Archive for category Health
My sister Columbine is studying in Shanghai this summer, and she’s been sending me dispatches about the city and culture. I think a lot about urban life, especially how we can create more liveable cities (a new urban habitat, if you will), so it’s fascinating to hear about life in a city of 24 million.
Columbine has traveled extensively in Europe and Latin America, but this is her first trip to Asia. She’s amazed by how clean and safe Shanghai feels:
I didn’t know what to expect from China and Shanghai. I have never been to a city of this size. I certainly have never lived in a city this size. I think I expected to be a bit disgusted, since most large cities have an element of filth. Walls near the train tracks will be painted with graffiti. Sirens will be heard at all hours of the day. Whiffs of open sewer will find your nose. Trash will be strewn about. Shanghai is nothing like that. It is quite clean. Much cleaner than any American city I’ve visited, including small cities like Denver and Portland, and it is much cleaner than New York. I have not heard one siren. I have not seen any graffiti. And the streets are consistently being swept by people in sage green uniforms. It is also the safest-feeling place I’ve ever been.
Another thing she consistently remarks on is how healthy the elderly residents are:
Every morning the parks are filled to the brim with old people doing calisthenics, tai chi, fan dancing, and walking. It brings tears to my eyes and makes me smile. There are parks every few blocks, as most people here live in shantis or apartments and they don’t have lawns or yards as we do in the States, or even shared gardens as you often see in Europe. There is something magical about seeing all of these old people enjoying one another’s company, all in incredibly good health. I have never been to a country where the old people were in such good health.
Chinese culture melds ancient traditions that go back thousands of years, like tai chi and Traditional Chinese Medicine, with cutting edge technology that far exceeds what we have in the U.S.:
The fastest train in the world connects Pudong Airport to downtown Shanghai. It is an electro-magnetic train which reaches speeds of 270 mph. It was dizzying as the landscape whizzed by. I kept wanting to see what China looked like, but it was flying by so fast that I couldn’t get much more than a quick glance. You go 20 miles in less than 8 minutes. It was absolutely incredible.
Shanghai has a rich bicycling culture, and I hope to hear more about it from Columbine in the coming weeks. She also promises to take some photos for me to share with you.
Have you visited or lived in Shanghai, or another part of China? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.
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“I’m going to make something every day in 2013,” I announced in December.
When I saw my friends’ responses, I thought perhaps this might be too ambitious an undertaking. However, I’ve really just decided to turn more of my attention to creativity this year.
Why? Well, when I peek back through the years and squint at the more unhappy periods of my life, I detect a common thread: I wasn’t creating much of anything. Maybe I was working overtime at a day job. Maybe I was in a season of editing instead of writing. Maybe I was just uninspired. But a dearth of creativity and a general malaise seem to go together. Which causes which? I’m not sure. But I know that when I’m working on a creative project, I feel more alive.
I know I’m not alone. Matthew Crawford, author of The Case for Working With Your Hands traded his job in a Washington think tank for a career fixing motorcycles, because “knowledge work” made him feel tired and useless. “Seeing a motorcycle about to leave my shop under its own power, several days after arriving in the back of a pickup truck, I don’t feel tired even though I’ve been standing on a concrete floor all day,” Crawford writes. I think we can all relate to that thrill of making or fixing something with our own hands.
In her book Lifting Depression, Dr. Kelly Lambert explains what might cause the burst of happiness creating gives us: “When we knit a sweater, prepare a meal, or simply repair a lamp, we’re actually bathing our brain in ‘feel-good’ chemicals.”
So this year I’m making things.
I’m off to a great start. In the last month, I’ve knitted half of a scarf out of bamboo silk, made kombucha and St. John’s Wort oil for the first time, wrote a handful of poems, brainstormed a new novel, and churned out quite a few drawings. Mostly I’ve had a lot of fun. But I’ve also remembered what makes creativity hard: there’s often a lot of groping around, stumbling, and failing involved.
But I’m going to do it anyway.
Perhaps you’d like to join me in paying more attention to creativity this year? If so, here are five things experts say can help stoke our creative fires:
- Spend time in nature
A University of Kansas study of a team of hikers found that a four-day backpacking trip boosted the participants’ creativity by 50 percent. You might need to leave your electronic devices in your backpack to reap the benefits. Ruth Ann Atchley, the researcher who conducted the study, suggested the results may have been due to turning off the distractions of modern life as much as the natural setting.
