Tag Archives: Wellness

Can Positivity Be Toxic and Hurt Our Health?

 

A new buzzword has circulated the web since 2020: Toxic Positivity…

The pairing of these two terms can make some people feel prickly and others like someone finally gets it. It’s my nature to empathize with opposing views. I often find myself somewhere in the middle, chewing on it all. As a wellness and fitness coach, I see both perspectives and have lived both.

Perhaps the balanced discussion of toxic positivity in this post will help inform you about where positive thinking helps health and when/where it may hurt it. And per usual, I write this with one big caveat – every person is unique and will find themselves at a different place on the “positive vibes” spectrum.

Take my experience, for example…

I was the classic American, privileged, white girl with a stable family and home growing up. I saw the world through rosy-colored lens and stood at a comfortable arms length from any real suffering. In middle school I ran around proclaiming “Life is good!” shortly before it was coined on popular t-shirts in the 90s. I was 100% Miss Positive Vibes. I didn’t have any reason not to be.

 

 

As I grew up and got a little more kicked around by life (you can read about some of those experiences here: Hit by a Car and Pregnancy Loss), I came to better understand the people who met my youthful enthusiasm and can-do attitude with quiet irritation or outward eyerolls. This fresh understanding doesn’t mean that I’m not going to do my best to move forward in life with a hopeful disposition, but it certainly changed how I speak to and empathize with people in the jaws of suffering, grief and loss.

I don’t think our culture is obsessed with people being miserable as some other wellness advocates have suggested. By contrast, I think our culture is addicted to numbing. We find ways to avoid pain or offer quick fixes for it rather than addressing its roots. [Enter: “Toxic positivity,” substance abuse, fear avoidance, spiritual bypassing, grief hierarchies, food addictions, and more.]

A positive disposition is not in and of itself a harmful thing until it prevents us from really sitting with other people in their pain. The very definition of compassion is to suffer together and be motivated to help the suffering person. In other words, compassion compels some people to sit with the person who suffers, acknowledging and hearing their pain, and motivates others to “fix” the suffering. This is where some people in a place of hardship may feel frustrated by futile attempts from loved ones to offer solutions for the painful circumstance. [Hello again, toxic positivity phrases such as “at least you still have…things could be much worse…try to see the bright side…I have a book you should read to help with this,” etc.]

 

 

The complaint against positivity is that it’s not okay when it denies acknowledging hard feelings to the exclusion of positive ones. We are whole beings with ALL the feels at one time or another. This is natural. This is life. This is still within the wellness spectrum; to be fully human.

When we only offer up ideas to solve the pain of another, we miss the other, perhaps more genuine, side of compassion: the “suffer together” side. I would personally rephrase this and call it the “I’m here for you and whatever you need” component of compassion. In times of great need, people must feel free to tell you what they need rather than the other way around. We’re all different and thus, our grief and healing needs will be unique too. We can’t slap boilerplate fixes, numbing tools, and “perk up buttercup” messages to all of humanity.

To sum, positivity becomes “toxic” (i.e., not situationally sensitive) when it:

  • Diminishes the feelings of another
  • Puts another’s grief or hardship into a hierarchy to suggest it’s less difficult than “X”
  • Dismisses or minimizes another’s lived experience
  • Addresses a complicated situation with a cliché phrase or one-size-fits-all perspective
  • Suggests that you’re unwilling to listen due to your own personal discomfort around the subject

Negative emotions can actually inform and grow us emotionally, mentally and spiritually when we work through them. Denying emotions – both negative and positive – can result in distress. As evidenced by one study, suppressing emotional reactions of all kinds can lead to increased heart rate and other physiological symptoms of overwhelm and anxiety. In short, we must authentically confront and work through ALL emotions.

 

 

But if toxic positivity is the harmful denial of negative emotions then doesn’t it stand to reason that “toxic negativity” exists too?

YES.

Negative feelings left unchecked can spiral and wreak havoc on our physical and mental health. That said, it’s entirely natural to oscillate back and forth between positive and negative feelings. So long as we don’t assign labels like “good” and “bad” to the variety of emotions that we humans experience then we’re making at least some small steps of progress.

The wellness industry has been bashed for selling “positive vibes only” for the last decade or two, and heck – even my site’s tagline can be interpreted as toxic positivity. I picked “start believing you can” as the tagline years ago because I saw (and still see) the way that negative self beliefs limit people when it comes to their health and fitness. This does NOT mean positive thoughts will fix all things or that people in a state of suffering can simply adapt an optimistic attitude and “think” themselves better. What it does mean is that faith in ourselves, even in the face of great adversity, is fundamental to persevering the many highs and lows that life doles out.

So, toxic positivity and toxic negativity…meh. They’re just words. Don’t get too hung up on them. Instead, put your energy into embracing authentic living and sincere compassion. These are some of the best tools for wellness.

Start believing you can.

Yours in health and wellness,

Maggie

 

 

 

The Complicated Return to Collective Wellness

Malcolm X once proclaimed that “when I is replaced by we, illness becomes wellness.”

 

With the dawn of the coronavirus pandemic, the interdependence we have on one another for our health and wellness has become a focal topic in many peoples lives. Collective trauma, wellness and healing are newly revived topics in mainstream western culture but they’re far from infantile or irrelevant beyond this global crisis. Whether we recognize it or not, collective wellness is a powerful influence in our history and daily lives, and right now a lot of people are struggling to integrate it.

 

Modern Tribalism

Although the word tribe often applies to traditional tribal communities such as Native American and aboriginal communities, the term can apply to “modern tribes” or “modern tribalism” too. These tribes are groups that we consciously or unconsciously belong to and affiliate with, and which possess great influence over our identities, actions and decisions. According to Foreign Affairs we live in a tribal world and “in many places, the identities that matter most—the ones people will lay down their lives for—are not national but ethnic, regional, religious, sectarian, or clan-based.”

(Before moving forward with this topic I encourage every reader to respect the term “tribe” and use it in the proper context rather than casually or with flagrant disregard for people of color who come from or currently live in traditional tribal settings.)

 

 

The Dark Side of Tribal Instinct

Tribalism is a force to be reckoned with. Just as quickly as it can empower unity, it can breed division (ex: political divisiveness, discrimination based on ethnicity and/or religion, violence based on differences in beliefs in covid-19 masking and vaccination, etc.). When a tribe feels threatened or is in danger, fear and anxiety reverberates with all its members. Sometimes this draws members of the tribe closer together but other times it causes them to look unfavorably on outside people and groups.

“This is the dark side of the tribal instinct,” according to neuroscientist Ian Robertson, who continues by saying that there is “a greater tendency to demonize and de-humanize the out-group.” This lowers the empathy people have for one another’s suffering and reduces demonstrations of compassion, outreach and volunteerism.

Robertson explains that this tribal instinct begins in childhood: One study demonstrates how when children were told to wear red or blue they made negative social assumptions about children wearing the opposite color. The children’s judgements were quite obviously based on non-reality assumptions. But how easily can adults recognize a similar bias in themselves? In truth, adults discriminate far more often and the judgements become more harsh, aggressive and violent to those outside of their tribes.

Without question, the “dark side” of tribalism possesses great potential for damage both within the tribe and in opposing groups beyond it. As tensions, stress, trauma and other negative lived experiences impact one member after the next, the collective wellness of the tribe is greatly diminished, if not altogether extinguished.

 

Tribal Health & Wellness

Tribal members collectively benefit when healing and thriving occur. One person’s victory becomes a shared victory for all and the successes of the larger community are sources of pride for each person. This is what you might call “the light side” of modern tribalism and it’s why moving the needle towards collective wellness is so critical.

We are all reaching towards comfort and health during these difficult times in the world. We each feel the effects of the pandemic’s collective trauma and toll on our physical and mental health. Sometimes it can feel like “the light side” is far from our grasp, but underneath the heavy feeling of trauma is the capacity for healing. This is why we can take action and inch slowly towards a brighter path.

Healing requires that we navigate this global crisis with patience and tolerance, heal ancestral wounds, process our lived experiences in emotionally healthy ways, and integrate the tribe’s experiences into our cultural narrative. These are just some of the many ways that we gradually build personal health resilience and collective wellness.

 

 

How Individual Healing Translates into Collective Wellness

Individualism is something that western cultures value above all else whereas eastern cultures tend to place more emphasis on a collectivist mentality. As we in the western world grow more ego-centric and self-reliant for our health needs, we lose touch with the ability to see how our tribe’s mentality and circumstances impact our well-being, and vice versa. The two are interdependent and in constant relationship with one another.

