Stop and take a deep breath: The art and science of breathing

Stop and take a deep breath: The art and science of breathing

If there was ever a time we needed to remind ourselves to stop and take a deep breath it is now. In addition to the heated issues facing our nation, we continue to be plagued by a virus threatening our health and disrupting our education and economy. The continual uncertainty and fear are overwhelming and no doubt triggers stress in many.

I view stress as a double-edged sword. In a lot of ways, stress is beneficial. It helps us to meet our daily challenges, along with supporting our ability to adapt, become more resilient, and grow stronger.

But when stressors don’t have a defining end, like a pandemic that has gone on for months, it can start to wear us down, leading to significant health consequences.  

One of the best things you can do when life becomes overwhelming is to stop and take a deep, long full breath.  Breathing is truly one of the best ways to lower stress and help you relax. 

We’ve known for years that breathing exercises are beneficial for our health. Now let’s take a look at the science behind why the routine act of breathing reduces our stress and the art of breathing correctly.

First the science.

We have all heard of the term “fight or flight.”  It is known as the stress response. When our brain or body perceives stress, it prepares us to either face or avoid the danger.

It does this by activating the sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system releases a hormone called adrenaline which in turn elevates our heart rate, increases our blood pressure, widens our bronchial passages, and fuels our muscles. All of these changes improve blood, energy, and oxygen flow that the body needs to rouse a response to a threat. 

Once we are safe and no longer in danger, our parasympathetic nervous system kicks in and does the exact opposite of the sympathetic nervous system. This nervous system restores the body to a state of calm and promotes rest and recovery. 

The vagus nerve is the key to activating the parasympathetic nervous system. It is the longest nerve in the body and innervates just about every one of our organs. It extends from the base of the brain and travels down around the heart, lungs, diaphragm, digestive tract, liver, spleen, and bladder. When the vagus nerve is activated, it releases a hormone called acetylcholine, which tells your body to chill out. It slows down your heart rate and breathing and stimulates muscle relaxation. 

One simple way you can activate the vagus nerve is by taking a deep, slow diaphragmatic breath.

Now the art.

Learning how to breathe correctly, however, is the key. Many of us get into the unhealthy habit of shallow “chest breathing.” This type of breathing initiates breathe from the chest using the muscles in the neck and upper traps to open and fill the lungs. Not only does this lead to overuse of these muscles but the inadequate oxygen-carbon dioxide exchange leaves you feeling fatigued and anxious. Chest breathing is exhausting, rather than restorative. 

Deep breathing, also known as diaphragmatic breathing or abdominal breathing is when you engage your diaphragm, that dome-shaped muscle that sits at the bottom of your rib cage.  When you engage your diagram, it lifts and spreads the rib cage, draws oxygen deep into all corners of your lungs, and activates your vagus nerve. Activation of the vagus nerve stimulates the relaxation response of the parasympathetic nervous system reducing feelings of stress, anxiety, anger, and ease inflammation. 

Diaphragmatic breathing is the way we are supposed to breathe, but over time, we get out of the habit of breathing this way and often need to remind ourselves or relearn how to do it.

Here are some simple steps to learn diaphragmatic breathing:

Start by lying flat with your knees bent or sitting upright in a chair.

  1. Place one hand on your upper chest and the other on your diaphragm, just below your rib cage. 
  2. First take a shallow, short breath and you can see how the hand on your chest moves up and down, but the hand on your belly doesn’t move much at all.
  3. Now breathe in slowly through your nose pulling the air all the way down into the hand on your belly. You should see this hand rise, but the one on your chest remains silent.
  4. Now on the exhale, you are going to slowly blow the air out through pursed lips and you will notice that the hand on your belly flatten out again.
  5. Be sure to breathe in and out slowly and rhythmically. Trying breathing in for a count of 4, holding your breath for a count of 4 and exhaling for a longer count of 6-7. 
  6. To reteach our bodies how to diaphragmatically breathe on its own, without consciously doing it….practice for 5-10 minutes several times a day….and then it will become a habit again.

