Breaking & Completing The Stress Cycle

The Stress Cycle

Stress has become a household word, and something we not only talk about regularly, but have come to expect regularly. Stress has become the number one cause of workplace disability, and in the past year alone, 74% of people have been so stressed they’ve felt overwhelmed or unable to cope, according to statistics from mentalhealth.org.

Just because the ‘stressor’ has gone, 

it doesn’t mean the ‘stress’ itself has…..

One of the reasons we tend to suffer with stress more acutely today than ever before, is that we’re not actively doing things that let our bodies and nervous systems know that it’s ok to relax, and that the stress is over. Recall a time when you’ve felt heightened stress or a sensation of being overwhelmed; perhaps whilst stuck in traffic, in a high-pressure meeting, completing a deadline or giving a presentation. If any of these situations cause you to feel stress, it’s likely that your body is reacting in the same way it would if it was being chased by a predator and trying to escape a near-death situation. Thousands of years ago, we’d act just as animals do – we’d either be devoured and become some animal’s dinner (which in the modern world equates to succumbing to stress through a heart attack or stroke, and in many cases severe burnout), or we’d run away, escape, breathe a sigh of relief and reflexively shake it off. The three actions of running, breathing and shaking vigorously would all subconsciously tell our brains that we were safe and out of danger. Recall again that situation that causes you stress. What do you do after that stressful occasion has passed? Many of us might turn to alcohol or food, television, high sugar snacks, cigarettes, drugs. Those who head to the gym or go for a run to relieve stress have the advantage of doing something our genes have evolved to recognise as ‘stress relieving’ since we literally were running from predators all those thousands of years ago. The problem there however, arises in cases of over-exercising or exercise addiction, that ends up only causing more stress to the body and mind….

Stress can be addictive. That buzz we get from doing something productive, feeling needed, completing tasks and goals, and always having a focus can cause us to get stuck in the cycle of feeling stressed, yet compulsively creating more stress for ourselves. (In the form of saying ‘yes’ to every single opportunity, even if we have no time or energy left to do it, over-working or filling our calendars to the brim). The American Institute of Stress offers several questions to aid in figuring out if you could be a stress ‘addict’, including; ‘Do you thrive on tight deadlines?’; ‘Do you leave things until the last minute?”; ‘Does it take you a few days to feel like you’re on vacation? [and] when you’re on vacation do you spend much of it thinking about work?’; ‘Do you lack time to see your friends or participate in hobbies you enjoy?’. It seems that stress can even be as addictive as drugs in many cases; “In addition to the hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline, stress also releases dopamine, a “feel good” chemical. Dopamine encourages repeat behaviours by activating the reward centre in our brain and may be at the heart of many addictive behaviours and substance abuse issues” say researchers and doctors from the American Institute of Stress. 

Whilst creating ambitious to-do lists is useful for productivity and providing that little boost of fulfilment when we tick off tasks, those very same lists can actually prevent us from achieving meaningful tasks. To-do lists tend to encourage more attention to be given to the easy-to-do but not particularly effective tasks. We might tick off ten ‘tasks’ in a day (things like answering emails, doing the laundry, buying a relative’s birthday present etc), but if that one fulfilling and meaningful task that will actually make a difference to your life isn’t ticked off, you’ll still end the day with a sense of uneasy guilt, stress, and a feeling of being ‘stuck’…. The stress cycle is quite similar in this respect; too often we pay attention to removing the small and pretty insignificant stressors from our lives, without paying attention to the stress itself, or the big and important stressors that will make a real difference. 

Why is Stress a Problem?

Other than making us feel emotionally unwell and downgrading our enjoyment and quality of life. Stress has a very real impact upon physical health, especially if it’s the long-term, low-level chronic stress many people are living with today. Stress weakens the immune system, creates physical tension, encourages addictive and compulsive behaviour, can cause depression, burnout, relationship issues, and feelings of hopelessness. A worrying indicator of where we’re heading in terms of stress trends, is the mentalhealth.org statistic that found 70% of older adults reported feeling overwhelmed or unable to cope in the last year, compared to 97% of younger people.

Two Ways to Deal with Stress

Knowledge is no longer as powerful as it might have once been. There’s ‘knowledge’ everywhere. Turn on your TV, browse the internet, scroll through social media and there will be information there waiting to fill your mind. What we do with it, and how much we really understand it however, is what really counts. There are a couple of useful ways to practice reducing the amount of stress in your mind and body, and they’re powerful when we start using them purposefully.

  1. Breaking the Stress Cycle

This technique requires us to observe how we’re feeling, and tune in to our physical, mental and emotional ‘symptoms’ as they arise. These symptoms can range from an increase in heartrate and perspiration, to racing thoughts and even nausea. The more subtle the symptom, the more sensitive we need to be to feel them, and the more practice it may take to sense them. 