- Embrace boredom
Researchers at the University of Central Lancashire in Great Britain found that boring jobs encourage creativity. It turns out performing dull tasks lets us to detach from our surroundings and daydream. So committing to creativity might mean committing to some mental downtime.
- Focus on the process instead of the results (or just dance)
“Dance, when you’re broken open. Dance, if you’ve torn the bandage off. Dance in the middle of the fighting. Dance in your blood. Dance when you’re perfectly free,” the poet Rumi wrote. In an interview, artist Dana Lynne Andersen said that one of the biggest mistakes beginners make when sitting down to paint is focusing on the end product. To get her students focused instead on the process of being creative, she encourages them to dance. That makes sense, since dancing is a creative process with no real end product. It may be worth a try, and as Rumi points out, there’s really no reason not to dance.
- Learn from kids
One afternoon I watched a soccer coach force a group of elementary-aged kids to run laps around the track. They looked like deflated balloons as they trudged along, and it occurred to me that kids should really be coaching us on joyful, exuberant outdoor play. Similarly, young kids are experts in creativity. In a famous 1968 study, George Land found that 98 percent of three- to five-year-olds showed genius levels of creativity on a test developed by NASA. By the time the kids were 15, only 12 percent exhibited divergent thinking. And when the test was given to thousands of 25-year-olds, only two percent showed divergent thinking. So what makes kids such creative geniuses? They ask lots of questions. They marvel at things. They find any excuse to play. It’s a model worth studying.
- Commit to practicing
All humans are creative. But a lot of us don’t commit to creative work, and perhaps the biggest reason is that it forces us to confront our own mediocrity. We likely will never compare to the best artists, musicians, novelists, designers, and even home-brewers of the world. Of course, the one way we’ll get better is practice, and Ira Glass offers some wise words about recognizing your creative work sucks and doing it anyway:
For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. … You’ve just gotta fight your way through.
Here’s to a creative 2013!
What are you creating? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.
“So here is a simple test to tell if a thing is alive. Put it in salty water. Some things, like babies and crayfish, will do well. They get bigger, stronger and more organized. Others, even “smart” things like iPods and cell phones, laptops, cars and TVs, stop working immediately.” – Dr. Scott Haig
Seventy one percent of the earth is covered with it. By weight our bodies are largely made of it. We spend the first nine months of our lives developing in it. Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that salt water is one of the best natural healers we have.
As colder weather descends, consider harnessing the power of this simple solution to boost your health and well-being. Here are four things it can do for you:
1. Knock out colds
There might not be a cure for the common cold, but gargling with warm salt water is a great way to prevent it. In one randomized study, people who gargled with salt water three times a day had nearly 40 percent fewer upper respiratory tract infections than those who didn’t. And when those gargling got sick, the salt water attenuated their symptoms. I gargle with salt water at the first sign of any respiratory illness, and I’m consistently amazed by the results.
2. Treat Wounds and Skin Conditions
“Putting salt on a wound” may sting, but it can also heal. Salt water is a great antiseptic. For minor cuts and scrapes, dissolve two teaspoons of salt in a quart of boiled water for a soak.
3. Keep Gums and Teeth Healthy
“A number of my clients decided to start salt water rinsing daily and the results have been phenomenal,” dental hygeniest Kathleen Bernardi writes on her blog. I’ve similarly found daily salt water rinses to be an excellent tonic for my gums and teeth. And in times of distress, salt water is a handy first line of defense. It can heal canker sores, reverse gingivitis, and even ease the pain of a toothache.
4. Help you Sleep Tight
According to Dr. Oz, a salt water bath may be the perfect recipe for restful sleep. Just swap the sea salt for Epsom salt. It contains easily-absorbed magnesium, a mineral that Americans are often deficient in. Magnesium can ease pain, quell anxiety, quash migraines, lower blood pressure, and more. Here’s Dr. Oz’s recipe for an Epsom salt bath:
- 1 bath full of warm water
- 1 cup of Epsom salt
- 1 cup of baking soda
“It is always the simple that produces the marvelous,” the novelist Amelia Barr said. That’s definitely the case with salt water, a simple and humble, but powerful, natural healer.
