Looking backward, moving forwards

I used to think that with each new year, I was getting wiser.

In reality, I’m probably just getting older … like sun-baked plastic, slowly growing more rigid, cracked and brittle with each passing day. Which is why I no longer blog about subjects like the eleven steps to self-attainment or the seven habits of highly effective nose pickers, or new years resolutions in three easy payments. Call me a grumpy old man, but I’ve been down that road. Hey, if it lights your candle, then I wish you all the best. But to everyone else, if you’re happy to humour a cantankerous old sceptic, I’d like to share my musings on a year that was more morbid than magical.

2014 was quite a year. After suffering from depression for most of the three previous years, I was hoping that 2014 was going to be a year of consolidation. It turned out quite the opposite. I celebrated a birthday milestone with a party that was one of the most amazing experiences of my life, and is still remembered fondly by those who could. That, and I published my second book. In terms of highlights, that was it.

Otherwise, it was a year of adversity. Nearly every one of my family members was in hospital this year at some point. And death came for my wife’s mum, Robin Williams, the cricketer Phillip Hughes, and everyday heroes like Tori Johnson and Katrina Dawson in Sydney’s Lindt Cafe siege. In late October, I nearly lost my wife. Many of my friends suffered untold tragedies too.

I’m not going to sugar-coat it, 2014 was a tough year. In the shower this morning, where I get all of my best thinking done, I was contemplating the year that was, and how I was going to move forward. 2014 had left me emotionally bruised and bleeding, and I will carry some of the scars forever. Though while I may be broken, in many ways, that’s not such a bad thing. Brokenness changes your perspective. I’m more grateful for my family. I can empathise on a deeper level with my patients in their distress. I’ve come to understand the wilderness experience of the soul.

I’ve come to realise that goals without deeper values undergirding them are vacuous and futile.

I have a deeper understanding of the grace of God, who despite my brokenness, misery and existential despair, was holding me up and bringing me through. He was my lifeguard, keeping my head above water, swimming me to shore.

Hmmm, perhaps I’m not as rigid or as brittle as I thought.

In 2015, I won’t be making any silly resolutions trying to better myself, because in being broken, I can finally see what’s truly valuable in my life. I may be limping, but at least I’m finally limping in the right direction.

If you’re broken and limping too, let’s limp together into a new year that is richer and more fulfilling than the last.

The joy of Christmas

It’s Christmas morning!

I’m currently sweltering in the North Queensland heat and humidity, listening to the screaming and fighting amongst my kids, longing for air conditioning, silence and a cold drink.

It’s easy for the meaning of Christmas, a celebration of selfless giving, to become about what we get for ourselves, or about using Christmas as a marketing opportunity.

The antidote is gratitude.

It’s more than just saying thanks for the presents we receive. It’s being thankful for family to give presents to, for the masses of food that we tend to consume, for living in a country that is abundant in resources, is not at war, and that still values Christian traditions. It’s being thankful for a benevolent God that showed his extreme love for us by sending his son as the ultimate Christmas present.

Yes, it’s even being thankful for noise and heat and sweat.

2014 has been a difficult year. But as much as there has been many tragedies, griefs and sorrows, there are still many things we can be grateful for.

I hope that this Yuletide season, you experience the true joy of Christmas through gratitude, and that you have a safe and prosperous new year in 2015.

Dr Caroline Leaf: All scare and no science?

Screen Shot 2014-12-24 at 11.02.44 am

On her social media feed today, Dr Leaf posted a meme implying that conventionally farmed food was toxic.

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist. Anyone who’s been following Dr Leaf will know from her frequent food selfies that she is an organic convert.

Dr Leaf is welcome to eat whatever she chooses, though not content to simply push her personal belief in organic foods, Dr Leaf is now actively criticising conventional food, publishing memes on her social media posts which imply that conventional produce is poisonous.

As I’ve written before, despite Dr Leaf’s blinding passion and quasi-religious zeal for organic foods, there is no evidence that organic food is any more beneficial than conventional food (Dangour et al, 2009; Bradbury et al, 2014). Indeed, there’s no magic to a healthy food lifestyle. Eat more vegetables. Drink more water. Conventional veggies and conventional water do just fine. Sage advice, even if it doesn’t lend itself to food selfies.

