenal fatigue can lead to heart palpitations and other problems)
People who suffer long-term stress may also be more prone to obesity, according to a new study from University College London. The research, which involved examining hair samples for levels of cortisol and was published in the journal Obesity, showed that exposure to higher levels of cortisol over several months is associated with being more heavily, and more persistently, overweight.
While stress and weight long have been thought to go hand-in-hand (think stress eating and comfort foods), this study confirms the link by examining long-term cortisol levels in more than 2,500 men and women over a four-year period.
“People who had higher hair cortisol levels also tended to have larger waist measurements, which is important because carrying excess fat around the abdomen is a risk factor for heart disease, diabetes, and premature death,” Dr Sarah Jackson (UCL Epidemiology and Public Health) who led the research, said in a press release. “Hair cortisol is a relatively new measure which offers a suitable and easily obtainable method for assessing chronically high levels of cortisol concentrations in weight research and may therefore aid in further advancing understanding in this area.”
Weakened immune system:
As if mounting bills and a tenuous marriage weren’t enough stress to make your blood vessels dilate, your pupils enlarge, your breathing rapidly increase and your sweat glands kick into overdrive, perhaps reading that eating an unhealthy diet also plays a major role in contributing to adrenal fatigue.
How? Eating the wrong foods over many years can break down the mucosal barrier in your gut. Think of the mucosal barrier as the body’s second skin as well as the body’s first line of defense against pathogens, or unwanted nasty critters invading your gut.
Your immune system lies mostly in your gut, so if over the years you continue eating poorly, the integrity of the mucosal barrier system becomes severely compromised. In the long run, digestion is compromised. With most of your immune system residing in your gut, your immune system will weaken.
Concerned about what stress has done to your body? Seek a medical professional or alternative health practitioner who understands adrenal fatigue and knows how to restore hormonal pathways. A nutritional approach to battling stress should also be applied.
credit: Judd Handler
Meditation is not a way of making your mind quiet. It is a way of entering into the quiet that is already there – buried under the 50,000 thoughts the average person thinks every day” ― Deepak Chopra
“Work is not always required. There is such a thing as sacred idleness.” ― George MacDonald
“The mind can go in a thousand directions, but on this beautiful path, I walk in peace. With each step, the wind blows. With each step, a flower blooms.” ― Thích Nhất Hạnh
“Meditation is not a means to an end. It is both the means and the end.” ― Jiddu Krishnamurti
“Looking at beauty in the world, is the first step of purifying the mind.” ― Amit Ray
Yoga is pretty easy to make fun of (plenty of yogis mock themselves), or to simply dismiss as a fad (its popularity and ubiquity will certainly be remembered as one of the hallmarks of the early years of this century), but for the most part, it doesn’t have a reputation as a source of disagreement — being banned or bringing parents together to “stamp that evil seed out” (a la rock ‘n’ roll in the ’60s). Yet yoga, which seems to make sense as a way to calm ever-more-anxious students’ nerves, and maybe keep a few pounds off kids who are now officially fighting an obesity epidemic, may be taken to court by parents in Encinitas, Calif., which is near San Diego. The parents’ beef? They see the stretching and strengthening routines of Ashtanga yoga as some kind of religious indoctrination.
“There’s a deep concern that the Encinitas Union School District is using taxpayer resources to promote Ashtanga yoga and Hinduism, a religion system of beliefs and practices,” attorney Dean Broyles, who represents the concerned parents, told the North Country Times.
The superintendent for the schools, Tim Baird, says he expects the classes, which are in nine schools currently (and set to expand to more via a grant of more than $500,000 from an Ashtanga yoga association) to continue, and his decision to bring yoga to the students to be upheld.
“Yoga is a worldwide exercise regime utilized by people of many different faiths,” he said. “Yoga is part of our mainstream culture.”
As a young atheist, I was sensitive to the plethora of Christian messages that were part of the common culture at my smallish public high school in New York state — enough so that I complained several times to the dean of students about the most egregious rule-breaking the school engaged in on behalf of Christian student groups, because I believed then (and I still do) that religion and spirituality are private concerns, to be kept in the home and places of worship. One of the reasons that I have left some yoga classes is because I felt I was being preached to about spirituality, and I left that behind when I left the Episcopalian church when I was 13. But I also know that yoga can be effectively taught without any religious or spiritual messages at all (which is actually how I practice it, and how it is being taught at Encinitas and at schools all over the U.S.).
