Improve the Health of Your Heart with Yoga

IMG_2757A new study suggests more evidence that yoga is good for your heart. Researchers from the University of Kansas Medical Center, aware of the significant benefit of yoga on cardiovascular health, studied the effect of the practice on atrial fibrillation (AF). They found that yoga reduced symptomatic AF episodes.

According to the study report, AF is the most common cardiac arrhythmia. An arrythmia is a problem with the rate or rhythm of the heartbeat – it can be too fast, too slow or irregular. In atrial fibrillation, the heart’s internal electrical signals travel through the atria in a fast and chaotic way, causing the atria to quiver instead of contract. Even when asymptomatic, AF can increase the risk of stroke and can lead to heart failure in some people.

AF is associated with significant morbidity, mortality and healthcare costs. Quality of life is greatly affected, and depression and anxiety is often experienced. The effectiveness of current treatment strategies for AF is inconsistent and leaves much to be desired. Complementary or alternative forms of therapy, like yoga, that reduce or help to control the crippling symptoms of AF can make a huge difference.

After an initial observation period, patients with symptomatic paroxysmal AF in this recent study practiced yoga for 60 minutes twice a week for three months. Yoga practice reduced AF episodes, both with and without symptoms. Patients also showed reduced heart rates and blood pressure, as well as reported anxiety and depression.

Yoga, and other mind-body therapies, have been also shown to reduce hypertension, or high blood pressure. It is the most common risk factor for stroke, heart attack and kidney disease and is difficult to control adequately.

In 2007, Yale researchers reviewed 12 randomized, controlled trials comparing the mind-body therapies (MBT) of yoga, meditation and guided imagery alone or in combination with conventional treatment, as well as comparing conventional treatment alone to no intervention. They found that MBT significantly reduced systolic blood pressure and diastolic blood pressure. Yoga and meditation significantly reduced SBP, while only yoga demonstrated significant reductions in DBP.

Of the three therapies reviewed, yoga reduced systolic and diastolic blood pressure the most and, according to Medical News Today , was associated with reductions in vascular death rates as well as decreased overall cardiac risk.

“This review shows that there is some high quality scientific literature supporting the use of mind-body therapies as a treatment for hypertension, and the magnitude of effect is clinically significant,” said Ather Ali, ND, MPH, the lead author.

The yoga posture pictured above is called the upward bow, Urdhva Dhanurasana, or backbend. Stretching and releasing the muscles of the chest allows circulation to flow freely to the heart and lungs. By opening up the chest, complete expansion of the lungs results, encouraging proper breathing. Backbends aren’t only great for your health and lungs, they also stimulate the immune, lymphatic, digestive, nervous and reproductive system. Read more about the benefits of just this one posture here.

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Connecticut Leads Nation in Banning BPA in Receipts

On June 9, Connecticut become the first state in the nation to ban the chemical bisphenol A, otherwise known as BPA, in “thermal receipt paper” that customers receive at retailers, banks and gas stations.

The chemical is used as a coating on receipt paper so that it prints in color when heated. BPA is not bound to the paper, as it is to, say, baby bottles, making it easily transferable to skin and anything else it brushes against.

“We’ve discovered that 60 percent of our thermal receipts contain BPA,” said Rep. Lonnie Reed, D-Branford, leading a four-long debate in the state House, according to The New Haven Register.

Members approached of the Coalition for a Safe & Healthy Connecticut Sen. Edward Meyer, D-Branford, who later introduced the bill, about their concerns of BPA in thermal receipt paper.

The Official Food Control Authority of the Canton of Zürich in Switzerland performed a study that found BPA from receipts can be absorbed into the skin, raising the risk that the chemical “infiltrates the skin’s lower layers to enter the bloodstream directly.”

If BPA gets into our bodies, what might be the consequences? The chemical has been proven to mimic the hormone estrogen potentially leading to negative health effects. According to the National Institutes of Health, animal studies indicate BPA is associated with diabetes, obesity, early onset puberty, hyperactivity and developmental problems in children, reproductive disorders and development of prostate, breast and uterine cancers.