Collective wellness depends on each individual’s efforts towards self care and self love while keeping the greater good in mind. This allows us to offer our best to the world and live vibrantly within our purpose. According to Cultivate Balance, “It is the greater vision of what we are working toward in the small moments when we care for ourselves. Valuing the wellbeing of the whole invites us to think critically about our communities and our roles within them. It is about looking beyond our individual experience to honor a collective vision that prioritizes the needs of many.”

 

The Future of Wellness

As a wellness professional I anticipate the words “health” and “wellness” becoming increasingly associated with these processes of community healing. I anticipate a world where exercise and eating vegetables are givens for health and we can finally sink our teeth into the meatier stuff that requires a lot more chewing. Stuff like trauma and healing through storytelling, putting tolerance into practice, allowing space for rest, honoring and getting comfortable with grief, and so much more. One fundamental component of healing from trauma is “the experience of being truly heard and seen.” When we speak up for ourselves and our needs, share our stories, and offer a compassionate listening ear then we are paving the way for healthy connection and community.

The world won’t remember many of us by name or face, but the modern tribes we belong to will tell their stories for generations to come. Personally, I want to contribute to my community in such a way that its story is one of collective healing, wellness and redemption.

(Will you join me?)

 

 

Yours in health and wellness,

Maggie

 

Create Your Own Wellness Retreat (at home!)

We all need a little time to decompress, especially as concerns mount over a new delta variant of Covid-19. While wellness retreats and spa packages are indulgent and delightful options for pampering and reducing stress, they can also prove expensive. Some people might also be reluctant to spend an hour getting a massage in a room with a stranger if they don’t know the professional’s vaccination status, aren’t comfortable removing their mask indoors, or are high risk themselves despite vaccination status. All of these factors can cause anxiety for some people – and that’s the opposite of what self care time is supposed to do!

So, today I’m going to outline the perfect at-home wellness retreat schedule! The best part? The day’s plans don’t require spending money on anything – unless you want to! I will throw in some ideas for wellness products ranging from $18 to $500, but these are entirely optional splurges. Your main agenda is setting aside a day for yourself to relax and intentionally engage in healthy, rejuvenating activities.

 

 

If you have a partner, family or roommate then be sure to make plans with them in advance to allow you the personal space you need and deserve. Once they’re on board and willing to support you, keep it clear that you will be maintaining your boundaries no matter what. This means no last minute chores, errands, laundry loads, calls, etc. Claim the day and keep it open!

 


At-Home Wellness Retreat Schedule & Health Benefits

 

8:00 am or later: Wake-up at a leisurely hour

Sleep is crucial for rejuvenating the spine, boosting immune function, balancing hormones, and improving energy, to name just a few of its functions. Modern culture often places an emphasis on waking before dawn to make the day more productive. Not only does this mean that many people are shortchanging the hours they spend sleeping but the emphasis is squarely on productivity. We think of rest, down time, and a morning spent sleeping in as “unproductive” but that’s simply not true. Sleep is one of the most critical things we need for both physical and mental health. Slowing down is never unproductive. It’s a mature way of acknowledging that our lives demand balance between high and low energy, active days and periods of time spent in spiritual, creative, or mentally replenishing endeavors.

 

8:15 am: Drink 8 oz of water and make a healthy breakfast including fresh fruits

Hydrating early in the day helps your body rehydrate from the long night without fluids. Early hydration helps release toxins and ramp up your digestive system too. A healthy breakfast is another important start of the day. It’s an opportunity to get nutrient dense foods into your system right away (think fruits like berries, cantaloupe, apples, oranges) and give your metabolism a wake-up call. A few delicious options for a healthy breakfast include:

  • Two scrambled eggs topped with avocado slices with a side of fresh fruit
  • Sliced apple w/ 1-2 tablespoons nut butter
  • Greek yogurt topped with berries and a drizzle of agave syrup or honey
  • Egg white, spinach and feta cheese omelet with a side of fresh fruit
  • Whole grain toast topped with avocado and slices of hard-boiled egg
  • Steel cut oats or old-fashioned oatmeal with half a cup fruit mixed in
  • 2 or 3 slices of turkey bacon, whole grain toast, and a small side of fresh fruit

 

 

9:00 am: Read for pleasure while you digest

Reading for pleasure is largely taken for granted. A lot of people put off reading something enjoyable because it doesn’t feel “productive” (ugh…there’s that pesky word again!). But reading for pleasure has a wide range of benefits including:

  • Mental Stimulation
  • Stress Reduction
  • Knowledge
  • Vocabulary Expansion
  • Memory Improvement
  • Stronger Analytical Thinking Skills
  • Improved Focus and Concentration
  • Better Writing Skills
  • Tranquility

Allow yourself to sink into the depths of a good book that you hand select in advance of your wellness retreat day. Get one from your own bookshelf, local library or a friend’s stack of favorite reads. Take an hour and escape from your day-to-day in its pages!

 

10:00 am: Enjoy your favorite workout or active outdoor excursion

Now that your healthy breakfast has digested and you’ve luxuriated in a slow morning, it’s time to get active and enjoy feel-good benefits from an endorphin boost! Pick your favorite type of movement for exercise and bring along a healthy amount of water to keep the hydration going. Go out for a run, stream your favorite yoga or dance class, hit up the weights in your garage or venture out to your most beloved local spot for hiking, biking, kayaking, climbing, or walking in the fresh air! If you’re planning to be out for a few hours then be sure to wear sunscreen and pack a lunch.

The most important part about this time spent exercising is that it’s enjoyable. There are no “shoulds” on your wellness retreat day. Pick an activity that feels good and makes you happy! Follow up your exercise with 10-15 minutes of gentle stretching and deep breathing to bring yourself back to zen. Unwinding after exercise is important as it allows your parasympathetic nervous system to “turn back on.”

 

12:00 pm: Prep a lunch full of healthy proteins and vegetables

By now it’s probably getting late in the morning or early afternoon and you’ll want to get a meal in before you clean off. A healthy lunch complete with protein and nutritious vegetables will fit the bill. The protein will help you recover and reap benefits from your exercise and will keep you full. The vegetables help with disease prevention, dietary fiber, potassium and essential nutrients. You’ll want to keep breakfast and lunch on the healthier end because here’s a little hint about dinner: You get to indulge!

Some healthy ideas for lunch:

  • Bean and rice burrito wrap with a side salad
  • Greek salad with chicken breast
  • 1-2 sushi rolls with spicy green beans or pickled veggies
  • Poke bowl with plenty of veggie toppings
  • Whole grain avocado toast with fresh sliced veggies (ex: carrots, red bell peppers, cucumbers, celery, broccoli) and dip (ex: light dressing, hummus, tzatziki, Greek yogurt)
  • Chicken or beef kebob with grilled vegetables
  • Roasted red pepper, hummus and veggie wrap
  • Chicken salad on whole grain bread with fresh sliced veggies or side salad
  • Mediterranean chicken and couscous or quinoa bowl with red onion, tomatoes, cucumber and cheese
  • Turkey panini melt with large helping of steamed or baked broccoli

 

 

1:00 pm: Unwind with a Warm Bath or Steamy Shower

After lunch it’s time to relax in some bubbles or a steamy shower. Make sure to have your favorite bath products on hand. Water offers you the chance for physical relief, emotional release, and spiritual cleansing. These are all elements incorporated into pricey wellness retreat getaways, but they’re accessible and free at any time. While you bathe or shower, it can help to burn a soy candle scented with essential oils, add aromatherapy bath salts, or use a scented shower steamer so that you are encouraged to take deep and rejuvenating breaths as you inhale the calming fragrance.

For baths: Focus on deep breathing. Inhale for a count of seven, hold for seven, and exhale for seven. Place attention on your forehead and imagine a bright light radiating from it. Allow your attention to come and go from the rise and fall of your abdomen as you breathe.

For showers: As you inhale imagine breathing in cleansing energy and positive thoughts. You can even repeat a mantra in your head as you inhale, if you like. As you exhale imagine any energy blockages, frustrations, worries, fears, grievances, negative thoughts, etc. leaving your body and flowing off you into the water as it goes down the drain.

