We’ve all had those nights where we toss and turn and sleep seems far off. Many of us grab for melatonin supplements in hopes of warding off the dark nights of insomnia. Studies are not conclusive as to whether it helps sleep and whether long-term use is safe. What is melatonin? How does it work?
Melatonin is a hormone, a potent anti-inflammatory, an antioxidant which is used for other purposes than sleep. Because of its properties, melatonin is being used in cancer therapies, autoimmunity, post-COVID syndrome, Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), infertility, bone health, gut health, and other disease states. Melatonin is released by the pineal gland in response to darkness. It regulates the circadian rhythm and circulates throughout the body and acts upon the “clock genes.”
The liver and kidneys rapidly metabolize melatonin within an hour when taken as a synthetic supplement so only fractions of it will stay in the bloodstream while sleeping. It is suggested in some studies to help with primary sleep disorders, decrease sleep latency and improve sleep quality compared to placebo. Yet it is important to remember that our endogenous melatonin being secreted by the pineal gland provides a steady state while sleeping (only with darkness) and slowly decreases within the last several hours prior to waking.
The mitochondria (small structures in a cell that are found in the cytoplasm — the fluid that surrounds the cell nucleus) regulate most of our melatonin most likely in relation to oxidative processes via an enzyme defense. The body’s way to protect itself and scavenge free radicals. However, there is a threshold of protection the mitochondria can withstand and not become overloaded.
Melatonin declines with age sometime after puberty and precipitously after around age 50. Supplementation of only 0.3mg would be needed to replace levels; however, that amount may not cover a person’s need and you would need to assess each person, individually. Foods rich in melatonin include tart cherries, coffee, beetroot, asparagus, sprouted kidney beans, extra virgin olive oil, St. John’s war, feverfew, to name a few. These foods have a rich source of phytomelatonin; however, in very minute amounts.
Before rushing out to start melatonin, always think lifestyle first. To help induce natural production, darkness is necessary. Staying away from blue light, light within the environment, keeping a dark bedroom, or consider wearing an eye mask, are the first lines intervention. Of course, exercise, stress, fasting/eating, room temperature, sleep apnea, etc., are also significant to helping with sleep beyond what melatonin can do. Take home advice: love to like the darkness in your environment and begin tapering the lights about 2 hours before bedtime. May you find darkness as a soothing and relaxing friend that will welcome melatonin.
"I can't say I have control over my emotions; I don't know my mind. I'm lost like everyone else."
- Richard Gere
If you haven’t watched "Inside Out" (see sneak-peak clip on YouTube) a Pixar movie, it’s worth viewing, not only for the pure entertainment value, but also the educational aspect. Imminent emotion Researcher, Paul Ekman, who also helped develop the Cultivating Emotional Balance Teacher’s Training (CEBTT) with B. Alan Wallace, was beckoned to Hollywood to give guidance on the facial movements for the characters in the movie. The movie illustrates only five of the universal seven. Regardless of gender, culture, ethnicity, age, we each will exhibit the same macro and micro facial movements for these seven emotions. They are sadness, anger, fear, disgust, contempt, surprise, and joy (or called enjoyable emotions in CEBTT). Of course, there are many other emotions, more nuanced, that do have cultural, gender, and ethnic differences.
Sociologists suggest the evolutionary function of emotion is to save our lives and to motivate us to engage in behaviors necessary to form relationships. Such facial cuing had to be the same in order for understanding to be passed along our makeup for these reasons and it all happens below the scene of conscious awareness. Even if we are trying to conceal an emotion and blunt the gross movements on our face, there are micro-facial movements that are out of our control. We are caught in the grips of evolution and those around us will catch on via their own attuning networks signaling them “something’s up.”
Antonio Damasio, University of Southern California, has studied neural correlates of emotions and formulated a theory of Somatic Marker Hypothesis. Essentially, there are neural pathways that connect to the brain, going both directions to and away from brain (not a one way street), and it is this that allows us to have the embodied experience or maybe all to often, the un-embodied experience.
Our meditation practice informs us very intimately about these neurological processes if we are mindful and attuning to our meditation experience. If we are having a difficult time with an emotion and not so sure what it is, Dr. Paul Ekman might just suggest to you, grab a mirror and check out your facial movements. Ahhh, maybe you’re not familiar with those facial movements, then watch Inside Out and you’ll very clearly see the common five emotions we display on our face. The two emotions cut from the film are contempt and surprise. I think we know what a face looks like when we are surprised. For contempt, not to get overly politically here, but just check out the majority of Donald Trump's photos and you’ll witness contempt at it’s best (universal gesture is lip corner tightened and slightly raised).
Until next blog, enjoy the movie and may your practice be truly an embodied experience and your emotions held with compassion and loving kindness.
