Marinating in Gratitude

Feeling good is good for you. More specifically, feeling good emotionally & spiritually is beneficial to your mental AND physical health. While this may seem straightforward, there is a gap between knowing this truth, and being able to actually get there. Right? Without elaborating, it can sound suspiciously like telling someone who is depressed to smile. I assure you I would never say that! One thing that makes a measurable difference to health – that is possible no matter what your current circumstance – is having an active, authentic gratitude practice.

As we approach Thanksgiving here in Canada; and as we celebrate the arrival of our little one in my family; I thought I’d share some new research findings on the health benefits of gratitude. Of course, I’d also like to offer some concrete suggestions for how to incorporate more gratitude into your life.

How can we “marinate in gratitude” more often – and why would we want to?

gratitude-heartWell, both physically and emotionally, “a grateful heart is a healthy heart”. Practicing gratitude is associated with increased well-being, less fatigue, improved sleep, decreased inflammation, and fewer symptoms of stress.

Recent studies to add to the evidence:

Managing Workplace Stress, Depression

Taking stock of thankful events reduces stress and depressive symptoms. In this 2015 study, published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, researchers looked at stress and depressive symptoms in health care workers at 5 hospitals. The participants were divided into 3 groups. The gratitude group wrote down something they were thankful for in their work twice a week, the hassle group wrote down hassles, and the control group did not note hassles or good things. Assessing participants’ mental health and stress at the end of the four week study, researchers concluded that a gratitude practice was an effective intervention for managing stress and depression in health care workers.

Heart Health, Inflammation, Fatigue, Sleep, Mood

Another interesting 2015 study found that practicing gratitude – in the form of writing down gratitudes most days for 8 weeks – improved health outcomes in people with stage B heart failure. Not only did a gratitude practice result in better mood, better sleep and better energy, but it led to a measurable decrease in inflammatory markers associated with heart disease progression. And all from an intervention that is free and has no negative side effects!

Gratitude Practices

Writing

gratitude journal paperMany people choose to write down one to three things they are grateful for from their day. Some days it may be that only the snuggles you had with your cat move you to true gratitude. And, that is ok. Other days, you may find your gratitude expands to include helpful strangers and supportive friends, a moment of noticing sunlight filtering through the leaves, or even access to clean drinking water. The important thing is that it is something you are authentically moved by, and feel thankful for. Let yourself feel that. You may choose to start or end your day with this exercise. If you know that you are unlikely to keep it up without encouragement, why not take it to social media, and post your gratitude(s) each day?

Out Loud: Sharing with Loved Ones

1) In bed: Share 3 gratitudes from your day with your partner before you go to sleep. What a nice way to shift into a better headspace at the end of a stressful day! And what a great way to support each other in this health-promoting practice.

2) Over dinner: This is a great way to connect with kids and create a simple family ritual. Some people will frame it as “best thing that happened to you today”, which is more concrete for younger kids. No matter how you label it, going around the table and sharing something positive from your day can be a great way of shifting attention to the good things, and celebrating that. Some days it might open up a conversation about something challenging that is happening, too, and this is also important.

Read more about gratitude’s gifts here.

Gratitude’s Gifts

Gratitude’s gifts are several. It gifts us with a moment or few of heart-uplifting, thankful, good feelings. Psychological studies find that practicing gratitude enhances well-being. If we share that gratitude with another, it makes us feel (measurably!) even better. As well, hearing someone express their gratitude for you is delightfully affirming.

With a nod to the arrival of Thanksgiving weekend here in Canada, it feels timely to share inspiring research findings on gratitude and well-being.

Practicing gratitude is good for your mood.


There are many books on the subjects of gratitude, thankfulness and wellbeing, and there is a whole field of psychology – Positive Psychology – studying this sort of thing. Cool, right? Think yourself into happiness. Easy? Sort of.

Now, don’t swallow the shaming, blaming kool-aide, please. Whenever I talk about this kind of research, in the realm of “thinking positive thoughts is good for you”, I mean AUTHENTIC positive thoughts. Lying to yourself is never good for you. Never. There is even research on that, in women with breast cancer. Realistic thoughts, even if they are negative, are associated with a better prognosis.

I learned the authentic thoughts lesson well some years back, when I was living in a leaky, mouldy, basement apartment, going through a breakup, and broke. Truly, those things all suck (yes, in a first world problems kind of way). I couldn’t summon gratitude for the fact that I had shelter, for instance, though I dutifully tried to be more “positive”. But I hated that apartment. And the mould was making me sick, and the darkness wasn’t helping me heal my heart. In that case, I COULD be, and WAS grateful for the unending support of my family, whose faith in me buoyed me when I didn’t have that faith in myself, and who were solidly there for me when I needed them. This was authentic for me at the time. And you know, changing my thoughts and – with great mental discipline – shifting to more positive thoughts, really helped me get out of that apartment and out of that hard phase in my life. Practicing gratitude was an important part of this process.

