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We all want to know “the secret.” The big one. The secret of life.  I would never would expect to find it in a book or film.

But there is a book called The Secret that claims to be able to help “in every aspect of your life—money, health, relationships, happiness, and in every interaction you have in the world.”

Wow. That is quite a claim. But wait, there is more.

“By applying the knowledge of The Secret, they bring to light compelling stories of eradicating disease, acquiring massive wealth, overcoming obstacles, and achieving what many would regard as impossible.”

I had heard of the book. It was  a followup to a documentary by the same name in 2006. The book has sold more than 19 million copies worldwide and has been translated into 46 languages. It has attracted fans, critics, controversy and parodies.

It re-entered my consciousness via a new podcast called By the Book. The program is self-described as a half reality show, half self-help podcast. Jolenta Greenberg and her skeptical friend Kristen Meinzer (who was on my favorite movie podcast, Movie Date)  choose a self-help book and (try) to follow its precepts for a few weeks and then report back to listeners.

They tried The Secret. Was it life changing?

The Secret presents a concept titled “law of attraction.” This law posits that feelings and thoughts can attract events, feelings, and experiences. That includes things in your house and the workings of the cosmos.

There is an implication that people in positions of power have known this secret and have kept it hidden from the public.

Some of the self-help things Jolenta and Kristen tried are things I have heard from other self-help books and even tried and written about here.

Four of those things to do:

1. Make a daily affirmation. This is the practice of positive thinking and self-empowerment. “A positive mental attitude supported by affirmations will achieve success in anything.” This is a real carefully formatted statement that you write down and repeat to yourself. It is in the present tense, positive, personal and specific. ” I am strong and today I will ask for and get that raise at work.”

2. Keep a gratitude journal. The idea is to write down at least one, if not a list, of positive events at the close of a day and why the events made them happy. Others and even some studies have found benefits from a gratitude journal.

3. According the law of attraction, one way to attract money into your life is to write yourself a check for an amount of money you wish to receive and imagine yourself receiving that amount. There is a lot of visualizing and imagining the things you want in life in The Secret.

4. Create a vision board of the things you want: places you want to go to, things you want to acquire, people in your life, those you want to meet and people who inspire you.

Kristen and Jolenta made fun of the book, but in the end recommended it because a) it seems to help people  b) though it may not bring you everything you want, it may bring a more positive outlook to your life.

Where did this secret come from? It goes back way before the book to what is known as the New Thought philosophy. That is where the law of attraction comes from – a belief that by focusing on positive or negative thoughts a person brings positive or negative experiences into their life. You need to accept the idea that people and their thoughts are both made from “pure energy”, and that through the process of “like energy attracting like energy” a person can improve their own health, wealth and personal relationships.

The New Thought movement grew out of the teachings of Phineas Quimby who is described as a “philosopher, magnetizer and mesmerist.” In other words, he was a wanderer in the land of pseudoscience.

So, I am cynical about finding the secret of it all.  But like the podcasters, I can’t dismiss all the ideas. Give it a try. If it works for you, then you did find the secret.

I believe in the secret as explained by Mitch and Curly in the film City Slickers (which is too easily dismissed as just a comedy).  Here’s the secret in a 3 minute clip.

Browsing the poetry shelves you will come across numerous editions of the prose and poetry of Walt Whitman. His Leaves of Grass is probably the best-selling title today. Thanks to technology, you can buy his complete works with that book, patriotic poems, prose, The Wound Dresser and even his letters in a Kindle Edition for a mere 99 cents.

One piece of his writing you won’t get in that digital archive is a curious collection he wrote in 1858 under the pseudonym Mose Velsor. Walt wrote an advice column in the New York Atlas newspaper for “manly men.” The topics included diet, exercise, and grooming.

I suppose it was a Men’s Journal or Esquire column for the time, though it seems out of character for the man I have mentally archived as “the good gray poet.”

That is until someone uncovered the 13-part newspaper series from 150 years ago.

