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Achieving Health and Happiness During the Pandemic and Beyond

Checkered white butterfly
A checkered white, aka southern cabbage butterfly in my garden

This morning, like most mornings, I tooled around my backyard garden, checking for ripe tomatoes, smelling the honeysuckle, and watching the butterflies flit from bok choy to arugula flowers. I picked some peas for dinner later. The sun was bright, and warm on my shoulders. After tending the garden, I came inside, washed the dirt from my hands, and made a smoothie of cherries, blueberries, mango, dates and banana, with scoops of my favorite prebiotics thrown in.

As I write this post, I'm sitting on my patio sipping chamomile tea from my favorite cup and watching the sunflowers sway in the slight breeze. I feel at peace and perfectly content. I'm not thinking about the pandemic or the fact that my son and I can't go to our favorite climbing gym or that I'm grounded from visiting my older kids who are grown and out of state. I'm truly in the moment and it feels good. Is it by chance that I feel this way, or do my habits and actions play a part? Is there a direct correlation between what we do and how we feel?

From the description of my morning, which of my habits and routines are contributing to my feelings of well-being? If you said all of them, you are correct! Let's look at each element:

Gardening: Gardening exposes us to fresh foods which are more nutrient-dense than those that have traveled far and long and sat in grocery store bins, and to dirt and its important microbes. Gardening is relaxing and satisfying - it is endlessly mesmerizing to me that I can put a small seed in the ground and end up with a substantial plant that supplies my family with nourishment. This study found that "participating in gardening activities has a significant positive impact on health. Indeed, the positive association with gardening was observed for a wide range of health outcomes, such as reductions in depression and anxiety symptoms, stress, mood disturbance, and BMI, as well as increases in quality of life, sense of community, physical activity levels, and cognitive function."

Reaping what we've sown in the garden provides us with fiber and plant compounds like polyphenols that are great for gut (and this overall) health. From this study, we find:

Recent studies support that dietary phenolic substances reaching the gut microbes, as well as the aromatic metabolites generated, may modify and produce variations in the microflora community by exhibiting prebiotic effects and antimicrobial action against pathogenic intestinal microflora [18,70,71].Figure 4 summarizes the major sources of dietary polyphenols and the potential gut microbiota-associated benefits on human health.

See Fig. 4 below:

In this Australian study, researchers found that life satisfaction and happiness increased as fruit and vegetable intake increased. The results, conclusions and implications from that study state:

Results. Increased fruit and vegetable consumption was predictive of increased happiness, life satisfaction, and well-being. They were up to 0.24 life-satisfaction points (for an increase of 8 portions a day), which is equal in size to the psychological gain of moving from unemployment to employment. Improvements occurred within 24 months.
Conclusions. People’s motivation to eat healthy food is weakened by the fact that physical health benefits accrue decades later, but well-being improvements from increased consumption of fruit and vegetables are closer to immediate.
Policy implications. Citizens could be shown evidence that “happiness” gains from healthy eating can occur quickly and many years before enhanced physical health.

The next element of my daily routine includes sunshine. In my coaching practice, I've seen far too many people with low Vitamin D levels. In the current pandemic, Vitamin D is extremely important (as it is at all other times, but especially so now). From this study on Vitamin D and the immune system we learn:

Vitamin D can modulate the innate and adaptive immune responses. Deficiency in vitamin D is associated with increased autoimmunity as well as an increased susceptibility to infection. As immune cells in autoimmune diseases are responsive to the ameliorative effects of vitamin D, the beneficial effects of supplementing vitamin D deficient individuals with autoimmune disease may extend beyond the effects on bone and calcium homeostasis.

I'm going to restate one point: insufficient Vit D levels are associated with a greater susceptibility to infection. That's of the utmost importance now, during this epidemic. If you can't get 20 minutes of sunshine on your bare torso a few times per week, you may want to consider a Vit D3 supplement (ask your physician) or the old standy-by cod liver oil. Vit D has been treating infections since long before we knew it could. From the same study:

Vitamin D has been used (unknowingly) to treat infections such as tuberculosis before the advent of effective antibiotics. Tuberculosis patients were sent to sanatoriums where treatment included exposure to sunlight which was thought to directly kill the tuberculosis. Cod liver oil, a rich source of vitamin D has also been employed as a treatment for tuberculosis as well as for general increased protection from infections[7].

If you have concerns about skin cancers and excessive (key: avoid the excessive!) sun exposure, this is a thorough look at the history of skin cancers, sun exposure and the cancers caused by lack of sun exposure: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2290997/ It's lengthy, but a great read; be sure to read all the way to the end to get the full picture.

The next element of my daily routine is observing nature. Watching the bees, birds and other insects in our garden, watching the plants sway in the breeze, smelling the scents of the flowers - all of this adds to good health. If you can't get out, the good news is that even looking at photos of nature can boost health.

The study examined 37 articles presenting evidence of the physiological effects of viewing nature based on indoor setting experiments—the studies were classified based on the stimulation method used. Exposures to display stimuli, such as photos, 3D images, virtual reality, and videos of nature, confirmed that viewing natural scenery induced a more physiological relaxing state than viewing the control. Furthermore, exposure to real stimuli, such as green plants, flowers, and wooden materials, had positive effects on the prefrontal cortex and autonomic nervous activities compared with the control. These findings have strengthened and deepened the growing evidence base of the health benefits of nature. Accumulation of that scientific evidence supports the idea that nature therapy would be useful for preventive medicine.

And the final element of my morning routine: sipping tea. Whether it be black or green tea, or an herbal tea like the anti-inflammatory chamomile I was sipping this morning, teas contain polyphenols and other plant compounds that can positively impact our health and well-being. Green tea has gotten a lot of attention because one of "L-theanine’s contrasting effects is a 'relaxed, capable state of mind — you are in the zone' [Source]. Black tea has benefits as well and it has even been found that "Darjeeling tea aroma tended to improve mood before mental stress load." [Source] Since there are a plethora of different herbs which can be steeped for tea, it would take an entire separate post to give them the credit they deserve. For now, I'll give a quick shout out to Chamomile, since it's been a helper to me for over 25 years.

In 1994, I had a newborn (my first baby!) and she nursed a lot. Between holding her while nursing, holding her in general, changing diapers, and doing all the other busy household tasks, I developed an extremely painful and debilitating case of DeQuervain's Tenosynovitis, inflammation of the thumb tendons at the wrist. Moving my wrist or thumb was so painful it became impossible. I could no longer even pick up my daughter and struggled to care for her while her dad was at work. The orthopedic doctor I saw offered to prescribe NSAIDs (anti-inflammatory drugs) but informed me that most people ended up in surgery from the condition. Since I was breastfeeding, I didn't want to take Rx's (and for other reasons; I had never reacted well to them) and surgery sounded too extreme. I asked if there were any other options and he said, not in an especially kind way, that we could try splinting the wrist. I left his office with a splinted wrist and thumb and went home and began drinking chamomile tea, which I knew was an anti-inflammatory. Two weeks later, I removed the splint and my wrist was completely healed. Herbs can be powerful medicine! [Be sure to consult with your health care provider before using any herbs or supplements to treat a condition.]

Having a cuppa tea, coffee, or herbal tea can be a comforting daily ritual, especially in these uncertain times. Be extra good to yourself. You deserve health and happiness.



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