Friday, September 27, 2013

Cortisol, carbs, and colds, oh my!

After my vacation, my routine felt blown. I was so exhausted. I had a general feeling of inflammation throughout my body, and felt like I was getting sick.  These feelings led me to read about the hormone cortisol. It's an interesting hormone with perfectly positive functions, like selecting the right amount of either carbs, fat, or protein from what you eat to fuel what you're doing. Cortisol is also secreted in response to stress. When this happens, the body floods with glucose, and the arteries narrow, forcing your blood to pump harder and faster. In short, "You are freaking out, man."

Interestingly, cortisol is normally released during these three events:
  • waking up 
  • exercising
  • acute stress
Isn't it sort of interesting that the body puts acute stress and (potentially strenuous) exercise in the same category as waking up? I think most people agree that waking up is hard to do, so I guess this is a signal that our minds get from our bodies. We don't like it, and we struggle with it, because it's somewhat physically strenuous.

All this makes me think about chronic stress conditions, and the effect that feeling regular surges of stress has on the body over time. It turns out, constantly secreting cortisol is really bad for your health (no shocker).The whole-body process that occurs in response to stress is in itself strenuous for the body to endure and recover from. From Today's Dietitian, effects of elevated cortisol include:
  • blood sugar imbalance and diabetes
  • weight gain and obesity
  • immune system suppression
  • gastrointesinal problems
  • cardiovasular disease
  • fertility problems
  • other issues such as insomnia, chronic fatigue syndrome, depression, and more
Well, I don't want any of those. The #1 piece of advice for stopping frequently elevated levels of cortisol from damaging your health is to reeeeeeee....laaaaaaax. (Go ahead, take a breath or two. They're free.) 

Ever start to feel like your thoughts are taking over? Or that you're submerged in a stressful situation, with no way out? Remember, there is another way to be. Stop the stress response before it takes you for a ride. Focus on your breathing. Feel the living energy that hums beneath your skin. Listen, instead of speaking. 

You can decrease your cortisol levels and increase your Total Body Happiness through better sleep, deeper and more mindful breathing, acupuncture, acupressure and other forms of massage, exercise, and therapy. Which of these are you doing regularly? Which ones appeal to you most? 

I've also been cutting out starch, because bread, rice, pasta, and potatoes have a high glycemic load, which is a contributor to inflammation. The goal to get most of my carbohydrates from vegetables has been leading to far less consumption of starch (not abstinence). I've been enjoying spaghetti squash as a pasta replacement and a filling ingredient to casseroles, and I'll post some recipes soon. For now, just a photo of my breakfasts lately -- this is how I've been keeping my head up in the morning:

The trifecta.
The main ingredient in my morning smoothie is Raw Meal (raw, organic, vegan, gluten free, containing probiotics, enzymes, and superfoods, protein, soluble and insoluble fiber -- there's so much in here, I can't describe it). This 2.5 lb cannister is about 1/3 of the price for the same amount of Shakeology, so bam, no contest, I'm sold.

This product tastes a little green, so I'm experimenting with what to add.  I'm using a little bit of the chocolate whey, and a little bit of the Miracle Reds, mostly for flavor. Miracle Reds also has major antioxidants, nutrients, and immune boosters. (Dave is coming down with the bad cold that everybody at his work has, and right now the right side of my nose feels stuffy, so we'll see if Miracle Reds can keep me out of the snot club. Hope hope!)

Today, I put a banana, Raw Meal, and almond milk into the Magic Bullet, and it was totally tasty. I could easily save my whey for recovery from my next hard workout. Another shocker: I've been slacking in that department too. It's getting darker earlier, and colder overnight, so maybe I'm just in a sort of transitional phase, I don't know.

My upcoming birthday's giving me lots of thoughts about what I want to do with my life and I've been spending some free time researching grad school, starting to study for the GRE, and I even published some articles on The Examiner. Here's one that relates to my birthday plan -- October camping in NH! What to Bring: The Top 5 Essentials for Fall Camping in New 

I'm so going to work out today, I'm so going to work out today, I'm so going to work out today...

