Healthy Byte: Science’s Formula to Happiness

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Happiness can be fleeting under the best of circumstances. Even people who are basically happy have periods when they’re not, and for those who are prone to depression, it’s always a struggle. The core issue with depression (or one of them) is that it hijacks your urge to want to fix things, which obviously creates a vicious cycle. One strategy that helps with the hijack is to create a little routine that you stick to, and which can become a habit itself, and into which you build other habits (see below for more on this method). And according to science and psychologists, there are other things to do to improve your happiness level, whether you’re depressed or just dealing with “stuff” right now. Here’s what the science tells us we can do to make ourselves a little happier in an ongoing way.

(Note: Meds can be life-changing or life-saving for some people who are depressed, and it’s important to point that out. This article is about other strategies, which you can do with or without meds, and whether you’re depressed or just want to be happier overall.)

Exercise  

Unless you’re one of those people who likes to exercise, you won’t want to hear this, but exercise is well known to help with depression and improve well-being. “Cardiovascular exercise has been shown time and time again to be a wonder drug with regard to overall well-being,” says Ben Michaelis, psychologist and author of the book Your Next Big Thing. It’s actually similar to the efficacy of antidepressants for some types of depression, and this seems to be at least in part due to its neurogenic effects–that is, its capacity to “grow” new neurons in area of the brain known to be affected by depression (and dementia): the hippocampus. In fact, a study last week found that exercise helps release a compound in muscles, cathepsin B, which appears to migrate to the brain’s hippocampus and spark the development of new brain cells. So the exercise effect is not necessarily just about the endorphins from the “runner’s high,” as was once thought, but it’s about other types of changes that occur not only in the chemistry of the brain, but maybe even at a structural level, too.

The things you put in your body

“Avoiding processed sugars has been shown to reduce the likelihood for depression, which is another way of saying it promotes happiness,” says Michaelis. Studies have shown that Western diets in general are associated with prevalence of depression. Others have shown that sugar itself may be linked to depression–and while the mechanisms aren’t totally clear, researchers speculate that the oxidative stress that excess sugar can create may take a toll on the brain. There’s another body of evidence that’s lain out the addictive potential for sugar, which itself can contribute to depression, or at least to unstable mood and cycling ups and downs. And a fast-growing body of evidence has found that our gut microbes seem to affect our mental health in significant ways, and the foods we eat can select for or reduce certain strains of bacteria. More work needs to be done here, but eating a plant-based diet, low in sugar and processed foods may well help promote our mental health.

Make a schedule 

“Having a structured schedule that you set and follow is proven to help depression,” says psychologist Shannon Kolakowski, author of the book When Depression Hurts Your Relationship.“It’s the basis of behavioral activation for depression, an evidence-based treatment for depression.” She adds that creating a routine kills two birds with one stone. The structure of a daily routine that you can stick to is in itself comforting, even therapeutic, when you’re down or depressed. But it also makes getting in all the single elements that we know help depression more likely. “By planning activities that you do even when you don’t feel like it,” says Kolakowski, “it ensures you will get the exercise and social interactions, for example, that are so well known to help with depression.”

Social interaction

This one is fascinating because the research keeps showing that social connection is perhaps the single best thing we can do for our mental health. And it seems to occur at the level of the brain. (It may also be the single best thing we can do for our physical health, so it’s really a win-win.) “We know that a sense of community significantly adds to our happiness and overall mental health,” says Michaelis. We’re social creatures by nature, no matter how much you want time to yourself–there’s a thin line between being self-sufficient and being lonely.

And the catch-22 is that when we’re unhappy or depressed we tend to want to isolate; so forcing yourself to stay connected, especially during tough times, can be hard. Luckily, the effects are generally pretty immediate–most people have experienced that even a 10-minute conversation with someone can make a huge difference when you’re feeling really down. Or it can at least bring out of our heads enough to put things in perspective; and it reminds us that human interaction is a really powerful thing, even in small doses.

Marriage, says Kolakowski, is an extension of this one–at least, a good marriage. “Research shows that having a strong marriage can no doubt help depression,” she says. “But having a relationship that is struggling, unhealthy or lacking in support can unfortunately make depression worse in a cyclical fashion. So it’s important that your social relationships be good ones.”

Getting it out

A lot of people are familiar with the ongoing conversation in their heads (or monologue), which can exist whether you’re depressed or not. But it’s particularly loud when you’re depressed, and it creates a vicious cycle of over-thinking, internalization, and unhappiness (in fact, rumination is one of the hallmarks of depression). But directing those thoughts outward, by either talking to someone you trust or by writing it out in a journal, is a lot more therapeutic than just cycling it around in your head. There’s something about the act of telling that directs and releases it in a fundamentally different way from thinking it.

