vegetarian, “mission impossible?”

In keeping with my previous post, I’m forced to seriously consider the  health benefits of a vegetarian lifestyle. If you’ve been with me since the early days of my blog, you’ll know this isn’t a decision I make lightly. Having grown up in a household with many mouths to feed, and a widowed mom as the sole breadwinner, meat was a luxury to be sure. So as an adult who’s been able to afford better fare, all forms of meat, especially red, has been a staple the last 40 years. While my family has cut back considerably on feasting on steak, ground beef still shows up in a variety of favorite dishes, like chili, spaghetti, Salisbury steak, teriyaki meatballs. But my recent spate of digestive issues has me rethinking what I put in my mouth. It’s probably lucky for me that my body has always known when to “hit the brakes”, even when I don’t.

As a child I would frequently suffer what my mom called “bush.” She said that was what the Portuguese called a “turned ” stomach. After asking if I’d fallen down to determine the cause of my pain, she’d set about “turning” my stomach so that it would be right side up again. I wasn’t one to question when I was in agony, so I submitted to her superstitious remedies. Lying on my back, my mom would massage my stomach with rubbing alcohol. Beside myself with moaning, tears streaming down my face, it seemed to me that after a bit my stomach ache was, in fact, better. Of course I was told to rest, my mom cooing me to sleep.

Over the years, I’ve been in and out of doctor’s offices for digestive problems, having even seen a gastroenterologist in my late 20s. While the problem wasn’t in my mind, its resolution was always nebulous. The only solid fact told me by one New York physician, that took me many years to finally accept, is that I’m lactose-intolerant. How did I decide he was probably right? After gorging on ice cream, I’d get a mean belly ache, that’s how. But testing his theory once wasn’t enough. I had to re-enact that scenario again and again, until duh, I got that “light-bulb” moment. So it’s not that I’ve permanently banished jamocha almond fudge or coconut ice cream from my palate. I just satisfy myself with a taste, a kid’s size cup or cone does the trick. And therein probably lies the secret to a healthy diet, A TASTE, not a bowlful or a plateful of anything. Except if you’re like me, a taste can lead to another, and another, and before I know it, I’m in trouble.

Last night on PBS, Dr. Daniel Amen was giving a lecture on “Change Your Brain, Change Your Body,” another of his books. He said something about himself that struck a chord with me. He noticed that certain foods triggered something in his brain which made him crave “bad” foods. Sugar and salt are 2 triggers which have me running like a hamster round and round in its wheel. I noticed a long time ago, probably when I was doing Weight Watchers, that after eating a cookie, I needed to eat chips, or vice versa. As we all do, I kept myself in check for a little while. But as memory fades, so does resolve. That’s why I’m probably lucky that my metabolism goes haywire before I get myself into really dire straits.

Veggies were not a mainstay of family meals in the Hawaiian homes I visited growing up. Since everything had to be shipped into the islands at great expense, fresh produce wasn’t always affordable for lower-income households. I can remember having potatoes, carrots, and onions in stew, with very little meat. But having a separate serving of vegetables on the dinner plate is not something I remember seeing regularly. And I can’t remember that we were heavily into growing our own either. I mention all this as an excuse for not having grown up eating fruits and veggies, as we now know we all should be doing. But wasn’t the old version of the FDA’s food pyramid also to blame? I think carbs, dairy and protein were ranked higher in the old days. But no matter, this is 2011, and I’m 61.

Fruits, veggies, and grains are definitely what my body now needs to maintain my life going forward. My digestive system can no longer process refined foods, dairy products, and meats like it did in the good old days. Wish we could all learn this lesson sooner, rather than later. But the best we can do is continually remind ourselves, and hope that the message finally takes hold nationwide so that future generations will live more healthfully. We seem to be living longer thanks to scientific research, but our quality of life falls far short. Do we really want to extend the number of years we suffer from physical ailments, because we gorged on toxic food?

