Sweet Stuff 2: Stressing about sugar

Stress is commonly considered to be the modern evil, plaguing us in our busy 24-7 lives.  You may have first-hand experience of the way in which stress plays havoc with your self-control.  Perhaps you take more risks, drink more or make one too many visits to the cookie jar when stress has the upper hand.

In the short term, feeling stressed may cause us to lose our appetites.  However, in the longer term the production of cortisol by the adrenal glands will cause us to feel hungry again and motivate us to eat.  And it’s not usually a bag of carrot sticks we reach for is it? Nope, the chances are that our snacks will feature plenty of sugar or fat – or maybe both – as stress reduces the levels of serotonin in the brain and sends us seeking sugar and caffeine as a pick-me-up.  Doughnut anyone?

Scientists now believe that stress is one of the risk factors which can lead to the development of Type 2 Diabetes, a metabolic disorder in which the body is unable to regulate blood sugar.  Emotional stress may lead to the types of behaviour that challenge our body’s ways of managing blood sugar, such as overeating fatty and sugary foods, or drinking too much alcohol combined with a lack of regular exercise.  Eventually the body is unable to cope with the stress of the constant flux, and diabetes is the result*.

Mindful awareness and meditation are known to reduce stress, making us less likely to fall prey to these urges in the first place.  They can also make us more aware of the actions we take when stressed, and may allow us to see that sliver of an opportunity to step in and break the habit of automatically reaching for the cookie jar or heading for the chip shop when it all starts getting a bit much.


*Interestingly, it has also been shown that eating a diet rich in animal fats (meat, eggs and dairy) also increases the risk of diabetes by raising acidity levels in the body.  Perhaps it’s time to experiment with Meat-free Monday and Doughnut-free Friday as well as getting plenty of daily exercise!


Sweet Stuff 1: Serotonin: the feel-good factor

Maintaining the body’s blood sugar levels is a delicate balancing act and I, for one, am very grateful that my body takes care of this for me.  Scientists have found that when our blood sugar levels fall, the production of stress hormones is increased, boosting with it the chance that we will overindulge in sugary treats rather than settling for a healthy plate of salad.

Eating sugary foods causes insulin to be released to remove the sugar from the blood stream.  Insulin removes all of the amino acids except tryptophan at the same time.  Tryptophan is a precursor for serotonin, a neurotransmitter that is generally thought to contribute towards feelings of well-being and happiness.

This sudden availability of tryptophan can lead to increased amounts of serotonin in the brain and we get the feel-good factor that comes from eating our sugary treat.  We experience a similar effect when we drink coffee or other caffeine-laden drinks, as these cause the body to produce cortisol.  More serotonin is then produced to balance the cortisol out.  Either may result in a short-term high of energy and efficiency, but this is invariably followed by a slump that leaves us craving another fix, in an endless cycle of ups and downs.

Sugar and caffeine may not be healthy ways to boost our serotonin but there are other ways, ones that are much better for us.  The first of these can be a little tricky at this time of year, when the days are short and dull.  Yes, you guessed, sunlight boosts serotonin production so it is always a good idea to get some time out of doors in the middle of the day.  And the second one is exercise.

Taking exercise has the same effect on the blood as insulin, removing all the amino acids except the tryptophan, which can then be converted to serotonin in the brain.  So, feeling good after exercising isn’t just to do with knowing you made the effort, there is a chemical basis for it as well.  So when the weather stays grey and the cookie jar is calling, it is even more important to keep up with your yoga practice. Your body will thank you for it!

For more ideas of healthy ways to boost your serotonin levels check out this WikiHow article.


Looking for contentment

Mindfulness through yoga and meditation bring us in touch with the inherent wholeness that is within and assist us in aligning our life to this wholeness.  What does that mean, exactly? Yoga as a word means union, and union implies a coming together or wholeness of our being.

Wholeness is about being comfortable with your beliefs and role in life such that you do not feel the need to challenge it or compare it negatively to that of others.  To be content with who you are, right now.  In Sanskrit this contentment is referred to as santosha, and is one the key characteristics that Patanjali suggested we should cultivate in our journey towards achieving yoga.

Seeing ourselves as imperfect or ‘broken’ is a major cause of suffering, recognized in Buddhism, yoga and also in Christianity, as the need to be healed or saved in some way.  If we focus on the brokenness we end up seeking outside of ourselves for a perfection that doesn’t exist.  Modern western society encourages this behavior through setting impossible ideals and telling us that there is something wrong with us if we don’t achieve them.