2:00 pm: Meditation or Prayer Session

Now that you’ve cleared your mind with breathing and visualization exercises while getting scrubbed off, you’re in a great place to enter into a session of meditation or prayer. Choose what feels most natural to you and allow yourself at least 15-20 minutes to dialogue with God or engage in the meditation of your choice. Even if you don’t consider yourself a very religious person, this is still something that I encourage. Regardless of religious affiliation, we are all spiritual beings with spiritual needs. You can use this time to explore anything you like or simply to engage in a practice of gratitude and reflection.

2:30 pm: Spend time journaling as an outlet for creativity, self expression, dialoging with God, practicing gratitude or dreaming of the future

Kentucky Counseling Center explains that journaling can benefit your mental health by helping you keep things in perspective and explore your emotions and thoughts. Here is a list of different kinds of writing they suggest:

  • Expressive Writing: Talk about the events or your experiences during the day (self-reflect, self-expression, or explore your thoughts and emotions).
  • Personal Planning Journal: This is a goal-setting type of journal. Reflect on your short-term and long-term goals. Formulate a realistic game plan on how to achieve them, and how to keep track of your progress.
  • Gratitude Journal: Write down the good things you’re grateful for and your life’s blessings.
  • Write a letter to yourself: Write down your achievements, address your self-doubt, how you can do better the next time, or how you can take care of your mental health.
  • Stress Management Journal: Write down and describe the stressful moments and emotions you’re going through. Think of the stress management techniques you can use.

These are all great options for journaling. I would also add creative writing to this list as well as writing a letter to God or the universe, or a letter you think God or the universe would write to you. See what happens as you dive deeper within!

 

 

3:30 pm: One hour or more of your activity of choice; music, drawing, more reading, afternoon walk, catching up with a friend on the phone, etc.

There’s no afternoon slump on your luxurious wellness retreat day! Use that tiresome late afternoon hour or so before dinner to enjoy something you seldom make time for but enjoy. Maybe you’re overdue to catch up with your best friend who is long distance or perhaps you love taking your dog for walks but never get the time to in the afternoon. Whatever you choose – music, painting, a puzzle, a nap – just enjoy without any pressure about outcomes.

6:00 pm: Cook or order yourself an INDULGENT dinner

You’ve eaten two healthy meals already so now it’s time to indulge! Cook or order in your favorite meal and toss any guilt you may have about its contents or calories to the side. Emotional eating is a healthy and natural thing, and when you allow yourself to pleasurably eat here and there without self-shaming then you’ll find greater satisfaction with your overall food choices. So, go ahead and get the juicy burger or pizza. Cook your favorite Italian dish or yummy tacos. Whatever sounds mouth watering! Feel free to imbibe in an adult beverage if you desire too, but for the sake of this being a day oriented around wellness, only have 1-2 drinks max so you can continue feeling your best.

 

7:30 pm: Movie Time!

What better way to wrap up your wellness day at home than with a movie? Pick out a fun sounding new flick to watch or curl up to a nostalgic film that’s a long-time favorite. Settle in on the couch and relax! After the movie, get to bed at a decent time so that your body can reap all the wonderful benefits of your day’s efforts while you sleep.

Congratulations for putting yourself first and being intentional with your wellness!


Optional Add-on Products for Your Wellness Retreat

(low to high cost) 

 

 

Dry Brushing Body Brush Set

$17.99

Dry brushing has been getting a lot of attention in the wellness realm over the last couple years and I know of many cancer survivors who do it regularly. According to Healthline, “Dry brushing is a type of Ayurvedic medicine that has been around for centuries. It’s believed to have many health benefits. Some of the benefits may include:

  • stimulating the lymphatic system
  • exfoliating the skin
  • helping the body rid itself of toxins
  • increasing circulation and energy
  • exfoliation
  • helping to break down cellulite”

Many people swear by dry brushing even though there isn’t a lot of data to back up the benefits of it. At the very least, you may find it relaxing and it’s unlikely to cause any harm. People with sensitive skin might want to speak to a doctor before trying it.

 

 

Tension Potion Aromatherapy Soy Candle

$22

Scent is closely linked to memory and mood, so when we stimulate our limbic system with aromatherapy candles and scents then we’re immediately tapping into a part of the brain that regulates emotions and can help us feel good. This Tension Potion Aromatherapy Soy Candle has a specific blend of essential oils to create high, medium and low notes in the fragrance. It’s complex but pleasing smell is sure to elicit a sense of calm on your at-home wellness retreat day.

 

 

KateandBelleCo Spa Care Package

$40

A close friend was the first person to get me a KateandBelleCo Spa Care Package last year when I lost a pregnancy and had emergency surgery. I was touched by the gesture but also surprised by how much I loved the products. Every scent was delightful (especially the bath salts) and I loved trying my first-ever shower steamer. I used the chapstick every day and it helped me take a deep breath each time. I also used the eye pillow at both cool and warm temperatures on my eyes and other aching body parts – to include my incision cite from surgery and extremely tense neck. It was so helpful! I have since gifted various versions of this set to friends. More options are on their Etsy site!

 

 

Pro Facial Steamer

$149 or 4 installments of $37.25

Some people are raving fans of facials. Personally, I don’t crave them quite like I do a good massage or pedicure. Nonetheless, this at-home facial steamer is a steal compared to the price of facials at a spa. Of course it doesn’t come with the scalp massage or face mask, but exfoliation through opening pores is one of the most essential things for clean and smooth skin. For the price of two facials you can have limitless access to this facial steamer in the comfort of your own home.

 

 

Infrared Sauna Blanket

$499 or 4 installments of $124.75

“All the celebrities are doing it!”

It’s true. This high ticket item is catching fire with those who can afford it. The Higher Dose Infrared Sauna Blanket is exactly as it sounds: an at-home sauna. The benefits of the infrared technology in the sauna blankets (think: giant adult sleep sack) include “deep relaxation, glowing skin, a mood boost, and better recovery.” Higher Dose’s clever tagline is “Get high naturally,” and they boast somewhat provocative marketing content on their Instagram handle. Their eye-catching strategy seems to be working because more and more people are slipping into these sacks and claiming they don’t want to return to the real world. If you’re a sauna junkie then this might be the best early birthday splurge ever.

 

Products or not, keep claiming your wellness! True well-being is free and already yours for the taking.

Yours in health and wellness,

Maggie

 

 

 

10 Ways I Have Reduced Environmental Toxins in My Household

Wellness is not defined by products. Whether expensive or inexpensive, products will never capture what the heart of living in wellness is all about. Nonetheless, products can have a helpful or harmful impact on our health. While I understand that paying for certain products is prohibitive for some people, I believe in spreading awareness about them so that consumers can pick and choose what feels important to them (btw – a few things I’ve gotten rid of have saved me money!).

If nothing else, I hope this article plants the seed for some of your own ideas. The included list of things I’ve changed and products I’ve switched to in effort to reduce environmental toxins in my home has taken years of trial and error, and is nowhere “complete.”

My advice as a wellness professional who is very much in the active state of learning about this topic is to stay curious and try not to feel too much pressure. Small changes can happen one day, month or year at a time as you find yourself ready.

 

Why Reducing Environmental Toxins is Crucial  

I found an excellent summary on EarthEasy.com about why household chemicals and toxins are dangerous, poorly regulated, and difficult to understand for the average consumer:

“A 2004 report by the British Medical Journal states ‘it is clear that environmental and lifestyle factors are key determinants of human disease – accounting for perhaps 75% of most cancers.’ And estimates show most Americans have somewhere between 400 and 800 chemicals stored in their bodies, typically in fat cells.

Because effects from exposure to toxins are difficult to identify, it can be years before problems from exposure manifest themselves as a disease or chronic ailment. In the US, the EPA does screen many products for some toxins, but until needed revisions to the Toxic Substances Control Act are enacted by Congress, many loopholes in the system leave the burden of responsibility on the consumer to make informed decisions through reading individual product MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheets), following recommendations from agencies like Consumer Reports, or by studying product literature.”

