How old would you be, if you didn’t know how old you were?
There are some days where I feel about 100 years old. My body moves like it’s made of lead and all my senses are dulled. Thank god those days are few and far between. Most of the time, I marvel at the amount of physical work I am capable of; something my unhealthy 25 year old self would have fallen over just thinking about. There is a lot to be said about the statement, “You’re as old as you feel” which ties into the question that opened this post. With proper exercise, nutrition and stress reduction and/or mediation coupled with good genetics, a person can certainly look and act a lot younger than their chronological age. Our functional age is based on how capable we are to carry out physical tasks in daily life and also encompasses psychological, environmental and physiological factors. This is especially important amongst the elderly population, where their ability to function at a younger level helps maintain their vitality.
Behold, Edna, a woman approaching 100 years old, who happily works with her trainers at the gym doing a medley of exercises in her adorable leopard print leggings. Energy, strength and personality exude from her tiny frame. Her mantra? “Don’t let yourself get weak.” We could all grab some inspiration from her, as excerpted below from a Women’s Health Article published in March 2014.
Edna’s positive and motivated mental state counters the physiological reality of her age and its limitations. As we age, we lose muscle mass (sarcopoenia), bone density (osteopoenia) and collagen, which weakens our connective tissues. It takes more effort to do a lot of the activities of daily living in addition to the fun stuff like working out, chasing your grand-kids or climbing a trail. The psychophysiological relationship is fascinating to me because it essentially shows that a good attitude, social interaction and familial/community support can override a lot of what would limit you physiologically. It can also do the opposite when the above three things are non-existent. Even as a young person, a negative attitude (I can’t do that) mixed with social isolation (Leave me alone) and no sense of community around you (I have no friends) can have drastic affects on how you function. Ask that person how old they feel and the answer probably will not match their chronological age; nor will it be for the better.
So, take a moment to do a little metal inventory and ask yourself the opening question. What are the factors that made you answer the way you did? Are you doing too much? Too little? Have you not seen a friend or family member in a while because of a hectic schedule? Are you surrounded by energy vampires? This self searching will allow you to pinpoint what needs to change in this moment in order to feel more like the number you deserve to be. Life is already too short as it is. Make every year count!
The American audience has been saturated with advertisements for Pharmaceutical products since the mid-nineties. Whether it’s in print or on the screen, anyone can find a drug to address a multitude of symptoms a la Ray Bradbury’s “Farenheit 451.” Fast forward through the gently spoken side effects and the advice to “consult with your doctor before taking…” and most people presume life will be brighter, happier and glossier when on this drug. Oh, behold how gray propaganda works.
In response to all these scripts is “The Food Hospital,”a program that airs on the BBC’s Channel 4 and The Cooking Channel here in the States. It explores the science behind using food as medicine. Patients with conditions and/or a variety of symptoms come in, are subject to a battery of scientific tests after which a food regimen is prescribed and monitored by its doctors to see if it can effectively treat them. During their follow up visits, patients and doctors meticulously review how the different foods eaten helped them through hematocrits (i.e. blood tests) and feedback, then compare the statistical results from the prescription drug alternatives. Sometimes the patients have already tried all the drugs on the market for their condition, so the comparison is first hand; however more often than not, the food program has the most profound impact sans side effects.
If we think about our history, man has always looked to nature for methods of disease prevention and curing sickness. There are still people in remote tribes using things like tree bark and crushed dung beetles to treat infection. As we cringe and contort our faces in disgust, an incredible thing occurs – the treatments WORK. I should remind you that many new medications being developed in pharmaceutical labs have their roots in botanical and organic sources, sometimes emerging from rainforest and bush treatments. Of course, by the time the medication makes it to market, those sources have been altered and incorporated with a multitude of synthetic agents. Bring on the light colored pill and its numerous side effects. If, however, you knew that changing what you put inside your body could help treat you, which would you gravitate to?