I sometimes wonder what my mom’s quality of life would have been like, had she the benefit of more education, not just about food, but about everything. She had to leave school after 6th grade. Thereafter, her life was just about survival. What she ate was probably not her biggest concern, but that she ate at all, and that we her children had food on our plates as well.

i have a college degree, i should know better…but i’m still human…and there are so many temptations…hugmamma.

family, “warts and all”

At last Sunday’s Mass, Father Bryan began his homily sharing some family drama between his younger brother and mom, nothing catastrophic, more like what we all experience with certain family members through the course of our lives. Probably the key ingredient to the prickly relationship is that Father’s family members are very much alike in personality. That, for sure, is something many of us have in common. It’s probably like having 2 pieces to a jigsaw puzzle that fit together in every way, save one. That difference will forever keep them at odds. But unlike a board game, familial relations can be sorted through, and the rough edges made smoother, if not perfect.

As Father pointed out, not even the Holy Family was perfect. An angel appeared to St. Joseph three times, dictating what he and his family should do. First, he was going to marry the Virgin Mary who would conceive a child of God. Second, he and Mary must leave their homes, families, and all that was familiar, to move to Egypt. And then finally, they were to return home to Nazareth where they would settle into daily living. Surely as human beings, father, mother, and son must have had their moments of frustration, which spilled over onto one another. How they weathered stormy times together, while maintaining love and respect for one another, is what’s important, and a valuable lesson for all of us.

After Mass, my daughter and I approached Father Bryan to express appreciation for his homily. In reply, he looked at me exclaiming that our family probably didn’t experience any of the normal angst he mentioned about most families, including his. Before I could respond, someone offered him words of thanksgiving. If we’d not been interrupted, I would’ve told Father that no family is exempt from “baggage.” But like the Holy Family, we forgive, and move forward with compassion for one another, as well as ourselves.

The holidays seem to bring added pressures to families, insisting everyone “get along,” whether that means squelching decades old animosities, jealousies and rivalries, or feigning affection for those we barely know. Because I tend to wear my heart on my sleeve, and my feelings lie near the surface, I don’t squelch or feign very well. I can overlook and be fine. My mother use to want me to be other than who I was. Growing up I had no choice, but as an adult I can only be honest.

I don’t think we have to lie to get along, I believe we can be who we are and hope that others accept us for that, and not what they would like us to be. I don’t like to layer my expectations upon someonelse, nor do I want anyones’ expectations to rest upon me. Among the many things I took away from Dr. Amen’s book, “Change Your Brain, Change Your Life,” is that I want to live my best life. In order to do so I must dwell on the positive, not the negative. Of course it’s an ongoing effort not to get caught up in the daily grind of living, as witnessed on the news reports: wars, foreclosures, unemployment, natural disasters, a bad economy. While it may be impossible to control the macrocosm, I can manage the microcosm. And so I try to make my environment as positive and hopeful as I can.

Family are who they are. While liking them may be difficult at times, accepting them is not open for deliberation, in my opinion. Being with them, however, is another matter, again my opinion. No matter family or friends, people should respect one another in their dealings. “Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you,” is still a great way to live. One’s perspective may differ from another person’s, but respect for all viewpoints should be a given. Unfortunately that’s not always the case. Rather than “beating ourselves up,” tying to force relationships to fit like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, it might behoove some, like me, to do what I can do, and be contented with that much. Progress can be made bit by bit, it need not occur in one fell swoop. It can, but it needn’t.

I’ll take small moments of happiness as often as they occur, rather than pine and stress at never attaining the perfect family portrait. All those in our families are striving to live their best lives, given their particular circumstances. I love them all, and will always wish them life’s best, whether I’m physically in their lives or not. And I’m certain they wish the same for me and mine.

for all families who are nearly perfect…or far from perfect, huge hugs…hugmamma.

“change your brain, change your life”

I have to credit Dr. Daniel Amen’s book Change Your Brain Change Your Life with my “detour” towards a more positive attitude. It’s the path I’ll continue to travel, as I journey “home.” With the information gleaned from the book, I’m pretty certain I’ve suffered a form of depression all of my life, and I’m sure my mom did as well. We battled our “demons”, mustering up all the courage we could gather from deep within, and relying upon the  support  of loved ones. At best, our attempts to help ourselves was haphazard. Sometimes our efforts succeeded, other times we probably “blew it.” We muddled through, with growing negativity as a constant companion. To survive, we felt compelled to sever relationships along the way, that might destroy our fragile psyches. Looking back, we were just trying to live our best lives, given the hand life had dealt us. Without a doubt, there must be many who have led similar lives.

