I’m a very tense backseat driver. When road conditions are dangerous, my clutched hands, feet moving toward an imaginery brake pedal, and spontaneous outcries can put any conscientious driver into a state of panic. So last winter I tried something new. When the traction and visibility were severely limited, I hummed Christmas carols softly to myself – for about 90 miles! My partner, who tends to be very attuned to my moods, commented that my serenity helped dissipate his nervousness and aided his focus .
Stress is a silent killer. It elevates cortisol levels, which, when chronic, raise blood pressure, disrupt digestion, abet sugar issues, exacerbate inflammation, and skew hormone balance. But humming can change all that!
Your vagus nerve runs right past your vocal chords; humming helps tone that nerve! From this previous post, you know that when the vagus nerve is strong and resilient, so are you! You are less likely to stay in “fight-or-flight” when you are triggered, and everything from your inner organs to your external relationships benefits! You are able to maintain that more relaxed parasympathetic state, and even your blood sugar levels become more stable.
It doesn’t work to just think a song in your head, though. There has to be actual vibration to bring about the benefits. But apparently, it doesn’t matter whether you hum a melody or just create a monotone sound. The longer the voice is engaged, the greater the results. At least one study shows that humming for even five minutes can reduce diastolic blood pressure significantly.
Other benefits to the parasympathetic nervous system include:
- slowed breathing
- relaxed muscles of the head, shoulders, and neck
- greater focus, mental clarity
- subdued anxiety, enhanced cheer
- deeper sleep
- increased blood oxygenation
- softened abdominal tension
Here’s a fun exercise to try the next time you find yourself getting angry, frustrated, or overwhelmed: unleash your inner pirate! Start with a deep growling “aaarrrrgh!” Prolong the vowel, keeping your mouth open and sound resonating. Then slowly raise the pitch and tone of the cry into one more melodic. Try imitating an opera star or singing “hallelujah!” Notice your mood change as you continue to add vocal fluctuations.
Humming not only can be healthy, it can be fun, too!
Perhaps you haven’t thought about soup much more than to enjoy its steamy fragrance as you thaw yourself out from a snowy day, but it’s likely that soup existed in the earliest societies. Once cultures learned that they could create a clay vessel or watertight basket to hold their food instead of just waving it over the fire, they would have added water to their ingredients so that the contents would cook nicely. Traditional societies that hunted and gathered would have simmered bones in the liquid in order to salvage the last scraps of meat. Hence, our word for soup today actually comes from the Latin suppa, meaning bread soaked in broth. It was customary to “sop” or moisten bread in the watery mixture to utilize every drop.
Soup has been prescribed for invalids since ancient times, but it was the French who capitalized on that idea. In the 16th century, shops in France that sold a highly concentrated, inexpensive soup, advertised as an antidote to physical exhaustion, were called “restoratifs,” or as we say today, restaurants. Indeed, science is proving now that broth-based dishes full of cooked vegetables are not only easy to digest, they are healing to the gut.
But soup isn’t just physically restorative. It has a sort of emotional appeal as well, being comfort food when the weather outside is frightful. It also is an excellent way to stabilize blood sugars. So celebrate soup month by whirring up this easy recipe to enjoy by the mugful!
Spiced Cream of Butternut Soup
1 small onion, chopped
1 Tb. coconut oil
2 c. cooked pumpkin or butternut squash*
1 c. bone broth
1 c. canned coconut milk
1/2 tsp each cinnamon, coriander, and allspice
1 lb. cooked sausage, ground beef, or chicken breast, if desired.
salt and pepper to taste
Saute onion in coconut oil until translucent. Combine onion, squash, broth, coconut milk and spices in a blender and process until smooth. Adjust seasonings. Add cooked meat. Heat to marry flavors.
*To roast a whole pumpkin or butternut squash, cut in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds. Place cut side down on a baking pan and bake at 350 degrees for 40-50 minutes, until soft when pierced with a fork. Cool completely, then scoop flesh out of the rind.
Do you crave breads, pastas, and sweets, – especially when you are under pressure? Too many refined carbs, along with too much stress, may be instigating heart disease for you – not the fat you are eating.
In paradigm-shattering research, Thomas Cowan argues in his newly-released Human Heart, Cosmic Heart, that fats are vital to heart function. Being an endurance muscle more than a sprinter, your heart relies on long-burning fats for fuel as opposed to flash-energy sugars.