It has been published in at least two versions I could find. Manly Health and Training: To Teach the Science of a Sound and Beautiful Body is the series.

Walt Whitman’s Guide to Manly Health and Training is 75 manly chunks of advice.

It was also published in the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review.

Some of the columns headlines are pretty funny:  “The great american evil—indigestion” and “Could there be an entire nation of vigorous and beautiful men?”

 

So how well does 19th century Walt Whitman‘s advice hold up for 21st century men?

Let’s start the day like Walt…

The man rises at day-break, or soon after—if in winter, rather before. In most cases the best thing he can commence the day with is a rapid wash of the whole body in cold water, using a sponge, or the hands rubbing the water over the body—and then coarse towels to rub dry with; after which, the hair gloves, the flesh-brush, or any thing handy, may be used, for friction, and to put the skin in a red glow all over . . . as soon as the glow is attained, the window, unless the weather is very bad, should be opened, and the door also, so that the room may become filled with good fresh air—for the play of the respiratory organs will be increased by the performances just mentioned, and it is at such times that good air tells best.

How about some breakfast? Walt was much the carnivore.  “Let the main part of the diet be meat, to the exclusion of all else.”

Usually the breakfast, for a hearty man, might consist in a plate of fresh rare lean meat, without fat or gravy, a slice or chunk of bread, and, if desired, a cup of tea, which must be left till the last. If there be boiled potatoes, and one of them is desired, it may be permitted.

Let’s get groomed and dressed for the day.

The beard is a great sanitary protection to the throat—for purposes of health it should always be worn, just as much as the hair of the head should be. Think what would be the result if the hair of the head should be carefully scraped off three or four times a week with the razor! Of course, the additional aches, neuralgias, colds, etc., would be immense. Well, it is just as bad with removing the natural protection of the neck; for nature indicates the necessity of that covering there, for full and sufficient reasons.
Most of the usual fashionable boots and shoes, which neither favor comfort, nor health, nor the ease of walking, are to be discarded.”

Okay, we are ready to get on with the day!

Habituate yourself to the brisk walk in the fresh air—to the exercise of pulling the oar—and to the loud declamation upon the hills, or along the shore. Such are the means by which you can seize with treble grip upon all the puzzles and difficulties of your student life—whatever problems are presented to you in your books, or by your professors.

That walking gives me an appetite!

Lunch should consist of a good plate of fresh meat, (rare lean beef, broiled or roast, is best) with as few outside condiments as possible.

Maybe I should have saved that walk for after lunch. All this meat is making me a bit sleepy, but I must do some work!

A steady and agreeable occupation is one of the most potent adjuncts and favorers of health and long life. The idler, without object, without definite direction, is very apt to brood himself into some moral or physical fever—and one is about as bad as the other.

Well, I managed to work on a poem and a blog post and didn’t doze off (not completely anyway). The sun is low in the sky. It must be time for supper. I hope it is not meat again.

The supper, which must not be at a late hour, we would recommend always to be light—occasionally making this meal to consist of fruit, either fresh, during the middle and latter part of the summer—and of stewed fruit during the winter and spring.

It is easy for even the manly man to become a bit depressed after dinner. But don’t fear – Walt has advice for “the horrors” too.

If the victim of ‘the horrors’ could but pluck up energy enough to strip off all his clothes and gives his whole body a stinging rubdown with a flesh-brush till the skin becomes all red and aglow, he would be thoroughly cured of his depression, by this alone.

Is it 10 pm already?  Then it is time to go to sleep.

Ten o’clock at night ought to find a man in bed—for that will not afford him the time requisite for rest, if he rise betimes in the morning. The bedroom must not be small and close—that would go far toward spoiling all other observances and cares for health. It is important that the system should be clarified, through the inspiration and respiration, with a plentiful supply of good air, during the six, seven, or eight hours that are spent in sleep. During most of the year, the window must be kept partly open for this purpose.