A young woman suffering from debilitating PMS found that incorporating more calcium rich vegetables like broccoli and dark leafy greens into her diet helped to eliminate the severity of her symptoms. Prior to visiting the Food Hospital, her only medical option was taking an anti-depressant. For other conditions, the food prescription is a little more involved. Take, for example, the Portfolio diet, which is a vegetarian diet consisting of a four key cholesterol lowering foods that bring down the levels of LDL, considered the “bad” cholesterol. This “portfolio” consists of soluble fiber, (examples include oatmeal, oat bran, barley, peas, beans, lentils, psyllium, and vegetables such as okra and eggplant) nuts, soy protein and margarine enriched with plant sterols. It can be a challenging diet, but incredibly effective. In fact, its efficacy has been comparable to that of prescription drug Lestatin. Also in that vein of challenging yet effective is theLow FODMAP diet which is prescribed to people suffering from IBS (Irritable Bowl Syndrome). The science behind this diet is that consumption of foods with high levels of fermentable sugars end up creating more liquid and gas in the gut, thus leading to the uncomfortable symptoms experienced by those who have the condition. Foods with low levels of these sugars and especially when eaten in certain combinations and amounts have been found to drastically reduce digestive distress. Since current prescription medications for IBS have varied results and obvious risk factors (think of the recall in 2000 of Lotronexafter some users died as a side effect), it’s sort of a no-brainer to go the route of Px Diet. If you never thought food could have this kind of profound impact on health, then start thinking it NOW. Just note that none of the above diet programs or other ones should be undertaken solo. The script needs to come from a registered dietician and/or doctor’s referral.
One out of every three clients I encountered this past month was in the midst of a break up. Although February is nationally recognized as a time to celebrate love, thanks in part to the mass market holiday that Valentine’s has become, it seems that more and more people choose to end their relationships during this time. Break ups apply to all kinds of human connections like friendships, romantic partners, marriages or family members and illicit the same range of emotions one would encounter within the grieving process. Rather than swimming in the vortex of loss alone, these clients sought out massage as comfort. How is it that heartbreak “hurts” so much? The physical reaction to emotional loss can be explained through medical science.
When emotional stress is experienced, especially loss, our brains signal the release of stress hormones from the adrenal glands and certain proteins that constrict blood flow causing part of the heart to become temporarily enlarged and incapable of pumping well. The rest of the heart has to compensate by contracting more forcefully. The pain felt in one’s chest resembles that of a heart attack; however without the permanent damage associated with it. The heart is described as being temporarily stunned or rendered “helpless” which is an interesting choice of words given the sufferer’s mental state. This condition is known medically as stress cardiomyopathy (formerly takotsubo cardiomyopathy) but many doctors refer to it as Broken Heart Syndrome.
Pain is the brain’s primal way of responding to trouble. That trouble can be caused by stimuli both inside and outside of the physical body. Sensory receptors known as nociceptors register these stimuli and in milliseconds return the signal of pain. When we are in a state of emotional distress, the brain’s blood supply is altered, sending more blood to the area responsible for regulating physical pain. This excess flow has been found in people with depression making them more peaked to pain. The emotions felt during a break up enact this physiological response, registering an ache or hollow feeling often felt within the organs of our core; not just in the heart. The state of pain also kicks in the sympathetic nervous system to respond, known as our state of “fight or flight.” The hormones and proteins released inhibit appetite which can lead to anorexic behavior, keep us over alert which translates into insomnia or disrupted sleeping patterns, constricts blood vessels causing headaches, stops digestive juices from being released causing tummy troubles and for some, their overabundance can lead to panic attacks and adrenal fatigue.