Within the stress cycle, it’s in the space between ‘stress’ and ‘reaction to stress’ that we can start practicing observing our reactions, and begin breaking the cycle. Of course, the cycle can be broken at any point – many of us may not realise we need to take action until we’re at the point of ‘increased sensitivity to stress’, when a loved one may point out how ‘stressed’ we seem. The earlier we can break the cycle though, the healthier and happier we’ll be. Depending upon how deep you’re into your own stress cycle, you may be able to observe the stress as it arises, or you’ll be able to pick up on the symptoms of chronic stress:

Symptoms of instant reactions to stress:

  • Change in breathing pattern (short, shallow breath, holding breath)
  • Tightening of muscles (clenching jaw, tensing shoulders / stomach / hands)
  • Uneasy feeling in stomach
  • Increased heat beat
  • Anger or frustration
  • Feeling a need to control or feeling a loss of control
  • Worry or fear 
  • Racing thoughts
  • Sweating
  • Quicker reactions

Techniques to break the stress cycle at this point:

  • Slow, deep, diaphragmatic breathing
  • Making sound (singing / sighing / chanting)
  • Consciously relaxing muscles
  • Shaking / dancing / jumping
  • Thinking of someone or something you love, or something you’re really looking forward to
  • Thinking of 5 things you’re grateful for
  • Writing down how you feel
  • Repeating a mantra or affirmation
  • Tapping

Symptoms of chronic stress:

  • Low energy
  • Low mood levels or depression
  • Anxiety
  • Change in hunger 
  • Cravings for sugar or heavy foods 
  • Addictions
  • Sleep issues
  • Increased sensitivity to stress
  • Low libido
  • Increased heartbeat
  • Aches and pains
  • Gut issues (nausea / constipation / diarrhoea) 
  • Lowered immune system
  • Headaches 
  • Loss of enjoyment in life
  • Quicker to react emotionally (crying, anger, irritability et)

Techniques to break the stress cycle at this point:

  • Spend time in a place you feel safe and relaxed 
  • Socialise with loved ones
  • Practice slow, deep, diaphragmatic breathing 3 times a day
  • Get a massage
  • Practice Qi Gong, Tai Chi, Swimming or Yoga
  • Frequent exercise
  • Spend time in nature
  • Practice hot / cold therapy 
  • Take a digital detox
  • Cut down on sugar and alcohol
  • Get more sun exposure
  • Listen to music
  • Sing
  • Join a community group (dancing, choir, crafting etc)
  • Journal 
  • Learn meditation techniques
  • Create boundaries between work and leisure

2. Techniques For Completing The Stress Cycle

This is a part of relieving stress that not many of us think about. Remember; the stressor and the stress are two different things. Just because the stressor (the traffic, presentation, intimidating manager, deadline etc) is gone, doesn’t mean the stress in the body and mind is. Our nervous system has to get the message that we’re safe and sound, and the brain we’ve been busy evolving for millions of years (that same brain that previously experienced stress when we were running away from predators), still needs that same trigger to move from stress to relaxation. Repressing natural urges and needs leads to a build-up of stress, so allowing the stress to properly process and release includes practicing things we’re naturally evolved to do. 

  • Emotional release: cry, shout, scream
  • Make noise: sing, chant, sigh
  • Do some vigorous exercise: get your blood pumping to mimic escaping that predator. Run, dance, skip, jump
  • Shake: Animals naturally ‘shake off’ stress, and until we started` considering ourselves separate from animals and more self-conscious, we would do the same. Shaking is incredibly effective, simply shake all your limbs, or visit a TRE (trauma release exercise) to help ‘unlock’ your body’s innate ability to naturally shake stress away. 
  • Visualise: Athletes famously use visualisation to add another level to their training. Mirror neurons in the brain become activated when we harness visualisation techniques. In brain imaging scans, parts of the brain that light up during exercise also light up when we intentionally visualise exercising. The same is true with completing the stress cycle. If you’re having a difficult time with work colleagues or your partner, visualise something that would help you resolve any conflict or make you feel more relaxed. Focus on making the situation as real as you can. Imagine the smells, colours, sounds, textures, and how you’d be feeling emotionally. 
  • Human contact: Whilst we’re apparently the most ‘connected’ we’ve ever been via the internet; we’re more physically disconnected than ever before. We once lived in close-knit tribes, villages and trusted communities, with plenty of human contact every day. In our modern world however, it’s easy to go a full day without speaking to another real person, let alone come into physical contact with them. Our bodies and minds know we’re safe when we do things like hugging, especially if it’s for more than 20 seconds. 20 seconds is enough to elicit the relaxation response, and start moving the body from stress to serene. 
  • Breathe: Consciously` breathing slowly in and out of the nose can start bringing the body back from the brink of a meltdown. Breathing slowly and deeply can’t be done when we’re running away from a dangerous situation, so when we’re practicing breathing in a calm way, the body and mind know its ok to feel calm and relaxed. 

Completing the stress cycle is as important as breaking it. So, if you aren’t able to jump into the cycle quick enough to break it, or if you’ve been dealing with lingering stress for a long time, make sure you prioritise completing it and letting it leave your body and mind. 

Relax & Restore Home Practice Video

Merry Christmas! As a gift to you, here’s a short restorative practice to give you some time out amongst the busy festive season. Give yourself about 10 minutes to re-set, and the rest of your day will flow so much better. I plan on sharing lots more short home practice videos in 2020, so if you have any requests, get in touch!

Decadent Dark Chocolate & Hazelnut Cake (Dairy and Gluten Free, With Avocado Frosting!)

Chocolate and hazelnuts are a dream combination, and even better when they’re combined in a (healthier) triple-layer cake! Using gluten free flour as the base and avocado for the filling and icing, this delicious and decadent cake is definitely worthy of serving at any celebration. With far less sugar than shop bought cakes, and being completely dairy free, this is a recipe to bookmark and bring out for guests with allergies and intolerances, or for when you want a healthier indulgence.

