Category Archives: LIFE AND HEALTH

On mindfulness

Mindfulness is a form of meditation which originated in the Buddhist traditions of Asia. It has been defined as ‘moment-to-moment non-judgemental awareness’ [Kabat-Zinn, 1990] and involves paying attention to the present moment with a non-striving attitude of acceptance.

Effectively, it’s about ‘being present’: quieting the endless mental chatter in order to fully experience everything the present moment has to offer. It means paying full attention to whatever you are seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, or tasting. It means regarding thoughts and feelings which do arise in terms that emphasise their transience and subjectivity within a broader field of awareness.

It has become quite popular. Over the past three decades, mindfulness has gone from an obscure Asian religious technique to become a widely-touted panacea and serious money-making industry:

We now have advocates for and practitioners of mindful eating, mindful sex, mindful parenting, mindfulness at work, mindful sports, mindful divorce lawyers, mindfulness-based stress reduction, mindfulness-based addiction recovery, and on and on… Today mindfulness is touted as a cutting edge technique said to provide everything from financial success to mind-blowing female orgasms.

[Mindful America, 2014]

Inspired by the success stories of Arianna Huffington et al., more and more people are taking interest. In February 2014, TIME even made the case for a mindfulness ‘revolution’:

time mindful rev

Benefits

Despite the often-exclusionary media depiction of mindfulness, meditation, yoga etc. as shallow activities for skinny white women, mindfulness may benefit anyone. In a stressed-out, multitasking culture the benefits of relaxing the emotionally-draining circuit of rumination may even be substantial.

Mindfulness has been associated with increased health outcomes. For example, Kabat-Zinn reported improvements in pain, body image, activity levels, medical symptoms, mood, affect, somatization, anxiety, depression, and self-esteem. Other studies have demonstrated benefits in helping people cope with many problems, including chronic pain, fatiguestress reduction, various forms of cancerheart diseasetype 2 diabetes, psoriasis, and insomnia.

[Journal of Evidence-Based Complementary & Alternative Medicine, 2014]

Beyond merely a relaxation effect, meditation may also provide cumulative psychological and cognitive benefits via physical changes in brain structure:

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), one of the most widely used mindfulness training programs, has been reported to produce positive effects on psychological well-being and to ameliorate symptoms of a number of disorders. Here, we report a controlled longitudinal study to investigate pre-post changes in brain gray matter concentration attributable to participation in an [eight week] MBSR program.

… Analyses in a priori regions of interest confirmed increases in gray matter concentration within the left hippocampus. Whole brain analyses identified increases in the posterior cingulate cortex, the temporo-parietal junction, and the cerebellum in the MBSR group compared to the controls. The results suggest that participation in MBSR is associated with changes in gray matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking.

 [Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 2011]

Perhaps the most engaging research has been conducted by Elizabeth Blackburn, a Nobel Prize-winning biochemist inducted as a ‘Medicine Buddha’ by the Dalai Lama. Blackburn’s research indicates that our thoughts and emotions – especially stressful emotions – influence the rate at which we age right down to the level of our cells and telomeres (‘molecular clocks’). In this context, Blackburn has suggested that meditation, as an intervention against stress, may slow the ageing process and help beat chronic age-related diseases such as diabetes, heart-disease, and dementia.

Nobel_Elizabeth_Blackburn
Elizabeth Blackburn, Medicine Buddha

McMindfulness

Mindfulness meditation may not be a miraculous cure-all, but it can provide substantial benefits in a stressed-out culture and is something certainly worth trying. (You can begin by reading any number of appropriate articles or books; you may realise benefits from as little as ten minutes of practice a day or less).

But the concept of a ‘mindfulness revolution’ is not so straightforward. As consultants work to detach mindfulness from its woo-woo hippie context so as to make it more palatable to the corporate world, they risk turning an ancient spiritual practice into what some critics are calling ‘McMindfulness’: a stripped-down, secularised technique detached from its original purpose and foundation in social ethics.