One of the main things massage can do is kick into gear the parasympathetic (i.e. “rest and digest”) response. This is why it is so effective in stress management. Massage counters a lot of the physiological affects of a broken heart by switching off the sympathetic release of hormones and proteins related to emotional stress. In addition, it counters any muscular and postural imbalances that could develop from protective patterns of movement or the general feeling of wanting to cocoon into oneself. It also prevents the isolation and loneliness that creeps in after the shock, denial, guilt, anger and bargaining stages of the grieving process pass because it allows for touch from another that is warm, therapeutic and outside of any emotional attachment or expectation. It is a safe place to let go of emotions and come back into the body. Some of us put names on slips of paper in the freezer, bury all the things ever given as gifts, move out of the apartment whose walls are saturated with the memory of YOU and THEM, cut or dye hair in all kinds of ways to deal with a break up. But giving yourself the love you once had for another person, which in the case of my clients was in the form of therapeutic massage, will have the most beneficial overall effect for all parties involved. Acceptance is a whole lot easier when you don’t have to HURT as much.
I never miss a training day. My exercise schedule is rigid; conducted with a NO EXCUSES attitude. That is how I roll. No one has to cajole me out of bed, push me out of the house or leave threatening messages on my phone to scare me into fitness. When it comes to exercise, I have always been self-motivated. Twice a week, I do a combination of High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) and strength/weight training with my trainer. Another two days of the week, I do some form of cardio mixed with cross fit and strength band/weight training on my own, either at home or at the gym. Everyday of the week, I manage to fit in at least 45 minutes to an hour of walking, stair climbing or overall hustling intermingled with my work as a massage therapist, which is a tremendous core strength builder. It’s fair to say that I’m tired by the end of my day, but the only time I truly feel the affects of all my activities is the few days prior to my period known as premenstrual syndrome or PMS for short. To say I am pooped would be an understatement. My body feels like it is made of lead. My balance and coordination are a joke; I can barely do a one legged squat without tipping over, which my trainer finds highly entertaining being that I have that martial arts/dance background and what not. My nutrition becomes spotty, as I crave the saltiest of salty and chocolatey of chocolate things, but get so nauseated that I end up eating less than what my body needs. Worst of all these symptoms is my emotional state, which fluctuates from absolute rage to bottom of my soul sadness. The former makes me want to break someone’s face and the latter, like I am falling to pieces mid-workout.
The 7 to 10 days prior to the arrival of the menstrual cycle and the first two days of the cycle itself can be unbearable for many women. Men can make all the snide comments and PMS jokes in the world; however hormones are powerful movers and shakers of a body’s state of balance a.k.a. homeostasis. These chemical messengers regulate many functions and processes; too little or too much of a particular hormone and things go haywire. Take for example human growth hormone, which ensures our bones, muscles and tissues grow us into adulthood and beyond. Having an over production causes Gigantism, where a person will grow to heights above 7 foot. Having too little will cause Dwarfism, a condition where a person is extremely short (well under 4′ 10″) with proportional body parts. With respect to PMS, it is the shifting of estrogen and progesterone that cause its symptoms and determine how acutely one experiences them. My clumsiness (aforementioned falling over during my workout), low tolerance for noises (I can’t take it when weighted plates and dumbbells get dropped after people finish their sets), difficulty concentrating/confusion (no, no you meant my other “left”), fatigue (lead body), aggressive behavior (god bless boxing and muay thai) and craving for excessive sleep are all symptoms that challenge my ability to workout and work effectively. Rather than ignore and try to push through, I found that I had to modify my definition of what would be effective fitness for this period of time (pun unintentional).
While sparring relieved some of the aggression I felt, trying to take someone’s head off left me vulnerable to shoulder injury. Hence, know when to use 20% of your strength and when to go full on. Instead of taking a 4 second break between sets, I grab my water bottle more often and take the time to breath through whatever meltdown I am feeling coming on; therefore getting it out of my system before continuing. Again, I am avoiding injuring myself by pushing my body, but without sacrificing the level of workout I have set out to do. I also found that increasing my cardio (i.e. aerobic exercise) during this time helped me to get my appetite in check and jump-start my cycle without as much muscular cramping as I felt when I did more strength training and aggressive exercise. Since every body is different, it is super important to pay attention to what your symptoms are telling you and then, try modifying your activities to see what works for you. Ultimately, PMS should not be a reason to shy away from fitness. If anything, it will help put those hormones back in their bloody place (that one was intentional 🙂 ) per the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
One of the most valuable skills anyone can possess is the ability to temporarily fix things with whatever is available to you in the moment. There was a whole television series in the 80’s based on this skill, which I watched religiously. “MacGyver” was the perfect mixture of adventure and science to my young little mind and Richard Dean Anderson was so, so believable in his role. He cracked eggs from a chicken coup in South America over his car radiator to stop its leaking, so he could drive and escape the bad guys. Turned a coffin he was placed in, into a makeshift jet ski to escape “za Germans” — my hero!