BPA is of course not just found in our receipts. BPA is also used in the production of polycarbonate plastics and is found in water and infant bottles, food storage containers, CDs, as well as in epoxy resins used to coat metal products in water supply pipes, bottle tops and food cans.

Last year, Canada became the first country to declare BPA as a toxic substance, and both Canada and European Union banned its use in baby bottles.

In this nation, a ban on BPA in baby food jars and reusable food and drink containers, passed by the legislature last year, takes effect in Connecticut on Oct. 1.

According to Forbes.com, a former employee of Polaroid and organic chemist John C. Warner, revealed that many receipts contain not a little, but a lot of BPA.

In an article in ScienceNews, Warner said that, in an urban environment “the biggest exposures [to BPA], in my opinion, will be these cash register receipts.

The Forbes.com article went on to detail the BPA content on receipts from different stores, including a McDonald’s from Clinton, Conn., which had approximately 13 milligrams of BPA.

This is the same amount of BPA found in 126 cans of Chef Boyardee Overstuffed Beef Ravioli in Hearty Tomato & Meat Sauce, “one of the products with the highest concentrations of BPA in EWG’s 2007 tests of canned foods,” according the article. Receipts from CVS and Wal-Mart also had significant amounts of BPA.

How many of you will remember to wash your fingers before next reading a newspaper, magazine or book and licking your fingers to turn the page? Will you scrub those hands before putting food into your mouth? Otherwise, you also risk putting traces BPA directly into your body.

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Pesticides from GM Crops Present in Bloodstream of Unborn Babies

There has been much debate about the safety of genetically modified, or GM, foods since they were first put on the market in the early ‘90s. The industry has stood by its claim that any potentially harmful chemicals from pesticides added to crops—like soybeans, canola and corn—would pass through the body with ill-effect.

However, the results of a study published earlier this month add more fuel to the fire that the consumption of GM foods is more dangerous than suspected. These findings reveal that toxins from pesticides used on GM foods are showing up in the bloodstreams of women and unborn babies.

The study, conducted in eastern townships of Quebec, revealed that traces of the chemicals were found in 93 per cent of blood samples taken from the dozens of pregnant women and 80 percent of samples taken from umbilical cords.

According to the British publication, The Telegraph, it appeared that chemicals were being passed into the body through the ingestion of meat, milk and eggs from farm livestock fed GM corn.

Why is this so concerning to those of us in America? A significant number of our farms grow genetically engineered seed for the only crops that can survive these very same pesticides. GM corn that contains these toxins is, in turn, fed to livestock that we also consume.

Not only are Americans getting toxins through vegetables and plants, but through meat and dairy products as well.

What exactly is GM food and why are we growing and consuming it in the first place? The DNA of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is altered in a way that does not occur in nature. Selected individual genes can be transferred from one organism into another, as well as between non-related species. This is how GM plants are created, which are then used to grow GM crops.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the initial aim of developing GM plants was to improve crop protection. GM crops are designed to be resistance to plant diseases caused by insects or viruses and/or to have increased tolerance to the type of pesticides called herbicides.

It was previously claimed that these toxins were destroyed in the digestive tract of the animals that consumed GM products. However, a 2010 article in The Huffington Post reported a study released by International Journal of Biological Sciences, linking the GM corn of the bio-agricultural and chemical giant Monsanto to organ damage in rats. Effects were mostly concentrated in kidney and liver function, the “two major diet detoxification organs,” stated the IJBS. Effects on the heart, adrenal, spleen and blood cells were frequently noted as well.

In response to the IJBS findings, Monsanto conducted a 90-day study, too short to assess chronic problems, found the crops safe for consumption. The response from IJBS: “Our study contradicts Monsanto conclusions because Monsanto systematically neglects significant health effects in mammals that are different in males and females eating GMOs, or not proportional to the dose. This is a very serious mistake, dramatic for public health.”

