Breaking the Binge Eating Cycle: Darn it – It’s your hormones

Binge eating plagues a lot of us. The post-meal or late night snack raids of Domino’s pizza, a box of Oreo’s, or a pint (or two) of Jenni’s ice cream has become a secret, shame-ridden ritual for many people, especially in places like the US where heavily processed food is more common and readily available.

For some people, it really is a harmless, occasional late night snack. For others, however, these binge eating habits can snowball into a collection of disorders colloquially referred to as binge, compulsive, or emotional eating, but may formally fall under Binge Eating Disorder.

But what’s behind this desire to binge? Why do 3M Americans struggle with what’s called Binge Eating Disorder (BED)?

The underlying factors causing BED are many and varied, and in this series, we’re focusing on two of them: hormonal imbalances and emotions. Today, we’re diving into the hormones that drive binge eating and how you can bring them back into balance.

 

Which hormones affect binge eating?

Hormones are chemical messengers that move throughout our body, signaling from the brain to various organs what needs to happen, and vice versa. When hormones are out of balance, it’s like they’re sending the wrong messages—eating when not hungry, eating past full, etc.

Dr. Mark Hyman termed the “four hormones of the apocalypse” which contribute to the desire to binge eat. They’re listed below with their various effects:

 

Insulin
The body manufactures insulin to process any form of sugar (glucose, sucrose, fructose) that you ingest. When you eat a sugary meal—pancakes with syrup for breakfast, for instance—your insulin will spike (a “sugar rush”), but then crash. That crash makes you hungry for food, even if you just finished a big (sugary) meal.

 

Leptin
Leptin is a hormone that signals to your brain when you’re done eating and are satiated. But ingesting high amounts of sugary, processed foods and carbs leads to leptin working less effectively. So even if leptin tells the brain “Hey, I’m full!”, a high-sugar diet makes the brain effectively ignore those messages from leptin. Hence, this leads to more eating without any brakes to control it.

 

Ghrelin
Ghrelin is what tells the brain when we’re hungry and ready to munch. It’s produced in the stomach and highly affected by sleep. Ghrelin imbalances lead to a constant feeling of appetite, even if your body doesn’t actually need food.

 

Peptide YY
Similar to Leptin, Peptide YY is another hormone which signals that you’re full. If it’s not produced enough or if its messages aren’t received by the brain, then we will likely overeat and constantly snack.

 

BONUS: Cortisol
We might have mentioned four horsemen earlier, but really, there are five. Cortisol is the hormone that’s produced under stressful conditions to help our body escape stress. The effects of cortisol on the body require more energy, which leads to more hunger and higher blood sugar levels. In part 2 of this series, we’ll talk more about the importance of cortisol in emotional regulation!

 

These hormones are all here to work for us, not against us. It’s just a matter of getting them back in balance so they can send their messages effectively.

 

How can I balance my hormones to curb binge eating?

Get enough sleep
Sleep is one of the BIGGEST factors affecting appetite. With decreased sleep, ghrelin production goes up! In other words, your brain is getting signals that your appetite is higher, even if your energetic need for calories hasn’t changed. Unfortunately, peptide YY production also goes down under sleep-deprived conditions, meaning you’re not getting the right signals to stop eating.

Aim for 7-9 hours of sleep per night, and notice how your appetite changes with adequate sleep!

 

Eat regularly
The intermittent fasting trend has some people skipping meals and eating within a small window, but the key is eating balanced meals regardless of your eating window to maintain your blood sugar. As a pre-diabetic, I do not do well on intermittent fasting beyond a 14-hour period (if I finish dinner by 7pm, I usually have to eat breakfast around 9am the next day) but this varies widely by individual. I have family members that easily fast for 18 hours and do not even realize it.

If you skip breakfast and feel tired and weak, then make it a goal to start eating a protein-full breakfast each morning. This will make it less likely for your appetite to spike late at night, and will keep your blood sugar steady.

 

Balance your meals

When you eat, ensure that you’re eating enough fiber, protein and healthy fats (you can read more about which fats to use in our blog post here). The combination of fiber (from veggies and complex carbs like beans), protein and healthy fat keeps your blood sugar steady.

Similarly, avoid highly processed, sugary foods, especially drinks! Everything in moderation of course—don’t feel like you have to cut out every bit of sugar from your life. Make an effort to decrease your sugar intake, however, as it can become addictive and fuel hormonal imbalances. Starting by cutting out any sugary sodas or coffees can help get your hormones and blood sugar back on track.

 

Regulate your stress
The stress-hormone cortisol often has a multiplier effect on worsening other parts of your physical health, including appetite and weight. If you find yourself eating when you’re stressed, consider adding more mindfulness into your habits with food. This means asking yourself things like: “Am I actually hungry? What do I feel in my body right now? Why do I want to eat this right now?”

Following that mindfulness moment, see if there’s another stress-reducing action you can take: a few minutes of deep breathing, a short walk, a conversation with a friend. Weave stress-relieving techniques into your daily schedule, too, to decrease your overall stress and better regulate your hormones! Check out our article on stress management here for more research-backed ways you can decrease stress.

 

Consider supplements
Some supplements can help you balance your hormones and blood sugar as well. Two in particular—Omega-3 fats and Vitamin D—can be especially helpful.

Omega-3 fats, typically found in fish oil supplements, can help fight insulin resistance and decrease erratic appetites. Here’s a high-dose omega 3 supplement that’s been third-party tested:

Vitamin D is another supplement that can work wonders for your health. It regulates hormones and balances insulin. If you find your stress weighing on your mental health, too, Vitamin D is often recommended to increase overall mood.  

Medium dose (2000 IU):

High dose (5000 IU):

Binge eating can feel defeating and shame-ridden, but when you realize that your body and hormones are driving you to overconsume, some of that guilt can be mitigated as you’ll realize it’s not just an issue of willpower. Use these tips to start balancing your hormones, and check back on another post on how to manage the emotional components of overeating!

Simple Tips to Incorporate Exercise Into Your Day

Do you find yourself struggling to find time to exercise or make it to the gym? If you’re like most of us, life throws a lot at us and before you know it, the day is over. But, exercise doesn’t have to be as onerous to your schedule as you may think. In this blog, we’ll share some facts on the importance of exercise and five tips to add into your daily routine.

Why do I need to exercise?

Physical activity, along with good nutrition and social connection, are the pillars of good health. As reported by the CDC, being more physically active can help:

  • Increase brain function and health
  • Decrease stress and anxiety (read more about this in our nervous system series here)
  • Manage healthy weight
  • Strengthen muscles and bones
  • Improve critical thinking skills
  • Improve heart health and decrease the risk of developing cardiovascular disease
  • Reduce risk of developing Type 2 Diabetes
  • Lower risk for certain cancers
  • Manage chronic conditions
  • Increase overall health and ability to do daily activities

Simply, exercise is a long-term investment in YOU.

How much exercise do I need?

Always talk with your doctor or primary care physician about exactly how much exercise is recommended for you, depending on any conditions or injuries you may have. Generally speaking, however, the following amount of time exercising is recommended by the CDC for adults over 18 years old:

  • 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week
  • Muscle strengthening activities on 2 or more days per week
  • For adults over 64: Activities which improve balance (yoga, standing on one foot, etc.)

