The Good Life
All things Mother Earth Living

Talk Yourself Up

When we talk about making healthier homes, we may consider reducing household chemicals, using sunlight to our advantage, or choosing better foods to stock the pantry. But we all have one place we live that’s even more intimate than our physical spaces — our own minds. Our minds are our most fundamental homes, and our lives are shaped by the environments we create through our thoughts and perspectives. While there are certainly benefits to clearing physical clutter, clearing clutter from our mental/emotional environments is even more critical to our health.

Although mental health issues affect people of all genders, studies find that women suffer disproportionately to men in many measures of mental health. According to Psychology Today, 10 percent of women suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, as compared with 4 percent of men, often related to physical or sexual assault or abuse. Women suffer more from anxiety (31 percent compared with 19 percent of men) and depression (12 percent versus 6 percent), as well. And, because our bodies and minds are parts of an interconnected system, stress, anxiety and depression are also linked with physical health. Chronic stress can suppress the immune, digestive, sleep and reproductive systems. It also harms our families. In polls compiled by the American Psychological Association, 69 percent of parents say their stress has only a slight or no impact on their children, while only 14 percent of youths say their parents’ stress doesn’t bother them.

Of course, we regularly cover ways to manage mental health in this magazine: Getting daily physical exercise, practicing yoga or tai chi, meditation, gratitude journals and spending time in nature are all scientifically proven to reduce stress, anxiety and depression levels. It’s also important to consider the kind of environment we create for ourselves within our minds. “Self-talk” is the term psychologists use to describe the messages we tell ourselves with our minds. Negative messages may include criticizing ourselves for our appearance, blaming ourselves when bad things happen, or not believing in our own abilities. Other negative self-talk habits include polarization, meaning we see situations as successes or failures, with no in between; or believing others are judging us and our activities much more or more harshly than they really are.

Most of us remember the “Saturday Night Live” character Stuart Smalley’s “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough and, doggone it, people like me” self-affirmations, but self-talk isn’t a joke: Some neuroscientists believe we can use self-talk as a tool to rewire our internal environments. While the study of how self-talk influences our lived realities is still in its infancy, scientists are starting to discover the ways we can quite literally reshape our experience of the world using our thoughts. In a few studies, for example, researchers have found that, put into a stressful situation, people are more likely to give themselves words of encouragement if they speak to themselves in the third person (“You can do it, Jessica!”) than using the term “I” (“There’s no way I can do this.”). The hypothesis is that it’s easier to be kind to others than to be kind to ourselves, and speaking in the third person creates a kind of distance between ourselves and our thoughts.

So remember, we don’t just create the homes we want by decluttering and decorating. We shape the world in which we live each day by the ways we think about and speak to ourselves. It’s worth it to make sure the most intimate spaces we design for ourselves — our minds — are the kind of safe, positive and healthy homes we deserve.

Thumbs up in mirror
Photo by Adobe Stock/esolla

Three things I love in the May/June issue:

Natural ways to make our lives cleaner, safer and more delicious.

1. A Clean, Healthy Home for Free
A list of low-cost ways to improve your home’s safety.

2. When the Cleaning Gets Tough
Expert-recommended techniques for tough cleaning jobs.

3. Edible Flowers and Herbs for Digestion
Simple plants to grow to reduce digestive complaints.

Growing Connections

Gardening
Photo by Fotolia/nkarol

I will never forget the day a few years ago when I visited the Seed Savers Exchange farm in Decorah, Iowa. It was November, so the farm’s expansive gardens weren’t in bloom, but still I left the place in total awe. I was most struck by the meeting of past and present — the farm houses thousands of seeds that have been saved and handed down from gardener to gardener, many for hundreds of years, yet it’s also home to sophisticated labs where white-coated technicians tend seedlings growing in test tubes in climate-controlled incubators. 

Combining the technological and communications capabilities of today with the wisdom of the past to improve our world always makes me feel a little giddy. I love honoring our generations of collective human wisdom and experience while also utilizing the marvels of modern technology.

We can connect the past with the future in this way in our own gardens by growing heirloom crops, many of which have been passed down for generations. When we do, we preserve a piece of the past, honoring our ancestors by growing, preparing and eating the very same plants they grew in their gardens and served on their tables. And with the same action we help safeguard the future by contributing to the preservation of our planet’s agrobiodiversity. We build upon the work of our predecessors to help shape the future we want for our posterity. 

