Category Archives: Look for Patterns in your Life

Look for Patterns in your Life

Wheat Can Make You Crazy? That’s Crazy. Isn’t It?

Our last post, “Wheat: The New Strychnine?” enjoyed enormous popularity, pointing up how concerned people have become with the potential health risks of wheat.

In addition to obesity (in particular the disproportionate distribution of fat to the belly, which is a marker for potential cardiac disease), joint pain, digestive issues, headaches, etc. mentioned by Dr. William Davis in his book, “Wheat Belly,” he claims that wheat can exacerbate serious mental illness such as schizophrenia in some people.

We didn’t mention this in our last blog because we wanted to look further into this alarming claim. It seemed just a tad too far-fetched that mental illness could be worsened just by eating toast and pasta and cured by giving up wheat. It sounded too much like the proverbial snake-oil salesman: “Cures gout, eczema, female troubles of all kind! Does away with thinning hair, cures arthritis and will make your children grow strong and tall!” So we did a bit of looking around the Internet to see if anyone’s come up with substantive proof that wheat can affect mental health.

Dr. Davis claims that, unique among foods (although there is evidence that milk has the same property), wheat can cross the blood-brain barrier. The blood-brain barrier refers to a mechanism of the central nervous system that prevents microscopic particles from passing into the cerebrospinal fluid that bathes the brain. This is a very good thing; otherwise, our brain would come under attack by bacteria, which would multiply like wildfire in the ideal growth medium supplied by this fluid. When the blood-brain barrier is breached, as in the case of spirochetes which physically bore through the blood vessel walls to reach the central nervous system, the result can be life-threatening, like syphilis or Lyme Disease.

Wheat is able to cross this tough barrier because when wheat gluten is exposed to pepsin, a stomach acid that helps break down food, the gluten is degraded into a variety of polypeptides, which are basically short-chain proteins. In a study at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), these polypeptides were found to cross the blood-brain barrier in rats. Because the polypeptides look to the brain’s receptors like endorphins (the naturally-produced proteins that produce “runner’s high” and act like opioids), the wheat polypeptides bond readily to the brain.

And what do they do when they reach the brain? Researchers in the mid-1960s at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Philadelphia decided to remove all wheat products from the diets of schizophrenic patients. Four weeks later, there was a marked reduction in schizophrenic symptoms such as hallucinations. When wheat was returned to the diet, the symptoms likewise re-emerged. Other instances of improvement or even cures of schizophrenia exist in the scientific literature, such as a study published in 2003 that explored the possible connection between celiac disease and schizophrenia. (Huebner et al)

Obviously, not everyone who eats wheat succumbs to schizophrenia. However, it does mean that wheat can tweak your brain as well as your body. A Danish study of 55 autistic children showed marked improvement in autistic behaviors with the elimination of wheat gluten and casein from milk products. Wheat is not suspected as the cause, but it apparently worsens conditions in people with schizophrenia, autism and celiac disease.

So what does wheat do to the psyche of a normal, healthy individual? There don’t appear to be any studies of this (at least none that we could find, which is not the same thing). Dr. Davis says that the endorphin-like polypeptides set up a reward response; eat wheat, and your brain feels good. Your subconscious likes that, so it tells you to eat more wheat. In a study done at the Psychiatric Institute of North Carolina, wheat-eating subjects were given an opiate blocker, naloxone. These subjects consumed approximately 400 fewer calories over the course of lunch and dinner than the control group. Can you envision what 400 fewer calories a day might do for your waistline? Further, when wheat is withdrawn, many people feel strong cravings for bread, crackers, and other wheat-containing foods, so there is such a thing as “wheat withdrawal” for some.

So in effect, wheat acts like a little devil on one shoulder, urging you to eat more, while the little angel of your better self gets knocked off his perch.

This entire topic again illustrates how our physical and mental selves are inextricably interconnected; you can’t tinker with one without affecting the other just as strongly. As we have mentioned before in this blog (see “Five Things You Didn’t Know About Losing Weight”), purely mental stress can cause you to gain and retain weight through the action of cortisol and other stress hormones. Reducing stress should be an essential component of a weight-loss effort—and apparently, so is losing the wheat.

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Addendum: The Wall Street Journaljust published an article on the dangers of gluten in schools. Act fast, because this URL expires in a few days:

Feeling stressed? Download SweetBeat™, the iPhone stress management app:




Maybe, Baby, It’s Those Baby Steps That Work!