While organic zealots believe they have the high ground on the topic of food safety, the published science cuts through the hype. As noted by Smith-Spangler et al (2012), there is some evidence that there may be less pesticide residue on organically grown foods, but there is no significant difference in the risk of each group exceeding the overcautious Maximum Residue Limit.

Two points on the Maximum Residue Limit that are particularly important:

  1. The Maximum Residue Limit is extremely cautious, and most food tested is well below this already overcautious limit. The Maximum Residue Limit is set to about 1% of the amount of the pesticide that has no effect on test animals.   According to a recent survey of grapes done by Choice Australia, the amount of residue was well below the Maximum Residue Limit (about 1% of the Maximum Residue Limit on average) (Choice Australia, 2014). So on the average bunch of grapes in Australia, the pesticide residue is about one ten thousandth of the level that is safe in animals, and this pattern is the same across all conventional produce. Thinking in more practical terms, “a 68 kg man would have to eat 3,000 heads of lettuce every day of his life to exceed the level of a residue that has been proven to have no effect on laboratory animals … an 18 kg boy would have to eat 534 apples every day of his life to exceed a residue level that is not dangerous to laboratory animals. And an 18 kg girl would have to eat 13,636 kg of carrots every day of her life to exceed such a level.” (ecpa.eu, 2014)

    2. Organic foods have pesticides too. Granted, this is at lower levels than their conventional counterparts, but it’s there all the same (Smith-Spangler et al, 2012). I once had a lively discussion with an organic food zealot about the pesticides in organic farming. Her argument was that organic pesticides are safe because they’re “natural” poisons. So are arsenic, cyanide, belladonna and digitalis (foxglove), but why let the truth get in the way of ones opinion. Poisons are poisons whether they’re “natural” or not. The Maximum Residue Limit applies to organic foods just the same as conventionally farmed produce for that reason.

Another interesting thing … in the Choice survey, the organic grapes had no detectable pesticides, but so did conventionally farmed grapes bought at a local green grocer. So organic food zealots can’t claim that they have a monopoly on low pesticides in their foods.

Not that having lower pesticide residues means that organic foods are necessarily safer. Organically farmed produce has a higher risk of contamination from E. coli and other potentially toxic bacteria, depending on the farming method used (Mukherjee et al, 2007; Sample, 2011).

So to bring it all together, conventional produce has levels of pesticide residues so low that it would take an extra-ordinary feat of vegetarian gluttony to exceed a level that was still found to be non-toxic in animals. The risk to human health from conventional farming with pesticides is nanoscopic. Organic foods may have less pesticide, but they have a higher risk from enterotoxigenic bacteria.

Since there is nothing to fear from conventional foods, it seems irresponsible for Dr Leaf to promote the unscientific idea that conventional foods are poisonous. One wonders why Dr Leaf would engage in a campaign of fear against healthy, nutritious foods? Personal bias perhaps, although that doesn’t bode well for her credibility as an objective scientist. Another plausible reason could be marketing. Fear sells things, that’s Marketing 101. Gardner (2008) wrote, “Fear sells. Fear makes money. The countless companies and consultants in the business of protecting the fearful from whatever they may fear know it only too well. The more fear, the better the sales.”

Posts like today’s make Dr Leaf seem like all scare and no science. Publishing images with the skull and cross bones and the word “POISON” is certainly not attempting to allay anyone’s anxiety, and that fact that it‘s directly tied to a reminder of her upcoming book on food only makes shameless promotion all the more likely. I’m sure that a Godly woman of Dr Leaf’s standing wouldn’t stoop so low as to use fear and mistruth just to make better sales, but posts like today’s open her up to legitimate questions from others regarding her credibility and her motivation.

For her sake, I hope that she tightens up her future posts, and reconsiders her stance on the science of organic and conventional foods.