In times of stress, you can further activate the vagus nerve by humming a song or repeating the “OM” sound as you exhale. Because the vagus nerve is connected to the vocal cord, singing or humming stimulates it even greater.

It is amazing how just this simple practice of deep breathing will help stop the stress response in its track and have a powerful influence on your overall health. Everything from squelching inflammation to improving cardiovascular health, digestion, mood, and even the health of your bones can benefit from stopping and taking a deep breath.

Susan Brady
is a Physical Therapist,
Nutrition Consultant and
Doctor of Integrative Medicine.
She has been treating women with osteoporosis for over 30 years and is dedicated to helping people achieve
lasting good health and vitality.

Want to learn more about how you can improve your bone health? Contact me for a free 15 minute phone consult to learn more about the BONES Method™ and how it can help you achieve strong, healthy bones for life!

Protecting Your Skin – Sunscreen

Protecting Your Skin – Sunscreen

If you are like me you are enjoying the summer sun more than ever this year.  The warm vibrant rays are calling us outdoors after many months of being confined inside the home. Although I am an advocate of daily fresh air and sunshine, I am also very wary of the need to protect our skin from the sun’s damaging rays. Exposing your bare arms and legs to direct sunshine several minutes a day is essential for vitamin D production, but if you are going to be in the sun for long periods of time it is important to safeguard your skin by covering up with clothes, hats or use of sunscreen.

However, finding a sunscreen that can both withstand the powerful UV radiation from the sun and is made with ingredients that are safe for our body and environment can be challenging.

Your skin is the body’s largest organ and is very effective at absorbing whatever it comes in contact with. Almost any product you lather onto your skin gets soaked up into the bloodstream and travels to every cell in the body. So when you are striving for optimal health, remember that what you put on your body is just as critical as what you put in your body. That is why it is important to educate yourself on the ingredients in sunscreen.

Here is what you need to know.

If you do a quick scan of the ingredient label on popular sunscreens you come across chemicals such as oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, and octinoxate.   A study published in the JAMA last year showed that these ingredients are absorbed into the bloodstream, through your skin, in high enough levels that the FDA is now requiring manufacturers to study them further. 

The lack of safety data on these chemicals has left many concerns for harmful toxicity.  The few studies that have been done suggest that these chemicals may interact with our endocrine system altering sex and thyroid hormones and affecting reproduction.

After reviewing the existing data on the toxicity of these chemicals, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) states that the chemical oxybenzone is the most worrisome. It is known to cause allergic skin reactions and can interfere with the function of estrogen and testosterone in the body. 

Parabens are another chemical commonly found in personal care products and sunscreens. They are commonly used to prevent the growth of bacteria, yeast, and molds in shampoos, lotions, makeup, and sun products. Parabens have also been cited for disrupting your hormones and potentially causing health problems. The good news is that many brands have recognized the cause for concern and will clearly label their products as ‘paraben-free. You can easily spot parabens in the list of the inactive ingredients because they all end in ‘….paraben.’

Want to spend a day in the sun, but avoid the burn?

Look for sunscreens made with minerals, such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. These sunscreens provide a physical sunblock as opposed to relying on a chemical reaction like the above chemical blockers. They don’t appear to get absorbed through the skin and provide safe broad-spectrum UVA/UVB protection.  Try to look for a sunscreen that is free of parabens and fragrances as well.  

There are many sunscreens on the market that are now using zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide as their active ingredient. My favorite skincare company, Beauty Counter, has been making sunscreens and personal care products without toxic chemicals and parabens for years. They have a wide range of products including skincare, makeup, bath and body products, and of course, suncare.

Lastly, cover-up and/or find shade. There are many sun protective clothing options now on the market.  Many are designed to keep you cool and comfortable even when exercising outside in the summer sun. 

What if you get sunburned?

