“Flowers are the sweetest things God ever made, and forgot to put a soul into.” ~Henry Beecher

Monday, December 28, 2009

Stay Healthy with Probiotics

Probiotics is a term defined by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations as "live microorganisms administered in adequate amounts which confer a beneficial health effect on the host". It is estimated that the human body plays host to over a trillion microbes from over ~1000 different species on our skin, in our mouths, noses, gastrointestinal and reproductive tracts. Most are from the Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, Saccharomyces and Enterococcus genera and a wealth of research has been carried out pinpointing some of the benefits that many of these microbes confer and the roles they play to ward off sickness and disease:

Production of Beneficial Compounds and Vitamins:

Two metabolic by-products of Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria in the intestinal tract are lactic and acetic acids. These help to produce an acidic environment that is less conducive to harmful bacteria.

Some healthy strains of bacteria in the colon produce nutrients such as vitamin K, which is required for normal blood clotting as well as bone building and maintenance. They are also a source of B vitamins.

Completion of the Digestion Process:

Most foods are completely digested and the nutrients absorbed in the small intestine; however, some carbohydrates such as fibers and oligosaccharides (considered prebiotics) require the help of microbes in the large intestine to finish the job. The combination of pre- and probiotics creates what is referred to as a “synbiotic” relationship because it supports the growth and proliferation of beneficial bacteria in the colon.

Degradation of Carcinogens:

Probiotics such as Lactobacilli degrade the carcinogenic compound nitrosamine and are thought to bind and detoxify additional carcinogens within the intestine, inhibiting their uptake into the bloodstream as well as preventing them from inducing genetic mutations and the production of cancerous cells within the colon.

Promotion of a Healthy Digestive Tract and Immune System:

Inflammation and intestinal permeability are hallmarks of diseases such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), Crohn’s Disease (CD), and Ulcerative Colitis (UC). Healthy bacteria are believed to help combat these diseases by competing for binding sites on intestinal cells to prevent the attachment of pathogenic bacteria that can do damage. Good bacteria also stimulate immune cells to make anti-inflammatory proteins and additional factors, helping to ward off these diseases.

A large portion of our immune systems operate within the mucus layer that lines our digestive tract, which acts as an interface between the inside and outside of the body. Healthy flora found here and foreign antigens that pass through help to prime immune function. Good bacteria are also thought to reinforce this barrier by helping to regulate interactions between intestinal epithelial cells, preventing bacteria and foreign matter from entering the rest of the body, which can lead to infection, allergic reactions and the diseases such as those mentioned above. This suggests that the key to a strong immune system is a healthy digestive tract. This is something that I strongly believe and have written about in the past (see my post Maintain Health Through Proper pH).

Probiotics in the Diet:

One way to maintain healthy intestinal flora within the gut that is gaining interest is by adding probiotics to the diet. They are found in many forms, including pills and powders as well as cultured or fermented drinks and foods. As suggested by the definition, in order to be considered a probiotic, an organism must be live and have previously been shown to produce health benefits to the host. This suggests that the term “live, active culture” may not necessarily constitute a probiotic. However, some common cultured and fermented foods promoted as sources of probiotics include yogurt, kefir, kombucha, miso, tempeh and fermented vegetables such as sauerkraut and KimChi. There are vast resources for recipes online on how to make yogurt or kombucha or ferment vegetables. I have been making my own organic yogurt using a very simple method found here. My friend Claire Criscuolo shows how to make it in the first video on the page. I often eat it with granola or add it to my morning smoothie. This website,, has instructions and recipes on how to ferment vegetables and includes suggestions for foods, recipes and more tips on maintaining a healthy digestive tract that will keep you happy, youthful and full of energy. A recipe for fermented vegetables can be found here.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Spread the Light

It’s the holiday season. This is a time when many households show their creativity and enthusiasm by decorating, both inside and outside their homes. Years ago, outdoor decorations were mostly limited to simple strings of lights and Christmas wreaths hanging on the front doors; however, these days, the lights and displays have become much more elaborate, beautiful and inventive. There’s something about lights that lift my spirits. Maybe it’s because they generate an extreme yet comforting contrast against the backdrop of the night. They brilliantly illuminate the darkness and at the same time create a pleasurable feast for the eyes. As I was driving through town the other night, I took my time to enjoy a number of decorated yards, often stopping to look.

To me, these displays represent warm and inviting welcome mats. They say to me, we have so much joy and happiness on the inside, that we’d like to share it; and we hope, in some way, we touch your heart. If we could all find ways to shine our lights throughout the year, to say welcome to our neighbors and to spread warmth and peace, we would create a holiday atmosphere that never ended. So think about what it is that illuminates you and bring it out for everyone to see. The World will be a much happier and brighter place if you do. Happy Holidays!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Keep the Variety and Nutrients, Not the Chemicals

Many of us are well aware of bisphenol-A (BPA), an organic compound found in many plastic food and beverage containers. BPA is an endocrine disruptor – it mimics hormones in the body and has been linked to a number of diseases and disorders that include breast, prostate and brain cancers, obesity, neurological disorders including early brain development and abnormalities in thyroid function. What many people may not be aware of is that BPA is also found in the plastic linings of food and beverage cans as well. These include canned vegetables, fruits, soups and other prepared foods, beans, broths and just about anything else you would normally buy in cans. The most logical thing to do to lower our exposure to BPA is to avoid buying canned products and simply eat these foods in their natural form or prepare them fresh. But for many, canned products are a convenience that saves time. The last thing many of us want to do after a long day is to make broth or cook beans from scratch and depending on where you live, some items simply may not be available year round. We might be inclined to eliminate some of these foods from our diets altogether, however we’d be missing out on a wealth and variety of nutrients, for example from different types of beans/legumes that are a good source of protein, vitamins and minerals and fiber. With a little bit of planning, however, there are ways to conveniently keep these foods in our diets without buying them in cans.

