Health & Wellness

Using Essential Oils

March 24, 2015

Bokeh Bark

A lot of people I know use essential oils now. They claim these oils help with various kinds of conditions: insomnia, viruses, infection, high blood pressure, etc. Many parents are using them for their children’s ailments, too.

For the uninitiated, an essential oil is a concentrated liquid containing compounds from plants.  “Essential,” here doesn’t mean “necessary,” but that the oil contains the “essence” of the plant’s fragrance and properties. Essential oils are used in all kinds of products and have been used throughout history for medicinal reasons.

Claims for how effective they are for treating illnesses are regulated in most countries, but a medical doctor I spoke with recently said that while she’s still skeptical about the general public using essential oils, she’s impressed by mounting scientific evidence showing the ability of some of them to fight bacterial and antibiotic-resistant infections.

I had a brief venture into the land of essential oils myself: When I was constantly battling sinus infections the first few months my daughters were home, and they were dealing with sinus colds and congestion, I used some essential oils in a diffuser on the advice of a naturopath — with much success. Later on, though, when I got a little experimental (and careless) with another oil I picked up, my husband ended up with heart palpitations and couldn’t sleep all night. Oops.

I don’t think there’s any question that essential oils work, at least for some things; it’s just that you need to know what you’re doing, and use a high quality product.

Have you ever used essential oils for medicinal reasons, home made cleaning products, or anything else? I’d love to hear about your experience, as well as what companies you think are putting out the best products.

Image from picography


Window by Sarah Babineau

I watched this short video on Slate about the importance of turning our screens off at least one hour before bed, and I sighed. I find it so hard to do. Since S and H still won’t fall asleep without me or B, we take turns and many nights I just can’t get to the rest of my work until at least 10 p.m. Then there’s my current habit of winding down… checking Instagram and my favorite blogs, watching a program with B, etc.

I’ve always been a night owl and I work well at night, but working  before bed on screens is apparently a bad idea because it’s actually toxic for our brains. What to do?

We use a blue screen when watching shows movies at night, and it seems to help, though I’m not sure if it’s actually still doing some bad things to our grey matter or not. In a perfect world, I’d finish all my work by 9 or 10 p.m., but with my kids’ schedules right now, I’m not sure how to make that happen. There just aren’t enough hours in the day.

Do you turn all your screens off well in advance of bedtime? Does it concern you that it’s toxic for your brain to check your phone before you doze off?

Image: Window by Sarah Babineau found at Life of Pix



Sunday was International Women’s Day so I thought it was appropriate to talk about this recent article from the New York Times. Psychiatrist, Julie Holland, writes about the high number of women on mood-altering meds these days, and how the phenomenon undermines an important part of what it means to be a woman:

At least one in four women in America now takes a psychiatric medication, compared with one in seven men. Women are nearly twice as likely to receive a diagnosis of depression or anxiety disorder than men are. For many women, these drugs greatly improve their lives. But for others they aren’t necessary. The increase in prescriptions for psychiatric medications, often by doctors in other specialties, is creating a new normal, encouraging more women to seek chemical assistance. Whether a woman needs these drugs should be a medical decision, not a response to peer pressure and consumerism.

The new, medicated normal is at odds with women’s dynamic biology; brain and body chemicals are meant to be in flux. To simplify things, think of serotonin as the “it’s all good” brain chemical. Too high and you don’t care much about anything; too low and everything seems like a problem to be fixed.

Holland says that if serotonin levels are kept artificially high, women are at risk of “losing their emotional sensitivity with its natural fluctuations, and modeling a more masculine, static hormonal balance. ” She says this “emotional blunting encourages women to take on behaviors that are typically approved by men: appearing to be invulnerable, for instance, a stance that might help women move up in male-dominated businesses.”

Holland recalls a patient who called saying her antidepressant dose needed to be increased because she kept crying at work. Turns out she was upset by something demeaning that her boss had done. After talking it out, the patient realized the situation called for a response, but not more medication.

