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Healthy Mommy: Me Time

Woman Lying in a Bathtub Holding a MugI frequently write about the challenges moms face in terms of getting healthy (and staying there).

One of the things I’ve been thinking about recently is the challenge of Me Time.

On my personal blog, I shared a little story last week: What I learned about Me Time (and about myself) when my husband and kids went out of town for three days (yes, leaving me blissfully alone in my own house for the first time in ages).

It was an interesting lesson–and not what I expected.

Also, a while ago, on my YMC blog I wrote about the issue of Me Time from the perspective of a WOHM (work-outside-the-home mom). It was a sister post to a fellow YMC blogger’s take on Me Time as a SAHM.

So, how about you? If you’re a mom–how do you carve out Me Time? And how important do you think it is, in terms of overall health?

What’s Healthy About Valentine’s Day? Lots.

valentine's dayWhether you love Valentine’s Day, or whether you loathe it…everyone can appreciate a little health boost now and then, am I right?

Valentine’s Day and chocolate go hand in hand. Feeling a little guilty about your favorite indulgence? Don’t. Here’s why chocolate is good for you. (Yes, you read that right.)

And speaking of pleasurable indulgences…here’s why I prescribe hugs and kisses and squeezes this time of year (and all year-round, to be honest).

Valentine’s Day is also the perfect time to think about your heart. Your real heart, the one beating inside your chest. Heart health is something we all need to think about–not just for ourselves, but for the ones we love, too. Here’s how to keep yours going strong.

Finally, if you’re planning a special dinner this Valentine’s Day, there’s a strong chance your plan might include a nice bottle of wine. Good news there, too. Read all about the health benefits of wine, here

You’re welcome.

Love and hugs, everyone.

Passport To Health: Norway

Upper part of a carved wooden figurehead from a Viking ship against a blue background Oslo, NorwPassport To Health is one of my favorite topics…it allows me to talk about two things I love: health and travel. As I’ve said before, we North Americans may be many things, but one thing we’re not? Svelte. Fact is, we can learn a lot from other countries. (And shamelessly steal their health secrets.) Today, let’s look at Norway. 

Norway is the home of the Vikings. Hearty, hale stock to be sure. But the Norwegians retain their reputation as a healthy population in modern times, too. They are much less obese than North Americans and enjoy lower rates of heart disease.  

So what are the Norwegian health secrets that we should all steal? The first one is eating fish.

The Norwegians eat a ton of fish. Norway is a country surrounded by ocean on three sides, so it stands to reason. They enjoy herring, sardines—even for breakfast! The eat trout, and arctic char. Salmon is a trademark dish for them, especially smoked salmon, which is one of my all-time favorite things to eat. So what do all these varieties have in common? They are all cold water, fatty fish. Which is the best dietary source of omega-3. And that’s why this is a health secret.

Omega-3 is a polyunsaturated fatty acid. It’s considered an essential fatty acid because our bodies don’t manufacture it. And research is piling up on the health benefits of omega-3. Most of the studies surround the heart-health benefits. It’s been shown to reduce blood pressure, improve cholesterol profile, reduce heart disease risk, reduce stroke. And other, non-heart disease benefits too, like reduced risks of dementia and Alzheimer’s, improving rheumatoid arthritis, reducing ADHD, decrease chronic inflammation, help reduce anxiety and stress.

The American Heart Association recommends two servings of fish per week, and I think that’s a great, manageable goal for most of us.

norway

So here’s the other health secret of the Norwegians that we can learn from: their approach to work-life balance. This, of course, is true for other Scandinavian countries, too–it’s not completely unique to Norway. Scandinavians have much more paid vacation time than we do, longer maternity leaves, and generally speaking, while work has its place, it doesn’t take over from the rest of life. Work-life balance is a fiercely guarded issue. From all reports, everyone in Norway clocks off at 5 o’clock. Offices are ghost-towns after that, because that’s when people go home and spend time with their families, preparing meals…and basically, not working.

As for vacation time, the legal minimum paid vacation time in Canada is 10 days. This adds up to 2 weeks, if you’re working full time. In Norway, like most of the Scandinavian countries, the minimum vacation allotment is 25 days. That clocks in at 5 weeks! Statutory holidays are on top of that.