 

My Main Takeaways About Toxins (in plain language)

I’ve browsed literature, studies and mainstream news articles about environmental and household toxins through the years. Here are a few basic things I’ve learned that people can do to reduce their overall toxic load:

  • Change beauty and hygiene products in favor of those that are “cleaner”
  • Use unscented products for household cleaning, laundry, beauty and hygiene whenever possible
  • Lean towards products that include descriptions on their labels such as: Human Safe, Plant & Mineral Based, Fragrance Free, No Harmful Preservatives, Non GMO, Free of Dyes & Perfumes, Phalate & Paraben Free
  • Reduce plastic use when possible, or at least in the kitchen
  • When harsh chemicals must be used for cleaning, treating flooring, painting, etc. turn on fans and overhead vents (even turn on your oven’s hood or downdraft vent), open windows, and anything else to increase circulation, get rid of fumes and/or allow for “off gassing”
  • Keep water and HVAC systems clean with proper filters that are changed on a schedule
  • Eat “cleaner” by going local for ingredients or prioritizing organic fruits and vegetables and naturally-fed and farmed meats and fish. Buying an entire grocery’s list of organic items isn’t feasible for many people. If it’s within your means then try to at least buy organic for fruits/veggies on the “Dirty Dozen” list of produce to avoid heavy pesticide exposure

The 10 Things I’ve Changed in My Household

1) No Dryer Sheets

I started hearing that dryer sheets had a bad reputation years ago but couldn’t wrap my mind around it at the time. I was focused on healthier eating and getting restorative sleep after a few years of dysfunctional insomnia and troubles falling asleep due to anxiety and PTSD. At the time, healthier food and sleep were all I had the brain space and energy for. If you’re in a similar boat right now that’s totally okay! We can only handle so many changes at once.

When I eventually opened myself up to learning more about why dryer sheets are dangerous I discovered a study revealing that dryer sheets emit endocrine disrupting chemicals (ex: chemicals that can mess with estrogen levels) and chemicals associated with triggering asthma. I decided I would order some wool dryer balls but got lazy and did the next week or so of laundry without dryer sheets. I was surprised at what I discovered! There was hardly any difference without them! I personally didn’t notice a major difference in static or softness. From then on, I haven’t used anything in my dryer. The clothes go in, the button is pressed on, and that’s that!

2) Free & Clear Laundry Detergent and Plant-Based Stain Treatment

After realizing how easy it was to get rid of dryer sheets I started to wonder if I could (and should) opt for free and clear laundry detergent. I grew up with the original scent of Tide infusing my clothes, towels and bed sheets. Would it be so hard to disassociate from that scent? Probably not, I decided. And I was right. I’ve tried a variety of brands for Free & Clear detergent over the years and much prefer it now. I’m especially grateful to be scent-free during my pregnancies when a heightened sense of smell assails me.

Quick anecdote: At one month postpartum with my second son I stayed in an Air B&B for a long weekend so that I could be matron of honor for my cousin’s wedding. Despite being perpetually exhausted from nursing my baby around the clock I could hardly sleep the first night in the rental because the sheets smelled SO intense. Whatever detergent or softener had been used on them was completely revolting to me! I think it’s safe to say I will never go back to the using potentially dangerous and scented laundry detergent (not worth risking carcinogen exposure or the extra stink!).

3) Free & Clear Hand Soaps and Dish Soap

You might expect that when I changed all my laundry products around that I also changed other soaps in my home, but I didn’t. I love the smell of vanilla coconut hand soap and the luxurious aroma of various Milton Brown liquid soaps. I wasn’t quite ready to part with them until I noticed that my oldest son’s hands would break out in response to washing them with more heavily perfumed products. My son has eczema and the last thing I want is for him to be uncomfortable in his own skin or grow resistant of hand washing. After making the switch I found that we’re better off as a family. I discovered a gentle foaming hand soap from Target that is especially helpful for getting dirty toddler hands clean!

4) Bye-Bye Perfume!

About seven years ago, I started hearing about women making the switch to wearing essential oils instead of perfumes. I was intrigued but not ready to part with my array of Chanel perfumes. It was my daily joy to spritz myself with one. In retrospect, I’m sure I made some people dizzy by the perfume cloud I walked around in.

When I got pregnant for the first time I started spritzing the perfume on the inside of my sleeve or chest of my shirt instead of directly on to my skin. This felt safer for the baby and allowed me to enjoy the smell. Eventually, once I was breastfeeding, I felt like it was too aggressive for my baby to be pressed up against my smelly fabrics and I gave up perfumes for good. I’m glad I did. Although more research is needed, one study by the Environmental Working Group “estimated that only 34% of stock ingredients often found in fragrances have been tested for toxicity.” Given how chemicals can build up in the body over time, I’m more comfortable living without my Chanel these days – and it has saved me money to invest in cleaner beauty cosmetics!

 

5) Safer Body Lotions & Sunscreens

Both pregnancy and my son’s eczema inspired me to switch to gentle body lotions for daily moisturizing. I prefer Aveeno for a hand cream and Cerave for body lotion, especially for my son’s dry skin. We coat him in Cerave per the dermatologist’s orders a few times a day. As I learned more about why body lotions with fragrances and added color can dry out skin instead of help it, I began to wonder about sunscreen…

Why am I putting a safer sunscreen on my babies than I’m lathering on myself?

My entire family has tried out the following mineral sunscreens over the last few summers: Blue Lizard, Cerave Face Sunscreen, Think Sport. Most mineral sunscreens are oxybenzone free, paraben free, fragrance free and chemical-filter free. Mineral sunscreen is safer for the ocean’s reefs too.

Concerns over ingredients in most commercial, chemical sunscreens prompted an FDA investigation a couple years ago. The FDA found that only two of the 16 active ingredients in these sunscreens was recognized as safe and effective (titanium dioxide and zinc oxide – i.e. the two primary ingredients for many mineral sunscreens). The FDA also found that four of the active sunscreen ingredients are “systemically absorbed” into users’ skin. One has even been found in breast milk, urine and blood plasma samples. The fact that these chemicals are flooding a person’s system and have NOT been proven “safe and effective” is beyond concerning.

6) Safer Shampoo & Conditioner (no color tinting or highlights)

For a while I used a shampoo and conditioner with color tinting included. The products looked neon yellow when squeezed out into my palm and I was convinced they added a little bit of blonde to my naturally brown hair. Not only do I think I was fooling myself but I can’t help but wonder if those products were safe. Apparently, I’m not alone in questioning the safety of various hair dyes.

Results from studies about hair dyes are conflicting. Most recently, researchers at Harvard Medical School found associations between certain cancers and different kinds of hair dyes but were hesitant to declare these causation. They did suggest that the fumes and long-term exposure of working as a hair stylist using coloring products on clients could cause cancer, but that personal use of hair dye products probably doesn’t.

The results of the study are conflicting because on the one hand, the researchers conclude “permanent hair dye does not appear to increase overall cancer risk,” but in the same breath, they admit that there were limitations to the study, especially with regards to gender, race and ethnicity. Additionally, the researchers based their study around the assumption that “hair dye color correlated with natural shades of hair.” This assumption might not capture chemicals involved in stripping naturally darker pigments of hair during coloring treatments. So…to each their own on this topic until further research is conducted. I feel best keeping my natural color for now…but ask me again when I go grey!  😉

7) Investing in Clean Beauty Cosmetic Products

Clean beauty can be expensive but my hope is that more cosmetics companies will make the move towards clean beauty with commercial pressure and perhaps better regulations on ingredients some day (one can dream, right?). I was initially hesitant to pay the higher prices but I don’t wear a lot of make-up so I’ve found that with a few clean beauty products I can cover most of my bases. I currently use Beauty Counter products for face lotion, foundation, concealer and lip stick. I still use my old blush and eye liner for now.

I hosted Beauty Counter Representative and breast cancer survivor Morgan Adams for a Clean Beauty Q&A the other year on the blog. You can check it out to learn more about why she encourages clean cosmetics for clients and friends.

8) Unscented and Plant-Based All-Purpose Spray

For many of the same aforementioned reasons for going fragrance free and aiming for more natural products, I also eventually made the switch with all-purpose cleaning spray. At first, I tried Mrs. Meyer’s lemon scent and used that for a few years because it felt like a move towards fewer chemicals even though it’s scented. Years ago, that was about as close as I could find for a more responsible cleaner off the shelf in grocery stores. It’s organic, paraben free and eco-friendly. Not too bad.

Over the years, I’ve been pleased to see more options including my recent favorite at Wegman’s: Sensitive Home Free & Clear All Purpose Cleaner. I transfer new bottles to my preferred spray bottle under the kitchen sink and recycle the discarded one. The spray is so gentle that is seldom leaves streaks!

9) More Houseplants

According to Swanson Nursery, houseplants have the following main benefits:

    • Improving your mood.
    • Reducing fatigue.
    • Lowering stress and anxiety.
    • Improving office performance and focus.
    • Boosting healing and pain tolerance.
    • Minimizing the occurrence of headaches by improving air quality.
    • Easing dry skin and respiratory ailments due to dry air.

