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Archive for December 2, 2012

11 Medicine Cabinet Must-Have Healing Remedies

11 Must-Have Healing Remedies

 

Peeked inside your medicine cabinet lately? Chances are — even if you  eat  locally, compost food scraps, and clean with nothing but vinegar  and baking soda — its contents are a medicinal flashback to your  childhood.

“When it comes to our medicine cabinets, it’s habitual to reach for   over-the-counter drugs,” says Madelon Hope, M.Ed., LMHC, a clinical  herbalist  and director of the Boston School of Herbal Studies. “These  medications are the  ones our mothers gave us, and those memories  condition our responses  today.”

If this sounds like you, it’s time for a bathroom-cabinet makeover.  While  there are times you may still want to use conventional meds, such  as ibuprofen  and antibiotic ointment, natural remedies can be just as  fast and effective as  over-the-counter fixes — sometimes more so.

Best of all, they often have far fewer (if any) pesky or potentially harmful  side effects.

You don’t have to replace everything in your cabinet all at once, of  course,  and not every natural remedy is right for everyone. But if  you’re looking to  transform your medicine cabinet from  retro-conventional to at least partially au naturel, here are a few items you’ll want to consider keeping within  reach.

Calendula Cream

Good for: Insect bites, stings or skin irritation

Because: Calendula (made from marigolds) is a  centuries-old  remedy for any skin itch or ouch, from bee stings to  sunburn to eczema. The  plant’s skin-relieving properties come from its  mixture of essential oils,  which are both antimicrobial and  anti-inflammatory.

How to: Apply an ointment containing 2 to 5 percent  calendula, as needed, up to four times daily.

Tip: If you have ragweed allergies, apply a  dime-size test  patch the first time and watch for an allergic reaction  (red or itchy bumps).  Why? Because calendula (i.e., marigolds) and  ragweed are both members of the  Aster (Compositae) family and may cause an allergic reaction in those  who are hypersensitive.

Lavender & Tea Tree Oil

Good for: Cuts, burns, athlete’s foot, minor infections or  as a natural disinfectant

Because: Both are natural antiseptics, so they are  great  for killing germs, and each has its own medicinal prowess.  Although best known  for its relaxing aroma, which is proven to quell  anxiety, lavender can also  cool the pain of minor kitchen burns and  sunburns, as well as prevent scarring.  Meanwhile, tea tree oil is an  equally powerful disinfectant, so a drop or two  of essential oil can be  smoothed onto cuts to stave off infection. Plus, its  antifungal  properties make it a natural weapon against the common toe fungus  that  causes athlete’s foot. In one randomized, double-blind,   placebo-controlled study, tea tree oil was more than twice as effective  as a  placebo in relieving the burning and itching of athlete’s foot.

How to: Both essential oils are natural antiseptics, and too  much may dry the skin, so use sparingly.

Tip: Add a few drops of lavender and tea tree  essential oil  to a spray bottle filled with water to make a disinfecting  spritz for  countertops, doorknobs and even yoga mats.

Arnica Tablets and Cream

Good for: Bruises, bumps, muscle aches and sprains

Because: Arnica is made from extracts of the  mountain  daisy, a flowering plant common at high elevations in Europe.  Reportedly, the  herb’s healing properties were discovered when people  noticed that mountain  goats nibbled on the plant after a bad fall. Quaint as that sounds, arnica has  some serious scientific backing.  Studies show that an active component in  arnica, called helenalin,  impedes the body’s inflammatory response to injury by  preventing the  release of an immune system regulator called NF-kB. One caveat:  The  plant itself can be toxic, so use only arnica gels and tablets, not the   raw herb.

How to: For whole-body trauma, like after surgery,  or  widespread muscle aches, take five tablets of homeopathic arnica four  times  daily until you experience relief. For a milder, more isolated  injury, like a  bruise or sore muscles, apply topical arnica cream or gel  as soon as possible  and repeat three to five times daily until pain,  bruising and swelling are  gone.

Tip: Hope recommends arnica tablets labeled 12X,  which are  available commercially. If you can find 6X tablets, even  better — they pack a  more powerful punch.

Aloe Vera

Good for: Mild to moderate sunburn and household burns

Because: Aloe vera gel soothes and cools the surface  of the  skin, calming the heat and irritation of a burn. The viscous  juice of the aloe  vera plant contains natural inflammation fighters,  called salicylates. As pain  and swelling subside, other aloe ingredients  (a.k.a. polysaccharides) goad the  body into making antibodies, which  speed healing. Petri-dish studies show that  regenerating skin cells,  called fibroblasts, reproduce up to four times faster  when treated with  aloe vera. “When it comes to sunburn, aloe vera works  beautifully,” says  Jacob Teitelbaum, MD, author of Pain  Free 1-2-3 (McGraw-Hill, 2004).