INGREDIENTS

Cake:

  • 2 cups Doves Barn self raising gluten free flour
  • ½ tsp bicarb
  • ½ tsp baking powder
  • ½ cup cocoa
  • ¼ cup coconut oil, melted
  • ½ tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 eggs
  • 3 tbsp stevia
  • Splash of almond, oat or coconut milk
  • 1 handful finely ground hazelnuts 

Filling and icing:

  • 1 large avocado
  • 2 tbsp cocoa
  • 1 tbsp maple syrup 
  • 4 dates
  • 4 tbsp yoghurt of choice 
  • 1 handful crushed hazelnuts
  • 5 squares dark chocolate + 1 tsp coconut oil

METHOD

  1. Pre-heat the oven to 180C
  2. Line 3 cake tins with coconut oil or baking paper
  3. In a large mixing bowl, add the flour, bicarb and baking powder, cocoa, stevia and ground hazelnuts. Mix to combine
  4. Add the eggs, melted coconut oil and vanilla extract, and mix
  5. Add enough milk to create a thick batter and mix again
  6. Pour the cake batter evenly amongst the three cake tins and bake for roughly 30 minutes or until cooked right through and slightly springy
  7. Leave to cool for a few minutes, then remove from the tins and leave to cool completely
  8. To make the filling and icing, blend all the filling ingredients together (other than the 5 squares of chocolate + coconut oil) to create a thick mousse-like texture, and spread over each layer of cake
  9. Stack the three cake layers on top of each other, spreading any leftover icing on the top of the cake
  10. Melt the squares of chocolate and coconut oil and pour over the top surface of the cake
  11. Press the top down gently to allow the filling to slightly spill out of the edges of the cake, and use a spatula to smooth around the edges – this add a great final touch and makes it look surprisingly more ‘finished’.
  12. Scatter the crushed hazelnuts over the top 

Enjoy!

Gingerbread Men (vegan + gluten free)

‘Tis the season of feasting and celebrating, followed by the season of trying to un-do all the feasting and celebrating….

This recipe isn’t here to tell you to count calories or cut down on anything this Christmas though – the enjoyment of being with others and celebrating together is way more important than watching the waistline for these few days. What this recipe can do however, is provide a way of enjoying gingerbread men without the gluten or dairy some people’s bodies can’t tolerate. These make great gifts, and ensuring they’re both gluten free and vegan should mean they’re suitable for all your festive guests!

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 ½ cups Doves Barn Gluten Free Flour
  • 2 tbsp molasses
  • 2 tbsp coconut oil
  • 3 tsp stevia
  • 2 tsp ground ginger
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • ¼ tsp nutmeg 
  • ½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • Optional: A couple of dairy free chocolate chips or raisins for eyes

METHOD

  1. Add the flour, bicarb, stevia and spices to a bowl and mix to combine
  2. Melt the coconut oil and molasses together and pout into the bowl
  3. Mix well – if it seems too dry, add a tiny splash of milk, and if it seems to wet, add a little more flour
  4. Briefly use your hands to create a ball of dough and place in the fridge for 30 minutes – 1 hour to set (this allows the biscuits to cut to shape a lot easier, and they’ll keep their shape better whilst baking)
  5. When you’re ready to bake, pre-heat the oven to 180c
  6. Roll out the rough to roughly ½ cm – the thicker you roll the dough, the softer the gingerbread men will be, and of course the thinner you roll, the shorter baking time you’ll have, and the crispier they’ll be. 
  7. Use a cutter to cut out the gingerbread man shapes and place on a lined baking tray
  8. Bake for roughly 12-15 minutes or until they turn golden brown
  9. Leave to cool and enjoy!

Digestion-Boosting Lemongrass, Ginger & Cinnamon Tea

‘Tis the season of consumption – whether that’s gifts, food, chocolates or festive fizz, its likely most of us will be enjoying foods and drinks we wouldn’t usually opt for this month. If you’re looking for a way to prevent bloating and indigestion, or are in need of something to boost your Agni or digestive fire, this simple tea recipe will serve as a valuable addition to your kitchen cupboard.

Lemongrass helps enhance the production of amylase – a substance found in saliva that helps break down carbohydrates and starches, and kicks off the digestive process. Within Chinese medicine, lemongrass is used to treat headaches, stomach issues, coldness and muscle ache, whilst Brazilian folklore uses lemongrass to calm the mind and remedy fatigue. Ginger is a powerful remedy for almost any digestive discomfort, and cinnamon is an effective blood sugar balancer. Search online for organic loose leaf teas or herbs, and you can even make a batch of tea to give as thoughtful gifts! After multiple Christmas parties and heavy meals, they’ll be much appreciated…

INGREDIENTS

  • Firstly, find yourself a jar to store the tea in, and follow the recipe accordingly
  • 1/2 jar dried lemongrass
  • 1/4 jar dried ginger
  • 1/4 jar cinnamon sticks
  • If there’s any room left over, pop in a few peppercorns to enhance digestion even more

METHOD

  1. Add the dried herbs and spices to the jar and shake well to mix
  2. When you want to drink the tea, simply add 2 tbsp to a teapot and steep in boiled water for 5 minutes
  3. Best consumed before dinner for a digestive boost, or after dinner to help aid the digestive process.

Bitter Is Better: Utilising The Power of Taste This Festive Season

If you’re looking to keep your digestive tract healthy, your hunger and blood sugar levels stable, and prevent cravings from causing you to go overboard with the mince pies and chocolate this Christmas, consuming more of the bitter taste could be your best bet. 

Of the six tastes known throughout Eastern medicine (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent and astringent, as well as the additional Japanese-originating Umami), bitter is the one we in the modern world seem to steer away from and know the least about. In fact, of all the senses, scientists know the least about taste than any other. Our love of salty and sweet snacks almost a global addiction, there’s little room for consuming things that are bitter and unindulgent. One of the reasons many of us may have a dislike for bitter foods, is that the bitter taste is sometimes a marker for toxicity. Plants and herbs that are inedible or poisonous generally taste bitter, and the taste buds that specifically detect bitterness have been long thought to be located at the back of the tongue as our ‘line of last defence’. The bitter taste buds however, are found in much larger and more dispersed areas of the tongue, indicating that humans have evolved with a much closer relationship and use of bitterness than we may do today. In edible foods however, the bitter taste can be incredibly beneficial for reducing craving and enhancing digestion. 