All kinds of help is available these days, from psychiatrists to clinics to alternative health practices. There’s no quick fix for depression, nor one right way. However I am a proponent of Dr. Amen’s philosophy, for it has helped me understand the workings of my brain. And just as I take care of my body with the help of exercise, diet, chiropractic manipulation and massage therapy, I am learning to look after my mental health, thanks to Dr. Amen’s message.

Your brain is the hardware of your soul. It is the hardware of your very essence as a human being. You cannot be who you really want to be unless your brain works right. How your brain works determines how happy you are, how effective you feel, and how well you interact with others. Your brain patterns help you (or hurt you) with your marriage, parenting skills, work, and religious beliefs, along with your experience of pleasure and pain.

If you are anxious, depressed, obsessive-compulsive, prone to anger, or easily distracted, you probably believe these problems are “all in your head.” In other words, you believe your problem is purely psychological. However, research that I and others have done shows that the problems are related to the physiology of the brain–and the good news is that we have proof that you can change that physiology. You can fix what’s wrong for many problems.

Depression is a physiological illness, just like diabetes or arthritis. Living in our high-tech, fractured society, I wouldn’t be surprised if many of us suffer some form of depression, ranging from moderate to bipolar.

According to Dr. Amen’s book, my difficulty may lie within my brain’s Cingulate System. Glancing through the following checklist, I  have probably exhibited several of the symptoms, especially during the early years of my marriage. Maturity and motherhood helped me overcome some, but more recently, suggestions from Change Your Brain Change Your Life helped me to combat other symptoms, namely “excessive or senseless worrying,” “tendency to have repetitive negative thoughts,” and “tendency to predict negative outcomes.” But just as there’s no cure for arthritis, there is none for depression. Both have to be managed, which is fine with me. It’s a fact I’ve come to accept. Exercise and a reduction in sugar intake has helped lessen the arthritic pain in my lower back. And practicing Dr. Amen’s recommendations, has greatly minimized my depression.

CINGULAR SYSTEM CHECKLIST

Please read this list of behaviors and rate yourself (or the person you are evaluating) on each behavior listed. Use the following scale and place the appropriate number next to the item. Five or more symptoms marked 3 or 4 indicate a high likelihood of cingulate problems. 0=never/1=rarely/2=occasionally/3=frequently/4=very frequently

  1. Excessive or senseless worrying
  2. Being upset when things are out-of-place
  3. Tendency to be oppositional or argumentative
  4. Tendency to have repetitive negative thoughts
  5. Tendency toward compulsive behaviors
  6. Intense dislike of change
  7. Tendency to hold grudges
  8. Trouble shifting attention from subject to subject
  9. Trouble shifting behavior from task to task
  10. Difficulties seeing options in situations
  11. Tendency to hold on to own opinion and not listen to others
  12. Tendency to get locked into a course of action, whether or not it is good
  13. Being very upset unless things are done a certain way
  14. Perception by others that you worry too much
  15. Tendency to say no without first thinking about question
  16. Tendency to predict negative outcomes

GETTING UNSTUCK

The cingulate system of the brain allows us to shift our attention from thing to thing, idea to idea, issue to issue. When it is dysfunctional, we have a tendency to get locked into negative thoughts or behaviors; we have trouble seeing the options in situations. Healing this part of the mind involves training the mind to see options and new ideas. …Whenever you find your thoughts cycling (going over and over), distract yourself from them. …Sing a favorite song…Listen to music that makes you feel positive…Take a walk…Do a chore…Play with a pet…Do structured meditation…Focus on a word and do not allow any other thoughts to enter your mind (imagine a broom that sweeps out all other thoughts).