Well, we quite a full day. Perhaps, we should do a bit of reading in bed to close out the day. We could read some poems.  But we also have another “new” Whitman book we might read. Zachary Turpin, a grad student at the University of Houston, is the person who rediscovered the columns on microfilm last year. He also discovered a long-lost novel of Whitman’s titled Life and Adventures of Jack Engle. It has one of those 19th century subtitles with a colon and a semi-colon. Wow.  “An Auto-Biography; A Story of New York at the Present Time in which the Reader Will Find Some Familiar Characters”

Back in 1852, Walt Whitman was a sweet 33 years old and not doing very well as a housebuilder in Brooklyn. He was writing. He was working on a free-verse book-length poem that would be published as Leaves of Grass and clinch his place in American literature.

He was also working on a novel. It would be published under a pseudonym and it did get serialized in a newspaper. And then it was forgotten, until Turpin rediscovered it after some clues led him to the Library of Congress. It seems that the LoC had the only surviving copy of Jack Engle. has lain waiting for generations.

The novel was also published in the WW Quarterly Review. Here’s how chapter one opens.

Punctually at half past 12, the noon-day sun shining flat on the pavement of Wall street, a youth with the pious name of Nathaniel, clapt upon his closely cropt head, a straw hat, for which he had that very morning given the sum of twenty-five cents, and announced his intention of going to his dinner.

“COVERT
Attorney at Law”

stared into the room (it was a down-town law-office) from the door which was opened wide and fastened back, for coolness; and the real Covert, at that moment, looked up from his cloth-covered table, in an inner apartment, whose carpet, book-cases, musty smell, big chair, with leather cushions, and the panels of only one window out of three being opened, and they but partially so, announced it as the sanctum of the sovereign master there. That gentleman’s garb marked him as one of the sect of Friends, or Quakers. He was a tallish man, considerably round-shouldered, with a pale, square, closely shaven face; and one who possessed any expertness as a physiognomist, could not mistake a certain sanctimonious satanic look out of the eyes. From some suspicion that he didn’t appear well in that part of his countenance, Mr. Covert had a practice of casting down his visual organs. On this occasion, however, they lighted on his errand-boy.
“Yes, go to thy dinner; both can go,” said he, “for I want to be alone.”
And Wigglesworth, the clerk, a tobacco-scented old man—he smoked and chewed incessantly—left his high stool in the corner where he had been slowly copying some document.

Ah, nothing like a 19th century novel to lull you to sleep. And I really need a good 8 hours in order to wake up early, take another cold shower, eat some breakfast meat and start another manly day!

You can understand it when people are ill and with few options for relief or a cure turning to alternative therapies and cures. But there is an enormous market for alternatives with people who are not seriously ill and perhaps not ill at all. The biggest market segment is with people who want to prevent illness.

Just about every publication runs articles on self-help through non-medical alternatives.

At the top of that list of alternatives for several decades has been meditation and yoga. But some of the others are not as well known or popular yet.

Would you consider the Japanese tea ceremony (chado) to be a kind of therapy? It certainly causes its participants to slow down and become mindful of their actions. The mostly silent ceremony embodies harmony, respect, purity and tranquility through the rituals such as sharing a communal bowl and wiping where you’ve sipped before passing it on.

Aromatherapy might strike you as New Age hocus pocus, but I think about the comfort I have long received from using Vicks VapoRub when I have a cold or aromatic muscle rubs when I pull a muscle. I have heard that the mild stimulant effect those products have on skin and nerves is short-lived and ineffective, but the aromas have some effect on me.

lavender

Aromatherapists will tell you that essential oils mix affect us psychologically but also physiologically, specifically they affect the limbic system and the central nervous system. The limbic system of the brain that has amongst its functions how we experience emotions.

A friend who is an aromatherapist had given me a small pillow filled with lavender and other herbs and oils that I keep in the freezer and use for headaches. It does help, though I can’t say if its effect is psychological, physiological or a combination.

