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!

Share

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.

Share

Simply Images: March 2019

 

Water is just the most amazing stuff.  The surface tension of the liquid form allows these beautiful droplets to form on the leaf surface as it rains, too much water and all will be washed away.  Yet the same element can form the gaseous steam or solid ice, evidence of the change all around us even when things seem to stay the same.

Share

Simply Images: February 2019

Despite the harsh weather of recent weeks, spring is definitely in the air! My daffodils have been out for a couple of weeks and I couldn’t resist buying some primulas and hellebores to brighten up the back yard.  The spring flowers are my favourites, and of course out comes to camera to record them in their full glory.

Share

The perils of the prevarication habit

There is a lot of truth in Thomas Jefferson’s oft-quoted saying, ‘Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today.’ And while I am in favour of approaching life with a pretty relaxed attitude, sometimes we can become so relaxed about it that nothing actually gets done.  While it may not be wise to have so much ‘discipline’ that we fill all our time with activities, neither is becoming too laid back about things a good way to go either.

I’m thinking here about all the excuses that pop into our minds when we are thinking about starting something new, or doing something our mind has decided will be unpleasant.  I am the world’s worst prevaricator; I have never baked so many cakes or cleaned the house as much as when I was a student approaching exam time, with piles of revision to work through.  My logic was that there was plenty of time for culinary experimentation before I knuckled down to re-reading tedious revision notes.  In reality I was putting off the evil moment when I had no excuses left to avoid opening my books.  Welcome to Prevarication 101!

It’s so easy to do.  You know you should make the effort, but the comfy sofa is calling loudly.  When it comes to any activity (not just yoga!) that takes us out of our comfort zone, there is always an excuse to put it off.  It’s raining, I’ll wait another week, til the nights are lighter, til the weather is warmer, til the barbecue season is over, til after the holiday, til the kids have settled back into school, til after Christmas…Oops, where did the year go? And now it’s cold outside so I’ll wait til…and here we go again.

Yet when we make the effort to go out and do whatever it is we have been mentally avoiding, we often find that its really quite fun, and before long we can’t imagine how we managed without it.  It’s become a habit, and discipline has become a pleasure.  Why not make this the year of building new and better habits for a new and better you?

Share

Simply Images: January 2019

How often when we are moving through our life do we stop to actually look at the small details of the world that is around us?  This image shows a close up of a beach.  I was fascinated by the variety of shapes and textures in the stones, as well as the detail of the drift wood.  The tiny piece of green stem on the branch added a spot of colour in an otherwise neutral palette.  Walking briskly along, none of this would be noticed or remembered, yet a closer look reveals a world of intrigue beneath our feet.

Share

Find your freedom…of movement

Many prospective students contact me in the hope that yoga will improve their flexibility, or in other words increase the range of movement they have in their joints.  Restrictions to joint freedom are often due to the muscles, ligaments and tendons that surround, support and work on those joints, not the joint itself.  Each joint has a medically recognised range of movement and it is possible for our movement to be restricted so that it is less than the typical range, or in the case of hypermobility, it may be more than is typical.

Under anaesthesia, muscles relax and the stiff patient regains their full range of movement.  However, once the patient wakes up from the anaesthetic, the old limitations resurface.  While this is not necessary helpful to potential yoga students with stiff joints(!), it does have a medical application as some conditions of stiffness in joints, such as a frozen shoulder, may be treated by manipulation under anaesthesia, allowing the therapist to move the joint in ways that would not be possible under normal circumstances.

Sometimes it is only during the yoga class that we notice that stiffness exists.  You might notice it when working in asymmetric postures that allow you to compare one side of the body to the other, or perhaps feel stiffness in a muscle when attempting a particular stretch.  These revelations only serve to remind me how little of our possible range of movement we use as a part of our normal daily lives.  And the old saying ‘Use it or lose it’ is so very true in this context.

All our muscles have a certain resting tone and a length that they comfortably stretch to.  Unfortunately, when we only use part of our range of movement in a joint, the connective tissue or fascia will ‘set’ that length within the muscles surrounding it and the signals sent by the nervous system serve to ensure we then stay within the new accepted range of movement.  Ever decreasing circles come to mind…

In order to stretch the muscle further, and thus gain greater movement in the joint, we need to increase the maximum length by working to ease out restrictions in the connective tissue or fascia that supports the muscle.  The Joint Freeing Series or Pavanmuktasana in yoga helps us to become familiar with the flexibility we have at each joint and if practised regularly, attempts to move all the joints through their full range of movement.  Enhancing joint mobility can relieve pain and stiffness, moving the joint helps to circulate the synovial fluid.

