Spring Clean Your Air: 5 Tips to Reduce Allergens & Hidden Health Hazards in Your Home Part 2

Here are three more hidden health hazards in your home to pay close attention to. Most people are totally unaware of these and the increased opportunity for allergies and illness they present!

  1. Furniture and Home Furnishings That Can Bring You DownOne major source of hazardous exposure is the chemicals and neuro-toxic solvents used furniture and home furnishings. These include but are not limited to the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in paint, solvents used to stain and finish furniture, flame retardants (polybrominated diphenyl ethers or PBDEs) and stain resistant coatings like perchloroethylene (the main chemical used in dry-cleaning) added to your drapes, carpets, upholstered furniture and bedding, and even the PVC (polyvinyl chloride)in your plastic shower curtain. Collectively, your home furnishings outgas a variety of chemicals that can become a significant source of pollution in the home.To make matters worse, your carpets, drapes and upholstery can be a gold mine for dust mites, and if your home is damp, a fertile breeding ground for mold –-both common sources of allergy and illness. For this reason, many allergists recommend that their patients get rid of carpets altogether. At a minimum, you can install a dehumidifier and make sure to steam and clean carpets thoroughly and regularly.

    Next time you’re ready to paint, switch to low or no VOC paints. Consider upgrading your home with furniture made from natural fibers like wool, organic cotton, untreated wood or wood finished with a water-based stain. Or buy used or antique furniture that’s at least five years old, where it’s a good bet that most of their chemicals have already been released. Avoid furnishings made from particleboard, polyurethane foam, and PVC.

  2. The Bedroom: An Oasis of Calm or a Chamber of Horrors?It may sound a little dramatic, but the place where you spend a third of your life may be teaming with toxins and dust mites! Most traditional mattresses are made with metal coils coated in toxic chemicals to keep them from rusting and degrading over time. On top of that, they are filled with polyurethane foam, flame retardant materials, and/or cotton loaded with pesticides. Then there are the chemicals added to the outer layer of the mattress to make them water and stain resistant. That adds up to a lot of chemicals that you are frequently lounging around on!Ditch your mattress in favor of a greener, cleaner option like natural (not hybrid) latex, natural rubber, organic cotton, or organic wool. Natural latex is naturally anti-microbial, anti-bacterial, dust mite proof, and relieves pressure points along the body. Natural rubber is exceptionally breathable, naturally hygienic, will not house dust mites, and has been shown to reduce pressure-point pain up to 30% better than memory foam. Wool is an excellent choice because of its high moisture content and the protein (keratin) that it contains, making it naturally flame resistant and hostile to dust mites.

    If you can’t swing a new bed, make yours more comfy and allergen-free by adding a wool or natural rubber mattress topper. The wool in mattress toppers (and in mattresses) is well encased in cotton so if you’re allergic or sensitive to it there shouldn’t be a problem. At a minimum, swing for organic cotton zippered encasings to protect your lungs from dust mite allergens and put a little barrier between yourself and the toxins being out gassed by your current mattress.

  3. Do You Practice Fireplace Safety & Common Sense?If you have or use a fireplace then you may be setting yourself up for possible carbon monoxide poisoning. In addition, wood fires can release a substance called benzopyrene–a carcinogen that can irritate your eyes, nose, throat, and lungs.Make sure your fireplace and/or wood stove are installed properly and the flue is open when you light a fire. Have both inspected annually to remove creosote build up which can block the chimney and force toxic fumes back into your living room. As a precaution, install a smoke and carbon monoxide detector nearby.

Insomnia & Memory: Don’t Forget to Get 8 Hours of Sleep!

While recently going through some of my seemingly endless stacks of papers, I came across an article I clipped out of Newsweek about a year ago. The subject is sleep and memory and it had some interesting information about how sleep affects our ability to remember things. Since the dominant theme of my posts for the past 6 weeks has been about sleep related issues it seemed like a good idea to share the highlights of this article with you as well.

According to this article, when you are asleep (the time your body is supposed to be resting and recovering), your brain (the organ that directs you to sleep in the first place) is extraordinarily active. And much of that activity helps the brain to learn, remember and forge new connections to enforce that learning and the formation of memory.

Apparently we all have several different types of memory –including declarative (retrievable, fact-based information), episodic (events from your life), and procedural (how to do something)– and researchers have designed ways to test each one of them. Experiences we have that become memories are laid down first in the hippocampus, obliterating whatever is underneath. If a memory is to be retained, it must be shipped from the hippocampus to a place where it will endure –the neocortex, the wrinkled outer layer of the brain where higher thinking takes place. Unlike the hippocampus, the neocortex is a master at weaving the old with the new. And partly because it keeps incoming information at bay, sleep is the best time for the “undistracted” hippocampus to shuttle memories to the neo cortex, and for the neocortex to link them to related memories.