Sensory-deprivation tanks are another alternative.  Shutting down our senses and eliminating distractions supposedly can relieve sore muscles and joints, help detoxify your body and quiet the mind.

There are also sound therapies, drum therapies, and even pet therapies that don’t relax your pet, but use others pets to relax you.

Some alternatives have gained much wider acceptance and credibility over the past five decades. Acupuncture and acupressure fall into that group.

Acupuncture uses fine needles inserted at specific points to stimulate, disperse, and regulate the flow of “vital energies” to restore a healthy energy balance.

Acupressure is similar to acupuncture, but uses finger pressure on points along the body to treat ailments such as tension and stress, aches and pains, menstrual cramps, arthritis.

Whether you call these alternative approaches therapies or medicines, these systems are in practice all over the world. Every country has its alternative approaches: Chinese acupuncture, for the French, magnetic healing; in England, Herbalism; in India, Ayurveda and in Japan, Shiatsu.

Giorgione - Sleeping Venus

Giorgione – Sleeping Venus

I’m reading more frequently that our current tendency to be staring at screens and living in our unnatural always-lit environment is really messing up our internal circadian clocks. In a natural world, the human circadian cycle adapts to seasonal changes in the light-dark cycle. But staring at screens (TV, computer, phone), especially in the hours prior to trying to sleep, is harmful to our internal clock’s synchronization and the way our brain prepares for sleep. And sleeping in for an extra hour doesn’t really help.

You’re finally relaxing on a winter night after a tough day spent in artificial light when you barely made it outside. You walked to your car or the mass transit in early morning darkness. You left work and it was already getting dark. At home, you were bathed in a brightly lit home. You watch your big screen TV and have your tablet on your lap.

You’re really messing up your internal clock.

Can we reset our internal clock by avoiding artificial lights at night for a few days and turning off those screens? That is tough to do in most modern settings. No screens and no artificial lighting? You can’t even do that on most vacations.

Some people try using meditation or other techniques to control stress ot to “defrag” your brain. Scientists have known for quite a while now that light is the most powerful cue for shifting the phase or resetting the time of the circadian clock. They have been cautioning against using light-emitting devices before bedtime because they emit “short-wavelength-enriched” light – light with a higher concentration of blue light than natural light contains. Blue light affects levels of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin more than any other wavelength.

In a study published in Current Biology, the authors describe a series of experiments where people were sent out camping to reset their biological clocks. The paper is titled “Circadian Entrainment to the Natural Light-Dark Cycle across Seasons and the Weekend” but in simpler terms it tested campers who spent a week and some who spent a weekend in a tech-free and only natural lighting setting. This study compared them with a control group that stayed at home to live their normal life. The scientists tracked sleep and circadian rhythms by measuring their levels of the hormone melatonin, which regulates wakefulness and sleep.

Melatonin levels are key. We know that melatonin is present at low levels during the day, begins being released a few hours before bedtime, and peaking in the middle of the night. Those levels fall and then we wake up. Unfortunately, in our current living environment, melatonin levels don’t fall back down for  a few hours after we wake up. To your brain, you should still be sleeping for several hours. It’s like jet lag.

But that week-long camping trip seems to have reset the participants’ internal clock. Living in a world lit by light bulbs and screens is very different from one of sunlight and moonlight.

I try year round to get out to at least my backyard as soon as I make my morning coffee to get at least 15 minutes of sunlight. Of course, sometimes there is not much sunlight and in winter here it’s not as pleasant to step out in your pajamas when it’s 20 degrees and there’s snow on the deck. Natural light, particularly morning sunshine, which is enriched with blue light, has a very powerful influence on setting internal clocks to daytime and waking up.

Of course, a week of real camping (not a spa week or vacation at a resort) is not possible or even desirable to everyone. Can you create a natural light-dark cycle for a weekend? It means turning off the screens and turning off all of the artificial lights.

