Gut Check

I realize it has been a while since I’ve been active on my blog and I want you to know I appreciate the time you make and take to check-in. I’ve been busy planning and executing an epically, wonderful transition in my life: a return to dedicating my pursuits to what I love, including this delightful little blog and practice area.

Why? Because if not now, then when?

person standing on hand rails with arms wide open facing the mountains and clouds
Photo by Nina Uhlíková on Pexels.com

This transition has also provided me the opportunity and permission to dial in my own health and wellness. I knew that if I was going to jump head and heart first into what I am passionate about, I wanted to be able to maintain the enthusiasm, energy, and commitment every second of every day. I realized I didn’t have time to feel tired, sick, angry, jealous, depressed, or scared. In this new life I only wanted to feel happy, content, confident, and infinite love with a healthy and inspirational dose of fear. I also wanted to fall into bed each night with a devotion to get up the next day and do it all over again.

So, I worked backwards. In my planning, I decided to identify what it was that would help me avoid all the feelings and conditions I wanted to dodge and experience all the goodness a life lived well could and would provide. This led me to my gut.

In the coming weeks I will post about my journey to today and help answer questions you may have, including what does it mean to have an unhealthy gut? Why is gut health so important? And, Is there really a brain – gut connection? It’s been a fascinating experience for me and I’m excited to share what I’ve learned. Lots more to come but in the meantime, I leave you with a story from Cherokee folklore. It’s known as the Tale of Two Wolves and goes something like this.

“A fight is going on inside you,” an old and wise Cherokee Brave tells his young grandson. “It is a terrible fight between two wolves. One is evil: He is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, and ego.”

“But the other wolf is good,” the old Brave tells the boy. “He is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.”

“This fight inside you is the same fight going on inside every other person,” the grandfather explains. After thinking about it, the boy asks, “Which wolf will win?”

“The one you feed,” the old and wise Cherokee Brave replies.

But what does this fight have to do with our gut, you ask? You’d be surprised, I say, and I’ll have more to share on this next week.

 

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Why Muscle Matters

pexels-photo-458563.jpegLike muscle, I am starting out today’s chat with a strong proposal: Muscle is likely our best bet for anti-aging and disease prevention. In fact, I think it is the secret weapon we’ve been waiting to understand and embrace.

What do you mean by muscle? Although the body contains three types of muscle, the muscle I refer to here is the voluntary, smooth muscle that makes up 30-40% of our body mass. This includes the gluts and hamstring muscles and the muscles that make up our core, back, and arms. Essentially, the muscle that makes us move.

But here’s where it gets complicated: Muscle can be healthy or unhealthy. Healthy muscle is lean and rich with healing mitochondria (mighty mitochondria determine the quality and quantity of the muscle we have). But becomes unhealthy when too much fat, known as intramuscular fat, accumulates inside the muscle.

This is important because muscle influences everything. In fact, the health of our muscle determines if we will be tired at the end of the day or still bounding with energy, it dictates our ability to control weight, and affects our risk for chronic disease, such as heart disease and Type 2 Diabetes. It also impacts our ability to wage war against cancer and, in our elderly years, having healthy muscle can help us survive a hospital stay.

Why is this? It comes down to protein. Quite simply, protein is important because our organs, such as the heart and liver, need it to keep us alive. Think of healthy muscle as a vibrant machine that regulates protein in the body. A muscle’s job is to absorb protein from the diet, store it, and then make deliveries to the organs.

Conversely, unhealthy muscle is broken and ineffective at regulating protein savings and distribution. To complicate this, illness and injury cause the organs to require more protein. Organs use that extra protein to battle against everything from an annoying head cold to life-threatening cancer. So when muscle is unhealthy, protein is taken from the muscle itself, which means you have even less muscle than you did before. Factor in aging: At 50 we lose 1-2% of muscle mass each year and after 60 this increases to 3% a year–it begins to make sense why healthy muscle should be considered our secret weapon for aging gracefully.

How do you know if muscle is healthy or laden with fat? Short of costly procedures to have a look inside your muscle, a good way to know if your muscle leans toward healthy is how much you move on a consistent basis.