You only have to glance through a glossy magazine at the supermarket checkout to be bombarded with messages regarding the importance of being slim, fit and wrinkle-free whilst owning the latest smartphone and wearing up-to-the minute fashion.  All, of course, in the name of increasing sales revenue, but the insidious messages about what is considered ‘normal’ are there all the same.

Whilst we measure our contentment in these terms, we are likely to find it elusive.  As fast as we acquire what is needed, so the manufacturers and advertisers move the goalposts by coming up with another new trend or a miraculous anti-wrinkle cream that will restore the appearance of youth in an instant.  However, it is only when we stop buying into the idea that perfection is wrinkle-free that we will have a chance of finding contentment.  Just as beauty is not skin-deep, so our wholeness is about more than our physical being, our achievements or our employment situation, wrinkles and all.


Listening to your gut feeling

I think it’s fair to say we don’t pay a great deal of attention to the organs of the body unless something happens to make us uncomfortable.  All that digestion, absorption and excretion just happens naturally.  The organs are more than capable of carrying out a myriad of processes with absolutely zero input from our thinking brain… which is actually hugely valuable, as if we had to manage their functions we would never get anything else done.

In fact, there is now building evidence that the digestive system is involved much more widely in the functioning of the healthy body, rather than just in processing what we eat.  The foods we consume have an impact on our thoughts and emotions, and can be linked to a variety of disorders.  In fact, Michael D. Gershon goes as far as to suggest that “the gastrointestinal system is equipped with a brain. The unpleasant bowel is more intellectual than the heart and could have a superior “emotional” capacity. It is the only organ to contain an intrinsic nervous system capable of mediating the reflections in the complete absence of input from brain or spinal cord.”

For example, take serotonin, the feel good factor that keeps us in a happy mood.  Over 90% of it is produced in the gut.  According to Gershon, serotonin is produced in relation to the experience of external stimuli such as colours or sounds, as well as the consumption of food.  Serotonin also helps us stay in balance by supporting our cycle of sleeping and wakefulness, feelings of hunger and sexual desire.  Its role in digestion can affect our appetite…and leave us reaching for the chocolate and cookies when we feel down.

Yoga and meditation are thought to support the production of serotonin.  Working with body breath and mind trigger can trigger the relaxation response in the body, thus reducing stress naturally by calming the parts of the brain which are active when we are stressed.  The rise in serotonin levels improves our mood and our sleep patterns, which in turn allows the body to heal itself as we rest.


Reduce stress with mindfulness

In yoga class we often talk about bringing the body and mind into balance, in order to find the calmness of mind that allows us to ‘be’ yoga.  It is easy for events or thoughts to send us into over-activity, forever rushing to get even more done in less time, or alternatively pinning us to the sofa under the force of the inertia created by having so much to do that we don’t know where to start.   Patanjali’s yoga sutras describe a number of obstacles to achieving the calmness of mind and body that is yoga, attitudes which can lead to stress if we are not careful. To combat these, they then go on to suggest that meditation can be of benefit.

For many years now, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn has been teaching Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) in his Stress Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.  His approach combines a body scan (a form of relaxation or body awareness practice), a physical yoga practice and a seated meditation.  His clinics have helped patients suffering from extreme pain, stress and illness which have not been managed by more conventional approaches.  His book Full Catastrophe Living: How to cope with stress, pain and illness using mindfulness meditation, first published in 1991, abounds with stories of those with myriad health conditions who have been helped in ways.  Since the publication of the book, research studies have further demonstrated the positive impact of mindful meditation on the body’s ability to heal and to resist infection.  MBSR has also been demonstrated to be of benefit to those who are suffering from lesser levels of stress than the medical patients treated at the Stress Clinic.

Mindfulness is about paying attention to the present, rather than dwelling on the past or thinking about the future.  By spending time living in the moment we may worry less about what has or may happen.  This can lead to greater acceptance and a reduction in stress.  This can be surprisingly difficult to begin with and we may be surprised at just how busy the mind is for so much of the time.  It’s a good idea to start small, practising for short periods at a time.  This could be as simple as giving our full attention to the washing up or making a cup of tea, or really focussing on the body and breath as we do a particular posture in the yoga class.  Once you get started mindfulness can become a way of life, an ‘any time, any place’ practice that you always have with you when you need it.