I love a lot of green in my home (both decor and plants), so I’m thrilled by how helpful houseplants can be for filtering air and improving its quality. With all the unknown chemicals floating around in our homes from commonly used products this seems like a big win for just about anyone! While some plants like Monstera and Fiddle Leaf Figs can be quite pricey, others like golden pothos (amazing for air purification) and braided money tree are affordable houseplant options. I’ve tried them all through the years and am proud to say that two of my plant babies are 16 years old!

10) Glass & Silicone Food Storage

Research shows that harmful chemicals can leach out of plastics into food, especially if the plastic is hot. Because of this, I’ve tried hard to use mostly glass food storage containers and silicone storage bags in recent years. I also remove any and all plastic wrap from frozen foods before it’s heated, even if the instructions say to leave the plastic wrap on. I’ve found that a round glass casserole dish with the lid on works just as well to steam vegetables as a plastic steam pouch – I simply add a minute or two to the cook time!

 

At first glance, it can look like a lot of changes. But all of this happened over roughly a decade and is still ongoing. I know I need to get better at being more eco-friendly, probably starting with paper towels (I confess I overuse them in frazzled mom moments), and I could make some more changes to reduce toxins in my home too. As it stands, if I use a harsh cleaning product I usually wear a mask and gloves.

I’m aiming for progress, not perfection. I hope you’ll join me!

Yours in health and wellness,

Maggie

Religion vs. Evidence-Based Science: An Integrative Philosophy for Wellness

People like to pit religion against evidence-based science, and vice versa. I’ve heard of some Christians, for example, who write off modern evolution theories like clergymen used to write off Galileo’s then-revolutionary scientific findings about the earth and sun because such findings opposed outdated understandings about the earth in scripture (i.e. pre-telescope guesses about how the planets revolved). I’ve also seen atheist Christmas stockings with text bubbles spelling out “BANG!” above images depicting the scientific evolution of humanity from apes. Perhaps the most recent example that comes to mind is the religious skepticism tied to some of the anti-vaccination buzz amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, many attention-grabbing arguments and loud voices choose strict sides in this debate, as though preparing for a life-and-death game of dodgeball.

 

 

The world loves to think in black and white. It marries itself to binary perspectives because they are the most logical. To integrate dichotomous philosophies requires much more thought, contemplation and introspection. But I suggest trying it.

Here’s why…

Wellness is at its best when it’s approached in a multi-pronged and integrative way. I believe science and religion are also at their best when viewed as complementary forces instead of enemies at war. When they are integrated into the understanding of the human experience, we can take better care of ourselves than ever before, serving both our utmost physical needs and intangible longings of the soul.

It turns out that scientists and theologians aren’t all that different…

Many famous scientists are known for their belief in God including Isaac Newton, Galileo Galilei, Rene Descartes, Johannes Kepler, and Sir Francis Bacon, to name a few. One Catholic group explains that the scientist and theologian are fairly similar, especially in light of the scientific method: “The fact that he [the scientist] must seek answers proves that they are not in sight. The fact that he continues to seek them in spite of all difficulties testifies to his unconquerable conviction that those answers, although not presently in sight, do in fact exist. Truly, the scientist too walks by faith and not by sight.”

 

 

Albert Einstein famously said:

“Science without religion is lame,

religion without science is blind.”

I believe most people find themselves in some difficult-to-define balance between these two forces, using one and then the other to explain their life’s circumstances and beliefs. And that’s okay! Science operates in the realm of what we can logically understand about the body and nature while religion and spirituality operate on what is above our logical brains. Spirituality relies on the inexplicable and infinite whereas science rests firmly on the finite components of this world. As you can see, the two were never supposed to be forces at war. They complement one another, with spirituality picking up where the limitations of science, research and evidence have been reached.

I’ve heard of people inexplicably recovering from grim medical diagnoses because they found God or began a spiritual practice involving prayer and meditation. If science could keep an eye on every cell of the person’s body throughout that healing process then perhaps it might find an explanation for how the body corrected itself…or perhaps it wouldn’t. Personally, I’m okay resting into the unknowns and inexplicable. It gives me some measure of reprieve that there are aspects of us that can never be contained to an evidence-based study or a research lab. In fact, the more that I seek concrete answers in life the more that I find they seldom exist.

 

 

The more that I stretch my brain and heart to integrate multiple competing perspectives into my understanding about the mysteries of this world, the better off I am. It’s like that famous Indigo Girls song (yes, I rocked out to them in the 1990s):

“And I went to the doctor, I went to the mountains
I looked to the children, I drank from the fountains
There’s more than one answer to these questions
Pointing me in a crooked line
And the less I seek my source for some definitive
Closer I am to fine, yeah”

So yes, one day I’m going to throw my hands up in celebration over a groundbreaking scientific discovery (ahem…mRNA vaccine trials for cancer) and another moment I’m going to raise my palms to the sky in praise of The Infinite. The One. The Mystery.

I’ve been given every reason to trust medicine because it has saved my body (and my oldest son) from tremendous harm and death. I also have every reason to trust in a greater power that can’t be contained by the laws of science because I have felt another kind of saving deep in my soul; the kind that allows me to be free from fear of death and open to abundant joy in this life, even in the desperate and broken moments. This peculiar balance has been paramount to my wellness journey.

 

 

Now, my question is this: Will you be brave enough? Brave enough to believe that you don’t have to pick sides after all?

It requires a leap of faith in two directions at once.

Yours in health and wellness,

Maggie

 

 

The Healthy Way to Beat Stress with Exercise

Stress of all kinds (ex: exercise, accident, illness, trauma, an argument, generalized anxiety, etc.) can impact our endocrine systems both immediately and over a prolonged period of time. When our bodies sense a stressor they release both epinephrine and norepinephrine right away. These hormones dissipate rather quickly once the body perceives it’s no longer in danger or threatened. The famous “stress hormone” called cortisol is released about 10 minutes after the initial stressor and does not dissipate quickly. Instead, cortisol can circulate in the body for 1-2 hours.

Normal levels of cortisol rise and fall throughout the day with our circadian rhythms. People experiencing prolonged elevation of cortisol might demonstrate “anxiety, agitation, poor sleep, ‘wired but tired’ feeling and a fast pulse.” Over time, the constant release of cortisol causes the hormone to accumulate in the body to the point that the adrenal glands can’t produce any more of it. This is when the “exhaustion phase” begins following chronic stress and anxiety.

 

 

The Exhaustion Phase

During this period of exhaustion, the body’s immune system is vulnerable and small stressors are more difficult to manage. People might experience emotional issues, poor sleep, increased pain, slower wound healing, and other challenges that outwardly reflect the body’s dysregulated state.

I’ve lived for long periods of time in the fatigued state that follows an excess of cortisol. It happened when I over-trained in just about every exercise format while also working full-time as a personal trainer. It happened again after getting hit by a car. I also felt exhaustion rear its ugly head after postpartum anxiety plagued me during the sleep-deprived days of caring for both of my infant sons. And, just when I thought I’d never get burned out again, it happened after I endured a traumatic loss and surgery last fall.

So, take it from me [a health professional] when I say that you can set aside any shame, blame and guilt that you want to put on yourself for your stress getting out of hand. It just happens sometimes. This is life. What matters is that you do your best to learn how to manage stress better as the years pass. You can start by taking the simple steps to manage lifestyle habits that support the healthiest version of you possible. I will talk about how to do that with exercise today but I encourage you to seek a mental health counselor who can address the root of the problem and a naturopath who can help you rebalance hormones.

 

The Stress of Exercise

As many of you already know, exercise is a stressor. Hard exercise can become “too much of a good thing” for someone who is experiencing adrenal fatigue from the prolonged release of cortisol. If you’re currently experiencing a major life change, loss, accident, illness, stressor, or long-term fatigue, then my advice to you is to avoid exercise modalities like high-intensity interval training (HIIT), distance running/biking, competitive events, classes that focus on elevating your heart rate above 70-80% max, boot camps, and other forms of exercise that you might define as intense or very intense. Now isn’t the time! Set aside the long workouts, the twice a day workouts, the intense workouts, and even the everyday workouts. Make sure you have at least two rest days a week.

 

Here are the healthy options for exercise that will help you recover from prolonged stress (and beat stress in general)!