References

Bradbury, K.E., et al., Organic food consumption and the incidence of cancer in a large prospective study of women in the United Kingdom. Br J Cancer, 2014. 110(9): 2321-6 doi: 10.1038/bjc.2014.148

Choice Australia, 2014. <http://www.choice.com.au/reviews-and-tests/food-and-health/food-and-drink/groceries/pesticide-residues-in-fruit-and-vegetables.aspx&gt;

Dangour, A. D., Dodhia, S. K., Hayter, A., Allen, E., Lock, K., & Uauy, R. (2009). Nutritional quality of organic foods: a systematic review. Am J Clin Nutr, 90(3), 680-685. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.2009.28041

European Crop Protection Agency, 2014, <http://www.ecpa.eu/faq/what-maximum-residue-level-mrl-and-how-are-they-set>

Gardner, D., The science of fear: Why we fear the things we shouldn’t – and put ourselves in greater danger; 2008, Dutton / The Penguin Group, New York

Mukherjee, A., et al., Association of farm management practices with risk of Escherichia coli contamination in pre-harvest produce grown in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Int J Food Microbiol, 2007. 120(3): 296-302 doi: 10.1016/j.ijfoodmicro.2007.09.007

Sample, I., E coli outbreak: German organic farm officially identified. The Guardian, London, UK, 11 June 2011 <http://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/jun/10/e-coli-bean-sprouts-blamed>

Smith-Spangler, C., Brandeau, M. L., Hunter, G. E., Bavinger, J. C., Pearson, M., Eschbach, P. J., . . . Stave, C. (2012). Are organic foods safer or healthier than conventional alternatives? A systematic review. Ann Intern Med, 157(5), 348-366.

Dr Caroline Leaf, behaviour and genetic destiny

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Today on her Facebook feed, Caroline Leaf posted a quote which said, “Your behavior can and does dictate your genetic destiny”. Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and a self-titled cognitive neuroscientist. In isolation, it sounds like she has found confirmation of her view that our thoughts and behaviour control the physical properties of our DNA (Leaf, 2013, p35).

However, I wanted to look at the quote in a broader context, because in the broader context, the quote still doesn’t confirm Dr Leaf’s teaching.

The quote comes from an American doctor, Sharon Moalem. Dr Moalem is obviously a smart man. According to Wikipedia, “Dr. Moalem is an expert in the fields of rare diseases, neurogenetics, and biotechnology. He is the author of the New York Times bestselling book ‘Survival of the Sickest’ and ‘How Sex Works’. Moalem has cofounded two biotechnology companies and is the recipient of 19 patents for his inventions in biotechnology and human health.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sharon_Moalem)

It’s not that Dr Moalem’s quote is wrong. In the book from which the quote is taken, Dr Moalem discusses the expression of genes (Moalem, 2014). There is no doubt that our behaviour affects the expression of genes. For example, when the body encounters a high level of dietary iron (ie: we eat a big juicy steak), a series of steps activates a gene to promote the production of ferritin, a protein that helps to carry iron in the blood stream (Strachan and Read, 2011, p375-6). These changes in genetic expression are mostly protective (for example, ferritin is used to keep toxic elemental iron from damaging our tissues). There are some behaviours that will override the body’s protection, for example, excessive exposure to UV radiation will eventually lead to skin cancer. But overall, the changes in genetic expression that our behaviour causes are protective, and do not adversely affect our health.

Unlike Dr Leaf, Dr Moalem does not promote the notion that our behaviour changes the genes themselves. Neither does he promote that our behaviour, in isolation, is the only modifier of our genetic expression. The quote that Dr Leaf used came from the second chapter of Dr Moalem’s book, “Inheritance: How Our Genes Change Our Lives, and Our Lives Change Our Genes”. Really, the title says it all. Our behaviour influences our genetic destiny, but our genes influence our behaviour just as much, if not more.

For example, small variations in the genes that code for our smell sensors or the processing of smells can change our preferences for certain foods just as much as cultural exposure. Our appreciation for music is often changed subtly between individuals because of changes in the structure of our ears or the nerves that we use to process the sounds. The genetic structure of the melanin pigment in our skin changes our interaction with our environment because of the amount of exposure to the sun we can handle. Our genetic destiny is also largely influenced by our environment, most of which is also beyond our choice (Lobo and Shaw, 2008).

So your behaviour can and does influence your genetic destiny, but your genetic destiny is more influenced by our genes themselves, and the environment that is beyond our control.

Dr Leaf’s quote doesn’t look quite so supportive after all.

References

Leaf, C.M., (2013) Switch On Your Brain : The Key to Peak Happiness, Thinking, and Health, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, Michigan

Lobo, I. & Shaw, K. (2008) Phenotypic range of gene expression: Environmental influence. Nature Education 1(1):12

Moalem, S., (2014) Inheritance: How our genes change our lives and our lives change our genes, Grand Central Publishing, New York.

