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Posts tagged ‘cortisol’

6 Surprising and Natural Stress Relievers

6 Surprising (& Natural) Stress Relievers

Everyone gets stressed sometimes. Whether it be financial or personal, significant stress is an unfortunate aspect of modern living. But, too much stress can be a bad thing. Whether you have trouble sleeping or find yourself becoming more irritable, stress takes a toll on our bodies. It is the leading cause of innumerable diseases, and can be single-handedly responsible for symptoms such as hair loss, high blood pressure, headaches, depression, drastic weight changes, ulcers, and more. So, next time you feel the need to pop a chill pill, try one of these more natural remedies instead.
Lavender. If you ever have trouble falling asleep at night, try spritzing some lavender essential oil into the nighttime air. Lavender helps calm anxiety and can soothe the mind and body to help you sleep more soundly. Intrigued? Aromatherapy has been shown to trigger various moods and sensations, and can be used to fight depression, fatigue, anxiety, headaches, indigestion, et cetera. Find a specialist near you to learn more.
Sweet Potato. What do you normally reach for when you’re stressed out? Probably sweets or salty carbs, I’d gamble. Next time, try some sweet potato instead. It will kill your cravings, satisfy your frenzied emotions, and help you digest more slowly due to their high fiber content. Plus, there will be no post-splurge guilt, as there would be if you ate a huge piece (or two) of cake. If you are really craving comfort food, try steamed and mashed sweet potatoes with a dash of coconut milk. Yum!
Chamomile. Chamomile tea has been shown to relax the body and muscles before sleep. Although chamomile’s benefits have not been medically proven, it has been used for centuries for its sedative qualities as well as an immune booster. Go ahead and brew up a pot of fresh tea to give your body a helping hand. Even better, add some raw honey into your tea (once it has cooled to drinking temperature to retain raw honey’s beneficial enzymes) for an additional boost.
Dark Chocolate. As if you need another reason to enjoy chocolate! A recent study has shown that eating 1.4 ounces of dark chocolate lowers your body’s stress hormones and reduces anxiety. The stress hormone cortisol, in particular, can easily become imbalanced and lead to long term disease and disfunction. It is well known that too much cortisol can also lead to accumulated belly fat, so, in a way, a small piece of chocolate a day could help to keep the belly fat at bay! (OK, it’s a lot more complicated than that, but a girl can dream.) Also, your brain releases endorphins when you nibble chocolate, so it’s a double-whammy of happiness! Just be sure to enjoy in moderation.
St. John’s Wort. Useful if you’re feeling down-and-out, this herb has been shown to significantly increase mood and attitude in patients with mild depression. It has been used for centuries as a natural anti-depressant and is a fairly ubiquitous plant, often regarded as a weed. However, be sure to consult your doctor before adding any new herbs or regimens into your diet to avoid allergic reaction or misdiagnosis.
Peanut Butter. If you aren’t getting enough sleep and are feeling cranky, grab a spoonful of organic, unsweetened peanut butter. Being high in vitamin B6, it helps to regulate blood sugar, which stabilizes mood swings. And, of course, peanut butter is another great comfort food. Just don’t go out of control. If those 6 remedies aren’t enough for you, some other excellent ideas are practicing yoga or meditation, regular exercise, enjoying a hot bath, or even writing in a personal journal. Relieving yourself of stress will make your life a lot healthier and more enjoyable. If you are stressed out and are reaching for the tub of cookie dough ice cream, try one of the 6 aforementioned edibles instead. Take time for yourself, let your mind relax, and enjoy a bit of this crazy ride we call life.
By Jordyn Cormier

Jordyn is a choreographer, freelance writer, and an avid outdoors woman. Having received her B.F.A. in Contemporary Dance from the Boston Conservatory, she is passionate about maintaining a healthy body, mind, and soul through food and fitness. A lover of adventure, Jordyn can often be found hiking, canoeing, mountain biking, and making herself at home in the backcountry! Check out what else Jordyn has been up to at jordyncormier.com. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Excellent Health is found along your journey and not just at your destination. Would it make sense for us to spend several minutes together to discuss your Health Issues or Problems and how HealthyHighway can help YOU Live YOUR Optimum Life? Please complete the information on our Contact Us page to schedule your consultation today! I look forward to helping YOU Live YOUR Optimum Life! Live Well! Leesa Wheeler