Preparing some items in bulk ahead of time and then freezing them in smaller servings:

Soup broths – Meat, poultry and vegetable based soup broths are relatively easy to make and simply require a few hours to simmer. And making them at home lets you control the amount of sodium and fat. Most recipes begin with meat bones, poultry carcasses, or simply chopped vegetables that include onions, carrots and celery. Fresh or dried herbs such as thyme, bay leaf, salt and peppercorns are frequently used as well. The ingredients are placed in a pot with enough cold water to cover them and allowed to simmer. The broth is then strained through a fine mesh strainer or cheesecloth. Excess fat can be skimmed off of the top after it cools. It can then be divided and frozen for later use. I always make broth from the Thanksgiving turkey carcass and find that it is one of the best broths I have all year. So although it sounds like a lot of work, it is well worth it. Here is one recipe I found online with more detailed instructions than what I’ve mentioned above.

Beans – Kidney, navy, black, white beans, chickpeas and other legume varieties are nutrient dense and great in salads, soups, stews, and dips. They are also much less expensive than canned varieties when purchased dried, in bulk. To prepare properly, first pick through them to remove any rocks or bad beans, then soak overnight in clean water. This helps to eliminate toxins and cut down on the cooking time. The next day, drain and rinse beans, then add clean water and simmer on the stove or cook in a pressure cooker. Directions can be seen here both as text and as videos. If you plan to freeze the beans, slightly undercook them by three or four minutes, divide into smaller portions, submerge in liquid to avoid freezer burn and drying out and freeze in BPA-free, airtight containers. If I do use plastic containers, I often line them with wax paper to keep my food away from the plastic.

Opt for Frozen Versus Canned:

Fruits/Vegetables – I prefer to buy most fruits and vegetables fresh or frozen, and in fact, produce is usually frozen just after picking when the nutrient content is still high, so in the colder months, it is the best way to go. Tomatoes, however, are one thing I used to frequently buy in cans for sauces and soups. But the acid content in this fruit makes it more likely to leach BPA from the can lining (think about orange juice or colas in plastic bottles!). A trick I learned from a friend is to freeze tomatoes whole. I do this when they are in season, which is the only time I buy them fresh. And if you grow your own and are inundated with them at the end of the season and don’t have the time to make sauce, this is a good way to buy some time. The thawed tomatoes will not keep their shape for slicing or chopping, but they’re great for making sauces or adding to soups and stews.

Buy in Paper Cartons:

Items like broths, tomatoes and beverages can also be found in paper-like tetra pak cartons that are made with BPA-free materials.

Incidentally, Eden Organics is one company in the U.S. that uses cans that are BPA-free. Their products cost more, but so do their cans:

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Interview with a Great Scientist

For almost three years, I’ve been practicing Bikram Yoga, a series of 26 postures that are performed in a very hot room. The experience has been a life-changing one for me. It has helped me to get into the best shape physically that I have ever been in my life and it has allowed me to move past so many of my self-imposed limitations. It has also introduced me to lots of great people who share the same values about their health and well-being. One such person is Francois Franceschi. You can meet him here:

Francois is a scientist who has spent most of his scientific career studying a structure in our cells called the ribosome. Without this large enzyme, our lives would not exist –neither would the lives of bacteria and it’s their ribosomes that are often targeted with antibiotics. For many years, Francois collaborated with Ada Yonath, another great scientist who is one of the recipients of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry this year and he made significant contributions into that work. In fact, even when it was believed that what they were trying to achieve was impossible, they never gave up, understanding that the reward would be well worth the risk of persevering. This work did finally pay off because of ingenuity and because the tools used to reach their goal became more sophisticated.

Today, Francois is still studying the ribosome, working for a company founded by a second Nobel Prize winner, Thomas Steitz (the third is Venkatraman Ramakrishnan). There, he works together with an outstanding group of people to further the studies on bacterial ribosomes in order to develop new drugs to treat infections against antibiotic-resistant bugs, which is a very real issue we face today.

Francois is one of those remarkable people whose passion and commitment to excellence is helping to improve the lives of us all. We know they’re out there when we see the fruits of their dedicated work show up and it’s even more of a blessing to personally know some of these great human beings who inspire others to follow their passions. Knowing Francois and practicing yoga with him is one of those rare opportunities for me. One for which I am truly grateful.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Change Your Mind

For as long as I can remember, I have had an opinion about living in a big city and owning a dog. I always felt it was unfair to a dog to keep it indoors in a confined area. I always felt that the happiest dogs were those that spent their days outdoors or at least those that lived in more suburban or even rural areas, away from the concrete and congestion and noise. But recently I met a man named Bill who challenged my preconceived notions. Bill is a dog walker in New York City. For four years, he’s been walking sometimes nine or more dogs for several hours during the day. Weather permitting, he’ll take them to the park to run and when I met him, he had just run six dogs that looked very content. You can meet Bill and some of his dogs in the following video:

When I mentioned to Bill how I felt about dogs in the city, he told me that he felt these dogs were better off in some ways than dogs in the country. They were much more well-adjusted to noise and people and they spent lots of time together, either during their daily walks or with their owners who were often friends themselves that would socialize with their dogs. He felt they had very rich and happy lives. I asked him how he felt about being a dog walker and he said he loved it. I could see how his love for his job was helping to make others happy – most importantly, the dogs. And besides, there are so many unwanted dogs in shelters right now that need loving homes. This type of life would be a blessing for them. Talking with Bill changed my mind about owning a dog while living in the city and now when I do see one out for a walk along the sidewalk, instead of feeling sad for it, I smile.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Risky Business

A few weeks ago, I heard rustling in the trees above me and when I looked up, I spotted a squirrel. I watched as it chomped away at the clusters of seeds hanging from a branch. I looked around and saw that several squirrels were also eating in the trees. What struck me about them was that they were not sitting safely on a stable end of a branch close to the trunk, but they were out near the tip, clinging onto the skinny end of the branch as it swayed or bounced with their every movement. This didn’t seem to bother them at all. In fact, when they had had enough to eat, they began to leap between the trees, from one skinny branch to the next. If they lost their footing, they would simply regain it and move on to the next limb. I initially thought that this seemed like risky business, but the squirrels looked highly alert, invigorated, and alive.