(Keeping busy has been my “default” response to low spirits. Ironing clothes is a “favorite”, a chore my mom taught me with pride, since that’s what she did at the orphanage where she worked. When I’m outdoors walking Mocha, nature’s beauty intoxicates my senses, forcing me to disengage from life’s frenzy. Indoors I get the same “high” watching a favorite Michael Jackson DVD, which gets my body pulsating to the beat. Sitting for a few minutes with one of my cat’s purring in my lap, makes me pause, enjoying the moment. And when I lay my head on my pillow at night, I thank God for all our blessings, and pray that all may live their best lives. This prayer alone has helped me fall asleep, because it stops the “ants”- automatic negative thoughts, dead in their tracks.)

Many people with cingulate problems have an automatic tendency to say no. Fight the tendency. Before answering questions or responding to requests in a negative way, take a breath and think first whether or not it is best to say no. Often it is helpful to take a deep breath, hold it for three seconds, and then take five seconds to exhale, just to get extra time before responding.

When you are stuck on a thought, it is often helpful to write it down. Writing it down helps to get it out of your head. Seeing a thought on paper makes it easier to deal with in a rational way. When repetitive thoughts cause sleeping problems, keep a pen and paper near your bed to write them down. After you write out a thought that has “gotten stuck,” generate a list of things you can do about it and things you can’t do about it. Use this simple exercise to unlock the thoughts that keep you up nights feeling tense.

(Blogging has been a God-send. It’s been cathartic in that I’ve been able to exorcise “demons” that have probably been roiling around inside my gut for too long, not only personal ones, but thoughts about the world in which I live.)  

When all of your efforts to get rid of repetitive thoughts are unsuccessful, it is often helpful to seek the counsel of others. Finding someone to discuss your worries, fears, or repetitive behaviors which can be very helpful. Often just talking about feeling stuck will open new options.

(Coffee with friends has always been a great way to share problems and gain new insights, and perhaps discover helpful suggestions, and sometimes, even answers.)

Exercise can also be very helpful in calming worries and increasing cognitive flexibility. Exercise works by increasing brain levels of l-tryptophan. L-tryptophan is a relatively small amino acid and has trouble competing against the larger amino acids to enter the brain. During exercise, more of the large amino acids are utilized to replenish muscle strength, which causes a decrease in the availability of these larger amino acids in the bloodstream. When this happens, l-tryptophan can compete more effectively to enter the brain and raise brain serotonin levels. In addition, exercise increases your energy levels and may distract you from the bad thoughts that tend to loop. I often recommend exercise for oppositional children as a way to improve their l-tryptophan levels and increase cooperation.

(Kristina’s exercise class has been a life-saver. During these last 5 or 6 years, it has been a healthy addition to my routine, not only for my physical well-being, but for my mental and emotional well-being as well. I can feel the difference in my mood and my energy level, when I’ve been remiss in my exercise routine. The same can be said for my visits to the chiropractor and massage therapist. They’re not luxuries; they’re necessities.) 

Low serotonin levels and increased cingulate activity are often associated with worrying, moodiness, emotional rigidity, and irritability. There are two ways that food can increase serotonin levels.

Foods high in carbohydrates, such as pastas, potatoes, bread, pastries, pretzels, and popcorn, increase l-tryptophan levels (the natural amino acid building block for serotonin) in the blood, resulting in more l-tryptophan being available to enter the brain, where it is converted to serotonin. The calming effect of serotonin can often be felt in thirty minutes or less by eating these foods. Cerebral serotonin levels can also be raised by eating foods rich in tryptophan, such as chicken, turkey, salmon, beef, peanut butter, eggs, green peas, potatoes, and milk. Many people unknowingly trigger cognitive inflexibility or mood problems by eating diets that are low in l-tryptophan.

For example, the high-protein, low-carbohydrate diets that I recommend for low-dopamine states (related to prefrontal cortex underactivity) often make cingular problems worse. L-tryptophan is a relatively small amino acid. When you eat a high-protein diet, the larger amino acids compete more successfully to get into the brain, causing lower levels of brain serotonin and more negative emotional reactiveness.

(Diet remains an ongoing challenge, but at least I’ve eliminated as much sugar as possible, and replaced simple carbs with complex ones, and continue to ramp up my intake of fruits and veggies. But I’m no angel; every now and then I “sin.”)

