All posts in Health & Lifestyle

Decoding and Managing Cravings

A juicy burger. Salty fries. A cold, sugary soda.

Have we sparked a craving? Food cravings are unfortunate road blocks in many people’s diet plans. While some cravings are circumstantial and easier to resist (like salivating at the smell of a bakery) others can be persistent, frequent and much more physical by nature (like craving a cup of coffee in the morning). For those who eat a balanced, nutrient-dense diet, cravings should be minimal and controllable, but of course this isn’t always the case. Here are a few common cravings, what they mean for your body, and how you can deal with them.

pretzels1. Salt:
Your body requires a very small amount of salt each day. As an electrolyte that helps your body maintain regular, consistent fluid levels, salt is an important ingredient in your biological balance and health. Often we crave salty snacks, or foods that have an exorbitant sodium content that we may not even be aware of (check your canned soups as an example!)

Why do we crave it? Cravings for salt are often the result of your body’s conditioning. A high-sodium diet makes your body accustomed to lots of salt. When you try to cut back, your body reminds you. Excessive perspiration and dehydration can also trigger salt cravings, since our bodies lose sodium and other minerals when we sweat. It is also possible that salt cravings can be an indicator of more severe consitions associated with our endocrine / hormonal system so make sure to speak with a Health Care Professional if symptoms are unexplained or persistant.

How to manage the craving: Drink an electrolyte beverage after heavy exercise. Learning about proper endurance exercise hydration and electrolyte protocols are helpful for routine exercise. If your salt craving isn’t related to sweat, try  something crunchy and flavourful like seasoned rice crackers, a small handful of nuts, an algae product or dill pickle.  Follow up your snack with a big glass of water.

2. Sugar:
Sugar is another ingredient that hides in many foods and habits. Minimizing your sugar intake isn’t just about avoiding sweets like pastries and candy. It means being mindful of the sugar content in everything that you eat-from granola to peanut butter to juice.

Why do we crave it? When we consume a lot of sugar it causes a spike in blood glucose levels. You’ve likely experienced this- you eat something sweet and immediately feel good. Your energy rises and peaks and you may even feel happier. But shortly afterwards, your blood sugar dips again. This is the unfortunate reality of refined sugar; it sends your body on a roller coaster. When your blood sugar drops, your brain starts thinking it needs more refined sugar. Your craving returns. The cycle continues.

sugar cubesHow to manage the craving: Read your labels! Avoid products that have sugar added. Choose natural sweeteners like stevia or a touch of honey. You may also try satisfying cravings for sweetness with flavours. Add a pinch of cinnamon to your coffee instead of a sweetening agent. Use vanilla or nutmeg in oatmeal instead of brown sugar. And if you need a sweet fix, choose a tasty fruit like strawberries or watermelon. Remember to always balance out sweet fixes, even healthy ones, with some protein or healthy fat. This helps keep your blood sugar more stable and avoid the rollercoaster effect.


3. Caffeine:
For you coffee-addicts, you may find that your caffeine intake requires much more willpower to control than those cravings for sugar and salt. In truth, a single caffeinated drink triggers a significant reaction in your body, producing for many people a “rollercoaster effect” similar to that of sugar.

Why do we crave it? Caffeine triggers neural activity that stimulates the release of hormones. These stimulate your adrenal glands to produce that burst of energy you might experience after a dose of caffeine. When the “high” ends however, you may experience lethargy, restlessness, and an inability to concentrate. It’s a combination of taste and effect that brings most of us back to caffeinated beverages on a regular basis. With enough consumption however, your body will reach a state of adrenal exhaustion. It will require more caffeine to reproduce that desired high.

coffee mugHow to manage the craving: Ensure that you are getting enough sleep so that you aren’t depending on caffeine as a major source of energy. Try alternatives like herbal tea and natural coffee alternatives such as chicory. Any caffeinated beverage should be taken in moderation, to avoid putting your body through the unnecessary stress responses that caffeine can produce. Speaking to a Naturopath is a good way to identify if your adrenal glands need support and the best way to use herbs and lifestyle modification to help get your energy levels back up…sans caffeine!

