Tag Archives: mood support

Healthy Hints for Holiday Happiness

The holidays can be a time to relax and enjoy time with your family. And they can be a time to run yourself ragged trying to make holiday magic happen for others. On top of this, some struggle with seasonal depression from reduced sunlight and fewer opportunities to exercise. While winter can be an enchanting time, the additional stress to take a toll on our health. Stress reduces our ability to fight off infections making us more susceptible to winter colds and flu. In addition, long-term stress can increase the risk for diabetes, ulcers, osteoporosis, certain cancers, heart attack, stroke and coronary artery disease. Stress can also contribute to mood issues such as anxiety and depression.

So as the holiday season gets into full swing, it is time to come up with a plan to reduce the negative impact so you can enjoy the good parts of the season.

First, give yourself some “me” time. As I mentioned in my last blog, you deserve the time to be healthy.

Practice your stress coping skills. Choose what works for you and make some time for it. Laughter, journaling, reading, prayer, meditation, imagery, writing, exercise, deep breathing, cultivating positive attitudes, and physical expressions of emotions are some of the more common techniques people have found to creatively manage their stress.

lavender

Try calming herbs. Herbs taken as supplements or teas can help calm the mind. Popular calming herbs like kava, skullcap, and California poppy can be found in capsules or liquid tinctures. Or make your own tea blends from relaxing herbs like lemon balm, catnip, passionflower, lavender, st. john’s wort, and chamomile.

Here is my recipe:

¼ cup chamomile flowers

¼ cup lemon balm leaves

¼ cup passionflower leaves

2 Tbs catnip leaves

2 Tbs lavender leaves

Mixes these together. To make the tea, place 1 teaspoon to 1 Tablespoon of the blend in one cup of water that was just boiling. Steep for 5-10 minutes, preferably covered. Strain the tea, or remove the tea ball if you were using one. Sweeten with honey or stevia if desired.

You can also try your own creation. You might like it so much that you decide to share it with someone on your gift list. Include a tea ball or strainer and a recipe card so they can make more for themselves.

If all else fails, buy yourself a present.

Give Yourself the Gift of Time

I am not going to lie to you. Being healthy takes time. It takes time to cook healthy food for yourself. I always make sure I have at least 30 minutes in the morning to make a nutrition breakfast. It takes time to exercise, but every hour you exercise is essentially an hour you are adding to your life. Adequate sleep is vital because between the seventh and eighth hour of sleep, we get almost an hour of REM sleep, the time when the mind repairs itself. So if you don’t allow yourself a full night’s rest, you are missing this important opportunity to repair and prepare for the next day.

But I didn’t follow my own advice recently. I was working extra long hours and started to feel run down. I took some of my favorite immune supporting herbs like elderberry, Echinacea, and garlic and spent part of a day resting, but the very next day I was busy from 7 am to 11 pm. I had just harvested the last of the garden produce and was determined to get it in the freezer right away so I worked the extra hours. But the cold that I had nearly nipped in the bud became a terrible case of bronchitis. I had to take days off and cancel appointments with patients so I wouldn’t get them sick. In retrospect, I needed to change my priorities. Those veggies could have waited a few more days before I took care of them.

I know that for most people the demands on their time aren’t related to getting this year’s harvest stored, it most likely is the demands of work and family life. For many Americans, time is even becoming a more precious commodity than money, in that they don’t have enough of it for themselves. But we can always consider making different decisions to put ourselves first. When it comes to health, it is okay to be selfish. Our health is a very valuable commodity. In my case, a few hours early on could have saved me days of misery later. And this same equation can hold true when we take little steps to be healthier now. Every extra minute we give ourselves to sleeping enough or eating well may help extend our years of healthy life long term.

Give yourself the gift of time to be healthy. You deserve it.

