Category Archives: Health

Five Foods That Make You Happy

“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well,” Virginia Woolf wrote in A Room of One’s Own.  Amen sister!

Eating HappyWhen we feel low, it is natural to reach for food to comfort us. When life gets tough the tough get eating.

Can certain kinds of food really make us feel better? Yes, experts say.

“Foods are chemicals,” explains Gary Wenk, PhD, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Ohio State University and author of Your Brain on Food. “Because these chemicals resemble the ones found in our brains, they have a powerful impact on our mindset.”

What kinds of food make us happy? Before you reach for junk food like doughnuts or potato chips – hang on a minute. “Comfort” foods may make you feel better for the short term but later can make you feel downright cranky. According to research by the Public Health Nutrition, people who indulge in junk food often are 51% more likely to develop depression than those who rarely or never eat it.

So that got me to wondering which foods make us want to jump for joy. Here’s a list of five foods to get you munching down and singing zippity do da in no time:

Seeds and Nuts

Tryptophan helps produce serotonin, which makes us feel relaxed. Food that has tryptophan can help fight depression, insomnia, and anxiety. Most people know that milk, bananas, and avocados contain tryptophan, but so do protein-rich nuts such as cashews, pistachios, and almonds as well as sunflower and pumpkin seeds.

Coffee

Enjoy that cup of Joe. Drinking four or more cups of coffee a day was associated with a 20% lower risk of depression in women, according to 2011 research in the Archives of Internal Medicine. That’s because caffeine activates serotonin and dopamine release in the brain.

Seafood

Want to be happy as a clam? Eat them. Even canned clams such as those used in clam chowder provide plenty of vitamin B12 which help produce feel-good dopamine and serotonin. In fact, a deficiency of this important vitamin can lead to depression. Other seafood, including trout and salmon, as well as beef, chicken, dairy products, and fortified cereals also contain a good dose B12.

Foods That Make You HappyFruits and Veggies

Eat three servings of fruits and vegetables a day for a bit of that Pollyanna attitude. According to a 2013 study in Psychosomatic Medicine, optimistic people had 13% higher carotenoid levels in their blood (an antioxidant particularly abundant in sweet potatoes and carrots) than those with a more negative outlook. Folate helps produce that good ol’ serotonin that regulates mood and can be found in spinach, brussels sprout, broccoli, avocado, asparagus, and kale. Fruits like blueberries and oranges contain high amounts of antioxidants and vitamin C which both help reduce stress.

Chocolate

I wrote a whole blog about how chocolate makes us happy. That’s because chocolate contains a variety of chemicals, some of which make us feel good by boosting our endorphins (the feel-good hormones).  Tryptophan is also found in chocolate which, as I mentioned earlier, is used by the brain to make serotonin and can help us feel relaxed and happy. Caffeine gives us an extra boost of energy.  Scientists at the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego even suggested that chocolate contained substances that produce a cannabis-like effect on the brain. Who doesn’t want a bit of happy high?

So next time you’re feeling a little down in the dumps, go ahead and chomp on one of these five foods and you just might find yourself singing, “My oh my, what a wonderful day!”

Image courtesy of imagerymajestic and stock images at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

Sleep: The Secret Key to Happiness

This time of year everyone is busy trying to keep their New Year’s resolutions to lose those extra 10 pounds and go to the gym, thinking that the perfect body will make them happy.

Guess what? Even if you succeed, it probably won’t make you happy. Previously, I wrote a blog on this subject. As I pointed out in the article, one study found that those who slimmed down were actually 80 percent more likely to be depressed.

Woman SleepingOf course, weight isn’t, nor should be, the source of happiness. Your spirituality, finding purpose in life, your relationships, and your health are much more important than achieving the perfect body. And guess what else can make you happy?

More sleep.

Confession time. Those close to me know that I have some issues with insomnia. But although I’m still not immune to 3:00 a.m. Facebook or Candy Crush sessions, I’m doing better.

