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Archive for February, 2011



brain health – part 1

In case you’re wondering, that’s a brain reading an anatomy book. I’ll get back to that in a minute, but first I’d like to set the stage with a little yogic diversion.

I have a long-standing, very committed yoga practice and spend a good deal of my time in yoga-induced, la-la-land. Quite often upside down.

Wait, keep reading.

I’m not enlightened or anything. Far from it. I don’t sprinkle cosmic fairy dust around and although I’ve completed hundreds of hours of yoga teacher training, I still can’t pronounce most of the Sanskrit blah-blah-blahsanas. But, I’m serious when I say that yoga is my medicine. I mean that in a practical and qualitative sense. I was diagnosed with celiac disease many years ago and the healing power yoga has had on my life is profound. Plus, it’s cognitive therapy for my billions of neurons. Who wouldn’t benefit from that? Especially if gluten has played havoc on those neurons. 

But — meditation to go with my yoga?

Now that’s a different story. Although I’ve meditated on and off for decades (honestly, decades), I’m a fairly incompetent meditator. I need to be moving to clear my mind and find a peaceful rhythm for my ricocheting thoughts. Moving meditation is intensely satisfying, but I find it very difficult to sit in sukhasana (ironically called easy pose) in a silent attempt to clear my mind and be present. Don’t get me wrong, I think meditation is an amazing opportunity for positive transformation, I just like to move and let my neurons play pin-ball while I’m transforming.

Yes, I’m a touch ADD-ish. You know, that’s not always a bad thing. Mind-wandering research (imagine that) suggests that day-dreaming activates different problem-solving areas of the brain that don’t normally work together. It’s a good way to foster bipartisan, across the aisle (or hemispheres in this case), neural networking. Some of our most insightful moments come when we allow our thoughts to surf, drift and bounce around.

I say, let that ship sail.

But I digress.

This post is about healthy neurological function, but the above preamble is an important piece to the puzzle. Everything goes together. Nutrient-dense foods, movement, balance, mind-body connections, quality sleep, stress reduction, brain gymnastics, mind wandering. They’re all part of healing and thriving and every puzzle piece plays an important role in overall health and neurological aging. One of my interests is how gluten, as a neurotoxin, impacts mental and physical health, but regardless, this is pertinent information for anyone with a brain.

I’ll get to the nutrition piece in brain health – part 2, a post that will follow, so stay tuned. But first I’d like to set the stage with a few points to ponder. Put on your geek hat and fire up those neurons – this is interesting stuff (at least in my nerdy world).

Awe-inspiring brain facts (random stuff to blow your mind)

The human brain contains about 100 billion neurons (yes, that’s billion with a b). A neuron is a specialized cell that transfers information via electrical and chemical signaling. We want to keep our neurons happy and healthy so they can chat with each other in zippy harmony.

Nutrient-dense foods, exercise, yoga, meditation and cognitive activity can stimulate the creation of new neurons throughout life. You’re never too old to improve your brain function or your neurological health. Play chess, do crossword puzzles, skip, bend, twist and watch Jeopardy while balancing in tree pose.

Research suggests that yoga increases GABA levels. GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is the brain’s primary inhibitory neurotransmitter. It’s the anti-anxiety, mellow-mood neurotransmitter. More is good, especially if you can boost your GABA levels in non-pharmacological ways. Yoga as valium.

Stress and poor sleep can contribute to cognitive decline. Yoga and meditation help reduce stress and promote quality sleep. Ommmm = Zzzzzz. I’m working on the meditation part.

Pull out your map and compass. Brain scans of elite London taxi drivers revealed a much larger hippocampus than in normal subjects. The hippocampus is the area of the brain associated with memory retention and navigation. These taxi drivers have a detailed mental map of the convoluted London streets stored in their grey matter. More evidence that the actual structure of the brain can change. This is called neuro-plasticity – changes in brain cells and the connection between them to encode new information. Beware, driving in London can cause severe stress. Breathe in, breathe out.

The human brain uses 20% of the body’s energy, but comprises only 2% of its mass and on average weighs about 3 pounds. Lots of bang for your buck in that little package.

At only 4 weeks from conception, a human fetus is producing 250,000 brain cells every minute. WOW!

Exercise is linked to the growth of new brain cells.

Your brain uses about 12 watts of power, less than your refrigerator light.

The human brain produces an average of 70,000 thoughts per day. How do they know that? Really.