Do you regularly walk, run, spin, or lift? Or, does your routine more resemble this: Walking from the parking garage to your desk and back again only to run (um, drive) to pick up the kiddos and, after a quick spin through the grocery store and dinner chores, you end the day by lifting yourself onto the couch?

But, there is good news. Thankfully, the body is a wonderful and amazing machine. Muscles can manufacture fat-burning, energy-boosting, anti-aging mitochondria. All you have to do is exercise (and follow a nutrient-dense eating program).

pexels-photo-103520.jpegThe more consistent you are with workouts – whether that’s running, walking, cycling, swimming, weight-lifting, circuit training, or a combination of these – the more mitochondria your muscles will produce, which means the more effective your muscles will be at saving and distributing protein. When the organs have the protein they need, the better equipped they are to fight disease, chronic illness, limited mobility, pain, and all those things that happen to us as we age.

With regular activity, a balanced, nutritious diet, and loads of healthy muscle, you can depend on your body to be a lean, mean anti-aging machine. Phew!

Five Simple Strategies for Healthy Eating

pexels-photo-674574.jpegConfused about how to develop healthy eating habits? Feel like you know what nutritious foods are but lack the discipline to consistently eat well? You’re not alone. While nutritious eating seems overwhelming, it’s actually quite simple. Make choices that move you forward in the direction of your goals, whether that’s to shed a few pounds, feel better, or get a good night’s sleep.

Years ago, I carelessly suggested to a slim and fit friend that it must be sooo nice to eat anything and never gain an ounce. I remember the sharp tone in her voice when she firmly corrected me: It “wasn’t easy” she nearly roared. Her figure and fitness were the by-product of making good choices. Every day.

In the face of tasty, nutrient-negative French fries, she chose a nutrient-dense baked potato with a bit of butter. Instead of a burger, she ordered grilled chicken with a side of pesto aioli. She traded an apple for a chocolate candy-bar and ordered oatmeal with crunchy almond butter for breakfast over a raspberry scone. She put a ton of thought into what she ate or didn’t eat; ensuring her daily diet was wholesome, had variety, and matched her energy needs. She almost never wavered and when she did cheat, she savored her diet departure guilt-free before returning to her normal and nutritious eating plan.

Here are five simple strategies I’m fairly certain my friend followed everyday:

Eat breakfast. Here’s the thing, breakfast is important. Aside from breaking your fast from the night before, a solid, nutritious breakfast revs your metabolism helping you burn more calories through the day. Like stoking a fire, breakfast sets you up for digestive efficiency.

Be mindful and enjoy what you eat. What? This is hippy, crazy-talk: Contemplate my food and enjoy what I eat you say? Yes, drawing awareness to the food you are about to shovel into your mouth may help you slow down (less shoveling, more placing), eat less, and enjoy what you’re chewing. In fact, treating each meal as celebration in honor of being good to yourself is an important ingredient to a nutritious diet.

Notice how you feel after you eat. Foods trigger all kinds of feelings in the body, from glorious satiety to a happy energy that lasts for hours, to a belly bloated the size of a grapefruit or gas so smelly it can clear a room. If you think about it, it’s almost as simple as good versus bad: Good foods should make you feel good and bad foods probably make your feel, well, bad.

While this isn’t the easiest strategy, it’s perhaps the most telling. It may take some practice but taking note of how your feel after a meal will help pinpoint foods that are likely not-in-your-nutritious-favor.

For example, are you so tired at 2:00 p.m. every day it takes all you have to pour that afternoon coffee into your mug? If so, your lunch could be the culprit. Do you have a headache the size of a fist at the end of the day? You might rethink your mid-afternoon, fancy-coffee treat. That sugary-habit is likely to blame. If you remember how you felt the last time you consumed a third slice of greasy pepperoni and sausage pizza you will most likely stop at one-slice of that same pizza and replace the other two with a salad (because you know a bunch of greens on your plate guarantees you will feel amazing!).

Avoid fast food and processed food. (Pssst…to all you editor types, I purposely choose to use food twice in the title.) I know you know this, but while fast food is almost always processed, not all processed food is fast.

First, avoid eating fast food. Period.