In classic American fashion, we use the term jerry rigto denote a patch job or temporary construction, which is incorrect. The proper term is jury rig, which is a nautical term stemming from makeshift masts and yards made in case of damage or the loss of the original mast. It’s a weak and temporary method; basically enough to help you steer your ship into the nearest port and get properly fixed. Same idea applies in everyday life. Jury rigged problems buy you time, but end up being a lot worse down the line if they aren’t addressed sooner than later.
In these precarious economic times, it’s understandable that jury rigging may be the only manner in which to address issues. However, keep in mind that a home is only as strong as its foundation. If the leg of your massage table is starting to come loose, it’s only a matter of time before the putty you used to secure it wears off and your client ends up on the floor. It may be worth investing in a new table. Believe it or not, there are affordable options out there, if you take the time to look. $108 dollars spent is better than a lawsuit. With respect to injury, trying to work through the pain of muscle spasms in your back by jury rigging your office chair is only going to get you out of work faster than if you take a personal day to get a massage, see the chiropractor and/or doctor to deal with it. Energetically speaking, if everything in your life is a patch job, you can never really move forward. Eastern theory indicates that the inability to think, plan and execute relates to the Liver and Gallbladder being out of balance. They present with the following symptoms: muscular weakness in the limbs and back, irritability, sudden bursts of anger, migraines, indigestion, sinus issues and depression to name a few. For a more comprehensive list of symptoms, pick up a copy of Korngold’s “Between Heaven and Earth: A Guide To Chinese Medicine.” Acupuncture and Shiatsu massage both effectively address this type of imbalance and your practitioner can give you aftercare in the way of dietary modifications and stretches to support the work they have done. This is especially good if you cannot afford to do more than a few sessions. Life is too short and precious to be jury rigged. Do all that you can to permanently fix your problems, internally and externally.
The practice of Haruspicy is common amongst African tribes. It is the practice of studying the entrails of a freshly sacrificed animal to tell the future – wealth, health and many cattle being the optimal reading. Of course, when it comes to Western society, all matters of the intestinal kind are barely discussed unless within the framework of a crude joke or when pressed by one’s gastroenterologist. Forget about looking into the toilet after the deed is done. All we want to do is flush.
Thankfully, in my family, all we ever did was examine and discuss. There is a saying in Greek that a person either dies by way of their head (i.e. mind) or their ass (i.e. intestines). Hence, the daily dose of TMI over breakfast and/or dinner. Based on my experiences and research, here are some of the things you should ask of your bowels followed by a cautionary tale.
Did you go today?
A human being should defecate at least once a day, but if your track record is less than 3 movements per week, you are officially constipated. Since the bulk of water absorption happens in the large intestine, the longer your poop stays in there the more water gets absorbed out of it and the tougher it will be to pass. Dietary issues that may cause constipation can include inadequate water intake; inadequate fiber intake; overuse of coffee, tea, or alcohol; a recent change in your diet; and ignoring the urge to defecate. Reduced levels of exercise may play a role as well. Other factors to consider are psychological issues such as depression, anxiety and eating disorders as well as medications whose side effects mess with the natural flow of things.
What should it look like?
Reference the amazing Bristol Stool Chart, a medical aid created by a doctor at the University of Bristol, England to classify human poop into 7 types. Types 1 through 3 indicate constipation. Normal poops are classified as Type 4 and 5. Types 6 and 7 indicate diarrhea and its precursor, respectively.
