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Friday, December 16, 2011

12: Mental Health at Christmastime

One evening last week I was driving to Edmonton to meet two of my kids at the Winspear to hear Michael W. Smith in concert with the Edmonton Symphony. (Wow!) As I drove, I thought of a poem I wrote during the Christmas season 17 years ago. I then amused myself during the remainder of the drive by reciting it from memory. I thought of the stressed-out mom who had written that piece and of how far she has come since then. But I was quick to acknowledge, too, that I still have some things to learn about handling stress. I thought it would be good to share this poem, to help us all keep perspective during this most special time of year.

The Week Before Christmas

’Twas a week before Christmas
When I awoke in my bed
Not with joy and good will
But apprehension and dread

Here it was the seventeenth of the month of December
Still, on went renovations that began in September
This neat little house that the Lord led us to
Was subjecting us all to a total re-do

All that morning I had planned to be painting
Though I felt more like sleeping—maybe even like fainting
But it had to be done; that much was clear
In hopes that the carpet-man soon would be here

I wearily crawled out to the big kitchen table
Clutching my trusty, worn Amplified Bible
“Lord, if I ever needed You, I need You now
I’ve just got to get through this day somehow

“And by the way, Lord, if I’m doing too much
I’d drop it all now: just convict me of such”
Then I read a few verses and I went on my way
To get a good start on this formidable day

Well, I won’t explain how: it’d take too much time
And too many words in need of a rhyme
But just ten minutes later, as neat as you please
The Lord brought me down, and hard, to my knees

“Forget the painting for now!” Oh, how my heart strings tugged
“And wait till the New Year to put in the rug!”
So I let it all go, and I wept as I knelt
With thanks for His grace and the relief I now felt

Then I gathered my wits with no further delay
With a fresh new perspective to tackle the day
And a jolly good thing: there was much to be done
Beginning . . . with the kids' dress rehearsal at one!

Before then, there were still three costumes to hem
A parrot head-piece to feather, attach Velcro, and then
I suddenly remembered with a sigh and a frown
Each of the wise men still needed a crown

Did the morning have wings? How quickly it flew!
How could I have painted? There was so much to do!
Twelve-thirty, as kids gobbled hot soup down
From poster-board I hastily cut each crown

Then to give those crowns an appearance more royal
Out came the good old aluminum foil
With eyes on the clock, all the kids stood ’round
My hands shook; my heart was beginning to pound

I couldn’t believe how long this was taking
Stress level at max; grey hairs in the making
It was one when Greg chased them all out the door
And I was left wondering was the rush was all for

I wanted to arrive at Christmas rejoicing
Not exhausted, with cynical sentiments voicing
To enter His rest, from my labours to cease
To celebrate the advent of the Prince of Peace

So I built that day in my heart an altar
And I pledged by His grace my resolve would not falter
This week, I would follow His agenda, not mine
So to be full of peace this Christmastime

Saturday, December 10, 2011

11: Chemicals by Candlelight

Earlier this fall, I saw a sign outside a home décor store in Wetaskiwin, advertising their “BLOW-OUT SALE on CANDLES.” I wondered if they meant to be funny; I thought it was hilarious.

Speaking of which, we’re into that time of year when we love the warm glow of candles on a long, dark evening. They are a favourite way to lend ambiance or romance to a setting. However, there are some health issues to consider when buying candles, things of which I was not aware until recently.

A large percentage of the candles available today are made of paraffin, which is a waste product left over from the oil-refining process. When these candles burn, they release formaldehyde, benzene, and up to a total of eleven different carcinogenic chemicals. I heard it said that you might as well have a small diesel engine running in your living room. Softer waxes and artificially scented waxes give off even more greasy, black soot; likewise petroleum-based gel candles.

Even more harmful is the vapour released from wicks that contain lead. Metal in the wick helps it stand upright and burn more evenly and slowly. But lead is one of the more toxic heavy metals. Airborne as the candle burns, and inhaled and accumulated over time, it can cause behavioural changes and learning and memory problems. This is particularly dangerous for young children and fetuses in utero. “Burning leaded candles in a home once a week can release enough lead into the indoor environment that a child’s lead levels could exceed federal health standards” ( Be especially wary of tea lights, pillar candles, those that puddle greatly, and any made in China. Lead wicks were banned in the US in 2003 but as yet are still not restricted in Canada. (Apparently all of the candles sold at IKEA are lead-free—and many of them are made from soy.)

Sometimes tin and zinc are used in wicks, which are not considered to be as harmful (though I prefer to know there’s nothing but pure cotton wicking up the molten wax).You can determine for yourself if a candle contains lead: shred the wick a little, and if you find a metallic centre, rub it on paper. A grey mark indicates lead. Get rid of the candle.

But you don’t have to deprive yourself of candlelight altogether—just look for healthier alternatives. Soy candles are slow-burning, which makes them more economical in the long run. No toxic fumes, and they burn at a cooler temperature, which makes them safer. Look for soy candles that are scented with natural fragrance oils. These can actually contribute to health and a sense of well-being, unlike chemical fragrances. And from what I can find, it seems that only carbon dioxide and water vapour are produced in the burning of a vegetable oil candle like soy, much like the breath expelled from the human body.