How to: Slather aloe vera gel onto a sunburn or  minor  kitchen burn every couple of hours until heat dissipates and pain  lessens. Look  for ingredient lists with aloe vera near the top. Aloe  vera gels can be  naturally drying, so you might want to apply a  moisturizer once the aloe has  done its job. (Particularly for burns,  avoid aloe products with alcohol, which  can further dry out the skin.)  And skip the day-glo green aloe vera gels, which  are laced with  artificial colors.

Tip: It won’t fit in your medicine cabinet, but if  you’re  willing to think outside the box, keep an aloe vera plant in the  kitchen. For  burns, clip segments from the oldest, bottom-most leaves  (so you don’t stunt  the plant’s growth) and slather the juice on your  red, inflamed skin. It should  quickly relieve the pain. If the pain  returns, simply clip another segment and  apply more gel.

Eucalyptus Essential Oil

Good for: Upper-respiratory infection

Because: Squeezed from the leaves and branch tips of   eucalyptus trees, eucalyptus oil also has antibacterial, antifungal and   anti-inflammatory properties, all of which may help fight off infection  and  speed recovery. Eucalyptus oil is also an expectorant, meaning it  helps expel  mucous from the lungs.

How to: Put two or three drops of eucalyptus  essential oil  in a pot of boiling water and inhale the steam. For  children with chest colds,  add a few drops to a vaporizer and run it in  their bedroom at night. During the  day, a couple of drops of essential  oil placed under the nose can keep  congestion at bay. Smell familiar?  Eucalyptus owes its activity to menthol, a  key ingredient in most vapor  rubs.

Tip: A little eucalyptus oil goes a long way. Too  much of  any essential oil can be a skin irritant, so use sparingly as a  topical  treatment.

Peppermint Tea, Tablets and Essential Oil

Good for: Stomach cramps and bloating (use tea or tablets),  as well as aches and pains including headaches (use essential oil)

Because: Topically, in small doses, peppermint oil  eases  the pain of sore muscles and headaches by stimulating nerve  receptors on the  skin, which override pain signals, says Teitelbaum, who  serves as medical  director of the national Fibromyalgia & Fatigue  Centers. “There is only so  much signal that can travel along any given  nerve, and I’d rather have a  minty-fresh signal than an ouch signal.”

Internally, peppermint can be inhaled, tossed back in a tablet or  sipped as  a tea. For a stuffy nose, a few drops of peppermint essential  oil in a  vaporizer can ease breathing.

For stomach troubles after a meal, a simple cup of peppermint tea aids  digestion and supports the breakdown of food.

For intestinal problems, though, peppermint tablets are best.  Peppermint is  a muscle relaxant, so the herb can relax muscles that are  prone to cramping  during digestion. In a 2007 study published in the  journal Digestive and Liver  Disease, patients with IBS who swallowed  peppermint capsules one hour before  eating felt a 75 percent reduction  in symptoms, compared with only a 38 percent  drop for those who popped  placebos.

One caveat: If muscle-relaxing peppermint oils come into contact with  the  esophageal sphincter, they can cause it to loosen up, which can  lead to  heartburn. The fix is to use enteric-coated peppermint capsules,  which protect  the esophagus on the way down and get the cramp-relieving  oils where they need  to be — in the colon, explains Jamey Wallace, ND,  clinical medical director of  Bastyr Center for Natural Health in  Seattle, Wash.

How to: For tension headaches, massage two to four drops of peppermint  oil  into the skin of the forehead (more than that can be irritating when  applied  directly to the skin). To soothe a cough, squeeze three to four  drops of  peppermint oil into hot water or a vaporizer and inhale the  steam. For  digestion, drink a cup of peppermint tea after a meal. And,  if you’ve been  diagnosed with an irritated colon, try enteric-coated  peppermint tablets and  follow instructions on the label.

Tip: Mark Blumenthal, executive director of the  American  Botanical Council, likes to keep peppermint spirits handy for a  quick stomach  soother. A blend of peppermint leaf extract and  peppermint essential oil,  peppermint spirits offer fast-acting relief  from both stomach upset and gas.  Place a dropper’s worth of spirits in a  glass of water and drink up.