Now, what does 150 minutes of “moderate physical activity” really mean?

Moderate physical activity can be many things: a brisk walk, yoga, pilates, playing with your kids outside, swimming, biking, mowing the lawn—and so much more!

Muscle strengthening also includes a wide swath of activities: weightlifting, walking with weighted bracelets or small dumbbells, digging or shoveling in the garden, bodyweight exercises (pushups, etc.), using resistance bands while you watch Netflix—again, so much!

We’ve listed a few simple ways you can start working some of those 150 minutes into your workday or daily schedule below. And note: you can spread your 150 minutes throughout the week in whatever ways that work best for you! It could be 30 minutes / day for 5 days; 15-20 minutes every day—the options are endless, and it’s all about finding what works best for you.

How can I easily add exercise into my schedule?

Simple Daily Exercise Hacks

Before you dive into adding in new chunks of time to your schedule to work out, there are a few simple things you can do to add more movement into your day:

  • Park far away from your location when going to the store, mall, etc. You can get extra steps in by walking further, and if you’re carrying a few bags, you also get some muscle strengthening in!
  • Use the stairs rather than the elevator (yes, even if you’re on the 6th floor!) This is a simple way to get your heart rate up with some daily cardio.
  • During your lunch break, take a quick walk outside if possible. This is great for stress management and getting a few extra steps in.
  • Put on some ankle weights while you run errands! This adds some resistance and additional cardiovascular training to something as simple as going to the grocery store.
  • Take your Zoom calls on the move—walk around the office, house or garden (but make sure your camera is turned off!)

Pick one or two of these to add as a new habit! It’s the little things done consistently over time that can make big changes to your health.

10-Minute Chair Yoga

Need to stretch a bit while you’re at work? Want to start small with bringing more physical movement into your day? Chair yoga is the perfect starting point. If you’re at work all day and aren’t able to really leave your desk, this guided chair yoga video will help you get moving!

Lunchtime Zumba Class

If you’re wanting to really move and groove, check out this high energy Zumba class! You can do this in your lunch break, during an afternoon slump, or anytime in your day that you’re wanting to shake out some movement.

Mini-Bodyweight Exercise Session

 The easiest way to get more muscle strengthening into your day is with bodyweight exercises. No equipment needed, just you! This includes pushups, sit ups, wall sits, lunges—and so much more. Use the video below to hit the major muscle groups all in 10 minutes!

Beyonce 10-Minute Walking Workout

 Do you want to get more steps in, but maybe your neighborhood isn’t conducive to walking? Or hey, maybe going for walks feels like a drag? If that sounds like you, check out this fun 10-minute Beyonce-themed workout to help you get more steps in!

Adding exercise into your schedule can feel like a huge feat, but in reality, taking a few extra minutes to move during your workday can simplify the process of getting physical activity into your daily routine. Remember: start with what you can manage! Some physical activity is always better than none—for your physical, mental, and emotional health. Carve out time for yourself or use a few of the simple tips and tricks we’ve shared with you to boost your health and wellness over time.

How to be like an elephant: Keys to strengthening your memory

I remember watching a drama about a man who had a unique condition where he had a flawless and unfading memory of everything, including the tragic circumstances of his childhood. He was constantly tortured as time never healed any of his painful past. The author, Rita Mae Brown, said, “One of the keys to happiness is a bad memory.” I often find myself grateful that I’m NOT like the man in the drama. I would probably spend more time ruminating about the ‘bad’ than the ‘good’!

But then the Roman philosopher Cicero said that memory is the “treasury and guardian of all things,” — so what if we feel like our memory is fading? Is memory loss an inevitable part of getting older, or are there key steps we can take to maintain mental sharpness?

Dr. Richard Restak is a neurologist and professor at George Washington Hospital University School of Medicine and Health, and he says that a decrease in memory over time does not have to be expected. In his new book, The Complete Guide to Memory: The Science of Strengthening Your Mind, Dr. Restak reviews the stumbling blocks which lead to memory decline and how we can improve our memory over time. We’ve outlined six practices for memory improvement recommended by Dr. Restak for you below:

Pay (more) attention

Dr. Restak specifies that not all issues with memory are actually, well, issues with memory. The larger problem for many people is the ability to pay attention. When we are unable or simply do not pay full attention to someone as they tell us their name, for example, we are unable to store the memory properly.

Dr. Restak recommends using a visualization technique to help us store new information more effectively. When you’re learning a new piece of information, get creative and build a mental image to pair with the new information. He recalls a simple example of meeting a doctor named Dr. King, and to help remember his name, Dr. Restak imagined a king in a white lab coat. When your brain has more ways to remember a piece of information (i.e., a name and a metaphor / visual), it will boost your chances of recalling that info later!

Challenge your memory regularly

Memory serves a huge part of our daily life, and we can actively train our memories by relying on our brains more frequently. Dr. Restak challenges readers to attempt to memorize their grocery or shopping lists prior to running errands. You can again use visualization techniques here, imagining all of the items you need together in a bag, for example. You can also consider memorizing the route to a friend’s house instead of immediately turning to GPS. A 2020 study provided evidence that constant GPS usage correlated with a decrease in spatial memory over time.

Play games!

All sorts of games can benefit memory; who said boosting your brain power can’t be fun? Bridge and chess are classics that can help your ability to remember, but other childhood games work too. One of Dr. Restak’s favorites is 20 Questions, where one person chooses an item, person, or place, and the other person (or people) asks 20 yes-or-no questions in an attempt to figure out what the item is. The game requires the questioner to remember all of the answers in order to successfully determine the object!

I started to play this game called: Dual N-Back – It forces you to match clicks from 1 or 2 steps prior: download it for free on your phone and try it. It’s really HARD but if you can get past 1 step prior – you rock!

You can also find a variety of memory games online for free. Luminosity and ImproveMemory.Org are two platforms where you can train your memory for a few minutes each day! Check them out.

Dive into fiction more often

Interestingly, Dr. Restak notes that reading exclusively nonfiction and neglecting fiction novels can correlate with memory decline. An adventurous book, say Lord of the Rings for example, switches between the perspectives of many different characters. As Tolkein switches back into Frodo’s POV, you’re tasked with remembering what he did a few chapters ago. Novels are enjoyable and a way to keep your brain engaged while remembering the nuances and twists of a story.

Decrease your reliance on technology

Nearly everyone is becoming more reliant on technology for remembering everything from directions to grocery lists to birthdays and more. Dr. Restak notes that when we store the various details of our lives on our phones, we aren’t being asked to truly know and remember it. Technology, though convenient, takes away simple ways we would otherwise train and maintain our memory each day. Challenging yourself to memorize birthdays, grocery lists, and even simple directions is a way to decrease your own dependency on technology and improve your brain’s memory muscle at the same time.

Additionally, Dr. Restak brings up how technology decreases our ability to focus—circling back to point number one about attention. Being present in the current moment is key to properly storing memory. When our brains are attempting to complete a variety of tasks—watching Netflix while writing a memo for work, for example—we decrease our ability to focus and consequently encode new memories. Instead, focus on “monotasking”, or simply doing one task at a time, to help yourself stay more present, and to increase your brain’s ability to store memory.

