Three “meals” a day for the soul

It makes sense that a healthy diet and plenty of exercise can help us sleep better at night and be more resilient in the face of stress. But consider the flip side: managing stress and sleeping well can support efforts to eat better and move more.

I recently spent a day counseling people on healthy eating, but I found myself more often than not talking with them about how much sleep they got, and what their stress levels were like. They invariably said that their jobs were stressful and the hours were long. They got home later than they would like, and found it challenging to think about preparing a healthy meal. The stressful day made them feel like they “deserved” the calorie-laden dinner. And by the time they ate, and spent a couple of hours winding down, they got to bed too late to get enough sleep. They often felt fatigued and low in energy.

Most of the people I talked to were relatively young and pretty healthy. But they were struggling with maintaining healthy behaviors in the face of increasingly demanding jobs and hectic lifestyles. Suggesting complicated or time-consuming changes won’t work for them. But what about something that takes only 5 minutes?

Spending 5 minutes once, twice or three times a day doing something that brings you back to the present moment, refreshes your mind, or relaxes your body, can be incredibly restorative. Most of all, in those few minutes, you’re engaged in caring for yourself. While the idea that you deserve care seems like it should be a no-brainer, many people have a hard time embracing it. But a practice that affirms your love and care for self can be the foundation for other health behaviors.

These 5-minute fortifiers come from many sources, including my own practice. Some are adapted from a little book called Five Good Minutes by Jeffrey Brantley and Wendy Millstine. I have divided them into morning, day and evening practices:

Morning

  • Resist the urge to jump right out of bed. Stay still for a moment. Listen to the sounds outside and in your home. Smile. Set an intention for the day, such as being kinder to the people who challenge you.
  • Sing in the shower. As Brantley & Millstine say, “Music and song can make you feel giddy, bubbly, euphoric, and joyful.”
  • Slow down. Ever notice how when you rush, you are more likely to drop things, spill things, and make mistakes; and less likely to find things you need? Taking the extra two minutes to get ready with care will not make you later.

Daytime

  • Breathe at the traffic lights. Too often when we’re rushing to get somewhere, especially in traffic, we chafe at the time spent waiting. Turn it into an opportunity to notice your breath. Inhale deeply and exhale slowly. You will feel calmer when the cars start to move again.
  • Take a break to look at nature. Whether it’s the view out your office window, or a picture on the wall, this practice will rest your eyes and your brain, and shift your perspective.IMG_0117
  • Eat lunch mindfully. Stop working for the time it takes to eat. Chew slowly, really taste the food and think of how it nourishes you.
  • Spend 5 minutes talking with a friend or family member outside of your work. Hearing the voice of someone who loves and cares for you helps ease the stress of the day.

Evening

Relaxing rituals in the evening help separate day from night and work from rest:

  • Make yourself a cup of herbal tea to warm and soothe you before bed.
  • Listen to some mellow music.
  • Give yourself a foot massage.
  • Read a favorite poem.
  • If you find yourself anxious with thoughts about work, imagine writing them down on pieces of paper. Then picture yourself walking to a nearby river and dropping each thought into the water, letting it drift away.

By tackling stress and sleep first, we put ourselves in a better place to make choices about eating and exercise. We change our habitual ways of thinking about ourselves, make caring for ourselves a routine, and have the energy to stick to a plan.

As Soren Kirkegaard said, “Don’t forget to love yourself.”

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Finding my balance

After two long weekends in a row away from home, I am still struggling with a feeling of disequilibrium. Don’t get me wrong – both weekends were a lot of fun, and I don’t regret going away. It’s just that I feel off-balance from having so little time at home in between.

In the language of stress, this is what is called “eustress”. It’s the good kind of stress, the kind that comes with a happy event or something else that is desirable. But it still throws us off balance in a way that is similar to negative events. It knocks us out of our usual routines, and makes demands on our bodies and minds.

For some people, travel might be routine, but for me, not so much. The first thing that goes off-kilter when I travel is exercise. My careful routine of running, yoga, and weight-training two times a week is out the window. If I’m lucky, I get in one run and maybe some quick yoga.

Eating also changes. Sometimes the food choices aren’t so healthy, or the mealtimes are erratic, or there’s too much or too little of something. Fruit is something I don’t eat nearly enough of when I am away from home.

Sleep habits might also suffer. Strange or uncomfortable beds, noisy rooms, and time changes can all cause problems.

Mentally, the demands can be more subtle. If we’re traveling for pleasure, we try to shift to vacation mode, but work might still be on our minds, especially if we think about all the things that aren’t getting done while we’re away. If the trip is business-related, we might feel like we are missing out on family time. So we are not fully present in the place we’re supposed to be.

Then, just when we’re getting used to the place we’re in, it’s time to go home!

