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

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.

Monday, October 12, 2009

It's a Wonderful Life

One of my favorite movies of all time is “It’s a Wonderful Life” with the late and great Jimmy Stewart. It’s about a man who’s life, due to circumstances beyond his control, never unfolds exactly how he had planned, but who still lives out his days with integrity and intent. One day, he loses a very large sum of money and is so distraught over it that he wishes he had never lived and decides to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge into the icy, winter waters below. As he’s about to jump, he hears a cry for help and instead of jumping in to die, he jumps in to save someone’s life. He pulls a man named Clarence out of the water and doesn’t realize it, but Clarence is sent from above to show him exactly what sort of an impact his life has had on those around him, and ultimately the World. This dramatic revelation compels him to wish for his life back. In the end, people from near and far come to his rescue in an immense act of gratitude for his selfless contributions, compassion and belief and faith in the people whose lives he has touched.

We often don’t think about the impact we have on the lives of others. It’s difficult to predict the amount of influence we have from what we say or do, but whether it’s something positive or negative, it will almost certainly reach far beyond the initial encounter. If we want our lives to turn out wonderful, we need only to live with the intent of making the lives of those we intersect better. All it takes is kindness, compassion, understanding and love. Always the perfect gift, they are free to give if you are willing to open your heart and they are most welcomed by an open heart when they are returned. So don’t wait for the holiday season to think about gift giving. Do it now and do it always because you will never feel bad about making someone else feel good.

Friday, October 9, 2009

A Hearty and Versatile Chicken Soup Recipe

Yes, I’m posting another soup recipe because I'm such a big fan of them. And because I don’t have an oven at home, I gravitate towards soup/stew/curry type recipes. The upside of no oven is that I’m not tempted to bake. Instead, to satisfy a sweet tooth, I will visit my favorite vegetarian restaurant in the city, Claire’s Cornercopia, for a single serving of whatever I’m in the mood for. Their baked goods are heaven and they use high quality ingredients, including many that are organic and no trans fats. I’ve also begun to experiment at home with raw and non-baked recipes that are significantly more nutritious. So what I once felt was a problem has actually turned out to be a blessing and both of my strategies have ramped up my diet considerably while at the same time kept me from feeling deprived. On the contrary, I’m more grateful for the times when I do indulge knowing that I’m doing something good for my body and soul.

The thing about soup, though, is that it is perfect for the winter months because it’s warming and a very easy and convenient way to get a complete, nutritious meal in one pot. The following chicken soup recipe is one that I have been making for many years. I’ve made dozens of variations based on the vegetables, bean/legumes, grains or seasonings I’ve added, but the main idea is to incorporate as many colors as possible to get a greater variety of nutrients. For example, try adding acorn or butternut squash instead of sweet potato, broccoli or peas in place of the zucchini, or barley, lentils, or pasta in place of beans. The timing of how the vegetables are added will also ensure that they are not overcooked enabling them to retain more of their nutritional value.

In the past made my own broth for this recipe by simply browning chicken with the onions and celery in the pot, adding water and seasonings, and allowing it to simmer until the chicken is cooked and tender, then removed it from the bones and put it back in the pot. But a quicker and just as tasty version is listed below using already prepared chicken or vegetable broth and precooked chicken (or turkey), which makes it a great soup for leftovers. I like to simply sprinkle on some grated parmesan or pecorino Romano cheese or, to add even more flavor and nutrition, I’ll garnish it with pesto. I’ve included a recipe for a basil pesto below.

Chicken Soup

2 tsp coconut oil
1 medium yellow onion, chopped small
2 stalks celery, chopped small – I like to use the tender stalks of the heart with the leaves
2 small carrots, sliced thin on the diagonal
1 medium sweet potato, chopped into ½ to 1 inch cubes
3 - 4 cups chicken or vegetable broth
1 small zucchini and yellow squash, quartered lengthwise then sliced crosswise into 1/2 inch wedges
2 cups chicken, cooked and shredded or chopped into bite-sized pieces
1 cup white beans
1 cup tomatoes, chopped in juice or 2 medium, fresh tomatoes, chopped
1 cup greens such as spinach or Swiss chard, chopped
Herbs and seasonings: cracked pepper, fresh or dried basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary and sea salt to taste
2 cloves fresh garlic, minced