Following all the experts’ advice, I’m exercising more, avoiding large meals and alcohol before bedtime, turning off electronic devises at least 30 minutes before going to sleep, avoiding long naps, and sticking to a regular sleep schedule.

Whatever it takes, I’m trying it, because I know the importance of a good night’s sleep.

Psychologists and psychiatrists have been telling us for years that one of the significant and overlooked health problems in the U.S. is that so many Americans are chronically sleep deprived. Very few of us get the recommended eight hours a night that we so desperately need.

A lack of sleep has a profound effect on our health. Sleep deprivation raises the risk for heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, increases stress hormones, impairs memory and concentration, and is a large contributor to car accidents. Plus, according to recent studies, a lack of sleep can make you fat.

On top of all that, sleep affects our happiness.

Most of us are aware of these facts and crave a good night’s sleep. So why aren’t we getting enough shut eye?

You name it. Menopause, medications, and old age can all contribute to insomnia. Stress and worry can keep us tossing and turning.

Maybe we’re that workaholic who can’t resist getting off just one more email. Or our favorite TV program is on or we want to read just one more chapter of that book we can’t put down. Electronic devices in the bedroom late at night disrupt our sleep. Or perhaps we drink too much caffeine or alcohol before going to bed.

Time to make some changes, people. If you’re having problems getting to sleep, check out this very thorough article on the subject, The Step by Step Guide to Falling Asleep (That Actually Works).

So let’s try and do better.  One study from the University of Michigan showed that getting one extra hour of sleep each night would do more for our daily happiness than getting a $60,000 raise annually. Getting an extra 60-90 minutes of sleep each night can not only make us happier but will also strengthen our immune system and improve our memory.

This works the other way around too, by the way. According to a study from Cornell University, having a positive outlook on life is associated with improved sleep quality. In other words, if we get happy, it will help us achieve that quality good night’s sleep we need.

So, you get the gist. Sleep more and be happy. Be happy and sleep more.

Sounds good to me.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net


 

Why Dancing Makes You Happy

I love to dance. When I was younger and my husband and I were dating, we took ballroom dance lessons and had an absolute blast.

Dancing HappyAlthough we’ve forgotten how to do some of the dances like the rumba and cha cha, we still remember the steps to the swing. At weddings, we’re the couple who rush out every time they play Rock This Town by Stray Cats or Glenn Miller Orchestra’s  In The Mood. And at parties we still get out there and boogie down.

You too should shake your booty as often as possible. Why?

Whether you choose to do ballet, salsa, ballroom, Zumba, tap, or simply rock it out to some fun music, dancing is one of the often overlooked tickets to happiness and good for your health to boot.

Studies show that dancing can help you:

  • Lose weight
  • Reduce stress
  • Improve flexibility
  • Make friends and increase social skills
  • Improve heart and lung health
  • Reduce depression
  • Increase muscle tone and strength
  • Improve balance and posture
  • Increase energy levels
  • Lift your spirits

Need more motivation? For baby boomers like me reading this, according to a study in The New England Journal of Medicine, dancing may boost your memory and prevent you from developing dementia as you get older.

Hooray for dancing!

Of course, you should see your doctor for a check-up if you’re older, overweight, or have a medical condition before proceeding.

Once that’s done, what are you waiting for? Even though it’s winter right now, that’s no excuse since dancing is usually performed indoors. So join a dance school or check out what your community offers. Most fitness clubs offer dance classes. Go line dancing. Check out an instructional or fitness dancing DVD at your library or simply dance around the house. Get your heart pumping and keep your body moving. Your butt will thank you later!

If you need a few songs to inspire you, here are five dance songs I can’t resist:

“Shout” by The Isley Brothers

“Happy” by Pharrell Williams

“Shake it Off” by Taylor Swift

“1999” by Prince

MC Hammer, “U Can’t Touch This”

Okay, it’s your turn. What kind of dancing do you enjoy and what have you found to be the benefits? What dance songs make you get up out of your chair and start moving? I’d love to hear in the comments below!