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Find your happy place

On Saturday, August 24th, Dave and I packed the car to the brim and started driving. With a couple stops and 6.5 hours of driving, we arrived at Elk Neck State Park in North East Maryland, just before dark -- in time to set up our tent, and go out for a date to Woody's Crab House.

At home in the trees!
At home at Woody's Crab House!
We drank ale and ate lots of fresh fish, vegetables, and potatoes. I was in heaven with the atmosphere, and the knowing that an evening campfire awaited us.  As Dave navigated the dark country roads from the restaurant back to the campground, we began to realize we'd gone the wrong way.  He skidded to a stop as we reached a dead end with a sign that said, "Danger!  Cliffs ahead!"  No matter, we survived, laughed, and found our way back soon enough. That night was so much fun.  We joked with each other by the fire, got our faces sticky with s'mores, and had fun in the tent.  Camping hack: strap your headlamp to a gallon of water for an ambient lantern.

Our campsite was near the bathhouse, which was clean and cabiny.  I woke up around 8, washed up, made a fire to heat my tea over and sit by while I read my book (Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn, totally recommended).  Dave slept for a few more hours, and by the time he got up, I had gotten sleepy and decided to take a nap.  So, a restful morning preceded another long day of driving.  By 1pm, we packed up camp and got back on the road for the ride to our ultimate destination, the Outer Banks, North Carolina.

That day's driving felt more exhausting.  We had about 50 miles more highway road to cover than on the first leg, but worse, I had been so happy at the campground that the last thing I wanted to do was pack up and get right back in that car!  But we had plans to keep, and so we drove all day and into the darkness. Bluegrass and bible thumping dominated the radio as we passed through the farmlands of Virginia and North Carolina toward the Outer Banks.  Finally, we began to drive in the pitch black night over the long bridges that connect Hatteras Island to the mainland.  Past water, and sandy road spotted with deer, past beach shops and mansions, we finally came to our destination, Quinnebaug House, around 11:30pm on Sunday.

Dave's mom greeted us, as did Fuji the Shiba Inu, who woke up his owner, Dave's sister.  We were tired. After a quick tour around the house, which they had arrived at earlier in the day, we brought our bags in, unloaded our food from cooler to fridge, and went to sleep.  The next morning we could really see how lovely Quinnebaug was, with its position on the sound, 3 bedrooms, 3 baths, long boat dock with a swing at the end of it, a short walk to a general store and a long walk or short drive to the beach.  A perfect home away from home!

Right on the sound side, at the end of Hatteras, so that the surf side (beach) was only minutes away.
You can't see it, but there's a porch swing in the gazebo.  I totally fell asleep on it one afternoon; awesome.
We spent our days at the beach, driving Dave's dad's truck right up over the dunes and up to the shore. There were 6 of us (Dave's mom and Dad, Dave's sister and her friend) so Dave and I sat in the bed of the truck, bouncing over the dunes and getting the full view of the sky and terrain. Almost like being on a motorcycle; just my speed.  At the beach, we'd set up a sunshade and our chairs, and I devoured Gone Girl, sandwich lunches, and cold beer (which is legal on the beaches there... in other words, the south is way more fun).  Nobody got too burnt and there were only a few scrapes, stings, and bites among us.  We walked into the (comparably big) waves to swim, scuba, and play Frisbee.  It was an awesome end-of-summer beach-centric week after not spending much time at the beach at home.  The ocean is my happy place. What's more beautiful, or more grounding, than its vastness and power.

This was right after we saw 3 dolphins swimming right where we'd been swimming!  Magical!

Lovely Denise

Beach boys

Each afternoon, we returned to the house and made drinks in the kitchen, had some downtime for showers and naps and planning for dinner, which we mostly cooked and ate together at "home."  My favorite dinner was the first, where we caught a perfect, crimson sun setting over the sound as we sat on the screened-in porch to enjoy fresh pieces of fish, hot bread, and refreshing salads.

Spent much time in this room, as people tend to do.  Love a great kitchen!