Sunburn is not a heat burn like what you’d get if you touched a hot stove but an actual radiation burn.  The UV radiation from the sun damages the DNA and sets off an immune response that produces redness, swelling, and pain.  To help the body repair the damage, turn to foods that are rich in antioxidants.

Six notable foods that have been shown to repair UV-damage skin:

  • Blueberries, especially wild blueberries are a powerful antioxidant that can combat free radicals from sun exposure.
  • Pomegranates have high antioxidant content and have also been found to offer anti-inflammatory benefits to the skin
  • Watermelon rich in lycopene which absorbs both UVA and UVB radiation
  • Carrots/sweet potatoes/leafy greens/cantaloupe are all excellent sources of beta carotene which not only protects against sun damage but also can help to reverse it
  • Green tea is packed with antioxidants and polyphenols to help your body repair any UV damage and reduce inflammation after a long day out in the sun
  • Almonds and other nuts and seeds contain high levels of vitamin E and selenium. Both are important antioxidants for the skin and can help neutralize the free radicals that cause inflammation and damage.

Why wait for the burn? If you know you are going to be spending an extended time in the sun, feature these foods into your daily day.  Start off the morning with a green smoothie blended with blueberries and your other favorite ingredients.  Snack on watermelon, cantaloupe, and nuts while sipping on iced green tea throughout the day.  

Remember, the sun is not our enemy. It has great healing powers and can deliver radiant health, but getting sunburned is harmful. This is why I recommend everyone to choose the best kind of sunscreen with the safest ingredients if they know that they’re at risk of getting a sunburn.

Additionally, take added steps to protect your skin by finding shade or covering up with light clothing when your skin begins to pinken, and don’t forget to replenish needed nutrients with skin nourishing foods!

Click here to learn more about my favorite sunscreen and toxin-free beauty products from Beauty Counter.

Susan Brady
is a Physical Therapist,
Nutrition Consultant and
Doctor of Integrative Medicine.
She has been treating women with osteoporosis for over 30 years and is dedicated to helping people achieve
lasting good health and vitality.

Want to learn more about how you can improve your bone health? Contact me for a free 15 minute phone consult to learn more about the BONES Method™ and how it can help you achieve strong, healthy bones for life!

Train your Balance to Foil the Fall

Train your Balance to Foil the Fall

Did you know that 1/3 of Americans over the age of 65 fall at least once a year? Taking a tumble might not seem like a big deal, but a simple fall can lead to bruises, broken bones, sprained joints, and head injuries that can impact your mobility and function from days to years. 
 
There is no doubt that the risk of falling increases with age, but not just old age! Your balance begins to decline when you are around 40-50 years old. So even a simple misstep, a stumble in the dark or not paying attention while climbing the stairs can leave anyone of us falling to the ground. However, you can lower your risk of falls by training your balance system. Just like there are exercises that strength your muscles and heart, and there are also exercises that can improve your balance. 
 

Even though the body’s process for maintaining balance is very complex, there are 3 main systems that work together to keep you upright.

  1. Visual system: your vision helps you see where your body is in relationship to your environment
  2. Vestibular system: Inside your inner ear you have vestibular structures that inform the brain about changes in the head positions and body movements.
  3. Proprioception system: Your muscles, tendons and joints have special sensors called proprioceptors which help provide your brain with information on movement and position of your body parts.

Using the feedback of these 3 systems, the brain sends messages to your muscles to make adjustments to your body position in order to maintain balance and coordination.  If any of these systems isn’t working correctly, it can increase your risk of falling. Other risk factors that contribute to falling are poor posture and muscle weakness, especially weakness in the muscles of the trunk, hips and ankles.

An effective balance training program includes exercises that integrates all these systems.  By challenging these systems, along with strengthening your muscles and improving posture, you can improve your balance and decrease your risk of falling.