Dr. Amen also prescribes reciting the Serenity Prayer, as a way to combat repetitive negative thoughts. “The Serenity Prayer is repeated by millions of people around the world, especially those in twelve-step programs. It is a beautiful reminder that there are limits to what we can do in life and we need to respect that. Many people find it helpful to repeat this prayer every time they are bothered by repetitive negative thoughts. I recommend that you memorize at least the first (three) lines of the prayer (change it as needed to fit your own beliefs).”

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time; accepting hardship as a pathway to peace, taking as Jesus did this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it, trusting that you will make all things right if I surrender to your will; so that I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with you in the next.

-Attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr

 As we age physically and mentally, our quality of life can suffer. Money certainly helps sustain a certain lifestyle, but is it substantive if we’re unable to reap the spiritual rewards as well? I’m trying to remain as agile as possible, mentally, physically and emotionally so that I can continue to write, and enjoy life’s small pleasantries, until I no longer can. Changing my brain, has helped change my life, for the better.

our best lives, hugs for…hugmamma.

   

manipulation, the fine art of

Words are a powerful tool. They persuade. They excite. They confirm. But words can also destroy. As a writer, I have the luxury of editing and re-editing my words. So when the final product is published, every word is intentional. There’s no taking back what I’ve written, once a reader “owns” it. What was once strictly in my thoughts, is now in print, roaming around the internet universe. Good, bad or indifferent, my blog is my legacy. I take responsibility, with the understanding that readers have the choice to subscribe, or to turn a deaf ear to what I have to say. It’s not quite the same when speaking one’s mind.

In an earlier post, I referred to my 84 year-old mother-in-law’s life-long belief that once spoken, harsh words can never be taken back. So she has lived her life refraining from speaking hurtful words. And as a testament to her, all of my husband’s family relate to one another with loving consideration. It was within this enivironment that I learned to love and value myself.

I’ve also spoken of my mom in previous posts, preferring to speak mostly of her strengths. But among the many good ones, there was one which dominated, and not in a positive way. My mom was a master manipulator. Her words could warm me one moment, and cut right through me the next. With no father to turn for support or comfort, and older siblings too concerned for their own survival, I could only wait until my mom favored me with her love once again. Until her death some years ago, I was never free of being emotionally manipulated by the one person whose approval I always sought. I’m certain I remain in her grasp to this day. My only solace is that I have blocked the past from my mind and my life. Dr. Daniel Amen’s book Change Your Brain, Change Your Life has helped me move forward by killing the “ants”  (automatic negative thoughts) which kept creeping into my brain to attack what positive gains I had made. Of course it’s an ongoing struggle, but at 61, I’m living my best life with my loved ones by my side.

Because of my own personal experience, I have tremendous compassion for those who struggle physically, and emotionally. I write to encourage, to bring hope, and to do battle with negtivity wherever it dwells. My greatest concern is that it can even reside in well-wishers, whether innocently or intentional.

Those who seek to counsel, whether invited or not, have their own agenda. It can be based upon genuine love and concern, but it could just as easily have self-serving ramifications. Oft times one who is in distress has difficulty seeing that she is being manipulated into dependence upon the one offering comfort and solace, until it is too late. In all relationships, there is either equality or inequality. Participants may be equals in that one is better at somethings, while the other is better at others. Inequality exists when one person dominates, regardless if he is better or worse at anything. He “owns” his environment by virtue of his narcissistic mentality. He manipulates everything to his benefit. The sadistic truth is when he convinces his partner that he has her best interests at heart.

Manipulation occurs in all relationships, but some are inherently more devastating. The unhappy reality is that it can be years in the making, and just as many years in recovering from its effects, one issue being trust. How does one ever trust again? How does one ever believe in oneself again? And how does one unravel oneself, from one’s manipulator?

Just as scary a thought is hoping you never unknowingly become the manipulator, of your children, for example, as my mother was of me. That is a fine line which we parents walk every day of our lives.

the greatest gift, to let our children be…hugmamma.