In honour of the true spirit of Thanksgiving, of gratitude for the gifts in our lives, I invite you to make space for gratitude more often. What would happen if you shifted from focusing on the daily annoyances, to daily gratitude? This study found that a gratitude intervention measurably improved mood for study participants, as well as improving their sleep. Cool, right? Taking a moment to find something you are authentically grateful for, be it the scattered autumn beauty of coloured leaves on the pavement, or the huge support a friend provides, or the delightful curiosity of your child, taking a moment to bathe in that feeling will make you happier, and it may help you sleep. Isn’t that something to be grateful for? 🙂

This thanksgiving, I hope you will be inspired to intentionally practice gratitude. Write a letter to someone far away, share your gratitude around the table, keep a gratitude journal, or simply be present to gratitude.

I invite you to share your approach and your results over on my Facebook page. May we inspire one another with our stories.

PS: Here is a great short video on the power of sharing your gratitude, from the folks at SoulPancake.

PMS Prevention Plan: 10 Tips For a Happy Menstrual Cycle

by Dr. Mahalia Freed, ND


Umm, happy? Isn’t that taking things a bit far? No, no it is entirely possible and reasonable. Read on. Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS) is not inevitable or unavoidable. PMS is common, but it is not “normal”.
 
Did you know that PMS can include over 100-300 different symptoms? While mood changes like anxiety, depression, irritability and lability (moodiness) are the most recognized, other common symptoms include breast pain or swelling, bloating, bowel changes (e.g. constipation, diarrhea), insomnia, headaches, migraines, food cravings, acne, back pain, fluid retention in the legs, and fatigue. For some people, PMS takes the form of increased clumsiness and brain fog. For others, it means less vocal range (an issue if you are a professional vocalist!), or even seizures. Finally, many women notice that their immunity is decreased at this time of the month. It is a time when cold sores or genital herpes might erupt, when asthma symptoms may flare, or when a yeast infection could make itself known. It is considered PMS if the symptoms occur in a cyclical pattern, related to the menstrual cycle, over several months. Symptoms may begin at ovulation (around day 14), or 1-2 days before the period begins.
 
The majority of women will experience PMS symptoms at some point in their lives.
 
So, shouldn’t we all know how to stay healthy, happy and stable in the face of Premenstrual Syndrome?  

Here are my Top 10 Tips for PMS Prevention:

 

  1. Nourish yourself with food. Eat lots of vegetables, eat home-made, eat clean protein. Eat organic whenever possible (in this case because xenoestrogens in pesticides impact your hormone balance). Remember that organic junk food is still junk food. Enjoy your treats.

Careful with caffeine. Most of us have figured out the therapeutic power of good chocolate, and I won’t be the one to take this away, but caffeine does make breast tenderness worse, and it can destabilize mood and worsen digestive symptoms. Consider cutting down on coffee.

  1. Cut the sugar. Refined sugar and processed foods aggravate pain and mood issues, even though they seem like a good idea in the moment. (Except a bit of good, dark chocolate).

 

  1. Move your body. Regular movement of any kind is effective, but yoga stands out in its efficacy in the clinical trials.

 

  1. Increase target micronutrients with supplementation:
  • B6: especially helpful for mood symptoms, B6 is essential for the metabolism of estrogen. Take it as part of a good-quality B complex.
  • Cal-Mag: Both calcium and magnesium are proven effective for managing premenstrual symptoms, from fatigue to depression to cramps. Consider supplementing with one or both.
  • Fish Oil (especially EPA): while more researched for other health concerns, fish oil is known to be effective for mood balance, and for shifting physiology to decrease inflammation. Thus, it is a good choice for certain types of PMS.

 
5. Work with an herbal ally or few

  • Herbs to consider for PMS include: St John’s Wort, Vitex agnus-castus, gingko, black cohosh, kava, motherwort, skullcap, passionflower. The specific herbs best for you will depend on your particular symptoms. Some people use combination formulas, while others see great results with only one or two herbs. Ask me for a personalized herbal prescription.

 

  1. Regulate your sleep schedule. Women with a regular sleep routine have more stable hormone levels than those whose sleep patterns are all over the place. Go to bed at the same time every night. For maximum benefit, go to sleep well before midnight, and sleep in total darkness (see melatonin, below).