Leesa A. Wheeler

Healthy Lifestyle Coach, Artisan, Author

ring ~ 770-393-1284

write ~ info@healthyhighway.org

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as-seen-on

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.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Excellent Health is found along your journey and not just at your destination. Would it make sense for us to spend several minutes together to discuss your Health Issues or Problems and how HealthyHighway can help YOU Live YOUR Optimum Life? Please complete the information on our Contact Us page to schedule your consultation today! I look forward to helping YOU Live YOUR Optimum Life!

Live Well!

 Leesa Wheeler

Leesa A. Wheeler

Healthy Lifestyle Coach, Artisan, Author

ring ~ 770-393-1284

write ~ info@healthyhighway.org

visit ~ www.HealthyHighway.org

consult ~ www.healthyhighway.org/contact.html

chews ~ www.Chews4Health.com/Leesa

enjoy ~ www.Chewcolat.com

follow ~ www.twitter.com/HealthyHighway

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Top 7 Reasons We Feel Stressed Out

Top 7 Reasons We Feel Stressed Out

 

“I’m so stressed out.” We’ve all said it, and felt  the effects of living it.

In our fast-paced, over-stimulated culture, we’re constantly pushing our  brains and bodies to the limit. Too little sleep, exercise, and lack of a  healthy diet only contribute to this feeling of anxiety, fatigue, and  overwhelmedness.

You might be surprised to learn that feeling stress enabled humans’ successful  evolution. Stress is your body’s way of responding to any kind of demand.  Back in the hunter-gatherer days, our bodies would release  stress-inducing chemicals into the blood so that we could either fight or  flee when faced with a threat. Cortisol, a stress-induced hormone, can help boost energy and  immunity, and even improve memory function in the short term. Once the threat  was over, everything went back to normal.

Unfortunately, the stress we feel today isn’t brought on by a predator or the  need to escape from physical entanglement. What we feel today is internal stress  which comes from worry about things we can’t control. Some people even become addicted to the kind of hurried, tense,  lifestyle that results from being under stress. They even look for stressful  situations and feel stress about things that aren’t stressful.

Check out the infographic below to learn seven of the most common sources of  internal stress, and some suggestions for how to de-stress your life before it  kills you.

Is Stress Killing You?

By Beth Buczynski

Beth is a freelance writer and editor living in the Rocky Mountain West. So  far, Beth has lived in or near three major U.S. mountain ranges, and is  passionate about protecting the important ecosystems they represent.

Image via Thinkstock

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Excellent Health is found along your journey and not just at your destination. Would it make sense for us to spend several minutes together to discuss your Health Issues or Problems and how HealthyHighway can help YOU Live YOUR Optimum Life? Please complete the information on our Contact Us page to schedule your consultation today!   I look forward to helping YOU Live YOUR Optimum Life!

Live Well!

Leesa A. Wheeler

Healthy Lifestyle Coach, Artisan, Author

 

ring ~ 770-393-1284

write ~ info@healthyhighway.org

visit ~ www.HealthyHighway.org

consult ~  www.healthyhighway.org/contact.html

chews ~ www.Chews4Health.com/Leesa

enjoy ~ www.Chewcolat.com

follow ~ www.twitter.com/HealthyHighway

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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.

6 Ways Fitness Makes You Successful

6 Ways Fitness Makes You Successful

It’s 8:25 p.m. and you’re working late.  Again. The boss has gone home,  along with most of your coworkers. But  not you: you’re still chained to your  desk, and you’ll probably be there  for a while.

Over the last few months you’ve been cranking through work, though.  You’ve  pulled ahead of your competition, and you figure a significant  promotion — along with a bigger paycheck and more responsibility — is  right around the  corner.

Sure, you feel rundown and you’ve put on some weight. But you just  haven’t  had much time to sleep, much less shop for and prepare healthy  food. And the  prospect of squeezing in a workout when there is so much  to do seems  laughable.