Cats sleeping

Omega-3s for Mood

Fish oil has numerous well-documented benefits for our health. It is probably best known for its cardiovascular advantages of decreasing cholesterol and clotting. Here I am going to focus on its mood supporting qualities, because there have been a number of exciting recent studies. In one study following patients with major depression, the likelihood of also having anxiety was much higher in those with the lowest blood levels of EPA and DHA, the major omega-3 components of fish oil. A second study found that in women a higher intake of omega-3 fatty acids reduced the incidence of elevated depressive symptoms by 49%. This study also pointed out the ratio of omega-3 fatty acids to omega-6 fatty acids was important. This means you can support your mood by both taking fish oil and reducing intake of omega-6 fats like those found in meat and most oils including corn, soy, and vegetable oils.

Fish oil may even be able to reduce suicidal tendencies. It has long been noted in epidemiological studies that low omega-3 levels are correlated with increased rates of suicide. Researchers have also found higher levels of a marker called SAT1 in people with strong suicidal ideation. This marker and related ones were also associated with stress, mood disorders, anxiety, and hallucinations. In mice that were genetically altered to have abnormal expression of these biomarkers, treatment with omega-3 fatty acids brought their levels of the troublesome markers back to normal. All of this very promising research reinforces the use of fish oil as part of the plan to support mental health for even very serious mood disorders.

salmon

Catnip: This Nerve Soothing Herb Is Not Just for Cats

My cats love it, but there are many great reasons for people to choose this nerve-toning herb too. While catnip is stimulating to cats, it is relaxing to us. Because of these benefits, catnip can be a good option for restlessness, insomnia, and nervous headaches. It also helps relax tense muscles and ease muscle spasms. For this reason, some women use catnip for menstrual cramps. Like its close cousin lemonbalm, catnip has a pleasant lemony taste that can make it a great choice for a soothing tea. It is also a popular addition to make herbal blends taste better.

Catnip

 

Catnip is a great herb for children too because of the good taste and gentle effect on the body. It can be used for insomnia or excitability in children. It is good for upset stomachs and other digestive complaints. Catnip has some antiviral activities and can help break a fever. It also helps ease coughs. These actions make it a good herb for children during cold and flu season.

I find catnip very easy to grow as long as my cats don’t destroy it when it is small. I bring the fresh leaves inside for my cats, but also see them in the garden eating it and rolling around in it. Catnip is reputed to be a nerve tonic for cats, so their brains actually benefit from the “buzz” they get. I also love catnip for its scientific name: Nepeta cataria. If fact, I used to have a cat by this name. Her nickname was Nip.

Nepeta hunting goldfish

Nepeta hunting goldfish

Vitamin D: Getting Your Right Dose

My grandfather had multiple sclerosis, which is an illness that is more prevalent in northern latitudes like South Dakota where he lived. Some researchers are investigating whether lower vitamin D levels might contribute to this trend. Data like this has increased our awareness of the need for vitamin D over the last few years. There seems to be an epidemic of vitamin D deficiency in this country especially since Americans are spending more time inside and doing a good job of using sun screen when outside. As I noted in a previous blog, exposure to toxic chemicals like pesticides might also be interfering with our ability to make vitamin D from sunlight. There is strong evidence showing that appropriate levels of vitamin D reduce falls and fractures and improve bone density. Vitamin D is also useful for helping prevent influenza and maybe even asthma attacks. Additionally, vitamin D might also help prevent some cancers and autoimmune diseases. Finally, I always make sure my patients that are taking calcium have adequate vitamin D levels. Without adequate vitamin D in the body, calcium supplements might increase heart disease, but when given together they reduced mortality by 9% in a recent study.

However, more isn’t always better. With all of the hype about vitamin D, I have seen people taking high doses for long periods of time. All medicines and supplements have optimal dose ranges: too little isn’t enough to help, but too much can cause problems. A common dose of vitamin D used to be 400 IU, but now the thinking is that this is probably too little. Likewise, regular dosing over 2000 IU might offer no additional benefit and in some cases may even diminish the desired outcome. For instance, in a study on influenza, Japanese children given vitamin D had a 64% reduction in the rate of influenza compared to placebo. But when children already taking vitamin D had more vitamin D added, their rate of the flu increased by 11%. This number wasn’t high enough to be sure it wasn’t just random fluctuations, but at the very least, it showed that more vitamin D didn’t lead to greater benefits. For Caucasian women with osteoporosis, higher doses didn’t necessarily have any negative consequences, but the increases in bone density were the same between two groups with one taking 800 IU and the other taking 6500 IU. While I sometimes recommend vitamin D testing, it is important to know that there are different optimal levels for different ethnicities. For instance, Caucasian women whose vitamin D levels less than 20 ng/ml had a significant increase in fracture risk, but African-American women whose levels were above 20 ng/ml had 45% increase in fracture risk. So while vitamin D can offer us several benefits, it is important to figure out your right dose.