This is all state-supported, and so it’s difficult to fully replicate, here, in our own lives–unless you happen to have some personal pull with the government–but the principle is something we can practice. If you tend toward the workaholic end of the spectrum, if your work-life balance could use a little more, well, balance…why not take a page from the Norwegian book? Make it a priority to take your vacation allowance (unbelievably, every year tons of Canadian vacation time remains unused), spend quality time with your families, and enjoy hobbies and personal pursuits.

Ha det bra!

If you liked this, here are some of my other Passport To Health posts:

The Happiness Map: Giving Back

Star Christmas Lights Hanging from an EaveThe holidays are the perfect time for charitable acts. And this year, in particular, it feels like exactly the right thing to do.

Whether it’s volunteering, helping, or donating–it just feels good, right? Well, I’d like to draw your attention to a little side benefit of altruism: research is showing that people who help others actually become happier, healthier, and live longer than people who don’t.

Indulge me as I share a personal story.

My husband was in the grocery store a few months ago with both our boys. He did a decent shop; the bill came to well over $100…and then realized he’d left his wallet at home. Ugh.

I mean, if you’ve ever tried to go grocery shopping with two young boys in tow, you know what a huge feat it was that he even made it to the checkout in one piece, without destroying half the canned-goods section or selling one of our children in the process. As he struggled at the counter, searching in vain for his wallet, and then realized he’d have to leave all his hard-won, tidily bagged groceries at the store…the person behind him in line quietly paid for his bill. The whole thing. Without making a big fanfare. When my husband realized what was happening, he was blown over with gratitude, and begged the woman for her contact info so he could send her the payment. But she wouldn’t have it.

Random acts of kindness like that do exist. My husband spent the rest of the day with a completely new feeling about his fellow human beings.

But you know who probably felt better? The woman who’d paid for some poor frazzled dad’s groceries.

Research shows that being altruistic conveys mental health benefits: it reduces depression, it improves happiness and well-being. In fact, giving help is more significantly associated with better mental health than was receiving help.

But volunteering appears to improve physical health and longevity, too. Several studies have demonstrated this. In one study of more than 2000 people, conducted over the course of a decade, the people who volunteered had lower mortality rates, and if they were “high volunteers”–meaning two or more organizations–their mortality rate was reduced by 44% over non-volunteers. This was after controlling for other factors like mobility, chronic conditions, social support. This was a bigger effect than exercising  4 times weekly (which reduced mortality by 30%) and only slightly smaller than the reduction associated with not smoking—49%.

If you’ve ever volunteered or helped a charity, I think you know what I’m talking about when I use the term “helper’s high”. And now there’s research to show that this is a real thing.

And the research is nice. But, truth be told, this is something people have long known.

ebenezer-scrooge

Charles Dickens knew about this in 1843 when he created the character Ebenezer Scrooge. The ultimate reformed curmudgeon who changed his ways…and once he started helping people less fortunate than himself, he became giddy with joy, jumping and feeling younger and more vibrant.

But we can go even further back to see the wisdom of altruism:

If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap.

If you want happiness for a day, go fishing.

If you want happiness for a month, get married.

If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune.

If you want happiness for a lifetime…help someone else

-Chinese Proverb

There are a plethora of ways to give back this season: what’s your favorite?

Happy Holidays, everyone.

xox

The Health Benefits of Writing

First, an announcement: I recently started a new blog…over at kimfosterwrites.com. And the main reason for that: I have a book deal!

 *pops champagne*

For a long time I’ve been a closet novelist. I’m talking years of scribbling away and inhabiting the imaginary worlds of my brain. At long last, just this past July, my agent landed me a 3-book deal with Kensington Books in New York, and my first novel is due out in May 2013.

But this all leads me to my topic today, which is: the health benefits of writing.

It’s a niche research topic, to be sure, but studies have shown that creative and expressive writing can be a therapeutic exercise. Writing helps reduce anxiety, provides an emotional outlet, and can guide people through traumatic life events such as bereavement and coping with serious illness.

But there’s more to writing than stress reduction and emotional support. Turns out there’s physiologic benefit too.

Here’s what some of the research has shown. Regular writing can:

  • sharpen your memory
  • improve your sleep
  • boost immune cell activity
  • speed healing after surgery
  • improve well-being (mental and physical) in cancer patients

Studies have shown benefit from all manner of writing styles: expressive writing, journalling, formal writing therapy, poetry, and even blogging (which is, in its purest sense, a form of expressive writing).