Strachan, T. and Read, A., (2011) Human Molecular Genetics. 4th ed. Garland Science, New York.

The pain and gain of grief

Floral tribute to the Sydney siege victims, at Martin Place, Sydney

Floral tribute to the Sydney siege victims, at Martin Place, Sydney

In many ways, 2014 hasn’t been the best of years, unless you’re a florist.

A dear friend of mine recently went through an unimaginable personal loss, but politely requested that no one send her flowers, because the unintentional metaphor of receiving something beautiful that soon withered and died simply reminded her of what she had lost. Not that I could have given her flowers anyway – it seems like all of Australia’s bouquets have been laid in Martin Place.

The siege in the Lindt Cafe was an assault on Australia’s national psyche as much as it was an attack on a small café in the CBD of Sydney, and marks a highpoint of suffering in the midst of several tragedies back to back. Soon after the tragic events in Martin Place, news came of the murder of eight children from the one family in Cairns. Two weeks before, we were rocked by the sudden death of cricketer, Phil Hughes.

Like many, many others in the last few weeks, I’ve felt that discombobulating mix of sadness, compassion, anxiety, and numbness (and many other feelings) that accompanies loss. I was grieving.

Grief is not fun. There are a wide variety of ways in which people grieve, of course, though grief is rarely described as joyous. Rather than being the five stages of grief that used to be dutifully learned by every medical and psychology student, grief is now considered a mish-mash of nearly every different emotion that a human can experience, for different lengths of time, at different intensities, in different patterns. Like your fingerprint, your emotional pattern of adapting to loss is as individual as you are. I felt helpless at the news from my close friend, shock at the death of Phil Hughes, and anxious when thinking about the Lindt Café. Each tragedy was also accompanied by a deep sadness.

As well as being emotionally draining, the process of grieving can have physical effects as well, associated with high levels of pro-inflammatory cytokine release and the changes that are associated with that (O’Connor, Irwin & Wellisch, 2009). Pro-inflammatory cytokines are also released because of physical stress or infection, so grief would physically feel like you have the flu, which is probably why grieving makes you feel physically awful as well as mentally distraught.

As awful as these feelings are, they are important to our healing and restoration. Grief functions as a way of helping us adjust to life on the other side of our loss. Like our body has to heal and adapt to physical wounds, grief helps us heal and adapt emotionally. Grief is not a disease, but a normal process that everyone experiences at one point or another.

Some authors teach that negative feelings and emotions are toxic, or that the outcome of different stresses in our life is dependent on our personal choices. If there was ever a case-in-point of the benefit of “negative” emotions, and why the outcome of stressful events is not entirely under our control, it’s grief. Grieving is a process which, by definition, is distressing. The storms of painful emotion roll through us, triggered and controlled by our subconscious brain, with our conscious mind along for the ride. As distressing as those emotions can be, they are not ‘negative’ emotions, but the process of healing,

At times of intense sorrow, we can try and ‘help’ those who are grieving by telling them how they should feel, or what they should do, but during times of grief, being too directional is usually not helpful. The blog today is more general in nature because I don’t want to try and push one particular way of grieving over another. There is no right or wrong way to grieve.

My Physical Education teacher often used to say, “No pain, no gain.” Actually, it was more barking through his megaphone, trying to make me run faster in my cross-country race. It may seem an odd match, but the principle applies here too. If you are feeling the sadness and loss over the Lindt Café, Phil Hughes, Robin Williams, or any other personal loss you may have experienced, it’s ok to feel the distress. The pain is hard. The feelings are raw, and they are real. But you will get through them, and they will help you to experience the joy in life again.

I am coming to terms with each of these different tragedies in my own way. Lets pray that 2015 is a much better year.

If you are struggling and don’t know where to go to talk or find assistance, see your GP or psychologist, visit BeyondBlue (http://www.beyondblue.org.au), or the Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement (http://www.grief.org.au).

If you want to donate to the funds or foundations set up in honour of the Sydney siege victims, please go to http://www.beyondblue.org.au/get-involved/make-a-donation or http://thekatrinadawsonfoundation.org.

