The StartWell Guide to Wellness at Work
In an ever increasing fast-paced, tech era, it’s even more important to find moments during your day to practice self-care. Chronic stress leads to high levels of cortisol in the body, which in turn causes a state of chronic inflammation in the body. As we know, over time and if left unchecked, chronic inflammation can wreak havoc on the body – resulting in health issues such as sleep difficulties, memory challenges, anxiety, chronic fatigue, and IBS, to name only a few.
This guide introduces simple tools & techniques to help balance your nervous system, boost your energy, improve your mood, enhance your sleep – ultimately contributing to your overall happiness and sense of wellbeing – on and off campus!
The key is to regularly practice a few of these tools through the day. When you feel more stressed or burned out, taking more time to practice is even more important.
Some things will resonate more with you than others, so do those activities more and enjoy them!
– Dr. Sheila Lakhoo, MD CCFP, MScCH
Medical Director, StartWell
The word “meditation” refers to a large basket of contemplative practices that modulate the embodied brain by exercising, priming and strengthening specific neural pathways and networks” due –quote. The research shows overwhelming positive effects of meditation on the brain by increasing gray matter and hence the neuroplastic potential of the brain.. Meditation is essentially the best brain exercise and promotes “whole brain thinking” by promoting the hemispheres of the brain to learn to work in harmony and super-charging your brain’s productive capacity . Some of the proven benefits of meditation include: the ability to process information quicker, increased focus, heightened mental awareness, greater emotional lability (and more positive emotions, more compassion and greater creativity to name a few.
There is no one correct way to meditate and meditation doesn’t have to mean sitting on a cushion with your eyes closed for hours.
A very simple way to meditate is to spend a few minutes in the morning and the evening to sit quietly and focus on your breath. Some people prefer to use a mantra to help with focus and others prefer to sit quietly and focus on various sensations that arise in the body. The key to meditation is to be non-judgemental and try to be the observer of whatever comes up (try not to control your thoughts and emotions but rather just be an observer). As you increase your capacity to meditate, you can spend longer intervals practicing and incorporate short meditation practices throughout the day.
Humans are not meant to sit at a desk and pound away at the computer for hours on end. Yet this has become the reality for the majority of people in the western world. The body was meant to move and shake! So yes, hitting the gym is great but incorporating some movement throughout the day to give your eyes, brain and body a break can really help to increase energy and feel more grounded and connected to your body. Take a few minutes on your breaks to stretch, talk a walk or do some yoga poses. Consider a longer walk over lunch and reconnect with nature.
Deep breathing/Alternate nostril breathing
Feeling a bit anxious or tired during the day? Try some breathing exercises! Oxygen is a vital source of energy and even a few minutes of deep breathing can calm your nervous system and make you feel more energetic. Most people tend to be in “flight or fight” mode during the day, especially if there are work stressors, deadlines to meet etc. By taking a few minutes to active your parasympathetic nervous system you allow your body and mind to feel a sense of calm.
Mindfulness means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations in a compassionate and accepting manner. This means avoiding judgemental thoughts about what we are experiencing at any particular moment. Mindfulness allows us to tune into the present moment rather than rehashing the past or focusing on the future. It also provides an opportunity to slow down and fully experience the present moment.
Though Mindfulness practices originated in Buddhist meditation, in recent years it has become more widespread in the west in part due to the work of Jon-Kabat-Zinn and his creation of the Mindfulness-Based-Stress Reduction (MBSR) program in 1979. Since then, there have been thousands of studies that have shown the numerous physical and mental health benefits of mindfulness in general
Examples of Mindfulness practices:
- Mindful meditation
- Mindful eating: How often are you wolfing down your lunch in front of a computer or while scrolling through your phone? Consider having a Mindful eating practice at least once a day where you sit quietly and focus your entire attention on the act of eating. Look at the colours of your food, smell the aromas and take time to savor the taste. Mindful eating and drinking allows us to be more present and aware of our actions and gives us time to slow down and appreciate the simple act of eating.
- Mindful walking: Do you walk simply to get from point A to point B? Do you ever take a walk simply for the enjoyment of walking? The next time you take a walk, try to walk mindfully. Focus on your feet touching the ground, focus on your breath and take time to enjoy the sights and sounds. Mindful walking is a meditation in itself.