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Five Easy Relaxation Exercises

 Image courtesy of Mister GC at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Mister GC at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

If you read my blog, by now you know that I’m moving.

And no, I’m not quite finished whining about it. This will be the last time – I promise.

It’s been awhile since we’ve gone through this process and, frankly, I forgot just how awful this all is – everything from showing the house, to all the paperwork, to the moving sale, to seeing my peaceful hamlet taken apart bit by bit, to the physical exhaustion, to the ticking clock as time runs out to get all the packing done.

That’s my current dilemma, but I know you all have your own stresses in life – some much worse than my own.

I recently read that when an octopus is stressed out, it eats itself. Gross, right?

We don’t want any of that happening, so I thought this would be a perfect time to discuss some relaxation techniques.

Fortunately, you don’t need a vacation, spa weekend, or a bucket load of time to practice the following five simple stress relieving tips that can get you from crazy to calm in 15 minutes or less:

1.   Just Breathe

Image courtesy ofstockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy ofstockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

When you’re stressed, do you find yourself taking short, shallow breaths from your upper chest? Stop that! You need to take deep breaths from the abdomen to inhale more oxygen, which will make you less anxious, slow down your heart rate, and lower your blood pressure. Take a quick 5-minute break and focus solely on your breathing. Sit comfortably or lie down, close your eyes, and put one hand on your chest and the other on your belly. Breathe in slowly through your nose and out through your mouth pushing out as much air as you can. The hand on your stomach should move while the hand on your chest should be fairly still.

2.  Be in the Moment

As I wrote in my blog, Savor the Day, slow down and stay in the present. Stop whatever you’re doing, take a deep breathe, take note of everything around you, and focus on all the details. No matter what you’re going through, use all your senses and absorb the beauty of a sunset, the laughter of a child, a hug from a friend, the sound of a bird singing, the first sip of coffee, the smells after a rainstorm, or the taste of a good piece of chocolate.

3.  Stay Connected

Whenever you’re stressed out, reach out to family and friends. Share your feelings. Some of us (myself included) tend to isolate ourselves when things get tough. Don’t! Your social network can be a great tool for reducing tension during trying times. If you can’t talk face-to-face, pick up the phone. Loved ones can give you sympathy, comfort, and encouragement, along with a fresh perspective.

4.  Use Muscle Relaxation Techniques

Remember when Lamaze was all the rage? One thing I learned from those classes is progressive muscle relaxation. You start by tensing and relaxing muscles in your toes and progressively work your way up to your neck and head or vice versa. Focus on tensing each muscle group for at least five seconds and then relax for 30 seconds. The great thing is you don’t have to be in labor to put this relaxation technique to work.

5.  Visualize

You’re probably familiar with this technique. Experts suggest closing your eyes and taking a mini-vacation in your mind. Go to your favorite place and visualize the sights, sounds, smells, and sensations. Lately, I’ve been watching Cedar Cove on Netflix which reminds me of how much I love Washington State where I lived briefly. Visualizing myself on Mount Rainier or sailing the San Juan Islands works well for me right now. You know where your special place is, so just close your eyes and go there!

Image courtesy of Ambro at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Ambro at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I only mentioned a few ways to decompress. There are plenty more. A heating pad, a neck massage from your spouse, or listening to calming music are other great ways to relax.

It doesn’t really matter which technique you pick. Just find one that works for you. Even on your busiest days – which are actually when you need these tips the most – try to set aside just a few moments twice a day to de-stress. Practice makes perfect and relaxation techniques are no different.

And if all else fails, keep your sense of humor. It’s like this joke I saw on Pinterest on how to handle stress like a dog. “If you can’t eat it or play with it, just pee on it and walk away.”

Sounds good to me. I just might try that!

 

Why Losing Weight Doesn’t Bring Happiness

Image courtesy of sattva/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of sattva/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I’m forever trying to lose those 10 extra pounds. But a recent study shows that I shouldn’t worry about it so much.