 

  1. Increase your melatonin. You know how it feels like your hormones are crazy when you have PMS? Well, in fact the only hormonal difference scientists have found between women with severe PMS and controls is melatonin levels. That’s right, no estrogen excess or deficiency, no progesterone excess or deficiency. The other hormone issues are believed to stem from changes in hormone receptor sensitivity. But, this is still theory. In the meantime, you can increase your melatonin naturally:
  1. Sleep in complete darkness (blackout curtains, an eye mask if light is unavoidable)
  2. Start sleeping sooner. Melatonin production is higher before midnight.
  3. Ensure you give your body the building blocks. Pumpkin seed is a great source of tryptophan, the amino acid precursor to serotonin and melatonin. The reaction requires B6 (see above).
  4. Alternate nostril breathing can stimulate the pineal gland to increase melatonin production (and generally promotes calm when done before sleep).
  5. If you have been diagnosed with Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD), consider supplementing with melatonin. Start with 3 mg per day before bed. And, contact me for more (nonprescription) options.

 

  1. Honor the wisdom within you. If you are exhausted and feel irritated by anyone talking to you, maybe this is the time of the month to carve out a couple hours to curl up with a novel, or journal, rather than pushing yourself to maintain your usual pace. For those who experience intense shifts in mood, think of PMS as the time when the tide is out, and all the feelings and nagging thoughts that you can push down (under the water) the rest of the month are exposed. Sometimes PMS emotionality is just PMS, but often there are important nuggets of truth buried in the sad or mad or irritable state. Look for these truths and give them space at other times in the month. If the nagging thought is “this (job/relationship/etc.) doesn’t feel right”, then make space to explore that. Make changes. As things in your life shift in response to you listening to your inner voice, watch your PMS symptoms abate.

 

  1. Cultivate a happy microbial community:
  • Eat fermented or cultured foods regularly (e.g. unpasteurized sauerkraut, kimchi, kosher-style dill pickles).
  • Consider reseeding your flora with a quality probiotic supplement, especially if you have taken antibiotics.
  • (Good gut flora are associated with better mood, and good gut flora are also important for hormone balance)

 

  1. As always, I highly encourage you to seek out personalized naturopathic care to help map out the big picture, and tunnel down to the right supports for you. Constitutional homeopathy, acupuncture, flower essences, therapeutic nutrition and custom formulated herbal medicines can all offer incredible healing & resolution for PMS symptoms. With professional guidance and the advantage of an outside eye, meet your health goals faster, with less time lost to the contradictory information offered by Dr Google.

Contact me for information on becoming a client/patient.

“I drink milk for my bones”

 Dr Mahalia Freed ND, nutritional myth-buster

I regularly encounter the myth that we need dairy products for healthy bones. My clients tell me they don’t want to give up dairy, as osteoporosis runs in their family. Or, they tell me, “I don’t want to do that to my kids”.

Let me set the record straight: you don’t need milk products for healthy bones!

Adults don’t need dairy, kids don’t need dairy.

But, don’t I need calcium? Don’t my kids need calcium?

Yup. And many other minerals.

You don’t need milk products to get calcium!

As stated by researchers in a recent (July 2013) editorial in JAMA Paediatrics, “Humans have no nutritional requirement for animal milk, an evolutionarily recent addition to diet.”

But I thought I needed milk products for healthy bones!

Throughout the world, bone fracture rates tend to be lower in countries that do not consume milk compared with those that do. Moreover, milk consumption does not protect against fracture in adults, according to a recent meta-analysis” (Ludwig D and Willett W. 2013).

Furthermore, “Milk consumption increases serum concentrations of insulin-like growth factor-1, an anabolic hormone linked to prostate and other cancers” (ibid). Why increase cancer risk? Or the risk of type 1 diabetes, also associated with dairy intake?

Ludwig and Willett conclude: “For those with high quality diets (including green leafy vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and adequate protein), the nutritional benefits of high milk consumption may not outweigh the negative consequences.”

Milk, it doesn’t necessarily do your body good. You don’t need it, and neither do your kids.

More info on bones, calcium, and health:

What do I do for healthy bones?

Where (else) can I get calcium?

Healthy bones need which nutrients?

What’s good for what’s wrong with me? What is delicious?

 Mahalia Freed, ND

Have you ever asked an ND a seemingly simple question, like “what do you do for ___ (migraines/bloating/depression/fill in the blank)”?

Perhaps you were frustrated by the answer, as it wasn’t specific. The answer to that question is, “it depends”, or, “healing”.

What that healing looks like for YOU is as unique as your story, your history, your physiology, your life circumstances.

Let’s use the example of depression, a common concern in my practice.