Oscillococcinum

Good for: Relieving flu symptoms

Because: This homeopathic flu remedy contains a  highly  diluted concentration of the virus (so diluted, in fact, that no  clinically  testable trace of the flu is in the final formula), which  sparks the body’s  immune system to fight off the bug. Several studies  have shown that  oscillococcinum not only lessens the severity of flu  symptoms but also shortens  their duration. The latest research,  published in the British Homeopathic  Journal, found that nearly 63  percent of people who took oscillococcinum within  24 hours of flu onset  showed either “clear improvement” or “complete  resolution” within 48  hours.

Homeopathy works on a different set of principles than conventional  medicine — its basic approach is that “like treats like” — therefore,   randomized-controlled trials (the gold standard of Western medicine) are  difficult to design. “Even though the remedy only contains  an energetic imprint  of the flu,” says Wallace, “the body summons the  immune system to respond to  the virus to fight it off.”

Farfetched though it may seem, some doctors are keeping a more open  mind  about homeopathic remedies these days. Mehmet Oz, MD, appeared on  Oprah a few  years ago and touted energy medicine (which includes  homeopathy) as the next  big frontier in modern medicine.

How to: Like any flu-preventative, oscillococcinum  works  best if taken early, preferably within 24 hours of experiencing  bodywide aches,  fever and runny nose. Again, follow instructions on the  label.

Tip: Substances such as caffeine, chocolate, mint  and  menthol are thought to dampen the power of homeopathic remedies, so  try to  avoid them while using oscillococcinum.

Valerian Capsules or Tincture

Good for: Insomnia

Because: Used as a sleep aid since the times of the  ancient  Greeks, valerian is one of the best-studied herbs for insomnia. A  stack of  studies show that valerian shortens the time it takes to fall  asleep without  leaving you with any of the “hangover” side effects  common with prescription  sleep aids.

Exactly how valerian works is unclear. Like most plant-based  remedies, it’s  probably a combination of factors. For instance, animal  studies indicate  valerian’s volatile oils have sedative properties.  Other studies show the herb  tricks the brain into releasing more GABA  (gamma-aminobutyric acid), a calming  neurotransmitter, before blocking  it from being sucked up by nerve cells, so  the GABA continues to  circulate and encourage sleep.

How to: The herb’s potency varies depending on the  product,  so it’s best to follow dosage instructions on the label. A  common therapeutic  dose is 300 mg of standardized (0.5 percent essential  oil) valerian extract.  Instead of taking it all at once, you might take  three 100-mg capsules over the  course of the evening to gradually ease  your body into sleep mode. Or, if using  a tincture (a concentrated,  liquid form of the herb), dilute a dropper’s worth  of valerian in a cup  of water and drink one dose after dinner and another  before bed. Madelon  Hope advises keeping either a valerian capsule or diluted  tincture by  the bedside for middle-of-the-night wakeups.

Tip: In about 10 percent of people, valerian actually  creates restlessness and anxiety, so take a fraction of a dose  the first time  to make sure you’re not one of the unlucky few.

Rescue Remedy

Good for: Anxiety, emotional upset or panic

Because: Rescue Remedy, the most popular of the many  flower  remedies, is a blend of five different flower essences, each  countering a  particular type of stress. Flower remedies are made mostly  from wildflowers  infused in water, then filtered and preserved with  equal parts brandy. Medical  evidence detailing if and how flower  essences work is sparse, but that doesn’t  keep many integrative  physicians from swearing by them. “Flower remedies fall  under the art of  medicine and the heart of healing,” says Teitelbaum. “Who the  heck  knows how they work, but they do.”

How to: To manage everyday stress, place four drops  on the  tongue three or four times a day. Or dilute the drops in a glass  of water and  sip throughout the day. For acute stress or anxiety, take  four drops every 20  minutes until feelings subside.

Tip: One of the biggest perks of flower essences is  that  they have absolutely no side effects. Alcohol-free versions of  Rescue Remedy  are available for children and pets.

Andrographis Paniculata Tincture

Good for: Fighting off colds

Because: An immune-enhancing herb common in  traditional  Chinese medicine, Andrographis paniculata is a potent  infection-fighter. In a  review of 11 double-blind, placebo-controlled  studies, Andrographis paniculata  repeatedly curtailed cold and flu  symptoms. In one of the best studies to date,  the herb outperformed  placebo by squelching cold symptoms, including headache,  runny nose and  sore throat. How does it work? “Like every herb, Andrographis  paniculata  has many, many active constituents,” says Hope, “but a big part of  its  usefulness are powerful antimicrobial substances.”

How to: A dose of Andrographis paniculata is 400 mg three  times a day.