How many of us play it safe by hanging out near the trunk where the limbs are strong and stable and how many of us are taking risks and living life out on the skinny branches? The high wire acrobat Papa Wallenda one said, “Life is lived out on the wire, the rest is just waiting.” It’s when we’re trying something new and testing our limits that we feel the most alive and it’s the biggest risks that lead to the greatest rewards.

If you think about it, almost everything we’re doing in our lives right now was, at one time, something new we learned – a risk we took and once we figured out we liked it or it simply felt comfortable, we stuck with it. But notice how over time, many of these things we do no longer stimulate or engage us as they did when they were new. Working as a scientist, I remember what it would feel like when I was trying an experiment for the first time. I would have read the protocol several times and would have everything ready on the bench. I would be switched on and focused and my energy level would be high. My entire being would be fully engaged. But once the experiment entered my comfort zone after repeating it several times, it no longer had the same stimulatory effect. In fact, sometimes I would almost be conducting it unconsciously.

The human brain craves novelty. And the stronger it gets, the more pushing it needs to stay sharp and stimulated. Would we read the same book over and over, never picking up something new to read? Would we eat the same food all day every day? I don’t think so. These things would lose their appeal. Risk involves greater endeavors, greater challenges but also greater opportunity for growth. Of course not every risk will reap a reward. It is inevitable that we fail at some. But taking no risks at all will yield no rewards 100% of the time. I believe that if we take risks, in the end, succeed or fail, we will inevitably grow. And if we spend as much time as we can on the skinny branches we can only increase the chances of this occurring.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Remember When??

I spent this past weekend with my two grandsons, Carmine and Antonio, ages three and five. I remember being in denial about the idea of becoming a grandmother at what I thought was too young of an age for me, but now, I realize it’s been a blessing. I adore my grandkids and they have come to be a source of pure joy for me and because I’m in fairly good condition physically, I’ve been able to actively participate in just about anything these two bundles of energy have wanted to do. We play baseball and Frisbee and run together and climb the jungle gym at the playground. They’ve “practiced” yoga with me and we’ve played in the sand at the beach, and built with LEGO bricks and thanks to my young age and health, I’ve always been able to share with them my energy and enthusiasm.

They too, unknowingly share something very valuable with me when we spend time together. Their free-spirited personalities and their fearlessness – two things we all are born with that slowly diminish with time and experience. This weekend alone was filled with examples of how they live uninhibited and in the moment that we can all learn from. They live next to a high school that sits atop a steep, grassy hill overlooking a newly renovated expanse of school property with soccer, baseball and football fields. The hill is perfect in the winter for sledding, snowboarding and even teaching the little ones to ski. I often take them out the field to run in the wide-open spaces and this weekend we went out there with their bikes. They wanted to climb the hill to ride in the parking lot above, but on the way up, Antonio decided he wanted to ride his bike down the hill. What do you think immediately went through my head? “Maybe he shouldn’t do that.”; “Is it safe?”; “What if he falls?”; “What if he gets hurt?” Was he thinking any of these things? Absolutely not. The only thoughts on his mind were “Here I go!” and “Whoa!” And before I could even say “Wait!”, he had taken off down the hill and reached the bottom safely. In fact, the second time he went down, he took his eyes off where he was going. He began to look to the left, then to the right, then down and eventually lost control of the handlebars and flipped off the bike at the bottom. I told him what I saw and why I think he fell and what do you think he did? Without uttering a sound, he got up, climbed back up the hill and immediately tried again, this time looking straight ahead the whole time. And he was successful from that moment forward, every time he rode down the hill. How many of us would make such an attempt so soon after wiping out? Would we not focus on the failure and be paralyzed with fear, convincing ourselves that we should give up and move on to something else or possibly be afraid to try something else? The spill taught him a valuable lesson about what does not work and he simply used that information to get it right. It allowed him to come out successful and confident.

That night, they wanted me to watch the movie Robots with them so we sat on the sofa for what I thought would be a relaxing and entertaining evening. Relaxing no, but highly entertaining! About ten minutes into it, the movie broke out into a song. Without warning, Carmine jumped off of my lap and began to dance to the music, shaking his bottom and jumping and moving his arms. Pretty soon, Antonio joined in and it turned into a combination dance/martial arts demonstration. Would you believe that the credits were rolling and they were still on the carpet dancing? Maybe my video camera had something to do with that, but not once were they thinking, “Will I look silly if I get up and dance like this?”, “Will I be laughed at?”, “I’m really no good at this, I shouldn’t do it.” How many of us have been in that position, holding back what’s aching to come out for fear of looking silly or not being good enough? Instead, they let their spirits soar and were so filled with happiness and energy. And this was after an entire day of excitement and physical movement. We always wonder where children get their energy. I don’t think we as adults get tired because we become old; I believe this vitality disappears because we lose our courage to live our passions. We can have this type of energy at any age. Our bodies may not perform like those of children, but we can have that life and enthusiasm if we’re doing what we love to do and are not concerned about how we look doing it or what others will think. Because chances are, what they’re thinking is, “Why don’t I have the guts to do that?”

Do you remember a time when you had this fearlessness? Do you remember when your main goals were to have fun in the moment and to express your true selves? I can’t say I do, maybe because I can’t remember back far enough. I remember moments when I was living my passions, but they were often flanked by periods of doubt and uncertainty. I’m almost ashamed to admit that I once resisted becoming a grandmother because of my perceptions of what grandparents “are supposed to be”. My grandchildren are gifts that constantly remind me of the true meaning of living a life of joy. Maybe you’re just beginning to think about having kids or are now raising small children. If so, I know it can be an overwhelming time, but please pay attention to what they’re teaching you. The most profound lessons show up when you least expect them but always when they’re being their authentic selves. I believe this is when you learn the most about them, too. And as much as you can, encourage them to stay that way. Foster the development of their unique talents and capabilities; those things that bring them the most joy and vitality so that some day, they too, won’t have to remember when…

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Run Your Own Race

Last weekend, I attended the New York City Marathon for the first time, as a spectator and fan of an online friend. Reading that there were to be 40,000 runners and an expected 2 million people watching, I wasn’t sure what to expect, except to say that I anticipated a very intense day. I met up with a friend in the city and we headed to First Ave and 85th Street, which was mile 17 for the runners and a spot where we hoped to meet our mutual friend for the first time.