More about the healing power of salt water:
- This Aquatic Life by Scott Haig, Time Magazine
- The Claim: Gargling With Salt Water Can Ease Cold Symptoms by Anahad O’Connor, New York Times
- Warm Salt Water Rinses: Why They Work by Kathleen Bernardi, Woodland Dental Hygeine blog
- Epsom Salt Bath Treatments by Christina Pander, Discovery Health
- Simplify Your Medicine Cabinet
- Simplify Your Personal Care
- Do-It-Yourself Health Care
- Stay Well: 5 Winter Immunity Boosters
- Winter Wellness Recipies
- Herbs Made Easy
- Simple Herbal Tonics
Do you use salt water to improve your health and well-being? Tell me about it. I love hearing from you.
Last summer, I published a post Is Sunscreen Dangerous? summarizing the Environmental Working Group’s concerns about the majority of sunscreens on the market.
The EWG advises that consumers avoid sunscreens with the ingredients retinyl palmitate and oxybenzone and be suspicious of SPF claims exceeding 50. They also warn that many sunscreens only protect against the UVB rays that cause sunburn, not the UVA rays that cause skin cancer, raising the possibility that sunscreen may actually be dangerous, since people are inclined to spend longer in the sun when they’re not burning, thus exposing themselves to more cancer-causing radiation. The EWG has been especially critical of the Food and Drug Administration for failing to finalize sunscreen regulations for three decades.
Well, last week the FDA finally finalized those regulations, announcing that by the summer of 2012, consumers will be able to look for the words “broad spectrum” to determine which sunscreens protect equally against both UVA and UVB rays. In addition, manufacturers will no longer be able to use the misleading terms “waterproof” or “sweat proof”.
However, the EWG is unimpressed by the new rules. “It is clear that FDA caved to industry,” David Andrews, Ph.D, a senior scientist with EWG, announced in a press release on June 14. “FDA’s rule will allow most products on the U.S. market to use the label ‘broad spectrum sunscreen,’ even though some will not offer enough protection to assure Americans they can stay in the sun without suffering skin damage from invisible UVA radiation.”
I have fair skin and I grew up at 7,000 feet elevation in a state that boasts 300 days of sunshine a year. In other words, sunscreen has been my ally over the years. So finding out that all the expensive white goop I slathered on my skin for three decades contained questionable ingredients and may have made me more vulnerable to skin cancer feels a little like discovering a close friend is a pathological liar. It’s a powerful lesson in the importance of skepticism when it comes to health claims, advertising, and medical advice.
“Wear sunscreen,” is perhaps the health mantra my generation has heard the most often (and we’ve heard a lot of them). “The best piece of advice I can give you is to put on sunscreen and wear a hat.” Ted Turner, facing a skin cancer operation, famously told the class of 1994 Georgia State University students.
Three years later, Mary Schmich’s offered similar wisdom to graduates in her Chicago Tribune column: “If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it. The long-term benefits of sunscreen have been proved by scientists, whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience.” The column went viral and was later released as a spoken-word single.
Dermatologists have been universally recommending large quantities of sunscreen applied 20 minutes before any sun exposure, citing a dramatic increase in skin cancer rates in recent years. The majority of them recommend zero unprotected sun exposure. “Ideally if you had no sun exposure, sure that would be the best way to live your life.” dermatologist Jennifer Lucas opined last week on NPR’s On Point With Tom Ashbrook.
If you’re wondering why a dramatic increase of skin cancer would coincide with the explosion of sunscreen use, you’re not alone. Dermatologists speculate about possible reasons, like tanning beds or the hole in the ozone layer.
However, according to a study published in the British Medical Journal, something else may be to blame for the increase in skin cancer rates: dermatologists. The authors of the study point out that while the incidence rate of melanoma is increasing, the death rate has stayed the same. This phenomenon is almost always a sign of over-diagnosis. In other words, screening programs, which test healthy people for cancer, mean that doctors detect and treat more cancer, but it’s often not the kind of cancer that would be dangerous or deadly.
So how can we sort through all the marketing claims, propaganda, gaps in regulation, and conflicting studies (many of them funded by the industries that stand to benefit from them) when it comes to our health?
I’m increasingly convinced that we must be skeptical of all claims (especially those intended to invoke fear), relentlessly seek out independent information and conflicting views, and never discount simple common sense.
Jennifer Lucas’s assertion that in a perfect world we’d never let our skin see the sun seems just as extreme to me as sunbathing or lying in a tanning booth, especially when we keep hearing about widespread vitamin D deficiency, a resurgence of rickets amongst kids in Great Britain, and evidence suggesting that sun exposure may be preventative against breast and colon cancers, childhood asthma, and multiple sclerosis.