Tend to your mental health

Dr. Restak notes that one of the most common causes of decreased memory is mental illness, especially depression, because memory is linked to the emotional centers in the brain. Dr. Restak refers to the hippocampus as the “memory entry center” and it’s responsible for registering emotional triggers and manufactures the chemical bases of emotion in the body. The amygdala serves a similar purpose by encouraging emotional production and expression. When you are in a low mood, you are more likely to recall negative past memories rather than neutral or positive ones, creating a skewed memory if the mood persists over time. When persistent negative moods and depression are treated with pharmaceuticals or talk therapy, memory often improves!

Some things are easy to forget—a name you just learned, where you parked, your hotel room number. If you find yourself struggling to remember things like this, it’s often normal. If you find yourself forgetting your own address, how you got somewhere, and other more fundamental information, it may be time to consult your doctor.

Dr. Restak says that, “there is no simple solution for knowing what should be of concern,” but recommends talking with your doctor if you are concerned. Regardless of how you feel about your memory today, choose a few tips from this list to boost it.

Who wants to be like an elephant with giant brains and superb memory?   

I do! 

Learn more about amazing elephants: https://www.scienceabc.com/nature/animals/why-do-elephants-have-such-great-memory.html

Wherever You Go, Go with All Your Heart — Confucius

“Oh the places you’ll go! There is fun to be done! There are points to be scored. There are games to be won.” 
― Dr. Seuss, Oh, The Places You’ll Go!

I received this book from a friend when I graduated school – I was young, ambitious and full of energy. Even now, I still have a LOT of places to go, points to score and games to win but as Confucius says – wherever you go, go with all your ‘healthy’ heart. 

So, in these series of blogs, I’d like to outline ways to keep your ticker running smoothly so you can go to all the places and enjoy life to the fullest.

First some stats:

Heart disease is sadly the leading cause of death for men and women in the US. Every 34 seconds, someone passes away from some form of heart disease (CDC, 2022). Many of us have friends and family who have passed from a heart attack or who have required open heart surgery.

Heart disease runs rampant in America due to our largely sedentary lifestyles (working from home hasn’t helped our lack of movement), high levels of chronic stress, and relatively poor diets that are higher in unhealthy fats and sugar (more to follow in a later blog). In addition, our medical systems rarely put the priority on heart disease prevention that is needed; instead of keeping the issues from starting, the focus is on treating the health issue after it’s developed.

One woman documented how her doctor placed multiple stents (mesh tubes that are placed in arteries to expand them when clogged) in her arteries to fight her heart disease. Only after multiple procedures did her doctor tell her about the means of prevention such as exercise and an improved diet that she could also use to increase her heart health.

Of course our healthcare system, medications, and operations are necessary parts of the equation for fighting heart disease—they represent incredible developments in modern medicine. At the same time, there are relatively simple steps you can take to fight heart disease, whether you’re interested in preventing it or optimizing the medicine you’re currently taking for it.

Here are some habits you can adopt to improve your heart health today!

1. Physical Activity

Move your body in any way you find enjoyable; bonus points if it’s an aerobic exercise (gets your heart rate pumping higher). Walking your dog for 20 minutes a day, doing a Zumba class a few times a week, dancing to the new Beyonce album in your room, practicing yoga from YouTube videos on the weekends—these are all great, enjoyable examples.

The experts at Johns Hopkins recommend supplementing aerobic exercise with resistance training as well; this can be adding weights to your walk or light weightlifting. Research has shown that strength training is a helpful supplement for boosting heart health and managing heart disease.

Aim for about 30 minutes per day, 5 days a week. Mix it up between resistance training and aerobic exercise to boost your health and keep your routine interesting!

2. Eating a More Plant-Based Diet

Now, before you think that we’re asking you to go full vegan tomorrow, don’t worry—we’re not! You simply need to eat a more plant-based diet, meaning more vegetables and less processed foods. Animal products can still be included in your diet in moderation to achieve heart health.

Two recent studies outlined the efficacy of eating plant-based for heart health. One study recorded how people who start eating a plant-based diet in young adulthood have a decreased risk for heart disease in middle age. No matter your age, it’s never too late to start eating well!

Another study saw that a plant-based diet reduced the risk of heart disease in older, postmenopausal women. Easy ways to eat more plant based: add spinach to a smoothie, making a quick zucchini stir fry instead of eating out for dinner, opting for black beans instead of chips as your side on Mexican night. The possibilities are endless!

We also recently wrote a blog about which cooking oils to choose for heart health—check that out here!

3. Decreasing Stress & Managing Your Mental Health

Constantly feeling stressed out and overwhelmed takes a major toll on the body, especially your heart. When you live with chronic stress, you are constantly in the fight or flight response, meaning your heart rate is constantly elevated, your brain is secreting stress hormones, and the processes which would otherwise promote health and healing are stalled. Over time, chronic stress can lead to high blood pressure, increasing the likelihood of developing heart disease

There are plenty of ways to move yourself out of the fight or flight response and rid your body of chronic stress. Physical activity is a huge one, while meditation, mindfulness, and hypnosis can be helpful as well. Check out our article here on the fight or flight response for more information: (https://community.wholistics.health/is-that-a-lion-coming-my-way-managing-our-stress-responses/ )!

In addition, depression can worsen heart health. If you find yourself in a prolonged negative mood, it may be a good time to work with a mental health professional, both to improve your mental health and your heart health.

4. Avoiding Smoking & Alcohol

Lastly, smoking tobacco is a huge contributor to the development of heart disease, especially the build-up and hardening of plaque in the arteries (known as atherosclerosis). If you currently smoke, make a plan to quit. Check out the smoking cessation programs available in your area—they vary by state and region.

Alcohol can similarly contribute to heart disease, specifically heavy drinking or binge drinking. Blood pressure increases with excessive drinking, which can in turn lead to heart attacks or strokes. In addition, alcohol is often a source of weight gain and excess sugar, both of which can lead to heart disease.

Whether you’re currently managing heart disease or are eager to take steps to prevent it, there are a variety of simple steps you can take to boost your heart health. Eat more veggies, move your body, quit smoking, reduce drinking and take time for activities that de-stress you!

And remember — “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

You are the Salt of the Earth – Common Myths About Hypertension

Hypertension, commonly known as high blood pressure, is a catalyst for heart disease and stroke, two of the leading causes of death in the United States. Nearly half of the adults in the US have high blood pressure (characterized by a blood pressure of 130/80mmHg or higher) and only one quarter of those are properly managing their condition. Hypertension is known as the “silent killer”. Because there are no warning signs for high blood pressure, many people are unaware that they are living with this condition, and thus do little to maintain control over it.

Have you ever heard the saying: “Be careful what you believe, even salt and sugar look alike”?