From the moment we arrived, the enthusiastic roar of the crowd along the sidelines invigorated me and I soon became aware that I was part of something much more than a race. It seemed as if everyone was there to cheer on someone and it didn’t matter how fast they ran or where they were in the lineup, the fact that they were running at all was enough for them to attract the tremendous support of their family, friends and even additional onlookers. They were there to run their own races and I felt that this was a common thread weaving it’s way through us all and uniting us. I felt that we were all inspired by the runners that we knew and didn’t know, and at the same time, the runners gained motivation and energy from the fans. I couldn’t help but feel that the endless amount of strength and positive energy present galvanized us all. The intensity that I was anticipating was an uplifting intensity; a divine elevation, a feeling that I will never forget and I am so thankful for such a memorable experience.

We met our friend at mile 17 for a very exciting moment. He was on fire and there was no stopping him crossing the finish line. We and many other friends had been following his training progress and offering support online for several months. What was so special about this marathon for him was that it represented what he considered a transcendent goal – one that accomplished so much more than completing a 26.2 mile run. It was about eating healthier, losing weight, becoming more fit and the idea of focusing on something significant and the entire experience brought all of these things into his life and then some. Through no intention of his own, he developed a following online and with the people closer to home and he inspired everyone to make positive changes. And minutes after completing the run, he was already thinking about his next challenge and how to keep the momentum going. It was all about what he had accomplished and how to use that as the starting point for his next goal. You can see him and some of the day here in the two following videos:

The lesson for us all is continuous self-improvement. Not competing with someone else, but with ourselves by running our own races. We should set out to reach a goal that we define by identifying what our passions are and on what we want to spend our time and energy. We determine what is best for us and develop the steps necessary to achieve our goals. If we approach them in this way, then we will always come out ahead.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Bring Your Own Sunshine

Think about this: You wake up one Saturday morning, the sun is shining brightly, the birds are chirping. You jump out of bed have breakfast and are energized to get out and experience the day. Maybe you go for a hike, or run your errands, or head to the gym. However you decide to spend it, the day seems bright. What if, however, when you wake up, the sun is behind the clouds, the sky is gray and the birds are quiet? How would you begin your day under those circumstances? Have you ever noticed the influence that the weather has on a day? It not only affects the atmosphere itself, but it impacts our energy and motivation levels, our moods and the choices we make.

Of course, there are certain things that we simply wouldn’t do in certain weather, like have a picnic in the pouring rain or swim in the pool while it’s snowing. I notice a huge difference in the number of pedestrians and the amount of traffic on the streets on a sunny Saturday morning versus one that’s cloudy. And on a bad weather day, I often wonder what sort of activity would be happening around me if the sun were shining.

Sometimes it's just a matter of a day or two where the weather may get us down, but prolonged exposure to greyness can have profound effects. In fact, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a real disorder caused by lack of sunlight that takes on the symptoms of depression that is common in the long, winter months. But there was a study published in the journal Behavior Therapy by University of Vermont psychologist Kelly Rohan, Ph.D., that a combination of light therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) helps to alleviate SAD with an 80% success rate versus only 50% for either therapy alone. And in another study, she observed that one year later, almost 37% of those individuals who were treated only with light therapy again suffered from symptoms of SAD (you can read a bit more about it here: CBT is the practice of observing and changing our own thought patterns and is something I commonly use through positive affirmation, visualization techniques and meditation and is a powerful way to eliminate negative thoughts. So much of the worlds we create for ourselves do begin in our minds and if we want lives filled with joy and happiness, then they must originate from within. There is nothing on the outside that will fulfill us the way inner strength and self-love will. It is only when these things are in place that our outer worlds will take on real meaning for us.

So back to the weather, if we have strong inner worlds, then the weather on any given day should not determine how we show up for life. On a recent rainy day, I took a hike up to a castle at Sleeping Giant Park near my home. Except for wet feet : ) it turned out to be a very peaceful and calming experience and when I got to the top of the castle, I felt energized and was happy to listen without distractions to the sound of the raindrops hitting my umbrella and the trees. A little while later, I was joined by a gentleman named Patrick who was also enjoying the rain and who has a very healthy attitude about the control we have over our thoughts. You can meet him here in this video:

He is the Treasurer of the New Haven Hiking Club, an organization that actually takes advantage of the weather (except the rain!) to add some diversity into their exercise schedule and social routine. They get together to hike, bike, snowshoe and cross country ski. Their bike ride scheduled for that day had been cancelled because of the rain, so Patrick decided to hike up to the castle to enjoy the clean air while it poured. I found it very refreshing to talk with him and to hear from someone that truly does not let the weather “get” to him. Instead of wishing for something else, he embraces the moments he has and knows that he is responsible for whether or not he enjoys life. And from my conversation with him, it sounds like he genuinely does.

So whatever the weather when you wake up in the morning, be thankful for the day, put some sunshine in your pocket and make the most of it because you can’t get it back to redo when it’s over. That doesn’t mean deliberately go outside and slosh around in the puddles in your work clothes or get into your car during a blizzard. Just try not to allow the weather to make you forget that every day is a blessing and a gift. And one that you should celebrate now...

Friday, October 30, 2009

A Tale of Having Passion and Spreading Joy

Yesterday I was at our local library. It’s such a great resource and I go there every week or two and come home with a pile of books on personal development, health, food and whatever other topic may be interesting me at the time. But yesterday, a book caught my eye because it brought back a very fond memory from many years ago that left a strong impression on me. That book was The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter.

I remember having The Tale of Peter Rabbit as a child and reading it many times, but it wasn’t until I had my own children that the book carried some significance for me. When my youngest daughter was in the third grade, she had a teacher named Mrs. Whittle. Mrs. Whittle was a beautiful person from the inside out. Physically, she was a very pretty woman with blonde hair that was always nicely styled and she was always beautifully dressed in neat, stylish clothing. On the inside, Mrs. Whittle was just as beautiful. She was a warm, kind, generous and patient person and as a teacher, had the ability to instill calmness in her students and to somehow draw out their luminosity. I watched it happen and remember what a powerful, positive force it was that she possessed.