Frequent bouts of constipation and/or diarrhea can be a warning sign/symptom of a number of conditions, such as IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) and Celiac Disease. If diarrhea lasts for more than a week, it can cause an electrolyte imbalance due to all the potassium and sodium loss. If not treated properly, that imbalance can lead to death. Listen to your poop and see your general practitioner if any of the above is the case.
What color is it?
The stool color spectrum is even more informative than the Bristol Chart. Heaps of information on one’s health habits can be gleaned from the color of their poop. Here are the notable ones.
Brown = Normal
You want your poop to be within the middle of the brown shade spectrum. This normal shade comes from bilirubin, the yellow biproduct of broken down blood cells, that enters the intestine by way of the liver and helps color the poop. It also makes our pee yellow in color. Darker brown poops can be a result of excess salt in one’s diet or from constipation.
Black and Tarry, better safe than sorry! Blood, when digested, looks black and has the consistency of tar. The bleeding could be an indication of a stomach ulcer, a bleed somewhere in the upper GI tract or even cancer. Certain ingredients in medications and vitamins containing heavy doses of iron can also produce such poops. Best to visit your MD as soon as you become aware of this ominous color.
The Anemic Poop
If your movement is very light, almost grey in color and you didn’t just have a colonoscopy, then you may be experiencing some kind of blockage of a bile duct, gall bladder dysfunction and/or even liver disease.
Yellow like a newborn babe
Newborn babies that are breast feeding tend to have frequent poops that are yellow and slick in color because their bowel system is so fast and the content of their meal so fatty. Poop of this color and nature in adults can mean a few things. Assuming you haven’t consumed a whole lot of beta carotene rich foods or candy dyed with artificial yellow coloring, it could mean fat is not being properly absorbed and therefore, is getting excreted through the bowel. The poop will also stink to high heaven and float on the water’s surface like an oil slick. If you have recently traveled to a developing area of the world, it can also signify an infection known as Giardiasis, caused by a parasite that gives you yellow diarrhea. Another condition that causes poop to come out yellow is Gilbert’s Syndrome which is an excess of bilirubin, also making the person look jaundiced.
If you are a person who loves their leafy vegetables, your poops will obviously represent that. But if your body is moving food too quickly through your system, as in the case when you have diarrhea, bile does not have sufficient time to breakdown and stays in the poop, dying it green. Also iron supplements can stain poop green (in higher concentrations, black) too. If you are going green consistently, you may want to get your liver/gallbladder checked out.
Now where things get a little serious…A Cautionary Tale of Colon Cancer:
For years my father dealt with bouts of constipation stemming from what he self diagnosed as a “bad stomach.” In his youth, he had very poor nutrition, as his family lived in abject poverty. Upon his 12th birthday, he left to work on the cargo ships where he ate whatever was canned and salted amidst dank conditions and constant stress. In his early twenties, he came to the U.S. and ate one meal a day while working 12 hour shifts at a restaurant. He worked like an animal going from dishwasher, to busboy, to food runner, to line cook and finally, head cook of a high end Greek eatery. Then he bought his own restaurant along with two other friends. The workload should have been divided by three, but my dad ended up working 24 hours shifts. He lived on black coffee and inhaled meals on the go. When he got married to my mom, issues with his partners ended up forcing him to carry the restaurant himself. He had to be everywhere at one time. He was always under slept, stressed and constipated. When he did poop, it would be very hard to pass or would come out in ribbon like pieces. He dropped to 125 lbs. He looked scary. Solution: my parents sold the business and moved to Greece. He ate well. He basked in the sun. He gained weight and pooped like clockwork. Everything was great, except for one detail. Island life in Greece circa 1980 was something my mother could not handle with two babies. There was only one phone in each village, no indoor plumbing and limited access to the things needed to take care of us. She wanted to go back. My father listened. In the years that followed, my father worked from scratch again, since the restaurant was sold before we moved. He learned he had an ulcer in his stomach. He had kidney stones. He was constipated. He put himself on special “diets” to cleanse his bowels and calm his sour stomach. He was angry and stressed all the time. Life was not pleasant. Then he retired from all work when he turned 50. Despite the lack of work related stress, he was still angry and preoccupied. The patterns of constipation continued throughout the rest of the 90’s and in the first decade of 2000’s. This past December, after experiencing some intense pain on his left side and being unable to eat, he went for his first colonoscopy. It indicated adenocarcinoma, the cancer that typically occurs in the colon. Thankfully, it was still in stage 2 and operable. He is now doing chemo, eating super well, and gaining back weight and energy. The doctors feel optimistic that he beat it. My point of outlining his whole story is that had he paid attention to what his colon was telling him all along with the bouts of constipation and digestive issues, he would have changed his lifestyle and eating habits for the better. He is lucky. Had he refused, as many old school European types tend to do, to go for that colonoscopy, he probably would have been well into stage 4 before it was detected. It would have been too late.
