How to Stay Healthy and Vibrant through the Winter (in western NY!)
Humans, like virtually all plants and animals, are governed by seasonal changes and biological rhythms. These patterns are clearly evident in medicine and something I have noticed over my years of practice in this part of the country. As we get deeper into winter, many notice changes in mood and overall wellness. The annual cycles of the sun and geography indeed can have a tremendous impact on well-being. While days start to get longer after the winter solstice, the winter doldrums can hang on for many more months. In fact, most people who suffer from winter doldrums and seasonal depression typically don’t see symptoms lift until May, after the official beginning of spring.
Most nutrition experts agree on a fundamental belief made famous by author Michael Pollan: “Eat food. Not too much. Mainly plants.” Pollan’s writings reflect that “food” refers to real, unprocessed food, and that what Americans buy in supermarkets and consume is, for the most part, far from real.
Physicians spend a lot of time detecting and attempting to “fix” patients’ health issues. Over time, I have retrained myself to focus on reframing health goals to include not only the absence of disease, but the importance of living optimally and vibrantly.
The next time you see your physician, consider discussing the impact that climate change and environmental hazards are having on your health. While the interactions of human health and the environment are complex, we are seeing dynamic and interacting forces that span from the level of personal to global. One of the world’s oldest and most respected medical journals, The Lancet, has referred to climate change as the “biggest global health threat of the 21st century.”
As we enter the autumn season, it’s a great time to start thinking about shifting our diets to reflect the bounty of nature’s harvest available in the fall. By focusing on seasonal eating, we can become more in tune with nature, with our body’s’ needs, and on doing what’s best for the environment.
Fall is upon us, and along with its glorious gifts comes a change in the weather and in the light. Here in Rochester, one of the country’s cloudiest cities, with so few hours of sunshine and shorter days, we strive to move mountains before sunset. But adhering to nature’s light switch may not be advantageous for everyone, as research shows that each individual has an internal chronotype that determines when we truly shine.
What is a chronotype?
In short, it is an individual difference characteristic reflecting the time of day at which we are at our best. We all have a master clock in our brain and many subsidiary clocks ticking throughout our bodies, and not everyone’s clocks run at the same pace. Our chronotype controls our clock, or circadian rhythm, which is a series of behavioral, mental and physical changes that follow a 24-hour cycle. So if you consider yourself an “early bird” or a “night owl,” believe it or not your body is programmed for this classification, based upon your chronotype. And once you know your chronotype, you can work with your body to achieve maximum productivity.
The assessment of individual chronotypes is important not only for the diagnosis and treatment of sleep disorders and for predicting the ability to adapt to specific schedules, but also for improving daytime performance and matching sleep schedules to our biology. Extreme evening individuals are at higher risk than morning people of not obtaining sufficient sleep and of performing poorly due to the difference between their circadian rhythm and the social demands of daily schedules. There is also research to show that people have more difficulties in maintaining sleep when their sleep is scheduled at adverse circadian phases.
The good news is, knowing our chronotypes can inspire us to take preventative measures such as using light therapy, or exposure to bright artificial light that mimics natural outdoor light. This therapy has long been recommended for Seasonal Affective Disorder, which results in changes in mood, sleep and even eating habits during the fall and winter months, as well as other health issues such as fatigue, memory-related disorders, low energy and more. By taking the chronotype assessment, we’ll know the optimal time to use light therapy according to our individual circadian rhythms and feel more energized throughout the day.
So, while we may not have a say when it comes to Mother Nature, business hours and school bells, knowledge of our chronotypes will definitely determine the ideal time of day to focus on important issues, complete daily tasks, exercise, achieve goals and, ultimately, live more fulfilling lives.
Each year, we hear about new trends in do-it-yourself health care. Some are worthwhile, while some are a waste of time and money, even dangerous. Lately I have noticed that patients are utilizing essential oils, so I thought I’d take a moment to set the record straight on these popular potions, which claim to cure everything from acne to anxiety.
The “essence” of the plants’ fragrance and characteristics.
Essential oils are highly concentrated oils which have been extracted from plants, and are deemed “essential” because they contain the “essence” of the plants’ fragrance and characteristics. Due to their concentrated nature, however, these oils should be used with care and respect, as misuse can potentially cause harm. Here are a few facts to keep in mind prior to dabbling in a potentially slippery slope.
Currently, there is no independent medically-accepted body that regulates or certifies oil quality, so buyers must beware. There are false claims regarding quality and touting the use of “therapeutic grade,” a meaningless term created and registered by one of the largest distributors of essential oils. For example, 43% of the commercial examples of tea tree oil do not have the appropriate chemical components, and some actually contain contaminants. It is important to purchase from a known distiller who harvests the oils at the correct time, using knowledge of peak growing conditions. Buying organic (but not raw) is important and substitutes are dangerous. A few recommendations to consult prior to purchasing are the National Organic Program (NOP), the USDA or EcoCERT. My rule of thumb: If the price is too good to be true, you are probably purchasing a lesser quality product.
2. Undiluted Oils.
While there are several causes of adverse reactions to essential oils, the most common can be easily avoided: Do not put drops of essential oils into a bath and step into it, as oils do not mix with water and will float on the top, creating a not-so-soothing experience. In addition, contact with water makes oils evaporate less quickly, increasing the body’s absorption of unwanted elements such as parabens. In an effort to avoid health hazards, I highly recommend researching safe ways to dilute essential oils prior to using them.
Unless recommended by a trained practitioner, essential oils should not be ingested. They may be harmful to the body’s microbiome, delicate mucosa of the mouth and gastrointestinal tract.
It is not advisable to directly and intensively inhale essential oils for longer than 15 to 20 minutes. The ideal concentration of essential oils should produce a faint scent rather than bombarding the room with bouquet. In addition, constant use of diffusers may harm your pets, as they have sensitive systems that cannot tolerate long periods of inhalation. Remember: Less is more.
Many of the claims and recommendations made regarding essential oils are false and provided by untrained practitioners. For example, patients have asked me recently about Frankincense Essential Oil due to misleading and confusing information on websites and in blogs. At the root of the problem is knowing the difference between Frankincense Essential Oil and Frankincense, which is a resin that contains a promising ingredient, Boswellic acid, that is actually not found at all in the essential oil form. The bottom line is, multi-level marketing companies are selling their products with exaggerated claims and deceptive marketing, so do your homework whenever possible to make sure you’re on the right track.
If you are interested in using essential oils or have already purchased them and are seeking further information, my advice is to use caution when buying, research advice from only trained practitioners and use the oils safely and in moderation. It may be a bit more time consuming, but in the long run it’s best to make sure that what you’re buying and how it’s used is indeed essential to your health.
Tisserand Institute http://tisserandinstitute.org/grasse-french-aromatherapy/