Mrs. Whittle was a big fan of Beatrix Potter. She would read all of her books to her students and even had a collection of Beatrix Potter keepsakes at home. One day, there was a Beatrix Potter celebration going on internationally and in honor of the author, Mrs. Whittle decided to bring in her collection to show her students. She also invited parents to come into the classroom to view the collection as well and I went to see it that day. I remember when I walked into the room, I couldn’t believe my eyes. The classroom had been transformed into a Beatrix Potter showcase. The room was beautifully arranged with everything Beatrix Potter from ceramic statues to books to stuffed animals of storybook characters. And she did it in such a way that we could walk into the room and enjoy all the items as we weaved our way through the desks and tables and counter tops. The keepsakes were numerous and I can’t remember everything in her collection, but I remember the impression it had on me. First, I remember thinking about the amount of effort, energy, planning and creativity it took for her to bring in her collection and to display it so beautifully. It was like walking through an art exhibit. And she clearly took much pride in and loved her collection very much, because it was very well taken care of. I know that often people who collect something as a hobby are very passionate about it and cherish their treasures. As such, they will keep them locked in a cabinet or high up on a shelf or in a room where people may be able to see, but not get too close to. But because of her extreme pride and joy for her collection, she brought it in and displayed it openly and freely for everyone to see up close and admire. To me, this was a demonstration of tremendous generosity, kindness, sharing, and trust and I know she brought joy to everyone that walked through that room.

On that day, Mrs. Whittle taught me the importance of having passion for something and to have the courage to share it with others. We may not remember what people say or what people do, but we always remember how people make us feel. That day brings back fond memories almost twenty years later because Mrs. Whittle shared her passion for Beatrix Potter. It was a gift that made me feel happy and inspired.

I no longer live in the same town nor have I been back to the school and I don’t know what Mrs. Whittle is doing, but I want to say Thank You to her from the bottom of my heart for being such a beautiful person and teacher and for sharing her passion with all of us. Maybe you remember an event or knew someone who taught you the importance of living life with passion. You can also be that person that spreads joy by discovering your passion and having the courage to share it with others. Please do! The World will be a much better place because of it!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Savor the Celebration

Some of the best times in our lives are those spent with family and friends centered around celebrations and it seems there is always a reason to celebrate. There are holidays, weddings, graduations, birthdays, new babies, etc. They are all opportunities for people to assemble into groups large or small. And one thing these gatherings have in common is food. Not just any food, but exceptional, festive, indulgent, “feast for the taste-buds” food. Those recipes that we don’t pull out everyday just for ourselves, or perhaps dishes that are a bit richer than we would normally eat. Like the Thanksgiving feast with all the comforting side dishes around the turkey and the luscious desserts that follow. Or the rich pastas and seafood recipes we prepare for anniversaries or for Christmas. For special occasions, these dishes help to create an atmosphere of joy and celebration and wonderful memories, so we should savor them without guilt. In fact, I believe that if we recognize and enjoy these indulgent foods as part of the overall experience (in moderation, of course), then their benefits far outweigh any “negative” health impacts they may have. Because if they are awakening feelings of gratitude and happiness, then they are promoting our emotional well-being and this has a strong positive impact on our overall health. And seriously, life is too short to deprive ourselves of the beautiful things in life, like beautiful food.

Well, a few weeks ago was such an occasion for me and two friends. We hadn’t seen much of each other since before the summer because of busy schedules, but we made it a point to get together because we were all celebrating our birthdays within a few weeks of one another. So we met on a cool, Autumn day at my friend’s house and spent the afternoon preparing Julia Child’s Boeuf Bourguignon, a recipe that begins with bacon, but which is absolutely necessary to use if you want to truly experience this dish. If you’d like to see some of the cooking process and what it looked like, you can watch this video:

It was warm, tender, deep with rich flavors and we devoured what we had in our plates and were thoroughly content afterward so I would say that the afternoon it took to prepare was worth the effort. Of course, no true birthday celebration would be complete without dessert but we broke with tradition for this one and instead of cake, we made a chocolate fondue with lots of fruit that we lingered over as we chatted. It was a smooth and silky, not-too-sweet chocolate nirvana that paired well with strawberries, bananas, pineapple and melon. It also made an ideal ending to a perfect meal which was simple but rich, decadent, heavenly and worth every calorie. And I am happy to say that it helped to shape a gathering we will remember very fondly.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Entering the Discomfort Zone

Many of us have developed routines in our lives and a typical day might sound like this for some: we get up, get ready for work, send the kids off to school, spend the day at work, exercise, head home, have dinner, watch TV and finally prepare for the following day. For some things, a consistent schedule is good. For example, setting a specific workout schedule everyday makes good sense because it helps to instill the habit of taking care of ourselves physically and mentally and our health, without a doubt, the sets the stage for how we perform with every other facet of our lives.

What is common, though, is that it’s this same routine, day in and day out that often stifles us, makes us feel unfulfilled and creates the strong impression that something’s missing. We live our lives in autopilot in the comfort zone. I for one have my moments and days in this mode like anyone else. But they do little to advance my personal growth and they certainly don’t make me feel alive. Papa Wallenda said, “Life is lived out on the wire, the rest is just waiting.” What he’s saying is that it’s when we are challenged, scared, buzzing with excitement and anticipation that we enjoy life and the more we look for these opportunities, the less our lives will feel routine.