I’m guessing this is probably true for a lot of women out there. Life is moving quickly, there are so many demands; who has time to deal with strong mood fluctuations that are perceived by self and others as “difficult” or “negative?” It’s easy to believe that feeling strong emotions is bad.

But what does it say more fundamentally that women are more readily put on medication, and that our emotional fluctuations — which stem from the natural processes related to our biology — are judged as negative, unhelpful, and needing to be “fixed?”

I think Holland is right: there’s a tendency today to dismiss biology outright, as though it’s insignificant and unimportant. But we are mind-body-spirit composites. Women aren’t men and men and aren’t women, and this a good thing. When we judge biological differences, women always get the short end of the stick.

Before you wonder if I’m claiming that women shouldn’t ever take meds for things like anxiety or depression, I’m not saying that at all. Holland readily acknowledges this, too. Her point is that too many women are being medicated too often for something that is natural and good. More generally, I think her piece raises the question of whether our society allows — and supports — women to be who they really are.

Any thoughts of your own about this article?

Image: gratisography 


Ode to the Coconut

February 10, 2015

Coconut Tree
I grew up far from the tropics, so mangoes, papayas, and similar fruits hanging on trees in the South Pacific were rare treats. When my father spotted a coconut in a grocery store, he’d bring it home, hammer a hole in it, drain out the juice, and chop the flesh up for us to eat. I loved the flavor then, but I had no idea that I’d eventually come to idolize this bulbous fruit.

The coconut has gotten a lot of exposure in recent years, thanks to health and food bloggers. Recently, it hit the big time with Starbucks’ announcement that it would begin offering coconut milk with its beverages. But most people still don’t know all you can do with this marvelous fruit:

You can eat it. There’s the shredded coconut many of us grew up with, and the raw flesh, of course, but I use coconut oil a lot in place of butter, and by itself as a supplement. I make coconut cream as a replacement for whipped cream, and my new favorite variation is coconut butter — I’ve taken to eating a tablespoon of it here and there when I’m craving something sweet. But it’s also used in sauces, desserts, and a host of other things. Which leads me to…

You can cook and bake with it. I use coconut oil to sauté vegetables and cook popcorn; in baking, I use it in place of other oils and coconut milk as a substitute for dairy. For cakes, muffins, and pancakes I use coconut flour. Do you remember the chia seed coconut milk pudding I made for breakfast a while back? Yum.

Raw Coconut
You can drink it. Smoothies, anybody? I use coconut milk in our smoothies, cereal, and oatmeal all the time. I also use coconut water in smoothies, too — especially in the summer. Drinking coconut water by itself is still growing on me, and some brands are tastier than others, but it’s one of the best ways to hydrate because it’s so high in electrolytes and potassium and low in sugar.

You can use it as a body product. I’m back to oil pulling because it makes my mouth feel cleaner and my teeth feel better, plus I hear it may help guard against viruses and bacterial infections. I’m also going to start oil cleansing soon. (I’ll write a separate post on this soon to fill you in.) I use coconut oil on my daughters’ hair and skin a lot — sometimes blended with other ingredients, like shea butter, and sometimes just by itself. It’s my go-to skincare product. I’ve also used it to remove makeup, heal children’s bum rashes, and soften callouses.

Is there anything this fruit can’t do? I bet we can run cars on it, heat our homes with it, and water money trees with it; we just don’t know it yet!

Are you a fan of coconut? What are your favorite ways to use it?

Images from free images


Inspiration for the Aging

January 21, 2015


I don’t know if you’ve seen this article from bored panda about 60+ year-old people who are living their dreams and achieving amazing goals, but it’s worth a look. The photos and descriptions are inspiring. I feel like so much of what we hear about being older is negative and one of the reasons we want to prevent and deny it is not just that we don’t want to face death, but also because we assume there’s nothing much to look forward to, at least in terms of what we value right now.