 

 

Exercise that Feels Fun and Uplifting

This is about as straightforward as it can get: HAVE FUN. Exercise formats and routines that you find enjoyable will help you stay committed and lift your mood too. Try a dance class or ballroom dancing lessons if you used to dance when you were younger or have always dreamed of getting better at it. Try walking or jogging a local trail that has a great view or outdoor exercise equipment stations that you can play around on. Go for a gentle bike ride with your kids or sign-up for a family fun run. Whatever sounds exciting – and not too rigorous – is what you should pick first! Challenge yourself in a positive way without overdoing it.

 

 

Get Outside for Exercise

Exercising outdoors is a great way to help boost feel-good hormones. Science shows us that being outside helps to raise both serotonin and dopamine: “Serotonin is responsible for many functions such as memory, sleep, behavior, and appetite. Dopamine affects movement, emotional response, and your ability to feel pleasure.”

As you can see, so-called “outdoor therapy” is real! One of the best ways to get a dose of it is through a walk in nature, a hike with a friend, beachside yoga, a country bike ride, and other soul-soothing physical activities. Just be wary of conditions that make the exercise strenuous such as high heat, heavy humidity, dehydration, inappropriate apparel/gear, planning a route that’s overambitious, etc.

 

 

Do More Stretching

Stretching can help your body release tension and activate a relaxation response. This is helpful when you’re feeling the physical effects of stress such as tense muscles, a tight jaw, a racing pulse, intestinal distress, poor sleep, etc. Stretching is also a great time to focus on deep breathing which can help you calm your mind and progressively relax your muscles. I like to tell people to stretch at the end of a workout for their nervous system’s sake, not just their muscles. Taking a few minutes to stretch can help calm the nervous system down from sympathetic overdrive and can help the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) kick in. Your PNS helps regulate and slow down your heart rate, breathing and mind so that you can reach a more calm and peaceful state.

 

 

Practice Mind/Body Exercise Formats

Just because yoga and Pilates are considered mind/body disciplines doesn’t mean that they’re easy. Pick a class level that’s appropriate for your energy and beneficial for your healing. Personally, I love really gentle hatha yoga classes where I can just melt into comfortable poses and focus on my breathing. I find these experiences to be highly rejuvenating.

Yoga and Pilates instructors will help you pay attention to your body’s alignment, internal cues, breathing, and more. We often take these aspects of the classes for granted, focusing instead on mastering headstand in yoga or getting ab definition in Pilates, but the body awareness and progressive relaxation is the best part – especially for people who are chronically stressed!

 

 

Play More Sports and Do More Recreational Movement

Even if you never made varsity back in high school you can still enjoy sports as an adult. Pickleball courts are sprouting up left and right, and there is always a rec league accessible if you’re willing to be brave and dust off the sneakers. Find an adults league for soccer or a local pool where you can swim laps. Play a round of tennis or golf with a friend, or find a court where there is pick-up basketball happening regularly. If you’re short on sports options then seek out other recreational movements through a climbing gym, martial arts or kickboxing studio, boathouse that rents out kayaks and canoes, or anything that allows you to enjoy movement without the pressure of performing sets and reps all the time at the gym.

 

Choosing any of these options will help you enjoy exercise, sports, mind/body formats, the great outdoors and an active lifestyle for many years to come and without the added toll to your system that comes with other rigorous fitness options.

Yours in health and wellness,

Maggie

 

It’s Time to Laugh off Stress!

Do You Need to Laugh?

Have you felt stressed this year? Has your body been more tired or tense as the result of anxiety? Have you felt disappointed about missing celebrations and milestones with loved ones? There are a million reasons why 2020-2021 has increased stress levels, but the good news is that healing can start now. It’s simply a laugh away!

It’s time to laugh your stress off…literally.

I’m not suggesting that difficult emotions must get buried or left unprocessed. That would be unhealthy for long-term wellness. What I am recommending is that you find things that make you joyful so you can lighten the mood and laugh along with life.

 

 

“Laughter is the best medicine in the world.”

-Milton Berle

 

The Scientifically-Proven Benefits of Laughter

According to the Mayo Clinic, a good laugh immediately stimulates your organs through the intake of oxygen-rich air. As you laugh, your heart rate and blood pressure rise but both drop after the giggles subside, producing a calm and relaxed feeling. Your stress response “cools off” following a laugh and muscle tension eases for up to 45 minutes afterwards.

Also, laughter increases blood circulation, which is good for your heart and lungs, and boosts the release of mood-enhancing endorphins. This  all contributes to the calorie-burning effect of laugher which may not be equivalent to formal exercise but is just one more benefit of a hearty laugh.

Laughter even improves pain, strengthens the immune system, and extends the lifespan!

 

Humor for Pain Relief

Endorphins, our body’s natural feel-good chemicals, are commonly known for their stress relieving benefits following things like exercise and laugher, but they also help improve pain! In a study on the effectiveness of humor therapy for older adults living in nursing homes, it was found that individuals who completed a “humor therapy program” experienced significant decreases in chronic pain and perception of loneliness. Study participants reported enhanced happiness and life satisfaction compared to a control group that didn’t complete the humor therapy program.

The study concluded that “Nurses and other healthcare professionals can incorporate humor in caring for their patients. Telling a joke and encouraging clients to tell a funny story may have a therapeutic effect. Asking patients to make a “My Happy Folder” is also a good way to involve and empower them in their own pain and symptom management. Regardless of their physical condition, patients need to allow themselves to be happy, to let humor play a greater role in their lives, and to enjoy life. Using humor therapy is a good method of health maintenance.”

Hunter “Patch” Adams, who was portrayed in the film “Patch Adams” by Robin Williams, has long understood the medicinal effects of humor. Adams is an American physician, comedian and clown who organizes volunteers to travel around the world dressed as clowns so that orphans, patients, and others in need can enjoy their humor. Adams is also a social activist who founded the Gesundheit! Institute, a free community hospital. In its latest plans, the Gesundheit! Institute will be built as a healthcare eco-community in West Virginia that incorporates alternative medicine with traditional hospital care. Of all people, Adams understands that traditional medicine isn’t always the only answer. Humor and alternative healing approaches can improve pain and outcomes of medical interventions.

 

 

“The human race has one really effective weapon, and that is laughter.”

-Mark Twain

 

Bolster the Immune System with Belly Laughs

Laughter has long been praised for boosting the immune system; however, researchers face inconclusive evidence about the benefits of laughter on the actual various immune system components. That said, the scientific community knows that increased and chronic stress weakens the immune system response. Humor, it seems, might just do the opposite by influencing the rise of immune cell levels and infection-fighting antibodies.

My two cents: Laughter can’t hurt.

As we continue to suffer and/or recover from the effects of a global pandemic, a good laugh is easily the most accessible, free, and unlimited medicine that we have for healing. I say use it!

 

Laughter and Longevity

A study published in Psychosomatic Medicine found that women with a strong sense of humor live longer than peers despite a variety of illnesses that they may suffer. The Norwegian study was conducted over 15 years and included over 50,000 adults. Researchers stated:

“The findings show that for women, high scores on humor’s cognitive component were associated with 48 percent less risk of death from all causes, a 73 percent lower risk of death from heart disease and an 83 percent lower risk of death from infection. In men, a link was found only for the risk of death from infection—those with high humor scores had a 74 percent reduced risk.”

This is highly compelling evidence that it’s never too late in life to benefit from a good laugh. And why wait? Start incorporating daily or weekly humor now!

 

 

“Laughter is the sun that drives winter from the human face.”

-Victor Hugo

 

Bonding and Togetherness in the Giggles

Laughter is contagious and can bring people together, strengthen relationships, diffuse disagreements, and release inhibitions. It comes in the form of swapping jokes and spending time with family and friends. Laughing can help people feel happier, more positive and relaxed in stressful situations.

As the world attempts to gain immunity from Covid-19 it’s a good time (once safe) to visit with select loved ones face-to-face and to engage in the powerful social aspects of humor, storytelling, quality time, and in-person interactions. These are all important for mental health and have been lacking for many of us over the past year.

Laughter helps people “get out of their heads” and better connect with others. The collective healing capacity of humanity depends on simple daily acts and moments like… giggling with a girlfriend, tickling your toddler, swapping playful jokes with parents, belly laughing to a comedy movie, reading something humorous, and finding the levity in life. Despite all the recent heaviness, there is always something to laugh about. Doing so may even give you the hope and healing you need.

 

“If you become silent after your laughter, one day you will hear God also laughing. You will hear the whole existence laughing – trees and stones and stars with you.”