For many of us, the present feels like a momentous time in history. Some long for a past that seemed simpler and easier, while others are eager to move toward a more progressive future. Whatever mix of these feelings lies within you, the garden may help ground you. Physically connecting with the earth can offer comfort, providing a link to our human history, our place in the world, and hark back to the past. Growing food for ourselves and our communities can also feel revolutionary: After all, by tending and sharing crops, we circumvent the industrial food system, and reach across tribal divides toward a shared prosperity. Gardening is also scientifically proven to calm us, reduce anger and stress, and soothe the senses — which is why it’s used therapeutically for everyone from elementary school students to soldiers suffering PTSD and prison populations. Plus, it yields nutritious food we can gather together to prepare and share, one of humanity’s most deep-seated cultural touchstones.  

This season, whether you’re motivated to plant a garden for the flavor of homegrown tomatoes; to physically connect with memories of the past; or to take a small step toward a sustainable future, working in the garden is certain to offer good medicine indeed. 

Three things I love in the March/April issue

Ideas for a happy spring season, a bountiful garden and a healthy future.

1. 8 Habits of Healthy People

Eight simple lifestyle habits we can incorporate to increase every day happiness.

2. The Slow Loss of Endangered Foods

An examination of our planet's shrinking agrobiodiversity and what we can do about it. 

3. Plant a Patchwork Garden

A clever gardening method to make the harvest more practical and productive.

New You in the New Year?

As we ring in the new year, many of us take some time to reflect and consider changes we want to make in the coming year. We also start getting bombarded with nonstop weight-loss messages: diet pill commercials, gym membership deals, makeover contests, and on and on and on. 

The diet industry can be infuriating. I recently saw a package of “weight-loss shakes” at the store, and out of curiosity checked the ingredients. Its first four were fat-free milk, water, canola oil and fructose. As you may know, canola oil in North America is often derived from genetically modified plants, which means it’s likely heavily treated with pesticides, and studies have found that its production process forms trans fats, the worst form of fat that is directly linked with weight gain. And fructose is the type of sugar most directly linked with weight gain. Continue down the list of ingredients and you find a slew of synthetic chemicals, artificial sweeteners and other garbage—all of it more likely to increase, not reduce, weight and body fat in its unwitting consumers. 

The topic of body weight pervades every part of our culture, and it’s an incredibly complex topic. On the one hand, obesity is a growing epidemic, associated with a range of other health problems including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some cancers. Obesity costs hundreds of billions of dollars in health-care expenses each year. On the other hand, our culture often promotes unhealthy and unrealistic beauty standards, with models and actresses airbrushed and Photoshopped to inhuman perfection. One study found that 80 percent of 10-year-old American girls report having been on a diet. 

There is a middle ground between the dangers of obesity and unhealthy attitudes about weight and beauty. For me, it lies in adopting habits that align with my beliefs about living well. Let’s take, for example, eating organic whole foods. I choose these foods because I believe organic agriculture is much better than industrial farming for the health of every creature on our planet. An added bonus is that avoiding processed foods means I don’t consume chemical emulsifiers (ubiquitous in packaged foods), which researchers have discovered alter gut bacteria in mice, making them rapidly develop inflammation and metabolic syndrome. And, I won’t be consuming glyphosate residues which, though the topic hasn’t been studied in humans, have been shown to harm beneficial bacteria in the guts of both chickens and cattle. Or consider meditation: Meditation is proven to benefit our brains in so many ways, it’s almost unbelievable. It makes us calmer, more empathetic, less reactionary—and reduces stress. That makes meditation our ally in weight management, too, as the stress hormone cortisol is a direct cause of fat gain. 

At the end of the holiday season, many of us find ourselves hoping to clean up our diets and maybe lose a few pounds. It’s a worthwhile goal (experts say losing even a few excess pounds can have measurable impacts on our health), but don’t turn to weight-loss gimmicks. The keys to healthy weight maintenance are the same as the tenets of overall healthy living: eat well, sleep well, manage stress, exercise and spend time outdoors. Whether your aim is to live a well-balanced life, maintain a healthy weight, lose a few pounds or start a long-term weight-loss journey, those are your best bets for success. 


Our Communities, Ourselves

In my job, I spend a lot of time researching ways to benefit our health and mental well-being. I’m fascinated by the vast amount of research that confirms the benefits of enhancing our connection with nature. Eating seasonal whole foods, gardening and tending plants, spending time in nature — all of these activities are scientifically proven to benefit our mental and physical health. 