Indeed numerous sources assert that much of the global research used to demonstrate the safety of GM crops has been funded by the industry itself.

Industry companies claim there biotech crops are as wholesome, nutritious and safe as conventional crops. However, there have been other studies to suggest this isn’t necessarily the case.

WHO cites the danger of GM crops solely approved for feed for use in products for human consumption. In one high profile case in 2002, StarLink corn, by Aventis Crop Sciences, was approved for animal feed, but found in Taco Bell taco shells. Twenty-eight people reported allergic reactions after eating these corn products. At that time, Central African nations refused to accept aid containing StarLink corn, and the Southern farmers suffered great economic loss.

According to SourceWatch.com, the first commercially grown GM crop, FlavrSavr tomato, considered bland in taste, led to stomach lesions in female rats. Arpad Pusztai, PhD, a leading expert in GM food safety assessments said the crop “could lead to life-endangering hemorrhage,” particularly in the elderly.

Also concerning is research presented earlier this year by Purdue University’s Emeritus Professor Don M. Huber. As reported in February in The Huffington Post, Monsanto’s Roundup Ready GM crops contain “an organism, previously unknown to science,” which can cause miscarriages in farm animals.

This most recent Canadian study strikes such a chord because chemicals intended to kill pests on crops are making their way to the womb and unborn children. While the effect of this is still unclear, the British publication, The Daily Mail, says there is speculation that blood toxicity “could lead to allergies, miscarriage, abnormalities or even cancer.”

Unlike the European Union, Japan and Australia, the United States and Canada do not require the labeling of GM foods. The implication of this to American consumers: We could be ingesting GM foods and not even know it. Thus, pesticide toxins could also be making their way into our bloodstream, and we would have no way to trace it unless our bodies began showing signs of poor health. Scary thought, no?

Stay tuned next week for discussion on the lively debate surrounding organic and non-organic foods.

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Is Our Fascination With Diet Even Affecting Our Unborn Children?

As information continues to flow about how maternal health impacts fetal health, expectant mothers have increasingly more to consider when it comes to diet and their unborn children.

Most are aware of the importance of having a calcium-rich diet for developing bones and getting enough folic acid to help prevent neural tube defects like spina bifida. Certain types of fish, like swordfish and king mackerel, are a no-no due to high levels of mercury. And public health campaigns have been successful at spreading the word to cut alcohol consumption during pregnancy to help prevent premature delivery, mental retardation, birth defects and low birth weight babies.

Recent studies reveal that a mother’s behavior and habits may have an even further-reaching impact on her child’s life. Earlier this year, the journal Diabetes reported a study suggesting that a woman’s diet, particularly in the first trimester of pregnancy, may alter the DNA of her baby in the womb and increase the risk of obesity.

 The BBC’s report on the study, explained it this way: “It is thought that a developing baby tries to predict the environment it will be born into, taking cues from its mother and adjusting its DNA.”

Studies in animals have shown that changes in diet can alter the function of genes–a process called epigenetic change. In this most recent study, researchers found children with a high degree of epigenetic change were more likely to develop a metabolism that “lays down more fat” leading to obesity, which can be carried into adulthood.


According to Yahoo! Health, one theory for this change is that an expectant mother who eats fewer carbs, which provide energy to the body, alters her baby’s metabolism by nurturing it in a carbohydrate-deprived environment.

Linking “epigenetic marker” with children carrying an average 6.6 pounds more than their peers by the ages six and nine, Professor Peter Gluckman from Auckland University’s Liggins Institute said the additional fat was likely to be carried well into adulthood.

Simply put, this study suggests a mother’s diet might impact her child’s risk of adulthood obesity, heart disease and diabetes.