We all grew up with the myth that if our thighs weren’t slapping together and we could fit into that pair of skinny jeans or wear a bikini again, we’d be SO much happier.

Think again. Although there are reasons to watch our weight – like improving our health – it turns out chasing after happiness shouldn’t be one of them.

According to a recent survey for So Fabulous, a plus-size clothing line from the U.K.-based retailer Littlewoods.com, losing weight doesn’t necessarily make you happier. The survey asked 2,000 women about their current size, happiness, and body confidence. Researchers discovered that 49 percent of those whose weight had fluctuated in the past few years were happiest at a size 12 to 14. Fifty-two percent of size 2-4 women would prefer to be curvier. In addition, women who wore smaller sizes (2-8) were more critical of their bodies than those women who wore larger sizes.

Even more startlingly, according to a new study from the online journal, Plos One, researchers found those who slimmed down were 80 percent more likely to be depressed.

Should this come as a big surprise? Maybe not.

As a society, we tend to admire all those super skinny celebrities. But are they happy? How often do we read about their addiction problems, painful divorces, serial cheater husbands, and miserable lives? However, we often push those facts aside as we diligently imitate their latest crazy fad diets and weight loss methods.

“It’s not the external achievement of some goal that’s going to make us happy,” says clinical psychologist Andrea Bonior, Ph.D. “You think that will automatically change your life in some meaningful way, but it could be that your life pretty much remains the same.”

Let’s face it. Happiness doesn’t—nor should it—depend on your weight. Your spirituality, finding purpose in life, your relationships with loved ones, and your overall health are much more important. These are the keys to finding joy, fulfillment, and happiness.

Most of us are aware of that fact, but can’t seem to quit striving after that perfect number in our heads. Even if the constant stress of dieting and depriving ourselves of foods that we enjoy makes us cranky and then depressed when we inevitably gain those 10 pounds back.

This obsession reminds me of a quote from one of my favorite books, Lonesome Dove, when  Gus McCrae tells a prostitute who thinks if she can only get to San Francisco, she’ll be happy: “If you want one thing too much it’s likely to be a disappointment. The healthy way is to learn to like the everyday things, like soft beds and buttermilk—and feisty gentlemen.”

I’m not suggesting drinking buttermilk or seeking out feisty gentlemen, but hopefully, by now we’re older and wiser. Most of us have watched our weight yo-yo over the years and know that skinny doesn’t always equal happy.

Don’t get me wrong. I still would like to lose those extra 10 pounds (or maybe it’s more like 15 now). But that’s because I’m aware of the health benefits, not because I want the perfect body or because I think losing weight is the key to enjoying life.

And if I never lose those extra pounds, well, I can live with that.

The Connection Between Health and Happiness

Image courtesy of marin/ FreeDigitalPhotos.ne

Image courtesy of marin/ FreeDigitalPhotos.ne

Everyone knows there’s a link between health and happiness. I know, duh, right?

However, there’s a bit of a twist you may not be aware of, which I’ll discuss in a bit.

First, let’s talk briefly about the connection between health and happiness. No doubt, you already know that if you remain healthy and physically strong, you’ll be happier. And you’re probably aware that since negative emotions harm the body, a positive, optimistic, and happy outlook on life will help your physical health.

For example, a 2012 review by Harvard School of Public Health researchers published in the journal Psychological Bulletin looked over the results of more than 200 studies and found a connection between positive psychological attributes, such as happiness, optimism and life satisfaction, and a lowered risk of cardiovascular disease.

All the more reason to take care of yourself physically by eating right, getting enough sleep, and exercising as well as having a positive attitude – especially as you age. By the way, if you want a pep talk to help you get you off the couch and start exercising, check out my blog, How Exercise Makes You Happier.

But want to hear something surprising?

While it’s true that good health is a major predictor of happiness, studies have shown that people in poor health – including those with life-threatening illnesses like cancer – are often happy as well.