What is good for depression?

Well, healing. Healing is what you need.

Why are you depressed?

Physiology: Depression can be related to low thyroid function, to food allergies (especially gluten), to depletion of neurotransmitters secondary to substance (ab)use, and to nutrient deficiencies (MTHF, B6, Vit D, EPA…), to name a few.

Life: Depression may stem from grief (a normal psychological state), from not living true to your life purpose, from feeling stuck in work or your relationship(s), or from a true feeling of powerlessness over hard circumstances (eg, living far below the so-called poverty line, unable to work due to chronic pain, and not being able to afford food, let alone herbal medicine or supplements)

Clearly, there are many “things” that are good for depression, then.

It is like asking, “what is delicious”? Babies’ feet are delicious. Freshly picked berries are delicious. Lying by a lake in the warm sun is delicious. Ice cream is delicious. Your mom’s famous ___ is delicious. Clearly, it depends. It depends on your tastes, your life context, your stories about the world.

Now, let’s flip the question.

What is ______ (any herbal medicine eg St John’s Wort, Gingko, Calendula) good for?

The answer, again – of course – is healing.

This is only the introduction to a larger conversation about healing. It is clear that in order to heal, individually and collectively, we need to ask different questions than what we have been taught to ask by our allopathically-oriented education systems. We need to jump into another way of seeing the world – another paradigm. The questions that arise from there can take us forward. I do hope you will join me.

Confessions of a Reluctant Meditator, or Tips for Fitting Meditation Into Your Life

by Mahalia Freed, ND

I am delighted to tell you that I proved myself wrong this year.

In the past 12 months I have gone from a firm, “meditation is for other people” identity, to being a person who strategizes to find that time in my day.

Huge shift!

Yup, despite ‘knowing better’ via the clinical evidence I saw regularly and the clear benefits in the research, I was sure it was something I couldn’t do. I truly believed that meditation was great for other people – but not for me. I couldn’t sit still, couldn’t quiet my mind, didn’t feel “good” at it. And you know, overachievers like me, we like to be good at things right away.

In effect, I was seeking less challenge, more comfort zone.

Sound familiar?

But, why leave the comfort zone? Well, you can’t grow in the comfort zone. And I got to the point where the benefits of growth outweighed my need for the ‘safety’ of the familiar. I felt like there was more within me but I couldn’t access it. I was frustrated. And stressed out. The tools I had weren’t enough to get me where I wanted to go. And then one more person told me meditation would allow me to get there, right after I finally found the type of meditation that resonates with me (see lesson #1 below). And I tried it. And I liked it. So I did it again. And again. Interestingly, leaving the comfort zone has felt great. So much for holding ourselves back to avoid hard, painful things. In retrospect, resisting meditation was a lot more painful.

I share this in case you – unlike myself – are gifted with the ability to learn from other people’s mistakes rather than needing to make them all yourself.

I hope you find the lessons I’ve learned and the tips I’ve gathered helpful on your own journeys. Why? Because meditation IS good for you (details and evidence via this link).

My two important lessons:

1)    There is no ‘one-size fits all’ with meditation, just like there is no one magic nutritional supplement that is right for everyone. Once I realized this, I stopped trying to fit myself into someone else’s favorite kind of meditation. I found one that was right for me. As someone with a short attention span and a tendency to be “doing” all the time, Shamanic journeying fits, as it gives me a focused something to do while I am breathing and observing. I found I really liked how I felt afterwards. And I liked the gifts it brought me, each and every time. Even when I approached it metaphorically kicking and screaming. Simple – and eventually kind of addictive, in the good way.

2)    Limiting my personal growth with pronouncements like, “meditation is for other people” is only as fun as laughing at myself is later on – when I prove myself completely wrong, again. I am now resolved to limit the limiting pronouncements.

Tips for incorporating regular meditation into your already full life:

1)    Most importantly, be a seeker. Be open and find the sort of meditation practice that works for you. Is it Transcendental? Mindfulness-based stress reduction? Guided meditation? Visualization? Chanting? Shamanic journeying? One of the many specific yogic meditation practices, from Kundalini chanting and breathwork to Sahaja yoga’s mental silence? One of many Buddhist meditation practices? Walking? Sitting in nature? Prayer?

Once you’ve found something that works for you,

2)    Schedule it into your planner. Block off the time or it will get swallowed by the many important tasks and even greater number of unimportant distractions that gobble up our days. Very first thing in the morning is the most popular time to set aside time for stillness. Interesting, isn’t it? Here is the tone for the day: Calm, still, centered, grounded. When you put it like that, why don’t we all do it?