References

O’Connor, M.-F., Irwin, M. R., & Wellisch, D. K. (2009). When grief heats up: Proinflammatory cytokines predict regional brain activation. NeuroImage, 47(3), 891–896. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2009.05.049

Dr Caroline Leaf: Avoid foods containing cellulose

This is an anonymised screen shot taken from Dr Leaf’s Facebook feed just now, showing the very sensible reply of a Canadian dietician to Dr Leaf’s ill-informed assertion.  It’s possible that Dr Leaf’s Facebook minders could delete the dietician’s comments or the post altogether, so I wanted to ensure it was saved for the public record.

In fairness to Dr Leaf, I will post her correction if she is willing to make one.

Caroline Leaf Toxic Ingredients 2

Don’t stress about stress – Part 4: Stress breaking bad

This is the last blog post in my brief series on stress. Today, we’re going to look at what happens when we do hit stress overload, and a few simple methods that may be able to help you through a tough situation.

One of my favourite shows of all time was Breaking Bad. Breaking Bad told the story of Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher and average family man, who is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. To support his wife and disabled son after he’s gone, he uses his knowledge of chemistry to launch himself into an underworld career manufacturing crystal meth.

Allostatic overload is the term modern scientists use for stress breaking bad. Stress moves from an agent of growth and change to an agent of disease and death.

In the last few blogs, we discussed that stress is actually more of a positive than a negative. It’s not that stress can’t be bad, because we know from the stress-productivity curve and from the Yerkes-Dodson Law that too much stress overwhelms our capacity to cope with it. The model used to describe the balance of stress on our body is the theory of Allostasis.

Allostasis

All living things maintain a complex dynamic equilibrium – a balancing act of the many different physiological systems that all rely on the other systems working at an optimal range. Imagine trying to stack ten spinning tops on top of each other while trying to keep them spinning. The body does the chemical equivalent of this very difficult combination of balance and dexterity every day. It’s called homeostasis. This balancing act is constantly challenged by internal or external events, termed stressors. Both the amount of stress and amount of time that the stressor is applied is important. When any stressor exceeds a certain threshold (“too strong, or too long”), the adaptive homeostatic systems of the living thing activate responses that compensate.

The theory of allostasis is related to these homeostatic mechanisms, although not just in terms of stress, but broadly to the concept of any change of the optimal range of these homeostatic balancing processes, in response to a change in the environment or life cycle of an organism [1].

McEwen and Wingfield give an example of some bird species, which change their stress response to facilitate their breeding capacity during mating season. They note that the benefit of the increased chance of breeding is important to the bird, but also comes at a cost of increased susceptibility to some diseases because of the weakening of the stress response at the time [1].

When it comes to stress, we adapt in a similar way. A lack of stress, or an excess of a stressor in some way (either too long or too strong) results in adaptation, which is beneficial, but can come at a cost. This is demonstrated by that broadly applicable U-curve, the stress productivity curve.

Chrousos wrote, “The interaction between homeostasis disturbing stressors and stressor activated adaptive responses of the organism can have three potential outcomes. First, the match may be perfect and the organism returns to its basal homeostasis or eustasis; second, the adaptive response may be inappropriate (for example, inadequate, excessive and/or prolonged) and the organism falls into cacostasis; and, third, the match may be perfect and the organism gains from the experience and a new, improved homeostatic capacity is attained, for which I propose the term ‘hyperstasis’.” [2] And as noted by McEwen, “Every system of the body responds to acute challenge with allostasis leading to adaptation.” [3]

More often than not, we adapt to the stressor, either the same as before, or possibly better. It’s only if the response to the stressor is inadequate, excessive and/or prolonged that stress ends up causing us trouble. This is what people normally think of when they think of stress – called allostatic overload – simply stress breaking bad.

Keeping stress in check

To ensure that we keep our stress levels at the optimum to ensure maximum productivity and growth, here are a few simple techniques. Remember, everyone handles stress differently, and so which of these techniques works best for you will be something you’ll have to learn by trying them.

Breathing

The simplest tool is breathing. Sounds a little silly really, since you obviously breathe all of the time! But we usually take shallow breaths, so our lungs are not being used to their full capacity. When we focus on our breathing and deliberately take slow, deep breaths we increase the amount of air going in, and therefore allow more oxygen to enter the blood stream. This better fuels our cells and helps them do their job more efficiently. However, it also sets in motion a physiological mechanism that slows our heart rate.