With our busy schedules during the week, plunging into something daring or exhilarating may seem unrealistic, but it doesn’t have to be that way. It can be anything that will lead us into our discomfort zones, such as introducing ourselves to someone new at work that we look up to, or taking a class to explore a new hobby, or trying a new restaurant. Anything, however insignificant it may seem, that can get the heart pumping, wake up our brains, or even make us feel slightly off balance will do the trick. Over the weekend, I participated in something that, for me, accomplished those things and so many more. I competed in the NY Regional/Tristate Yoga Asana Championship in New York City. You can see some of the event here:

This entire day took me out of my comfort zone on so many levels. For example, I took a class in NYC before the competition at a studio where I’ve never practiced before. That in itself would get the blood pumping. But more dramatically, it was the first time I’ve ever performed anything athletic alone on stage. Except for giving talks, the last time I performed solo in front of an audience was in sixth grade at a school concert, singing “Let Me Be There”, by Olivia Newton John and I don’t have that on video : ) But thinking back to that night, it was one of the most fun and rewarding times of my life. Other challenges to this past weekend: I knew I would be competing with women who had been here many times before, who had been training for much longer than me and whose yoga practices were far more advanced than mine. I was floored and inspired by their abilities. Just look at the woman below who took first place!

So knowing all of this, when I decided to enter this competition, I took it as a personal challenge to do my best and to have fun and that’s what I did. Despite the butterflies and the extreme talent around me, I was able to have fun and feel a very strong sense of accomplishment when it was over and I wouldn’t want to change any of it.

Another gift from this event was the support and encouragement from everyone: the other competitors, judges and organizers, the audience, and especially my friends who came to NYC to watch the event and cheer us on. And my willingness to take the risk in the competition has inspired some of them to enter the competition next year.

Whatever the outcome would have been, my courage to take a chance was the most significant lesson and triumph for me here because it gave me the confidence to believe that if I could do this, there’s no telling what I can accomplish!!! So challenge yourself; step into your discomfort zone and live…

Friday, October 23, 2009

A Talented Glass Blower Demonstrates His Art

Often times we are unaware of the great things going on in our own backyards, which is why I was delighted to recently meet Morgan Schwartz. Morgan is a young artist here in New Haven who discovered a passion for glass blowing after getting a degree in art education and studying with a Venetian master at the Corning Museum of Glass. Since then, he’s focused his artwork on glass. Yesterday, he was kind enough to invite me to his studio to talk and to explain his craft. He uses a technique called lampworking that uses a blazing hot torch to melt tubes and bars of glass that can then be pulled, shaped, twisted and transformed into just about anything the imagination can come up with.

He’s created a beautiful and unique collection of glass sculptures, goblets, jars, pendants, marbles, and holiday ornaments and yesterday he demonstrated how he makes a spiraling glass Christmas tree ornament beginning with a bar of clear glass. You can see the process in the video below. I was so impressed with the steadiness of his hands at the flame as he laid down stripes of colored glass onto the bar and how, while heating the glass, he was able to twist and lengthen the glass to take on its final shape. He made it look so easy : ) Like anything else, it takes continuous practice to master these skills and he’s learned how to produce some beautiful effects in his pieces such as metallic flecks swirled into pendants using dichroic glass, imploded glass in wine stoppers that looked like tentacles from a sea plant, and vortexes that give the illusion of depth in contemporary marbles. You can see all of this in the video below.

I had a wonderful time meeting with Morgan and I’m thrilled to have discovered another talented artist in New Haven that is creating objects of beauty. I can never get enough of those because of the richness they add to our lives and the happiness they make me feel. And yes, I am grateful!! If you’re interested in seeing more of Morgan’s work, you can contact him at

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Stand Up and Stand Out

The foliage this time of year is vivid with color and can make even a cloudy day seem brighter. In fact, I personally think that it’s even more beautiful on a cloudy day as opposed to when the sun is shining because of the striking contrast between the leaves and the sky. Driving down the highway or walking through the forest are ideal times to soak in the expansive, colorful mixture and I welcome getting into my car if I know I’ll have the opportunity to feast my eyes during my trip to wherever. The other day, I was on an interstate and I happened to look over in the distance to see the tree below. I couldn’t help but notice it. It was alone, standing tall and blazing red and I had to pull over to take a picture of it.

I thought about this tree in comparison to the endless number of trees packed together in the forests. Although so many of them are worthy of our appreciation, the significance of each one is masked by the shear numbers. But standing on it’s own, there is no mistaking the brilliance of the tree above for all it’s worth. It is on its own to reveal its unique qualities and to shine brightly. For us as well, I believe it’s necessary to step out of the forest for our true abilities to be appreciated. It’s when we step out that we have a stronger impact because we bring forth and develop our unique talents. I’m not actually suggesting that we isolate ourselves from everyone. On the contrary, this is a quality of leadership that lets us add value to the lives of others and to encourage and inspire them to do the same.

We are surrounded by opportunities to stand out. Within our families or with friends, we can take a proactive role into nurturing relationships. We can lead by example at work by going the extra mile or accessing our creativity to solve problems. And within our communities we can initiate projects or do volunteer work for an organization we are passionate about, or we can help someone who is desperately in need.

So be uncommon, be exceptional and share your unique qualities. We all have the power within us. We just need to stand up and stand out and be brilliant like the tree…

Monday, October 19, 2009

Cruciferous Vegetables You'll Love

Cruciferous vegetables such as cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage and brussel sprouts were probably the most difficult thing for me to acquire a taste for yet I know how good they are for my health. They’re a great source of fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants but they also produce beneficial toxins that induce our own cells to make antioxidants, ultimately making our cells hardier. In that way, we can think of cruciferous veggies as a workout for our cells, so I welcome any interesting ways or recipes I can find that encourage me to eat them. I found an easy yet delicious recipe for sautéed cauliflower in Alice Waters’ cookbook The Art of Simple Food. Two things I like about the recipe: The head of cauliflower is sliced into slabs that sautee quickly and the flat surfaces get crispy when cooked; and she suggests a number of ways to finish it off that I’ll outline with the recipe below. The few times that I’ve made the dish I’ve used her suggestion of adding chopped garlic, cumin, tumeric, and chopped cilantro. These additions add their own stockpile of nutritional benefits. Garlic has antibacterial and antioxidant properties and both cumin and tumeric contain the compound curcumin, which has been shown to inhibit an enzyme in cancers cells that allows them to invade healthy cells. Tumeric also has potent anti-inflammatory properties. Fresh green herbs such as cilantro also contribute vitamins and minerals and have alkalizing benefits as well, which help to keep our cells healthy and functioning at their optimum. The combination of crunchiness, chewiness, and warm flavors makes this dish seem much richer than it is and I love it.

