The Gut-Brain Connection

It’s all connected. I’ve mentioned many times that when we exercise our brain gets the benefits as well as our body. Exercise promotes improved cognition, better memory and more quality sleep. But something that I hadn’t considered until recently is that there’s a gut-brain connection too. 

I no longer have a cast iron stomach

Up until recently I had been blessed with a cast iron stomach. I could eat anything with no repercussions. And then out of the blue the family irritable bowel came calling. Not to disgust you with detailed descriptions, suffice to say that it’s not fun having a cranky gut. 

A study correlates gut and brain health

Then I read an article about a study performed by Harvard Medical School researchers that seems to correlate gut and brain health. Many people supplement their diets with probiotic foods, seeking to boost mental health. The study indicates that, just as your gut health influences your brain, your brain activity can have a positive impact on your gut health. Biochemical signals run from your gut to your brain as well as the other way.

“The mechanisms in the gut include immune system activation, alterations in the gut’s structure, and the resultant inflammation, which can impact the brain’s structure and function, ultimately affecting our behavior and emotions.” So, your gut really does affect your feelings and how you react in your normal, everyday life.

Can meditation affect the gut-brain connection?

meditation for a clear mind and sanity

The study, in particular, looked at the effects of meditation on gut health. It’s been known that meditation leads to physiological changes, such as reduced heart rate and lowered blood pressure. These in turn lead to reduced stress and overall well-being. This can also lead to more happiness and resilience as we age.

It’s known that stress can lead to “gut aggravation.” So, how would meditation alleviate this dysfunction? Would meditation lead to a calmer gut as well as a calmer brain? Would the gut-brain connection hold for this application?

The answer is a resounding “Yes.” After an 8-day meditation practice, the study found that participants exhibited increased levels of a compound known for its anti-inflammatory, analgesic, and vascular relaxation properties. It also found a decrease in a substance linked to atherosclerosis risk.
I’ve found that a daily meditation practice definitely helps my anxiety. Just a couple of minutes in a Guided Meditation helps. I’ll have to try and go deeper and see if my digestive problems can be alleviated!

Sparking joy in exercise

I’ve said it before: “I don’t like to exercise.” And yet I do it 4 or 5 times a week. Every week. For years, now. You’re probably saying, “She might say she doesn’t like it, but she does. Deep down, she likes it.” No, I don’t. While I don’t exactly dread putting on my exercise clothes, once I’m in them and into a workout, I just keep going. And it’s true, if I really hated it, I wouldn’t do it. No amount of positive mindset-changing can do that. One kind of exercise, though, has always tried to elevate that positive feeling. Jazzercise’s mission is to spark joy in exercise.

Changing with the times

You may say that Jazzercise is outdated. You tried it years ago And, while it’s true that this style of exercise started in the 1970’s, it’s still popular, and not just among people who did it when it was first introduced. Jazzercise centers around a dance-based aerobics routine, but now there’s a strength training component. The music has changed with the times, as has much of the choreography, so Jazzercise is not your mother’s workout.

If it’s not fun, you’re not going to do it.

As I’ve said many times, if exercise isn’t fun, you’re not going to do it. Even if a certain workout has every single benefit you want – like instant weight-loss, a fix for your memory, and getting rid of flabby arms – if you don’t enjoy doing it, you’re not going to do it beyond a few days. 

So, I say if something can spark joy in exercise, by all means, do it. If Jazzercise was your thing back in the ‘80’s but you haven’t thought about it in years, get back into it. Classes are streaming now, in addition to classes that you can attend in person. 

Lots of options

And if Jazzercise isn’t your thing but you’d like other choreography-based workouts, there are plenty available. Search YouTube for instructors and music you like before you sign up for pricey classes. Or perhaps a gym near you will let you try out a class.

While it may take a lot to spark joy in exercise, you can find enjoyment in it. Any exercise you do is better than none. You’ll get physical as well as mental benefits, and it’s essential for your healthy aging. If you like dressing up, you can do that to your heart’s content too. Just be prepared to sweat!

An easy fix for weight loss?

Is this the easy fix everyone’s been waiting for?

I was a fat kid. I wrote that for my “About” page for this blog lots of years ago. Back when I was that fat kid, I wanted that easy fix for weight loss, that pill to swallow that would make me skinny. I went on diet after diet, trying to lose weight the easy way, by cutting out way too much food. But that’s what we did back then. When I was in high school I was finally sick and tired of being bullied. I wanted to get into the exclusive dance club. So I did it the hard way. I lost weight by watching everything that went into my mouth and by jumping rope for hours on end on the cement slab behind the house. The weight came off and stayed off all these years later.

Everyone’s on Ozempic

I had a dentist appointment last week, and she asked if I was on any medication, one of the standard questions. I gave my standard answer, “No.” And she said that many of her patients are on Ozempic to lose weight. People seem to think it’s the easy fix for weight loss that I wanted when I was younger.

Would I take it?