Note I said ‘might.’ The jury is still out on just how direct this association is, so let’s not jump to find another reason to blame our mothers for those extra pounds we can’t get rid of. We still have accountability to ourselves to take care of our bodies through good nutrition, exercise and other healthy behaviors.

We’re familiar with the adage: You are what you eat. It increasingly appears that you are also what your mother eats while you’re still in the womb. Stay tuned for tomorrow’s piece on other aspects of the maternal diet whose path is not so clear-cut to trace.

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The Mind-Body SHIFT

We are more than overdue for a change in modern Western medicine. Rather than just focusing on the use of pills to block or slow the symptoms that signal disease, we need to start looking at the root causes of disease. This requires a total revolution in the Western model of medicine. It is time we learn from our neighbors in the East and not just focus on the body, but also the mind and spirit, to work toward healing. Instead of looking to just try to “fix” a single ailing body part, this new approach aims to treat the whole person.

As much as the pharmaceutical companies benefit from our dependence on their medications, any of us who have been popping pills regularly for an extended amount of time know there is a better solution out there for us. Most of us are not really getting any better. Our bodies are numbed, but the disease persists and as soon as we stop taking the pills, our symptoms return.

What is the alternative? A possible alternative solution combines conventional Western medicine with complementary treatments, such as herbal medicine, massage, yoga, stress reduction techniques, biofeedback, and acupuncture. It focuses on nutrition and healthy, balanced diet. It encourages staying active with exercise and also learning to listen to our bodies when we need to just stop and rest. Sleep is so crucial for our body’s restoration processes, but so many of us think we can just run our bodies into the ground day in and day out. A recent study reported by NPR, in fact, suggests the more sleep we get, the more productive we are.

As we all struggle to handle increasing stress, both in our external environment and our internal landscape, it is time to look at different ways to approach living our best lives in the modern world. It is time for a MindBodySHIFT. Through this web site, my aim is to share and report Stories of Health, Inspiration, Faith, and Transformation. I cannot do this alone, for I am just one small part of a community of others also looking for positive changes in the health and well-being in lives around the world.

Please feel free to comment and email me stories you’d like me to include, give me feedback, and share links and ideas with each other. I look forward to sharing this journey with each and everyone one of you!

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At a Loss For Words

by Renée Canada

Steven King, one of the modern American masters of storytelling is quoted as saying, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time—or the tools—to write. Simple as that.” There is a breed of writers who believe that one should simply focus on jumping immediately to the page and churning through the act and practice of writing. “It’s hard for me to believe that people who read very little—or not at all in some cases—should presume to write and expect people to like what they have written,” King adds.

King and other authentic storytellers recognize the knowledge that can be procured from observing how other writers craft words, sentences and paragraphs together just so, how they enliven truly authentic dialogue and create living and breathing settings that you can sink into. To read is to learn and to be inspired by others’ ideas, styles and expression of inspiration.

Imagine then a bestselling writer who finds suddenly unable to read. This is what happened to Canadian crime novelist Howard Engel. One seemingly ordinary morning, nearly a decade ago, Engel woke up to find his newspaper a jumble of what appeared to him to be Serbo-Croatian instead of normal English text, though the layout and pictures appeared normal. He went to the hospital and discovered he had suffered a stroke overnight. He recovered rather well in most areas, but was left with alexia: word blindness.

The stroke had damaged the left visual cortex and the splenium of the corpus callosum, preventing the parts of the brain that process what is seen to send visual information to the language areas of the brain. Though Engel still retained most of his vision, his brain could not differentiate the shapes that made up letters and words. For a bookworm who lived to read, this discovery was heartbreaking. “I was a one trick pony, and reading was my trick,” Engel later wrote in his memoir.

However, the part of the brain that controlled motor movement was not affected. With a pencil in hand, Engel found he was still able to write letters. Over time, he learned to trace each individual letter on the page or in the air, and later by tracing the letters of a word on his lower teeth with his tongue.  With repetition, came meaning. His remarkable “solution” to his condition caught the attention of the renowned neurologist, Oliver Sacks, best known for his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for A Hat and the book Awakenings, which inspired he Oscar-nominated film. Engel’s story will be included in Sack’s latest book, The Mind’s Eye, due out later this year.