The study found that over 60% of the shift can happen over a weekend. Assuming the weekend is Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, that would give you a 20% recovery per night. Add 2 more nights to get 100% recovery? Five nights to reset your clock.

Of course, we’d like an easier path.

One alternate path reminds me of other “detox cures” that are quite popular. For example, I read an article on how to reverse some liver damage. In brief, it suggests that you avoid alcohol and processed foods, exercise more, lose 10% of your weight, take some milk thistle and maybe some Vitamin E. That sounds like good general health advice, but other than taking some supplements, it also sounds like a tough regimen for most of us to follow.

That is why a lot of people have decided to try taking melatonin supplements. It’s easy, and it sounds logical. You lack the melatonin to induce sleep, so you add some artificially. I tried resrtting my circadian rhythms using melatonin about a year ago. I read about what the levels are supposed to be. I made a schedule of when I would take the melatonin and when I would go to sleep. I adhered to the schedule – for two weeks.

The experiment did seem to work. I felt like I was falling asleep faster and staying asleep better. I didn’t do anything with light. I suspect that part of the improvement came from sticking to a regular sleep schedule. I was going to bed at 11 pm and waking up at 7 am for a solid 8 hours. But I just couldn’t keep to the schedule. I continued taking the melatonin until the bottle was empty, but I was going to bed at 1 or 2 am some nights and waking up at 6, 8 or even 9 am. That’s not how to do it.

People also try using artificial lights that mimic the spectrum and the intensity of natural light, but that can be costly. It is one of the therapies for Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) that hits people as the “winter blues.”

I’ll be taking a week away from the winter blues soon and I will try, as best I can, to break from the screens and live by the sunlight and moonlight.

camping-pixa

There are many choices for you in the tea aisle. I like to ask people, “How many different tea plants do you think exist?” Most people give me a pretty big number. But all tea comes from the camellia sinensis plant.

Any drinks that don’t come from that bushy plant are a tisane or herbal “tea” such as chamomile, mint, rooibos and others. It’s not tea. But let’s not be too snobby about it. Tisanes have their own value.

I drink coffee most mornings and switch over to lower caffeine teas after midday, and then to herbals in the evening.

White, Green, Oolong, Yellow, Black and Pu-erh teas all come from the varieties and cultivars of the camellia sinensis plant. The type and style of tea and its flavor comes from where it is grown (soil, climate) and how it is processed.

Tea has a caffeine in varying amounts depending on that processing. You would think that if a cup of tea could do something to your brain, a cup of strong coffee could do more. But it’s not the caffeine.

Tea contains L-theanine which is an amino acid that promotes mental acuity. That L-theanine along with caffeine creates a sense of “mindful awareness.”

Can we get L-theanine from other sources?  It turns out there are very few: a single species of mushroom, and guayusa (a holly species that is sometimes used as a tisane).

Researchers have found that shade-grown teas like the Japanese green tea Gyokuro have higher concentrations of L-theanine because the amino acid is not converted into polyphenols as much as tea leaves that are exposed to full sun.

Monk Hands

It is no surprise that monks have been drinking tea for thousands of years. They may not have known that it promoted awareness and alertness, but they probably learned that it helped them get through long periods of meditation.

The caffeine and L-theanine combo is a brain hack that is unique to a drink of tea.

What the L-theanine amino acid does is increase alpha brain wave activity. That promotes relaxation and caffeine is a stimulant. It is an interesting combination. The effects of caffeine are moderated by L-theanine.

Studies have also shown that there are added benefits to tea: increased creativity, increased performance under stress, improved learning and concentration, decreased anxiety, improved ability to multi-task and reduced task-induced fatigue.

That is a lot to get from a cup of tea.

dolphin-pixabay image

Dolphin stuck in the desert

Did you know that you have a chronotype? Did you know that there was such a thing as a chronotype? This weekend I’m thinking, like many of you, about the new year. I’m not making any new resolutions because I have plenty of past ones that were never resolved to keep me busy for a lifetime.