You can think of it as your brain trying to squeeze in some extra practice time while you’re asleep –bringing some truth to the old adage “sleep on it.” It’s not just memory that’s improved by sleep. Recent studies indicate that sleep not only helps store facts, it also helps make connections between them. Some sleep researchers believe that for every 2 hours we’re awake, the brain needs an hour of sleep to figure out what all these experiences mean, and that sleep pays a crucial role in constructing the meaning our lives come to hold as a result.

Sleep deprivation experiments have shown that a tired brain has a difficult time capturing memories of all sorts. But the most interesting finding revealed in this article is that sleep deprivation is more likely to cause us to forget information associated with positive emotion than information linked to negative emotion! This could explain, at least in part, why sleep deprivation can trigger depression in some people: memories tainted with negative emotions are more likely than positive ones to “stick” in the sleep-deprived brain. All the more reason to get a good night’s rest!

Finding the Right Pillow to Support Your Preferred Sleep Position For a Good Night’s Rest

woman sleepingAs I mentioned in a previous blog post, the position you sleep in at night can have an effect on the overall quality of your sleep and more importantly, on how you feel when you wake up in the morning. Most of us probably aren’t even aware what position we spend the most time in when we’re asleep. I know I tend to favor sleeping on my stomach, which is the worst posture for your spine. Over the years I have trained myself to sleep on my side (better than sleeping on your belly but not as good as sleeping on your back without a pillow, which is the optimal sleep posture). And even though I’ve gotten pretty good at correcting my sleep posture before falling asleep and even during sleep, I still find myself going through phases where I just want to sleep on my stomach –neck be damned!

So I did a little research to see what solutions if any, are available to those of us who don’t have the self-discipline to train ourselves to maintain correct postures while we sleep. It basically comes down to selecting the right pillow or types of pillows to compensate for sleeping in a poor or less than optimal position.

If you tend to sleep on your back and stay in that position for most of the night then bravo! You’re on the right track. But did you know that if you use a pillow that’s too thick while sleeping in that position it actually strains your neck? That’s because it pushes your head forward putting your neck in the exact opposite position of its natural curve. To avoid this, use a thin pillow or a down pillow that sinks low when you lay your head on it. I found a pair on sale for only $19.99. I’m not a fan of down pillows myself and prefer the support of a contoured pillow like this Cervo Comfort Bolster Pillow or the Contour Cloud Pillow. The bottom part of this type of pillow is raised to mimic a small neck roll while the middle or top part of the pillow is sunken which supports your head while maintaining your neck’s natural curve. I like this better than a down pillow because of the extra support for the neck.

If you’re a side sleeper, be sure to use a pillow that fills the space between your ear and the outer edge of your shoulder. The same type of contoured pillow I mentioned for back sleepers can do the trick. Or try a thicker foam or memory foam pillow. Just remember that if you get any kind of foam pillow, it’s best to get one made from a natural rubber or latex material and not the traditional polyurethane foam, which can outgas potentially harmful toxins while you sleep.

This LinenSpa 100% Natural Talalay Latex Zoned Pillow got rave reviews and is on sale at Amazon for $39.99 (down from $99.99). For more on eco-friendly bedding options, see my previous post on greening your sleep routine.

Last but not least, for the stomach sleepers like myself, try one of those long cylindrical body pillows that you hug while you sleep on your side. These are recommended because they mimic the pressure on the front of the body that we crave and experience when we sleep on our bellies without the unpleasant strain on our necks or the compromised breathing that can occur from undue pressure on the lungs. For an organic cotton body pillow, try this one from Gaiam. For a less expensive cotton version try this one from Amazon.com or the Boppy Total Body Pillow which looks super comfy from the picture!

If you still feel a strain on your neck or back after trying out different pillows, you may need to experiment with different pillows until you find the right one. Until you figure it out, try some neck and shoulder stretches first thing in the morning and repeat them at night before going to sleep.

Can Exercising Help You Get A Good Night’s Sleep?

We all know that having some kind of regular exercise routine is an important part of staying health and happy, and yet, with our busy schedules and shifting priorities, many of us find it difficult to carve out enough time to actually do it. I personally struggle with this all the time. I have a Health Rider exercise machine that I try to use for 25-30 minute workouts. On a good week, I might get on it 3 or 4 times but most weeks I’m lucky if I can squeeze in two workouts (at least something is better than nothing when it comes to exercise!). There’s no denying that I feel so much better after exercising and I known that the more often I exercise the better I sleep at night.