One of my fave bloggers (and my editor at Yummy Mummy Club, as it happens…), the super-clever Ali Martell, calls her blog Cheaper Than Therapy. And she is oh-so-right.

The therapeutic value of writing is certainly something writers have long known. I know I’m not the only writer who reports feeling a tad grouchy if I don’t get my regular writing time. And, as long as you don’t go all Hemingway and drink yourself into a self-destructive spiral, there is health benefit to be had. (Also, as long as you stand up and walk away from the computer from time to time, yes?)

So how about you? Do you write? Is it therapeutic for you? Are you a healthier, happier person for it?

The Health Value of Friendships

A recent study showed that people in their 40s with a wide circle of friends have a greater sense of well-being than those without close friendships.

(As a side note, the researchers behind this study are calling these ages “mid-life” which, PS, people: I staunchly refuse to do. Hovering, as I am, close to 40 I will probably never consider myself middle-aged. Never. But I digress…)

They found that the more frequently people met up with their friends, the greater the benefit. Meaning: virtual/facebook “friends” don’t really count, here. But numbers do count: a wider circle of friends translated to better reported well-being in this study.

Now, I gotta say, I’m not hugely surprised at the finding that friendships are beneficial to mental health. However, one interesting outcome of this study was that, for women, it wasn’t as beneficial to have a wide network of family members as it was to have friends. For men, in contrast, it was a good thing to have plenty of close relatives around, in addition to friends.

One theory? In a family network, women traditionally play an obligatory caregiving/nurturing role. Which is, let’s face it, not as restful as it could be. In contrast, friends tend to be more supportive of a woman’s own choices. And won’t depend on her, say, to make them a sandwich.

Reminds me of the issues surrounding women’s choices for comfort food. Comfort food choices for men tend to be meal-ish, like pasta and steak (the sort of stuff some wonderful mother-type figure has lovingly prepared for them) while women reach for snacky things like ice cream and chocolate (stuff they can grab quickly, without having to turn on the oven and, more importantly, wash casserole dishes afterwards).

Which, really, ties in to the whole idea that being a caregiver, a parent, a nurturer is hard. Damn. Work. (Incidentally, read here for my thoughts on how to be a Healthy Mommy).

But back to the health value of friendships. It’s difficult, in our busy lives, to squeeze in time for friends. It usually takes me several attempts, and back-and-forth text messages, for me to book a date with one of my girlfriends. But it is always worth it. And now I have extra validation (and so do you!) that nurturing these friendships is an investment in my mental health.

In middle age.

Should I ever reach that.

The Happiness Map: Gratitude

I write about happiness a lot. That’s because there is a pretty fascinating connection between health & happiness. And the good news? There are many things you can do to improve your own happiness level. It’s well within your control.

Recent research is proving this, but truth be told, it’s something we’ve long known. Aristotle knew it when he said: “Happiness depends upon ourselves.”

Over on Yummy Mummy Club, I wrote a post recently about a cornerstone happiness strategy: gratitude. It’s a seemingly simple maneuver that many people dismiss as being rather trite, but make no mistake, gratitude has big-time power. You can read all about it here.

A Prescription for Travel

Skipping vacations may make you feel better in the pocketbook department…but did you know it’s a bad idea for your health?

Over on my blog on Yummy Mummy Club I recently wrote a post about the health dangers you’re flirting with if you neglect to take a vacation now and then. You can read it here.

(And then…call your travel agent. Doctor’s orders.)

When This Doctor Became A Patient

It was exactly a year ago when everything changed for me. On May 10, 2011 I logged on to check my bloodwork results. I scrolled down, and stared at the screen. And the floor dropped out from under me.

I had a positive result. Which, in the medical world, is a very big negative. I had a positive ANA. Which is a screening test for lupus.

But let’s back up a little. It all started a few weeks prior, with a little aching in my right elbow. I didn’t think much of it. Too much time on my laptop, maybe. And then, a few days later, I started to feel a little soreness in my right knee. Then my left knee.

Things were not trending in the right direction.

More joints became involved, until I could ignore it no longer. I had distinct pain, and stiffness, in both elbows and wrists, both ankles, knees, and hips. Then, a little redness about my elbows and ankles. And definite, visible swelling.