Cowan reveals that not all heart attacks are accompanied by ruptured plaques, which have been incorrectly correlated with high-fat diets. But all heart attacks ARE preceded by a reduction of parasympathetic activity. You recognize the parasympathetic response as the rest-and-digest arm of the autonomic nervous system. The other half of the autonomic nervous system, of course, is the sympathetic response, which under a perceived threat, puts the body into flight-or-flight. It is characterized by dry mouth, dilated pupils, rapid pulse, shallow breathing, and inhibited colon function.
According to Cowan, chronic stress, followed by an acute traumatic event or physical exertion, causes heart attacks because of increased adrenaline production.
You may recall that adrenaline spurs glycolysis – the converting of stored sugars into ready fuel for an immediate dash to safety. Under chronic stress, adrenaline is continuously being released. When an acute trigger erupts, even the heart is forced into glycolysis.
“This redirects the metabolism of the heart away from its preferred and most efficient fuel sources, ketones and fatty acids,“ Cowan notes.
What happens next is a cascade of misfortune. Lactic acid builds up in the heart, just the same as it would in your calf muscles if you were fleeing a charging bull. This state of acidosis prevents calcium from entering the individual cells. Since calcium is needed for muscle contraction, your heart is unable to beat as forcefully. Edema – fluid retention – sets in. The combination of edema and acidosis deprives the cell of its nutrients and the tissue begins to die. You experience a heart attack. Thus, stress is to blame.
This is not to say that you can ignore plaque build-up in your arteries. Here is where a high-carb diet is implicated. Too many carbohydrates force your body into producing excess insulin to lower blood sugars away from diabetic levels. In another tragic cascade, high insulin causes insulin resistance. That, in turn, precipitates high blood sugar levels. These out-of-control blood sugars instigate fluid retention, high blood pressure, and inflammation. In response to inflammation degrading the blood vessel in critical places, your body responds with a “plaster cast” of plaque to shore up the vessel wall. Thus, plaque actually indicates too many sugars, rather than too much fat.
Cowan’s solution to heart disease is to de-stress and reduce inflammation. He recommends parasympathetic activities such as walking barefoot, getting out in nature, and nurturing positive relationships. His diet plan includes traditional fats, such as coconut oil, butter, and ghee rather than refined vegetable oils.
Life is coming at you fast and furious! You want to feel strong but you’re just too tired to start anything new. You know you should eat better – but there’s no time to cook. You try to stay hydrated; you didn’t even remember lunch, let alone a water bottle. Your conscience nags you about exercising. Sheesh, getting out of bed is a work-out!
But darling, you can find pleasure in toning your vagus nerve, and the very act of doing so will diminish some of your stress and begin to change you physically. With enough practice, you may find your stamina improves.
The vagus nerve is the master mind of the anti-stress network in the body. It stretches from the brain to the intestines, affecting the heart and lungs, the liver and kidneys, stomach and spleen. When it is toned, people have more balanced blood sugars, are less susceptible to depression, are more able to concentrate and remember, have more fulfilling relationships, and are less likely to be plagued by inflammation in the body.
The more toned your vagus nerve, the more quickly you can recover from a situation that puts you into “fight, flight, or freeze.” Although some of us are born with less tone than others, engaging in just one uncomplicated activity each day can strengthen that tone.
Here are a dozen of my favorites ways to do so:
- Humming or singing
- Deep breathing
- Washing my face in cold water
- Taking Probiotics
- Thinking positive thoughts
- Serving others
- Getting a massage
- Expressing gratitude
Dr. Arielle Schwartz, psychologist, explains that like Goldilocks, “we recognize we are ‘too hot’ when we feel keyed up, anxious, irritable, or panicky. We are too ‘too cold’ when we are shut down, depressed, or feeling hopeless. Sometimes we alternate between the two which is like driving with one foot on the gas and one on the brakes. Practices that regulate the vagus nerve are aimed towards either relaxing or re-energizing ourselves depending upon what is needed to feel ‘just right.’”
No matter how poorly you feel, you are never too out of balance to engage your vagus nerve.
- Sweet Brussels Sprouts: Cut off stem ends and slice into “coins.” Sautee in coconut oil with apple slices just until bright green and tender. Add a drizzle of maple syrup, a pat of butter, a dash of salt and a sprinkle of nutmeg. Optional: Top with dried cranberries.
- Roasted Roots: Cube a variety of root vegetables: parsnip, turnip, rutabaga, sweet potato/yam, beets, carrots. Toss with olive oil, sprinkle with thyme, marjoram, oregano, and rosemary. Bake at 450 degrees until tender, 20-30 minutes, stirring partway through. Just before serving, add a splash of balsamic vinegar and salt to taste.