Allow me to apply it in de-bunking a common myth about hypertension. While salt and sugar have similar characteristics in terms of size, shape, and coloring, their effects on your body couldn’t be farther from the same. Many people believe excess salt intake to be the primary cause of high blood pressure. Physicians are unestablished on where this consensus arose from, as studies dating back 100 years have been unable to indicate a positive correlation between salt intake and blood pressure. In fact, a 1998 review study comparing dietary sodium intake and mortality rates actually found little correlation between the two, indicating that decreasing your salt intake can lower your blood pressure, but that was only found to be a short-term fix. To that end, a study published by the American Journal of Medicine in 2006 examined a similar relationship and actually found that too little salt (<2400mg/day, as advised by the AHA) can significantly increase your risk of heart disease by 50%.

So, if it’s not just salt, what is the culprit behind hypertension? You might’ve guessed…it’s the not-so-sweet “look-alike”, Sugar.

Obesity, insulin resistance, and increased levels of Triglycerides have been dubbed the Triad of Hypertension. The commonality among them? Sugar. Let’s break them down one-by-one:

Obesity. There are a lot of factors at play when correlating obesity and hypertension. Obesity can alter your sympathetic nervous system (your body’s fight-or-flight response) and induce hormone signaling pathways. One important effect of obesity is the over-compression of your kidneys, which is caused by the increase of visceral fat tissue in your midsection. Your kidneys work to excrete water and regulate the salt levels in your body to maintain the body’s blood pressure. But the increased stress caused by the excess visceral fat tissue can inhibit proper kidney function, which in turn, causes high blood pressure.

  • Insulin Resistance. Insulin resistance occurs when the cells in your body are unable to use insulin effectively. Due to this, your body attempts to produce more insulin, leading to increased levels of glucose in the blood, increased water and sodium retention, and, as a result, increased blood pressure.
  • High Levels of Triglycerides. Triglycerides are a form of fat created by your body after eating, which your body will store for energy use between meals. High levels of triglycerides can occur from over-eating, under-exercising, and high consumption of alcohol. When your body encounters a chronic build-up of triglycerides in the blood, your arterial walls begin to harden and thicken, causing them to narrow. The excess strain on your arteries will, in turn, increase your blood pressure and cause hypertension.

Now that we’ve uncovered the medical causes behind hypertension, here’s how you can manage your blood pressure to prevent hypertension.

  1. Eat well. Your body requires sufficient nutrients to survive. Eating a well-balanced meal is incredibly important in allowing your body to reach its peak performance.
  2. Exercise. It is crucial to allow your body some movement daily. Yoga, walking, or an at-home workout video are great ways to manage your weight and ensure you are keeping your blood pressure under control.
  3. Limit your sugar, salt, and carb intake. Processed foods are chock full of excessive amounts of salt and sugar, both of which are negatively impacting your blood pressure.
  4. Avoid excessive alcohol consumption. Many alcoholic beverages contain high amounts of sugar and carbs, which are directly affecting your blood pressure. Excessive consumption of alcohol is also a common cause of obesity.
  5. Eat anti-inflammatory foods. Healthy fats, such as fish, eggs, turkey, avocadoes, and nuts are great sources of antioxidants, and help to limit inflammation of your blood vessels and reduce your blood pressure.
  6. Avoid inflammatory foods. While anti-inflammatory foods can lower your blood pressure, inflammatory foods can significantly increase your blood pressure. Grain products, fried foods, processed foods, soda, fast foods, and commercial salad dressings are all known to cause inflammation in your blood vessels. It’s best to avoid these to reduce your risk of hypertension.

Excess salt intake is blamed for hypertension, and while it can have negative effects on your blood pressure, excess carb and sugar intake are stronger forces causing hypertension. People with high blood pressure should take care in limiting their salt intake but be conscious in avoiding excess amounts of carbs and sugars, as well. Remember, you’re sweet enough already!

Read more on the 1998 review study here: https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736%2897%2909092-2/fulltext

Read more on the 2006 second NHANES study here: https://www.amjmed.com/article/S0002-9343%2805%2901046-6/fulltext

You may also be interested in this book where evidence points to other factors beyond salt as the enemy of good health: The Salt Fix – How Experts Got it Wrong

Liking Snakes – Overcoming Emotional Addiction

In a previous blog, we shared how self-sabotage happens because of the body and brain’s need for safety. Now, we’ll go into how the body and brain become physically addicted to staying in the same patterns through a process called emotional addiction.

To illustrate, we’re going to explore the example through a story of a big dreamer named Keisha. All of today’s information comes from a book called Evolve Your Brain by Joe Dispenza; check it out if you want more on emotional addiction!

As a kid, Keisha tells everyone she wants to be a huge pop star one day. She belts her heart out around the house, draws pictures of herself performing for thousands of people, and already has that big, bold pop star personality.

Growing up, however, she didn’t have the most supportive parents. When she’d belt out Alicia Keys around the house, they’d tell her to be quiet. They shamed her for being a big, bold personality, and frequently told her she’d need to find a stable job instead of trying to make a career out of music. Whew.

In turn, Keisha learned it was safer for her to hide her talents, shrink her personality, and keep her big dreams to herself.

The emotions she constantly felt because of this treatment were shame, sorrow, and anger. She began to feel those emotions so frequently that her body became accustomed to feeling those emotions most of the time. Overtime, her body became physically addicted to those feelings.

How Emotional Addiction Takes Control

Here’s what’s happening at the cellular level to facilitate this emotional addiction:

  1. Emotions are signaled through our bodies by peptides, which are the chemical messengers of emotions.
    They’re small proteins that flow throughout our body and communicate to our cells “Hey! Keisha is feeling sad today.” or “Keisha is so happy!”—whatever the emotion of the moment is.
  2. If we regularly feel a certain combination of emotions, our cells will come to expect the peptides which correlate to those emotions.
    In essence, our cells become addicted to getting a certain amount of specific peptides—the emotions—on a regular basis.
    It’s like if you eat a chocolate cookie every night after dinner, you habitually expect that sweet reward daily. Same deal, just with your peptides (aka emotions) and cells.
  3. If our cells register a decreased level of these peptides, they will signal to our brains through the nervous system, “Hey! We’re low on that emotional combo you always feel! Feed us something!”
    In other words, at the cellular level, our body becomes physiologically addicted to feeling the same emotions in order to maintain a sense of predictability in life. You and your willpower are not to blame for your self-sabotaging patterns; your biology is.

External Self Sabotage

Now back to our story: Keisha grows up and moves out of her unsupportive parents’ house, and has a golden age of feeling empowered, excited and enthused to work towards her dreams.

Soon after, however, she finds herself in an unsupportive relationship and frustrating job which continues to bring up the emotions of shame, sorrow, and anger all over again.

Keisha can’t catch a break! What’s really going on here?

Remember step 3 in emotional addiction? If our cells notice a decreased level of the specific peptides they’re addicted to, then they’ll holler at the brain to send out more of their peptide order.

In return, the brain will seek out experiences and relationships that will trigger a similar emotional response, thereby filling the order from the cells for their peptide cocktail.

So Keisha moves out, and for a while, she no longer has the constant emotional trigger from her parents to feel small and shameful about her dreams. But then her cells say “HEY! Where’s our peptide order?”

And Keisha’s brain, being a dutiful server to the body, starts looking for people, experiences, and anything that can bring up those same feelings of shame, anger, and sorrow.