Here’s what you tell yourself: I’ll work out when I clear these  projects. I’ll sleep after I get the promotion. I’ll start eating  better when the kids start school.

It’s a scenario familiar to many of us: too much on our plates, not  enough  hours in the day, and a persistent feeling that any time away  from work means  lost time, money and accomplishments.

Many of us have been brainwashed into thinking that stress and poor  health  are the price of success. We may even see our rundown bodies as  evidence of our  unflagging dedication to the demands of our careers.

New research shows that this zero-sum view of work and working out is   flawed. Far from detracting from your productivity and efficiency,  regular  exercise can make you smarter, and more effective, resilient and successful. And this is true whether your “profession” involves  tackling corporate mergers or taking your kids to soccer  practice.

In addition to helping you look and feel better, time invested in  upgrading  and maintaining your fitness repays itself many times over in  ways that  psychologists, brain experts and other researchers are only  beginning to  understand. And putting even a little effort into upgrading  your health and  fitness can have a surprisingly dramatic effect on your  professional  performance.

Fit for Success

You may have been hired for your brain power. But the condition of  your body  could matter more than you realize, particularly as you climb  the corporate  ranks. A 2005 survey conducted by TheLadders.com  found that 75 percent of top executives considered being physically fit  “critical to career success” and being overweight “a serious career  impediment” to advancement.

It turns out that employees’ salaries are influenced by how closely  their  body weight approximates an “ideal,” which frequently and unfairly  differs by  gender. A study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology in 2011  found that slender women out-earned their overweight female  colleagues by a  significant margin. Men of moderate weight, meanwhile,  earned more than both  slender men and overweight men.

Being thin, in other words, tends to be an advantage for women and a   disadvantage for men. Being heavy is a disadvantage for both.

It’s unfortunate, to say the least,  that these sorts of prejudices   persist. Until attitudes change, though, it means that if you’re  overweight,  you’ll probably be operating at some level of professional  disadvantage.  Getting into better shape could give your earning power a  direct boost; it  could also benefit your confidence and self-esteem in  ways that amplify your  job performance.

That’s why Phyllis R. Stein, a career counselor from Cambridge,  Mass., with  more than 36 years in the business, says: “Whether you’re  looking for your next  job or trying to reach the next rung on the  corporate ladder, I consider  exercise an essential job-related  activity.”

Stress Case

Cultural biases notwithstanding, success-oriented people have plenty  of good  reasons to work out regularly, says Stein. One of the best:  Exercise improves  energy while decreasing stress and amplifying mental  focus.

Consider cortisol, a steroid hormone that regulates your energy   throughout the day. Under normal conditions, cortisol levels peak early  in  the morning to get you going, and then gradually decline as the day  progresses,  leaving you mellowed out and ready to sleep at bedtime. A  hectic work  environment can throw this natural circadian cycle into  disarray. Commuter  traffic, an irate boss or an impending deadline can  create small cortisol  spikes during your day, each one followed  immediately by a sharp decline in  energy and mood.

Worse, many stressed-out workers turn to junk food, sugary  snacks and caffeinated energy drinks to keep themselves going — all of which  can make the hormonal roller-coaster ride even wilder. Months of this  routine  can exhaust and ultimately kill off some of your brain’s  stress-regulating  neurons, leaving you perpetually listless.

“When you’re chronically stressed, the normal daily cortisol cycle  can  flip,” says Tom Nikkola, CSCS, CISSN, director of nutrition and  weight  management for Life Time Fitness in Chanhassen, Minn. “This can  leave you  barely able to get out of bed in the morning, but too keyed up  to sleep at  night.”

Though it may seem like a minor, inevitable annoyance to the  ambitious  white-collar warrior, sleep deprivation actually comes with a  steep economic  price. One 2004 study estimated that sleep disruption of  various kinds cost  Australia more than $4.5 billion annually in the form  of lost work, reduced  productivity and accidents — 0.8 percent of the  gross domestic product.