 

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Good Guts: 3 Tips for a Healthy Digestive System

We’re all familiar with phrases like “gut feeling” and “go with your gut.” As every ND knows, patients really should listen to their gut, because its symptoms are important indicators of overall health, and the functioning of the digestive system. If you’re experiencing symptoms like bloating, gas, cramps and irregularity, it’s time to take a look at what’s causing your digestive distress.

The Traveling Naturopath has some helpful advice about the natural, preventative health factors that may be affecting your gut health. Here are three important behaviours for keeping a balanced, healthy digestive system.

hands washing female1. Practising good food hygiene. This is an essential practice for every meal. Practising good food hygiene requires many things. Most obviously, ensure that your food is safe and kept free from avoidable contaminants. Store and prepare food with careful attention paid to temperature, sealing of containers, shelf life, and the cleanliness of your storage environment. Rinse all produce thoroughly and be sure to keep an extremely sanitary food prep area. As the Traveling Naturopath emphasizes, good food hygiene also includes chewing your food thoroughly and carefully, and taking time to eat slowly.

2. Cultivating gut flora. Antibiotics strip the intestinal tract of healthy gut flora, which are necessary to facilitate digestion, avoid stomach upset and boost immunity.  These probiotics or “good bacteria” are multi-functional. They secrete substances that aid cell function and protect your digestive system from harmful bacteria. They also suppress the attachment of disease-causing bacteria to the walls of the intestines. Talk to a naturopathic doctor to determine which probiotics would benefit your diet, as there are a number of different types, each with their own specific health functions.

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Image source: http://ow.ly/lxKod

3.  Identifying food intolerances: Food intolerances and sensitivities exist in varying degrees. A sensitivity to a certain food (or group of foods) can often go ignored however, because it doesn’t produce symptoms severe enough to be immediately identified as an allergy or dietary problem. Just because you don’t break into hives or have a violent reaction, doesn’t mean that you are immune to food sensitivities. Many of your mild but unpleasant symptoms like digestive distress may be attributed to a certain food or ingredient. An elimination diet is an easy first step at figuring out which foods may be causing you those unwanted symptoms. Food sensitivity testing is also commonly used, via a blood prick test, to easily determine problem foods. A consultation with a naturopathic doctor can help you better understand the biological causes for your intolerance, and how you can continue meeting your nutrition needs while limiting or eliminating the problem foods from your diet.

So if you’re experiencing unwanted health-related symptoms, take that familiar advice: listen to your gut!

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Purse Posture

There are many seemingly insignificant, overlooked lifestyle factors that can affect your alignment and physiological wellness. We’ve already mentioned the potential outcomes of practicing poor pillow posture, but what about poor purse posture?

Many of us are guilty of it: we wear a purse, bag or computer case without giving proper consideration to its weight and positioning on the body. Over time, an overpacked bag can affect your gait, posture and comfort. A heavy purse could also be the root cause of ongoing unidentified neck and shoulder pain.

This helpful article from Prevention.com offers some advice about what your purse could be doing for your posture and muscle health- and how you can correct it. Read on for some simple strategies to avoid shoulder bag strain.

1. Switch sides: Chances are you habitually sling your purse over the same arm (likely your dominant side). This is part of the problem- by only wearing your purse on one shoulder, you’re constantly overworking those muscles. Depending on how heavy your bag is, you’re also forcing one side of your upper body to be the load-bearing side, which can affect your gait and mobility.

2. Avoid the crook of your arm: You’ve probably done this one too –stuck your purse strap right in the inside of your elbow. This can cause injury, including tendonitis. It also forces you to hold your arm at a right angle, resulting in more muscle strain and poor circulation.