Our heart pumps blood from our body, through the lungs to get oxygenated. As we take a deep breath, more blood is sucked up into our chest cavity from our veins, because breathing in causes a temporary vacuum in our chest cavity. The extra blood then fills our heart more efficiently. A more efficient heart beat reduces the need for the body to stimulate the heart to pump harder. This promotes more of the parasympathetic “rest-and-digest” nervous system activity, and less of the sympathetic “fight-or-flight” nervous system, via the vagal brake mechanism.

So, to slow your breathing down simply sit in a comfortable position. Take slow, deep breaths, right to the bottom of your lungs and expanding your chest forward through the central “heart” area. Count to five as you breathe in (five seconds, not one to five as quickly as possible) and then count to five as you breathe out. Keep doing this, slowly, deeply and rhythmically, in and out. Pretty simple! This will help to improve the efficiency of your heart and lungs, and reduce your stress levels.

Remember, B.R.E.A.T.H.E. = Breathe Rhythmically Evenly And Through the Heart Everyday.

Meditation

Meditation takes the techniques of breathing one step further, in that meditation involves deliberately switching your brain’s focus to something simple, and in the present. Focussing on nothing – just breathing and turning off your thinking for while – does take some practice. Concentrating on something in the present (not thinking about the past or the future), tends to be easier and requires less practice, although ignoring all the other thoughts that routinely clamour for your attention might be hard when you first try it.

Focusing on the present moment is part of the practice of Mindfulness. Mindfulness meditation has been studied quite extensively over the last few decades, and has been shown to have benefits over a large number of psychological symptoms and disease states [4].

Sometimes it is easier to focus on something visual, that you can see easily in your field of view, or listen to something constant, like the ocean, or a metronome. The easiest thing to do is to again, focus on your breathing. Concentrate on the sound, rhythm and feeling of your breathing, but don’t engage your thoughts, or allow others to creep in. Meditation quietens the mind, which is excellent for reducing stress, and can help to revitalise and refresh your mind.

Guided Imagery

Guided imagery is a step along from meditation. Instead of focussing on something tangible, guided imagery lets you imagine that you are somewhere pleasant, relaxing, or rejuvenating. Some people describe it as a vivid daydream.

Get comfortable, close your eyes and start to breathe slowly and deeply. Once you begin to relax, imagine your favourite scene. It could be at the beach, or in a log cabin in the snow-capped mountains, or swimming in the cool waters in a tropical rain-forest. Whatever you choose, try to imagine the scene in as much detail as possible, and involve all five of your senses if you can, like, for example, the cool water of the waterfall on your bare skin, the sounds of the birds in the trees, the smell of the moss-covered rocks, the canopy of tall trees and vines split by the waterfall and stream allowing the sunlight to spill in to the forest floor. Enjoy the details and the relaxation that this brings. To “come back”, some recommend counting back from ten or twenty, and to tell yourself that when you reach one, you will feel calm and refreshed.

Guided imagery allows you to actively replace the harassing thoughts of your daily routine with pleasant soothing thoughts. There is some early scientific literature suggesting effectiveness, although more research is required [5, 6]. Again, with practice, this can be done anywhere, and can be done quickly if you need a short break to unwind.

Visualisations

Visualisations build on the techniques of guided imagery, but instead of the rain-forest or tropical paradise, you imagine yourself achieving goals, which again could be anything from improving your health, closing that deal, or hitting that perfect drive from the first tee. Again, try and imagine the scene in as much detail as you can, and involve all of your senses.

PMR

Progressive Muscle Relaxation, or PMR for short, is similar to meditation, except that you contract, hold, and then relax your muscle groups in turn. You concentrate on the feel of the tightening and relaxing of the muscles instead of, or as well as, your breathing. Like meditation, it can be done anywhere and involves very little training.

The contraction of the muscle groups, beginning in your feet – working your way up the calves and thighs, tummy, chest, arms and neck, sequentially pumps all of the blood back towards your heart, giving you a boost of blood flow to your lungs. The deep breathing oxygenates this extra blood and hence, gives your brain a burst of oxygen.