Amazingly, Engel has written two books since his stroke. In one, the latest in his popular Benny Cooperman detective series, Memory Book (2005), his lead detective develops alexia after being struck in the head and is affected similarly to Engel. He must jot down clues in a memory book to help him solve his latest case.

Engel’s 2007 memoir, The Man Who Forgot How to Read describes his recovery from the stroke, discovering he can no longer navigate and can only distinguish between certain fruits by smelling each one. He also struggles to figure out how to support himself, his young son and girlfriend. However, in therapy, he learned “how to make [his] disability a friend.”

Thinking of Engel’s loss of the ability to read reminds me of the heart-wrenching emotions I felt when I first saw the movie Iris in 2002. Iris (starring Kate Winslet, Judi Dench, and Jim Broadbent) tells the story of the free-spirited British novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch through the eyes of her husband John Bayley. It chronicles the disintegration of the mind of Iris, who prizes carefully crafted words, inspired thought, and passionate debate of ideas above almost all else. As a fellow writer, I was especially disheartened watching the portrayal of her world growing dimmer and smaller as words began to elude her. It is quite telling that the symptoms she suffered in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease she attributed to writer’s block.

In the early stages of the disease, tangled bundles of fibers develop deep in the entorhinal cortex of the brain, which receives highly-processed input from every sensory modality, as well as input relating to ongoing cognitive processes. One of the most commonly recognized early symptoms of Alzheimer’s is an inability to acquire new memories, such as difficulty in recalling recently observed facts. In moderate dementia, people begin to suffer from an inability to recall vocabulary, frequently leading to incorrect word substitutions, which terribly frustrated Iris as she continued to struggle to write books and converse with others. Gradually it became impossible for her to read or write at all, her manuscripts a pile of gibberish, and John tried to help substitute for that loss as best he could. Eventually, as long-term memory was increasingly affected, Iris began failing to recognize close friends and eventually her husband, John. In the end, it is only John who retains the memories of their lives together through the years.

I related very much to the film’s view of the world as an overflowing medley of experiences that gain meaning through our process of perceiving and storing memories of them. These memories shape the way we look at the world, how we relate to others, and how we perceive ourselves. The thought of one day losing the very process of thought and memory is terrifying.

Perhaps it is enough for non-artists to just experience an event as it comes and then let it go. But I relish in the memory of an experience almost as much as the experience itself. I like to roll it around on the tongue of my mind, letting every detail connect with each taste bud. I find pleasure creating in my mind another ending to the story of life or imagining a different path to the same ending. I love to envision how a different person would handle the same situation or how this same experience was viewed through another’s eyes.

Watching the film Iris makes me realize my occasional fear of aging is not really the fear of growing old. The idea of growing old with someone I love, knowing each other’s habits and thoughts so we well that we have almost memorized each detail fills me with longing. I embrace the wrinkles that carry the character and beauty of time. To me, the crippling of the body is not something I welcome, but the potential death of the mind is what most fills me with fear. Having lived with an illness that overwhelmed me with the kind of fatigue and pain that crippled the mind almost as much as the body, the dearth of inspiration or means to express it can be paralyzing.

On my worst days, I couldn’t even think of the word for pen or remember how to spell words I’ve used every day of my life. I couldn’t get through more than a line o r two of a novel before I realized nothing had sunk in. Rereading those lines again and again only frustrated me further because it felt as if I was an 8-year-old trying to read Proust. There were the days when deep thoughts eluded me, and I wasted the hours mindlessly channel-surfing because I could handle no more.