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For more information check out this article: “Are you hurting your health in the name of fashion?” http://ow.ly/lr8UW

3. Wear your strap diagonally. Rather than pulling your laptop carrier, bag or purse over one arm, pull it over your head so that the strap is stretched diagonally across your chest. This will distribute the weight of the bag more effectively and result in less of a heavy downward pull on one side- sparing your shoulder and lower back and engaging more of your torso muscles instead.

4. Choose an appropriate carrier or bag. This is an important consideration we’d add to the list. Consider what accessory might better suit you and save you from neck, shoulder and back strain. If you have a lot to pack for a walk to the gym, try a backpack and be sure to wear both straps. For your computer, consider a briefcase or bag on wheels. For an evening out, swap your carry-all for a small clutch.

5. Lighten your load! The last and most obvious solution we offer is to simply take stock of your purse before leaving the house- particularly if you plan to be walking with it for any extended period of time. What can you reasonably leave behind? Remove spare change and roll it at home to exchange for bills. Take out chargers, extra keys and any other heavy objects that you can do without for a few hours. And every few days clean out your purse – you’d be surprised at how much weight accumulates from simple garbage, junk and forgotten items that could be left at home.

Fess up: How heavy is your purse? 

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Junk Food as a “Legal Addiction”

Embracing Health produced an interesting blog post titled “Deadly Legal Addictions,” discussing a recent publicized death that occurred as the result of an extremely unhealthy diet.  It raises an interesting suggestion that instead of thinking of unhealthy foods and habits as indulgences, we should take them to be much more serious and dangerous dependencies that have real consequences for our long-term health.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhile you may not be surprised by the culprit soft drink named in the article, the characterization of familiar vices like Coca Cola as “addictions” is perhaps jarring. Yet to a large degree, that’s what they are. In fact, a recent study mentioned in Time suggests that as we increase our consumption of unhealthy, high-fat, high-sugar foods, our “reward-threshold” decreases. Much like the pattern we see among drug users, repeated ingestion of these substances makes it more difficult to get the same satisfaction that the “user” or consumer initially enjoyed. In other words: over time, eating addictive, unhealthy foods becomes similar to chasing a high.

Our consciousness regarding portion size or guilt can be affected in a similar way as well. While we may initially feel like a small serving of a “cheat food” is a luxury, treat, or even something to feel guilty about, eventually those sensibilities erode. If we don’t feel the same rush or satiety that junk food once brought us, it’s easy to lose sight of how much of it we’re consuming. Eventually a large allowance for junk food begins to feel like the new “normal.”

candyIt’s certainly a dangerous trajectory. One way to address common food “addictions” mentioned by Embracing Health is to include warning labels on certain junk foods. Ultimately however, resistance to food addiction and its prevention have much more to do with a holistic dialogue with our bodies. The article stresses the importance of listening to our physiological messages by paying close attention to how we feel, look, and react to our diet. The body gives so many signs when something is wrong that there’s no reason to leave them ignored.

If your diet is leaving you with constant cravings for sugar and salt, uncontrollable appetite, or physical symptoms like headaches and nausea, it’s time to tune in more closely. A health care practitioner can help you refine your diet and avoid experiencing that all-too-common cycle of a diminishing reward threshold. Food should always be satisfying, rewarding and nourishing!

What do you think: Should warning labels be printed on certain unhealthy foods?

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The Best Natural Anti-Inflammatories

There are many reasons to eat an anti-inflammatory diet. Chronic inflammation has been identified as a contributing factor for a number of diseases, as well as chronic pain. Additionally, the most inflammatory foods are those that carry the highest risk for allergic reactions. So how can you reduce inflammation without reaching for over-the-counter medications? A preventative diet rich in anti-inflammatory foods is a start.

The Conscious Life offers a great list of top anti-inflammatory foods. Here are some of the best natural ingredients for your diet:

Seaweed: Kelp is rich in the complex-carbohydrate fucoidan. Fucoidan has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. It’s also high in fibre, meaning that seaweed can help optimize digestion and fat absorption for the maintenance of a healthy weight.