Then, steer clear of commercially processed foods. Why? Because they are purposefully processed to make feasting easy. Wait, what? Commercially prepared foods, such as ready-to-eat frozen dinners (including the ones with healthy in the packaging title) or cheesy crackers or potato chips or sweets, including reduced-fat cookies, make it easy to feast. And by feast, I mean overeat.

Yes, it is hard to make every meal from scratch, using only wholesome ingredients. But it gets easier with experience. Consider making up meals ahead of time: Crock pots of organic chicken, root vegetables, and spices that simmer for hours and last for days (or are easily frozen for future meals) are great. So is a stir-fry of ground turkey and mushrooms and tomatoes and potatoes served on a bed of fresh spinach, topped with avocado and shredded whole-milk cheddar.

Up your vegetable and fruit intake. The minimum recommended intake of vegetablespexels-photo-57556.jpeg and fruit are three servings of veggies and two servings of fruit each day. It doesn’t sound like a lot does it? And, I’ll bet you think you got this one, but think again.

To meet this recommendation, you need to eat a lot of veggies and fruits (which becomes super, easy-peasy when you follow number four above). Here are a few examples of what you need to consume to reach the recommended daily goal:

  • Fruit: One large banana or eight strawberries and 32 seedless grapes or one cup 100% orange juice. Whoa!
  • Veggies: Two cups raw spinach or 12 baby carrots and one medium baked sweet potato or 20 cherry tomatoes and ½ a small yellow squash or one cup chopped red bell pepper. Holy hell!

The good news: Meet the recommended values and you’ll have little room for anything that isn’t packed full of nutrients.

Thanks for reading and check back next week; I plan to discuss why muscle matters.

 

Five Easy Strategies for Better Sleep

pexels-photo-57686Last week I talked about the relationship between sleep and weight, but sleep doesn’t just impact weight. Sleep affects our thinking, our efforts to perform, our health, our memory, and even our ability to be happy. Studies suggest that adults should strive to spend seven to nine hours between the sheets each night.

The simple take-away? Sleep is important. Unfortunately, sleep is, at times, elusive; even when we have the best intentions. Here are five easy strategies for better sleep you can implement tonight.

Routine. Sounds boring, but going to bed and getting up at the same time every day, even on weekends, has benefit. It gets us back in touch with our circadian rhythm, or our natural body clock. If we are used to going to bed at 10:00 p.m. our body will let us know when it is 10:00 p.m., and if we stay up late one night, our body will account for that lost sleep with a well-placed yawn or two at 9:00 p.m. the next night.

Relax. Chilling out an hour or two before bedtime helps encourage a restful night. But how? It’s actually quite easy: limit your screen time and spend the first few minutes in bed actively relaxing the body and mind. For the later, meditation and deep-breathing promote rest. Give it a try: simply close your eyes, relax the jaw and draw attention to your breath – both the inhale and the exhale. Take a slow, deep, smooth breath in and let it go with an exhale that is equally long and slow. Repeat this five to 10 times.

Exercise. Vigorous exercise during the day helps in the fight against sleepless nights. Because working out raises body temperature, revs up metabolism and stimulates the release of hormones (such as our feel-good hormones Endorphins and Dopamine), we feel tired. But the key is scheduling your work out far enough in advance of bedtime so these benefits aren’t disruptive.

Light. Get outside and into the light. Why? Exposure to sunlight boosts natural Melatonin production, the hormone that regulates sleep. Consider enjoying your morning cup o‘Joe on the front porch or taking a walk at lunch or incorporating a mid-day stroll around the office building to replace that trip to the candy machine.

Cool & Dark. Ensure your bedroom is cool and dark. Cooler because as body temperature drops it becomes easier to dose off and dark because Melatonin secretion, which is sensitive to light, is not interrupted. In fact, light (even the low light emitted from cell phones, digital clocks and TVs) can stunt production of Melatonin and signal the body to wake up. Whereas darkness increases the release of Melatonin, which urges the body to rest.

The Relationship between Sleep and Weight

Sleep imageHave you ever heard that sleep affects weight? It’s true; studies show lack of sleep can lead to weight gain. But how?

While not getting enough sleep may cause us to feel too tired to exercise or inspire high-calorie, pick-me-up snacking, like lattes, potato chips and candy, there is another reason why being groggy causes weight gain. It’s our hormones.