Music has played an important part of every human culture, both past and present. Music helps people to come together and fosters greater connection with each other. However, music is not just a fun past time. Researchers have shown that the benefits of music on the body, mind and spirit is enormous. Listening to music has shown to increase the neurotransmitter dopamine (the body’s “motivation molecule”) and is integral to the pleasure-reward pathway the in body. Music also helps to reduce the stress hormone-cortisol in our body. Further more, playing music with others or enjoying live music stimulates the brain hormone oxytocin, which helps us bond with and trust others. Music has also shown to help improve conditions such as depression, anxiety and Alzheimer’s disease.
In summary-listening to and playing music can make you smarter, happier, healthier and more productive at all stages of life. Take some time out of your day to really listen to some beats, close your eyes and feel the music vibrate through your body. If you are so inclined, sing or dance along to the beats to further boost the pleasure and calming circuits in your body. Or pick up an instrument and start jamming. This is your excuse to invest in some drums and wake up your neighbours;)
Art & Creativity
Regular engagement in any form of creative pursuit has shown to help with stress reduction, anxiety and increase self-esteem. In fact, in recent years, Art therapy has been more widely used as a complement to traditional mental health treatment. Creating art can help you acknowledge and recon feelings that you might not even be aware of and allows for a healthy outlet for expressing and letting go of all your feelings. Often complex emotions such as sadness or anger are difficult to express through words, and creating art can allow for this expression. Even if you don’t suffer from mental health issues, creativity is a great way to help relieve stress, and relax your body and mind. Human beings are creative by nature and nurturing this aspect of your brain will only strengthen your creative talent. So take out your camera and take some pics, invest in a sketch pad and start doodling, or dust off your painting set and add some color to your walls. It doesn’t matter what your creative jam is-the key is to be willing explore, learn and have fun (no room for judgment).
The age old saying “laughter is the best medicine” is probably true. Have you spent time watching a child? How many times do you think they laugh during the day? Probably over a hundred times. They laugh at themselves, at others, and at pretty much everything. They don’t need a reason to laugh and nor should we as adults. But if you do need a reason to laugh here are a few benefits of regular laughter: Laughter boosts mood (by releasing feel-good hormones), helps to alleiviate pain, strengthens the immune system, protects against stress and helps the muscles to relax. Laughter brings people together, inspires hope, releases anger and lightens your burdens. So here’s to more watching more comedies, laughing at more jokes, hosting more games nights, goofing around with children/friends/hubbie, and just being silly!
Deeper, More Restful Sleep
Out of the four pillars of health, sleep is by far the most important. There is overwhelming evidence that chronic sleep deprivation leads to neuro-chemical changes in the brain and body, hormonal disregulation, and possible atrophy and degeneration of the neurons in the brain. Lack of good quality sleep has shown to contribute to mood disorders such as anxiety, depression and mania, leads to decreased cognitive performance, is likely to result in poor food choices, and hinder individuals from engaging in exercise.
The worrisome fact is that the majority of North American’s are sleep deprived, getting on average anywhere from 5-6 hours of sleep a night, and often a poor quality sleep at that. Most individuals need 7-9 hours of sleep (sometimes even 10 hours of sleep) for optimal health. There are many reasons for chronic sleep deprivation being so rampant in our society but I’m not going to get into this for this post. My goal is to help you achieve the best possible sleep so that you can improve your overall health-and feel better!
I do encourage all of you to listen to the podcast on Peter Attia featuring sleep expert Dr. Matthew Walker-Ph.D on sleep. The podcast is deep dive into the dangers of poor sleep, Alzheimer’s risk, mental health, memory consolidation and more… #47 – Matthew Walker, Ph.D., on sleep – Part I of III: Dangers of poor sleep, Alzheimer’s risk, mental health, memory consolidation, and more
Tips For Better Sleep
- Use your bed for sleep and sex-that is all! Remove your gadgets from the room-including the smartphone when you go to sleep. Keeping computers, TVs, and work materials out of the room will strengthen the mental association between your bedroom and sleep.
- Keep the same sleep and wake time-even on weekends. This will help maintain your “internal clock” to expect sleep at a consistent time.
- Keep your bedroom an optimum environment for sleep. Research shows that most people sleep better in cooler (15-19 degrees celcius), darker environment. Remove any work clutter and electronics from your bedroom. Invest in an alarm clock and get the smartphone away from you when you sleep.
- Blue light is your enemy when it comes to good quality sleep. Blue light is everywhere-lighting, computers, TV, smart phones. Using devices that emit blue light close to bedtime suppresses melatonin production, which in turn results in poor quality sleep. At least 1-2 hours before sleep turn off all devices and use softer halogen lighting. Consider investing in Amber coloured glasses that can protect you from blue light if you must use devices close to bedtime.