-Rajneesh

 

 

 

 

Yours in health and wellness,

Maggie

 

 

Building Lean Muscle Boosts Immune Function

Building lean muscle has been boasted for reducing fat and toning the body, but it’s seldom discussed in relation to the immune system. Lean muscle is a powerful medicine and has a protective effect for our immune systems.

The Evidence

In studies of mice it has been observed that mice with more muscle fare best when fighting a chronic viral infection. Many chronic illnesses like infections and cancers exhaust the immune system, but in muscular mice the skeletal muscle tissue releases cytokines. This small protein triggers a phenomenal reaction. The cytokines influence “T-cell precursors” to settle within the muscle, creating a sort of back up reserve of cells that can migrate out and develop into fully-functional T-cells when needed. Thus, when the immune system’s regular T-cells are too exhausted to support the body in the face of chronic illness, the precursor cells get released from muscles and become new, disease-fighting T-cells at the sight of infection.

(I don’t know about you, but when I learn something like this about the body I REALLY geek out!)

While this specific protective mechanism between the immune system and muscles has only been proven in studies on mice, there’s a strong chance the same thing happens in our bodies. For example, it has been known for a while that immune cells play a critical role in repairing muscle. This is called myogenesis. In this process, immune cells help regulate stem cells within the muscles to regenerate healthy tissue. The immune system’s critical role in muscle growth and repair may help explain why muscle mass diminishes with age. In other words, the aging immune system results in reduced muscle stem cell function.

In another study, people who regularly bicycled had more immune cells thanks to their muscle mass. Their muscles produced more hormones to regulate the thymus, the organ where T-cells are manufactured (these little fighters help detect infections, including covid-19). The cyclists’ bodies also produced more cancer-protective proteins like the interleukin-6 protein (IL-6).

In summary, the muscle-immunity connection is very real. Now, let’s talk about how to take advantage of it…

How to Maintain Muscle

First off, please don’t feel upset if you don’t look muscular. You don’t have to flaunt a six-pack or chiseled legs to be strong and healthy. Bodybuilders and fitness models have lots of lean muscle, it’s true, but they also have very low BMIs. In other words, they work extremely hard to trim down fat. Sometimes, this can be to the detriment of women’s health if they become amenorrhoeic (i.e. their menstrual cycle stops), so try hard not to compare your body to someone else’s. Perfectly normal people can have immune-fighting and health-boosting muscle mass while also retaining healthy amounts of fat.

In general, I recommend for healthy people under the age of 40-45 to focus on exercises that are moderately intense for 45 minutes/day, 4-5x/week to maintain good health and lean muscle mass. Other days of the week can be used for rest days, low-intensity exercise days, walking, stretching, gentle yoga, meditation, gardening/yardwork, cleaning the house, or other light activities. Adults over 45-years old can follow the same framework but should keep exercise bouts lower in intensity. This programming is extremely basic but demonstrates how weekly exercise can be scheduled for general fitness and muscle maintenance.

You can build strength and muscle through virtually any exercise; running, low-impact cardio, HIIT, strength training, dance, swimming, sports, yoga, pilates, barre, you name it. It’s all fair game. What matters the most is that you regularly stimulate and stress your body (in a good way, of course) with exercises that get your heart rate up and challenge your efforts. As long as this is done safely then you can enjoy many lifelong benefits for your overall health.

Strength Train at Least 2x/week

Although it might be out of your comfort zone, I recommend that everyone (yes, everyone) do strength training twice a week.

Why?

Strength training offers focused bouts of effort that can allow you to train weak areas of your body to improve overall strength, balance and postural support. Incorporating strength training into your weekly regimen (even if you only do 20 minutes twice a week) will allow you to troubleshoot weak muscles so that the exercises and sports you enjoy the most can be enjoyed for years to come.

While performing strength training exercises, the number of sets and reps needed is highly subjective to your level of fitness, ability to maintain form, and knowledge of the movement pattern. Whether you choose to use free body weight exercises, weight machines, or props is also dependent on your individual needs. You can gain enormous benefits from any and all of them. For a highly detailed tutorial about strength training, check out my contribution to a MyFitnessPal article on the topic: Fitness Basics: Strength Training.

You deserve to feel amazing in your body. A little muscle might help. This doesn’t mean that you have to be excessively skinny or lacking fat. It doesn’t even mean that you have to be super strong! Feeling amazing is a balance that only you can define and at its heart is wellness.

Yours in health and wellness,

Maggie

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Do an Annual Blood Panel (right now!)

Getting your doctor to run an annual blood panel can be life changing and life saving. A yearly peek into your internal health helps you get familiar with your baselines and can offer a quick diagnosis if there are any issues. You don’t have to be symptomatic or unwell to get a blood panel done. You can simply request one at your annual physical with your general practitioner. I highly recommend it for several reasons that I will share, especially in the depths of winter.

My husband and I started requesting annual blood panels six or seven years ago. We wanted to know what our baselines were before trying to conceive our first child and also wanted to check that my husband’s vitamin D levels weren’t too low (without proper supplementation his levels can fall off a cliff). Since then, we have done an annual blood panel every year.

You Might Get Paid to Do Bloodwork!

Every year my husband and I upload our bloodwork results into a health benefits portal through my husband’s employer. Not only has this been beneficial for keeping tabs on our health but we actually get paid for doing it. If you get health insurance through your employer it’s worth looking into whether or not they offer health perks or incentives. Many large companies do. Rewards for reporting basic biometrics such as weight, height, age, blood pressure and cholesterol levels (collected through blood analysis) might include a discount on the premium for your health insurance or a cash bonus for your health savings account (HSA). Even if your employer doesn’t offer these benefits, it’s still important to do a blood panel.

Internal vs. External Health

It may seem obvious but external health doesn’t always equate to internal health. Thus, it’s critically important that we occasionally peek into what the blood reveals about our holistic health. An overweight individual doesn’t always have internal risk factors present for diabetes or heart disease. The converse is true for an individual whose weight falls within what is generally deemed a healthy range; this person might have hypertension and high blood sugar that a trip to her GP and a blood panel can reveal.

Sometimes, a blood test is the only way to get answers for health factors that aren’t discernable to the naked eye and don’t always correlate with one’s body weight. For example, a woman complains of chronic fatigue. She is a normal body weight and practices good nutrition. She also maintains a daily exercise schedule. A blood panel can reveal if this fatigue comes from low iron or thyroid dysfunction. If a problem is found then iron supplements or thyroid treatment may begin. If not, the woman might take a closer look at whether she is sleeping enough, feeling undue stress, or over-exercising. Each of these lifestyle factors can also cause crippling fatigue.

What Can Different Blood Panels Evaluate?

  • Organ function
  • Heart disease risk factors
  • Presence of disease (ex: cancer, diabetes)
  • Blood clotting factors
  • Hemoglobin levels and anemia
  • Vitamin deficiencies
  • Efficacy of certain medicines
  • Clinical allergies (usually requested by allergist not GP)

What are the Most Common Blood Tests?

Below are descriptions of the most common blood tests that doctors do, but the list is not exhaustive. As mentioned, my husband has specifically requested checks on his vitamin D levels before. I have also taken my toddler for two blood analyses for different suspected allergies (milk and soy when he was a baby, almonds as a toddler…all negative). Most recently, I had a blood analysis done to assess my recovery from blood loss during emergency surgery. The panel looked at my hemoglobin levels, red blood cell counts, and the size of my red blood cells. I also asked for a folate and thyroid panel check out of curiosity and a desire for hormonal balance and nutritional well-being. All levels were within normal ranges and I was assured that I had recovered from acute anemia. The peace of mind was wonderful. If something had been “off,” I would have been grateful to know so that I could take swift corrective actions.

Complete Blood Count

What it measures:

Blood diseases and disorders like anemia, clotting issues, blood cancers, and immune system disorders. Components included in a CBC: Red blood cells, white blood cells, platelets, hemoglobin, hematocrit and mean corpuscular volume.

Basic Metabolic Panel

What it measures:

A BMP can reveal information about the heart, organs, muscles and bones by looking at different chemicals typically found in the plasma (fluid) part of the blood. Components included in a BMP: Glucose levels, calcium, electrolytes, and more.

Lipoprotein Panel

What it measures:

Heart disease risk analyzed through total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol (i.e. “bad” cholesterol), HDL cholesterol (i.e. “good” cholesterol), and triglycerides. This test often requires fasting for 12 hours prior to the blood draw.