A modern dilemma

Last week my email decided not to send.  I thought it was a temporary glitch and if I ignored it the problem would go away.  This does sometimes work, so it was worth a try!  However, by Tuesday the error message was getting rather lengthy, including unsent emails dating back to the previous Friday.  Head in the sand was not working so I resorted to the technically inept’s best friend, Google.  What was Server Authentication Error 530?  It appears that Virgin have been changing their requirements around and I needed to adjust my settings.  Thankfully, a few tick boxes later the issue was resolved and business, as they say, was back to normal.

So, if I have taken longer than usual to reply to email recently, apologies!

Its hiccups like this that serve to remind us of our modern reliance on technology.  The vast majority of the enquiries I receive come via the Internet, to the point where I wonder if it’s worth putting up posters any more.  How different that was just a few years ago!  In an incredibly short space of time we have come to rely on the Internet as the modern font of all knowledge, available at our fingertips 24-7. We expect to be able to communicate at any time of day or night and responses may pop into our personal device almost immediately.

However, the immediacy or it all seems to add a pressure to life, a speed and urgency that pursues us into every corner of life.  So often I see people who are busy interacting with people who are not there at the expense of those they are with.  At the start of one recent class, I noticed that half the students were checking up stuff on their phones while we waited to start.  We are using every scrap of time to be busy in some way, and sometimes it comes at the expense of experiencing the moment we have now.

I have to wonder how good this is for our mental well-being.  Does the ability to be busier than ever fuel our need to be busy to avoid confronting the reality of each moment as it unfurls?  Is it a coincidence that as modern technology has extended its grasp on every moment of our day that the demand for yoga, meditation and other relaxing practices has grown immensely? Whatever the reason, more people in the west than ever before are doing yoga.  I hope that this practice gives us back some of the precious space that is being encroached upon and allows us to spend more time just being.


Looking into the fire of rage

Anger, irritation, or pure all-encompassing rage – we all experience them from time to time.  It is in the embrace of such strong emotions that we can find ourselves automatically responding in the same way each time, and not always in a good way.  Maybe you even get angry that you are angry!  If you are already feeling stressed, the slightest thing may tip you over the edge with little time to look at the emotion in a rational, mindful way first.

In our yoga class, we might practice being aware of more positive things – how the body feels, the movement of the breath, the way that thoughts come and go.  However, we can also apply this to more challenging situations, such as the experience of anger.  Rather than trying this when the annoyance is growing, it may be is more useful to look at these emotions later, when you are calmer, and consider how things might unfold differently in the future.

Can you identify particular triggers for your anger?
Are other emotions associated with the anger?
How does the emotion unfold?
How do you feel after it has subsided?

Hopefully we can recognise that anger, like any emotion, arises as a response to a certain situation and given time, it will dissolve away.  With greater insight into any habitual response to the anger, we might choose to change our behaviour so that the emotion is less damaging to our own self and to others around us.

On the flip side of this, if you are subjected to an angry person, there might be a different chain reaction of emotions that you experience in response to their anger.  You might later ask yourself similar questions about how you reacted to the situation, how you might handle it differently.  As always, we may not be able to change the situation but we can change our response to it.

The old adage ‘count to 10 first’ or ‘take a deep breath’ has some foundation in truth as they help us to calm down.  Whenever emotions become charged, a gentle yoga practice can help to diffuse the situation.  Focussing on the breath, combined with slow, steady physical moves can help to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system and make us feel more relaxed.  Suddenly the cause of the outburst seems less important and we can get on with enjoying life again.


On Silence

This week I have lost my voice.  This is not the first time I have had laryngitis, so I am familiar with the way it creeps up on you over the course of a couple of hours.  Initially a bit croaky and ultimately restricted to whispers and squeaks.  The NHS website is not overly reassuring; it’s usually viral so little can be done.  Rest and drink honey and lemon.  Take over the counter pain remedies. Wait a week.

The dreaded lurgy struck on Saturday evening, so I was left with little option but to teach in silence for the earlier part of the week.  I was limited to demonstrations and gesticulations to communicate the lesson.  Classes took on an almost zen-like feel, as everyone focussed diligently on the matter in hand with heightened concentration.

Noise is considered by the World Health Organisation to be a ‘biological stressor’, causing hormonal changes in the body that can lead to a greater risk of cardiovascular disease.  Noise also affects memory, problem solving ability and concentration.  Conversely, silence offers a myriad of health benefits.  These include reducing blood pressure, anxiety and stress, as well as boosting the immune system.