Therapy, of course, partially falls into this category, with the added benefit of feedback from someone who’s trained in problem-solving. More on this below.

Cognitive behavior therapy

This form of therapy is considered the gold standard for a number of different issues–anxiety, addiction and depression, to name a few. In CBT, the general idea is that you first learn to identify various thought processes as they arise, and just note them. Then for the negative ones (which are often fear-based, and kind of ridiculous–“I can’t do anything right”) you learn to replace them with more positive, and perhaps more logical, ones. Over time and with practice, this process becomes less clunky, and more natural and reflexive. Essentially you’re laying down new tracks of connections in your brain, which can be a lengthy process. But it’s very possible over time. Though CTB has been shown to have significant effects on depression, there are certainly others that can be just as valuable.

Meditation

This is a fascinating practice that, in various iterations, has been around for thousands of years, and the science is just starting to show how it changes the brain over time. Meditation wasn’t exactly developed to improve mental health, but this does seem to be one of its benefits. Studies have shown that eight weeks of meditation training seems to help improve a number of aspects of mental health: One study a couple of years ago from Johns Hopkins found that meditation addressed symptoms of depression and anxiety on the level of antidepressants. Another, out of University of Oxford, found that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) is as effective as antidepressants at preventing relapse in people with depression. One of the ways in which meditation seems to work for depression is that it reduces activity in the default mode network (DMN), the group of areas that are active when our minds are wandering, and generally associated with negative or stressful thoughts.

A central component of meditation is mindfulness, which is the act of paying attention without judgment to what’s going on at the present time–this trait itself has been linked to mental health. This is because just noting your present experience, rather than editorializing it, helps release some of the charge of those negative thoughts and feelings. Then they lose a little of their power. (You can see the natural overlaps between mindfulness meditation and CBT, which is why MBCT was developed.)

Be easier on yourself

This one is very hard to do without feeling self-indulgent, but self-compassion is actually a really important element to being happier. And it actually affects your connection to yourself and other areas of your life.

“This is a big one that’s counterintuitive when you’re depressed,” says Kolakowski. “Depression makes you beat up on yourself and feel down about three main components, what’s called the Cognitive Triad of Depression: your self, your future and others. Self-compassion helps you approach your self and your future with compassion as opposed to self-criticism. It also helps you to have compassion for others, which in turn helps you feel more connected and hopeful.”

Self-compassion has been shown to be an even better predictor of the severity of one’s symptoms of anxiety and depression (or lack thereof) than being mindful, which is a fairly good predictor in itself. And having compassion for yourself is actually an offshoot of mindfulness: If acceptance without judgment is a cornerstone of mindfulness, then not judging and being compassionate about you’re going through, and about yourself in general, is a stone’s throw away. In depression, or even in general down-ness or disillusionment, people tend to, at best, abandon themselves, and at worst, criticize themselves extensively and harshly. Here’s a nice rundown, if you need some ideas for how to be more compassionate with yourself.

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None of these is a cure for depression in itself or a key to well-being. But trying to remember and enlist some of them during difficult times may make a difference. And as always, these are practices–they take time. Doing a little each day, and being easy on yourself as you do, can make a big difference in our happiness over the long term.

Originally Posted HERE

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Healthy Byte: Challenging Beauty Definitions

Photo: Straight/Curve

As a model, I’ve been subjected to 12 years of body scrutiny from the fashion industry. It has taken me the last few years to recover from feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem, and now I’m in a place where I am confident in my body. It’s led me to become the managing editor of RunwayRiot, a new fashion-focused website dedicated to serving and amplifying the (often underrepresented and overlooked) voices of curvier women. It’s also why I’m so happy to be included in the upcoming documentary Straight/Curve, produced by Jessica Lewis, who has herself worked as a model.

The documentary is unique in that it highlights a diversity of voices that, until now, have been absent from the fashion industry. These include models who are challenging society’s perception of beauty, along with designers, stylists, agents, and political figures.

I was able to speak with Jessica, who has worked as a model for 15 years in both plus- and straight-size markets, aboutStraight/Curve (out this fall) and her hope for the documentary. Read our conversation below.

ISKRA LAWRENCE: What motivated you to create this film?

JESSICA LEWIS: Continually seeing women set the bar for the “best version of themselves” at one body type. There is so much beauty in our differences! If only we could embrace that and nurture it through the media, instead of continuing to manifest insecurities by showcasing only one type of beauty. It’s my hope that we can showcase the need and want for a more diverse ideal of beauty all around.

How has your personal journey influenced the film?

