Not So “Fast”

I don’t know if it’s a good or bad thing that I’m a sucker for seeing what’s up in the world of wellness. What new foods and products and habits are people buying? Is it just a fad, or is there evidence to back it up?

That’s when we come to a seemingly overnight trend toward something called intermittent fasting. The name alone leaves lots of questions hanging, but we’ll get there.

Rather than necessarily changing how much you eat, intermittent fasting changes when you eat. You’re eating the same amount as if on a normal day, just in a different time frame. There are many ways to go about it, but the most common is to eat within an eight-hour window during the day.

A lot of the benefits you’ll find for IF is, of course, weight loss. You’re most likely not eating as many calories, especially at times of the day that you don’t need food, like right before bedtime. However, there is also research into overall health benefits, even extending lifespans by changing the way cells function. During the fasting phase, many cells die and stem cells turn on, which starts a regeneration process and gives rise to new, younger cells. This leads to a reduced risks of heart disease, diabetes, high cholesterol, inflammation, and cancer.

Yeah, a lot to swallow (pun intended). If there’s so many positives coming from IF, why aren’t we all doing it? Because for many people, it’s not sustainable or could even be harmful. Besides the fact there isn’t and shouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all lifestyle that works perfectly for everyone, the principles behind IF can be detrimental to physical and mental wellness.

If you’re reading this, chances are you know my background and general mindset. I am in what I call constant recovery from anorexia on top of my other chronic conditions. This means I’m viewing the world surrounding food and eating from a much different perspective than most. I am always hyper-aware of what situations raise alarm bells in my head. It’s why I don’t own any fitness tracker, nor do I weigh myself on any regular basis; I know that doing so would turn into a major trigger to immediately rebound into restriction.

The word “fasting” raises immediate alarm. Basically, on a regular basis, you are paying attention not necessarily to a calorie count, but the clock. You’re controlling when you eat rather than intuitively eating when you’re hungry. Even if you’re not going to extreme means to fast and essentially go into a biological starvation mode, it’s the premise behind it that could lead to actually extreme habits.

And just because you’re controlling what times of day you eat doesn’t mean you’ll eat nutritious foods at reasonable portions with a healthy mindset during that period. By forcing yourself into a schedule your body and mind aren’t sustainable on, your chances for all-out binging when allowed to eat is quite high, causing both physical and mental problems. The strict divide between eating and not could exacerbate overeating and accompanying guilt, shame, and other problems that only become worse over time.

Along with binging, you’re most perceptible to the obsessive thoughts common in disordered eating. Our hunger cues came from evolutionary progress meant to keep us alive. There’s a reason we cannot stop thinking about food when we’re hungry. So if you’re defying your body’s hunger cues to hop on the IF bandwagon, your day can become centered on your eating window. Hunger changes the way we think and behave, changing the neurological pathways we need for decision-making and focus.

Beyond the potential for disordered eating, or at least serving as a crutch to mask an underlying issue, your body might not even healthily accept occasional fasting. Our cortisol, a stress hormone, levels raise when fasting. Scientists have studied cortisol and its effects when elevated, finding it can interfere with learning and memory, lower immune function and bone density, increase weight gain, blood pressure, cholesterol, heart disease, and mental illness. For women especially, this could even mean throwing off other hormones required for a healthy menstrual cycle.

Overall, I’d say if you’re at all considering IF, do your research. There are a lot of studies showing pros and cons either way, but even if that in mind, you have to do what’s best for your own body. Many people find IF extremely straight-forward and very helpful, while others could struggle to get used to this habit and face more harm than good.

Regardless of when you eat, your priority should simply be to eat nutritious foods that nourish you and make you feel good. Eat when you’re hungry, whether that’s in a select time frame or not. Support yourself however you know best.

What have you heard of intermittent fasting? What are your thoughts about it?

Take care, and keep the faith. -Allie

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The Great Outdoors

Who knew therapy could come from outside the counselor’s office? Or beyond a bottle of pills?

It’s hard to believe a doctor could prescribe a struggling patient a certain length of time spent outside as a valid treatment. Or that there’s properties in soil that help relieve depression. Or hearing rustling leaves will alleviate stress.

In traditional healthcare, that sounds like plain jibberish, some hippie “remedies” that somehow will make you invinsible.

I don’t believe that to be the case, not to that extent, but there’s a growing field (not the ones with wheat and corn!) of study dedicated to the healing of the outdoors: ecotherapy.

Ecotherapy is a profession just beginning to sprout (and allows for plenty of plant puns). While ecotherapy shouldn’t replace evidence-based practice, there is increased interesting in learning more about how a therapy session outside or listening to nature could improve our health.

Think of how often we in our daily lives actually go outside, at least beyond walking in and out of buildings for work or class. Not much, frankly. We have all the entertainment we need indoors thanks to technology. Even when we are outside, we still have our phones glued to our hands and barely acknowledge what we pass as we walk by.

Becoming a tree hugger isn’t a new concept. In 1862, Henry David Thoreau was toting the importance of walking in nature to keep us active and healthy. Another point made in that time of tuberculosis was to just destroy all our homes and sleep in open air. A tad harsh, but the thought’s there.

Now we’re adjusting that suggestion into specific routines to follow, like prescribing obese, anxious, or depressed children to visit a park for a certain length of time. Or going on a hike or walk every few days. It feels as if we’re reverting back to our essence because we’ve changed our way of living so quickly.

We continue to find new evidence showing that this is indeed beneficial for us to do. In 2007, researchers found that after a group of depressed people took a nature walk, over three-quarters of them felt less depressed. Another survey found around 94 percent of people with mental illness found that contact with nature helps alleviate their symptoms.