Joseph Campbell, author and lecture, known for his work in mythology and religion, has been an inspiration in my life and when I reflect on the statement, follow your bliss, I know this bliss is the essence of desire. Desire is desire is desire and how we channel that desire makes all the difference in our lives and what we create from that desire is evidenced in our lives by what is happening in the present moment.
Over the years of pursuing my educational studies, certifications, and Buddhist practices, it was following my bliss that was essentially guiding my path. When I finished my graduate studies and began working as a Nurse Practitioner, educating and teaching my patients about health was the driving force behind my work. The focused attention on disease that has plagued medicine, instead of preventive lifestyles, was discouraging and a drain to my bliss. I certainly acknowledge the necessity for management of a disease process; however, educating on how to stay healthy is a much gentler life path than treating disease.
After several years of practice, many patients were expressing sexual concerns of which I knew very little about. The educational process in Nursing and Medicine gave very little attention to sexuality, and certainly no attention on healthy function and pleasure. This led to my post-masters certification in Sexology with the American Academy of Clinical Sexologist. This was very helpful, yet still a great part of the education seemed mechanically based. When I met Gina Ogden, PhD, at a workshop at Esalen she was conducting, I knew I was on track.
Gina Ogden, PhD, author and lecturer, became my mentor and supervisor in pursuing my national AASECT (American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapist) Counselor certification. Her work in integrating spirituality and sexuality is the focus in my sex counseling. Currently, she and I are collaborating on a project addressing the lack of education and assessment tools absent in Integrative Medicine that bespeak a multi-dimensional framework when evaluating and diagnosing sexual dysfunctions.
In the winter of 2007, I began my Fellowship in Integrative Medicine, a two year program at the University of Arizona, Tucson, under the tutelage of Dr. Andrew Weil. This program emphasized concepts in health promotion and preventive care. Why healthcare is founded on this premise is such a quandary to me because it seems so logical and effective, versus the way our current healthcare (disease-care) system governs the management of patient care.
Ultimately in following my bliss, I have a practice that truly integrates the whole person. We are multi-dimensional beings having physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual experiences. As a health and sexual healthcare provider, having patients step into their lives as a multi-dimensional being and not as just a body, they will encounter an integration process that moves them in the direction of well-being. In this process, patients may for the time begin to integrate body, mind, and spirit. And this is the path to bliss. So today, acknowledge the whole person you are and tap into what you desire in life and then follow that and don’t stop!
"Between the stimuli (what happens in life) and the response (what you give back in the form of words, thoughts, behaviors, actions, character), is a space, and in the space is your power and your freedom."
- Victor Frankl
Let’s start off with some brain trivia about an organ that processes information via massive networks so that you are able to comprehend the world in which you live. So here we go:
The most impressive part of our brains is that it is neuroplastic. Meaning, this amazing structure once thought in science to be fixed and unchangeable, does have the ability throughout your life to be molded, transformed, upgraded, adaptable, and rejuvenated. The flip side of course, is that you may stay exactly as you are even if it doesn’t seem to be working for you and life has shown you evidence that you need to change.
UCLA Neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni, MD, PhD, states, “The brain has an almost boundless capacity for reshaping itself over the years, for adapting, for expanding its power, while accumulating knowledge and recording experiences. Modern neuroscience tells us that the aging brain is no longer the declining brain, but rather a learning organ whose limits are still unexplored.”
So how do we change and mold our brains so we have greater well-being (which translate to better sex lives)? According to Richard Davidson, PhD, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Waisman Center for the Studies of Neuroscience, says, "What we found is that the trained mind, or brain, is physically different from the untrained one," he said. In time, "we'll be able to better understand the potential importance of this kind of mental training and increase the likelihood that it will be taken seriously."
Mind training in meditation, yoga, Tai-Chi, and breath work, are methods for such training that from studies have proven to create thickening in the grey matter (remember we want to increase this and keep it our lifetime). Also, evidence of reducing inflammation in the body, reducing stress which reduces cortisol levels (stress hormone), improve immune function, and increases our sense of well-being. Remember, neurons that fire together, wire together. Begin cultivating neurons that fire and wire together through practicing methods that are proving to generate a healthy state of mind. When we have a healthy state of mind, the texture of our life will reflect our inner world. So do a 30-day challenge with a practice in meditation, yoga, Tai-Chi, or breath work and see for yourself how your well-being shifts.
Here are some resources to get you started:
“Ever has it been that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation.”
- Kahlil Gibran
Many lovers share a special time together on Valentine’s Day celebrating their love together. However, there were many of us that were not with a partner and some of us were experiencing a heart break, myself included. Going through a divorce or breakup creates a cascade of physical symptoms, emotional upheavals, mental ruminations, and spiritually, asking why and what grace may be received to ease the pain or even have your partner back.