Rose colored fish, summer food with lemon wine marinadeWild salmon: Rich in omega-3 fatty acids like EPA and DHA, salmon is an anti-inflammatory and may also prevent heart disease and certain cancers. Studies suggest omega-3’s may also reduce symptoms of autoimmune disease. This is a definite powerhouse food, so try to include salmon in your weekly meal plan. If you find it too “fishy” try dressing it up with powerful flavours like lemon and dill.

Green tea: Choc-full of anti-inflammatory flavonoids, green tea is great for reducing risk of heart disease and cancer. It’s also the perfect guilt-free hot beverage if you’re trying to lose weight, because the polyphenol found in green tea helps to boost metabolism and fat oxidation.

broccoliBroccoli: This green veggie contains the phytonutrient sulforaphane, which helps the body kick potentially cancer-causing compounds. Broccoli is also rich in magnesium and calcium to regulate blood pressure, and its high potassium content helps maintain the functioning of a healthy nervous system.

Sweet potato: This is a powerful potato! Versatile and mild-flavoured, sweet potatoes are becoming a nutritious favourite with many people. They contain a whole host of nutrients, including fibre, vitamin C and B6, and beta-carotene. Together, all of these powerful components work to reduce inflammation and purify the body.

While there are many anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant foods, without thoughtful meal planning you’d be surprised at how easy they are to overlook. Challenge yourself by including one anti-inflammatory food in all of your major meals!

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Meeting Your New Needs While Breastfeeding

New moms wonder how to best adjust their eating habits while breastfeeding in order to optimize their baby’s nutrition, maintain a healthy weight, and navigate the new demands on their bodies. While you don’t have to drastically change the menu of healthy foods that you already enjoy, here are some of the adjustments you’ll likely need to make as a breastfeeding mother.

forkManaging a big appetite: Breastfeeding women will often notice a significant increase in hunger as the result of their increased metabolic rate. It’s important that you nourish and listen to your body. If you fail to give yourself enough nutrients from your diet, your body will draw upon reserves you can’t afford to lose. Eat balanced meals and healthy, portion-controlled snacks to find balance between maintaining a healthy postpartum weight and keeping your energy up.

bathroom scaleChanging your perspective on postpartum weight loss: While your pregnancy weight may fall away quickly, it’s important to have a realistic idea about returning to your pre-pregnancy shape, size and fitness levels. Plan for gradual weight loss, and only diet and exercise with approval from your physician. Instead of being preoccupied with a short-term weight or size goal, focus on eating healthily and keeping your energy high- not only for physical exercise, but also for the demands of new parenting.

Thinking about fat: You’ll want to focus on healthy fats contained in olive oil, avocados, olives, nuts, and fatty fish. While this is always an important dietary concern, you should be particularly mindful to avoid saturated and trans fats while breastfeeding. These can change the composition of your breast milk and have potentially adverse effects on your infant’s health.

Being critical of contaminants: In addition to unhealthy fats, many environmental and food contaminants can find their way into breast milk and negatively affect your baby. Have an understanding of which fruit and vegetables harbour the most pesticides, or choose organic options. Consider buying locally and in-season, in addition to choosing lean meat and filtered water.

Watching for baby’s reaction: While many nursing mothers eat a wide variety of foods and flavours, it’s important to keep an eye out for any patterns between your eating habits and unwanted symptoms your baby experiences. If you notice changes in your infant’s stool or mucous, look for cues in your eating. Sometimes babies have sensitivities to certain components of their breastfeeding mother’s diet.

For more tips about breastfeeding nutrition, check out this neat “A to Z guide to physical and nutritional needs while breastfeeding.” 