The healthiest option of all, and certainly the most esthetically pleasing, is beeswax. It is expensive up front, but because it is slow-burning, the dollars go further. It is estimated that burning a beeswax candle costs between 10 and 30 cents an hour. That’s pretty economical for these beautiful golden, naturally honey-scented candles. They have the longest and cleanest burn of any candle. Not only do they not emit toxic smoke, they are actually reputed to remove toxins from the air as they burn. The site at says: “But there is much more benefit to beeswax candles compared to paraffin candles that are made from polluted petroleum sludge, or even vegetable-based candles, that are a big improvement over paraffin: When beeswax candles burn, they clean the air like a great, natural, air purifier….” And adds the following: “There’s a whole lot of information out there about negative ions. The theory is that beeswax, being nature’s wax, emits wonderful air-cleaning, depression-reducing ions that combat things like dust, odours, mold and even viruses while elevating the mood.”

Any candle will smoke and produce more soot if it is placed in a drafty place or if the wick is too long. Always trim the wick to a quarter inch in length before lighting, and situate the candle where the flame burns straight up and steady. Most important of all, never leave a burning candle unattended. Even a lovely, clean-burning beeswax candle can set a house ablaze and create a toxic inferno that devastates a family materially and emotionally. Have a safe and happy holiday season.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

10: Adrenals Amok

When I first wrote about Anxiety and the Iodine Intervention (blog, May 19), I did not mean to imply that this was the one and only breakthrough I’ve ever had with anxiety over the years, neither did I presume that it was to be the last battle on this front. What caught me by surprise, though, was the tremendous irony of having an unbearable onslaught of this infirmity in the weeks immediately after writing that article. It often happens that when we testify of help and healing, we will be sorely tested again.

Having “bragged” about my new mental health (thanks to iodine) in my first newspaper article, it suddenly seemed to crumble. Sitting at my computer, writing, I became so chronically wrought up that I couldn’t handle it. I asked God what the problem was; what my body was lacking, and this is what I heard: You know enough about nutrition now, as far as how it relates to anxiety. You need to learn how to live in a relaxed state.

This sounded good to me, but I had no idea how to proceed. I couldn’t relax, especially once I started working at anything. I continued on my wrought-up way, sitting at my desk like a car in neutral with its accelerator stuck to the floor. Adrenaline and cortisol coursed uncontrollably through my veins. It scared me; I knew it was wreaking havoc on my body, but I couldn’t stop it.

A month or two later I absolutely crashed. My husband and I had headed out for a walk early one lovely Sunday morning, and I just couldn’t do it. I was so exhausted I could hardly put one foot in front of the other, never mind pull off a brisk walk. And the five-pound weights that I frequently carry to work out my upper body while I walk—well, they hung there in my hands, dangling at the end of my arms while I surveyed them as though they were some foreign and impossible challenge. They might as well have been 30 pounds apiece.

Within a few days, I’d found an opening with a naturopath. He diagnosed what I’d guessed: my adrenal glands were exhausted. (This is not a problem that is generally recognized in mainstream medicine. Unless you get to the point where you are producing no cortisol at all (Addison’s disease), your adrenals are not considered to be in trouble.) I learned from the naturopath some of things that cause my adrenaline and cortisol levels to shoot up: the adrenals are stimulated by different kinds of bodily and emotional stressors. Because my anxiety this time was not connected to any emotional issue or concern, I will look here at only bodily stressors:

If I don’t breathe properly, if I don’t eat right or on time, if I am sleep deprived, my adrenals are going to try to compensate. If in addition to being sleep deprived, hungry, and/or oxygen deprived, I continue to work hard mentally or physically, these factors tax the adrenal glands all the more. (If I also were to ingest caffeine, nicotine, and/or refined sugars—and thank God, I do not!—I would be that much worse off.)

Having the naturopath explain these factors to me made me realize that I have some very unhealthy habits. Hypoglycaemic yet failing most of the time to eat when I should, I get involved with my work at the computer and hours slip by unnoticed. I’m nearly always short on sleep, because I frequently wake up hours before I should, and my response has been to just buckle down and force myself to work until it’s a respectable time for a nap. And my breathing habits, I have come to realize, are the worst ever. When I’m concentrating intensely, I breathe very shallowly or even hold my breath. I’ve not realized I was doing this, and I’ve had no idea how hard it was on my body.

I also got an explanation as to why I so often wake up in the night: the adrenals are so fatigued by my daily abuse that when I sleep is the only time they can recover. They get a bit of a rest and after a few hours they rally and produce their two “fight or flight” hormones—just when I don’t need it.
The naturopath said that it’ll take a year for these glands to recover. He’s put me on a couple of supplements to nourish and support them, but the greatest help has been a simple tip he gave me that is changing my life. That’ll have to wait for another time.