I know – watchu talking ‘bout Willis, right? I was as surprised as you.

A study that appeared in the Journal of Happiness Studies a couple of years ago found this was the case, excluding those whose daily lives are disrupted by their condition, such as people with chronic severe pain or urinary incontinence. Psychiatrist Bryan Bruno, MD, Chairman in the Department of Psychiatry at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, says many people adapt remarkably well to changes in their health status as long as the decline is not too rapid. The exception to the rule is people with a history of depression or anxiety.

Why is this good news for baby boomers?

These studies show that people can adapt to health impairments that often come with old age. So if you’re one of those people who worry excessively about the inevitable health declines that accompany old age – stop stressing out so much!

As a matter of fact, getting old may not be as bad as you think it will be. A recent Pew study found a sizable gap between the expectations that young and middle-aged adults have about old age and the actual experiences reported by older Americans themselves. People in the study generally reported feeling happy, touting the many of the benefits of growing old. The list included having more time to be with their families, traveling, volunteering, and enjoying hobbies, as well as more financial security, less stress, and having fun with their grandchildren.

So as the famous song says, “Don’t worry, be happy.” And in the meantime, stay healthy and happy so you can enjoy life to the fullest.

How Exercise Makes You Happier

stretching_and_exercising_205630Want to find your bliss? We can’t discuss happiness and not talk about the importance of regular exercise. You knew it was coming sooner or later, right?

True, 20 minutes on the treadmill doesn’t solve all of life’s problems, but endorphins produced by exercise can help you feel happier by reducing stress and anxiety and lessening feelings of sadness or depression.

Being active and feeling strong naturally helps you feel more self-confident and sure of yourself which can help open doors to all kinds of possibilities.

Exercise helps increase metabolism and builds muscle mass, helping to burn more calories. Who doesn’t want that? When your body reaches a healthy weight, your overall wellness and outlook on life improves.

If all that weren’t enough, a healthy, active lifestyle can help prevent or substantially slow down a number of health issues that pop up as we age such as heart disease, diabetes, stroke, hypertension, cancer, osteoporosis, as well as muscle and joint pain.

So you would think us baby boomers would be all over this exercise thing, right? After all, our generation of bell bottoms and tie dye isn’t taking old age lying down. We’ve all seen commercials of those ambitious, fit, gray-haired boomers pedaling bikes uphill, lacing up their sneakers and heading to the gym, jogging, and shooting jump shots.

Not so fast. What is a surprise is how many boomers are not physically active. While we boomers have our share of active go-getters, they do not make up the majority. Not by a long shot.

A whopping 78% of men and women over 40 do not have a consistent fitness routine. In fact, in spite of medical advances, members of the baby boomer generation are actually in worse health than their parents were at the same stage of life, according to research reported in JAMA Internal Medicine.

Shocking, isn’t it? Not exactly how we want to think of ourselves.

Oh I know, us boomers have a million excuses, myself included. We have demanding jobs, discouraging health problems, a slowing metabolism, and hormonal changes. Some of us are caring for aging parents, raising teens, or dealing with our young adult children who are moving back home due to the economy. We’re concerned about injuries or falls. We’re just plain tired.

Before you throw in the towel though, let’s talk about how much physical activity we need to stay fit.

We’re not talking about hours of pumping iron in a gym or running a marathon to achieve the benefits I listed above. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity five days a week (or 25 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity three days a week) Add a muscle-strengthening activity two days a week for a complete package.

Okay, so visualize a life where you can easily travel, play with your grandchildren, and participate in sports, hobbies, and interests without the restrictions of chronic illnesses brought on by being a couch potato. Picture a life without swallowing cholesterol and high blood pressure pills every day and saving money on medication.

Since study after study shows that staying fit is the key to an energetic and fun-filled life during our 50s, and beyond, don’t you think that type of freedom, independence, happiness, and adventure is worth just 30 minutes a day five days a week?

Okay, so there’s your pep talk. It’s time. Get off that couch and get moving!