So in addition to staying fit and maintaining a good figure, it turns out that exercise can be the key to a good night’s sleep. If you’ve been reading my posts about insomnia and the various natural solutions for addressing it, then you know that some of things I’ve recommended are yoga, massage, and deep breathing exercises. Having a regular aerobic exercise routine – whatever it is — can impart many of the same benefits as all three and these include:

  1. Reducing stress by releasing muscle tension and dissipating lactic acid build up
  2. Strengthening the heart, lungs, and brain by increasing the flow of oxygen
  3. Stimulating the production of endorphins (i.e. serotonin and ultimately melatonin) which, in turn, regulates and normalizes your body’s natural sleep/wake cycle

It makes sense if you think about it. If you spend a long day exerting yourself (i.e. working in the garden, going for a strenuous hike, lifting and moving heavy objects, etc.) then you know how exhausted you feel when the evening rolls around. Aren’t those the times you tend to fall asleep faster and sleep longer? That’s because physical exertion (like the kind you experience when you exercise) places physical stress on the body, so the brain increases the amount of time we spend in deep restorative sleep to counteract and balance the added stress.

Needless to say, adding exercise to your daily routine can dramatically improve your sleep quality. And you don’t have to maintain a vigorous or challenging routine to get better sleep. Simply raising your heart rate for 20 to 30 minutes a day, six days a week is enough to improve your sleep quality as well as your sleep time.

Studies show that you can get the same sleep benefits if you break up your workout time into 10-minute increments, and that may make it easier for you to squeeze in exercise throughout the day. If you’re like me and you prefer to exercise at the end of the day, keep your workouts shorter and do them at least 3 hours before your bedtime. If you like longer workouts then do them earlier in the day for best results. And don’t over-exert yourself – muscle soreness from pushing yourself too hard can make you uncomfortable at night and interfere with your ability to have a restful sleep.

Aromatherapy Tips for Using Essential Oils to Cure Insomnia

Now that you know which essential oils are best for helping you get to sleep and stay asleep, the next question is what’s the best way to use these oils? Well there are a couple of ways you can do this. As with any type of aromatherapy, the two primary ways to use essential oils are via direct inhalation and topical application (usually massage).

When it comes to using aromatherapy for stress and sleeplessness, the most effective way to use the essential oils is via inhalation using some kind of diffuser. Place 5-15 drops of your preferred essential oil or “sleep” blend in a diffuser and run it in your bedroom for 15 minutes before retiring. If you have a nebulizing diffuser with a built-in timer you can set it to run for 5 minutes every hour through the night but the drawback of this type of diffuser is it can be noisy which is not conducive to helping you get to sleep!

Another type of diffuser is the fan-based type like our SpaScenter Diffuser, which is a low-noise unit with variable settings that can be hooked up to a timer. Or for a totally silent diffuser, you can use a low-heat plug-in like our ScentBall Plug-in Diffuser that can be safely left on all night.

You can also add a few drops of an essential oil or your “sleep” blend to a cup of Epsom salts or baking soda and add to a hot bath before bed. In the absence of an aromatherapy massage, a hot bath with Epsom Salts is recommended because it relieves muscle tension that can otherwise lead to a lot of tossing and turning during the night. With the essential oils added to the mix you can get the same inhalation benefit you’d get from a diffuser without the hassle and potential noise of running one through out the night.

Of course, if you’re prone to waking up in the middle of the night then having a diffuser running intermittently throughout the night is probably your best bet. If you don’t have a diffuser then a really easy alternative is to place a drop or two on a handkerchief or cotton pad that you place under your pillow, or dilute approximately 15 drops of essential oil with a tablespoon of carrier oil (either jojoba, olive, safflower, coconut, or even canola will work) and rub a small amount onto your chest where you’ll be able to inhale and smell the blend. Before applying essential oils to your skin, be sure to conduct a patch test first to make sure you’re not allergic to any of them.

Always remember not to overdo it with essential oils – a little goes a long way. Too much can have the opposite effect of the intended result. Refer to our Guidelines for Using Essential Oils for more on this.

The Best Essential Oils for Relieving Stress and Insomnia

Essential oils can play a valuable role in managing or relieving your stress and can help you induce a state of calm for a restful sleep. The trick is to find the right combination of oils that resonate with you, and then the best way or ways to use them for maximum benefit.