Hence, Keisha ends up in a stressful work environment and unsupportive partnership which both trigger those same emotions. She’s unhappy, but her brain and her body are LOVING the predictability of this old emotional pattern. 

Internal Self-Sabotage

Let’s take it one step further. Let’s say Keisha has a Bridget Jones’ Diary montage moment and decides to turn her life around: she gets a new, more empowering job and breaks up with her unsupportive partner. There are no more external sources to provide the emotions of shame, sorrow, and anger. 

She has another golden age of not self-sabotaging, just like when she moved out of her parents’ house, but it doesn’t last. Even though Keisha has removed all of the external triggers to feel shame, sorrow, and anger, her brain and body kick in with internal sources of self-sabotage.

She notices that her thoughts start to go down the negative spiral drain. She starts doubting her dreams, and remembers all those awful things her parents would say to her growing up. She feels like a fool for cutting out all those things—who does she think she is?

All of these thoughts—the doubts, the memories, the inner critic—are caused by her physiology. Keisha’s body is noticing that she hasn’t felt shame, sorrow or anger in while (which means her body hasn’t gotten its emotional addiction filled), so it signals to the brain to find a way to provide those emotions.

When there are no external sources of old emotions (relationships, environments, etc), the brain will create internal sources of self-sabotage through negative thinking, replaying old memories, and more.

Keisha has this brief moment of relapse, but it only lasts so long. She stumbles on a concept called mental rehearsal, and it’s how she can soothe her brain and body’s addiction to the emotions of shame, sorrow, and anger. In order to overcome and avoid self-sabotage, the brain and the body need to feel safe and less attuned to old emotions. And the clear path to providing this safety and rewiring emotional addiction is mental rehearsal.

Scott Williams, PhD, of Wright State University, describes mental rehearsal as the “imagined, mental practice of performing a task, as opposed to actually carrying out the task.”

Mental rehearsal has been used by musicians, professional athletes, and public speakers to boost peak performance and achieve their goals. It’s the process of imagining yourself practicing a new skill in your mind. Mental rehearsal has been shown to improve performance in music, healthcare delivery, and sports.

A variety of psychologists and thought leaders in the personal development space share ways you can utilize mental rehearsal to boost your own happiness and quality of life, while also avoiding old, self-sabotaging behaviors. We’ve listed a few below:

Laying New Neural Pathways

In his book, Evolve Your Brain, Joe Dispenza talks about using mental rehearsal to curb the effects of emotional addiction and the self-sabotaging habits it creates. Because emotional addiction feeds off of constantly feeling the same emotions, mental rehearsal provides an opportunity to tap into the new emotions connected to your goals and break up the addiction.

Back to Keisha—as she makes mental rehearsal a practice, so too does she familiarize her body to these new emotions, and creates a sense of “predictability” for what achieving her dreams will feel like. This provides her brain and body a sense of safety, making it easier to walk towards her dreams with less self-sabotage and more confidence and direction.

Liking Snakes

Brett Steenbarger, Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at SUNY Upstate Medical University, advocates using mental rehearsal as a way to desensitize yourself to old triggers and overcoming habits.

Steenbarger reviews how psychologists will often use desensitization processes to help clients overcome anxieties. This is a lengthy process of exposing yourself to a cause of anxiety bit by bit to gain control over your response to the anxiety. For example, if you have a fear of snakes, desensitization might include talking about snakes, looking at photos of snakes, being in a room with a caged snake, and potentially even touching a snake, all while utilizing various coping strategies to maintain a sense of calm.

Desensitization often begins with mental rehearsal. An anxious person may begin their desensitization process by visualizing themselves in a room with a snake, which initially will cause some anxiety. In the visualization, however, they enact their coping mechanisms—breathing, reframing negative thoughts, whatever it may be—until they are again in a grounded, calm state.

As Steenberger summarizes, “The anxious person in desensitization treatment doesn’t merely imagine themselves to be calm. They vividly imagine engaging in threatening acts (thereby arousing anxiety) and then they activate effective coping strategies.”

Not all of us have a fear of snakes, but this same method can be exceedingly helpful to overcome anxieties with public speaking, communication, dating, and any other parts of life that you’re ready to respond to with more control and calm.

Practice Makes Perfect

Practicing mental rehearsal really is as simple as it sounds: you mentally rehearse or practice the outcome you want to see in your life; bonus points if you tap into the emotions that arise as you do so.

If you struggle to meditate, I recommend relaxing your body first. A great way to do so is through progressive muscle relaxation, which simply involves scanning your body and relaxing each muscle group as you do so. It’s a technique used to relax folks in hypnosis, and you can follow along at the video linked here.

Once in a meditative state, visualize yourself achieving the future you aspire to. Whether that’s confidently existing in a healthy relationship, practicing the person you want to be to reach your goals, or watching yourself choose a new path in the face of old triggers—the options abound.

If you’re new to meditation, start small: set a time for 3-5 minutes and use that time to mentally rehearse the person you want to be and the changes you want to make. If you’re more versed in taking some quiet time, challenge yourself to do 10-20 minutes. Regardless of the amount of time you take, be sure to focus on the emotions which arise as you visualize, as these will help guide and motivate you into new patterns.

One more option for you: If you really are not the sitting in silence type, you can also do these visualization exercises while walking or zoned out during another task like painting or doodling. Meditation looks different for everyone!

Change is hard, but it gets easier when you understand, acknowledge, and soothe your body and brain’s need for safety and predictability with tools like mental rehearsal. Take a few minutes to try it out today

Your Guide to Fats: Which Vegetable Oils Are Bad?

On the cover of health magazines in the 80s, 90s and even into the 2000s, you would have seen a lot of hullabaloo about how fat was Public Enemy #1 and it was making us all, well…fat. They demonized fat for obesity rates, rise in cardiovascular diseases, and other chronic conditions. The low-fat craze told us how we needed to avoid fat at all costs; then a plethora of reduced fat processed foods hit the store shelves in response to consumer demand.   

Then in 2002 appeared a seminal article written by the science writer, Gary Taubes, “What if it was a big fat lie?” – which started to turn the tide on the evils of fat. Our collective nutrition consciousness has decided that the scientific evidence is not pointing to fat as Health’s Most Wanted. In reality, fat is an essential part of our diet as humans. Fats help fuel our mitochondria, absorb vitamins and minerals, and keep us satiated after a meal. Did you know that our brains are even made up of 60% fat! And oils are some of the best sources of fats that can support our overall health.

However, understanding which oils are healthy and which should be written off of your eating plan is important in creating a balanced diet. In this blog, we’ve reviewed the different types of fat, and which oils to choose or avoid next time you’re at the grocery store or cooking a meal.

 

Types of Fats

There are three main types of fat: saturated fat, unsaturated fat, and trans fats.

Saturated fats mean that the fat molecule—also called a triglyceride—is completely “saturated” with hydrogen molecules. In the picture below, you’ll see how saturated fat is full of H’s (hydrogens); this allows saturated fats to stack on top of each other and build up easily, causing things like plaque buildup in your arteries. Some of you may remember restaurants transitioning from saturated fat (lard, tallow) to all vegetable oils (corn, soybean) in an attempt to switch to a healthier source. How ironic this is – we all know that saturated fats like lard are less processed and much more stable for cooking or frying. The moral of this lesson is that overall, you only need saturated fats in moderation for health. If I could find a restaurant that serves fried chicken cooked in lard again, I would love to go splurge!