Buddhist thought already diminishes the value of worldly bonds and aspirations by celebrating the essential unity of all living beings with the cosmos. Absent any social or political imperative, and as a path to ‘inner peace’, mindfulness may become just another way for corporations – together with the $11bn self-help industry – to justify the status quo by blaming individuals for their own unhappiness:

Mindfulness is often marketed as a method for personal self-fulfillment, a reprieve from the trials and tribulations of cut-throat corporate life. Such an individualistic and consumer orientation to the practice of mindfulness may be effective for self-preservation and self-advancement, but is essentially impotent for mitigating the causes of collective and organizational distress.

… Bhikkhu Bodhi, an outspoken western Buddhist monk, has warned: “absent a sharp social critique, Buddhist practices could easily be used to justify and stabilize the status quo, becoming a reinforcement of consumer capitalism.” Unfortunately, a more ethical and socially responsible view of mindfulness is now seen by many practitioners as a tangential concern, or as an unnecessary politicizing of one’s personal journey of self-transformation.

[Huffington Post, 2013]

A ‘nonjudging, nonstriving attitude of acceptance’ begins to sound oddly twisted; even as a corporate ‘opiate of the masses’… What’s the matter employee #1098? Feeling stressed? Sick again? Goddammit, why haven’t you been doing your meditation practice?

 

McMindfulness
Employee of the Month: McMindfulness

On grounding

Grounding or earthing is defined as placing one’s bare feet on the ground (especially when humid or wet), whether it be dirt, grass, sand, or concrete.

In order to balance the electric charge of your body with the Earth:

It is known that the Earth maintains a negative electrical potential on its surface. When in direct contact with the ground (walking, sitting, or lying down on the Earth’s surface), the Earth’s electrons are conducted to the human body, bringing it to the same electrical potential as the Earth.

[Integrative Medicine: A Clinician’s Journal, 2011]

‘Grounded’ has been the natural bioelectrical environment of living organisms throughout most of evolutionary history. Only since the 1960s have humans insulated themselves from the Earth with rubber-soled shoes.

alig
Martin Freeman (of barefoot hobbit fame) explains that rubber-soled trainers do not conduct electricity.

Benefits of grounding?

Emerging research suggests that grounding has beneficial effects on human physiology:

As soil’s electrons are conducted to the human body, the grounded body assumes favorable physiologic and electrophysiologic changes. Attenuation of the inflammatory response and a favorable impact on blood viscosity and RBC aggregation have been the most recent findings. Previous studies have also demonstrated that grounding promotes favourable regulation of circadian rhythms, improved sleep with better night-time cortisol dynamics, and favorable ANS function.

[The Journal of Alternative and Contemporary Medicine, 2013]

Inflammation has been associated with almost every modern chronic illness. Grounding may be a simple way to reduce it:

Reduction in inflammation as a result of earthing has been documented with infrared medical imaging and with measurements of blood chemistry and white blood cell counts. The logical explanation for the anti-inflammatory effects is that grounding the body allows negatively charged antioxidant electrons from the Earth to enter the body and neutralize positively charged free radicals at sites of inflammation. Flow of electrons from the Earth to the body has been documented.

… The research done to date supports the concept that grounding or earthing the human body may be an essential element in the health equation along with sunshine, clean air and water, nutritious food, and physical activity.

[Journal of Environmental and Public Health, 2012]

Going barefoot for as little as 30 or 40 minutes a day can provide significant benefits.

Read the book Earthingor see the documentary Grounded:

NEAT (?)

Non-exercise activity thermogenesis is the energy expended from everything we do that is not sleeping, eating or exercise.

Because calories are burned not just in the gym but through ‘all the activities we undertake as vibrant, independent beings’:

NEAT includes the energy expenditure of occupation, leisure, sitting, standing, walking, talking, toe-tapping, playing guitar, dancing, and shopping… NEAT is therefore the most variable component of energy expenditure, both within and between subjects, ranging from ∼15% of total daily energy expenditure in very sedentary individuals to 50% or more of total daily energy expenditure in highly active individuals.