In going through a split-up, this trauma propelled me into studying the health risks to understand what my body and mind have been experiencing. It’s evident that what we go through physically and emotionally takes some toll. The loss experienced in break-ups include that of security, a family life, the sexual relationship, a home, and even more, there are long-term health consequences that result.
The University of Arizona review of 30 studies found a 23% increased risk of early death in divorced adults when compared to those married. Divorced men fair worse than women with higher rates of substance abuse (70% of chronic drinkers are the divorced male), suicide (2.5 times greater risk than married men), and increase in weight (suggesting that food selection is still often done by the women). Divorced women have higher rates of cardiovascular disease (11% in divorced woman versus 7.3% of married woman). In both men and women, studies suggest increase cancer rates, insomnia, and mental health illnesses.
How can we help minimize these impressive statistics while navigating through the troubled waters of a broken heart? Here are some recommendations that will help reduce some of the immediate physical and emotional symptoms, but also knowing that the journey through the loss and the grief can be mindfully explored while being with this difficult process.
Last week I had my Rolfing appointment with David McDonald and during this experience, I mindfully brought my attention to the sensations of my body as he targeted areas of tension and injury. As he moved into these areas, I noticed how my first thought was, "Wow is this painful." I realized in that moment how easily my mind could pull me away from the gifts of the moment. Knowing that I could at that moment be swept away into thought and miss the experience of his healing touch, I instead brought attentive breath and my focus back to the muscular area where so much tension resided. As I dropped into the area of tension, I sensed the tightness in the muscle and felt how with breathing how it loosened the area.
My thinking was attempting to drive this experience, but I kept very active attention on my breath and the deep massaging that David was doing. This process of struggling with my thoughts and returning again to the mindfulness of the moment went on for the entire hour of the Rolfing.
Over the years I have realized how often I have taken an uncomfortable encounter and brought thinking instead of mindfulness. I let go of my physical resistance to what I might previously perceive as pain. Instead of intellectual thinking, the process became a very healing experience of touch.
How often have you taken a touch experience and got lost in your head of thoughts? You can get lost wondering what it meant or didn’t mean and then your entire experience can be lost before you appreciate it. As a Sexuality Counselor, I often hear patients express negative associations around being touched by their partner. When patients explain where their thoughts go, it’s most often that their thoughts are in a circle and cycle of negative thoughts.
Our histories, patterns and life experiences are held within our neurobiological system. The process of changing thoughts, emotions and behavior patterns becomes the work of presence which is done in a state of mindfulness. If you are aware, we are able to be mindful of the patterns we don't desire and choose the thoughts that create a new pattern for yourself.
Mindfulness of touch may mean for each of us the ability to be free from interpreting stimulus like touch or contact with our environment as “pain” or something inherently negative. If we are able to stop the thinking of our brain that does it’s job by default, to think, and instead just be with a sensation as it arises we will encounter life with freedom.
Choosing to live life with this perspective does take courage to be present verses drifting from one thought process to the next. In the words of Gandi, “Freedom doesn’t mean the absence of restrictions. It means possessing unshakable conviction in your choices in the face of an obstacle.”
Would you like to join me for a little story and some sexual healing?
My story is this: I am opening this space (in my first-ever blog) between the worlds of medicine, healing and sexuality to build knowledge and a place of hopeful growth. I blend techniques for the body, mind and heart to reach a true place of healing in my practice as a Nurse Practitioner and Sexual Therapist.
As a Family Nurse Practitioner for many years, I’ve watched as current treatments for diseases, disorders, and dysfunction failed to help my patients. Each patient I see isn’t simply a set of symptoms, but a whole person with a story to tell.
It seemed to me that the medical approach I worked within didn’t help patients to get “better.” So after years of professional frustration, I went back to school to find a way to cultivate a sense of well-being for my clients physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually in the areas of health and sexuality. My education as a Nurse Practitioner, then becoming a Fellow of Integrative Medicine and finally in Sex Therapy guides my practice to evolving a treatment plan encompassing the complete person; body, mind and spirit.
One of the most attractive aspects of Integrative Medicine is the perspective of each patient as a dynamic energy body that needs support rather than being “fixed” or that something is “wrong.” Therefore, approaching the aging process from the view of a dynamic energy system, healing and well-being emerge.
As I began utilizing an Integrative approach with patients, I’ve witnessed transformations in their health and sexuality at much greater levels. Patients truly appreciated alternative treatments and even request it! Focusing on Integrative health and sexuality is a passion and calling that has brought me to a leading-edge practice and this new space for sharing!
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