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An Introduction to Mindfulness

Have you ever driven from your home to your work and thought “I have no idea how I got here, I don’t remember any part of that drive!” It’s a common experience. When people are engrossed in thoughts, they can go about their day on an autopilot-like setting. This experience is the opposite of mindfulness.

Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to one’s moment-to-moment experience. It’s about getting out of our heads and living in the present moment rather than dwelling on things that happened in the past or worrying about things that could happen in the future. It allows us to be fully engaged with life.

Developing a practice of mindfulness has been extremely helpful for me in my own life. I am, by nature, a thinker and years of training in science only reinforced this. However, when I started to learn about mindfulness, I realized that there are huge benefits of giving my brain a break from thinking now and then.

Research in the area of mindfulness has exploded over the last decade with studies showing benefit for a whole range of physical and emotional concerns. For example, one study of patients with moderate to severe psoriasis added an audio recording of mindfulness exercises to conventional treatment and found that this significantly improved the speed of healing.

Mindfulness can also play a helpful role in managing stress and emotional concerns. When our thoughts are pulled to events in the past or the future, we can relive emotions from past experiences or pre-live anticipated ones. Not only does this remove us from our present experience, but it causes us to suffer from experiences that are in the past or may never actually happen. Mindfulness training has been shown to reduce anxiety, depression and stress levels in a variety of patient populations, from patients affected by serious mental illness or cancer to students.

There are many ways to begin to incorporate mindfulness into your daily life. One simple way is to pay close attention to one mundane activity that you do each day such as brushing your teeth, washing your dishes or getting dressed. See if you can bring your full attention to the task, noticing everything you can about the different sensations that you experience –taste, touch, smell, sound and appearance. You may notice that with all of this active observation, you are less likely to be worrying about what you need to do next.

Mindfulness is simply about bringing one’s attention to what is happening in the moment so that it can be fully experienced. It’s about disengaging from the thoughts that drag us away from the present. If you think that developing mindfulness could be helpful for your health and well-being, see the resources below for more information or talk to a Naturopathic Doctor or counselor with training in mindfulness.

Resources on Mindfulness:

Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn

Wherever You Go There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn

The Mindfulway through Depression by Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zindel Segal and Jon Kabat-Zinn

References:

Carlson, L.E., Speca, M., Patel, K.D., & Goodey, E. (2003). Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction in Relation to Quality of Life, Mood, Symptoms of Stress, and Immune Parameters in Breast and Prostate Cancer Outpatients. Psychosomatic Medicine, 65(4), 571-581.

Helen, M.S., & Teasdale, J.D. (2004). Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression: Replication and Exploration of Differential Relapse Prevention Effects. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 72(1), 31-40.

Hofmann, S.G., Sawyer, A.T., Witt, A. A., & Oh, D. (2010). The effect of mindfulness-based therapy on anxiety and depression: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 78(2), 169-183.

Kabat-Zinn, J., Wheeler, E., Light, T., Skillings, A., Scharf, M.J., Cropley, T.G., Hosmer, D., & Bernhard, D. (1998). Influence of a mindfulness meditation-based stress reduction intervention on rates of skin clearing in patients with moderate to severe psoriasis undergoing phototherapy (UVB) and photochemotherapy (PUVA). Psychosomatic Medicine, 60(5), 625-632.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (1982). An outpatient program in behavioral medicine for chronic pain patients based on the practice of mindfulness meditation: Theoretical considerations and preliminary results. General Hospital Psychiatry, 4(1), 33-47.

Shapiro, S.L., Schwartz, G.E., & Bonner, G. (1998). Effects of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction on Medical and Premedical Students. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 21(6), 1998.

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Whole Grains = A Whole lot of Confusion?

It seems that there is a lot of talk and hype about grains these days, whether it’s about whole grain, multi-grain or gluten-free products. Do these buzz words leave you a little bit confused? If so, you’re not alone!

Let’s start with the basics. Products made of whole grains use all parts of the grain, compared to more refined products that just use the carbohydrate-rich center. As a result, they contain more fiber and numerous vitamins and minerals. In addition to a range of health benefits, this extra fiber helps people to feel full longer which likely explains the finding that people who eat more whole grains gain less weight.

When choosing grain products at the store, it’s important to read the labels carefully. Statements like “Made with Whole Grains” or “Contains Whole Grains” can be misleading as the product may only contain a small portion of whole grain ingredients. Other tricky phrases that tell you a product is not made from whole grains include: “100% wheat”, “wheat flour” and “unbleached enriched wheat flour”. Instead choose ones that say “100% Whole Grain” or “100% whole wheat”.