Here again, exercise can come to the rescue. “Easy movement, like  walking or  low-key yoga, before bedtime nudges the parasympathetic  nervous system into  gear, diffusing stress and helping to calm you  down,” Nikkola says. Even 10 to  20 minutes of stretching before hitting  the sack, for instance, could keep you  from tossing and turning,  resulting in an additional hour of slumber. And when  you’re sleeping  better at night, you’re also less likely to reach for the junk  food and  energy drinks that can wreak havoc with your daily energy cycle.

If you’re willing to kick your intensity up a notch to the “moderate”  level  (the equivalent of a brisk walk or anything that gets your heart  pumping), you  get other benefits, including improved mental focus. A  2008 study found that 45  to 60 minutes of a midday group exercise class  improved the mood, performance  and concentration of white-collar  workers.

“The clear and positive benefits of exercising only accrue on the  days when  it happens,” notes the study’s lead researcher, Jim McKenna,  PhD, professor of  physical activity and health at Leeds Metropolitan  University in the United  Kingdom. A second study, published in 2010 in  the journal Pain Med,  showed that just 10 minutes of exercise produced measurable reductions in  anxiety and depression.

So rather than skip that yoga class when you’re facing a day loaded  with  challenges, it’s probably wise to make it an even higher priority.  “You should  treat your workout like it’s the most important meeting you  have all week,” Nikkola says.

Reclaim Your  Brain

“When you’re stressed, your brain busies itself trying to keep you  safe from  threat — real or imagined,” says Sascha du Lac, PhD, associate  professor of  neurobiology at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies  in San Diego.  Self-preserving thoughts can monopolize the brain space  that could otherwise be  used for scanning your environment, accessing  memories and relating to other  people.

Fortunately, physical exercise can help heal and hone the very same mental  abilities that are sabotaged by everyday stressors.

Picture yourself hiking or running on a trail. Though you’re not  conscious  of it, this relatively simple, pleasurable activity requires  you to make  hundreds of split-second choices — about foot placement,  balance and  navigation, for example — which can improve your capacity to  think, feel and  relate to others.

“The cerebellum, the area of the brain traditionally associated  mainly with  movement, is also involved with higher functioning, like  planning, socializing,  abstract thought — even creativity and emotional  intelligence,” explains  Elizabeth Beringer, director of the Feldenkrais  Institute of San Diego and  editor of Embodied Wisdom: The Collected Papers of Moshe  Feldenkrais (North Atlantic Books, 2010).

“When you exercise regularly, your attention can broaden and shift at  will,” adds du Lac, “away from fearful, self-preserving thoughts and  onto what’s  actually going on around you: the responses of your  coworkers, your own  insights and ideas, the specific demands of the task  at hand.”

Psychological research has also shown that, for many people, a  regular  exercise routine is a “keystone” habit: a behavior that sets off  a chain  reaction of seemingly unrelated positive behavioral changes. In  a 2006 study  published in The British Journal of Health Psychology,  researchers  found that sedentary people placed on an exercise program  voluntarily began  smoking less, drinking fewer alcoholic and caffeinated  drinks, and eating  healthier. They also did more household chores, used  their credit cards less  often, and kept up more diligently with study  and work obligations. Everything  in their lives that required  self-discipline, in other words, became easier — almost by magic.

“Regular exercise builds self-regulatory resources,” explains Todd   Heatherton, PhD, professor of psychology and brain sciences at Dartmouth   College and an expert in habitual behavior and addiction. This ability  to  self-regulate, or exert willpower, say researchers, may be the most  significant  key to success in any work environment — it’s what  allows you to stick  to a task when others give up, and to overcome  obstacles that at first seem  insurmountable.

Small Changes, Real  Results

Improvements in mood, energy and productivity aren’t affected   significantly by the type of exercise you choose, so don’t fret too much   about whether you should be getting your work-enhancing boost from  yoga, a Zumba class or a run around the lake. The key is to do  something you enjoy — and maybe something a little novel as well.

“Learning is inherently enjoyable to humans,” says Beringer. “It  lights up  pleasure centers in the brain.” So mix things up, and try to  include activities  that build in some variety and progression, like team  sports, dance or martial  arts.