I had been a straight-size model for so many years and was influenced by the global stigmas surrounding women and size. So I was admittedly apprehensive when my agent suggested I try plus-size modeling after I’d gained some weight while taking time away from the industry. I was concerned not so much about the glamour aspect — because to me, these women are undoubtedly beautiful — but [I was concerned about] the health aspect and what promoting this curvier body type was saying to society. I honestly wasn’t even sure at the time that my own body was in peak health. Upon getting to know the plus-size models of the industry and seeing how full of life and energy they were — how they had clear skin and full hair and, above all that, just oozed confidence — I really began to second-guess the current size-beauty equation.

I also happened to be in the midst of going to school to earn a degree in nutrition. From everything I was learning, I found it hard to support the argument that it’s irresponsible from a health perspective to use these women to market beauty to society. These women are healthy, confident, and beautiful — all things I believe every woman strives to be. So why aren’t we using them as the defining image of beauty for the next generation?

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Straight/Curve producer Jessica Lewis. (Photo courtesy of Jessica Lewis)

 

From your 15 years in the modeling/fashion industry, what changes have you seen in the discussion of body image?

This is going to sound awful, seeing as I’ve worked in so many areas of fashion throughout so many markets globally … but not much! I really feel like over the last five years or so, the media has picked up on the diversity-in-fashion debate exponentially and given it the steam it needs to progress to the next level. In turn, stakeholders in the industry are feeling encouraged to be proactive about making change. I think many people in the industry are ready to see diversity normalized, where designers aren’t using a token plus-size woman or ethnicity in their campaigns or shows just to say they did. Once there isn’t discussion surrounding diversity anymore — and it’s just there in all its beauty — we’ll know we’ve made it.

You are interviewing a variety of people for the documentary. What new viewpoints should we expect to glean?

We’re going to be speaking to many members of the straight-size fashion community about their view on diversity — which may not be what everyone thinks it is. We are also working with a number of organizations to do social-science studies on how media/fashion-industry images impact society on a grander scale. We’re speaking with a number of health care professionals about diversity in health and how this speaks so wonderfully to the health/size debate. Ultimately, the imagery we feature in the documentary poses grander questions around mental and physical health.

Do you believe social media has affected the conversations around body image?

Absolutely. Social media has enabled the imagery I was talking about [showing diversity in size in the fashion industry] to spread unbridled. It’s allowed people to look at these images and empowered them to come to their own conclusions of what beauty is.

Have you learned anything about yourself from filming the documentary?

Oh, yes. The most profound thing I’ve learned is that to truly feel content and confident in your beauty, you need to come to that place as you are right now. You have cellulite or stretch marks? Great, embrace them. Only then will you have the respect for yourself, and your body, to become the happiest, fittest, most beautiful, and essentially the best version of yourself. We need to stop putting the cart before the horse.

Ironically, I feel like I’m back at ground zero, constantly relearning beauty beyond the physical through the women and men we are speaking to. I thought after having been straight-size and then plus-size, I could say, “OK, I’ve had my body go through a journey, I feel like I understand all this size/beauty talk.” But really, continuing to explore the topic from so many aspects has opened the doors to many other questions for me. Is it OK for a company to market exclusively to one size category? Should we be regulating the health of talent the way athletes have their health regulated? How are children interpreting this imagery, and how can we use it to influence a generation of physically, emotionally, and mentally confident individuals?

How do you hope people will feel after watching Straight/Curve?

In a couple of words, enlightened and inspired. Truthfully, though, I just want to introduce people to a new beauty ideal supported by informed opinion. I’m happy to have them take from it what they will … any opinion is fine, as it only progresses the conversation that will hopefully lead to diversity being the norm.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Originally Posted HERE

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Healthy Byte: TV Shows Fanning the Flames or Helping?

Personal Note: A lot of overeating or poor eating choices revolves around one’s psyche and ta person’s own emotional  relationship with food. Just because these trainers purposely gain weight it doesn’t necessarily change their personal state of mind in regards to food. For example, if their innate mindset is that food is nothing but fuel for their body then it is quite different from someone who has an emotional attachment to say ice cream when they are upset about something. So although this may allow trainers to be more compassionate towards clients but I wouldn’t say that their journey is anywhere equivalent to someone who is actually obese, overweight, or have grown up with grandma giving them a fresh bake cookie when they’ve had a bad day. Just something to keep in the back of the mind anyways.

Adonis Hill, a trainer on the upcoming show “Fit to Fat to Fit,” went from weighing 217 pounds to 286 pounds by consuming 8,000 calories a day, according to The New York Post. (Photo: A&E)

In the new A&E show Fit to Fat to Fit (premiered Jan. 19), trainers don’t just preach the powers of diet and exercise, they live it with their clients — by throwing their healthy lifestyles out the window, upping their body weight by 40 percent, and then working side-by-side with overweight people to shed pounds together.