 

So how do you integrate these systems into an
effective balance training program?
  1. Combine challenge with safety:  Perform exercises near a wall, counter, desk, or firm chair so you have something to grab onto if you lose your balance…which you should!  If the exercise isn’t challenging, it isn’t progressing your balance.
  2. Lose the shoes:  First you need to ditch the shoes and perform balance activities in bare feet. Your feet are covered with proprioceptors and provide abundant feedback to your brain as to your body’s position.  Barefoot balance activities also help to strengthen the muscles of the foot and ankle which will add to your stability.
  3. Add movement for maximum benefit:  Moving your head while performing balance activities can stimulate the vestibular organs and adding in arm and leg movements improves reaction time and coordination of all three systems. 
  4. Soften up the surface: changing the surface from firm floorings to standing on a pillow, a soft mat or a balance board will further challenge balance and strength simultaneously.  Performing balance exercises on an unstable surface provides even greater proprioceptive training and strengthens muscle of the trunk and lower legs.
 
Static Single Leg Balance:
  • On a firm surface, standing tall with your abdominal muscles tight
  • First stand on your dominant leg with your other leg lifted and slightly bent at the hip and knee and positioned away from the standing leg
  • Work up to holding this position for 20 seconds on each leg
  • Challenge yourself by trying to hold this position with your eyes closed

 

Once you get good with the static single leg balance, progress to dynamic stability exercise to enhance the challenge to your visual, vestibular and proprioception systems. 

Dynamic Balance exercises

While standing on one leg with good posture and abdominal muscles tight, move your arms back and forth in a running motion. Perform for 20-30 seconds. 

Incorporate larger arm movements as if you are swimming the freestyle, then reverse arm direction and swim the backstroke. 
Perform each for 20-30 seconds, switch legs.

Further engage your vestibular and visual system by adding in head turns.  While standing on one leg, slowly and gently turn your head side to side at the rate of 1 movement per second.  Head movements should be in a comfortable range and not cause neck pain.
Perform for 10-20 seconds

Next you can add lower leg movements. While standing on one leg, reach the other leg out to the front, side and then the back, initially touching your toe for balance if needed. You can increase the challenge of this exercise by performing a min squat with the leg movements.  With this movement you can also add in arm and head movements as above.

If you are unable to stand safely on one leg, start by performing all the above exercises with your feet together and then progress to performing the exercises in a staggered stance. 

As we move through life, our balance is challenged on a daily basis…whether you know it or not.  The change in surfaces that we walk on, finding our way to the bathroom in the dark of night, turning your head to look to see if a car is coming as you walk across a street or a parking lot.  Incorporating balance training into your daily exercise program will help you meet daily balance challenges, improve your stability and prevent falls.  If you want to prevent fractures, we need to prevent falls!

Contact me to find out more ways you can protect your bones from fracturing!    Susan@nurturedbones.com

Beyond Sleep: 5 Ways Melatonin puts the Breaks on Aging

Beyond Sleep: 5 Ways Melatonin puts the Breaks on Aging

You have probably read about the use of melatonin as a natural sleep aid, but did you know that melatonin may also play an important role in slowing down the aging process?

Melatonin is a hormone that regulates our circadian rhythm, or our sleep-wake cycle. It is secreted by a small gland in the brain, called the pineal gland. The pineal gland has only one function and that is to produce copious amounts of melatonin at night. In the morning, as the sun rises and our eyes are bathed in light, the pineal gland turns off and stops producing melatonin. The natural production of melatonin in response to darkness plays a crucial role in making us feel drowsy and promoting restorative sleep. Additionally, melatonin appears to have several other beneficial roles as well, and may even guard against age-related diseases and decline. 

Melatonin has powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. It is well known that the process of aging and many of our chronic degenerative diseases are the results of systemic inflammation and free radical damage to our cells and tissues. 