[American Journal of Physiology – Endocrinology and Metabolism, 2004]

Fidgeting can increase energy expenditure by 20-40%; ambling around a shop can double it and purposeful walking triple it.

The potential variance in NEAT is therefore substantial and can vary for a given person by as much as 2000 kcal per day.

[Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology, 2006]

Justin Bieber: inventive ways of expending energy
Inventive ways to expend energy.

NEAT and weight loss

A number of studies have linked changes in NEAT to weight gain/loss:

In one study, 12 pairs of twins were overfed by 1000 kcal per day. There was 4-fold variation in weight gain, which by definition must have reflected substantial variance in energy expenditure. Because the changes in energy expenditure were not accounted for by changes in basal metabolic rate, indirectly changes in NEAT were implicated.

[Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology, 2006]

And obesity has been associated with a genetic bias to sit down:

Obese individuals appear to exhibit an innate tendency to be seated for 2.5 hours per day more than sedentary lean counterparts. If obese individuals were to adopt the lean “NEAT-o-type,” they could potentially expend an additional 350 kcal per day. Obesity was rare a century ago and the human genotype has not changed over that time. Thus, the obesity epidemic may reflect the emergence of a chair-enticing environment to which those with an innate tendency to sit, did so, and became obese.

[Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology, 2006]

NEAT is an important factor in the regulation of body weight. Increasing it may be a better way of losing weight than joining a gym. It may also be better for your overall health.

On blue light and David Bowie

David Bowie’s ‘Sound and Vision’ offered this commentary on television:

Blue, blue, electric blue
That’s the colour of my room
Where I will live
Blue, blue

Pale blinds drawn all day
Nothing to do, nothing to say
Blue, blue

I will sit right down, 
Waiting for the gift of sound and vision
And I will sing, waiting for the gift of sound and vision
Drifting into my solitude,
over my head

Sony used the song in a highly ambiguous advert for its Xperia Z smartphone in 2013:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Pp7nDmb5K4

Blue light and circadian rhythms 

Whatever Bowie may have meant by his reference to blue – the eery blue glow of electric screens, the general down-feeling of the blues –  he probably didn’t have circadian rhythms in mind: 24-hour cycles that tell our bodies when to sleep and regulate other physiological processes. But research has shown how artificial light can interfere with biological time:

Until the advent of artificial lighting, the sun was the major source of lighting, and people spent their evenings in (relative) darkness. Now, in much of the world, evenings are illuminated, and we take our easy access to all those lumens pretty much for granted.

But we may be paying a price for basking in all that light. At night, light throws the body’s biological clock—the circadian rhythm—out of whack. Sleep suffers. Worse, research shows that it may contribute to the causation of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, [depression] and obesity.

[Harvard Health Letter, 2012]

Blue light in particular has uniquely harmful effects. By suppressing the release of a hormone called melatonin, it keeps us alert during the day and awake at night:

Blue wavelengths—which are beneficial during daylight hours because they boost attention, reaction times, and mood—seem to be the most disruptive at night. And the proliferation of electronics with screens, as well as energy-efficient lighting, is increasing our exposure to blue wavelengths, especially after sundown.

[Harvard Health Letter, 2012]

There are various mitigation strategies to consider if you are interested in better sleep. How about turning off the TV and your Xperia Z smartphone and listening to David Bowie instead? Ideally for 1-2 hours before bedtime.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Muh1pk7xc2k

Meet the iceman

‘Iceman’ Wim Hof is a Dutch daredevil with the ability to withstand extreme cold. He holds twenty-one world records including the record for longest ice bath at 1 hr 52 mins. In 2007 he attempted to climb Mount Everest in sandals and shorts:

‘Edmund Hillary’s ascent of Mount Everest was a testament to human achievement; my climb of Mount Everest in my shorts will be a monument to the frivolous, decadent nature of modern society.’ 

He turned back at 7,400m due to frostbite. But he did manage to reach the top of Kilimanjaro in his shorts in 2009.