And that got me thinking. Would I take it now to lose weight? I don’t know for sure, but I’d like to think my answer would be, “No.” Ozempic is not a drug that’s listed for weight loss. It’s a drug for Type 2 Diabetes. Long-term effects haven’t been studied in otherwise healthy people who take it to lose weight. So, what could it be doing to healthy people’s systems? Rhetorical question, there. And when you stop taking the drug, many people gain the weight back, as with any weight-loss drug.

This writer won’t

I read an article by a writer who’s struggled with their weight their whole life. He’s not at his “ideal” weight, but he’s not going to be taking Ozempic any time soon either. It’s not because it’s a drug, or could be detrimental to his health. He refuses to conform to what society accepts. Good for him!

The right way to breathe

Breathing is something we take for granted, every minute of every day. We only think about it when it becomes hard – for example, if we’re ill. (Like during my cold last week.) And we breathe harder during certain activities, when we exert ourselves running up the stairs, for instance. And we still don’t think about it. That’s pretty amazing, if you ask me. But, is there a right way to breathe?

Air is a life-giving resource that we don’t even have to think about receiving. During our normal, every-day, tasks oxygen comes in and carbon dioxide goes out and we don’t have to do a thing. But when we exercise, we should be conscious of our breath to maximize the benefits we want to receive. When our lungs are working properly, our performance is optimized and we can achieve the other benefits that exercise gives us. So, what’s the right way to breathe during exercise to get the most out of it?

What happens when you breathe?

When you breathe, air travels through lots of tubes and byways on its way to your lungs. In your lungs, the air ends up in little sacs called “alveoli.” Each alveolus is surrounded by tiny little capillaries which drop off carbon dioxide and pick up oxygen and take it through your bloodstream. The primary purpose for breathing is actually to get rid of carbon dioxide rather than to get oxygen.

When you exercise, levels of carbon dioxide increase in your bloodstream, leading to the need to breathe faster to get rid of the excess. Exercise can increase respiratory efficiency but it doesn’t actually lead to increased lung capacity.

When you breathe shallowly, this can lead to additional stress. If you pay attention to your breathing and notice that you’re just using the upper part of your chest, this is shallow breathing. You’re not getting the oxygen you need, and you’re also not getting rid of enough carbon dioxide, contributing to a panic mode. That’s why people say to “breathe deeply” to help you calm yourself. Change your mindset just a little to breathe from your diaphragm and you’ll be calmer and get more out of your workout.

Diaphragmatic breathing

The best way to feel what you’re supposed to be doing is if you try this lying down (no pillow). Breathe in through your nose and feel your lower ribs rise (put your hands there to feel it more). Breathe out through your mouth and feel your lower ribs fall. Using the diaphragmatic breathing technique during exercise, exhale for the exertion and inhale on relaxation.

When you run

My breathing always increases when I run, and sometimes I find myself breathing through my mouth only. Experts indicate that doesn’t really matter – focus on the thing that makes running easier and more effortless. Some experts recommend varying the number of steps you take during inhalation and exhalation so that you’re not always on the same foot. Keep in mind that there’s really no one right way to breathe during exercise. Just be sure to breathe and not hold your breath. Again, focus on the thing that makes your exercise more effortless, and your breathing will follow.

Exercise with a cold?

I had a head cold this week. It was not COVID – I tested – thank goodness(!), so I didn’t have to miss my classes. I did wear a mask while close to people, but I wondered if I should work out. Should I exercise with a cold? The first couple of days I felt completely miserable and didn’t even consider changing into exercise gear. But after that, would I just be using my cold as an excuse to be lazy?

Above or below the neck?

The Mayo Clinic says that it’s perfectly fine to exercise as long as your symptoms are all above the neck and you don’t have a fever. Provided that your symptoms just include things like a runny nose, nasal congestion, sneezing and a minor sore throat, you should be fine if you exercise with a cold. Note how all these symptoms are “above the neck.” That’s what a head cold is about – and it’s not really a big deal. Sure, it’s uncomfortable and sometimes downright messy. But if you feel like exercising with a head cold, that’s fine.

On the other hand, if you have more than a head cold – if your symptoms are in your chest and lungs, or if you have a hacking cough, then it might be better if you wait to exercise until you’re better. Also, the Mayo Clinic suggests that if you have a fever, fatigue or muscle aches, wait. You don’t want to jeopardize your health even further. And if you have COVID, isolate yourself. If you want to exercise, don’t do it around other people. Be considerate. I even put a mask on at home while my sister and I did the dogs’ nails. It’s the right thing to do.

It’s okay to take time off

Definitely exercise if you're up to it, and your cold symptoms are above the neck.

Earlier, I mentioned that the first couple of days with a cold I didn’t exercise. I just felt too lousy. And even though sometimes if you exercise with a cold, it can actually open your nasal passages and temporarily relieve congestion, you certainly don’t have to. I’ve mentioned that it’s okay to take a day or two off from exercising without affecting your performance. But you should resume your normal activities when you can. For me, that alleviates my guilt, and I know I won’t be too sore the day after I exercise. 

The question is very personal: “Should I exercise with a cold?” For me, the answer is a practical, “If you’re up to it.” If it really is just a head cold, I won’t have too many days off and I’ll still be able to do the things I want to do.