Tip: If a cold feels imminent, choose a tincture  over a  capsule or tablet, says Hope. Tinctures are easily absorbed by  the body;  therefore, they get to work faster. “When I’m on the threshold  of a cold, three  to four dropper’s worth of Andrographis in a glass of  water a day is very  effective.”

Dr. Schulze’s Intestinal Formula #1

Good for: Occasional constipation

Because: This product packs a virtual who’s who of  the  herbal laxative world, with two varieties of aloe leaf extracts as  its top  ingredients, followed closely by senna leaf and cascara  sagrada, two  lesser-known bowel-movement helpers.

Aloe, although best known as an external salve, has a long history as  a  laxative, too. Plant compounds in aloe stimulate the inner lining of  the colon,  upping what experts aptly call the gut’s “transit time.”  While supplements  containing aloe, such as Dr. Schulze’s Intestinal  Formula #1, definitely get  the job done, it’s important to use them  cautiously and to follow their  directions to the letter. Overdoing any  laxative can lead to diarrhea and  dehydration.

How to: Follow the directions on the label exactly,   building dosage a capsule at a time until the desired effect is  achieved. Not  for daily use. See package for other contraindications.

Tip: Aloe works, in part, by slightly irritating the  gut,  thereby loosening stuck material and encouraging the lower bowel  to move, so  steer clear of aloe products if you have an inflammatory  bowel disease, such as  Crohn’s. Also avoid taking this product if you  will be far from a bathroom,  since the need to eliminate can come on  suddenly.

Stocking your medicine cabinet with natural cures is a safe,  practical way  to prepare for life’s little accidents, infections and  intermittent health  challenges. It’s important to choose products you  feel comfortable with,  though, and it’s fine to steer clear of any  products whose claims seem  overblown, or whose ingredients give you  pause.

While you’re experimenting, continue stocking those tried-and-true   conventional remedies that give you both good results and peace of mind.  Over  time, you’ll discover which new natural favorites complement your  cache of  conventional standards, and which of them might eventually take  their  place.

And if reaching for plant-based remedies feels a little strange at  first,  take comfort in the fact that many modern pharmaceuticals still  depend on  natural ingredients as a basis for their formulations. “Plant-based remedies got  our ancestors through centuries of coughs,  colds and infections,” says  Blumenthal. And they are still doing that  same job today.

By Megan 

Experience Life magazine is an award-winning health and fitness  publication that aims to empower people to live their best, most authentic  lives, and challenges the conventions of hype, gimmicks and superficiality in  favor of a discerning, whole-person perspective. Visit experiencelife.com   to learn more and to sign  up for the Experience Life newsletter, or to subscribe  to the print or digital version.

6 Surprising Things That Affect Your Brain

6 Surprising Things That Affect Your Brain

 

Brain scientists in recent years have discovered a number of  surprising ways  that the brain influences our overall health, as well as  how our behavior  influences the health of our brain. And unlike in the  days of old — when  scientists believed the brain was “fixed” after  childhood, only to start an  inexorable decline in the middle to later  years — today, research is showing  that the brain is perfectly capable  of changing, healing and “rewiring” itself  to an unexpected degree.

It turns out that the age of your brain may be a lesser influence on its  structure than what you do with it. Pursuits that require intense  mental focus, like language  learning, “switch on” the nucleus basalis, the  control mechanism for  neuroplasticity.

In short, neuroplasticity means you have some control over your  cranial  fitness. While brain function naturally deteriorates somewhat as  you age  (though not nearly as much as you might think), various  strategic approaches  can create new neural pathways and strengthen  existing ones as long as you  live. What’s more, these efforts to build a  better brain can deliver lasting  rewards for your overall health.

Here are just a few of neuroscience’s most empowering recent discoveries.

Your Thoughts Affect Your  Genes

We tend to think of our genetic heritage as a fait accompli.  At our  conception, our parents handed down whatever genetic legacy they  inherited — genes for baldness, tallness, disease or whatever — and now  we’re left playing  the hand of DNA we were dealt. But, in fact, our  genes are open to being  influenced throughout our lifetime, both by what  we do and by what we think,  feel and believe.

The new and growing field of “epigenetics” studies extra-cellular  factors  that influence genetic expression. While you may have heard that  genes can be  influenced by diet and exercise, many researchers are now  exploring the ways  that thoughts, feelings and beliefs can exert the  same epigenetic effect. It  turns out that the chemicals catalyzed by our  mental activity can interact with  our genes in a powerful way. Much  like the impacts of diet, exercise and  environmental toxins, various  thought patterns have been shown to turn certain  genes “on” or “off.”