Benefits of Melatonin Beyond Sleep:

  1. Free radical scavenger.  Melatonin’s antioxidant effects protect against free radicals that damage tissue and play a role in heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and other degenerative diseases. Melatonin also effectively fights inflammation, another root cause of many diseases.
  2. Immune function. Melatonin can activate T-cells and cytokines, which help to fight off foreign invaders or pathogens.
  3. Anti-cancer properties. There is some evidence that melatonin, through its antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and systemic hormonal effects, can prevent cancer from occurring or induce cancer cell death if it does occur. Several studies have found a credible link between night light exposure, reducing melatonin levels, and breast cancer.
  4. Protects the blood-brain barrier. The blood-brain barrier is a special barrier that protects the brain from toxins and pathogens circulating in the blood. Melatonin may have the potential in preventing damage to the blood-brain barrier and thereby decrease the risk of developing neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s as we age.
  5. Bone density. Melatonin positively affects bone density by both suppressing bone loss and promoting new bone formation.

However, many studies have shown that melatonin levels decrease with age. Not only does this leave unable to repair our tissues from daily stress but it may also play a role in the aging process and developing age-related diseases. 

But before you run to the store to pick up a melatonin supplement, first try some natural ways to boost your melatonin levels at night.

8 Natural ways to support healthy melatonin levels:

  1. Get morning sunshine. Morning sunlight directly into the eyes deactivates the pineal gland, suppresses the production of melatonin, and helps to “set” the natural rhythm of melatonin. 
  2. Avoid light at night. Light is a direct inhibitor to the production of melatonin. Therefore, exposure to light at night, especially the blue light emitted from electronic devices, can prevent the secretion of melatonin making it more difficult for you to fall and stay asleep.  So be sure to limit the use of smartphones, pads, and computers at night.
  3. Escape the EMFs or electromagnetic fields. EMFs are not a new phenomenon, but we are getting a steady increase in exposure with all the advancing technologies. Studies have shown that exposure to EMFs can influence our circadian rhythm by interfering with melatonin secretion.  It is best to turn off your phone at night while you are sleeping. However, if it is your primary lifeline to your family, place it at least 15 feet away from your bed.
  4. Sleep in a dark environment.  A dark environment ensures a good production of melatonin throughout the night. So be sure to turn off all lights, the TV, and any device that may be emitting light.
  5. Eat foods rich in melatonin, tryptophan, and magnesium. Foods rich in melatonin include pistachios, almonds, walnuts, tart cherries, Golgi berries, and tomatoes.  Because the amino acid tryptophan is needed in the production of melatonin, eating foods rich in tryptophan such as turkey and chicken can raise melatonin levels. Magnesium-rich foods like leafy greens, nuts and seeds and legumes also naturally boost your melatonin levels.  If you do snack in the evenings, snack on foods such as pistachios, pumpkin seeds, almonds, or walnuts.
  6. Limit foods that decrease the secretion of melatonin.  Meat and dairy have been shown to decrease the production of melatonin along with caffeine and alcohol.
  7. Take a hot Epsom salt bath.  The warm water will have a relaxing effect on the body and the magnesium in the Epsom salt will aid to naturally boost melatonin levels.
  8. Maintain a consistent sleep-wake schedule. Going to bed at the same time every night and waking up at the same time every morning will help to maintain a healthy melatonin rhythm.

Certainly, supplementing with melatonin is also an option, but because melatonin can have side effects and may interact with certain nutrients, herbs, and pharmaceuticals medications, it is best to consult a health care practitioner before taking melatonin.

Want to further explore the use of melatonin as a sleep aid or to as an adjunct to healthy aging?  Schedule a 30-minute supplement review and together we can determine if supplementing with melatonin is right for you.

Or email me at susan@urturedbones.com

 

 

Is Your Body Polluted with Plastics?

Is Your Body Polluted with Plastics?

I picked up Consumer Reports magazine this week and the headlines on the front cover reads:

                                              “HOW TO EAT LESS PLASTIC”

The article highlights that, on average, we are consuming a credit cards worth of plastic a day!

Last time I looked, plastic was not considered an essential nutrient in our diet!

So how is it that we are consuming, on average, 5 grams of plastic a week?  What are the effects on our body? How can we minimize our consumption of these plastics?