Let’s start by look at which essential oils have calming, soothing, and sedative properties that can be used alone or combined for even greater impact. Of course the first ones that immediately come to mind are Lavender, Chamomile, Geranium, Clary Sage, Cedarwood and Sandalwood.

Next up are citrus essential oils like Sweet Orange, Lemon, Bergamot, Petitgrain, Grapefruit, Tangerine, Mandarin, and Lime. While these oils are generally stimulating and uplifting, when used in small quantities and properly combined with other essential oils, they can do wonders for your state of mind, and state of mind is really what it’s all about when it comes to relaxing and falling asleep!

Other essential oils that are also useful in this area are Marjoram (Sweet or Spanish), which is a muscle relaxant, Fir Balsam, Spruce, Peru Balsam, and Melissa, all of which calm and balance the nervous system and assist with opening your breathing passages – enabling deeper breathing. And last but not least, Frankincense & Myrrh, which are often used to assist with meditation.

That’s a lot of essential oils I just listed! The key is to find three to five oils that work together and create a blend. If you’re not that into experimenting or don’t have access to a wide selection of essential oils, then start with individual notes and see how each makes you feel. Keep a notebook handy and record which ones and how much they helped. Then after you’ve identified a handful of oils that seem to work on their own, you can try combining them. Of course you can always try our Sleep Ease Diffuser Blend, which combines Tangerine, Lavender, Pine, Marjoram, Fir Balsam and Petitgrain, as a starting point.

Herbal Remedies & Amino Acids: Effective Natural Solutions for

Unless you shop the aisles at natural foods and supplement stores, when it comes to choosing or taking supplements most of you are probably unaware of the vast selection of herbs and amino acids available to address your health concerns.

Herbal sleep aids can come in the form of capsules, tinctures, tea bags or loose dried herb that can be used to make infusions – similar to, though slightly more potent than using tea bags. The most common ones used for relaxation and inducing sleep are Valerian Root, Passionflower, Skullcap, Chamomile, Lavender, Hops, and sometimes even Spearmint or Catnip. Rather than cause heavy sedation like Rx meds, most herbal remedies simply produce a calming effect that can assist in clearing the mind and reducing stress. They work fairly quickly, so you should know within 2-3 nights if the product you’ve chosen is the right one for you.

Valerian works by calming the nerves and relaxing the muscles, but it can have a stimulating effect in some people. Some natural sleep aids may have other side effects like morning grogginess or disturbing dreams. This is more often a problem with the dose rather than the nutrient itself. Lower the dose to minimize side effects. Also, it’s always best to take these products before going to bed rather than the middle of the night after not being able to sleep, or upon waking and not being able to go back to sleep. Actual response time varies from product to product and person-to-person, so a good rule of thumb is to use a natural sleep aid for 10 days to help regulate your body’s sleep cycle and then go off it.

Another overlooked natural solution to stress reduction and insomnia is amino acid supplementation. Amino acids like L-Tryptophan, L-Theanine, GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), and Melatonin can greatly assist with sleep irregularities. L-Tryptophan creates Serotonin, one of the brain’s four key mood regulators, which in turn is converted into Melatonin – the amino acid that regulates your natural circadian rhythms and helps you sleep.

GABA is the brain’s natural calming agent, which prevents neurons from firing too many messages from the brain to other parts of the body. When combined with ingredients like low-dose Melatonin, it can help your body de-stress and wind down in preparation for a good night’s sleep. While Melatonin supplements can be helpful for shifting your body back into a regular rhythm, start with a low dose like 1 mg rather than the typical 3 mg doses they are sold in, and don’t over use it

L-Theanine is another important amino acid in this category – the amino responsible for green tea’s health benefits and helps create a “relaxed yet alert state of mind.” It encourages relaxing alpha wave production, even protecting the brain somewhat against the stimulant effect of caffeine. It can increase dopamine, modulate serotonin, and help raise levels of GABA (the brain’s natural calming agent), easing anxiety-induced insomnia without the grogginess.

Amino acid supplements usually come in a pill or capsule form.

Magnesium & Vitamin B: Supplements for Easing Stress-Related Insomnia

Experts say magnesium helps ward off sleeping problems at the cellular level by regulating and balancing the flow of calcium in and out of cells. A diet deficient in magnesium can cause a lot of symptoms like stress, low energy, fatigue, anxiety, headaches, muscle tension, cramps, irritability, and the inability to sleep. This is partly due to the fact that Magnesium controls the channels that allow calcium to flow in and out of a cell (which, in turn, controls the cell’s movement from active to resting state). Without sufficient nutritional magnesium, the cells cannot fully close the channels and calcium leaks into the cells. This is much like leaving a light switch half on. The current is still flowing, but the light is never fully off. In the body, with the cells never fully able to rest, this results in stress.