As for me, I certainly don’t slather on sunscreen in the cloudy winter months like I used to. I’m a big fan of hats, protective clothing, and shade in the summer. And for those times that I need sunblock, I’m thankful for the EWG’s advocacy and for their rating guide for sunscreens, which lists ingredients and possible hazards associated with them.
Want to read more about this topic?
- Melanoma is Epidemic, Or Is It? – New York Times
- Melanoma Madness – Science News
- Finding a Safe Natural Sunscreen (and Is the Sun Really Dangerous?) – Simple Organic
- Is Sunscreen Ineffective in Preventing Cancer? - Straight Dope
- Beach Bummer - Mother Jones
What do you think? Has the EWG or the FDA’s new rules changed the way you think about sunscreen? How do you sort through conflicting health claims and medical advice?
“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars…” – Jack Kerouac
I have a great life. I get to spend lots of time with my son and watch him learn and grow, and at the same time, I’m building a writing career. I’m doing what I’ve always wanted to do. And yet sometimes, I feel stuck, tired, frustrated, and overwhelmed. Sometimes I get burnt out … and that’s okay.
I used to imagine that I could always be on top, that I could be one of those people who “burn, burn, burn” as Jack Kerouac wrote. But as the years pass, I’m more accepting of life’s seasons, of natural cycles of dormancy and energy, of the inevitability of falling into ruts.
For me the key is not avoiding burnout (or any other emotion), but learning from it, developing resiliency – bouncing back. That’s why I’ve been accumulating these strategies for inevitable bouts of burnout:
1. Plan a vacation
We can learn something from Europeans when it comes to holiday. They take eight weeks off a year on average and work shorter work weeks than we do, but they keep pace with us when it comes to productivity. This year Switzerland and Sweden ranked first and second in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness rankings, even though both countries require workers to take at least a month of paid leave each year. In fact, the United States is the only developed country that hasn’t realized the value of mandatory paid leave for workers.
In studies vacations have been shown to boost productivity, improve health, brighten the mood, invigorate, and induce feelings of happiness – especially when you are anticipating time off. So next time you’re feeling burnt out, consider arranging a getaway. (Hint: leave your laptop at home.)
2. Power down
Maybe you’ve seen terms like “secular sabbath”, “digital sabbatical”, and “day of unplugging” bandied about the blogosphere. All basically mean the same thing – taking at least a day off each week, not just from work, but from email, Facebook, twitter, YouTube, etc. I’m an information junky, and I love the Internet as much as anyone I know. But I love my day off from it more. I can’t believe it took me so long to tap into the restorative value of powering down.
Even with a day off each week, when I start feeling burnt out, I usually realize I’m spending too much time online. My antidote? Discipline. I only let myself check email twice a day. I make myself write down everything I want to Google and do it all at once. I establish an electronic sunset, where the computer and gadgets get turned off everyday at six p.m.
It can be a little scary to disconnect, especially when you work at home. But I like what writer Shannon Hayes has to say about it:
“My computer is turned off every morning, once my work day is complete, usually around 9am. At that point, I tune out the rest of the world and tune into my family, home, and farm. Very often the telephone gets turned off, too. So does the radio. … I didn’t always live this way. It was a choice I eventually made about using my time. Voices talking on the radio generated mental interference when trying to interact with people in the room where I was standing. Worse than that, I observed that email correspondence throughout the day, habitual Googling, and a steady-stream of web-updates were having a negative impact on my soul. Fixating on the computer made me an intolerant mother to my kids, had me doing stupid things like boiling over my soup pots, and—even if I was reading great news on the screen—it left me crabby.”
3. Clean and organize
I know, this one’s not as fun as taking a day off or embarking on a getaway, but I swear it works. It’s not just that a clean office and organized files make working easier. When I’m cleaning and organizing, I inevitably find old notes, article and story ideas, plot outlines, etc. that can kick start creativity. Don’t forget to organize and back up computer files too.
4. Turn off the noise
I love podcasts, and I’m a huge fan of public radio – To the Best of Our Knowledge, RadioLab, and This American Life to name a few. I also love listening to music. But when I’m starting to feel burnt out, I turn it all off. I listen to my thoughts. I listen to my husband and my son. I listen to the sounds of the wind and trees. I try to listen to the sounds behind the sounds, “the ragged edge of silence” as John Francis calls it:
In studies noise stress has been linked to impaired cognitive function, the release of stress hormones, and depression. Studies indicate that chronic low-level noise in an office environment impacts workers negatively even when we’re not aware of it. So if you’re suffering from burn out, take an inventory of the volume around you and consider dialing it down.