There’s also plenty of research that shows how deeply our connections with one another affect our health. As Psychology Today summarizes: “Dozens of studies have shown that people who have satisfying relationships with family, friends and their community are happier, have fewer health problems and live longer. Conversely, a relative lack of social ties is associated with depression and later-life cognitive decline, as well as with increased mortality. One study, which examined data from more than 309,000 people, found that lack of strong relationships increased the risk of premature death from all causes by 50 percent — an effect on mortality risk roughly comparable to smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day, and greater than obesity and physical inactivity.”   

The holiday season usually provides extra opportunities to spend time with family, friends and coworkers, creating new memories and strengthening our bonds. Another excellent way we can connect with those in our communities is through volunteering. In fact, it’s hard to say whether volunteer experiences do more good for others or for ourselves — studies have found volunteering capable of everything from helping adolescents lose weight and improve cholesterol profiles to yielding improved stamina, memory and flexibility in older adults.

Volunteering seems especially well-suited to address some of the prevalent public-health concerns of our time. For example, volunteering is proven to improve compassion and empathy (empathy levels in college students have dropped 30 percent since 1980, with an especially steep drop in the past decade). Volunteering also lessens feelings of anxiety and depression (more than 18 percent of adults suffer anxiety, and the World Health Organization reports that depression will be the second most prevalent medical condition in the world by 2020.) 

We can even reap health benefits just by being kind to each other. The Random Acts of Kindness Foundation is dedicated to sharing stories and ideas of people being kind to one another. It reports studies finding that simply performing kind acts for others has been shown to increase happiness and well-being, and reduce depression and anxiety. Random acts of kindness can include anything from paying for a stranger’s coffee to delivering bagels to nurses at a pediatric hospital to knitting a pair of mittens for a homeless person. 

So this holiday season, rather than stressing about throwing the ideal party or buying perfect gifts, I urge you to think about the ways you can connect with others—family, friends, neighbors and strangers alike. For this is the season of giving, and I think that should refer to much more than boxes wrapped in pretty paper.

Common Baby Skin Products with Harmful Chemicals Part 3

It's disturbing enough to look at the ingredients in personal-care products and cosmetics for adults--with zero government regulation, these products are frequently filled with chemicals that are, no exaggeration, proven carcinogens. Take, for example, formaldehyde, categorized as a human carcinogen by both the U.S. government and the World Health Organization. This ingredient is the base of keratin treatments used for straightening hair. It's also frequently used as a preservative in lotions and other products.

But it's even more disturbing to discover the harmful ingredients present in popular products for babies. Parents of infants--likely too overwhelmed to research every ingredient on every product they buy--purchase these items in good faith, hoping to help their babies. Unfortunately, despite marketing to make these items seem healthful, some common baby products contain chemicals proven to be harmful.

So for this blog series, I researched some of the top-selling baby products in the U.S., and hope to share their harmful ingredients for all the parents of little ones who are a little too busy to spend time researching product ingredients. Here's to naturally healthy little ones. 

#3: Aveeno Baby Continuous Protection Sunscreen Lotion

This product gets an overall score of 7 out of 10 on the Environmental Working Group's (EWG) Skin Deep database--a moderately high risk. Oftentimes long-lasting sunscreen products contain questionable ingredients designed to make them absorb more deeply into the skin. Of course we want to protect babies' delicate skin from sun damage, but we are better off buying a sunscreen with only titanium dioxide and reapplying as needed.

Ingredients of concern:

Oxybenzone: Rated an 8 out of 10 on the EWG hazard scale, this ingredient is designed to enhance skin absorption, but it carries a high level of concern because it can cause biochemical or cellular level changes. It's also an endocrine disruptor that may be bioaccumulative (builds up in the body over time). It has been shown in human studies to cause photoallergic reactions, an allergic response that causes redness and inflammation when skin is exposed to the sun.

Propylparaben: This commonly used paraben is ranked a 7 by the EWG for the strong evidence of its endocrine-disrupting actions. The endocrine system controls our hormones, and endocrine-disrupting chemicals are common in personal-care products.

BHT: BHT is a toluene-based ingredient used as a preservative. It's ranked a 6 by the EWG because of its likelihood to irritate the skin, eyes or lungs, and potential toxicity to organ systems. It's described as a "known human immune toxicant or allergen" with strong evidence by the European Food Safety Authority, and is "classified as expected to be toxic or harmful" on the Environment Canada Domestic Substance List.