The Research

In his book The  Genie in Your Genes (Elite Books, 2009), researcher Dawson Church, PhD,  explains the  relationship between thought and belief patterns and the  expression of  healing- or disease-related genes. “Your body reads your mind,” Church  says. “Science is discovering that while we may have a fixed set of   genes in our chromosomes, which of those genes is active has a great  deal to do  with our subjective experiences, and how we process them.”

One recent study conducted at Ohio University demonstrates vividly  the  effect of mental stress on healing. Researchers gave married couples  small  suction blisters on their skin, after which they were instructed  to discuss  either a neutral topic or a topic of dispute for half an  hour. Researchers then  monitored the production of three wound-repair  proteins in the subjects’ bodies  for the next several weeks, and found  that the blisters healed 40 percent  slower in those who’d had especially  sarcastic, argumentative conversations  than those who’d had neutral  ones.

Church explains how this works. The body sends a protein signal to  activate  the genes associated with wound healing, and those activated  genes then code  blank stem cells to create new skin cells to seal the  wound. But when the  body’s energy is being “sucked up” by the production  of stress biochemicals  like cortisol, adrenaline and norepinephrine,  like it is during a nasty fight,  the signal to your wound-healing genes  is significantly weaker, and the repair  process slows way down. By  contrast, when the body is not preparing for a  perceived threat, its  energy stores remain readily available for healing  missions.

Why It Matters to You

Just about every body comes equipped with the genetic material  it needs to  deal optimally with the physical challenges of daily life,  and the degree to  which you can maintain your mental equilibrium has a  real impact on your body’s  ability to access those genetic resources.  While habits of mind can be  challenging to break, deliberate activities  like meditation (see the following  studies) can help you refashion your  neural pathways to support less reactive  thought patterns.

Chronic Stress Can Prematurely Age  Your Brain

“There’s always going to be stress in the environment,” says Howard  Fillit,  MD, clinical professor of geriatrics and medicine at New York’s  Mount Sinai  School of Medicine and executive director of the Alzheimer’s  Drug Discovery  Foundation. “But what’s damaging is the distress we feel  internally in response  to it.”

Fillit’s distinction points to the bodywide reaction our bodies  experience  when we routinely respond to stress by going into  fight-or-flight mode. In our  brains, the stress response can cause  memory and other aspects of cognition to  become impaired, which is a  risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease and accelerated  memory loss with  aging. One thing that can happen is you can start feeling a  lot older,  mentally, than you are.

“Patients come in complaining of faulty memory and wonder if they’re   beginning to get Alzheimer’s,” says Roberta Lee, MD, vice-chair of the   Department of Integrative Medicine at Beth Israel Medical Center and  author of The  Superstress Solution (Random House, 2010). “Their workups and MRI scans  look normal. In the  interview, I ask them about their lifestyle and almost  invariably they  have compounded stress.”

The Research

Studies at the University of California–San Francisco have  shown that  repeated instances of the stress response (and their  accompanying floods of  cortisol) can cause shrinkage of the hippocampus —  a key part of the brain’s  limbic system vital to both stress regulation  and long-term memory. Call it the  downside of neuroplasticity.

Why It Matters to You

Aside from the obvious — no one wants his or her brain to age  faster than  it’s already going to — this research matters because it  suggests that you have  some influence over the rate of your own  cognitive change.

To protect the brain from cortisol-related premature aging, Lee  suggests  building stress disruptors into your regular routine: “A  five-minute period in  the middle of every day during which you do  absolutely nothing — nothing! — can  help a lot, especially if you are  consistent about it,” she says.

Her other recommendations include eating breakfast every day —  complex  carbohydrates (whole grains, veggies) and some protein.  “Breakfast helps your  metabolism feel like it won’t be stressed — caught  up in a starvation-gluttony  pattern,” she explains.

And when anxiety does strike, a good way to initiate the relaxation  response  is her “four-five breath” routine: breathing in through the  nose to a count of  four, then out through the mouth to a count of five.  “Repeat it four times and  you’ll feel the relaxation,” she says. “Best  of all, do the four breaths twice  daily, at the beginning and end of the  day.”

Meditation Rewires Your  Brain

Meditation and other forms of relaxation and mindfulness not only  change  your immediate state of mind (and, correspondingly, your  biochemical stress  level and gene expression), they also can alter the  very structure of your  brain. Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson, PhD,  cofounder of the San Francisco–based  Wellspring Institute for  Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom, has extensively  studied the  effect of meditation on the brain, with a particular focus on how   neuroplasticity allows for permanent changes for the better in your gray   matter.