I see it like this: some people walk the Camino de Santiago in Spain — which is a traditional pilgrimage route for the faithful that ends at a spectacular church at Spain’s Atlantic coast. I have also walked much of this ancient route; as an atheist I appreciated its history, its natural beauty, and the quiet charm that is all part of northern Spain’s DNA. Hiking the Camino doesn’t make me a Christian any more than doing yoga poses makes me a Hindu. Dancing the Hula doesn’t make me a native Hawaiian (I have done that too), nor does eating matzo ball soup make me a Jew.
Just doing yoga doesn’t make anyone a Hindu, or even more likely to become a Hindu. I’m pretty sure the vast majority of America’s 20 million yoga practitioners haven’t switched religions. Yoga can just be exercise —in fact this atheist wouldn’t have it any other way.
credit: Starr Vartan
Those suffering from the debilitating pain of rheumatoid arthritis might want to consider purchasing a yoga mat. A recent study published in the Journal of Rheumatology discovered that people with arthritis who practice yoga regularly stand to reap the benefits of reduced joint pain and depression and increased flexibility and energy. As the authors note, this news is especially important in shattering the myth that yoga is not appropriate for those with sensitive joints.
“I think the study is more evidence that, in fact, that’s not true,” one of the study’s authors, Dr. Clifton O. Bingham III, director of the Johns Hopkins Arthritis Center, told Time.
The study, called the “largest, most rigorously conducted, randomized, controlled trial of yoga to date,” involved 75 people who did not regularly exercise and had rheumatoid arthritis. One group practiced yoga twice a week with a yoga therapist and once a week at home, while the control group carried on with the normal routine. After eight weeks, improvements with the yoga group were seen across the board, with gains in “joint health, physical functioning, and mental/emotional well-being.”
Even more promising, these benefits were still found to exist some nine months later.
And just how intense were these classes? From the researchers:
“Each class began with questions/comments (5 min), breathing exercises and chanting (5 min), a warm-up and moving sequence (surya namaskara; 15 min), and isometric poses (asanas) (20 min) to increase strength, flexibility, and balance. Classes ended with deep relaxation (sivasana; 10 min), a closing chant, and meditation (5 min).”
Speaking with Time, Bingham called the activity transformative for some of his patients.
“What [one patient] learned from the yoga experience was the philosophy of non-harming and the idea that where she is today is good enough,” he said. “Those types of things are very difficult to measure in terms of an outcome from a study, but we certainly saw them on a real one-on-one patient level.”
Want to give it a try yourself? A quick search online found a variety of arthritis-focused yoga poses available to try, as well as a few videos. Like any other physical activity, the authors recommend checking with your doctor first. A full checklist is available here.
Credit: Michael D’estries
The Environmental Working Group’s food database turns up nearly 500 supermarket foods that contain azodicarbonamide, a chemical found in yoga mats and rubber soles of shoes.
Earlier this month, Subway announced it was removing azodicarbonamide, a chemical that bleaches flour and conditions dough, from its bread products. The chemical isn’t used only in food products; it can also be found in yoga mats and rubber soles. It’s banned in many other countries because it can cause respiratory problems.
Subway isn’t the only food chain that used the chemical in its bread products. McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Arby’s and Starbucks all have some foods that contain it, and it looks like many of those companies are working to eliminate it now.
Today, the Environmental Working Group released a list of nearly 500 products that contain azodicarbonamide. These products don’t come from fast-food chains. They come from the grocery store shelves.
I won’t post the entire list here. You can head to the EWG site for that. But, it’s a good list to look at and familiarize yourself with if you’re concerned about eliminating azodicarbonamide from your diet. Several brands of hot dogs and hamburger buns come up on the list. Since there are a few signs of spring finally happening and we all think about firing up our grills, which brands contain the chemical might be something you want to know.