It was time to see my doctor. I booked an appointment for three days’ time. And during those three days, my symptoms became even worse. I was trying not to freak out. Trying very hard, but not particularly succeeding.

The problem, of course, with having a career in medicine is the knowledge. All the scary possibilities reared up in my imagination. Rheumatoid arthritis. MS. Lupus. Various other connective tissue disorders…

When I finally saw her, my doctor shared my concern. Which was both relieving and worrisome at the same time. I wasn’t imagining it. Also? I wasn’t imagining it.

So we did some tests. X-rays and bloodwork. The x-rays came back normal. Good. The initial bloodwork results came trickling in. Thyroid somewhat off, thyroid antibodies elevated. Low iron. Low vitamin D. It was strange to see my own bloodwork coming back abnormal, I’d always been generally healthy. But none of that stuff was alarming. None of it was stuff I couldn’t deal with.

A few days later I got the result I most definitely could not deal with.

That positive ANA.

I remember staring at the screen. My husband and my dad were making lunch and chatting in the kitchen. My dad was visiting to help us out because I was, at that point, entirely unable to do anything for myself or my children.

I started to cry. The crying got worse, and louder, as that result began to sink in. Me? Lupus? Suddenly, everything I knew about life had changed. My whole life would now be measured in two segments, before lupus, and with lupus. Nothing would ever be the same.

Again, I was simultaneously thankful for, and cursing, my knowledge base. I’d seen people with lupus, watched them deteriorate before my eyes. Lupus was a nasty disease, I knew that. It was a forever diagnosis, but unpredictably waxing and waning. It could affect every aspect of life and function. Cause end-organ damage at a whim. Force the use of potent medication that caused side effects almost as bad as the disease.

It was a terrifying moment.

But shortly after that initial terror, a few things crystallized for me. Life was going to take on a new shape. First, I was not going to do shit I did not want to do anymore. Also? I was going to do shit I did want to do.

Over the subsequent weeks, I saw two rheumatologists and an endocrinologist. There were few answers forthcoming. But one thing they hesitantly agreed on? This was not, in fact, lupus. They weren’t impressed at my antibody numbers. Said my results weren’t specific enough.

A huge relief. For the time being. Because then I entered a different world…the world in which I embraced the unknown.

I had more x-rays taken. Much more bloodwork. My doctor (bless her) called me regularly to check on me. For a while, things continued to worsen for me, physically. My joints became enormous, swollen and painful. Sleeping was very difficult. And the red welt-like lumps grew over my ankles, legs, and elbows. Erythema Nodosum, I thought, looking at the welts and nodding. I went to see my doctor. Erythema Nodosum, she said, on sight, also nodding. Not a diagnosis, per se, just a symptom that was all part of my nonspecific inflammatory flare.

I developed an annoying cough. A dry, irritating cough that seemed to correlate with worsening joint pain. I lived on anti-inflammatories. And, like the bad patient that all good doctors are, I resisted taking the prescribed prednisone. It was a line I was not ready to cross.

My mother wanted answers. “If we could just get a diagnosis, find out what it is…then we’ll know how to treat it.”

I nodded, but I knew the naiveté of this statement. Autoimmune diseases are multitude. There are endless categories and labels, and lots of ‘not otherwise specified’ tags on the ends of otherwise specified names. I knew that many people go years without a firm diagnosis. “I was misdiagnosed for a long time,” they say, clenching their teeth at the conspiracy.

But I know that “misdiagnosis” is really only a relevant term when you’re talking about stuff that’s black and white. And that medicine, the human body, is the exact opposite of black and white. Stuff evolves. Stuff changes. Stuff becomes more obvious, and then we’re in a position to pin down a diagnosis. There are no perfect tests, rarely any textbook cases. Often, the only time we know for sure what happened in someone’s body is when we cut it open at autopsy. And even then, there’s a whole lot of deductive work that goes on. This is all especially true when it comes to autoimmune disease, which shapeshifts to its heart’s desire.

So I prepared for a long period of not exactly “knowing”. But, just because I didn’t have an exact name for the maelstrom that had taken over my body, didn’t mean there was nothing I could do.

I knew that my immune system was freaking out. I knew that my body was going on inflammatory overdrive. And I knew I could do something about that.