The olfactory neurons in your nose die off on a regular basis, but are continually replaced. Humans have 12 million smell receptor cells. Sounds like a lot, right? Bloodhounds have 4 billion. Sniff, sniff.

Research shows that meditation boosts attention, processing speed and response times.

Think about how you think (or something like that). The power of positive thought and the intention of mind-body harmony can be more effective than drugs. See Professor Funk’s video below about shiny shit – his words, not mine. This is called the placebo effect. Our beliefs and thoughts directly impact our cellular physiology, so have a good attitude.

Thank you to my friends at I Heart Guts for the use of that handsome little brain reading Gray’s Anatomy and to the folks at Lumosity for some of the brainy fun facts.

Peace, love and joyous neurons!
Melissa

valentines, chocolate and ski racks

Valentine’s Day is right around the corner and although I love chocolate, jewelry and other girlie things, I’d prefer a new ski rack for my car, an Isis hoodie down jacket (in arctic blue), or a year’s worth of SPOT tracking. I’m way too picky about my jewelry and chocolate to hint around for anything from those categories.

Very picky. Neurotically so.

In fact, it’s best that I just whip up my own chocolate Valentine treats and pick out my own jewelry. That way I get exactly what I want. Which is the point of gift-getting. Right? I’m not spoiled or anything – at least not from my perspective.

But did I mention picky?

I need jewelry suited to the backcountry (sparkly, silver and indestructible) and high-end, organic, gluten-free, papaya-infused, almond-laced, dark chocolate with a sprinkling of freshly-ground, pink Himalayan sea salt. Freshly-ground sea salt. Like, that minute.

See what I mean? Uber-picky.

Hopefully I’ll get a new ski rack instead. I’m not as picky about that.

Okay, I’m picky about that, too. I want the Yakima FatCat 6 so I can put my skis on top of my car without taking off my “ice station zebra” mittens. If anyone is listening.

We’ll see how things turn out. In the meantime, here’s a recipe for delightful and decadent Valentine chocolate squares. Make them for your sweetheart or for yourself. This is so easy, it’s practically cheating. Actually, is cheating, but that’s okay. It’s for a good cause.

Super-easy, gluten-free, chocolate Valentine treats
what you need

6.5 ounces organic dark chocolate, coarsely chopped *
2-3 tablespoons dried papaya, diced
2-3 tablespoons almonds, chopped
freshly-ground sea salt

what you do
1. Melt the chocolate in a heatproof bowl over a pan of simmering water. Continually stir until the chocolate is fully melted. Add papaya and almond pieces, blend well.
2. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. You can also use tin foil.
3. Using a spatula, evenly spread the melted chocolate, papaya and almond mixture onto parchment paper.
4. Sprinkle with very small and rustic sea salt chunks. OMG, this makes it wonderful.
5. Refrigerate for 2 hours. Cut into 2 inch squares and dazzle your Valentine (or yourself).
6. Store in airtight container in the refrigerator.

* I used 2 organic Chocolove dark chocolate (61% cocoa content) bars. Chocolove also makes a 55% cocoa content bar if you prefer less intense flavor and 73% and 77% versions if you like the high-octane stuff. The higher the cocoa content, the stronger and more bitter the taste. If you don’t have access to Chocolove, use another version of dark chocolate.

* You can also use dried cherries, dried apricots, peppermint chunks, or whatever your heart desires. Be creative.

For more of my gluten-free chocolate treats, check the following recipes
Enlightened hot chocolate
Chocolate Beet Cupcakes
Babycakes Chocolate Brownies

More gluten-free chocolate love from around the blogosphere
Gluten-free sunflower chocolate squares from Carol at Simply Gluten Free
Raw chocolate and raspberry candy from Kelly at The Spunky Coconut
Valentine’s Day dark and white chocolate cake pops from Elana at Elana’s Pantry
Chocolate layer cake from Ali at The Whole Life Nutrition Kitchen
Flourless chocolate cake from Shirley at Gluten Free Easily
Chocolate coconut pudding from Karen at Cooks 4 Seasons
Twisted chocolate bark from Diane at The W.H.O.L.E. Gang
Kids in the kitchen dairy free fudge from Alta at Tasty Eats at Home

Peace, love and chocolate! Or a ski rack. Or both.
Melissa

Disclaimer: All material on this website is provided for informational and educational use only and should not be used for diagnostic purposes. Consult with your physician regarding any health or medical concerns you may have.
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(co-written with Pete Bronski)



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