Azodicarbonamide “is not known to be toxic to people in the concentration approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration,” but workers who are around large volumes of it have “reported respiratory symptoms and skin sensitization.” The chemical has not been extensively tested for any harmful health results.
There are big names on the list like Pillsbury, Sara Lee and Wonder, although it’s only a few of their products that contain the chemical. Shoprite, the grocery store that’s closest to me, has it 24 of their products.
Credit: Robin Shreeves
Breast cancer survivors have a lot to think about when it comes to their recovery. There are often suggestions from doctors on what kind of food to eat, or how often to exercise in order to help reduce the chance of recurrence. But for breast cancer survivors, sometimes just the thought of exercise can make them want to sit down and rest. A cancer survivor is often weak from the treatments he or she has gone through.
Consistently, cancer survivors’ average fitness levels are about 30 percent lower than those of sedentary people without a cancer history. That’s why I think the findings of a new study that I just completed will help these patients. The results, published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, show that yoga is beneficial in many ways to breast cancer survivors. Yoga provides graded exercise that can be tailored for individuals who have been sedentary, and the postures can be modified to accommodate functional limitations.
It is widely known that yoga benefits your health. Many people who practice yoga experience gains in flexibility, feel more relaxed, sleep better, have stronger muscles and also might even see a drop in their blood pressure. What my colleagues and I at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center concluded in our study is that inflammation for cancer patients also dropped when they routinely practiced yoga. [Yoga Holds Benefits for Breast Cancer Survivors]
My study was a randomized, controlled trial (RCT) of 200 women who are breast cancer survivors. I compared a 12-week hatha yoga intervention with a wait-list control condition, which is a group who did not do yoga during the study. We collected questionnaires and fasting blood samples at beginning, immediately post-treatment, and 3 months post-treatment — with both groups. Participants ranged in age from 27 years to 76 years old, and had completed cancer treatment within the past three years. We chose these participants who were at least two months past their surgery or last radiation treatment, whichever occurred last. Women in the yoga group participated in two 90-minute weekly sessions, while participants assigned to the wait-list control group were told to continue performing their usual activities, and to refrain from beginning any yoga practice. After their final assessment, they were offered the yoga classes, meaning everyone had the chance to join yoga after the study ended.
When we began this study, we hypothesized that participants who participated in yoga would have decreased inflammation, depressive symptoms and fatigue in contrast to those participants in the wait-list control. After reviewing the outcomes of all women in the study, we now know that our hypothesis was correct.
Immediately post-treatment, vitality was higher in the yoga group compared to the control group. At 3 months post-treatment, the yoga group’s fatigue was lower, vitality was higher, and the inflammation markers in their blood that we tested for (IL-6, TNF-α, and IL-1β — which are pro-inflammatory markers) were lower for yoga participants compared to those in the control group. What we also discovered is that the more a woman participated in yoga, the greater the benefits in fatigue, vitality and inflammation reduction.
Despite the fact that our participants’ weight did not change and our trial did not include aerobic or resistance exercise, pro-inflammatory cytokine production decreased significantly in yoga participants compared to the wait-list group. This is important, because inflammation enhances risk in many age-related diseases including heart disease and diabetes, and also increases the risks for cancer recurrence.
Another benefit of this trial was that we showed yoga can help cancer survivors get better rest. Previous studies have shown that up to 60 percent of cancer survivors report sleep problems during survivorship, a rate that is two or three times as high as similar adults without a cancer history. The problem with that is disturbed sleep elevates inflammation, as well as fatigue, and thus the improved sleep reported by yoga group participants likely contributed to the positive changes both at the beginning of the trial and through the 3-month post-treatment visit.
While our study may underestimate the entire list of potential benefits of yoga, the results show that yoga can have a significant benefit, and therefore I recommend that all breast cancer survivors consider adding it to their exercise plan.
Looking for a fun family exercise to share with your kids in the dark, cold days of winter? How about yoga? Yoga is a great way to gain strength and flexibility while relieving stress and improving your balance and concentration. And there are lots of variations for kids — and adults — of all ages and sizes.