So I started taking care of myself, I mean really taking care of myself. I knew about the physical stuff I could do. I needed to get more sleep. I needed to start eating more veggies, more fruit, more whole grains, more superfoods. I started taking vitamin D, and omega-3. And selenium. Incidentally, I suddenly understood the desperate patient’s plight oh-so-well, in a way I’d never experienced before. The urge to take supplements. The urge to do something—anything—to grasp on and hope that I’d discovered the thing that would make me better. I was grappling for the reins of control. Just as I’d seen so many patients do, sitting across from me, sitting in the cheap examination room chair while I sat in the comfy, expensive desk chair. And now I was in that cheap chair.

I couldn’t exercise. I was getting passed by the octogenarians who live in my neighborhood as we walked the snail’s race to the village. I’m not kidding. Literally, I was lapped by seniors with walkers. But I started doing yoga. I could barely do any of the poses at first, could barely move, really, but I still managed to spend a couple of minutes doing deep breathing, meditating, and very gentle stretches.

Significantly, I started exploring the less tangible aspects of health. Mostly, stress. I had been under a lot of stress. New baby, living through major house renovations, putting tons of pressure on myself to work and be a great mom and wife…plus my own writing aspirations. It was too much.

I started reading a lot about stress, which led me to reading about happiness. And that has revolutionized my life.

And then…as the weeks went by, things peaked and began, ever so gradually, to improve. About three months after things started, I was mostly back to normal. Physically, anyway. Psychologically, I would never be the same. In a good way.

I don’t know what improved things for me. Was it the omega-3? Was it the yoga? Or was it just the natural course of things; would I have gotten better on my own?

The rheumatologists, at last, agreed on a diagnosis. Most likely, I’d been battling a thing called Lofgren’s Syndrome. A rare form of a rare disease called sarcoidosis. Which is classified as an idiopathic autoimmune disorder. Idiopathic, here, meaning: no identifiable cause. Read: we have no freaking idea why it happens.

In me, maybe stress triggered it. Maybe not. You know what? It doesn’t matter. I knew I was too stressed. And whether the stress caused it, contributed to it, or was merely an innocent bystander…I knew I had to do something about it.

I wrote a bucket list. I’ve got a very specific stress management plan now. I figured out some priorities. Happiness has become a cornerstone goal for me.

One year later, is everything exactly as I want it? Nope. I’ve been symptom free since everything settled in the summer. Am I stress free? Not exactly. Am I blissfully happy? Ummm, not quite. But you know what? It’s pretty damn close. Do I have a perfect lifestyle?

Well…it’s getting there. And that’s okay, because it’s a work in progress. A healthy lifestyle isn’t something you just turn on overnight. You work at it. I’m working at it.

A big milestone for me? I started running. At first I wasn’t sure this was a good idea. My husband was nervous for me, didn’t want me to do anything that would stress my joints, for fear of things coming back. But…so far, so awesome.

And I embrace the uncertainty every day. Because although the rheumatologists believe Lofgren’s syndrome to be the most likely diagnosis, there’s still a chance it could have been—could be—something else. Something that could come back. Like lupus. See, I read their consultation letters. There was lots of room for reassessment should my symptoms recur.

To be honest, it’s hard not to freak out every time I get a little twang in a joint, now and then. But, in a way, it’s a good thing. It certainly keeps me from taking my health for granted. Those little twangs serve as momentary reminders.

Health can be snatched away, even one evening while you’re sitting there on Twitter and your elbow starts to ache a little. Taking your health for granted is a mistake we all make. But I’m working on correcting that, and enjoying my good health every day.

Just the other day I jogged swiftly past a pair of seniors ambling along with their walkers. And my heart soared. Of course, I know I’ll be just like them one day.

But not yet. Not just yet.

Stress Much?

Most people experience stress at one time or another. So how do you cope? Many of us feel somewhat powerless in the face of stress, especially if it’s due to circumstances we can’t change.

Does that mean you just have to suffer?

No way.

What you need is a strategy.

Over on Yummy Mummy Club, I recently posted an article called: How To Create A Stress Management Plan. In it, I describe 14 different ways to deal with stress. Because the truth is, there’s A LOT you can do to help yourself–not to merely survive life’s stresses, but to actually flourish.

Dr. Kim Foster, MD. (photo credit: Tamea Burd Photography)

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The content of this website is provided for informational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose or treat disease. It is not a substitute for seeking medical advice or counseling. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. You should seek medical attention before undertaking any diet, exercise or other health program described on this website.