In simple terms, lack of adequate sleep influences how hormones perform, like leptin, the hormone responsible for signaling fullness. When we don’t get enough sleep, leptin levels fall; this cues our brain to send out messages to eat more even if we just finished eating a large meal. We can feel forever hungry when we are sleep deprived and that false hunger will likely cause us to fill that void by reaching for high-calorie, nutrient-deficient foods.

To make matters worse, too little sleep spikes the level of cortisol, a stress hormone, and interferes with how the body responds to insulin. Higher levels of cortisol cause the body to conserve energy, which tricks it into hanging on to fat. Similarly, insulin–the hormone that transforms certain foods into energy–doesn’t work properly; prompting more of it than is necessary. This results in the body choosing to store more fat. Not good news when we consider we tend to eat more when we are sleep deprived.

The bottom line: Lack of sufficient sleep can derail an otherwise perfect diet and exercise program. Next week I’ll share simple strategies to make getting seven to nine hours of sleep a night a priority and easy to attain.

Three Easy & Healthy Digestive Habits

Thinking about changing your eating to promote good gut health, but you’re not quite ready splashing-splash-aqua-water-67843to go all-in with a complete diet overhaul? That’s okay; you will make those deeper changes when you are ready. In the meantime, there are three easy and healthy habits you can adopt to promote good digestion.

Stay hydrated.
Hydration does two things when it comes to supporting good digestion: it helps food move through the digestive tract and promotes healthy elimination.

It’s important to understand that digestion begins in the mouth, continues through the esophagus into the stomach, and on to the small intestine. Sipping water between bites lubricates food, making it easier to liquefy in the stomach (which also promotes absorption of nutrients) and pass to the small intestine.

The second benefit of hydrating is at the opposite end: healthy bowel movements. Drinking enough fluids maintain muscle integrity in the large intestine (keeps muscles smooth and flexible) and helps retain moisture in the stool so it passes out of the body easily.

Think of water as your essential nutrient and waste transport agent.

Chew your food.
As I pointed out above, digestion starts in the mouth; with the saliva to be exact.

Saliva contains enzymes that kick-off the digestive process by breaking down the food we eat. Chewing increases surface area of food, which means better exposure to these digestive enzymes. Another benefit? Thorough chewing of food promises better nutrient absorption later in the digestive process.

pexels-photoTake a stroll.
Have you ever heard taking a walk after a meal improves digestion? It’s true.

Moving after a meal, like walking around your neighborhood, speeds the rate at which food passes through the stomach. This is because a little exercise encourages contraction of the digestive system’s smooth muscles, the action required to move food along the process. In simple terms, it helps prevent food from idling, or sitting, too long in any part of the digestive tract.

The Road to Good Nutrition

background-2277_960_720Practicing good nutrition daily is hard, but it’s not impossible. And it’s not all or nothing either. We’re human and we make mistakes. Sometimes we make choices based on emotions, which means, when it comes to food, some of those choices are good and others are not-so-good. And that’s okay, too.

Luckily the road to good nutrition is a long one; it doesn’t happen overnight. It comes from learning from our missteps and experiences. My path to craving nutritious feasts over empty-calorie meals took a few years and I’m forever grateful. Why? Because the time it took me to figure out a diet that promoted feeling and looking good also gave me the practice of sticking to it.

Now, choosing an apple over a Snickers® bar is a no-brainer. Eating a salad with dressing I make myself is second nature. So is indulging in delicious velvet cake with cream-cheese frosting at a birthday party. I no longer feel guilty: I understand it’s one celebration. That single act no longer wrecks my week or sends me on a month’s long sugar slide.

Another trick I learned along my journey: it’s uplifting to look to our past to see the improvements we’ve made. While living in the present is an ideal I prescribe to, examining our past highlights our progress. We forget all those little tweaks and revisions that got us to today. Looking backwards tells the story of our success and promotes self-efficacy, or confidence in our ability to execute on our goal of healthy eating. When I’m overwhelmed and teetering on total diet meltdown because a plate of my favorite truffle oil French fries is staring me in the face, I remember how I navigated a similar situation with success and that bolsters my conviction to not let this one instance derail my forward motion.

What does your road to good nutrition look like?