Of course, it makes sense that we care about different things at different stages of our lives, and I certainly hope I’m not the same in my 70s as I am now. But what if some of what we assume about our senior years isn’t necessarily the case? For example, what if you were able to achieve one of your life-long dreams at 65? Or, what if you could be in the best shape of your life at 70? Could you be living your best life at 89? It may sound unlikely, but the people in the article above make it seem quite possible.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not counting on retirement — nor do I expect social security to be around by the time I get there. If I make it into my “senior” years, I expect I’ll still be working, learning new things, and staying as healthy as possible so everything else can happen. I don’t know that I’m ever going to want to jump out of a plane or sail around the world, but I can think of lots of things I’d like to do, first and foremost with my daughters.

Are you inspired by these photos and do you have any dreams for your 65 and over years?

Image from freeimages



Snowy owl by Carrie Ann Grippo-Pike Yesterday, I mentioned some big changes that will affect our new year, but those aren’t exactly “resolutions.” In fact, I didn’t actually make any resolutions at all this time — which goes to show you just how little room there is in my brain these days, since I always set some goals for the new year. I’m still planning to do it sometime this month, but while I’m going to make a short list of to-do’s, I’m planning to focus more on some qualities or dispositions I want to work on (or attain more of) this year.

For example, I’d like to be more cheerful in 2015. I’m not a dreary or negative person, but I find that busyness and tiredness quickly leads to grumpiness, which can lead to more complaining and a lack of gratitude. Cheerfulness is not just faking a happy face, but letting inner joy and peace radiate outward. I’d like to give myself and my loved ones a little more of that.

While 2014 was a tiring one for me, I know a number of people whose years were much more difficult: They lost loved ones or experienced particularly hard trials.  How do you approach a new year coming out of something like that?

This article, “Beyond Carb-Cutting: Resolution After a Trauma: Eat, Play, Love,” speaks well to the question. A new widow shares how, in the past, her resolutions centered on things like losing weight, but now — trying to move on after the death of her husband — they’re about how she wants to be, instead of a list of things to do. That makes a lot of sense, as moving on after trauma requires a focus on what is healing to mind, body, and soul, as well as trying to find a new way to be in your life.

Did you make any kind of resolutions this year? How did you go about the process — anything different this time?

P.S. — Have you noticed the comments are now fixed? Hallelujah! Thanks to Matt Cheuvront and his team at Proof Branding for their help! I highly recommend them out if you ever need branding, logo, media, or web development.

Image: Carrie Ann Grippo-Pike via Fine Art America




by Margaret Cabaniss

Born to Run
If you are at all interested and running — and probably even if you’re not — you’ve likely had someone recommend that you read Born to Run, Christopher McDougall’s book about the hidden Tarahumara tribe, their virtually inhuman running prowess, and the journey of a ragtag bunch of American ultramarathoners to the wilds of Mexico’s Copper Canyon to learn their secrets. It’s part adventure travelogue, part extreme athlete profile, part history of sports medicine, and way more interesting than I just made it sound.

People have been gushing about this book to me for ages, but the more they gushed, the more I resisted — mostly thanks to the whole barefoot running trend it helped inspire. If there’s been a dramatic surge in web-footed runners in your neighborhood over the last few years, you can likely thank this book: While the author himself isn’t a barefoot runner, he makes a pretty strong case that our high-tech modern running shoes are destroying our natural (he would say evolutionarily evolved) capacity to run long distances, pain-free. The stars of his book, the Tarahumara tribesmen, make a pretty convincing argument themselves: They’ll often run 40, 60, 100 miles in a go with nothing but thin pieces of rubber tire lashed to their feet.

The book inspired waves of people to buy those wretched “barefoot shoes” in droves — after which they’d turn around and press the book on me with all the missionary zeal of the newly converted. As someone suspicious of movements in general, it really did not interest me.

It took the recommendation of a (formerly non-running) friend for me to finally pick the book up — and I devoured it in almost one sitting. Turns out that nearly lost tribes of superhuman athletes, and the kinds of characters who are attracted to the idea of running 100 miles in the desert in the height of summer, make for pretty gripping reading.

And then there are passages like this:

That was the real secret of the Tarahumara: they’d never forgotten what it felt like to love running. They remembered that running was mankind’s first fine art, our original act of inspired creation. Way before we were scratching pictures on caves or beating rhythms on hollow trees, we were perfecting the art of combining our breath and mind and muscles into fluid self-propulsion over wild terrain. And when our ancestors finally did make their first cave paintings, what were the first designs? A downward slash, lightning bolts through the bottom and middle—behold, the Running Man.