So how can you get the kids hooked on yoga? If you’re lucky, your child’s school or day care might offer yoga as an option. Amity Hook-Sopko’s two boys love the yoga classes they get at their Montessori school. The editor of Green Child Magazine, Hook-Sopko even credits yoga balance poses such as Tree and Standing Bull Pulling with helping her oldest son improve his baseball swing. And yoga can do more than just improve balance. Studies have shown that yoga can enhance kids’ mental, emotional, and physical health, reducing stress and improving their concentration at school. For more on the benefits of yoga for kids, check out this article in Green Child Magazine.
No yoga at your child’s school? Another option is to look for a yoga studio that offers family classes. Danielle Richardet of It Starts With Me says that her youngest two children do yoga at the yoga studio she attends. “My favorite part is seeing my 6-year-old son sit in sukhasana and close his eyes and take a deep breath,” said Richardet.
Unfortunately, in-school programs and family yoga studios aren’t available to most of us, but that doesn’t leave you on the sidelines. The key to doing yoga with kids is to guide kids through poses in a language that speaks to them. Kris Whelan, yoga instructor and founder of Blue Buddha Beverages advises, “As a yoga instructor, I guide my adult students through poses and meditative moments to help them get centered and balance their mind, body and spirit. Working with my kids is no different, but I do focus on poses that are quickly learned, easily mastered and deeply restorative. For the very young, I take them on a tour of my yoga ‘zoo’ as I guide them from Monkey to Lion to Camel and the animal cracker assortment. Make it fun, keep it easy and tell the little ones they did great.”
Here are some of the poses that Whelan recommends for kids:
1. Hanuman, Monkey: A side split with hips square
2. Matsyasana, Fish: Laying on your back on the mat … Come up on your elbows and arch your back so your heart reaches the sky and tilt your head back
3. Bakasana, Crow: squatting down with knees to the outside of the upper arms and place your hands shoulder width apart, rock your hips forward with tailbone high… Take one foot off the floor then the other with big toes touching … Flying like a crow!
4. Garudasana, Eagle: Standing at the front of the mat..bend one leg and wrap the other over it along the thigh then wrap the same side arm under the other and bring palms together … Arms are bent at the elbows which are at shoulder height and finger tips brightly reaching up with forearms pressing away from the face
5. Simhasana, Lion: Open you mouth, stick out your tongue and take your gaze high … Now roar!
6. Ustrasana, Camel: Kneeling down with knees directly under hips, press the hips forward, sweep your arms behind you to support the low back or reach down to the feet
7. Vrksasana, Tree: Standing tall take on leg and bed the knee, turn the knee out to the side while placing the sole of your foot on the inner thigh above the knee or below the knee on the inside of the calf.
Looking for more guidance? Try one of these yoga videos designed specifically for families:
For babies: Holistic family physician and yogi Kay Corpus has been practicing yoga for 15 years and teaching for five. She recommends “Yoga Ma, Baby Ga,” a video that she used after her daughter was born. “It is a mommy-baby video great for newborns and recovering moms. The best thing I learned from that video was that if I had to stop and feed my baby or change her, then that was just ‘my yoga’. It couldn’t be quiet and serene all the time. It was just a different way of relating and accepting things I couldn’t change, said Corpus.
For toddlers. My girls loved “Yoga for the Kid in All of Us,” from Yogamazing. I got it when my oldest was two and still use it now that she is ten. ‘Tot Yoga:,’ is another good video for parents and toddlers from 10 months to 3 years old as is ‘Storyland Yoga,’ from Playful Planet where kids imitate yoga poses while learning about endangered species.
For school-aged kids. ‘Kids Teach Yoga,’ is a very cute kid-led yoga video that is perfect for kids who learn better from their peers than from adults. It’s short — lasting only about 20 minutes — which is just right for kids who want to give it a try. Tiffany Belzer, aka YogaTiffany, recently sent me a copy of her ‘Family Yoga’ DVD and I have to say that my whole family loved it — even my husband who is not generally the yoga type.
Start slowly and focus on the fun and before long you and your family will be getting your Zen on all winter long.
Do your kids practice yoga?
Related topics: Family Activities, Healthy Living, Raising Healthy Kids