Multi-grain is another popular term on labels. The idea of consuming a variety of grains is great since they contain different types of fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals. The problem with some multi-grain products is the proportions of the different grains and the fact that this label claim does not require any of the ingredients to be whole grains. It’s easy to find “multi-grain bread” which is made mostly from refined wheat flour with a couple of other grains included at the bottom of the ingredient list. A better option is to include a variety of grains throughout the day. For example: oats for breakfast, barley soup for lunch and brown rice with dinner.

“Gluten-free” has become an extremely popular buzz-word, backed by a variety of authors, bloggers and even celebrities. Gluten is a protein wound in wheat, barley, rye and spelt, but not in brown rice, quinoa, millet, buckwheat and amaranth. Choosing gluten-free grains can be very helpful for people with Celiac disease or gluten sensitivity or those who wish to add more variety to a diet high in wheat products. However, choosing processed food with a “Gluten-free” label is not necessarily a healthy option. Some ingredients used in making these products, such as white rice flour or potato starch, can be highly refined and low in fiber. Be sure to read the label and check for whole grains in these products too!

A common theme when assessing grain products is the importance of choosing whole grains. Whenever possible, try to eat a grain in its least processed form and when you reach for the processed stuff, be smart about reading the labels so you can distinguish truly healthy products from those trying to take advantage of trendy marketing terms.

Photo credit: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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Your New Prescription: Vitamin N

You’re sure to get your vitamin A by eating carrots and you take your vitamin C capsule if you’ve got a cold coming on, but when was the last time you got a dose of vitamin N? While there isn’t actually a molecule by this name, it might be time to start thinking of Nature as an essential ingredient in a healthy lifestyle.  This is something that intuitively we’ve know for a long time, but science is showing that the benefits are real and measurable and it’s time we took note.  Whether it’s an ocean, a forest, a field, a lake, a stream, community garden, your backyard or local playground, a natural setting can often be found close to where you are. 

However, North Americans spend 95% of their day indoors or in a vehicle.  The average child spends 6 minutes doing outdoor activities and 6 hours using a computer or watching television daily. 

Research has started to look at the effect of spending time in nature and the results are remarkable.  Technology that shows activity of the brain has demonstrated that when adults view scenes of nature, areas of the brain that are associated with emotional stability and love are more active.  In contrast, when they look at images of an urban landscape, areas of the brain associated with stress and fear are activated.  It’s been shown that when hospital patients can see trees from their hospital room, they recover faster and require less pain medication.  The following is a list of other benefits associated with time spent in nature:

  • decreased blood sugars and blood pressure
  • reduced obesity
  • reduced stress, anxiety and incidence of clinical depression
  • improved impulse control
  • increased immune functions
  • increased energy
  • improved cognitive function
  • improved performance in the workplace and increased job satisfaction
  • improved memory and focus
  • improved academic performance in children

If a medication or supplement could do all of these things, who wouldn’t be taking it? Oh, and let’s not forget that it’s also free!

Vitamin N has a lot of positive side effects too. Spending time in nature can be a form of physical activity.  Whether it’s hiking on a trail, gardening in your yard or an evening stroll to the neighbourhood park, these activities get you up and moving which will further add to the health benefits.  Also, spending time outdoors regularly provides sun exposure needed for vitamin D production in your skin. 

You may be wondering about the dose of Vitamin N that you need to get benefits.  Two minutes in nature relieves stress, as measured by muscle tension, blood pressure and brain activity.  One hour in nature improves memory and attention span by 20%. Two consecutive days in nature increases white blood cells –the infection and cancer fighting cells of our immune system – by 50%.

Maybe it’s time that we shift our perception about spending time in nature – from something we indulge in on long weekends to something that the doctor ordered to maintain our health and wellbeing.  Let’s work to eliminate nature-deficiency!

References:

http://www.davidsuzuki.org/blogs/panther-lounge/assets_c/2012/06/get-outside-infographic-cottagecountry-3512.php

http://www.davidsuzuki.org/blogs/panther-lounge/2012/06/help-spread-the-word/

http://www.davidsuzuki.org/blogs/docs-talk/2011/11/your-brain-on-nature/

http://www.davidsuzuki.org/blogs/docs-talk/2012/10/sharpen-your-memory-with-a-simple-walk-in-nature/

Photo Credit: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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