Herbs of the Ozarks

I believe that if we know the local herbs in any region well enough, we can rely on them nearly exclusively to treat most common complaints. This holds true for the Ozark region, where many classic American herbs grow and many introduced species also tend to flourish. In fact, the Ozarks are part of the native range for herbs in very high demand—like goldenseal and American ginseng.

Another well-known plant from this part of the country is black cohosh. This herb is found in nearly every blend for menopausal symptoms, but it is most effective for women that have a particular constellation of symptoms, such as hot flashes, depression, and achy muscles or joints. Studies are showing that black cohosh may reduce the hormone surges associated with hot flashes. Black cohosh might also have constituents that act similarly to the medications known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which could explain its possible mood benefits. Furthermore, black cohosh also has pain-relieving attributes that make it an ideal herb to choose for discomfort and complaints not related to menopause. It contains analgesic and inflammation modulating constituents that make it a promising consideration for joint and muscle pains. Women can use it to address menstrual cramps because it relaxes smooth muscles, such as those found in the uterus. Black cohosh is also an herbal option for men who have low back and knee pain, especially if they also have prostate issues or are under a lot of stress.

 Robert H. Mohlenbrock @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / USDA SCS. 1991. Southern wetland flora: Field office guide to plant species. South National Technical Center, Fort Worth.


Robert H. Mohlenbrock @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / USDA SCS. 1991. Southern wetland flora: Field office guide to plant species. South National Technical Center, Fort Worth.

Japanese honeysuckle is a plant that is probably known to every Arkansan, but few know about its health benefits. Japanese honeysuckle isn’t native to the Ozarks. It was introduced and is now invasive, but one way to combat invasive plants is to harvest them for herbal medicine. The flowers of Japanese honeysuckle are antimicrobial, antiviral, inflammation modulating, and mildly detoxifying. The most common traditional use of honeysuckle flowers is as a component of Chinese herbal blends for colds and flu. A modern use of honeysuckle flowers is as an addition to pharmaceutical or herbal antimicrobial agents to increase their effectiveness. Additionally, Japanese honeysuckle flowers can help block the pumps that harmful bacteria use to disseminate the antimicrobial agents out of themselves. Apart from supplementation, Honeysuckle flowers are also mildly cooling and can make a refreshing summertime iced tea.

So we don’t necessarily have to search exotic lands for our medicinal herbs. Instead we can use our local plants provided by Mother Nature to help our environment and ourselves.

And you can check out my recent appearance on a local Harrison TV station talking about some other common herbs found here in the Ozarks.

Yes, Fish Oil May Help You Live Longer

Back in the 1980, all fats were considered to be unhealthy.  Then, we started distinguishing between good fats and bad fats. Healthy fats include certain unsaturated fats like the monounsaturated fats in olive oil and Omega-3 fatty acids. Sources of Omega-3s fats includes fish, fish oil, canola oil, flaxseeds, and a few other seeds and nuts. Omega-3 fatty acids are widely used to help reduce inflammation and blood clotting. They are also important for skin health and mood. Omega-3 oils support the brain and are associated with healthier brains as we age.