Using PMR to meditate helps engage the vagal brake, and there is some evidence that it helps to reduce persistent pain [7, 8].

Exercise

Exercise releases stress and enhances your physical health [9, 10]. It is flexible and easily adaptable – it is usually free and can often be done without any equipment. The downside is that it is not possible everywhere (you can’t go jogging in a plane), but as a daily discipline, it will enhance your physical and emotional wellbeing.

The benefits of exercise are firstly physical. It gets your heart pumping, the blood flowing and your lungs working to their full capacity. It builds physical fitness, which is important to enable the heart and lungs to work efficiently at all times. Exercise has effects on mood, improving depression [11] and anxiety [12].

It can also act as a form of meditation – the solitude of a run or swimming a few laps, concentrating only on the splash of your strokes or the pounding of your feet on the ground – is similar to meditation except that you’re moving (whereas meditation proper involves being still and relaxed). But the outcome is the same, and stress is often reduced by a session of physical exercise.

Music

Music is almost as fundamental to human existance as breathing, and it’s almost as diverse as mankind itself. Listening to ones favourite music can enhance feelings of control and can increase pain tolerance and improve short term anxiety (stress) [13]. The common characteristics of ‘therapeutic’ music was music which had less tonal (pitch) variation, less prominent chord changes, bass lines, or strong melodies [14].

But the key element was personal preference overall, as some of the participants in the study chose music like Metallica. So enjoy music. Make it part of your day. Even Country and Western may be considered therapeutic!

Yoga

Yoga is an ancient practice that has several components including physical postures (asanas), controlled breathing (pranayama), deep relaxation, and meditation.

It’s not for everyone, but it has clearly defined and scientifically validated benefits to your physical and psychological well-being. “It is hypothesized that yoga combines the effects of physical postures, which have been independently associated with mood changes and meditation which increases the levels of Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). Other effects that have been noted include increased vagal tone, increased gamma-amino butyric acid (GABA) levels, increase in serum prolactin, downregulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and decrease in serum cortisol, and promotion of frontal electroencephalogram (EEG) alpha wave activity which improves relaxation.” [15] So, translated: Yoga is good for stress relief!

Most gyms and community centres will have yoga instructors, so go ahead and make some enquiries.

Massage

I love massage! The first time I had a proper massage was in the small city of Launceston in the tiny Australian state of Tasmania. After just 30 minutes of the therapist kneading my muscles with her fingers of iron, I felt pretty good, but when I sat up, I was actually light-headed for a little while. My heart rate and blood pressure had reduced so much that it took me a while before I could stand up properly!

Deep pressure massage has also been shown to help release the vagal brake enhancing the activity of the parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) part of the autonomic nervous system. There is good evidence of this effect in pre-term infants [16]. The evidence for adults isn’t so strong, although that’s probably because of a lack of quality research [17]. The good studies that have been done show a reduction of cortisol, blood pressure and heart rate after massage, with some studies showing small persistent effects [17].

The data might be thin, but there is enough evidence to make it worth trying at least once.

Probiotics

I add probiotics to this list as a reference for the future. There is good evidence of the anxiolytic effect of having a friendly bacteria garden in your intestines that interacts with your gut and your immune system in positive ways. But there is, at this point, very little in the way of good quality human clinical trials. And we still don’t know exactly which strains of probiotics are the most helpful for different conditions [18, 19]. But given that they are unlikely to be harmful, it may be worth trailing a course of probiotics, and see how you feel in 30 days.

The bottom line – stress is not the enemy. Sure, if it isn’t handled right, stress can overwhelm us and make us sick, but most of the time, stress makes us productive and strong, and helps us to grow. So, don’t stress about stress.

References

  1. McEwen, B.S. and Wingfield, J.C., What is in a name? Integrating homeostasis, allostasis and stress. Horm Behav, 2010. 57(2): 105-11 doi: 10.1016/j.yhbeh.2009.09.011
  2. Chrousos, G.P., Stress and disorders of the stress system. Nat Rev Endocrinol, 2009. 5(7): 374-81 doi: 10.1038/nrendo.2009.106
  3. McEwen, B.S., Stressed or stressed out: what is the difference? J Psychiatry Neurosci, 2005. 30(5): 315-8 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16151535
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