Some of us at SweetWater Health recently attended the 2012 Mobile Health Conference on the Stanford University campus. The theme was “Baby Steps.” The conference was oriented to mHealth entrepreneurs, but what the speakers had to say about baby steps really applies to any human being seeking to make changes in his or her life—especially those really difficult changes, like trying to lose weight or live a healthier lifestyle.

Part of the message was that behaviors are hard to change. They’re even harder when we take on a whole raft of changes at once, which is what we usually do when we’re trying to lose weight. Here’s a sample of what many of us try to do all at once:

  • Give up anything with sugar in it
  • Reduce fat in our diet
  • Eat more fruits and vegetables
  • Cut down on or give up red meat
  • Give up or cut down on bread, cereals, rice, pasta, etc.
  • Eat smaller portions
  • Exercise for an hour a day
  • Always take the stairs instead of the elevator
  • Attend some sort of weight-loss meeting every week
  • Journal what we eat/count points/count calories or carbs every day
  • Walk at least 10,000 steps a day (in addition to exercising)
  • Some diets demand things like eating only cabbage soup, drinking a supplement twice a day instead of eating, eating only prepackaged meals, or following a complicated diet regimen based on blood type—an endless array of exotic and difficult behavior changes.

That’s a HUGE number of changes for most people! Somehow, we think we can squeeze all this in to our routine day, which includes taking care of our families, working, shopping, cooking, cleaning, and laundry. Talk about feeling stressed. And the results are predictable; we blow another weight-loss effort and feel guilty. (More stress. And if you’ve been following this blog, you know stress can make you gain and retain weight.)

The underlying message was that it’s easier to change behaviors if you just take baby steps, and when something doesn’t work, don’t keep trying to make it work; try a different baby step instead.

Not everyone can walk every day, for instance. So walk when you can, and on the days when you can’t, just try to get in 10,000 steps. If you always forget your pedometer, go up and down the stairs a few times; tomorrow, as Scarlett O’Hara famously remarked, is another day.

Another thing we tend to do is beat ourselves up if we eat something not on the “approved” list. Because we’re feeling bad anyway, we figure what the heck, in for a dime in, for a dollar, and throw the rest of the Oreos down the hatch after the first guilty cookie. Although the experts tell us truthfully that it’s better not to have temptations around the house in the first place, circumstances aren’t always ideal, and some of us have spouses and children who don’t share our issues. Look, it was just a cookie, it’s not like you stole a car. Enjoy that one cookie to the absolute maximum, and go do something else—like take a walk.

You wouldn’t begin training for a marathon by running 26 miles and 385 yards the first day. Add a step, do something else if it doesn’t work, and cut yourself some slack if you slip up. Eventually, all those baby steps add up to real progress in behavioral change.

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 As we’ve mentioned before, stress is a major cause of illness—responsible for up to 90% of preventable disease, according to medical institutions like Stanford University Medical Center and Mayo Clinic. And as mentioned previously, stress can actually cause weight gain and retention, even when eating habits don’t change. One baby step you can take to reduce stress is SweetBeat™, the stress management iPhone app from SweetWater Health. Learn more about SweetBeat on our website, You can read the app description and download SweetBeat here.

What You Need To Know About the “New Biofeedback” and Stress

We are all familiar with what biofeedback means. Some of us have experienced the use of biofeedback when learning how to do something. For instance, a student learning to drive can use a machine that measures reaction time and tells the student whether he braked in time to avoid an accident (or not).

There’s a new term, “generative feedback,” that is just coming into use, so you may not know what it means. Generative feedback is a subset of biofeedback, and means feedback that drives change in behavior.

For example, hybrid cars have a visual display that tells the driver when she is driving in a way that conserves fuel most efficiently. A driver soon learns that when she accelerates too quickly, accelerates on downhill slopes, brakes unnecessarily, or fails to take advantage of gravity and momentum in general, she is wasting gas. She modifies her behavior as a result of the feedback, and saves money. Generative feedback doesn’t just report results; it drives change.

It’s not as easy to change some behaviors. We may say we want to be less stressed-out, but it’s hard to know how to do that in the moment when your boss has just dumped a task on you that is due tomorrow—when she could have passed it along to you three weeks ago—and you are already behind because you’re trying to cope with an understaffed project. It’s not like the hybrid car example, where there is clear feedback, and it’s obvious and easy to modify the behaviors.