Words, words, words. They are our lifelines to the outside world. They are our method of communicating desires and needs. They form the building blocks for unique thoughts. Ever since I learned how to read, I’ve been obsessed with the written word. Like Engel, I am a book hound, usually reading at least two books at any given time.  I can’t remember a time when I haven’t wanted to read or to write, endlessly searching for the perfect word or the most delicious turn of phrase. My darkest days of illness were when I feel cut off from this lifeline. Temporarily losing words petrifies me. Losing the ability to fully absorb others’ thoughts and ideas through the written word, like Engel, or the ability to express my own, like Iris, would lead to certain death in a large part of my soul.

Despite the fears and anxieties they stirred within me, the stories of Engel and Iris are both incredibly heartening and inspiring. They should encourage each one of us to make the most of what we have while we have it. You never know if, when, or for how long it might be stolen from you. The burst of lucid, inspired thought captured forever in time is truly a cherished gift.

@2010

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An Unquenchable Thirst for Love: The Paradox of Living with Williams Syndrome

by Renée Canada

Imagine being driven by the desire for connection and love, yet finding yourself nearly incapable of sustaining either. Some of us struggling single folks might relate to this feeling in some bittersweet way. Yet for those born with the rare genetic disorder, Williams Syndrome, this is not the material for self-deprecating, bitingly humorous blogs or heartbreak-with-a-happy-ending Hollywood movies. A recent piece by NPR explored how people with WS, who thrive on social connection, unfortunately often find it nearly impossible to develop and sustain close relationships. 

Williams Syndrome (WS) is caused by a deletion of approximately 26 genes on a sole chromosome. While this results in mental retardation, development delay, and cardiovascular problems, there are positive attributes as well. People with WS tend to have a cheery demeanor, great empathy and ease with strangers. However, sometimes this open trust for others can lead to sticky situations; they might climb into the car of a complete stranger or walk over to friendly looking grandmother of a classmate and ask, “Can I go home with you?” 

On a more positive angle on not fearing strangers, a recent study published in the journal Current Biology found that children with WS showed no racial bias in social-bias experiments. Kids were asked to look at pictures of people of assorted ethnicities and genders and to assign negative or positive storylines to each picture. As predicted, the control group preferred those assumed to be of their own ethnic background and gender. Kids with WS had no ethnic preference, though gender was still a factor.

In addition to their love for others, people with WS tend to display a love and affinity of music, often possessing perfect pitch. However, they suffer from hyperacusis, which makes them extremely sensitive to noise at certain frequencies. Sadly, by age 30, the majority of individuals with WS have a form of moderate hearing loss.

Those with WS often have striking verbal abilities, particularly in short-term memory, syntax, and concrete vocabulary. However, they suffer in visuospatial construction (the skills to copy patterns, draw or write). Abstract/relational vocabulary is more limited.

Also due to spatial relationship deficiencies, those with WS have difficulties navigating from place to place. It is hard for them to organize and plan things. Plus, they find it extremely hard to concentrate and focus for sustained periods of time. As a result, as an adult, they find it tough to hold down a job, and perhaps, more importantly, fulfill perhaps their greatest desire: to form deep, interpersonal relationships.

Most with WS are very socially isolated. They often suffer from severe anxiety. An inability to pick up on the subtle social cues makes it a challenge to generate meaningful conversation and lasting relationships.

I can’t help but once again relate back to those of us single in the dating world. Often we can recognize our own worth, the strengths that we can bring to another person’s life, and are aware of our great capacity to give and receive love. Yet we’re constantly throwing ourselves pity parties when a suitor rejects us after one date, when we suffer the sting of an unrequited crush, or when a loving relationship dies right before our eyes, seemingly without warning. In spite of all the heartache and disappointments we live through, somehow, eventually, we manage to dust ourselves off, get back on our feet, and get back out there in our search for love.

But what of the folks with WS who, despite all their efforts, are literally handicapped from achieving their greatest desire for social acceptance and companionship? As new social training programs develop for people with WS, it is my hope that one day they too might grow closer to finding the love they so desperately seek.

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