It has long been argued that consuming fish or other Omega-3 sources is good for the heart. Some studies have confirmed this, but others showed no results. A recent well-conducted study seems to have solidly demonstrated the benefits of Omega-3 for the heart and overall longevity. Of over 2000 participants over 65 years old, those with the highest blood levels of Omega-3s had a 27% lower risk of death compared to those with the lowest levels during the 15 years they were tracked. This corresponded to the people with the higher levels of Omega-3s living 2 years longer on average. The largest effect was a 50% reduction in deaths due to cardiac arrhythmias, which are irregular heartbeats that can be live threatening. The difference between this and previous studies is this study measured the amount of Omega-3 fatty acids in the blood of the participants, while other studies had relied on dietary recall of what participants were eating or used questionable quality fish oil supplements. Many prescription and supplemental fish oils are modified from their natural form and may not be absorbed well. It is argued that fish oils that occur in their natural form, know as triglycerides, will be much better absorbed. This is one of the reasons I recommend brand that make sure their oils are in the natural triglyceride form like Nordic Naturals.

The Power of Probiotics

We have billions of microorganisms living in our guts and the balance of species of these organisms has a powerful effect on our overall health. Imbalances in gut flora are common due to antibiotics, disease, stress, or diets high in meat and saturated fats. The wrong population of bacteria in our guts can contribute to digestive distress, but they can also contribute to less obvious issues. An imbalance of gut bacteria can deactivate digestive enzymes, stimulate dysfunctional immune responses, activate carcinogens, and contribute to migraines. On the other hand, beneficial bacteria help optimize digestion, stimulate immune function, improve the intestinal barrier, and prevent colonization of the gut by pathogens. In addition, they can break down certain toxins and synthesize some of our vitamins like vitamin K. Beneficial bacteria may also help prevent colon cancer by lowering intestinal pH.

Recent research is suggesting additional benefits to having a healthy population of gut flora. A new analysis of the causes of diverticular disease of the colon shows that there is an inflammatory component to this condition. This inflammation in impacting the neuromuscular functioning of the gut in a way that contributes to the symptoms of this disease. One avenue being considered to help address this problem is the use of probiotic supplements to help reduce inflammation in the gut. Beneficial bacteria work to fight inflammation by enhancing immune function, producing compounds that nourish the cells lining the colon, and improving intestinal barrier function.

We are also increasingly becoming aware of the connection between the gut, brain, and our mood. In an initial study, women given a daily probiotic showed decreased emotional reactivity when presented with negative stimuli. Brain scan done in conjunction with this study revealed decreased activity in areas of the brain associated with fear and other strong emotions. Though this was just a preliminary study, it reminds us of the immense importance digestive health has on our overall wellbeing.

Fighting Sugar Cravings

Recently I attended the local American Diabetes Association Expo and spoke with a lot of people about blood sugar issues. But sugar is not just an issue for people who already have diabetes; it is a troublesome issue for a lot of people. Americans consume over 50 pounds of sugar a year, and this level of sugar can wreak havoc on our health from cavities to weight gain. My grandmother had diabetes, so like many Americans I may have a genetic predisposition that would make me more likely to get diabetes if I did eat sugar at anything close to the average American intake. In addition to the diabetes risk, sugar adds calories to the diet without nutrients, which can contribute to weight gain. Also, there is evidence that sugar may suppress the immune system.

Many people know sugar isn’t a healthy choice but are having trouble cutting it out of their lives. For some, this is just because sugar is addictive. For others, the issue may be that their blood sugar is dropping and they are choosing the quick, unhealthy solution of sugary foods. Instead, it is better to pick foods that will sustain you longer like those high in protein and complex carbohydrate. The mineral chromium can also be helpful for balancing blood sugar for some types of hypoglycemia as well as in prediabetes. Other sugar cravings are related to mood and stress. When stressed out, some people consume sugar to temporarily increase the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that contributes to feelings of well-being. Of course, there are healthier ways of supporting serotonin such as eating a high-protein food with all three meals. If none of these approaches is helpful, the health of the digestive tract needs to be considered.

If you need further motivation to drop some of your favorite sweet treats, check out this visual representation of the sugar content of some common junk foods compared to fruit.

And for more nutrition tips, I have posted my most recent PowerPoint presentation on Whole Nutrition for anyone who couldn’t make it to my talk.