Staying Balanced With Bitters

So what happens when we consume bitter foods? For one thing, the consumption of bitter foods moderates blood sugar and hunger levels, two things that can be very difficult to moderate over the festive season. Dr. Andrew Weil is an integrated practitioner of medicine with over 30 years experience, and has an extensive blog covering a wide array of natural health topics. He says; “Bitter foods also affect health in that they stimulate the liver to produce bile, which is an important part of optimal digestion. Bile emulsifies fats and renders nutrients – especially fat-soluble ones such as vitamins A, D, E and K – more available”. So by consuming bitter foods, we can prevent liver damage from those Christmas party drinks, and actually retain the benefits of the festive foods high in these vitamins like carrots, greens, meats, nuts and seeds, and butternut squash. 

If you’re experiencing feelings of lethargy or heaviness, or feel the onset of indigestion and bloating, opt for bitter herbs as the tonic to reducing these issues. Ayurvedic wisdom says that indigestion and bloating, heaviness and lethargy are some of the symptoms of excessive Kapha and Pitta energy. The Kapha dosha holds the qualities of earth and water, steadiness, cohesion, stability, lethargy and heaviness, and Pitta digestive issues usually present as acid reflux or heartburn. If you’re feeling these qualities, opting for the light, sharp, cleansing qualities of bitterness, or Tiksa in Sanskrit, as it helps reduce water retention and clear a congested liver. Try some of the following bitter herbs and foods to help yourself stay well this festive season – its likely these foods will be on your table this season anyway!: 

  • Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and brussels sprouts
  • Citrus peel
  • Turmeric
  • Fenugreek 
  • Leafy greens
  • Basil
  • Nettle
  • Bitter Melon 
  • Bitter tonics like Angostura Bitters before dinner 
  • Cranberries
  • Unsweetened cocoa
  • Coffee
  • Green Tea
  • Red wine

Butter Bean, Banana & Beetroot Brownies

When it comes to making healthier flourless muffins, cakes and brownies, getting the right consistency can be difficult… When it works however, there’s cause for celebration, as the result is something that cooks well, tastes delicious, and is 100% good for you!

Butter beans are high in potassium, magnesium and plant-based protein, making them an ideas addition to an active lifestyle to help improve circulation, muscle recovery, relaxation and repair. Beetroot is high in nitric acid, which is brilliant at boosting blood flow and increasing iron levels. Bananas are also famously high in potassium, and one of the best foods for preventing and repairing sore muscles. In short, these brownies make a great breakfast, post-exercise snack and dessert, and are worth making asap to get you through the week!

INGREDIENTS

(makes enough to fill a standard loaf tin)

Brownies:

  • 1 can butter beans
  • 2 small beetroot (cooked or steamed to soften)
  • 1 banana
  • ½ cup cocoa
  • 1 tbsp stevia
  • 1 handful seasonal berries
  • 1 tbsp hemp seeds or your choice of nuts / seeds
  • 1 tbsp coconut oil (melted)
  • 2 eggs / 2 chia ‘eggs’ / 2 flax ‘eggs’
  • ¼ cup your choice of milk
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • ½ tsp baking soda

Topping:

  • 1 tbsp peanut butter
  • 4 squares dark chocolate
  • 1 tbsp cacao nibs 

METHOD

  1. Pre-heat the oven to 180C
  2. Blend the cooked beetroot, butter beans, milk and banana to create a puree
  3. Pour the puree into a large mixing bowl and add all the other brownie ingredients
  4. Mix to combine and pour into a lined loaf tin
  5. Bake for roughly 45 minutes or until you can slide a toothpick or knife cleanly in and out of it
  6. When baked, remove from the oven and leave to cool completely
  7. Remove from the loaf tin and place on a tray or cooling rack
  8. For the topping, melt the chocolate and peanut butter together and pour over the top of the brownie
  9. Sprinkle over the cacao nibs and serve when the chocolate has set!
  10. Store in the fridge and consume within 1 week

Holistic Health: 5 Ways To Keep Your Sinuses Healthy This Winter

During Winter, we tend to experience a few more coughs and colds than usual, partly due to the ‘dry’ air causing membranes in the nose and throat try dry up, thus exposing us to more bacteria than usual, but also partly because we tend to move from outdoor cold to more humid indoor warmth frequently.

Ayurveda sees the Winter months as a combination of the doshas Vata and Kapha. Vata consists of the air and ether elements, with qualities like dryness, coldness, roughness, sensations of being ungrounded and scattered, with lots of movement in terms of thoughts, ideas and reactions within the nervous system. Kapha is governed by the earth and water elements, with characteristics of heaviness, steadiness, cohesion, with typical tendencies towards more mucus build up and lethargy in the body. 