- Orange Broccoli: Steam broccoli. Meanwhile, mix equal parts honey, butter, and orange juice concentrate. Pour over cooked broccoli. Salt lightly.
- Herbed Squash: In a baking dish, layer thin slices of peeled winter squash with onion and little dollops of butter. Sprinkle each layer with a mixture of salt, pepper, basil, oregano, thyme, sage, rosemary, marjoram and garlic. Top with bread crumbs and bake, covered, for 40 minutes at 350 degrees.
- Italian Zucchini: Stir-fry zucchini slices in olive oil with minced garlic, oregano and basil until bright green and tender. Toss in some sun-dried tomatoes and serve.
- Holiday Green Beans: While fresh green beans are simmering in water, caramelize some sliced onions by cooking them in butter over very low heat for 20-25 minutes, stirring occasionally. When beans are nearly soft, fry some bacon until crispy. Remove bacons strips, drain beans, then add beans to the bacon grease and fry on medium high heat until lightly browned. Combine beans, bacon, and onions to serve.
- Thai Greens: Sautee minced garlic, grated fresh ginger root, and lemon grass slices in coconut oil until fragrant. Add baby greens and cook just until wilted. Pour some coconut milk over them along with a dash of fish sauce.
- Fancy Cauliflower: Steam cauliflower florets until tender. While still hot, toss with butter, then sprinkle with parmesan cheese, paprika, salt and pepper to taste.
- Gingered Carrots: Grate a pound of carrots. Add 1” of grated fresh ginger, 2 Tb. Whey (the clear liquid from yogurt with active cultures) and ½ tsp. salt. Press in a quart mason jar until liquid oozes up over the carrot. Screw lid on tightly and set on the counter for 2-3 days. Then refrigerate and use on salads.
- Italian Eggplant: Prick eggplant with a fork and put in the oven at 350 for 30-40 minutes until soft. Cool and remove skin. Toss cumin seeds into heated coconut oil. As soon as seeds darken, add onion and sautee until onion becomes transparent. Stir in crushed tomatoes, minced garlic, grated fresh ginger, a bit of coriander powder and a pinch of turmeric powder. Simmer to marry flavors. Mash or cube eggplant and add to mixture. May be eaten with rice or naan.
- Do you feel either wired or tired after eating?
- Do you need to snack between meals to keep your energy up?
- Do you hit a wall during work-outs?
- Does your energy fluctuate dramatically during the day, often leaving you flat?
- Do you experience strong food cravings?
If you answered yes to any number of these, chances are your body is primarily using glucose rather than fatty acids for fuel.
A fat burner feels no rise or slump in energy after meals, can go long hours without food – even fasting with ease intermittently – and has sustained endurance during prolonged workouts. Further, a fat-burner has level energy from sun-up to sun-down and does not experience compelling food cravings.
Not only does being a sugar-burner make you feel miserable, it also damages your health. Here’s a brief physiology lesson. Every cell produces energy to carry on life. The process of converting fuel to energy is called the Krebs cycle. Acetyl coenzyme A is a necessary molecule for the Krebs cycle. The breakdown of glucose to form pyruvate is one way to make this molecule, but it can also be created if fatty acids go through a process called beta oxidation.
You don’t need to remember that. The important point is that the body’s preferred pathway is beta oxidation because it requires one less step and produces 33% more energy.
So if the body wants to burn fats, why are you burning sugars??? Because the fats aren’t accessible! Enter insulin. This is a masterfully-designed hormone that performs its labor well, which is to carry glucose to various parts of the body – the brain for immediate use, the liver for conversion to glycogen, the muscles for quick bursts of energy, and to adipose (fat) tissue for long-term storage.
When you eat a meal that is roughly 1/3 protein, 1/3 fat and 1/3 carbohydrate calorically, the sugars from the carbohydrates will enter the bloodstream at a nominal rate, and you will be able to utilize them as they are made available. But if you double the amount of carbohydrates, and halve the protein and fat content, sugars surge into the bloodstream.
Humans were never designed for such high loads of glucose, which wreak havoc if blood levels remain chronically high. There is a sudden emergency to lower blood sugar. The body can’t possibly use all that glucose at once for energy, so it releases a deluge of insulin to compensate. Insulin whisks the glucose into storage and prohibits fat stores from being mobilized. Your cells are left to burn only glucose.
One solution to the sugar burner metabolism is to adjust your ratios of carbs, fats and proteins. The next time your body sends a signal in the form of a craving that it needs energy, feed it something that will counter an insulin spike and initiate a fat burn.