 

Researchers are finding tiny bits of plastic, called microplastic, in our food, our drinking water and even in the air we breathe.  Although plastics appear to be stable, over time they break down into tiny fragments, smaller than 5 mm, and end up in our environment and then in our body. In a small but world-wide study (1), scientists found nine different types of plastic in the stool of every person who participated. It is likely that microplastics are in all of us.

This shouldn’t be surprising since plastics are ubiquitous in our modern day lifestyle.  Plastics are in almost every product we use on a daily basis. Obvious sources such as water bottles, containers and plastic bags, and less obvious sources including clothing, personal care products, toothbrushes, laundry and dishwasher pods, and the case on your smartphone. These plastics, no doubt, improve our lives in many ways, but they can also cause environmental pollution and pose potential risks to our health.

So what are the health risks of these plastics?  

  • They can get it into the tissues of our body and cause systemic inflammation
  • There is some evidence that they can cross the membrane that protects our brain from foreign bodies in our bloodstream
  • They can be a magnet for other toxins and make it harder for our bodies to eliminate toxins
  • They expose us to harmful chemicals like bisphenols, phthalates, styrene and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)

Bisphenols and phthalates are known endocrine disruptors and interfere with our hormones.  Our hormones are essential to every system of our body, from our reproductive and immune systems to our musculoskeletal system.  These chemicals have even been shown to interfere with bone metabolism and trigger bone cell death in animals studies.

Styrene, a chemical found in plastic and food packaging, has been linked to nervous system problems, hearing loss and cancer.

Microplastics in our body can also expose us to PCB’s, which have been linked to various cancers, a weakened immune system, and reproductive problems.

Now as alarming as this might seem, I want you to take a deep breath, because there are some simple steps you can take to reduce the consumption of these plastics.

 

Minimizing our exposure to microplastics:

  • Limit the use of plastic water bottles. A study out of the State University of NY found that bottled water contained nearly twice as many pieces of microplastic than tap water.  I know a lot of people are weary about drinking tap water as well, so buy a good water filter and fill up your own bottles. Glass or stainless steel bottles are the safest.
  • Switch to glass or ceramic food storage containers.  Storing foods or beverages in plastic containers for long periods will cause the accumulation of microplastics in the foods. If using plastic, check the number printed on the bottom of the container. The plastic containers that have #2, #4 and #5 printed at the bottom, are considered safer for food storage. Containers with a #1, are a single-use container and meant to be used only once and they recycled.
  • Never heat up plastics. Heating up food in a plastic container will cause the plastic and leach chemicals into your food. The same for plastic water bottles and plastic wraps. If you are going to heat something up in the microwave, you a glass or ceramic dish and cover with a paper towel, wax paper or parchment paper.
  • When shopping, use paper bags, or your own reusable shopping bags. Best is to try to limit the amount of food that you buy that is packed in plastic wrap. Consider purchasing mesh bags to put your produce in when shopping.
  • Choose natural personal care products. Take a look at your toothpaste, facial scrubs and soaps. If they list polyethylene in the ingredients, those are microplastics.
  • Keep a clean house. Believe it or not, dust particles in our homes have been shown to have a high concentration of microplastics and their associated chemicals. Dusting and vacuuming regularly can prevent the buildup of dust in our homes.
  • Keep your body healthy.  By eating clean, exercising, getting good quality sleep and keeping your stress in check, you can support your detoxification systems which will allow enhance your body’s ability to eliminate microplastics and their chemicals.

These are just a few ways you can start to reduce the consumption of microplastics, however, with all the plastics in our world, we are never going to get down to a zero exposure.  What I don’t want is for you to drive yourself crazy with worry, because that is not good for you either!  My advice is that on a daily basis, do what you can do to reduce the amount of plastics in your life.

 

References:

1. Schwabl, P. et al, 2018. Assessment of microplastic concentrations in human stool – Preliminary results of a prospective study, Presented at UEG Week 2018 Vienna, October 24, 2018