3)    If possible, create a corner in your home that is set up for meditation. Having the space ready, welcoming and comfortable removes some practical and psychological obstacles. It doesn’t have to be a separate room, though it is helpful to have a door that closes if you share your house with others.

4)    Do it together. Meditating weekly with a group can help to deepen and reinforce your home practice. Or meditate with others in your household!

5)    Modern times, modern technology. Use YouTube and other electronic resources. Seriously. Whether you are looking for guided visualization or shamanic drumming, you can find it online, for free. Use those 10 minute clips as your company or motivation if this is helpful.

6)    Be flexible about the details. At the cottage for the weekend? Meditate on the dock. Meeting cancelled? Close your office door, close your eyes and breathe into your heart centre for 10 minutes.

For more about stress management and the impact of meditation on your brain, see for instance Alice Walton’s article, Eat, Smoke, Meditate: Why Your Brain Cares How You Cope.

Ready to take stress management to the next level? Want to use meditation as a tool for getting clear as you “feel your way forward” to total health? Join us for our popular seminar, Stress 3.0: Feeling Your Way Forward to Total Health (dates under Events).

What works for you? What doesn’t? Share your meditation experiences on my facebook wall or via twitter. Change is possible, folks, and it feels good!

Action in Stillness, Stillness in Motion: Inspiration for harnessing the gifts of winter

Dr. Mahalia Freed, ND

As we sit in the depths of winter, as the days oh-so-slowly get longer, I am thinking about change and growth. I am cultivating the patience needed to await the return of the warm sun, and seeking tools to inspire and enrich continued personal evolution. Winter is often framed as something to endure while we wait for the slush to go away and the warmth of the sun’s rays to return so that we can dispense with bulky, dark winter coats, hats, scarves, mitts, and boots. However, the season offers its own gifts. Along with lovely snowscapes, it presents abundant opportunities for stillness, introspection, and inner growth.

I often tell clients and audiences at talks that the most powerful healing tool we have is between our ears. Our minds. So, let us launch into the new calendar year with intentions to better harness this tool.

What are you searching for this winter? Have you resolved to get outside more this year? To eat more veggies? To carve out time for some kind of spiritual practice? To be more present in the small moments that make up your day? What has stopped you from getting to these goals before now? Most often, it is our minds, particularly our outdated stories – the unexamined mental maps of who we are and who we can be– that get in our way. Use the tips and info below to inspire you to examine and rewrite those stories, starting now.
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Setting Intentions for the New Year

Dr. Mahalia Freed, ND

(Written and first published for January 2010)

Last New Year’s, a good friend and I spent a very long, snowy drive sharing and concretizing our intentions for 2009. It was an organic yet intentional conversation. We went back and forth, helping each other get more specific, as well as inspiring one another with our separate dreams. I wrote everything down while she drove. Sharing intentions in this way is something I truly value. Even if you do not have the same goals, this practice creates a context of support as you move through the year, giving you someone to check in with – someone who might notice if you, say, resolved to ski 3 weekends a month and haven’t been out once by March. This kind of social support can, for example, provide us with someone to talk to if we are frustrated by continuing to struggle with a relationship pattern we intend to overcome.

For example, one of the intentions we came up with – and enjoyed following through with during the year – was to cook dinner together on Sundays. The beauty of this plan is that it addressed a number of different intentions/resolutions in one: connection with friends, cooking nourishing food, and eating at home more often.

Without any plan to do so, the two of us ended up curled up together one night over the holidays, reflecting on 2009, and looking back at the intentions we articulated that day in the car, in order to see how we did with our goals. Both of us exceeded our own expectations for the changes we could accomplish, and what joy this could bring.

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The Power of Placebo

Reframing and contextualizing research on prescription antidepressants

St John's Wort in bloomDr. Mahalia Freed, ND

So, the jig is up: An international meta-analysis on prescription antidepressants conclusively found them to be as effective as placebo (Kirsch & Sapirstein 1998.) Over a decade later, the hush-up is getting frayed around the edges, as evidenced by the recent article in Newsweek, titled, “The Depressing News About Antidepressants” (http://www.newsweek.com/id/232781).

According to Kirsch’s findings, which were confirmed again in 2008, careful analysis of all eligible studies on antidepressants reveals that prescription antidepressants are clinically as effective as placebo for mild to moderate depression (Kirsch & Sapirstein 1998; Kirsch et al 2008). These findings do not mean prescription antidepressants are “not effective”, only that the placebo effect is powerful, and the drugs’ perceived effectiveness may be attributable to the power of our belief in the medicine, rather than the medicine itself.

As I have written before, your beliefs are powerful in directing your healing. Continue reading