Ecotherapy is quite flexible to fit specific needs in specific settings. Those in rural and urban areas can practice it. Activities can include working in nature, like gardening or getting involved in a conservation project, or just experiencing nature, where the listening and mindfulness exercises come into play.

Bringing up the working element, I especially find this idea quite fascinating. Not only can we benefit from improved self-esteem and extra vitamin D, but we can also make a difference in our communities through outdoor-based projects. My mind immediately goes to Habitat for Humanity and community gardens to support local produce that could go toward alleviating hunger or supporting farmers markets. The possibilities are endless…at least depending on the weather.

Yes, the vitamin D is important. Feeling like you’re a part of something beyond yourself is important. Just a reason to get out of bed is important. Maybe we haven’t found the statistical connection to say nature cures us, but it doesn’t make us worse off.

Last semester in Canada I really relied upon walks through the nearby forests or just reading outside in my spare moments to be so therapeutic when I was stressing about grades and life in general.

I’m not in that same landscape here in the Midwest, but I’d love to incorporate more nature into my daily routine. Going back to last Friday’s post about Seasonal Affective Disorder, there’s a reason light therapy is so helpful for people: sunlight and our natural response to it makes a difference. So if we have the luxury to step outside and just walk around the block, why not do it?

Take care, and keep the faith. -Allie

Season of SAD

 

‘Tis the season to be jolly…for most of us. For others, this time of year can bring about debilitating emotions that are not so merry and bright.

How frustrating to feel the holiday season immerse the world in dazzling lights, in hopeful messages, in catchy melodies, in warm fires and beverages shared with loved ones…but not feel joy from it. To feel disconnected when society comes together for a common purpose once a year. To feel unmotivated and uninspired to share gifts with others when a gift would be simply getting through the day.

The condition is Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, and its effects should not be taken lightly. It might be easy to simply brush off low moods as the “winter blues,” but these feelings are valid and should be treated accordingly.

Colored lights strung from shutters and trees. Bright array of commercials for every event and sale piling upon each other leading up to Christmas. Red hats with the traditional white fur trimming their brims. Metallic golds and silvers splayed upon evergreen branches in tinsel garlands. An entire spectrum of color, and yet December can seem simply dull. The weather is either a desolute sea of brown grass and bare branches, or a thick layer of white frost, ice and snow covering every surface. The “blue” of SAD is a much greyer hue.

SAD is a type of depression brought on by changing seasons, most commonly during the change of autumn into winter. The symptoms associated with SAD also tend to become increasingly severe as the months wear on. Up to 5 percent of the population (especially in northern states) may suffer from it. Women are four times more likely than men to develop SAD, and it’s more common among younger people, ages 20 to 50, with a general decrease in symptoms as life progresses.

At least the holidays break up a string of cold, dreary that otherwise feel like an endless wandering through the tundra with no warmth or refuge in sight. Once December 26 hits, the magic wrapping the depression in colorful paper is ripped from the package and thrown away, exposing the internal nature that comes from an overly muted external nature.

As a type of depression, it’s still as detrimental to overall wellness as any other depression diagnosis. That means the symptoms of SAD are the same of those of major depressive disorder, or MDD: feeling depressed most of the day nearly every day, losing interest in once enjoyable activities, having low energy, having problems with sleeping, experiencing changes in appetite or weight, feeling sluggish or agitated, having difficulty concentrating, feeling hopeless, worthless or guilty, and potentially having thoughts of death or suicide.

“It’s the holidays, you’re fine!”

“You just need to get in the holiday spirit!”

“You’re being a Grinch! A Scrooge! It’s the best time of the year, you should be happy!”

The specific causes of SAD are still pretty vague, but the change of seasons and all that it brings tend to throw people off. The reduced sunlight in fall and winter tend to throw off the circadian rhythm of sleep and wakefulness, simultaneously skewing the brain’s levels of serotonin and melatonin. Each of these neurotransmitters play major roles in mood and sleep patterns.

With its tendency to ebb and flow as the seasons change, the stigma surrounding SAD is perpetuating by a disbelief that symptoms can come and go as they do, assuming them to be less severe they probably are. Especially since SAD is a mental illness, people can too easily brush it aside and move forward with the holiday festivities as planned. However, regardless of the joy and good will promoted this time of year, no number of decorations and carols can mask the real, present emotions lurking under the surface.

There’s so much to celebrate, so why put a damper on anything? Well, to fulfill the definition behind “good will toward men,” a helping hand for those struggling to keep up with the holiday noise and bustle can be the most festive thing to do. Everyone deserves the opportunity to a wonderful holiday season, but some need more support than others. Let’s not leave them behind to get sucked into the holiday bustle and noise.

Just as people with the flu or breast cancer can’t switch off their symptoms, people with SAD can’t simply decide to turn off their disorder. SAD is a grave mental disorder and can severely hinder the ability to function and perform normal activities. People with SAD often withdraw from their friends and struggle to complete simple tasks, let alone manage the stress and busier schedules that arise this time of year.

Treatment approaches to alleviate the symptoms of SAD typically include combinations of antidepressant medication, light therapy, Vitamin D, and counseling. As a means of self-care for those who may be prone to SAD, it’s best monitor mood and energy levels, take advantage of available sunlight, pan pleasurable activities for the winter season, and when symptoms develop, seek help sooner rather than later.

It’s typical to give gifts wrapped in boxes and bows, but the best gift to give is a simple reminder to struggling loved ones to say, “I’m here for you. Your feelings are valid. You are not alone.” Those affected by SAD are probably already frustrated by the obvious hypocrisy of feeling the lowest when the world promotes the highest moods and general elation.

That’s where empathy and awareness come in. Perhaps the season isn’t the most merry, but hopefully it’s at least manageable when surrounded with supportive people and resources as well as the gifts already present in life that make it worth living.

Take care, and keep the faith. -Allie