Now we’re faced with the work that is undone, the people who need our presence and the myriad details of our lives that need to be dealt with. Sometimes it can take days to catch up. Essentially, we are trying to regain “homeostasis”, our steady state.

David Agus, who has a new book out called The End of Illness, argues that to be healthiest, people need to keep to a regular daily schedule of eating, exercise, sleep and relaxation. Most people might find it difficult to eat meals or exercise at the same time every day as he suggests, but I can see how it might be very helpful during times of stress, whether that stress is eustress (good) or distress (bad).

When I get back from a trip, my sense of focus is poor. I don’t know which task to tackle first. The temptation is to skip exercise or sleep, and to use the time to catch up on all I’ve missed. That’s probably the worst thing that I could do. Getting back to my regular schedule will ultimately make me more productive.

Here’s what I’ve observed during my first days back:

  • Right before I left for my first trip, I started doing a 21-day meditation challenge on the Chopra Center web site. Although I missed a couple of days while I was away, I have been pretty diligent about doing the meditations once or twice a day since then. That has helped to keep me grounded and calm.
  • I’ve gone back to reasonably healthy eating, although I find that I am unusually hungry at odd times of the day. That’s probably the result of not eating on a regular schedule while I was away. But I’m expecting that in a couple more days, I’ll be back on track.
  • The exercise habit is kicking back in. It helps that the weather is warmer this week and I’ll be able to run outside over the weekend. That will also help with sleep and appetite.
  • By tomorrow, I’ll probably be caught up on my work, and I’ll feel good about that.

Am I looking forward to my next trip? Yes, but I’m glad it won’t be for at least a month. While I relish the challenge and stimulation of travel and new experiences, I’m happy now for the comfort and well-being of home and habit.

An apple (or more) a day

“Fruit & Veggies – More Matters” – that’s the slogan promoting the consumption of produce in the U.S., but I don’t think people have gotten the message. In most states, fewer than 15% of adults eat five servings of fruit/veggies a day.  The CDC and the Produce for Better Health Foundation would like us all to eat a lot more fruits and vegetables. And to encourage us, September is designated as “Fruit & Veggies – More Matters” month.

Usually when I think about eating more fruits and vegetables, I think of the peak of summer – June and July – when I can get fresh blueberries, peaches, corn and luscious tomatoes. But there is actually a lot of tradition and evidence for making September the month for establishing new habits, especially the habit of eating more produce.

September is a time of new beginnings. It is the start of the school year and the start of the religious year in some faith traditions. September is also a traditional harvest month. It signals the end of summer and the start of fall. Times of seasonal change can throw many people off-balance or cause illness. That’s why acupuncturists recommend a treatment at the change of seasons, and why Yoga Journal magazine is offering a seasonal de-tox plan in its September issue. So it makes sense to use this month to re-set our eating habits as well.

The great thing about the “More matters” campaign is that it’s all about eating more of something rather than giving something up. Who wouldn’t rather hear “yes” than “no”? In fact, there are several popular weight-loss programs based on the concept of eating more of the right foods, rather than focusing as much on giving up the bad foods. The idea seems to be that if we give ourselves the nutrients that our bodies need and want, we will gradually crave fewer of the toxic foods that are harming us.

A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association even indirectly supports the “more matters” concept in terms of lowering bad cholesterol. It found that adding cholesterol-lowering foods to people’s diets resulted in significantly greater reductions in LDL cholesterol than reducing fat in the diet did.

Why do more fruits and veggies matter? There is evidence to show that a diet rich in them can help prevent heart disease, bone loss, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and even some types of cancer. Most of that action comes from phytochemicals, compounds that are made by plants. Antioxidants, which clean up “free radicals” in cells, are one important type of phytochemical.

Although summer fruits and veggies like corn and peaches are almost gone, we can enjoy cranberries, beets, broccoli and cauliflower, as well as these tasty treats in the next couple of months:

  • Raspberries – besides being tasty, raspberries contain a phytochemical that helps prevent cancer
  • Apples – have vitamin C and other antioxidants that help prevent cancer; plus the fiber makes you feel full, which can help with weight loss
  • Pumpkins – contain carotenoids, a type of antioxidant; lutein, which is an antioxidant especially helpful to the eyes; plus iron, zinc and fiber
  • Chard, and other leafy greens – important for their carotenoids, lutein, iron and vitamins C & K

If you need help with knowing how many servings to eat each day, how to buy fresh fruits and vegetables on a budget or with how to cook them, check out these web sites:

  • Choosemyplate.gov has an online calculator for determining your specific nutritional needs.
  • For information on buying fresh produce on a budget, click here.
  • A recipe page allows you to select the type of meal and the fruit or vegetable you want to use, and provides a recipe for it.

Happy Eating!