But today I am considering that part of my problem might be not knowing the best time to do things. I mean from the best time to have my coffee, to the best time to go for my exercise walk, to the best time to have sex. The answers vary according to your body’s chronotype.

You can find lots of self-help advice out there about WHAT to do and HOW to do it, but not much about WHEN to do it.

The when part has to do with your biology, hormones and the circadian rhythms of your body clock.

In the book, The Power of When by Michael Breus, you can “Discover Your Chronotype–and the Best Time to Eat Lunch, Ask for a Raise, Have Sex, Write a Novel, Take Your Meds, and More.”

I’m not sure you can confirm all those times so easily, but it is certainly interesting to take his quick online quiz and see what chronotype you are supposed to be.

Are you a Bear, Lion, Dolphin or Wolf? Once you know, you can do some lifehacking on when to do different activities. I came out as a Dolphin.

Your chronotype is your biological clock. It is when your body naturally wants to do things like sleep, eat, exercise and work. Most of us fight our body’s internal clock because we follow the unnatural clocks and schedules that tell us it’s time for breakfast, time to go to work, time to get to sleep.

Circadian rhythm is your body’s 24-hour timekeeper. It regulates not only sleep but also body temperature, hormone levels, blood flow, and gut bacteria. It also ebbs and flows, so certain tasks done at certain hours will yield better results.

I have a habit of taking my prescription drugs in the morning, but it may be better to do it before I go to sleep.  I don’t take any cholesterol drugs but they work better before bed because that’s when the liver also starts breaking down cholesterol, and the drugs can work in tandem with the body. It seems that blood pressure pills may have more impact at night because some people with hypertension don’t experience a natural dip in blood pressure when they sleep.

Your chronotype can shift as you age. No chronotype is “better” than any other and some things are shared across types. For example, when it comes to romance, for all chronotypes, 11 am to 2 pm is when bonding hormones are at their lowest. Forget that lunch date. Go for the dinner hours.

According to a study Breus cites, most people have sex between 11 pm and 1 am and that is the worst possible time. Late at night, levels of sleep-inducing melatonin rise and testosterone is at its lowest. When you wake up, testosterone levels are at their peak. Breus says, “I’d love for everyone to make a point of having Saturday-morning sex.”  Set a reminder for next weekend.

Some of his advice I have heard before. For a long time I had heard that because we are more insulin-resistant after 3 pm,we don’t efficiently convert sugar to energy, and instead store it as fat. So, you should eat your big meal earlier as often as you can. Of course, that doesn’t fit in well with most working folks.

Of the four chronotypes (Dolphin, Lion, Bear, and Wolf), most people fit into the “Bear” category.

I haven’t tested the chronotypes theories out yet (New Year?) but you can take a start by taking Breus’s quick chronotype quiz to find out which one you are.

For Dolphin me I’m going to think about whether or not:

  • My most creative time of day is between 10:00am and noon.
  • My 4 key personality traits are: cautiousness, introversion, neuroticism, intelligence
  • and my 4 key behaviors are: avoiding risky situations, striving for perfection, obsessive-compulsive tendencies, fixating on details.
  • I already know that my “Sleep/Alertness Pattern” is that I usually wake up feeling unrefreshed (sleep apnea too) and I get an energy boost late in the evening.
  • I’m supposed to be most productive: in spurts throughout the day.
  • I agree that when it comes to naps, I try to catch up on sleep but can’t quite make it happen.
  • My fellow dolphins are unihemispheric sleepers – one half of the brain shuts down while the other half stays alert. Not a bad thing if you want to prevent drowning and being eaten by predators, but a drag for those of us who are land dwellers in houses. Dolphins lie awake thinking about mistakes they’ve made. Sometimes we don’t know whether or not we actually slept at all.

I like those watery dolphins, but I’m not thrilled about being one. So long, and thanks for all the fish.

 

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