The iceman in his element.
The iceman in his element.
The iceman on display in Hong Kong.
The iceman on display in Hong Kong.

Madman or pioneer?

Hof claims that he is able to withstand the cold and actually feel ‘completely warm and comfortable the entire time’ by influencing his autonomic nervous system and innate immune response through breathing techniques and meditation. He claims that ‘What I am capable of, anyone can learn.’

He has even gone some way to proving that through a book and in collaboration with researchers:

‘Hitherto, both the autonomic nervous system and innate immune system were regarded as systems that cannot be voluntarily influenced. The present study demonstrates that, through practising techniques learned in a short-term training program, the sympathetic nervous system and immune system can indeed be voluntarily influenced… This study could have important implications for the treatment of a variety of conditions associated with excessive or persistent inflammation, especially autoimmune diseases in which therapies that antagonise proinflammatory cytokines have shown great benefit.’

[Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, 2014]

Hof is an eccentric. But his self-developed method is equally interesting.

 

MS vs food

There is more to health than eating lots of organic vegetables. But it can be a good place to start.

Terry Wahls is a clinical professor of medicine at the University of Iowa. In 2000 she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and by 2003 she needed a tilt/recline wheelchair. Her symptoms continued to worsen until she implemented radical dietary changes in December 2007.

Within a year she was able to walk through the hospital without a cane and complete an 18-mile bicycle tour… Go Terry!

Dr-Terry-Wahls-2nd-stage-Multiple-SclerosisDr.-Terry-Wahls-Up-from-the-chair-Multiple-Sclerosis

Her food philosophy, now available in book form and online, is designed to flood the body with all the various nutrients it needs:

‘Your cells have approximately 4,000 different enzyme systems with more than 1,000 different chemical signals, performing trillions of chemical reactions every second. More than 250 different nutrients have been identified and likely there are thousands more that scientists have not yet identified that are important to enjoying optimal health. Are you getting them all? Probably not.’

[The Wahls Protocol, 2014]

Disease is not a simple cause-and-effect condition, and food can facilitate the body’s natural healing processes. Already the Institute of Functional Medicine is doing important work spreading this message around the world.

‘You don’t have to wait until all the proof comes in and is vetted by the medical community. You don’t have to wait until a “food prescription” becomes part of the standard of care in your conventional doctor’s office (which I believe someday will happen – it is the only rational course). You can have this information right now. Food is the bedrock of health. Our food choices can either lead to disease or create health and vitality.’

[The Wahls Protocol, 2014]

On positivity

photo
Barbara Fredrickson

Positivity? Isn’t that just self-help crap?

Not according to Barbara Fredrickson, a psychologist and
researcher who has become a leading figure in the field of positive psychology:  an area of research intended to reverse the focus of psychology on mental illness by instead exploring the factors that allow people to ‘flourish’.

Fredrickson is best known for her ‘broaden and build’ theory of positive emotions:

‘This theory states that certain discrete positive emotions – including joy, interest, contentment, pride, and love – although phenomenologically distinct, all share the ability to broaden people’s momentary thought-action repertoires and build their enduring personal resources, ranging from physical and intellectual resources to social and psychological resources.’

[American Psychologist, 2001]

Positive emotions broaden our thinking, engaging learning centres and improving creativity through the action of hormones such as dopamine and serotonin. The cumulative effect of this emotional state builds cumulative results, as we pursue our interests and perform better.

Fredrickson even describes positivity from an evolutionary perspective:

‘Human ancestors who succumbed to the urges sparked by positive emotions to play, explore, and so on would have by consequence accrued more personal resources. When these same ancestors later faced inevitable threats to life and limb, their greater personal resources would have translated into greater odds of survival… To the extent, then, that the capacity to experience positive emotions is genetically encoded, this capacity, through the process of natural selection, would have become part of universal human nature.’

[American Psychologist, 2001]

Positivity is usually associated with overenthusiastic Americans hugging each other while listening to Cher. But this cannot put you off it altogether.