Unsaturated fats have one or more double bonds (=) where the molecule is not saturated with hydrogens. This creates a kink in what would otherwise be a continuous, stackable chain. These kinks created by the unsaturated areas keeps the fat from building up as saturated fat does; as such, unsaturated fats are generally a healthier choice than saturated!

Trans fats: Do you remember when Crisco shortening was a main ingredient in many of the recipes then? Trans fats are formed when unsaturated fats are refined in a process called partial hydrogenation; these are fake oils and should be avoided. Consumption of trans fats has been linked to increases in heart attacks, inflammation in the body, and blood cholesterol levels. The city of New York leading the way with the first ban on trans fats in restaurants has demonstrated improved public health and lower rates of hearts attacks and strokes. Way to go Big Apple!  

 

Healthy Oils

1. Olive Oil

Olive oil is high in monounsaturated fat, which has been linked to lowering LDL cholesterol and promoting heart health. Olive oil which hasn’t been processed with chemicals is called virgin olive oil, and the highest grade of virgin olive oil is called extra virgin olive oil.

Christine Palumbo, a registered dietician, explains, “[Extra-virgin olive oil] contains more than 30 different phenolic compounds, a group of phytochemicals that include many with anti-inflammatory and blood vessel-expanding actions.” Olive oil is perhaps the most common choice for healthy oil, and it’s a clear example of fat that will actually help your heart health. Unfortunately, not all olive oil is actually olive oil – there are many blends and fakes out there. When the world’s production of olive oil does NOT match what is being sold as ‘olive oil’, there’s plenty of reason for suspicion. We will highlight what to look for in olive oil in a later blog.

2. Avocado Oil

Avocado oil is also teeming with monounsaturated fats and all the health benefits that come with them. This oil is especially unique because it retains its nutritional content at high and low temperatures; others, like olive oil, have a low smoke point, so the oil begins to break down sooner while cooking. Avocado oil is a great, neutral tasting option with high health benefits. I tend to use avocado oil for stir-frying as it’s more heat stable than olive oil. 

3. Sesame Oil

Sesame oil has naturally occurring polyunsaturated fats, which are also helpful for heart health! Research has reported that sesame oil has anti-inflammatory effects while also providing antioxidant support. Together, these properties help fight heart disease and plaque buildup in the arteries. Sesame oil has been a staple in Asian cooking for centuries, and is a heart-healthy addition to your own pantry. Keep in mind that sesame oil should only be used as a topping or a seasoning oil as it’s not heat stable for long-term cooking or frying.

 

Oils to Eat In Moderation or Avoid

Although we need fat in our diet for optimal health, there are some oils that we should only consume in moderation or avoid like the plague.  

1. Coconut Oil – Moderation

Coconut oil’s reputation has been up and down in recent years: some dieticians used to claim it was the best fat for your health because of its medium-chain-triglycerides, while others staunchly recommend against it for its high saturated fat content.

The research on coconut oil is mixed, with some studies pointing to it raising your HDL cholesterol (the good stuff), while other research shows that coconut oil might raise your LDL cholesterol (the artery-clogging bad stuff).

Because of its mixed reviews and high saturated fat content, the Cleveland Clinic and many others recommend you use coconut oil in moderation. I like coconut oil when making popcorn but due to the strong flavor, it’s usually reserved for a snack or a dessert dish.

2. Palm Oil – Moderation

Check the label of any jar of peanut butter and you’ll likely find palm oil listed; it’s a popular ingredient in many processed foods. With roughly a half and half makeup of saturated and unsaturated fats, palm oil isn’t as bad as some other options, as long as you’re not eating a lot of it. To me, the bigger issue is that extracting palm oil has been shown to have negative effects on the environment; the World Wildlife Fund reports that it increases deforestation and unethical working conditions. Opt for all natural peanut butter and avoid palm oil next time you’re at the grocery store. Read labels carefully because palm oil is hidden in a lot of snacks and otherwise healthy foods.

3. Vegetable Oils – Avoid

Vegetable oils include corn oil, sunflower oil, soy oil, safflower oil, grapeseed oil, cottonseed oil, rice bran oil, and rapeseed (Canola) oil.

New York Times best selling author and family physician Cate Shanahan, MD, notes how the high level of refinement needed for these oils in combination with their high content of polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) makes them a poor choice. The refinement process makes the PUFAs more unstable, less nutrient dense, and more likely to lead to inflammation in the body.

Shanahan recommends opting for oils that are less refined and closer to whole foods, whether that might be a cold-pressed olive oil or avocado oil as mentioned earlier.

I love how fats give me energy throughout the day without needing to raid the fridge every several hours. It also gives me mental clarity. It’s necessary to have fat in your diet, and when you opt for healthy oils like olive, avocado, and sesame oil, your body and brain will thank you.  It may be time to clean out your cupboard and re-prioritize your vegetable oil shelf!

Are You Addicted to Your Emotions

Have you felt stuck in self-sabotaging patterns? Like you’re constantly trying to break out of old habits, but for some reason, you can’t quite make new choices stick?

If that’s you, I have good news: your biology may be more to blame than your willpower.

When the concepts of habit change and self-sabotage arise, people normally point directly to willpower and discipline; those are the magic keys that you simply need in order to stop smoking, eat more vegetables, or get your 10,000 steps in each day.

Though willpower and discipline are parts of habit change, the fixation on them overlooks a key need for your body and brain: safety.

Your body and brain evolved to seek out relationships and environments which feel familiar to relationships and environments you’ve experienced in the past. These provide a sense of “predictability” – if you’re around people and in places where you can feel like you “know” what will come next, life feels more predictable.

With a perceived sense of predictability, your brain and body get what they’re really after: safety. Because if you can “predict” what comes next, you can more adequately prepare for it, and you find a perceived sense of safety and control.

This makes sense when we think about evolution; with more predictable environments and relationships, it was easier to survive and create the next generation. In today’s world, however, the brain and body’s grasping need for predictability can be more limiting than helpful.

Let’s take an example: Kayla is looking for a healthy, peaceful relationship. She’s eager for something that’s mature, loving and reciprocal. Growing up, however, Kayla always witnessed chaos and drama in her parents’ relationship, and in adulthood, she found herself in similar, toxic partnerships. And then Kayla meets Craig. He’s sweet, respectful, and sends her flowers after their second date. At first, it feels heavenly: Kayla is so excited to finally be in a healthy, respectful relationship. After a few weeks, however, Kayla begins to feel… bored. Almost apathetic towards Craig. It doesn’t quite make sense to her, though, because when she’s actually with Craig, they have great conversations, she’s laughing out loud, and she’s anything but bored. She gets a feeling that she’s sabotaging this relationship, but she can’t understand why or what she can do about it.

When we think about the brain and the body’s skewed sense of safety, here’s what is often happening in situations like this:

Kayla feels safe in relationships that harbor chaos and drama because that’s what’s “predictable” for her. Those relationships feel familiar, which creates a sense of safety for her brain and body (even if emotionally she feels miserable; the misery is “safe” for her brain).