Heat coconut oil over medium heat in large pot. Add onions and celery and sauté until onions start to become translucent. Add carrots and sweet potatoes, stir and sauté briefly. Slowly add broth, cracked pepper and herbs (start with a teaspoon of each, then adjust). Increase heat to bring to a gentle boil, then reduce heat to medium low and simmer 5 – 10 minutes to allow carrots and sweet potatoes to partially through. Add zucchini and yellow squash and continue to simmer an additional 5 – 10 minutes. Add chopped chicken, tomatoes and white beans. For a thicker soup, mash some of the beans first before adding to the pot and stir well. This can also be achieved using mashed sweet potato or carrots. Add sea salt to taste and stir in garlic. For less heat, garlic can be sautéed in the beginning with onions and celery. Add greens and simmer briefly. To serve, ladle soup into bowls. Garnish with freshly grated cheese, chopped fresh herbs or a dollop of pesto (recipe below). For a hearty and satisfying meal, serve this soup with some crusty, whole grain sourdough bread. Enjoy!

Basil Pesto

2 cups fresh basil leaves
½ cup fresh parsley leaves
2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
½ cup pine nuts
2 large garlic cloves, chopped
½ tsp sea salt

Place all ingredients except for olive oil into a food processor. Slowly add olive oil while processing until it reaches a desired consistency. Adjust salt to taste.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Reveal Your True Colors

It is Autumn in New England, my favorite time of the year. I love the cooler days, the season’s foods and the colors. For a very short time, vast landscapes of green turn vibrant shades of yellow, orange and red as the trees anticipate Winter and the leaves prepare to fall. We always say that the leaves are “changing” colors, but in reality, they are shedding their green. At night, the sugars made by the highly abundant green chlorophyll in the leaves normally travel into the tree, but as the cool weather arrives, this process is slowed so sugar production ends and the chlorophyll begins to break down. The disappearance of so much green actually reveals the beautiful colors that were there all along. And in the presence of bright sunshine, the sugars that remain in the leaves also helps to intensify them.

It sounds a lot like people. Afraid to stand out and be different, we play it safe by being green and blending in. What we don’t realize is that our greatest gifts to the World are revealed when we strip away the green - when we remove the mask of conformity. This is also when our lives become the most colorful and creative. This is when we are the most authentic, when our lives take on the most significance and when we are the most fulfilled. This is when we feel the most alive and when we most inspire others. And the more we remove the green, the brighter we become.

Every one of us has something to offer that makes us unique and special. Just think how much more colorful the World would be if we were all courageous enough to share it. Yet, so many people wait for the Autumn of their lives to shed their green and some never let their brilliance see the light of day. And that is a loss for all mankind. So for the sake of humanity and in the words of Cyndi Lauper: “don't be afraid to let them show; your true colors, true colors are beautiful like a rainbow.”

Monday, October 5, 2009

Are You Getting All Your Omega 3s?

By now, it is widely known that omega 3 polyunsaturated fats are necessary components of our daily diets. They have anti-inflammatory properties that lead to good cardiovascular health, lower the risk or certain forms of cancers, diabetes and auto-immune diseases. They are also essential for development and function of the brain and nervous system and are believed to be helpful for warding off disorders such as depression, PMS, ADHD, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s Disease (AD). There are three fatty acids that fall into the category of omega 3:

Alpha (a) linoleic oil (ALA) - this fatty acid is considered essential because it cannot be manufactured by the body. Good sources include flax, hempseed, avocado, walnut and canola oils.

Docoshexaenoic acid (DHA) and Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) are produced from ALA, however, it has been reported that this process is often inefficient. In fact, the high prevelance of omega 6 fats in our diets that include corn, soy, cottonseed and sunflower oils actually block the conversion of ALA to DHA. And omega 6 fats are generally pro- inflammatory, suggesting that the unhealthy balance of omega 6 to omega 3 plays a role in many diseases. So to correct that balance and to ensure that you have enough EPA and DHA, you must include them into your diet. The best source for both fatty acids is oily fish such as salmon, tuna, mackerel and sardines. Marine algae are also reported as excellent sources of DHA and possibly EPA. In addition, I just purchased organic, DHA- and EPA-containing eggs.