To balance these energies and prevent them from becoming excessive, it’s important to look at the little things we can include in our daily routine or dinacharya to keep the mind and body well. These five simple techniques can help with un-blocking sinuses, as well as preventing them from becoming blocked:

  • Jala Neti: One of the traditional Ayurvedic self care and detox methods, Jala Neti is the practice of using a mixture of warm purified water and good quality salt to clear the nasal passages. A very effective way to help clear and prevent a head cold, and really easy to do! Banyan Botanicals provide a useful video with instructions if you want to learn how to get started: CLICK HERE
  • LI 20 & BL 2 acupressure points: Acupressure points work with the Traditional Chinese Medicine meridian lines, and are the same points used in acupuncture. For a needle-free way you can use this technique at home, simply use your finger tips to press these points firmly for about a minute at a time to clear the sinuses. Do this a few times a day to help clear blockages and release head ‘fog’. Breathing through your nose rather than your mouth at all possible times can also keep not just the sinuses healthy, but is beneficial for the whole body. 
  • Reducing Dairy and foods that have a ‘cold’ quality: During Winter, we already experience a lot of the ‘cold’ quality, and adding to it can weaken the digestive system and compromise the immunity. Dairy has a cooling effect, and can also cause a build up of mucus in the sinuses and chest. If you’re feeling blocked and stuffy or have a chesty cough, try reducing the amount of dairy you consume over the colder months. 
  • Boosting circulation & lymph flow: The immune system sometimes requires a little help to function optimally. Doing simple movements like heel-bouncing, body brushing or simply tapping your body from head to toe with your hands can help boost the movement of lymph, and help move potential illnesses through and out of the body. These practices are also an easy way to boost mood and energy levels throughout the day. Try tapping along the lung meridian lines to keep them healthy and uncongested. 
  • Get outside: Being in the sunshine and fresh air can help boost the body’s energy and mood levels, as well as help bolster the immune system. Reconnecting to nature is a wonderful way to re-set perspective, as well as helping reduce stress levels (therefore boosting the immune system), and cold air can really help clear sinuses too. NBC news recently reported: “The new study, published today in PLoS One, had 44 healthy volunteers rate their symptoms of stuffiness after breathing air from three boxes. One box contained room air at normal humidity, one held dry air at room temperature and one contained cold air. The volunteers reported feeling less nasal congestion when they breathed from the cold air box and the dry air box, with the cold air being most effective”.

Ginger & Molasses Biscuits

Warming and comforting, with digestion-boosting spices and a good dose of iron from the molasses, these biscuits are a great way to balance the Ayurvedic Vata Dosha. Dip them in tea or pack a few with you to take on blustery Autumn walks, they’re easy to make and satisfyingly similar to a ginger snap, as well as being 100% plant based.

INGREDIENTS

  • 2 cups spelt flour
  • 2 tsp ground ginger
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 2 tbsp molasses
  • 2 tbsp coconut oil
  • 1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • pinch of salt
  • tbsp stevia or coconut sugar
  • 1/4 cup ground almonds
  • Splash of almond milk
  • Whole almonds to top

METHOD

  • Mix flour, spices & bicarb together
  • Melt the coconut oil and mix with the molasses, sugar and milk
  • Mix everything together to form a firm dough
  • Pop the dough in the fridge for 30 minutes
  • Pre-heat the oven to 180c
  • Roll the dough into balls and flatten, then top with 1 almond per biscuit
  • Bake for roughly 15 minutes on the middle or bottom shelf
  • Remove from the oven and leave to cool completely

Enjoy!

The Light ‘Diet’: A Deep Dive Into Harnessing The Power Of Light For Better Health & Wellbeing

Part 1: Mitochondria

Whilst much of our ‘dietary’ focus is upon the foods we eat and how much exercise we do, what we might not think about is the amount of natural light we’re getting each day, and at which times we’re getting it.

 What you eat and when you eat it can be ‘hacked’ to enhance nutrient absorption, muscle growth, wound repair and even help the body move in and out of ketosis. When we exercise and the types of movements we choose can also make a big impact upon health and wellbeing. Research shows that fasted cardio (running or doing something that raises your heartrate before eating breakfast) can greatly enhance fat burning, but might also be damaging to women’s hormone and adrenal health. Drinking coffee after a workout can prevent muscle soreness, and when consumed with a carbohydrate, increases the speed at which muscles absorb glycogen and recover. The light exposure throughout all of these health practices however, will impact their effectiveness greatly. This is due to the function of mitochondria. Mitochondria are considered the ‘power generators’ of the cells, and they essentially help the body live, breathe and move by converting oxygen and nutrients into ATP – think of that as the ‘fuel’ that powers the activity of the cells. To put it simply – we can eat healthy food, practice yoga, exercise and opt for 100% organic products, but we don’t get the benefits of them if our mitochondria aren’t functioning properly!

Some of the symptoms of poorly functioning mitochondria include muscle weakness and injury, vision or hearing issues, cognitive decline and brain fog, heart, liver or kidney diseases, disturbances in heart rhythm, compromised immune function, fatigue and depression. Whilst some mitochondrial issues are more serious, there are effective ways to reverse mitochondria damage and help it function optimally again, including cold therapy (cold showers and ice baths), avoiding toxins like chemical cleaning products and pollution, eating sufficient protein, consuming vitamins C and E, and vitamin CoQ10, high intensity interval training, and periods of fasting combined with periods of eating a ketogenic diet. Underlying all of this however, is the amount and types of light we’re exposed to, which is more accessible, and something many of us can start making changes to right away. 

Morning Light

Blue lightwaves help the body recognise when its morning, and therefore kick all the systems into action. When we see natural light in the morning, the body wakes up the digestive system, increases alertness and cognitive function, begins pumping blood to the muscles more efficiently, and helps the body’s circadian rhythms (the body clock) ‘tick’ at the right time. If we don’t get that natural light first thing after waking however, we’re essentially walking around half asleep, with melatonin (the sleep hormone) still hanging around in the hormonal systems, and a brain and digestive tract that are nowhere near prepared for the day ahead. 