When she enters the new, healthy relationship with Craig, her brain and body go on high alert because it’s not “predictable.” It’s cued as unsafe, and through a convoluted process called emotional addiction, her brain and body work together to sabotage the new relationship with feelings of boredom.

The sudden disinterest in a long-term goal is just one way that the brain and body can sabotage something new. Other common methods include procrastination, replaying old painful memories, avoidance, seeking out people or habits that are familiar to old patterns, and plain old giving up.

This brain-body-fueled self-sabotage can happen in the macros of our life – our relationships, jobs, and friendships – as well as the micros – our daily schedules, the foods we eat, and more. Your brain’s overarching goal is to keep you safe, and it feels it can most successfully do that by creating a predictable life full of the same patterns, regardless of how those patterns make you feel emotionally.

What can Kayla then do to overcome this sudden disinterest in her goal of being in a healthy relationship?

The first step, naturally, is by creating an awareness of her body and brain’s need for safety. She can begin noticing how the pattern of chaotic relationships has arisen throughout her life, and how it’s showing up with Craig now. With this awareness, she can actively choose new patterns and recognize the old, helping her move over the hump of self-sabotage and into a place where healthy relationships feel safe for her body and brain.

The second possibility comes from a book called Evolve Your Brain by Joe Dispenza. In it, Dispenza outlines the body and brain’s need for predictability as we’ve recounted here, and he posits that we can provide our bodies and brains with the safety they need through a process called “mental rehearsal.”

Mental rehearsal has been used by musicians, professional athletes, and public speakers to improve their performance and reach their goals. It’s the simple process of visualizing yourself practicing a new skill in your mind. Research has shown that mental rehearsal can improve performance in a music performance, healthcare delivery, and sports.

Dispenza takes this a step further and outlines how mental rehearsal can help people create a sense of safety for their bodies and brains in new habits, relationships, and environments. When you visualize yourself in healthy relationships, successfully reaching your goals, and taking on new habits, you begin to give your brain a sense of “predictability” for what that experience will feel like, thereby making it “safe” (Evolve Your Brain, Ch 11).

What’s especially important here is tuning into the emotions of those visualizations – when you imagine yourself reaching your goals, how do you feel? When Kayla uses her imagination to visualize herself in a healthy, reciprocal relationship, what emotions does that bring up? Pride, gratitude, joy, contentment are common answers.

As these emotions become more familiar, the new habits, relationships, and environments triggering these emotions become more predictable and safe; as a result, the brain and body have less of a need to self-sabotage the newness.

If your goals for a healthy lifestyle for disease prevention keep going off track, take the time to create awareness of the old habits and the rationale behind them. This analysis will help you ‘safely’ form new habits. And each day, imagine yourself reaching your goals and how that makes you feel. Whether it is weight loss, better nutrition, positive mental outlook or disease management, these mental rehearsals will teach your brain that these habits are ‘predictable’ and ‘safe’.

In my next blog, we’ll dive even deeper into how the body and brain work together to enact self-sabotage.

I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls – Decoding the Importance of Dreams

When I think about dreams and dreaming, my mind takes me to the hypnotic voice of the diva, Joan Sutherland, singing the aria “I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls” from The Bohemian Girl Opera. Whether it’s opera, Les Mis (“I Dreamed a Dream”) or Aerosmith (“Dream On”), dreams have so much meaning in our lives – especially the ones that happen as we slumber.

Dreams can be bizarre, scary, exhilarating and seemingly nonsensical all at the same time. They’re one of the most unique experiences of consciousness (rather, unconsciousness), and research is exploring the potential benefits of REM sleep—the sleep stage we’re in when we dream—and of understanding our dreams. Today, we’re taking a deep dive into both, with tangible tips on how you can start reflecting on your dreams for personal growth and self-understanding.

What are the different sleep stages?

For starters, you should know the general sleep stages we move through while we’re asleep. They don’t always occur consecutively, and we can float back and forth between various phases. They are listed below:

Stage 0 – Awake: This stage refers to the time in bed preparing for sleep. It can also exist as the brief moments you may lightly awaken during the night or a nap.

Stage 1 & 2 – Light Sleep: Typically, we start our sleep cycle in light sleep mode. Your muscles relax, heart rate slows, and body temperature decreases. Your body is preparing to move into deeper sleep stages or to awaken.

Stage 3 & 4 – Deep Sleep: This phase is where healing and repair happens. Your body focuses its energy on releasing various hormones, boosting blood flow, and repairing damaged cells. Your brain activity is slow and focused on pruning unnecessary information and data from the day.

Stage R – REM Sleep: In REM, your body takes on a unique set of characteristics. You may have dreams that are fantastical and vivid. Your body moves into atonia, where the muscles are essentially switched off (this keeps you from acting out your dreams).

Why is REM Sleep important?

REM Sleep is an especially important phase for a variety of reasons. A recent article in Sleepline outlines that getting adequate REM sleep has been shown to:

  • Increase ability to read others’ emotions
  • Heighten ability to manage stress
  • Improve memory
  • Boost mood
  • Bolster creativity and problem solving skills

In addition to the benefits of getting enough REM sleep, having a deficit of REM sleep has been shown to correlate with a decreased ability to cope with negative emotions, weight gain, more migraines, increased anxiety, and declining memory.

Lastly, in REM sleep we dream, and many psychologists believe reflecting on these visions in our REM sleep can provide genuine psychological value and benefit.

Why should I care about my dreams?

Dreams are often a marker of what’s troubling you most intensely right now. Your concerns from the past day or two days are likely to arise in your dreams, a phenomena known as the day-residue effect. Similarly, prominent issues can arise in dreams about 5-7 days after the issue occurs; this is called the dream-lag effect. In either case, your dreams are often signaling to you the parts of life most stressful and needing the most reflection or attention right now.

Many also believe that dreams are a way to consolidate memory and new information. As we already reviewed, adequate sleep, especially REM sleep, is important to boosting memory. Some theorize this memory boosting effect is actually due to dreams. A recent Harvard study has shown new learnings are more easily recalled if those learnings were incorporated into a dream, making our dreams a way that the mind seeks to embed important information.

Combining these two pieces, dream expert and psychologist Dr. Sue Llewellyn notes that our ability to spot patterns increases after dreaming. Dreams can feel extremely bizarre and random, but when we begin to notice how the bizarreness of our dreams is strung together with similar emotions, characters, or themes, it can help our ability to notice hard-to-spot patterns in our waking lives. Some even see this as the subconscious mind attempting to relay messages or warnings about what to give more attention to in the waking state (No – we’re not in The Twilight Zone!)

How can I record my dreams?

Psychologist Dr. Jason Holland recommends recording information about your dreams with a dream diary or journal if you’re curious about really getting to the heart of what your dreams mean, and what they may be trying to tell you.

Not only can recording your dreams provide you with insight on your daily highs and lows – it can also show you general patterns in what’s been affecting you.

Recording your dreams can be very simple. It essentially consists of writing down the main points, characters, and emotions of your dreams. When considering the meaning of these different aspects, focus on the significance they hold to you based on your own lived experiences, rather than meanings you might read on various dream dictionaries online.