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Mat Leave Blues

by Maya Hammer, M.A., Counselling Psychology 

920145_15195860In Canada it is typical for women to take a year-long maternity leave, with some variation amongst those who are self-employed or sharing the leave with a partner. While parental leave is a great opportunity to take a break from your professional life to raise your child, the day-to-day experience of mat leave can be lonely, boring, and exhausting. Being a mother is hard work as you are in high demand and have limited control over your schedule. Feelings of sadness, anxiety, anger, irritability, and exhaustion are common, especially for high achieving Type A individuals who adhere to a rigid schedule and time management structure. Spending 10 or more hours on your own, five days a week, is quite removed from traditional ways of raising children in community, extended family households, or tribes.

It is important to find ways to support yourself during this time. Be gentle and compassionate with yourself as you grow into your new role. Take time to identify what you need in order to feel good on a day–to-day basis, specifically addressing times that feel most difficult, such as first thing in the morning or the final hours in the afternoon before your partner comes home from work. Stay connected to your partner, family, and friends while seeking out new mom friends so that you do not feel isolated. Connect with people by phone or online when it is too difficult to leave the house. Use your support network to help with childcare or hire a babysitter for 3-4 hours so you can nap, exercise, do something fun, or catch up on errands and other responsibilities. Involve your partner/spouse as much as possible with care for the baby.

Learning to be flexible, creative, and let go will serve you well on maternity leave. This requires a paradigm shift from being productive, organized, and ambitious- qualities that may have been integral to your life pre-baby. Making the switch from ‘doing’ to ‘being’ is not always easy. In the book Momma Zen, Zen Buddhist priest and mother Karen Maezen Miller describes her relentless path towards letting go of expectations, welcoming mistakes, and reconnecting with her innermost self. Maezen Miller reminds us that being a parent is an excellent opportunity for growth and transformation if you accept what is happening, without judgment, on a moment to moment basis.

 

Maya Hammer is a psychotherapist in private practice specializing in women’s mental health, prenatal and postpartum mental health, infertility support, pregnancy loss and infant death, and couples counselling.

www.mayahammer.ca  |  maya@healthpsychologyclinic.ca  |  416.597.0015

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Hormonal Imbalances 101

We often only think about hormones in terms of side effects. Despite their importance to our body’s functioning, they tend to go unacknowledged until they begin to cause us grief.

woman_stock photoHormones are key to the performance of many processes and capabilities of the body, including our fertility, digestion processes, and thyroid function. Since they play such a multi-faceted and important role, a number of unpleasant side effects can present themselves when our hormones fluctuate.

So what causes our hormones to get out of sync or off the charts? Human hormone levels are highly sensitive to a variety of factors. These include oral medications you may be taking, the things you’re eating, and lifestyle factors such as stress. Hormonal imbalances can also result from major physical changes that are facilitated by hormonal releases (such as reproductive process and the onset of puberty). When these factors come into play against your natural hormone levels, eventually your body may struggle with overall hormone regulation and control. At this point, a treatment method is often needed to restore balance.

Symptoms of hormonal imbalances include:

  • Acne
  • Weight gain
  • Headaches
  • Irritability
  • Mood swings
  • Anxiety
  • Changes in appetite

If you’re consistently experiencing these symptoms, a saliva or blood test can determine whether you have a hormone imbalance and its severity. While many people fear they’ll have to take synthetic hormone doses to treat an imbalance, this isn’t always a necessary or ideal solution, particularly when an imbalance has been triggered by lifestyle factors.

Some of the dietary strategies used to treat hormone imbalances include:

  • Enriching meals with protein, fibre and iron by incorporating more lentils and beans.
  • Eating more foods that contain phytoestrogens, a compound in plants that resembles the human hormone estrogen. Soy and flaxseed are great choices.
  • Increasing soluble fibre intake.
  • Ensuring that you’re getting enough vitamin D and calcium.

If you think you may have a hormonal imbalance, have a consultation to find out if a natural, nutrition-based approach is best for you.