Seeing this blue light in the morning then is beneficial as it suppresses melatonin, but if we see it at night (emitted from screens on phones, laptops, TV and lightbulbs), it also prevents melatonin from being secreted, and therefore prevents us sleeping and getting good quality sleep. Recent reports say that teenagers who scroll though their phones and send messages at night are increasingly found to have more anxiety and depression, and issues with being able to sleep. From the Guardian: ‘A longitudinal study of 1,101 Australian high school students aged between 13 and 16 found poor-quality sleep associated with late-night texting or calling was linked to a decline in mental health, such as depressed moods and declines in self-esteem and coping ability’. Indeed, being exposed to blue lightwaves and screens at night is literally a wake up call for your body, and poor quality sleep means a higher risk for: obesity, heart disease and diabetes, depression, disrupted hormones, weak immune system, low sex drive, and greatly increases the risk of injury through exercise or things like driving and manual tasks. 

If you’re experiencing sleep issues, try the following:

  • Get outside ASAP after waking and expose your eyes to the morning light. Looking out the window won’t help, as the full light spectrum doesn’t come through the glass, so if you aren’t able to go outside, try opening the window wide instead.  
  • Let your body absorb the morning light too, as light receptors are found all over the body and in the skin, not just the eyes!
  • Move and breathe deeply in the morning to kick-start your circadian rhythms
  • Drink water and eat something small to tell the body a new day has arrived.
  • At night, spend time outside during warmer months and go to bed when the sun sets. In Winter when the sun sets earlier, either go to bed earlier or illuminate your house with red or iridescent bulbs that don’t carry those blue lightwaves. Blue light blocking glasses are another very useful tool, and putting them on after sunset keeps that blue light out of your eyes. They’re becoming quite popular and mainstream now, so they should be quite easy to get hold of. 

Night Light

Apart from preventing melatonin secretion, staying up late surrounded by artificial light tricks the body into thinking it still needs to be awake and active. The important aspect to note here is that exposure to artificial light (especially at night) forces the body to keep working without receiving any natural light source – we get a lot of energy from light, not just food and water. Not getting enough daylight and then getting way too much ‘junk’ artificial light essentially starves the body of necessary sunlight, and prevents the hormones leptin and ghrelin from working properly. Leptin tells us when we’re full, and ghrelin tells us when we’re hungry. One of the main reasons messed-up sleep can lead to weight gain is because these hormones aren’t able to communicate and talk to us properly, and even if we eat enough food, we’re still starved of light energy. 

We evolved and were sustained over millions of years with sunlight. It enables plants to live and grow, and we literally exist because of it. Sunlight helps our bodies and minds function, it helps regulate the body clock, and getting good amounts of sunlight simply feels good too. Are there aspects of your day you could change in order to get more natural light exposure? Could you swap your indoor gym session for an outdoor run or tree climb? Could you find ways of enjoying evenings without TV or screen time? Perhaps experiment with a few ‘light changes’ to your week; a couple or morning walks a week or an evening or two by candle light, notice how you feel and find a way to make it work for you. 

Part 2:

Supplemental Sunshine: Getting More From Good Weather

Good morning Sunshine

Getting outside between 8-11am is absolutely vital in order to get the most from sunlight. Morning sunlight contains the lightwaves Ultraviolet-B (UVB), Ultraviolet-A (UV-A) and Infrared-A (IR-A), which help the body produce vitamin D, and are more effectively absorbed and used by the body than any food substance. Sure, we can supplement with vitamin D, but it isn’t nearly as effective as good old sunshine. Even sunshine in the Winter months benefits us in this way, meaning vitamin D levels can be maintained throughout the year if we prioritise morning walks or simply standing in the garden each morning.

Waking early enough to benefit from the morning sun as cultures have done for thousands of years virtually flicks a switch on the body clock, telling it a new day has started, and encourages digestion, cognitive function, muscle function and circulation to fire up. Without this morning burst of sunlight, the body just isn’t as aware that a new day has started, which means the food we eat for breakfast can’t be turned into energy as effectively, and the first few hours of work time may not be as effective.

Sunny Disposition

Perhaps most interestingly from a mental health and mindfulness point of view, this morning sunlight has a profound and shocking impact upon mood, circadian rhythms and hormone levels. In a tiny region of the brain’s hypothalamus (the part responsible for linking the nervous system to the hormonal system, and maintaining homeostasis aspects like hunger, thirst, body temperature etc) is a sensor called the SCN (suprachiasmatic nucleus). The SCN is thought of as a circadian pacemaker, controlling sleep-wake cycles, whilst also coordinating these cycles with other circadian rhythms in other brain areas and other areas of the body. Yes, there are circadian rhythms throughout the whole of the body – a little like small body clocks in all of our cells and tissues.

Our muscles, heart, lungs, eyes, digestive system, hormonal secretions etc all have a rhythm of their own, which are each effected by all the other rhythms, and are also dependent upon all the other rhythms. Without morning sunlight switching on the body clock (to put it in very simplified terms) we’re more likely to suffer from low mood levels, eat more than we need and make poor food choices, an inability to think straight and problem solve, and impaired social skills.

We’re designed to work in harmony with both nature and our own bodies. When sunlight hits the eye’s retina, it communicates a signal to the SCN that a new day has
started. This in turn sets the body’s rhythms for a new day.