You can record your dreams in:

  • A journal or notepad
  • The notes app on your phone
  • A voice memos app (Apple phones have this built in; it’s a great substitute if you don’t like writing)
  • A number of iPhone and Android apps: Dream Journal & Lucid Tool and Dreams are two great, free options (note: both include optional in-app purchases)

I started journaling my dreams upon waking and was surprised to learn of the things I dreamt about: giant white snake trying to eat a goldfish, someone looking for their cut-off toe, getting on a plane made of paper, etc. I haven’t figured out what all this means yet but it sure makes great conversation!

Start recording your dreams and see what insights it brings you! When you string together the seemingly nonsensical, you just might find the key to the questions keeping you stuck and the patterns you’re ready to break out of.

Is It Tan O’Clock Yet?

How to avoid Vitamin D deficiency and skin cancer

When I was growing up in New York, I craved the hot weather and longed for tanning time in the sun. John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John’s song of Grease’s “Summer Nights” was my prelude for the season. Well, that was until I moved to the South and realized what summer was really like – LOL!

With summer naturally comes a lot of bright, sunny days and rays. Each year, we’re reminded to stock up on sunscreen, and many of us might opt for the higher SPFs to protect ourselves and family from harmful rays.

Protection from harmful sun exposure isn’t as simple as a higher number on the bottle, however. Even more so, we need some sun exposure to ensure we’re getting all the vitamins and nutrients we need to stay healthy and well. Today, we’re getting into the nitty-gritty of sun exposure do’s and don’ts, with practical tips for how you can stay safe in the sun this summer.

What are the benefits of sun exposure?

Spending adequate time in the sun each day is key to getting enough vitamin D. One of vitamin D’s core functions is assisting with cell division and proliferation, allowing our skin to stay healthy and repair itself when damaged or aging. A vitamin D deficiency has been connected to lower endurance, muscle weakness, and stress fractures, which can be expected from the decreased ability for cells to repair and reproduce.

There are more negative effects of little time in the sun, however; low levels of vitamin D have also been connected to increased depression in women, chronic pain, mood issues, fatigue, decreased immune function, and more. Getting sun exposure each day is important to unlocking your overall wellness; the trick is finding the balance of just enough sun exposure to get what you need in vitamin D.

It is generally recommended that folks with darker skin need more time in the sun – anywhere ranging from 30-45 minutes a day – as their skin is more protective against the sun’s rays. This is great for avoiding melanoma and skin cancers, but requires more time in the sun to get adequate vitamin D. If you are very pale or light skinned, less time in the sun is recommended per day (about 15-20 minutes), as lighter complexions are more susceptible to sunburn and skin cancers but require less time to absorb vitamin D.

How can the sun be harmful?

As we’ve been commonly taught, there are a number of risks with excessive sun exposure, namely painful sunburns and various forms of skin cancer. The National Cancer Institute has reported that the rates of skin cancer have nearly tripled since the 1970s, and the CDC reports about 8,000 people will pass away from some form of melanoma each year. Though skin cancer’s exact causes are hazy, it is clear that sun exposure contributes to its development.

There are two main rays from the sun that contribute to sunburns and skin cancer: UVA and UVB rays. UVB rays move into the more superficial layers of skin, and these are also the rays that provide vitamin D to our bodies. UVB rays are actually the main cause of sunburn, and consequently, most sunscreens are designed to protect mostly against these rays.

UVA rays, on the other hand, go into deeper layers of the skin. Research suggests that UVA rays are predominantly responsible for skin cancer, even though they don’t give you the uncomfortable sunburned splotches like UVB rays do. We run into trouble here because most sunscreens, especially in the United States, are not formulated to protect against UVA rays nearly as much as UVB rays.

When we don’t adequately protect ourselves from UVA rays, we put ourselves at risk of taking in too much of the harmful stuff from the sun, and potentially develop skin cancer down the line. Below, we’ve listed four tips to help you strike the tricky balance of avoiding vitamin D deficiency and skin cancer.

How can I enjoy the sun and protect myself?

Avoid high SPF sunscreens & sprays

SPF stands for sun protection factor, and if you’re shopping at Walmart on your way to the beach, chances are you’ll be inclined to buy a higher SPF sunscreen to feel more protected.

The number on your bottle of sunblock is not as reliable as it seems, however. A recent report from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) has found that, on average, most sunscreens provide around half (42 – 59%) of the UVB ray protection that their SPF suggests. In other words, they’re only about half as effective as they market themselves to be.

Even worse, the UVA ray protection was typically only 25% of the SPF on the bottle. As a recap, to prevent skin cancer, UVA protection is especially important, as those rays go deeper into the skin and have the potential to cause cancer over time.

With the lack of effective sunscreens, it’s important to avoid the ones which tout themselves as most effective, which is typically high SPF sunscreens. As the EWG outlines in their recent report on sunscreen, high SPF products, specifically 50+, give users a “false sense of security” for a variety of reasons. With higher SPF, there’s typically a lower level of UVA protection, a minimal reported increase in protection from sunburn (as little as 1% increase from SPF 50 to SPF 100), and overall increased health risks, as higher SPF sunscreens typically have much higher concentrations of chemicals. Sunscreens with SPF between 30-50 provide the protection you need.

In addition, the EWG recommends avoiding any spray sunscreens. They’re incredibly convenient, I know – I’m sad to let them go myself! But these aerosol sprays often include benzene, which is a recognized carcinogen by the FDA, CDC, and International Agency for Research on Cancer. Take your time and spread the screen rather than spray it!

Use different forms of sun protection

Another simple tip is to use a variety of forms of sun protection. If you’ve already been out for a few hours, go ahead and take some time in the shade. Opt to wear hats, beach cover-ups, or get shady under a beach umbrella. Getting out of the sun after substantial time in it is generally more effective than sunscreen, and exposes you to less side effects and chemicals!

Use EWG researched and recommended products

Before we dive into some product recommendations, if you want the full story on SPF, sunscreen, and skin cancer, check out the EWG’s 2022 Guide to Sunscreen, linked here.

We’ve gone through and picked out a few of their research-based recommendations, and have shared their link on Amazon (though they should be available through a wide variety of retailers). Opt for one of these more effective and less chemically concentrated products this summer!

Sport Sunscreen:

365 Everyday Value Sport Mineral Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
EWG Rating: 1/10 (1 Best, 10 Worst)

Buy on Amazon Here

Baby / Kids Sunscreen:

Pipette Mineral Sunscreen, SPF 50
EWG Rating: 1/10 (1 Best, 10 Worst)

Buy on Amazon Here

Babyganics Sunscreen Stick, SPF 50+
EWG Rating: 2/10 (1 Best, 10 Worst)

Buy on Amazon Here

Non-Mineral Sport Sunscreen:

Alba Botanica Hawaiian Sunscreen Lotion, Aloe Vera, SPF 30
EWG Rating: 2/10 (1 Best, 10 Worst)

Buy on Amazon Here

Facial Moisturizers with SPF:

Cocokind Daily Facial Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 32
EWG Rating: 2/10 (1 Best, 10 Worst)

Buy on Amazon Here