ALA is a medium-chain fatty acid (it has a "tail" that is 18 carbons long) and DHA and EPA are long-chain fatty acids (22 and 20 carbon, respectively). DHA is the most biologically active of the omega 3s. Both DHA and EPA are necessary for heart health and both, but specifically, DHA is required for brain, central nervous system, and retinal development and function. DHA is also required for the formation and repair of the large, fatty membrane myelin sheath that insulates and signals along the length of neurons. The American Dietetic Association recommends at least 500 mg/day combined of DHA and EPA. This is equivalent to 2 servings of fatty fish/week. However, the Japanese diet can contain up to three times these levels per day and has been implicated in much lower rates of heart disease. Higher doses (~2200 mg/day) of DHA have also been shown to lower triglyceride levels and 1700 mg/day of DHA in fish oil supplements has been associated with a reduction in inflammation in the brains of AD patients. Studies with DHA in mouse models of AD have also demonstrated improvements in the pathological effects of AD including oxidative damage, inflammation, defective signaling between neurons and decreased cognitive function.

Because DHA and EPA are crucial for keeping our cardiovascular and nervous systems healthy, they must be a regular part of our diet. However, if you’re consuming little or no fish either because you are a vegan or vegetarian, or because of concerns about mercury, then it has been strongly suggested that you take fish oil or algal oil supplements that specifically contain DHA and EPA. Plant sources such as flaxseed oil will only supply ALA. In addition, David Wolfe in his book Superfoods suggests adding blue-green algae, chlorella or spirulina to the diet because the phospholipids supplied by eating one of these sources of marine organism together with fish oil will increase the absorption and delivery of DHA and EPA to the brain. Even on their own, he claims that these algae already contain all the phospholipids and essential fatty acids required by the body.

Whichever way you decide to do it, if you want to stay healthy, active, and alert, make ALL three omega 3s a regular part of your diet.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Letting Go and Sending Your Fears into Extinction

Many of us don’t realize the magnitude of influence that negativity has on every second of our lives. The sad part is, the majority of this negativity is not directed towards us by others but is fabricated within our own minds. Take fear for example. Every one of us is afraid of one or more things. I’m not talking about scary monsters, but I may as well be because our fears are in our faces like monsters, or like the ferocious dinosaur below.

They are powerful, vivid, ever present, and limit our creative potential because they are energy drainers that feed off of us to grow, thereby preventing our own positive growth and expansion. It’s only when we find the courage to face our fears that they stop growing because we no longer allow them to feed. And very often, when we tackle that scary thing we realize that it isn’t so bad after all. In fact, whatever it is doesn’t change when we face it, our perception of it changes. Maybe it’s trying new a food or going out and meeting new people or getting on a plane. Whatever it is, once the fear is gone, we can replace it with happiness or confidence or the desire to take on more challenges. We can grow.

The inability to let go of things from our past that we cling to through the negative emotions we’ve assigned to them also has an inhibitory and detrimental impact on our personal growth and happiness. These negative emotions can include regret, resentment, anger, hatred or hostility. Like the fear dinosaur, these also invade our minds and bodies suffocating us, leaving no room for possibility or enthusiasm. As a result, they drag us down, sap our vitality and cause us to contract.

The first step to letting go is to identify those events or circumstances that we’re gripping onto and the unpleasant and unhealthy emotion(s) that we’ve linked to them. Next, we must make a conscious decision to let go of those emotions. A sincere attempt at this will initiate the moving forward process and once that begins, that dinosaur begins to appear further and further off in the distance and begins to shrink in size, making room within us for new experiences, learning, happiness, and growth. Eventually, the once powerful negativity becomes a vague feeling that eventually disappears, leaving behind the initial experience or event without any association to bad feelings - and a lesson. And it is this detached lesson that is the ultimate gift to our transformation and growth and in the presence of enough wisdom, will be called upon to make better decisions in the future.

So if you are committed to your own positive evolution. If you want to lead a fulfilling and happy life that is defined by creativity, enthusiasm, possibility and love, then send your fears and negative feelings of the past into extinction where they belong. And save the monuments for the dinosaurs.