Easing tension in muscles around the joint also helps to create more space within the joint so its movement can be smoother and more comfortable.  Although I never do the whole series in any one class, most classes include some parts of the series that are relevant to that session.  This means that each class has an underlying theme of joint mobility and I would hope that through regular practice you would see improvements in how you can use your body.  So tell me, has it worked for you?

Share

Sparkle little stars

We have all heard of the major body parts, but what about the glands which comprise the neuro-endocrine system?  These glands are the hidden heroes in our bodies, helping to maintain our internal balance.  We may not be aware that these little glands are there but they have a significant impact on our experience of each day through their effects our metabolism, growth, sleep habits and mood.

When stimulated by the nervous system, endocrine glands release hormones directly into the bloodstream, to be circulated around the body.  For example, the neuroendocrine system is involved in balancing your blood sugar.  If you eat a big slice of cream cake (or a chocolate bar, or a bag of chips) your pancreas produces insulin, which causes your body to reduce the sudden excess of blood sugar back to a more acceptable level.  In the case of diabetes, there may be insufficient insulin produced or your body may not respond to it as it should.  Either way, the result is an imbalance which can be life-threatening.

Another part of the neuroendocrine system regulates our pattern of sleep and wakefulness to coincide with the day and night cycles of the planet.  Once it becomes dark at night, the pineal gland in your brain is activated to release melatonin into the bloodstream, causing you to feel sleepy and to think about heading off to bed.  It’s quite common for students to comment that attending their yoga class helps them to sleep better that night.  While it’s unlikely that the class is affecting your production of melatonin, I suspect that taking time out from your usual busy lifestyle allows you to feel relaxed enough for the melatonin to have its intended effect that evening.  While insomnia itself may not be life-threatening, it can certainly feel that way at times! For some good tips on how to improve your chances of a good night’s sleep, take a look here.

The glands which form this system are aligned centrally in the body, roughly along the line of the spine.  Their locations correspond to the accepted locations of the major chakras in the energy body system, spoken of by the ancient yogis.  Each chakra is said to relate to the energy of specific parts of the body and to correspond to different aspects of our development and behaviour.  Much as the endocrine glands bring balance to the physical body, so the activities of the chakras bring balance to our energy body.  An excellent summary of the chakra system is provided here.

You might like to try this simple meditation to support the health of your endocrine glands before you go to sleep at night.  As you inhale imagine you are directing the energy of the breath into the endocrine glands.  As you exhale, imagine them glowing like little stars along your spine, sparkling with energy and vitality.  Give thanks for their role in bringing balance to your body while you sleep.

Share

Simply Images: December 2018

This image of a goose searching for food in the snow is one I took when we had the heavy snow last winter.  Many animals struggle to find food at this time of year.  In the midst of our own celebrations of the year’s end, we can take time to remember those less fortunate than ourselves, animals and people alike, and make some contribution, however small, to change their situation for the better.

Share

Happy New Year!

New year, new start, new beginnings.  In just a few days we will be in the presence of 365 days of the blank canvas that is 2019, brimming with space to be filled with our new year resolutions.  So…how’s it coming along so far?

There can be a temptation to be somewhat ambitious with our resolutions; ‘I shall go to the gym every day’, ‘No more alcohol for me’, ‘I am going to lose 3 stone by Easter.’  I guess we shouldn’t be surprised when we fall at the first hurdle.  Sticking to major lifestyle changes like this can be daunting and can be quite a shock to the system after our Christmas indulgences.

And when we do fall off our New Year wagon before the end of January, it’s as if we don’t need to try again because that whole New Year thing is over now and it may as well wait til next year.  That’s when I remind myself that each week, each day can be seen as a new start and there is never a bad time to try again.  On any road paved with good intentions, there are bound to be a few potholes to fall into on the way!

It’s been suggested that resolutions based around giving something up for January are not really very worthwhile, because a month is not long enough to make a difference in the body.  That doesn’t seem very encouraging to me.  Maybe it’s not long enough to change our physiology, but it is long enough to break a habit.  Saying you are making a permanent change can be quite scary.  Why not ease yourself into it gradually by starting with a month? Already during that month you are getting into the new way of doing things, building better habits for the future.

If you can manage a month, then you can have a sense of achievement in making it so far.  Perhaps a month will become three months, will become a year.  There may be other beneficial effects too.  I find that once I make one change, however small, I find myself considering other changes and before I know it, all manner of aspects of my life are having a spring-clean. Change becomes the habit, growth becomes the habit.  And with a habit like that, the world is your proverbial oyster!

Share