Finally, and something I’m thoroughly immersed in researching right now, is how morning sunlight deeply impacts upon mood and wellbeing levels. When these specific lightwaves from the sun enter the eye and are communicated to various parts of the brain, serotonin is released. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter found primarily in the nervous system, gut and blood platelets, and it’s one of the most powerful things for regulating mood levels. A large part of the reason why so may people are prescribed antidepressant pharmaceuticals is because of a lack of serotonin. Interestingly, this lack of serotonin seems to be found in many more people today than it ever has before, correlating with the fact that chronic disease seems to be more prevalent now than ever before, and correlating with the rise in artificial lighting, disconnect from nature, more screen time, time spent stressing about work, social media, and shutting ourselves off from the outside world.

Back To Nature

This morning light exposure may appear a clumsy and all too simple way to enhance health and wellbeing, but if humans have survived and thrived by living in a natural environment and waking up to sunlight for thousands of years, it must be doing something pretty impressive. If civilisations have been worshipping the sun and treating it as a god-like entity for centuries, maybe they knew how important it was too, without needing to google ‘benefits of sunlight’…….. If sunlight can help grow plants, crops and the food we all eat, surely it must be doing something to us when we’re immersed in it. If the technological advances we’ve created and come to rely upon are beginning to cause more harm than help, maybe it’s time to balance things out, to get back to nature, to simplify morning routines or even practice digital detox days.

Could sunlight have a potentially powerful effect on our digestion, mood levels, energy levels and cellular renewal? Could simply getting back to our natural rhythms be the very medicine and lifestyle remedy we’ve all be searching for? We’ll only know if we give it a go.

Part 3:

Solstice Rituals & Reconnecting To The Sun

Revered for thousands of years as the original form of god, the sun not only warms us and enables everything on earth to thrive, but signifies an ever-present power and giver of life. Throughout history, civilisations from the Mayans to the Egyptians, ancient India and China, the Romans, Mexicans, Peruvians, and of course here in the UK have worshipped the sun and created rituals around it and the summer solstice.

Megaliths throughout the world such as Stone Henge here in the UK, the Pyramid of Kukulkan in South America, Temple of The Sun in Peru, the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt and Chichen Itza in Mexico all have a significant interaction with the sun at the Summer Solstice. Whether it’s the ability to shine exactly through a specifically carved circle, to cast a particular shadow or no shadow at all, there was evidently a deeply rooted connection to nature both here on earth and in an astrological sense when these giant stone spectacles were made. Not just that, but this yearning to dedicate energy to creating something that marks the sun’s path and particular points along it hints that as humans we’ve always felt the need to connect to and be a part of nature both on the ground and in the sky.

Whether you’re venturing to the UK’s Stone Henge this summer solstice, travelling afar to ancient monuments or cultivating your own home rituals, be inspired by these Summer Solstice rituals from an array of cultures across the globe.

Sun Dancing

In Native American culture, the sun dance was and still is a very traditional ritual whereby the community gathers together to pray for healing and renewal whilst looking at the sun. These sun dances were intense events lasting around four to eight days with no food or water, beginning at sunrise and with each dancer wearing a ring of sage around the head, wrists and ankles to symbolise purity.

Starlight

In ancient Egypt, the Summer Solstice welcomed Sirus, the brightest star in the sky. This point in time was just before the flood season, which was vital for nourishing crops across the land. For the ancient Egyptians, the Summer Solstice and the coming of Sirus were in fact seen as the Egyptian’s new year’s day, a time of renewal and abundance.

Holy Baking

The ancient Roman Vestalia, honouring goddess Vesta who, along with the goddess Juno, protected marriages and was considered sacred to women. This ritual was about honouring the essence of purity and virginity by making offerings to the Vestil Virgins – a little like a gathering of nuns today. A sacred flame was guarded throughout the ceremonies of offerings, one of which was a cake made with water from a holy spring, sacred salt and ritually prepared brine. Today, a modern Vestilia ritual involves baking a cake and cleaning and decorating the home. This is also a time of cleansing and of honouring women and family.

Yin & Yang

The Chinese Summer Solstice honours the Earth, femininity and yin energy. As can be seen in the yin / yang symbol, opposite energies work harmoniously together and are essential for maintaining nature’s balance. When the fiery yang energy of the Summer therefore reaches its peak at the solstice, the calm and cooling energy of yin is honoured and welcomed in. To mark the Summer Solstice, women gave each other coloured fans to cool them down, and sweet smelling sachets as a pleasant fragrance. Throughout parts of Shandong and Beijing, chilled noodles are served as the traditional food thought the Summer Solstice time.

Fertility & Fulfilment

Pagans celebrate the Summer Solstice – also known to them as Litha – by honouring fertility, and honouring achievements, joy and fulfilment. Rituals include staying up all night with a roaring bonfire to await the morning sunrise, dancing around the fire and using sacred herbs to bless plants and animals. Although most commonly associated with Yule, mistletoe is thought to be at the height of its power during midsummer, so along with herbs, flowers and honey they’re gathered whilst they’re at the peak of goodness. Much like the Roman tradition, the Pagans would traditionally bake on the Summer Solstice to symbolise a welcoming of abundance into the home. Traditional ingredients at their peak at this time of year for cooking and gathering also include elderflower, buttermilk, rosemary, fennel, sage and thyme.

Part 4:

DEALING WITH SEASONAL AFFECTIVE DISORDER: HOW EXERCISE & SUPPLEMENTATION CAN HELP

Whilst the Winter months might mean cosy nights in, plenty of festive parties, warm drinks and log fires for some, for others the falling back of the clocks is the catalyst for Seasonal Affective Disorder – also known as Winter Depression, Winter Blues, and Seasonal Depression.

