Saturday, April 25, 2020

Mood: How to Optimize Your Emotional Resilience

How do you feel? We hear this question so often, in so many different contexts, and our answer is invariably the same: "Good." Or perhaps, "Fine."

Yet, during any given day, how often do we stop to sincerely consider this question.

How do I feel? How do I feel right now?

Learning to improve your health is often about learning to answer this question with pinpoint accuracy. Is this possible? I believe so. Over the coming days and weeks, I urge you to ask yourself this question and to answer honestly with self-compassion.

Today, I will discuss how to answer this question. I will also offer specific tools for optimizing the answer, whatever it may be.
Handsome Sad Clown
The Gut-Brain Axis
When asking yourself this question in the context of mood, specifically, the first thing you'll likely note is that your mood is never merely about your feelings (your emotions). The answer is usually equal parts body and mind.

The condition of your gut, for example, inevitably informs the condition of your mind. For many years, in fact, I have focused on this connection as a simple yet powerful guide to improving my own mood.

In a well-referenced article from Psychology TodayMarwa Azab Ph.D., writes: "There is bidirectional communication between the gut and the brain."

This communication network, known as the gut-brain axis, is becoming the subject of more and more research, including studies examining the connection between gut health and psychiatric, mood, and stress-related disorders.

As Azab notes, the gut manufactures over 90 percent of our serotonin, and "scientists have found that gut bacteria produce many other neurotransmitters such as dopamine, norepinephrine, acetylcholine, and GABA, which are critical for mood, anxiety, concentration, reward, and motivation."

Of course, this is obvious to anyone who has ever experienced butterflies in the stomach or enjoyed the comfort of a home-cooked meal prepared with love.

About that home-cooked meal: Research has also shown that a balanced diet with a variety of plant foods is the best way to improve gut health by diversifying the microbiome.

The American Gut Project, for example, found that "those who consumed more than 30 different types of plants each week had much more diverse microbiomes than those who consumed only 10 or fewer types of plants weekly."

Read: "Largest Microbiome Study Weighs in on Our Gut Health"

Beyond your diet, you might also try a probiotic which has been clinically researched, like Just Thrive.

Try a mineral supplement to "support the integrity of tight junctions in the gut lining": ION* Gut Health.

Try quality "probiotic" foods, like raw fermented vegetables or inner-ēco Coconut Kefir.

Do you eat 30 different plans each week?
To Feel Good, You Have Options, Both Mental and Physical
The gut-brain connection proves a simple, yet profound, point about mood: to improve your mood, you have multiple options, both physical and mental.

Of course, no intervention is merely physical or mental. This dichotomy does not exist. As an extremely active person, however, I see the value in viewing mood-improvement as an equation: I may not always feel equipped to engage in an explicitly "mental" activity, like meditation, but I can engage in "physical" activity, like exercise, to improve my state of mind.

A recent study published in JAMA Psychiatry "saw a 26% decrease in odds for becoming depressed for each major increase in objectively measured physical activity."

Such physical activity does not need to be fanatical: "This increase in physical activity is what you might see on your activity tracker if you replaced 15 minutes of sitting with 15 minutes of running, or one hour of sitting with one hour of moderate activity like brisk walking."

Just gently moving throughout the day, the study authors note, can make a difference: "any kind of movement can add up to keep depression at bay."

My tip? Why not take a walk in the early morning sunshine--and improve your mood and your circadian rhythms?

Watch this clip with Satchin Panda, a sleep researcher at the Salk Institute: "How exposure to light in the evening affects mood and the circadian clock."

Your Autonomic Nervous System
The tips above, like most tips for improving mood, focus on balance. And finding a balance between mind and body is often the best way to improve your mood.

In itself, the notion of finding balance may seem esoteric, the sort of mumbo-jumbo you hear repeated in any number of "natural" health publications.

However, balance can be quantified in a precise way. One recent determinant is heart rate variability (HRV), a measure of the variation between two heartbeats.

Whether you measure your HRV or not, learning about the diagnostic tool can offer profound insights into your health.

As Marcelo Campos recently noted on the Harvard Health Blog:

"This variation is controlled by a primitive part of the nervous system called the autonomic nervous system (ANS). It works regardless of our desire and regulates, among other things, our heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, and digestion. The ANS is subdivided into two large components, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the fight-or-flight mechanism and the relaxation response."

Read: Heart Rate Variability: A New Way to Track Well-Being 

Recently, many of us have been living in a state of near-total fight-or-flight. As Campos notes:

"If we have persistent instigators such as stress, poor sleep, unhealthy diet, dysfunctional relationships, isolation or solitude, and lack of exercise, this balance may be disrupted, and your fight-or-flight response can shift into overdrive."

To halt this cycle, we have many, many options. First, we can try to change our habits.

Of course, changing a habit is hard. As Jerome Groopman notes in a New Yorker article about habits: "A large majority of us lack the self-control required to succeed in life."

However, we can "hack" our habits by "finding ways to take will-power out of the equation."

Groopman quotes a researcher who suggests creating friction--essentially making our bad habits more inconvenient. However, Groopman's article also describes another effective approach to changing habits: replace one habit with another and include rewards for the change.