Distance running was revered because it was indispensable; it was the way we survived and thrived and spread across the planet. You ran to eat and to avoid being eaten; you ran to find a mate and impress her, and with her you ran off to start a new life together. You had to love running, or you wouldn’t live to love anything else. And like everything else we love—everything we sentimentally call our ‘passions’ and ‘desires’—it’s really an encoded ancestral necessity. We were born to run; we were born because we run. We’re all Running People, as the Tarahumara have always known.

I mean, if you don’t want to get up right this second and run around the house whooping we are all Running People!, well, there’s probably no hope for you.

Yes, fine, I may have drunk the Kool-Aid a bit. I refuse to buy those cursed shoes, but suddenly I’m very interested in the Pose running method, and going barefoot more at home, and chia seeds and trail races and YIKES I really don’t know who I am anymore. But hey, it’s like they say in the book: “You don’t stop running because you get old, you get old because you stop running.”

So has anyone else read it — and if so, did it inspire new heights of running madness in your home, too? I’m still not quite on board the whole barefoot running train, but I am open to suggestions… Read anything else lately that you were dead-set against at first but found yourself embracing by the end?

Image: unknown, via Pinterest


Kids and Internet
This article about a professor’s decision to minimize his kids’ internet time is worth a read. The author, Martin Kutnowski, describes the screams from his 10-year-old after she discovers her iPod can’t connect to the internet. She and her 9-year-old brother were used to four or five hours of screen time, and it was causing some zombie-like behaviors:

American children need 60 minutes of moderate to intense activity a day, according to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control. One could only hope to meet that standard. Returning from work every evening, I would find two zombies—the cliché never gets old, because it is accurate—in front of the computer. In a catatonic state, the children would respond to my greeting with an unintelligible mumble. After turning the computer off, I would try to talk them into riding the bicycle or going to the park.

Failing that, I’d make them to do chores or homework, often musing how much easier it would be to haul an elephant up a mountain. At dinner, if asked what they had learned at school—the kind of conversation I used to have with my parents—my annoyed children would respond “nothing,” absently looking into the distance, longing to tether themselves online as soon as I turned my back.

No surprise here; the internet and our tech devices can be pretty addictive. Do you check your email repeatedly when you don’t really need to? Your phone? Facebook or Twitter? Many of us have habits that border on addiction, although we don’t like to think of it that way. Since most of us never had the internet, smart phones, or iPads as kids, I think it’s hard for us to know where to draw lines for our children.

In our home, we’re trying to strike a balance. I have definite luddite tendencies, but my husband is a tech geek, so we try and meet in the middle — though he agrees that 6-year-olds need less time in front of screens and more time outside and playing. Our daughters are allowed to use some educational apps on the iPad, and that’s about it (besides being allowed to watch occasional favorite programs and movies that we download).

I certainly want to avoid raising kids that fit the description of Kutnowski’s students:

As a professor in a four-year undergraduate university, I meet young people just as they emerge from the public-school pipeline, and from years of excessive electronic stimulation. Differences among these entering students are profound, in physical health, in skill level, in social and academic engagement, and ultimately in their chances for success. Many of these students have urgent needs: Some don’t understand their own nutrition, how to form a coherent and complete sentence, how to focus long enough to read one chapter of a book, or how to talk and collaborate with one another or with the teacher.

I help as much as I can, and often my students become engaged with their academic and social environment. An earlier intervention—fewer videogames, more activities outdoors and more guided reading, for instance—could have saved those who give up. And no, l don’t buy the fantasy that failing students will be “successful” dropouts like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. Statistics predict that most people without a postsecondary education will be low-wage earners.

Speaking of Steve Jobs, it’s worth nothing that his kids weren’t allowed to spend much time on the internet or with electronic devices.

How do you strike a balance for yourself and/or your kids when it comes to the internet and electronic devices?