Sauteed Cauliflower (4 servings)

1 large or 2 small heads cauliflower

Oil (recipe calls for olive oil for sautéing but I used coconut oil)

Salt (used kosher)

Extra virgin olive oil for drizzling at the end

Remove the base of the cauliflower with a sharp knife, then slice from the top into ¼ inch slices. If you’re using a large head, it can be cut it in half first. Heat enough oil to just cover the bottom of a heavy skillet or pan on medium high heat (you want the cauliflower to sizzle when added). Add pieces of cauliflower and let it brown lightly before flipping or tossing. It should take ~7 minutes total. Add a sprinkle of salt while cooking. Just before removing from pan, add ground cumin, tumeric, chopped garlic, and fresh, chopped cilantro. Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil.


- chopped garlic and fresh, chopped parsley;

- toasted breadcrumbs;

- chopped parsley and garlic, salt-cured anchovies, capers, hot chili flakes and chopped olives (good on pasta)

Friday, October 16, 2009


Firm reliance on the integrity or ability of a person or a thing; the condition and obligation of having confidence placed in one; reliance on something in the future; hope; to believe. These are some of the definitions found in the dictionary for the word trust. This is a very profound concept and one that when breached, can often lead to the disintegration of relationships. Especially if the circumstances involve integrity, which, by definition, is the “steadfast adherence to a strict moral or ethical code”. This could apply to any relationship, including those involving family members, friends, coworkers or acquaintances. Lack of trust so often leads to destruction, not just because of betrayals, but because it is so difficult to regain. It is the foundation upon which successful relationships are built in the first place. They grow from that premise and allow those involved to grow and to be whole, authentic individuals who want to share their thoughts and feelings with one another without the worry that they will be rejected.

According to Stephen Covey, “trust is the highest form of human motivation. It brings out the very best in people. But it takes time and patience…” And this requires constant work. He uses the metaphor of an “Emotional Bank Account…that describes the amount of trust that’s been built up in a relationship…through deposits of “courtesy, kindness, honesty, and keeping commitments” and if the reserve is high enough, “communication is instant, easy and effective…It can even weather mistakes.” But withdrawing from the bank account too often without making deposits erodes trust and relationships. And it goes both ways in that we must acknowledge other people’s bank accounts. In other words, we must not only earn trust but we must place it in others. We can’t expect someone to trust us if we don’t trust them. And sometimes, a lack of trust in others is a projection of how we feel about ourselves. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Self-trust is the first secret of success.” As with anything else, we must trust ourselves first. We must have faith that our thoughts and feelings are valid and that we can and will do the right thing. I believe to some extent, this comes from having such things as love, faith, belief, patience, care and respect for ourselves. When we achieve these strengths in our characters, only then can we begin to build solid and lasting relationships that stay strong through trust.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Pump Up Your Brain With Exercise

I’ve been reading Spark by John J. Ratey, MD, who is a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School. Based on a wealth of research, he describes the intimate link between exercise and the brain. In addition, he beautifully distills down and simplifies the complexities of brain function for everyone to comprehend, which is fundamental to understanding the connection. Just as working out can strengthen our cardiovascular system and muscles, so too can it strengthen and enhance brain function. The mind becomes more alert and can better focus. Tension is reduced. Moods improve and lead to an increase in motivation, drive and vitality. And since the brain is ultimately overseeing the function of every system within the body, its condition directly influences the body’s overall health.

A landmark study outlined in the beginning of the book demonstrated how exercise before school primed the brains of students in such a way that it enhanced the absorption, processing and remembering of information, resulting in better test scores, more confidence, higher levels of motivation and creativity, and in other words, greater success. But how does exercise do this? Fundamentally, it positively supports a property of the brain referred to as neuroplasticity. To say that the brain is plastic simply means that it is changeable. It is sculpted by the inputs it is given in an almost infinite number of combinations. Not surprising – the brain is composed of 100 billion neurons that inter-communicate to control our mind and body. And because our brains are always receiving new sensory inputs, they must continuously identify, sort through, interpret, catalog, cross-reference, retrieve and eliminate information. The ability to do this efficiently rests on the “physical” health and function of the neurons and their ability to interact with one another and regular physical activity helps to ensure that they do this at their optimum. There are three major ways that exercise supports brain health:

1. It increases the levels of neurotransmitters and balances neurochemicals in the brain

Nerve cells (or neurons) communicate with one another and eventually “bind” through a region of the cell called the synapse, a site where chemicals termed neurotransmitters (NTs) are released through structures called vesicles, to be take up by an adjacent cell. See figure below:

There are two major NTs, glutamate and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). Glutamate is a stimulatory molecule, meaning that it promotes a connection between cells and a subsequent signaling network to develop. GABA is inhibitory, helping to balance the activity of glutamate. When the molecule glutamate is released from one cell’s synapse and accepted by a neighboring cell, it establishes the early signs of a connection that can initiate a signaling cascade involving the “firing” of many cells. Repeated firing between a set of cells will induce the formation of additional synapses that further strengthen the connection (see #3 below). This wiring process, which is set in motion by glutamate is a crucial step in learning.

A number of other NTs exist, but the following three, which are discussed frequently in the book are highly influential yet only produced in one percent of the brain’s neurons. They perform many functions but primarly act as regulators of information to ultimately balance brain neurochemicals:

Serotonin: Helps to control excessive brain activities that deal with mood that can lead to such things as aggression and impulsive behavior. Prosac is often prescribed to restore serotonin levels and to relieve depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Norepinephrine: also enhances mood and boosts signals related to attention, perception, motivation and arousal.

Dopamine: functions in learning, satisfaction, attention and movement. It is this NT that is elevated by Ritalin, the drug to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

It is pointed out that taking drugs to elevate the levels of a single NT may not necessarily restore the overall balance of neurochemicals in the brain. However, this is one of the things that exercise does naturally. For example, running elevates the levels of both serotonin and dopamine.