Recently, instead of consuming media, for example, I try to read about wellness, denim, or JAWS. I try to talk to my children and my wife. Instead of listening or watching the news, I listen to music. I sing. I don't mean to sound trite, but I believe this is a good response to the current situation: Just sing.

Singing (or humming) stimulates the vagus nerve, which is one of the best ways to reduce stress--and to increase HRV.

Read: "Traumatic Experiences: Vagus Nerve, Microbiome, Heart Rate Variability (HRV) and Effects of Exercise"

Why not replace a stressful stimulus with an enjoyable, and altogether more human act?

Read: "This Might Be the Simplest Scientific Way to Get Rid of Stress You've Ever Heard Of"


New York Times article on pulse oximeters

"There is a way we could identify more patients who have Covid pneumonia sooner and treat them more effectively — and it would not require waiting for a coronavirus test at a hospital or doctor’s office. It requires detecting silent hypoxia early through a common medical device that can be purchased without a prescription at most pharmacies: a pulse oximeter.

Pulse oximetry is no more complicated than using a thermometer. These small devices turn on with one button and are placed on a fingertip. In a few seconds, two numbers are displayed: oxygen saturation and pulse rate. Pulse oximeters are extremely reliable in detecting oxygenation problems and elevated heart rates."

In-Stock Pulse Oximeter: Philips Pulse Oximeter

Bristol Stool Chart

Just Thrive Probiotic

Inexpensive Blue Light Blocking Glasses

Swannies Blue Light Blocking Glasses

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Quarantine Notes: To the Class of 2020

The photo below was taken twenty-five-years ago on the Ocean City boardwalk.

Karen was seventeen, young and carefree. She wanted to travel around the world. She wanted to go to college. She wanted to learn several languages, to work for the United Nations.

I was eighteen, extremely serious and painfully in love. I wanted to settle down, to be with her day and night, reading and writing in some seaside cottage, completely alone. I wanted children, even then, a brood of little ones with my dark skin tone and her light hair and eyes.

My intensity alarmed Karen, especially when I dared her to match my emotions. Of course, what I wanted defied the communion at the heart of any good relationship: the coming together of two people with two radically different points of view.

But what did I know of this--of anything?

I knew I had never felt anything with such force, and although everything felt painful, songs and poems, even trees and sand, I was often moved to tears of joy by the sheer beauty of the world.

Today, I feel compelled to dismiss this ridiculous person. I knew nothing—nothing of the pain to come, the failures and woes.

Lately, however, marooned at home with Karen and our children, I am feeling my eighteen-year-old self. I am reading for hours each day. I am writing, as I did then, without expectation. I am listening to Weezer. And sometimes, perhaps on a Saturday after my third glass of wine, my urges drive me outside, where I think about my life with tears in my eyes, all that I have and all that I want.

With all these tributes to the class of 2020, I am thinking about the boyfriends and girlfriends, all the young people missing each other so deeply right now. I’m sure they’re worried about the future. Will the relationship survive? I’m sure they’re feeling the pain of isolation. I’m sure each day feels like an eternity. I feel you, young people. Hang in there.

Quarantine Notes: Trying and Failing, and Trying Again

It is 10:10 on Sunday morning in Ambler. The sky framed in the window is white, the pallor of a startled face. Lately, the weather defines my mood. Sunshine feels like a gift from Apollo. On a day like today, though, I think of Camus' line from The Myth of Sisyphus: "There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide."

It’s so easy to wallow. It’s so easy to find solace in trite memes. One meme says: “It's OK to not to be at your most productive during a fucking global pandemic."

But what if a “fucking global pandemic” is precisely the time to try to be productive, in any way you can?

Get dressed. Make soup. Sew a mask. Read a book. Take a walk. Take a class. Teach a class. Think. Feel. Cry. Laugh. Try and fail. Try again. Day after day.

Put another way, Camus is asking: Is life worth living? This is his answer, and the point of life right now: to try day after day, like Sisyphus, happy at the bottom of my mountain.

For me, this means waking up each day, drinking my morning tonic, getting dressed, and sitting down to write. Of course, so much happens in between, so many interactions and duties, small and large. And this is also the point and purpose of life right now: Karen, Owen, and Ella.

I've been teaching the kids Greek myths. Each day we watch a few videos, and then we take a walk and discuss what we've learned. Ella loves Athena, the goddess of wisdom. Owen loves Ares, the god of war, hated among men and gods. I love Dionysus, the god of wine and woundedness, who like the grapes from the vine, is torn apart and reborn.

We're limiting wine just now--to three or four nights a week. I sleep better. The mornings are easier. On days we do drink wine, like today, I feel the excitement of my teenage years, of which I remember so little, only the heights and depths, the laughter and tears, and the incredible momentum, which so often conveyed us to the end of a night, when the only reasonable choice was to go home. We hardly ever went home.

We miss our friends. We miss our family. We miss the easy commerce of the world: the people and things.

But we're trying not to wallow. We're trying not to scroll the news feeds, grasping for control.

It’s hard. No doubt. But we're trying not to see the fear and pain and anxiety as an excuse. What if it’s an invitation—to try harder? How else to show reverence for the lives lost? How else to honor the privilege of being alive in this moment of transition?

Each day I drink my tonic, get dressed, and sit down to write. I’m trying each day, day after day. Trying and failing, and trying again.