Other Tests:

As mentioned, there are many reasons to do a blood test. For example, a blood enzyme test can look at enzyme levels related to heart attacks to rule them out or confirm them. Blood clotting tests may be done if your doctor suspects you may have a clotting disorder or before/after certain major surgeries. Even covid-19 patients have been undergoing blood tests at hospital intake to evaluate their risk of mortality based on elevated red cell distribution width (RDW). According to medical professionals, elevated RDW “has previously been associated with an increased risk for morbidity and mortality in a variety of diseases, including heart disease, pulmonary disease, influenza, cancer and sepsis.”

Conclusion

I’m not a doctor. I don’t pretend to be one either. This is why it’s imperative that you become your own health advocate. Ask your doctor for a blood panel on an annual basis. It might simply reassure you that your health is on the right track. Or it might be the thing that helps save your life.

Yours in health and wellness,

Maggie

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Healing Requires Courage

The world is slowly inching towards a new year and possible solutions for moving the pandemic towards its end. Even once a vaccine is proven effective and administered to the masses, there is still global healing that must follow. No doubt many of us have suffered physical, mental and spiritual repercussions from this scary year. Survivors of covid-19 sometimes say that they have lingering and chronic symptoms from the virus. Still others are grieving losing loved ones who they longed to hold tight in their final days but could not. The whole world needs healing…and it may take a very long time for that to happen, even if and when global immunity is established. We must step into 2021 with bravery and hope like never before. 

 

 

At the outset of the pandemic I felt very fortunate to have escaped its nasty jaws (so far). My family’s livelihood was not majorly hampered and most of our professional work was already based out of our home. In fact, the pandemic meant that my husband’s part-time work travel was made obsolete. Suddenly, he was more available to help with the children, errands, dinner prep and chores. The atmosphere around the dinner table was still tense with pandemic-related stress but we felt like we could count our blessings and muscle onwards.

And then…well, then we were dealt a terrible blow. Our perceived invincibility went racing down the gutter. I was left quite literally dumbfounded and broken, brought to my knees by the great and tragic twists of life. I’m currently on my own unique healing journey. One that requires healing from emergency surgery and pregnancy loss.

My body has had to heal physically on many levels (at two months out it’s still ongoing, of course).

My hormones are finding their way back to equilibrium. The layers of tissue under the incision on my stomach are gluing themselves back together. My core strength and stamina is slowly returning. My heart is pumping to replenish from blood loss and recover from anemia. Emotionally…well…grief takes a while, and you can bet I’ve linked up with a mental health counselor to wade through the trauma. Spiritually, I feel like I’ve grown tremendously…but I still have lots of unanswered questions to make peace with.

Healing takes time. It’s complex. And most of all, it requires courage. 

 

 

Before diving into why healing requires courage, let’s explore how healing is defined to better understand it. Who better to ask than Wikipedia, right? According to wiki:

Healing is the process of the restoration of health from an unbalanced, diseased, damaged or unvitalized organism.”

Said in other words, being healed implies ongoing balance, wellness, safety and vitality. From this standpoint, healing is quite different from modern medicine. Prescription medicines are often masking while surgeries are considered curing in many scenarios. Healing isn’t either; it’s a holistic process.

For example, let’s say a woman is “cured” from breast cancer through a lumpectomy or mastectomy. Does this mean that she is also healed? No, not yet. Healing will take place in the post-operative room following surgery and in the weeks ahead as she regains strength and mobility. It will happen as she begins to deal with the emotional impact of being diagnosed with cancer in the first place. Additional mental healing may be necessary as she adapts to a new body image (in the case of mastectomy) and grieves aspects of the diagnosis and/or trauma. Perhaps healing must also occur on a spiritual level for her; she may be angry at God, questioning the existence of a higher power, or seeking to assign spiritual meaning and value to the experience as a whole. 

Nurses are often given credit for facilitating patients’ healing in hospitals. In nursing literature, healing has been explained as “the process of bringing together aspects of one’s self, body-mind-spirit, at deeper levels of inner knowing, leading toward integration and balance with each aspect having equal importance and value.”

Prior to my recent trauma, I learned the aforementioned definition of healing firsthand after being hit by a car. The healing process took over five years in my twenties. Yup, five full years – partially because my body began to dysfunction in response to the acute injuries I sustained. Also, I was going through a spiritual and emotional crisis at the time. You could definitely call that time a “coming of age” experience but it went hand-in-hand with lessons on physical, emotional and spiritual healing, and the complicated web that entangles them all. 

In the seasons that followed the bike accident, my eyes were opened to the powerful role of inflammation in our bodies, the complexity of pain pathways, the nonlinear nature of healing, and the difficulty involved when advocating to partner with the right health professionals, to name just a few lessons. But most of all, I discovered that healing requires courage. A lot of it. 

 

 

There are powerful stories we rehearse in our heads like “I don’t deserve to feel better,” and “No one can fix me,” or even, “I’m too tired, sad, angry (etc.) to find the resources I need to heal.” Other times, the mental narratives relate to the trauma or inciting incident itself: “It was my partner’s fault when he did ____,” or “I feel like I’m drowning when I think about the day ____ died.” Whatever image or phrase repeats in your head and causes a negative physiological and/or emotional response becomes a footpath in your mind.

As you rehearse or relive that negative experience or belief, that footpath expands into a one-lane road. Over more time and left unchecked, the road gets wider and wider, making it much easier to travel down than another path that is still overgrown and untrodden but which contains a positive belief about the experience. Your brain will keep choosing and reinforcing the wider road until there is courage to step away and intentionally choose to trailblaze a new path. Oftentimes this is a process, not an overnight fix, requiring intentionality and professional help.   

It can be very scary to choose to heal. It entails confronting “inner demons” and misbeliefs, working through trauma, and more. All of this can feel extremely daunting and draining. But being brave enough to heal isn’t about waiting for the fear to subside. It’s about stepping into the fear and moving through it. 

“Courage is not the absence of fear but rather the judgement that something else is more important than fear.”

-Ambrose Redmoon

Each individual is responsible for being courageous and owning their healing process. Oftentimes, healing feels like a lot of small quiet victories, unannounced to the world but felt profoundly in a person’s daily life. These small “wins” add up and are just as significant as the big ones. Healing requires being brave enough to take action; setting boundaries, self care, and saying no to things that will deplete you too much or that you’re not ready for. Healing will look and feel different for each person.

We can also learn a little something about healing through understanding what it looks like at a cellular level in our bodies:

“With physical damage or disease suffered by an organism, healing involves the repair of living tissue(s), organs and the biological system as a whole and resumption of (normal) functioning. Medicine includes the process by which the cell(s) in the body regenerate and repair to reduce the size of a damaged or necrotic area and replace it with new living tissue. The replacement can happen in two ways: by regeneration in which the necrotic cells are replaced by new cells that form “like” tissue as was originally there; or by repair in which injured tissue is replaced with scar tissue. Most organs will heal using a mixture of both mechanisms.”

 

 

In other words, if we take what cellular repair and regeneration look like and blow this out to the entire organism or person, we might conclude that healing looks in part like an evolution of the self (regeneration) and in part like a return to the original self (repair). Both are paradoxically true: Through healing we return to ourselves just as we become brand new beings. As I’ve said once before, it’s a metamorphosis.  

I would like to leave you with this parting thought:

In what ways have you been healing recently? What parts of you feel steadfast and true, a return to your authentic self, and what parts of you feel transformed? Lastly, is there anything you can do as we head into a brand new year to heal more completely? 

Sending out a little prayer and some good energy in hopes you find the courage you need. And guess what? If you don’t find it right away, that’s okay. Sometimes healing looks much slower and more painful than we would like. It’s important to remember that living in a season that feels stalled does not make you “lesser than” or imply that you aren’t trying. Sometimes the most profound hope can be born in the midst of what feels like an unending dark night…  

Oh, one last thing:

In case you want some ideas for actionable things you can do in the healing process, here are a few from a very, very long list of options: 

  • Prayer
  • Mental health counseling
  • Herbal supplements, teas and tonics
  • Nutrient-dense meals
  • Restorative sleep
  • Meditation
  • Guided visualization and/or progressive relaxation
  • Rejuvenating exercise
  • Engaging with communities for spiritual growth
  • Omkar chanting and/or mantra recitation
  • Yoga and stretching
  • Aromatherapy and/or essential oils
  • Sound therapy
  • Nature therapy and grounding
  • Acupuncture
  • Massage
  • Chiropractic adjustments
  • Journaling
  • Leisure time and hobbies
  • Joyful activities with friends
  • Reading

 

Yours in health and wellness,

Maggie