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“Normal” Vs. Nutritious Eating Habits

In her blog post “Why Feed Kids Healthy NOW?” nutritionist Lauren Talbot points out how lucky parents are to have the opportunity to instill good eating habits in their children right from infancy. As she reminds readers- and as we’ve mentioned on our blog before- not only is a baby’s development affected directly by prenatal diet, but newborn infants begin to develop taste preferences from their earliest feedings. From birth, we have a responsibility to guide and direct our children’s diet- this is a big responsibility, but we’re fortunate to have it.

Raising a child from infancy can offer an opportunity to encourage certain tastes, food preferences and understandings of nutrition… but what about when we want to influence eating habits at a later stage in development? Talbot mentions how challenging it can be to break the ingrained eating habits of older children and adolescents, which she’s experienced firsthand as a stepmother. At this point, children have already come to expect and crave certain unhealthy foods because they’re such a regular part of their lifestyle. This doesn’t just apply to particularly lackadaisical families either- let’s face it: most of us have an appetite for foods we could certainly do without. We recall craving unhealthy food as children, as adolescents, and even as nutritionally-minded adults.

in troubleSo how do processed, sugary, high-fat and junky foods sneak into so many children’s diets? A large part of it is our own leniency.  In order to truly adopt the cleanest, most healthful eating habits, Talbot says we need to make a critical shift in our attitudes. She suggests that we redefine how we conceive of “normal” eating, and stop making allowances for unhealthy foods on account of how mainstream they may be. She stresses the importance of adult guidance, reminding us that “it’s okay for children to be different from the norm.”

It’s true that the “norm” is far from optimal. Just think of the many factors that contribute to our conceptions of customary eating behaviours: we see other families eating a typical North American diet; we find the same packaged foods lining our grocery store shelves; we are surrounded by cheap and readily accessible fast food options. These things all shape our views of acceptable eating patterns and make healthy, organic eating seem different, difficult, and deviant.

We need to set a positive example for our children to help make healthy eating habits seem (and in fact become) more common. Let’s strive for a culture in which healthy, whole food choices are what’s normal. In the meantime however, it’s important that we make the choices that are best for our health, regardless of how irregular and inconvenient they may seem in comparison to those around us.

Teach your family to share your priority of clean eating. Teach them to choose fresh, whole foods. Teach them the value of food preparation and empower them with the skills to nourish their bodies. By doing these things, together we can help to create a new “normal.”

 

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Massage: the Natural Anti-Inflammatory

Massage is a widely respected and integrated therapy. Its effects have been tested on patients with arthritis, drug addictions, mood disorders, cancer, and more. We’re still learning everything it can do. While we continue to discover more about the physical benefits of massage and its usefulness for a variety of chronic and acute conditions, one major news item was recently discovered: Massage has a proven anti-inflammatory effect on muscles.

A study conducted on the quadriceps muscles of several active participants revealed that the act of massage releases anti-inflammatory signals that improve the ability of muscle cells to make new mitochondria. This converts food into energy and can help speed tissue repair.

An analysis of the muscle tissue of both groups of participants (those who had been massaged and those who had taken no treatment) revealed no discernible differences, further confirming that massage is a safe and effective way to treat muscle pain.

1255004_88259036Massage can do a lot more than help you avoid taking an anti-inflammatory. It’s also a great therapeutic option for those suffering from headaches, insomnia, anxiety and fibromyalgia. In addition to the physical benefits that it offers by improving circulation, helping to facilitate muscle tissue repair and reducing pain, massage is a uniquely therapeutic experience. An hour of massage offers clients a chance to focus on their body’s physical sensations and responses in a way we don’t often have time to do. Massage also triggers the release of mood-elevating endorphins, and encourages meditative practices like closed eyes, deep breathing, and total body relaxation.  All of these factors help to make massage more than a therapy- it’s also an escape, and a mental break that many of us are craving.

With mounting hard evidence of the undeniable benefits of massage therapy, we should encourage a shift in perspective that embraces massage as a critical part of our ongoing health and wellness journey.

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