Image: Rage Against the Minivan


Oil Pulling
As if it weren’t enough that I stopped using antiperspirant a few years ago, I’ve also been oil pulling on and off for the past year. Oil pulling is a folk remedy that’s been around a long time, but I only read about it a couple of years ago on some natural health blogs. It’s hit the mainstream, though, since popular bloggers like Design Mom have written about their experiences with it over recent months.

While there are no studies proving its effectiveness as far as I know, fans of oil pulling say it improves oral hygiene, freshens breath, and can even whiten teeth. (Some have claimed it’s even healed cavities and toothaches.) Most people use organic coconut oil, but I’ve heard of people using extra virgin olive oil, too (sesame oil is traditional in Ayurvedic medicine).

I’m always looking for natural ways to freshen my breath and whiten my teeth — and I like experimenting with stuff like this! — so giving oil pulling a try was a no-brainer. Some people have a hard time with oil in their mouths, but it doesn’t bother me, and I think you can work your way up to it if you start with smaller amounts.

Oil Pulling 2
Here’s how it works: You take a spoonful of oil (a teaspoon to a tablespoon), let it melt in your mouth, and then swish it around vigorously for 15-20 minutes before spitting it out. (I have no idea why that’s the recommended timeframe, but the way; as far as I’m concerned, you could start with 5 minutes and work your way up.) You do it once a day, usually in the morning in place of brushing — though I still floss and also brush with baking soda before bed.

I have to admit, when I’m consistent with it, I start seeing the effects: My teeth feel great — smoother, cleaner — and I dare say they look a tad whiter. And my breath is better, even first thing in the morning. But it’s that consistent part that’s hard. Finding 15-20 minutes in the morning to swish doesn’t always happen — it’s typically a busy time with my kids, and inevitably, as soon as I put that oil in my mouth, my voice is required for something. Over the last few days I’ve been trying to get back to it, though. I hear the longer you do it, the more benefits you experience.

I’m curious: Have you ever tried oil pulling, or would you? Does the idea intrigue you, or does it seem too far out there to bother with? I’d love to hear what you think! In the meantime, if I manage to stick with it for more than a few weeks at a time, I’ll have to give you an update!

Images: Zoe Saint-Paul


Giant Buddha by SiamSawadee
According to a new Gallup poll, people 65 and older feel better about their appearance than any other age group. Not by a lot, mind you, but it’s noteworthy: 66% of seniors feel good about their looks, versus 54% of 35-64 year-olds and 61% of 18-34 year-olds. (The poll also found that men feel better about their looks than women in every age group.)

This makes sense to me, based on our culture’s messages about youth and beauty and what I see around me every day. The 35-64 age range is when people — especially women — seem to struggle most with their appearance, because it changes so much during that time. It’s fair to say I don’t know any woman in that group who doesn’t have some complaint about the way she looks (though some are more obsessed than others).

I consider myself to be fairly laid-back in this regard, though I’ve never had any weight issues, and thanks to some good genes and a healthy diet, I’ve always looked younger than my age. But it’s not the externals that determine satisfaction; inevitably, the women I know who struggle the most with their appearance, as well as with aging, are those whom society would consider very attractive. I’m guessing one reason is that the more your identity is rooted in your physical appearance — and the way people respond to your appearance — the more difficult it is when your appearance changes. Add to this the images of “beauty” we’re bombarded with all the time, and it can be hard to accept wrinkles and sags, a changing body, and society’s preference for youth.

I’m guessing that, by the time we reach senior-hood, we start feeling differently about ourselves. We’re grateful just to be here. We’re more at peace with what’s happening physically and more focused on what brings us meaning — time with loved ones, the memories we’ve made, creative pursuits, staying as healthy as we can, our spiritual lives.

Now that I’m well into my 40s, age and beauty are things I think about more often. I’d love to know your thoughts: How happy are you with your appearance, and what makes you feel beautiful? How do you confront the idea of aging, mentally or otherwise, and how have you dealt with changes to your looks and body so far? What do you think are the secrets to being happy with your appearance and aging with grace?

Image: SiamSidawee via etsy