Most of us (75%) don’t consume enough daily amounts of this vital mineral. But You can address this problem by eating foods naturally high in magnesium like raw almonds and cashews, dates, brown rice, sardines, steamed shrimp, cheddar cheese, and roasted turkey. For a variety of reasons, including foods grown in mineral depleted soils, farming methods that don’t create nutrient-dense produce, and our consumption of processed foods, we simply don’t get enough magnesium in our diets, so taking it in supplement form can really help.

Increasing your consumption of B-complex vitamins and various antioxidants can also ward off stress and sleepless nights. Another supplement you can try is Lactium – a milk-derived protein that’s been clinically shown to promote restful sleep in individuals with moderate anxiety or depression, or who show high reactions to stress-related events.

More Natural Solutions for Insomnia: Reduce Physical Stress with Massage

If your stress is physical (i.e. chronic pain due to injury or illness), some of the methods listed above like Hatha or Iyengar yoga and deep breathing can help. But if you have an acute case or suffer from chronic pain you might consider getting a regular massage and consulting a naturopathic doctor for alternative solutions for pain management.

Extensive research on the use of massage therapy in the treatment of specific medical conditions by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Center for Complementary & Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) among others, has demonstrated a wide variety of benefits including: reduced swelling and pain, improved immune system function, better sleep patterns, lower levels of stress hormones, improved mobility and range of motion after injury, lower levels of depression, faster recovery from surgery, and in some cases lower blood pressure and blood glucose levels.

Muscle tension, stiffness, and soreness are often the result of overuse, strain or injury, compounded by inadequate blood flow (which is required to provide oxygen and nutrients to the tissue), and the build up of cellular and metabolic wastes like lactic acid due to the insufficient flow or movement of lymph fluid (the body’s primary mechanism for waste transport and elimination). Chronic muscle tension can reduce the circulation of blood and movement of lymph in the areas of the body where it is prevalent.

The physical contraction of muscles accomplished via various massage techniques stretches the muscles and connective tissue surrounding them, stimulates nerve receptors which in turn dilate blood vessels enabling increased blood supply, and creates a pumping effect that gets lymph moving. So the first job of a massage is to release the tension and the build up of toxins in the muscle, the second is to stimulate the movement of lymph to “cleanse” the muscles by carrying the toxins away, and the third is to stimulate blood circulation to nourish and regenerate tissue. The other benefits naturally follow from the increased movement of fluid and muscles that were previously stuck.

There’s nothing quite like the euphoric sense of peace and relaxation one experiences after a really good massage. Heck, even an average massage can make you feel like a new person if you were feeling like hell before you indulged. The release you experience from it can definitely help you get some deep restful sleep if it has been evading you!

Natural Solution for Insomnia: Reduce Emotional Stress with Meditation

Meditation is another valuable tool for managing or decreasing your stress. The whole goal of meditation is to calm the mind and free your self from the mental clutter and emotional baggage that can cloud your judgment and perception of the events in your life. With the hectic pace of everyday life, it’s easy to lose touch with who we fundamentally are, what matters to us most, and sometimes even the source of our discontent. You can think of it as “unplugging” yourself in order to create some space and distance to regain perception.

A lot of people think that meditation is hard to do and can’t imagine carving out a long stretch of time where they are doing basically nothing. But it’s in the “being” not the “doing” we can re-connect with ourselves and tap into our intuition. That’s where the answers within us lie, but before we can access them we have to quiet down and eliminate all the distracting noises in our heads. It’s also the best way to achieve the peace of mind that you need to get a restful sleep.

Meditation can take on a lot of different forms and doesn’t necessarily have to take a long time. You can take a class or find a good CD with guided meditations to help you get in the right frame of mind and begin practicing how to let go. One of my favorites is a box set by Sharon Salzberg called (fittingly) Unplug. It has 2 CDs with guided meditations, a companion guidebook and 32 contemplation cards. You can get a copy at Amazon.com.

Other favorites are meditation CDs from Shakti Gawain, author of Creative Visualization and Living In the Light. For some free, guided meditations you can download try Debbie Ford’s site at http://www.debbieford.com/index.php?cPath=14_20#meditations. For a larger selection you can purchase and download try Audible.com.