My experience with essential oils began in high school when my friends and I would take little field trips into NYC’s East Village to buy viles of Jasmine, Patchouli and other exotic oil mixtures like “Blue Nile” and “Dragon’s Blood” to wear as perfume. The Patchouli wearer would always leave a heady trail behind her that gave everyone in the group a headache and in my case, a twinge of nausea. Scents are powerful, in both the literal sense of the word and also in the ability they have to invoke memories and emotions deeply stored away in the recesses of our minds. To this day, whenever I smell Patchouli I immediately recall those field trips with a smile and slight churn of my belly.
Aromatherapy is defined as the therapeutic use of plant-derived, aromatic essential oils to promote physical and psychological well-being. This form of therapy has been documented since the era of ancient Egypt and was expanded upon by the Romans and Greeks. In fact, for 1500 years a text entitled “De Materia Medica” written solely on the medicinal value of aromatic botanicals by a Greek doctor/surgeon was the accepted reference book for Western Medicine. In modern times, it’s considered a part of Holistic medicine, which is an alternative to Western, ironically enough. In aromatherapy massage, essential oils are mixed with a carrier oil (something unscented to dilute the concentration of the essentials for use on the skin) and used on the client to address whatever issue they have come to their therapist for. The simplest choices on the aromatherapy menu tend to be a Lavender and/or Peppermint essential oil massage; the former to relax and undo stress and the latter to invigorate and refresh. Beyond these two, is a world of essential oil scents and combinations that a skilled aromatherapist can use to treat one’s state of mind and body.
This past month, my physical and emotional PMS symptoms have been especially acute. Stress is definitely a mitigating factor as well as the physical demand made on my body, but I haven’t had the time (HORRIBLE excuse, I know) to get any massage/bodywork to help smooth me out. The water retention, bouts of anger and tummy troubles (er…hem) have been almost more than I can bear. A funny thing happened yesterday, while massaging a client with a combination of the following essential oils: roman chamomile, clary sage, sweet orange and lavender. The agitation ball I felt lodged in my chest from earlier in the day was suddenly gone as was the low grade ache I felt across my abdomen. My coloring shifted and my mood improved tremendously. I did not feel these changes in the other appointments I had done prior to the aromatherapy. Since I had been researching essential oils for another client, I went into my reference book and looked up the above oils within this concoction. All of them address menstrual and pre-menstrual related symptoms including depressed mood, cramps, breakouts, tummy troubles (er…hem), elevated blood pressure and cycle regulation.
75 minutes spent in a windowless room with the lights dimmed inhaling the vapors and absorbing this combination of oils into the skin of my hands and forearms was enough to smooth the last 2 weeks worth of evil from my body. Amazing, seriously. My self prescribed aromatherapy regimen to truly test the efficacy of the above results will be moisturizing my entire body with these oils after a hot shower in the days prior to the arrival of my monthly visit. This will allow the therapeutic properties of the oils to be better absorbed into my skin. And of course, make the time for a long overdue massage.