The Research

“Of all the mental trainings — affirmations, psychotherapy,  positive  thinking, yoga — the one that has been far and away the most  studied, in terms  of effects on the brain, is meditation,” Hanson says.  Some of the most  prominent research has come from the collaboration  between French-born Buddhist  monk and author Matthieu Ricard and  University of Wisconsin–Madison  neuroscientist Richard Davidson, PhD.  Their studies have shown that a high  ratio of activity in the left  prefrontal areas of the brain can mark either a  fleeting positive mood  or a more ingrained positive outlook.

Brain-imaging tests have shown that Ricard and other veteran Buddhist   meditators demonstrate initial heightened activity in this region,  along with a  rapid ability to recover from negative responses brought on  by frightening  images shown to them by researchers. This suggests that  their long-term  meditation practice has helped build brains that are  able to not just enjoy but  sustain a sense of positive well-being, even  in stressful moments.

Why It Matters to You

“Stimulating areas of the brain that handle positive emotions  strengthens  those neural networks, just as working muscles strengthens  them,” Hanson says,  repeating one of the basic premises of  neuroplasticity. The inverse is also  true, he explains: “If you  routinely think about things that make you feel mad  or wounded, you are  sensitizing and strengthening the amygdala, which is primed  to respond  to negative experiences. So it will become more reactive, and you  will  get more upset more easily in the future.”

By contrast, meditative practices stimulate the anterior cingulate  cortex,  the part of the brain’s outermost layer that controls attention  (this is how  meditation can lead to greater mindfulness, Hanson  explains), as well as the  insula, which controls interoception — the  internal awareness of one’s own  body. “Being in tune with your body via  interoception keeps you from damaging  it when you exercise,” Hanson  says, “as well as building that pleasant, simple  sense of being ‘in your  body.’” Another plus of a strong insula is an increased  sensitivity to  “gut feelings” and intuitions and greater empathy with  others.

Perhaps best of all, meditation develops the circuitry in the left   prefrontal cortex, where the unruffled monks showed so much activity.  “That’s  an area that dampens negative emotion, so you don’t get so  rattled by anger or  fear, shame or sorrow,” Hanson says.

“Deciding to be mindful can alter your brain so that being mindful is  easier  and more natural,” he explains. “In other words, you can use  your mind to  change your brain to affect your mind.”

Your Brain Learns By  Doing

The mirror neuron system is the name for those regions of the brain  with  synapses that fire whether you’re actually doing or merely watching  an action — as long as you’ve done it previously. Doing an action lays  down neural  connections that fire again when you watch the same action.  This accounts for  the connection you feel when viewing a sport you’ve  played, or why you wince  when you see someone else get hurt.

The Research

Giacomo Rizzolatti and his colleagues in the Department of  Neuroscience at  the University of Parma in Italy first noted the mirror  effect while studying  the brains of macaque monkeys. When a monkey was  watching one of the  researchers pick up a peanut, the same neurons fired  as if the monkey — likely  a seasoned peanut gatherer — had picked up  the nut itself. The researchers  labeled these specific cells “mirror  neurons.” In the human brain, entire  regions light up in response to a  familiar action; this endows us with a  full-fledged mirror system.

Why It Matters to You

The existence of the mirror system helps explain why learning a  new skill is  easier if you try doing it early in life. This includes  doing it clumsily,  rather than hanging back watching your instructor or a  video until you think  you “have it.” Watching before you try means that  you will probably see very  little; watching after you try will engage  the mirror system, increasing your  brain’s power to “get it.”

As London-based neuroscientist Daniel Glaser, PhD, puts it, “When you  look  at something you have done before, you are actually using more of  your brain to  see it, so there’s a richer information flow. Until you  started playing tennis,  you couldn’t see the difference between a good  topspin stroke and a bad one;  after a few weeks of practice, when your  coach demonstrates the stroke, you  really get it visually. And you can  thank the mirror system for that.”

The mirror system is also what endows you with the empathic ability  to feel  the pain or joy of others, based on what you register on their  faces. “When we  see someone else suffering or in pain, mirror neurons  help us to read her or  his facial expression and actually make us feel  the suffering or the pain of  the other person,” writes UCLA neurologist  Marco Iacoboni, MD, PhD, in his  book, Mirroring People (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008). “These moments, I will argue, are the foundation of empathy.”

Growing Older Can Make You  Smarter

For some time, the prevailing view of a brain at midlife was that  it’s “simply a young brain slowly closing down,” observes Barbara  Strauch. But she  notes that recent research has shown that middle age is  actually a kind of  cranial prime time, with a few comedic twists thrown  in for fun.