5. Attend a conference or take a class
I try to attend one workshop, class, or lecture a month, and I always walk away inspired. Last summer I took a class on writing essays, learned a ton, and met a great group of writers, whom I still meet with. This summer I’m planning to attend a three-day conference. For freelance writers and bloggers, excellent classes and conferences abound, many of them flexible and online. They may seem expensive, but in my experience, they pay off many times over.
6. Interview someone
I’ve never interviewed anyone who didn’t inspire me. I feel fortunate that I get to talk to interesting people for my job, but you don’t have to write articles to interview people. You just have to get to know someone and focus on actively listening instead of talking. Most people are eager to talk about themselves and their projects – even to a journalist. It’s a great way to get inspired and meet interesting people … and if you’re so inclined, you can turn it into a published profile or blog post. If you’re in a field unrelated to writing, you might consider interviewing someone whose career inspires you.
7. Connect with nature
Nature gave us a great burnout cure … it’s called nature. Just looking out a window at trees makes workers feel more satisfied with their jobs, helps surgical patients heal faster, and reduces anxiety in highly-stressed kids. Imagine what a walk in a park, mountains, or woods can do for us.
I’d love to hear your ideas. How do you prevent or bounce back from burnout?
It’s spring again … the perfect time to rerun this post from last March…
It’s spring, which means some people are stocking up on Round Up and Weed-B-Gon to prepare themselves for battle against my favorite flower – the humble dandelion. If you’re not as big a fan as I am of these yellow-headed “weeds”, which grow in lawns and sunny open spaces throughout the world, I know of a great way to get rid of them. Eat them.
Every part of the dandelion is edible – leaves, roots, and flowers. And they are nutritional power-houses. They’re rich in beta-carotene, fiber, potassium, iron, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, B vitamins, and protein.
Over the years, dandelions have been used as cures for countless conditions including:
- kidney stones
- high blood pressure
- high cholesterol
- stomach pain
“There is probably no existing condition that would not benefit from regularly consuming dandelions,” Joyce A Wardwell writes in The Herbal Home Remedy Book.
She also says that dandelion is “one herb to allow yourself the full range of freedom to explore,” because it has “no known cautionary drug interactions, cumulative toxic effects, or contraindications for use.”
So why not harvest the dandelions in your yard this spring? And I’m sure your neighbors wouldn’t mind if you uprooted some of theirs too. (But you probably want to avoid harvesting near streets or from lawns where herbicides or fertilizers are used.)
Dandelion leaves have more beta-carotene than carrots and more iron and calcium than spinach. The best time to harvest them is early spring, before the flowers appear, because that’s when they’re the least bitter.
How can you eat dandelion leaves?
- Toss them in salads
- Steam them
- Saute them with garlic, onions, and olive oil
- Infuse them with boiling water to make a tea
- Dry them to use for tea
Dandelion flowers are a rich source of the nutrient lecithin. The best time to harvest them is mid-spring, when they’re usually the most abundant. If you cut off the green base, the flowers aren’t bitter.
How can you eat dandelion flowers?
- Toss them in salad
- Steam them with other vegetables
- Make wine
- Make fritters
- Make Dandelion Flower Cookies
Dandelion roots are full of vitamins and minerals. They are also in rich in a substance called inulin, which may help diabetics to regulate blood sugar. Dandelion roots are often used to treat liver disorders. They’re also a safe natural diuretic, because they’re rich in potassium. The best time to harvest dandelion roots is early spring and late fall.
How can you eat dandelion roots?
- Boil them for 20 minutes to make a tea
- Chop, dry, and roast them to make a tasty coffee substitute.
- Add them to soup stock or miso
- Steam them with other vegetables
As most gardeners know, dandelions are virile (some say pernicious) plants. Why not treat them as allies, rather than enemies, this spring?
Interested in reading more about herbs or home remedies? Check out these posts:
- Do-It-Yourself Health Care
- Simplify Your Medicine Cabinet
- Simplify Your Personal Care
- Simple Herbal Tonics
- Herbs Made Easy
Do you eat dandelions? Do you have a favorite dandelion recipe?