This product also contains nine chemicals that rank a 3 or 4 (moderate risk) by the EWG. The 4 rankings include: homosalate, which poses contamination concerns ("sunlight breaks down the chemical into harmful byproducts," the EWG says) and organ toxicity concerns; ethylparaben and methylparaben, two parabens considered endocrine disruptors and potentially immunotoxic; octisalate, another product used to enhance skin absorption; and phenoxyethanol, a preservative that can cause irritation of the skin, eyes or lungs. 


A Quick Effective Pain Relief Method

Like so many natural wellness therapies, the MELT method (which stands for Myofascial Energetic Length Technique) began with a medical condition traditional methods couldn't treat. MELT creator Sue Hitzmann was a fitness professional who suddenly began suffering from intense pain. Doctors and physical therapists couldn't find a cause, so Hitzmann began researching manual and neuromuscular therapies. Hands-on bodywork gave her relief, and she changed her entire career focus from fitness to manual therapy. Over time, Hitzmann learned about emerging research about the connective tissues in our bodies, and how they can become, essentially, dehydrated. Hitzmann believes her method helps reinvigorate these tissues, and it can help alleviate many chronic ailments: chronic pain, headaches, low back pain, neck pain, insomnia, digestive problems and injury.

Since its introduction, the MELT method has spread across the country. Today, Hitzmann teaches classes in her New York studio, and has trained more than 1,300 MELT practitioners across the country. MELT is also used in hospitals and physical therapy offices.

Today, you can use the MELT method at home. I got a sample of this product, and it really does loosen up tight and painful areas! I'm a fitness enthusiast, but I also work an office job and spend quite a bit of time my car. This combination leads to frequent tightness and pain, which I typically combat with yoga. However, the MELT method targets the connective tissue more directly--more like massage than  yoga. With Sue's video guidance, you can learn the method and maintain it in just 10 minutes a day, three to four days a week. Hitzmann believes this short frequent maintenance to our connective tissues can ward off an array of aches and pains, eliminating the need for reliance on NSAIDs, aspirin and other OTC pain relievers. Based on my experiment, I think so, too. 

Common Baby Skin Products with Harmful Chemicals Part 2

It's disturbing enough to look at the ingredients in personal-care products and cosmetics for adults--with zero government regulation, these products are frequently filled with chemicals that are, no exaggeration, proven carcinogens. Take, for example, formaldehyde, categorized as a human carcinogen by both the U.S. government and the World Health Organization. This ingredient is the base of keratin treatments used for straightening hair. It's also frequently used as a preservative in lotions and other products.

But it's even more disturbing to discover the harmful ingredients present in popular products for babies. Parents of infants--likely too overwhelmed to research every ingredient on every product they buy--purchase these items in good faith, hoping to help their babies. Unfortunately, despite marketing to make these items seem healthful, some common baby products contain chemicals proven to be harmful.

So for this blog series, I researched some of the top-selling baby products in the U.S., and hope to share their harmful ingredients for all the parents of little ones who are a little too busy to spend time researching product ingredients. Here's to naturally healthy little ones. 

#2: Desitin Diaper Rash Relief

This product gets an overall score of 5 out of 10 on the Environmental Working Group's (EWG) Skin Deep database--a moderate risk. It's likely not going to cause serious damage, but it has several ingredients of concern. My attitude is why slather a baby with questionable ingredients when a healthier option exists. In this case, I'd recommend a calendula salve made with organic ingredients. 

Ingredients of concern:

Fragrance: Here again we see fragrance, that ubiquitous ingredient made up of a mix of chemicals, which often contains phthalates. The EWG rates this ingredient (the worst offender in this product formulation) an 8 out of 10 on its hazard scale, noting its association with allergies, respiratory distress and potential effects on the reproductive system.

Propylparaben: This commonly used paraben is ranked a 7 by the EWG for the strong evidence of its endocrine-disrupting actions. The endocrine system controls our hormones, and endocrine-disrupting chemicals are common in personal-care products.

Petrolatum: Petrolatom is a petroleum-based ingredient that is "classified as expected to be toxic or harmful" on the Environment Canada Domestic Substance List. It also carries contamination concerns--in product formulations, some ingredients have a higher risk of combining with others and thus forming toxic compounds. In this case, the contamination risk relates to PAHS, a persistent and bioaccumulative endocrine disruptor.

The product contains several additional items ranked a 4 by the EWG, among them: Ethylparaben and methylparaben, two parabens considered endocrine disruptors and potentially immunotoxic; phenoxyethanol, a preservative that can cause irritation of the skin, eyes or lungs; and PEG-30 Dipolyhydroxystearate (ranked a 3), which carries a high concern rating for contamination and a low concern rating for organ system toxicity.