Perhaps in our busy, noisy lives, there is a place for the occasional silent yoga class, giving some mental space to relax and de-stress as well as enhancing mindfulness of our practice.  Hmmm…




Yoga with a smile

Regulars to my classes will know that I often encourage them to smile.  Often when we are concentrating, or doing something challenging, our faces can become set and tension creeps in.  Smiling is one way to release that tension and open us up to the experience.

Smiling is believed to use more facial muscles than frowning.  Of course, this is going to depend on how seriously you take these expressions.  A slight curve of the lips will use few muscles than an unfettered expression of joy.  Likewise, frowning might range from a small pucker of the forehead to all out disgust.  If you smile a lot those muscles get more exercise and smiling becomes easier; now there’s a good reason to smile your way through the day!

“Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.”    Thich Nhat Hanh

There can be a knock on effect too; frowning more can fool our bodies into thinking we are stressed and unhappy.  As a result, we can experience symptoms associated with stress, such as increased heart rate and sweating.  Conversely, smiling more persuades our bodies we are happy and we feel happier as a result.  Actively smiling can even speed up our recovery from stressful situations, as the endorphins and serotonin released when we smile can lift our mood as well as lowering heart rate and blood pressure

Whichever expression you favour, a lot of unnoticed tension can be carried in the face.  The key in our yoga practice is to become aware of that tension so that we can release it.  Many years ago now I read that the best facial expression for yoga is that of a Mona Lisa smile.  I forget where I read it but the comment has stayed with me.  The elusive, mysterious smile that Leonardo da Vinci painted has been the subject of intensive study; as a species we are so determined to understand things!  To, me, her enigmatic smile shows a face that is relaxed, but happy.  Think of the Mona Lisa when you are doing your yoga practice.  Release tension in the forehead, cheeks and jaw.  Soften your gaze. Raise a gentle smile as you inhale and thank the Universe for the energy in this breath.


Drowning in sound

This week in one of my classes we practised a listening meditation.  It had been a particularly difficult session for noise, with road sweepers and leaf blowers featuring heavily.  As we sat and attended to sounds (luckily at that time, somewhat less overpowering ones!) my mind was drawn to how this has changed in recent years.  Before road sweepers, we had…road sweepers.  But then it was a worker with a broom, out in the air, exercising muscles to create a gentle swishing noise as the paths were cleared.  Now we have a noisy machine, made of metal, plastic and goodness knows what else, consuming fossil fuels and belching exhaust fumes. And not necessarily making a better job of it than the more active roadsweeper of yore.  Add to this the potential cacophany of lawnmowers, strimmers, leaf blowers, power saws, drills…you get the idea.

And in the so-called peace of our home, there is still plenty of noise even when the television, music system and radio are turned off and our myriad domestic appliances are silent.  Even as I type these words, I am listening to the hum of my computer, whilst in the kitchen the refrigerator emits strange mooing sighs.  Next door’s boiler grumbles away and something in their plumbing system precipitates a weird droning noise with steady regularity.  I hear cars passing along the road, the ‘rag and bone man’ call out for any old iron, and the afternoon is regularly interrupted by the wailing sirens of emergency vehicles.  In our modern day existence we are surrounded by sound.

Sound is recognised to have an effect on our health, from the positive effects of listening to uplifting or motivating music to the more insidious side-effects of sounds we cannot get away from.  It is considered that low-level sound can be a factor in stress, perhaps contributing to raising our baseline stress levels and making it harder to concentrate.  According to a study at Sheffield University, even urban robins have been found to adjust their singing patterns in recent times to sing more at night as they can’t make themselves heard during the day.  For more on the ways in which sound impacts on our health and well-being take a look at this article from the Franklin Institute.

Being without the intrusion of the noise of modern life is becoming something of a luxury.  I certainly find it very hard to deal with on-going levels of noise, particularly when they are outside my control.  Being in a quiet situation is something I treasure and I suspect it may be one of the reasons that I, like those urban robins, enjoy being up at night; it is so much quieter then.  We may often notice the presence of noise and I try to be mindful of its absence as well, relishing those moments, however brief, when the man-made noises are in remittance and nature’s voice can be heard.  It might be the singing of garden birds or the buzz of a grasshopper.  Perhaps the crunch of a caterpillar chewing on a leaf, or the sound of rain on the roof.  Closer still and ever present, the sound of the breath and even the heartbeat, connecting us physically to the eternity in every moment.