2. It encourages the development of new cells

A greater pool of cells to participate in learning. For a long time, it was believed that we were born with all the brain cells we would ever have, however, over ten years ago, it was discovered in the hippocampi (a region of the brain required for learning and memory) of terminally ill cancer patients that neurogenesis does occur after the brain has fully developed. This phenomenon has also been identified in chickadees that are learning new songs and interestingly, in mice that run on an exercise wheel, suggesting a link between exercise and neurogenesis. In addition, these newly formed cells can participate in learning.

New experiences promote the survival of new neurons. Although exercise helps to increase the pool of cells available for learning, it then comes down to our environment or the richness of our experiences that determines how many of them survive. In other words, without some sort of stimulation that activates the cells, i.e., without something new to learn, the cells have no reason to stick around. Indeed, many new cells do die from lack of use. And the numbers are the same in the brains of exercisers versus non-exercisers. The important thing is that there is a larger population of cells in brains that have “worked out”. And those brains are in a healthier position to want to learn.

Exercise can reverse degeneration. Studies focused on aging have also reported that the frontal cortex and temporal lobes in the elderly can increase in volume in response to exercise, presumably through the growth of new blood vessels as well as new neurons and connections. Better performance on test scores that target these regions have also observed in those that participate in aerobic activity. The prefrontal cortex is involved in high order brain functions, yet, ironically, it includes those things that we take for granted, like how to tie our shoes or drive to work. The temporal lobe is intimately connected with the hippocampus. It catalogs words and proper names and helps to maintain long-term memory. It is also a brain region that atrophies in Alzheimer’s Disease. As you can expect, it would be almost impossible to function on a day-to-day basis without these basic abilities. We would very quickly lose our independence. The good news is that physical activity can preserve our brain health, as well as our physical strength as we age, allowing us to care for ourselves for as long as possible.

3. Exercise encourages stronger connections between cells

Exercise increases levels of BDNF. Another class of chemicals acting in the brain is referred to neurotrophic factors. They help to assemble and maintain the infrastructure. One in particular, brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) has a number of functions within neurons, including strengthening the cells, protecting them from cell death, regulating the production of NTs such as serotonin and strengthening the connections between neurons through the sprouting of new branches, as discussed above. As a result, BDNF has been called “MiracleGro for the Brain”. This strengthening allows for something called long term potentiation (LTP), a process that increases the affinity between neuronal connections and allows learning to become sticky. This phenomenon occurs, for example, when you encounter something over and over again. If we learn something for the first time, an initial connection/circuit will be established, however, if we practice it repeatedly, the circuit becomes stronger through the formation of stronger and additional synapses. As expected, a lack of use will cause the connection to whither.

BDNF is required for laying down circuitry and its levels increase during learning as well as during physical activity. As mentioned above, the hippocampus is required for learning and is also susceptible to degeneration. In support of this, it’s been demonstrated in mice that the levels of BDNF increase in the hippocampus as a result of exercise. In addition, a study concluded that the rate of learning increases after exercise and this finding also correlated with levels of BDNF. Conversely, taking away BDNF was found to inhibit the learning process. This suggests that exercise is pivotal in keeping the learning process and a healthy brain alive.

Exercise alleviates the stress that can erode connections. We hear a lot about cortisol and how, through stress, it can ultimately lead to an increase in fat around the gut which is a high risk factor for cardiovascular disease. In the brain, cortisol is involved in the distribution of glucose, the primary source of energy. During an acutely stressful situation such as one that initiates the fight-or-flight response, the body is mobilized to take action, cortisol levels are driven up in the brain and glucose is conserved by diverting it from regions involved in thinking. In today’s world, that acute level of stress is frequent but rarely necessary and the body often does not follow through with sufficient movement that would dissipate the body’s biochemical reaction. This form of chronic disconnect that takes energy away from major parts of the brain such as the hippocampus, for example, eventually induces the degradation of its synapses and results in cell death. With regard to learning, the hippocampus is responsible for the who, what, when, where and how of our memories and works with another brain region called the amygdala that registers the emotional component. The hippocampus can be “taken over” by the amygdala if it breaks down and this imbalance contributes to the development of anxiety, fear, and depression.

Exercise also allows the resting tension in the body to drop, which also cuts off the stress signaling to the brain through the heart. An exercise-induced increase in heart rate triggers the production of atrial natiuretic peptide (ANP), which can dampen or block a stress response in the brain. It also leads to an increase in the production of GABA and serotonin, which can alleviate anxiety.

Exercise upregulates the production of growth factors. Exercise boosts the production of three growth factors (GFs) in the brain as well as throughout the body that are then transported to the brain via the blood stream and through the blood brain barrier:

1. IGF-1 works to help deliver fuel to the muscles. In addition, exercise promotes the production of insulin receptors on cells within the body that work with IGF-1 to promote the uptake of glucose and an increase in energy production. In the brain, IGF-1 plays a role in neurogenesis and LTP and it induces the synthesis of the NTs serotonin and glutamate.

2. VEGF (vascular endothelial growth factor) functions to increase oxygen delivery by helping to sprout additional capillaries in the body as well as in the brain.

3. FGF (fibroblast growth factor) promotes tissue growth in the body and is instrumental for LTP in the brain.

Exercise is a mild stress that strengthens neurons. The increase in GFs supplied through exercise strengthens neurons. Exercise is considered a mild stress for the brain because it generates molecular by-products such as free radicals that can damage cells. Through the help of increased GFs, neurons turn on genes that repair the damage, leaving the cells stronger. Additional, mild stresses include caloric restriction, learning and low levels of toxins such as those that naturally occur in food. One such toxin is sulfurophane, a compound made in cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli to ward off bugs. In the body, it induces our cells to turn on genes that produce their own arsenal of antioxidants. So although broccoli contains its own antioxidants, perhaps the greater benefit from eating it lies in its ability to exert our cells to ultimately make them stronger. Just as resistance training builds muscles by initially breaking them down, mild stresses such as exercise makes brain cells more resilient by working them more intensely as well.

So if you’d like to increase your vitality, improve and balance your mood, sharpen your learning capacity and memory and melt away stress, try pumping up your brain with exercise then give it something new and fascinating to do with all that power. It wants to be pushed and challenged regularly and will serve you well for far longer as long as it is.