Now since this is a blog about what I'm doing to lower my stress levels, coexist with my emotions, and increase my body's happiness, you may think this is a post about how going on vacation does just that.  But here's the twist: it threatened to be just the opposite.  Between the stress of the driving, the pressure of wanting to be a good guest and vacation companion to Dave's family, and the changes in diet, exercise, and general routine that accompany travel, my body and mind were definitely in a stressful state for much of the trip. Here are the things I did, and tried to do, to get myself through the foray away from my home and comfort zone:

  1. First and most importantly, I tried to remind myself that wherever I am, and whoever I'm with, I'm still me.  Be in your body.  Attempt to have an experience as fully as you would if you were meditating, alone.  This is mindfulness on the go.  It can counteract the feeling of being overwhelmed by your surroundings.
  2. Be as generous and helpful as possible.  As a teacher once told me, keep your side of the street clean: this refers to focusing on your own behavior, and keeping your conscience clear at all times. It made me feel good to do whatever I could do to help our entire group, be it cooking or shopping to contribute to meals, setting up, cleaning up, or just being present and open for interaction and conversation. Keep your side of the street clean and serve others as much as you are capable.  It's not always the easiest thing to do in the moment (arguably letting others serve you may be easier) but it will leave you feeling best in the end.
  3. Maintain your routine as much as possible.  I had my shakes for breakfast every morning and made sure I got the grocery items I know I need to feel best, ex. bananas.  I did take the week off from exercise, but I got lots of sun and fresh air and slept really well all week.
  4. Valerian root.  I'm so into it.
Sunday, September 1, was our last morning on Hatteras.  After packing up our cars, cleaning up the house, and writing in the guest book, we all took off on our separate journeys home.  Dave and I drove 8 hours, back through Virginia (where we stopped to buy a big piece of hog, locally grown peanuts, some funny/awesome Jim Beam drinks you can't get here, farm-stand vegetables, and fireworks) and on to Pennsylvania.  We arrived at the Appalachian RV Resort after dark and it was totally lively there, with fireworks in the sky, kids riding bikes, people in a long line waiting for ice cream, and later, a band played until midnight.  I loved this place and I want to buy an RV and have 5 kids just to go back for the full experience.  (I'm joking and not joking simultaneously.  This place rules.)

It was after 9pm, we hadn't had dinner, and we had just set up the tent and started a fire.  It was incredibly buggy and muggy, and I thought about being cranky, until I cracked open a Jim Beam and cola.  We unpacked our cast iron skillet and cut up the fresh tomato, chicken sausages, and spinach we had bought. We stuck cobs of farm-stand corn right into the fire and had a feast in the dark at the picnic table by lantern light. Afterward, we lit our sparklers next to the fire, talked about the trip, and listened until the band stopped playing, and only the crickets and other bugs buzzed.

...speaking of buzzed...
Finally, back at a campsite, I could really relax again.  In truth, the stress of trying to be on my best behavior, with regard to sharing space with, and trying to make a great impression on, Dave's family, had been a lot.  I struggle with finding a balance between being myself and being what I think of as my best self.  The pressure I put on myself and my behavior leads to tension and anxiety.  Maybe I need to let go more, in lots of ways, and I think that's why I love camping so much.  The more in tune I feel with my surroundings, the less I tend to get trapped in the stressful environment of my own head, and in the interpersonal dynamics I have with others.
We had a really beautiful campsite to end the trip!
Back in the car for one final day of driving.  It was the first time that it rained on us in 10 days.  We had just enough time to pack up the campsite before it began to pour.  I navigated through highways, happy to be headed home, happy that all the bugs we had killed with the front end of the Honda were getting washed away!  I'm so thankful to Dave's family for not only sharing their vacation with me, but for giving me an opportunity to stretch outside my comfort zone and practice my Total Body Happiness skills.  I give myself an A for effort and a 7 out of 10 for Total Body Happiness maintenance.  ;)  I had a whole lot of stomachaches.  :(  I managed them as best as I could, and hopefully, remembering all the successes I had on this trip will give me even more confidence for the next foray out of my comfort zone.

Your happy place always surrounds you, once you realize that your body is your home.  <3

Don't worry, be happy!  and/or goofy.
Have you stretched yourself to do something new and challenging lately?  How did it go?  I'd love to hear about your travel experiences, challenges, and successes!

p.s.  30 days 'til my 30th!  Started Beta phase of T25!  Will post more on Beta soon.  :)