Worse, some people don’t even know when they are stressed. Stress doesn’t care whether you know it or not—it wreaks its damage on the body anyway. High blood pressure has been called the “silent killer,” but stress is even more damaging. Stress can cause high blood pressure as well as a host of other illnesses, including heart disease, gastric disease, and more. The annual medical cost of treating stress-related medical problems was estimated by Kessler and Greenberg in “The Economic Burden of Anxiety and Stress Disorders” at $100 billion per year in the United States alone.

This is because we lack generative feedback to drive behavioral change. It’s not enough to just desire to change. We need to know what a given behavior does in our bodies, and we need to see the results of a change in behavior. This gives us the motivation—and the means—to make a lasting change.

“All very well,” you might say. “But I haven’t got the time or the money to pop into my doctor’s office every day to monitor my stress levels—even if the doc had the time for me, which he most certainly doesn’t.”

And that’s where today’s mobile technology comes in. Using an inexpensive heart monitor like runners use, SweetBeat™ for the iPhone, iPad and ITouch monitors stress levels no matter where you are or what you’re doing. SweetBeat tells you when you’re too stressed, and provides a tool for reducing stress on the spot. You can literally watch your stress level drop as you breathe regularly and deeply, bringing your nervous system back into balance.

Even better, you can upload your SweetBeat sessions to MySweetBeat on the SweetWater Health website. In MySweetBeat, you can see your sessions on a calendar, color-coded by average stress level. You can view session summaries or look at a graphed version of your session and see where stress peaked or dropped. Now you have information that you can use to manage your stress and work to avoid or reduce exposure to stressful situations.

For instance, you may notice that your stress is highest when you meet with your boss. You can’t avoid meeting with your boss, but you can take a few moments before the meeting to reduce your stress before the meeting begins. Because you know that you are stressed in this situation, you may be able to find other ways of making it less stressful, such as suggesting meeting in the conference room instead of her office—or you may even decide you need to find a new boss!

The old chestnut says that knowledge is power. Generative feedback is knowledge about what’s really happening, and gives you the means and motivation to effect positive change in your life. Go for it!



Patterns in Our Lives, Our Hearts

The human brain is a pattern-recognition system. Like all animals, we need to be able to detect patterns in our environment. Back in the day, if we hadn’t figured out that when we saw a particular pattern of movement in the bushes, it was a tiger and not a deer, it might have been the end of the story! Our  brains are always collecting and comparing sensory inputs to see if we can detect patterns. If a possible pattern turns out to be false, we discard it, even as we add new, proven patterns to our mental libraries.

A healthy heart creates fractal patterns. (Scientists are now using fractal analysis to diagnose heart disease.) Animated fractals are absorbing and calming as we watch them change; a good way to soothe us when we feel stressed.

Change Your Brain, Change Yourself

Sometimes we hear people say, “That’s just the way I am,” as though they had been fated to be a certain way, and there’s nothing to be done about it. Nothing could be further from the truth!

“Neuroplasticity” is a term that describes the brain’s ability to change structurally and functionally in response to the environment. Once scientists thought that after a critical growth period in youth, the brain became static. We now know that the brain is capable of change throughout life. We can change in response to injury, when the brain reroutes functions to work around physical damage. And we can deliberately create change, as happens when we learn a new language or how to play the guitar.

This means that for all of us, the ability to change what we know, how we feel, and what we do IS “just the way we are”!

Raising HRV Can Provide Relief from Asthma

According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, more than 34 million Americans and more than 300 million people worldwide suffer from asthma. In addition to taking the right meds, asthma sufferers may have another, non-drug-based way to decrease the severity of asthma attacks. A study published in 2004 in Chest Journal showed that biofeedback training in raising HRV through deep breathing increased HRV in asthma patients while decreasing the amount of meds they needed to control asthma attacks. Read more…


Make Your Workouts Work Better

Some days, you get up energized and hit the road or the gym, and you feel like a million bucks. And some days, it’s just a grind. Why? It could be that on those down days, your heart rate variability (HRV) is low and your autonomic nervous system is out of balance. Training hard on low-HRV days is just not as effective; you might want to consider taking it down a notch or two–or even skipping training that day. You can use the SweetBeat™ iPhone app to monitor your HRV first thing in the morning to assure your workouts are more effective.

Download SweetBeat™ today.