“Researchers have found that — despite some bad habits — the brain is at  its  peak in those years. As it helps us navigate through our lives, the  middle-age  brain cuts through the muddle to find solutions, knows whom  and what to ignore,  when to zig and when to zag,” she writes. “It stays  cool. It adjusts.”

The Research

Brain scientists used to be convinced that the main “driver” of  brain aging  was loss of neurons — brain-cell death. But new scanning  technology has shown  that most brains maintain most of their neurons  over time. And, while some  aspects of the aging process do involve  losses — to memory, to reaction time — there are also some net gains,  including a neat trick researchers call “bilateralization,” which  involves using both the brain’s right and left  hemispheres at once.

Strauch cites a University of Toronto study from the 1990s, soon  after  scanning technology became available, that measured the  comparative ability of  young and middle-age research subjects to match  faces with names. The expected  outcome was that older subjects would do  worse at the task, but not only were  they just as competent as younger  subjects, PET scans revealed that, in  addition to the brain circuits  used by the younger crowd, the older subjects  also tapped into the  brain’s powerful prefrontal cortex. As some of their  circuits weakened,  they compensated by using other parts of the brain.

Ultimately, this means the effects of age caused them to use — and strengthen — more of their brains, not less.

Why It Matters to You

Gene Cohen, MD, PhD, who directs the Center on Aging, Health  and Humanities  at George Washington University Medical Center, notes  that this ability to use  more of your cognitive reserves strengthens  your problem-solving ability as you  enter the middle years, and it makes  you more capable of comfortably  negotiating contradictory thoughts and  emotions. “This neural integration makes  it easier to reconcile our  thoughts with our feelings,” he wrote in “The Myth  of the Midlife  Crisis” (Newsweek, Jan. 16, 2006). Like meditation, the  middle-age tendency toward bilateralization seems to promote your  ability to  stay cool under pressure.

There are things you can do to amplify this increased strength. “Our  brains  are built to roll with the punches,” Strauch writes, “and better —  or more  carefully cared for — brains roll best.” Studies show multiple  ways to build  long-term brain health: from healthy eating, exercise and  conscious relaxation  to active social bonds, challenging work and  continuing education. Good advice,  it would seem, for a brain at any  age.

A Teenage Brain is Wired  Differently

While it was once thought that the brain’s architecture was basically  set by  age five or six, New York Times medical science and health  editor Barbara  Strauch explains her book The Primal Teen: What the New  Discoveries About the  Teenage Brain Tell Us About Our Kids (Anchor,  2003), new research shows that  the teen brain is “still very much a work  in progress, a giant construction  project. Millions of connections are  being hooked up; millions more are swept  away. Neurochemicals wash over  the teenage brain, giving it a new paint job, a  new look, a new chance  at life.”

The neurochemical dopamine floods the teen brain, increasing  alertness,  sensitivity, movement, and the capacity to feel intense  pleasure; it’s a recipe  for risk-taking. And, as anyone who has tried to  rouse a sleepy teen should  appreciate, brain chemicals that help set  sleep patterns go through major  shifts.

Knowing about these brain gyrations in young people can help parents  be a  little more patient and tolerant—and they offer some opportunities  too.   As Jay Giedd told PBS’s Frontline, “If a teen is doing music or  sports or  academics [during this period of brain change and  consolidation], those are the  cells and connections that will be  hardwired. If they’re lying on the couch or  playing video games or MTV,  those are the cells and connections that are going  to survive.”

By Jon Spayde, Experience Life

 

Experience Life magazine is an award-winning health and fitness  publication that aims to empower people to live their best, most authentic  lives, and challenges the conventions of hype, gimmicks and superficiality in  favor of a discerning, whole-person perspective. Visit experiencelife.com   to learn more and to sign  up for the Experience Life newsletter, or to subscribe  to the print or digital version.

5 Sure-Fire Ways to Increase Your Energy

5 Sure-Fire Ways to Increase Your Energy

 

There  were very specific times in my life when I would hit a wall at 3:00  and  my energy was drained. There were also some very specific things  happening  at this time in my life that I can see very clearly were the  causes of my  energy walls.

There are some very easy tweaks you can make in your day so that you  don’t  hit the wall at some point. You CAN feel vibrant and full of  energy each and  everyday. And the best part – and I know this might be a  shock to you all – the  way in which we increase energy is not what you  may think.