Characterised by people who have normal mood levels throughout the year but fall into bouts of depression during Winter, traditional symptoms include lack of energy, withdrawal from social interaction, feelings of hopelessness, sleep and appetite issues, inability to focus and loss of interest in activities. This isn’t just a dislike of cold mornings and disappointment with dark nights, it’s a psychological and physical reaction to lack of sunlight, decreased temperatures, inevitably more time indoors, but is also thought to be a slight hangover from human evolution. For many species, food is less available in the Winter months, and when humans lived in a truly natural world thousands of years ago, low mood levels would have suppressed natural hunger pangs. As SAD is more common with women, it’s also thought to be linked to an evolutionary process preventing reproduction. Studies show that SAD is more likely to occur within people who display characteristics of neuroticism, openness, agreeableness, and an avoidance-orientated coping style.

Having the tools to adapt to each season can be incredibly helpful in navigating the year successfully. Keep reading for 7 ways to effectively deal with SAD.

LIGHTEN UP

Sunlight isn’t as accessible at this time of year, so make the most of what you can find! Try waking up with the sun (a little easier during Winter as the sun rises later) – circadian rhythms (the internal body clock) are determined by the first natural light you see, and the first non-water item you consume, so get the day off to a good start by ‘setting off’ your body’s alarm clock with a cup of tea and a side of sunshine.

Although the outside world may not be as inviting during Winter, it’s important to get outside in the morning to take in the early morning daylight as it contains more blue lightwaves (ones that help the body properly wake up) than afternoon light. This is also a good time to breathe in the fresh air and greet a new day. If you’re not able to get outside much during Winter, or you really notice the lack of sunlight, purchase a light box and have it in front of you when you’re indoors. These boxes contain the same measure of light as outdoor sunlight, and encourage the brain to believe it’s surrounded by mood-boosting sunlight. If you’re able to, a week away somewhere warm and sunny is also a wonderful way to curb SAD symptoms, and helps break up the Winter months.

Sunlight also contains valuable vitamin D, and with the standard government advice being to pop a vitamin D capsule during the Winter, this is one supplement that should be in everyone’s cabinet at this time of year. Look for a good quality, high strength supplement if you experience SAD.

WARM UP & WORKOUT

Most of us already know the positive impact exercising can have on the mind; either from reading and hearing about it, or experiencing the rush of endorphins after a run or gym session ourselves. During the Winter, ensure you keep up your regular exercise regime. If your energy levels are lacking, stick to your schedule but take it easy. Getting your daily dose of movement is important for overall wellbeing, but is even more crucial if you’re feeling down.

Take a Yoga class, go for a run, head to the gym for a weights session, swim, play sports, or simply go for a walk with a friend. Anything that gets your body moving will help!

HEALTHY FATS FOR A HAPPY MIND

Once feared, healthy fats are now an important staple in many people’s diets due to their ability to actually decrease body fat, enhance endurance, boost brain power, and regulate hormones. If that wasn’t enough, fats are also one of the most important nutrients for maintaining good mood levels! Healthy fats from Omega 3s are a well known treatment for depression and anxiety – both of which contribute to low levels of constant inflammation in the body. Ensure you’re getting enough fats from avocado, coconut, oily fish, eggs, grass fed dairy products, good quality oils, nuts and seeds. Consider adding an Omega 3 supplement like Krill Oil vitamin D to your routine at this time of year too, as they’ll both stave off SAD symptoms.

SOCIALISE

Make plans to socialise, even if it’s just with one or two other people – and stick to them. Tell the people you trust what you’re going through so they can be compassionate, but also be open to some tough love. Your friends and family may not be able to feel exactly what you’re going through, but they care about you and can see things from a clearer perspective. Ensure you speak to someone you love and trust each day, and try helping others when you can either by volunteering or simply being kind. Knowing we’ve helped someone and have done a good deed can enhance mood levels dramatically.

GET GUT HEALTH HAPPY

Your gut is so intrinsically connected to your brain, so much so in fact, that changes in the microbiome (the billions of bacteria in the gut) have been shown in several studies to be linked to depression. The gut and brain communicate via the microbiota, which links emotional and cognitive brain activity to the function of the intestines.  Getting enough fibre, exercising regularly, consuming enough water, eating fresh foods as opposed to processed, and cutting down on sugar can all help improve gut health. Consuming natural probiotics like kefir and sauerkraut or a good quality probiotic can also go a long way to improving the health of the gut and therefore the whole body. A probiotic is one of the most important supplements you can add to your routine, so stock up!

PLAN AHEAD

Knowing what lies ahead can help you prepare for Winter properly. Gather together all the tools mentioned here, and remind loved ones that you may need some extra support in upcoming months. The other important plans to make are the ones that come to fruition after Winter. Feelings of hopelessness can be lessened if you have exciting things awaiting you in Spring. If a holiday, a new project, a career change, or a spa day are in your calendar to look forward to, you’ll know there’s light at the end of what can seem like a very long tunnel.

RELEASE EXPECTATION

The mind is an incredibly powerful thing – so powerful that it can even create physical responses to our thoughts and expectations. Essentially – if we really believe we’re going to feel a certain way about something, we will. The body doesn’t always know the difference between reality and what the brain has imagined, but it reacts the same way. Basically, if you think you’re going to experience SAD and all the related symptoms every year, you can be sure that you’ll start feeling low and listless as soon as we hit October. Try observing your thoughts, writing down worries, and visualise yourself feeling happy and content during Winter. This might not be a miracle cure, but it can definitely help when it comes to SAD.

Further Reading:

  • The Light Diet By Matt Maruka
  • Change Your Schedule, Change Your Life By Dr. Suhas Kshirsagar
  • Jack Kruse – Google him, he has a lot of articles on sunlight 
  • Suns of God: Krishna, Buddha and Christ Unvelied By Acharya S