But is gaining excessive weight over the course of four months only to lose it again (in four months) healthy? Experts warn against it: “It’s certainly not healthy to put weight on at all, but it’s also not healthy to put weight on really fast,” Charlie Seltzer, MD, a weight-loss expert and Yahoo Health Advisory Board member, tells Yahoo Health.

He also says, though, to take the show with a grain of salt: After all, this kind of setup is for entertainment value — and it’s hard to apply the situation to real life. (Beyond being an actor and needing to drop pounds for a role, when would you purposely gain weight just to lose it in a confined time period?)

That said, the health issues that come from the process are real. For one, according to news reports, the trainers didn’t appear to focus on “quality calories” — which is unhealthy, Rebecca Blake, RD, CDN, the senior director of Clinical Nutrition at Mount Sinai Beth Israel in New York, tells Yahoo Health. The New York Post reports that Katie Mack, a 29-year-old trainer on the show, ate “high-calorie snacks such as bread with butter; bacon, egg and cheese on a bagel; Ho Hos; and oatmeal creme cookies. She drank lots of high-calorie beer, light-and-sweet coffee and even melted ice cream.”

When you eat this way, you gain fat, not muscle mass, says Blake. This can put you at risk for obesity, which ups your likelihood of suffering from a health condition like hypertension or diabetes.

Katie Mack, a trainer on the upcoming show “Fit to Fat to Fit,” went from weighing 123 pounds to 157 pounds by consuming 4,000 to 5,000 calories a day, according to The New York Post. (Photo: A&E)

Seltzer adds that a bigger waist circumference — which comes hand-in-hand with weight gain — is linked to cardiovascular disease, a decrease in insulin sensitivity (associated with diabetes), more triglycerides in your blood (a type of fat that can increase your risk of heart disease), and an increase in the “bad” LDL cholesterol. The worst part: “These issues don’t necessarily easily reverse themselves when you get back to normal weight,” says Blake.

The other problem? If you’ve been eating clean, you can face a ton of ugly side effects like GI upset and water retention once you start eating unhealthy, says Blake. “You feel like what you’re feeding yourself — not great.”

Check out the trainers’ own reports: Of the diet, Mack told The New York Post: “It was perpetually uncomfortable,” and “I felt like I had some version of a terminal or chronic illness.” Adonis Hill, another trainer on the show who went from weighing 217 pounds to 286 pounds, told The Post: “When I was overweight, there were a lot of things I was fighting, like depression.”

Beyond the physical side effects, though, if you gain weight in such a manner, you start to train your body to want more food, says Blake. Part of that comes down to the way your stomach stretches; part of it is your body learning new (unhealthy) ways of operating. And these habits, she says, take time to nix, too.

Of course, when it comes to shedding the weight, for the most part, losing weight is good for your body, says Seltzer. But he adds: “I would encourage people to have fun watching the show — not to think they would be able to lose weight that quickly.”

 While Blake notes that if you’ve been in excellent shape your whole life (like the trainers), you’re much more likely to be able to bounce back to a healthy weight fairly quickly, actually doing so is not always so easy.

Seltzer says that without an extensive fitness and physiology background, it’d be hard for the average person to see similar weight-loss results. “It’s so hard to do it right anyway,” he says. If you’re trying to drop pounds within a certain amount of time — like on the show — it’s even harder, he says, as specific factors like meal timing become especially important.

There are also dangers to trying to do so. Physically, when you lose weight quickly, you lose more muscle mass and miss out on crucial nutrients because of the giant calorie deficit, says Seltzer.

Your body can also go into starvation mode, says Blake. In this kind of state, your metabolism can be compromised. “Your body starts to ‘hang on’ to calories,” she says. If this happens, it could mean that to maintain a 150-pound weight that you once had, you might need to eat less than you once did.

In fact, trying to move the scale quickly is usually never a good idea. Seltzer says that the faster you lose weight, the more likely you are to gain it back. In part that’s because — in the real world — when people drop pounds too fast, they tend to ignore the underlying issues that made them overweight to begin with.

And for those of us who aren’t in front of the camera, addressing those issues in due time with the appropriate support is the best and healthiest way to attack weight loss.

Originally Posted HERE

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Wednesday Wisdom

I felt my lungs inflate with the onrush of scenery—

air, mountains, trees, people. I thought,

“This is what it is to be happy.”

Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

Wednesday Wisdom

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“This is my wish for you: peace of mind, prosperity through the year, happiness that multiplies, health for you and yours, fun around every corner, energy to chase your dreams, joy to fill your holidays!”

~ D.M. Dellinger