- Have a soothing bed time routine. Enjoy an Epsom salt bath-epsom salts contain magnesium which also helps promote relaxation and deeper sleep.. Perhaps do some gentle yoga, meditation or stretching. Enjoy reading something enjoyable and relaxing or listen to some calming music and enjoy a caffeine-free herbal tea. Avoid stressful, stimulating activities close to bedtime as this can result in an increase in cortisol levels , leading to more alertness. Consider writing down any thoughts, to do lists in a journal to help park them away. A gratitude journal is also a great way to end the day.
- Exercise-but not too close to bedtime. I can’t say enough about movement. It will help increase good hormones in your body and helps prevent many chronic diseases. Whatever your exercise routine is just make sure you have enough time to wind down before bed (ideally 3 hours before bed). The only exercise I suggest before bed is gentle relaxing yoga or stretching!
- Avoid caffeine, alcohol or stimulating medication before bed. Some lucky individuals have the ability to process and eliminate caffeine from their system quickly. But if you are having difficultly sleeping, I suggest avoiding caffeine after 2pm (the latest). Caffeine can stay in your body for up to 12 hours and can negatively effect sleep. Limit alcohol in the evening-you might find that you can fall asleep faster after a drink, but the evidence shows that consuming alcohol prior to sleep results in poor quietly, more restless sleep.
- Get out in the sun! Exposure to sunlight early in the day will help set your internal circadian rhythm and help you sleep better at night.
- If you need a nap ensure it is not too close to bedtime. Ideally take a short nap 20-30min before 4pm so not to affect your sleep drive at night.
- Avoid eating heavy meals too close to bed time. Eating heavy meals can result in indigestion. If you need to eat a snack before bed consider a healthy fat and protein combo such as some seeds, nuts or avocados.
- Limit fluid intake after 8pm to avoid having to make night time trips to the loo. But make sure you drink enough water during the day-1-2 liters on average unless you have certain medical conditions in which you need to limit water intake (eg, heart failure).
- If you are unable to fall asleep after 20-30 min, consider getting out of bed and doing some deep breathing or gentle yoga. Do not check your phone-remember blue light is your enemy when it comes to sleep. Also if you happen to wake up in the middle of the night and can’t fall back asleep focus on your breath or do something relaxing without turning on your devices or bright light.
- Please consult your physician if you are concerned about medical conditions such as sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome which could be preventing you from getting a proper sleep. Also consult your physician if you are considering short term sleep aids such as melatonin
Boost Your Immune System
A healthy immune system is essential especially during times of heightened stress. Any type of chronic stress-emotional, physical etc can have significant impact on your nervous system-causing the sympathetic nervous system to go into alert. IN addition, elevated levels of cortisol are produced during periods of acute and chronic stress which cause result in inflammation in the body (not good).
Here are some ways to keep your nervous system calm, keep your immune system working optimally and keeping your cortisol levels in check:
- Optimal sleep: essential especially during times of stress. Review the 12 tips for optimal sleep hygiene above
- Nutrition: avoid foods that increase inflammation in the body. I tell all my patients to avoid refined sugar, processed foods, dairy (most), gluten. Eat lots of greens, coloured vegetables, lean protein, good fats (avocados, nuts, seeds, olives), good carbs (quinoa , root vegetables, brown rice). Essentially this is a Mediterranean diet.
And some recommended supplements:
- Vitamin D 1000 iu/day-helps boost serotonin in the body, is anti-inflammatory, and helps with bone health. We don’t get enough sunlight in North America – even in the summer, so vitamin d is a must
- Omega 3 (EPA/DHA) So much great research on the anti-inflammatory effects of Omega 3, the cardiac benefits and cancer protective effects. For more in depth info on Omega 3 and the latest research here is a podcast on Peter Attia’s website.
- Magnesium Helps with sleep, helps with bone health, helps with muscle repair and relaxation. Take magnesium gylcinate in the evening 150-300mg (start slow as some people might have some GI upset.). *You can also take epsom salt baths (magnesium is well absorbed through the skin so this is a great way to unwind.) Also some studies have shown that taking a warm bath a few hours before bed help will enhance sleep quality.
- Co-enzyme q 10 200mg a day. Helps with brain fog, and is antioxidant, helps to protect against free radical damage in the body. Helps with heart health, lung health and brain health.
- Vitamin C helps with immune function, helps protect the heart, helps with chronic disease management.
- Probiotic A good quality probiotic will help maintain healthy gut flora. The gut has a major influence on both the development and function of the body’s immune system. Research has also shows that a gut that is not functioning well it can affect one’s mood negatively. A healthy gut can improve depression.