Also keep in mind that if your primary fitness goal is to boost your  work  performance, you can begin with a relatively small commitment of  time. “Researchers believe that 20 minutes of moderate to vigorous  exercise, a few  times a week, is all you need to see positive  adaptations in the brain,” says  du Lac. “You can do that all at once or  in small segments throughout your  day.”

And when you can’t spare even that much time and effort, just use  your head. “Imaginary movement lights up the same areas in the brain  that real movement  does,” says du Lac. Clinical studies show that  athletes who visualize an  unfamiliar exercise see gains in strength and  power similar to those who  actually practice the movement.

So when work is pushing you to the limit, spend a few minutes  daydreaming  about a jog down the beach, complete with the feeling of wet  sand beneath your  feet and the smells and sounds of the ocean. The  process could confer at least  some of the same benefits of a real  workout.

Of course, you’ll get the most significant advantages from moving  your  entire body on a regular basis. And now that you know the extent to  which your  professional future depends on it, you may find yourself  more motivated to do  just that.

The Efficient  Workout

If driving to and from the gym for an exercise class just isn’t in  the  cards, try these easy ways to get in a fat-burning, muscle-building  workout on  a busy day:

  • Hop in the saddle. Consider bike commuting. You get  to  skip the stress-filled commute, burn some calories, reduce your  carbon  footprint and save gas money all at the same time. Bonus: It’s  tough to flake  out on your after-work exercise routine when the bike is  your only way  home.
  • Grab a bell. A kettlebell, that is. Pick up a hefty  one at  your local sporting-goods store and stash it underneath your  desk at work. In  10 minutes, you can do a full-body, low-impact workout  that puts the treadmill  to shame.
  • Climb a skyscraper. Racing up the service stairs of  tall  city buildings is becoming an increasingly popular urban sport —  in large part  because it’s tough. If you work in a high-rise, lace on  your running shoes, hit  the stairs and scamper up 10 or more flights as  fast as you can. Take the  elevator back down (for recovery), if you’d  like, and repeat two to four more  times.
  • Make like a monkey. Mount a chin-up bar in the  doorway to  your office, and do a single pull-up every time you go in or  out. Can’t do a  pull-up yet? Stick with the self-assisted, jump-and-pull  variety until you can,  which will be soon, because you’ll net dozens of  reps per day. To avoid angry  memos from the boss, get a bar that mounts  over the door jamb — not one that  requires screws and a drill.

Fitness Tips for the  Time-Starved

“Keeping active doesn’t have to mean taking up residence at the gym,”  says  Elizabeth Beringer, director of the Feldenkrais Institute of San  Diego and  editor of Embodied Wisdom: The Collected Papers of Moshe Feldenkrais (North  Atlantic Books, 2010). “The trick is to make movement a natural  part of  your day rather than another thing you have to make time for.”

  • Sound the alarm. “Staring at a computer screen can  pull  your attention away from your body. People often sit motionless in  front of  them for hours on end, and only later realize they’re in pain.”  So instead of  waiting till your lower back is begging for mercy, set an  alarm that tells you  to get up and stretch every 20 minutes or so.  These micro-breaks will help  stave off aches and improve your focus.
  • Reach out. Ergonomic experts will tell you to set  up your  workstation so that everything you need is right in front of  you. Beringer  suggests going the opposite route: “Extending your arms is  extremely  pleasurable, and we almost can’t do it enough,” she says. “So  put some things  you regularly need — important documents, a file  cabinet, the phone — an arm’s  reach away so that you have to extend and  shift in your chair every so  often.”
  • Rise up. Every hour or so, get out of your chair.  Go  refill your water bottle. Do some deep lunges and a few pushups.  Schedule a  walking meeting. Make a point of getting vertical several  times throughout your  day. You can also experiment with working at a  counter or other standing-height  surface.
  • Go mobile. “Mobile devices like cell phones were designed  to help us be more mobile,” says Beringer. “But few people take full  advantage of  that.” So don’t hunker down at your desk during a cell-phone call  when  you could be walking around the room or climbing stairs. Attending to   your body’s need for movement helps you think, interact and perform your  job  better.

By , 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.

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