Learn 5 Ways to Increase Your Energy

Operate with Passion: The biggest reason I was hitting a  wall at  3:00 is because I was no longer passionate for what I was doing with my  work. I knew I wanted to step up and I was afraid to take that step. So   everyday I was going through the motions wishing it was different. Your  body  can sense this feeling of lack of enthusiasm. It’s basically  choosing sleep  over life. If you aren’t living a vibrant life… might  as well go to sleep! What  do you need the energy for?

Find Your Purpose: We were all put here on the planet for a  reason.  We all have a purpose and a mission from spirit. If you are not living   your purpose or don’t know what it is, your energy will diminish until  you  connect to it. Once again, why do you need to last all day if you  aren’t even  living out your purpose for coming into this life? Your body  is asking you to  change and as soon as you begin operating from this  space you will be surged  with energy and you won’t want to stop.  Therefore, you will be supported in  that energetically.

Create Your Own Beliefs: One of the most draining things is  living  out of someone else’s belief systems. You are unique, and you have a   unique path in your life. It doesn’t matter if your mother believes what  you  are doing is impossible or your sibling believes it’s stupid. You  must operate  from your own empowering beliefs that bring you closer to  where you want to go.  Napoleon Hill said that the only beliefs or  thoughts you should keep are the  ones that align with your desires – all  the other ones have got to go!

Enjoy the Dining Experience: Take a time out for meals and  be  present with your meal times. Enjoy the food, taste the herbs and  spices,  sit down, and breathe with your food. This is a nourishing  experience; you are  taking care of yourself when you put food into your  body, so give yourself time  in these moments.

Check In and Get Quiet: Throughout the day ask yourself how  you are  feeling or what you want to do. Sometimes when I check in I notice that  I  might need a nap, or maybe I am thirsty. Perhaps my body is asking for a   break or a walk. If you never slow down and get quiet you will miss the  signals  from your body and therefore your body has no choice but to go  to an extreme  wall to get you to stop. Always check in the way you would  with a newborn baby – you are worth it!

By Michelle Hastie, DivineCaroline

At DivineCaroline.com, women  come together to learn from experts in the fields, of health, sustainability,  and culture; to reflect on shared experiences; and to express themselves by  writing and publishing stories about anything that matters to them. Here, real  women publish like real pros. Together, with our staff writers, they’re  discussing all facets of women’s lives from relationships and careers, to travel  and healthy living. So come discover, read, learn, laugh and connect at DivineCaroline.com.

 

Big Organic Garden Delivers Georgia’s Best Fruits & Veggies

Big Organic Garden Delivers Georgia’s Best Fruits & Veggies

 

How I wish every city had a fresh, local, and in-season produce delivery  service! Maybe once the word of Big Organic Garden in Georgia spreads we’ll all  be happily awaiting our own fruit and veggie delivery.

The owners of Big Organic Garden are able to source produce from farms across  their state of Georgia and the southeast to offer their customers the freshest  in-season options they can. Big Organic Garden promotes local and in-season produce to support local industry and provide  optimal health, as studies point to benefits of eating from your own local  harvests. Also, by providing in-season options, this cuts down on the carbon footprint that shipping of  out-of-season produce causes.

The customers of Big Organic Garden can choose a box size and price every  week. The boxes are somewhat specified by the customer from their website, but  all contain an assortment of fruits and vegetables. A small box is $20, medium  is $37, and a large will cost $50. If not for yourself, this sounds like an  awesome holiday gift idea!

An example of what you might find in the $50 large box includes 4 Braeburn  apples, 4 Honeycrisp apples, 2 avocados, 2.5 bunches of bananas, 5 oranges, 5  lemons, 1.5 heads of broccoli, 1 head of cauliflower, 2 bunches of collard  greens, 1 bunch of spinach, as well as squash and tomatoes.

All of the products are organic and most are local. Obviously the avocados  are not local, but they only bring in a few items from out of the area and they  are always certified organic. The company offers a few pick-up locations  throughout the week, but they also offer delivery. Big Organic Garden encourages  customers to leave a cooler with ice packs on their porch so the produce can  stay fresh.

What a wonderful idea this is. It’s not too different than CSAs  that are already wildly popular, but it extends the range of who can include and  receive produce. As I wrestle with trying to do the best for my own family and  the earth we live on, it’s hard to compete with the store that’s just minutes  from my home. And furthermore, I can eat strawberries in the winter if I shop in  the store that knows no seasons. But truly, I want to do what’s right. Hopefully  more companies like Big Organic Garden will sprout up all over the country very  soon.

By Lacy J. Hansen for DietsInReview.com

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