Book Review: Breaking Free: A Children’s Book for Adults

Arlene Kawchuck and Shirley Winlaw-Tierney, Ph.D. Canada: The Book Chicks, 2012.

Reviewed by Tina, Alumni

This book is about an adorable, newly hatched chick named Shelly who is just beginning her life. Readers are guided through 12 chapters as Shelly embarks on her path of learning and self-discovery. Each chapter also includes inspiring quotations.

In the book, Shelly is able to look at her talents, creativity, and where they can take her. In the process, readers are made aware of life’s amazing journey. Like Shelly, we are learning things about ourselves from our experiences, our mistakes, and our accomplishments. We see how these are all affected by our attitude and way of thinking. This book is also about the life choices we make and, sometimes, the ones that are made for us.

The overall message is that life is a gift, to be lived the best that we can. This book makes us laugh, smile, and encourage us to live in the moment. After all, a moment is all we need. I found this to be a refreshing read, and it helped me to realize that there is always hope.

Dealing with the “Racing Mind” During Meditation

By Dr. Adam Bletsoe

A very common challenge for both newcomers to the course and alumni is the “racing mind” during meditation practice. Here, one of our newly minted course facilitators, a Toronto chiropractor, writes about this common concern.

At any given moment, our minds are typically filled with a broad range of thoughts, and our brain is busy processing a variety of information and experiences. It is often not until we attempt to concentrate for meditation that we realize just how active our mind is and how difficult it can be to quiet it. The “racing mind” is a common concern for the new or inexperienced meditator. It can be such an issue that some may never start to practice, or they are driven away feeling as if they can’t “get it” or they aren’t “good meditators.”Our fast-paced, multi-tasking society neatly justifies the racing mind as a powerful productivity tool – an ally for our high expectations and goal-oriented days.  However, it can quickly lead to burnout, higher stress, and lower productivity.The racing mind is not special to just a few of us. I would like to suggest that the racing mind is within all of us, and it is not something to be fought and overcome, but something to learn to master. After all, in a brain with more than 100 billion neurons, there is always activity. Consider for a moment a busy restaurant. The kitchen and preparation spaces are a buzzing hive of activity.  As patrons, however, our focus is not there, but on the presentation of the meal brought to our cleanly dressed table by the well-trained server. Like the busy mind, there exists a highly active part of the restaurant. But that is not where we choose to focus. Similarly, the purpose of meditation is to cultivate the skills of focus and attention so that we can choose to tune in to the thoughts we want, whenever we want.Jon Kabat-Zinn, often credited with bringing mindfulness-based stress reduction to North American health care, defines mindfulness as, “paying attention in the present moment, on purpose, without judgment.” Mindfulness helps us to see some of the trees in the forest, instead of every tree or just the forest. It teaches us how to pay attention, when we want, to the thoughts we want to focus on, instead of all the thoughts passing through our minds at any given time. We learn to be aware of and inhabit the present moment.
So, if a racing mind is making your mindfulness practice challenging, there is no need to be discouraged. Starting small and keeping going, or, considering a moving meditation are options. You might begin with short sessions of yoga, tai chi, qigong, or simple flowing movements. Another option is to choose to focus on the breath farther down the body, such as at the abdomen, or focusing on something altogether different than the breath. There are many ways to meditate. It’s about finding what works for you. It is through this practice that you will eventually learn to focus your racing mind.

You Asked: Can You Tell Us More About “Epigenetics?”

Editor’s Note: Following an “epigenetics” discussion in class, one of our participants, who is also a molecular biologist, kindly volunteered to write this article. This is a very edited-down version of her article (my apologies to her). To request a copy of her original version, which is longer and quite scholarly, please email sara@neuronovacentre.com.

Replied to by Dr. S. Ansari

“Epigenetics” is an emerging field of science that involves the study of changes in the “reading” of gene activity that determines which genes are expressed. It has been dubbed “epigenetics,” from the prefix epi (Greek for over, outer, above). Diverse biological characteristics can be affected by epigenetic mechanisms, for example, the shape and colour of flowers, and eye colour in fruit flies. Epigenetic changes can be caused by many different environmental and behavioural factors.

These epigenetic changes can switch genes on or off, and are involved in many normal cellular processes. Consider the fact that our bodies contain many different types of cells: neurons, liver cells, pancreatic cells, inflammatory cells, etc. How is this possible when they all contain the same DNA (the content of genes)? In short, cells, tissues, and organs differ because they have certain sets of genes that are “turned on” or expressed, as well as other sets that are “turned off” or inhibited. Epigenetic “silencing” is one way to turn genes off and might also explain, in part, why identical twins are not absolutely identical and can exhibit diseases differently. In addition, epigenetics is important for understanding X (sex)-chromosome inactivation in female mammals (they have twice the number of X-chromosome gene products as males [1]). Thus, the significance of turning genes off via epigenetic changes is readily apparent. Also, there are different ways epigenetics can work in cells to silence genes, which involve chemical changes at the beginning part of the gene.

Epigenetics and Cancer: The first human disease to be linked to epigenetics was cancer in 1983. Researchers found that diseased tissue from patients with colorectal cancer had evidence of epigenetic disruption when compared with normal tissue from the same patients [2]. There appeared to be silencing of a tumour suppressor gene that keeps the growth of abnormal cells in check, leading to uncontrolled cellular growth. Another example is an epigenetic change that “turns off” genes which help repair damaged DNA. This leads to an increase in DNA damage, which in turn increases the risk of cancer.
Epigenetics and Inheritance: Geneticists were particularly surprised to find that epigenetic change could be passed down from parent to child, one generation to the next. Researchers showed that when female mice were fed a diet rich in methyl groups, the fur pigment of subsequent offspring was permanently altered [3]. Without any change to DNA at all, the expression/inhibition of genes was inherited from their ancestors much like a gene mutation.

Behavioural Epigenetics: It is known that diet and chemicals can cause epigenetic changes. But can certain experiences such as drug abuse, child neglect, or other severe stresses also trigger epigenetic changes inside the neurons of a person’s brain? This research formed the basis of a new field: behavioural epigenetics, which has suggested profound new treatments to heal the brain. Scientists have discovered that traumatic experiences in our past, or in our recent ancestors’ past, leave molecular “scars” adhering to our DNA. Examples include adults of every ethnicity who grew up with alcoholic or abusive parents; young immigrants from Africa whose parents survived massacres; those with Chinese grandparents that lived through the ravages of the Cultural Revolution; and, Jews whose great-grandparents were chased from their Russian shelters. They all carry with them more than just memories.

In addition, scientists have found that inattentive mothering in rodents causes changes in the genes for estrogen receptors in the brain. When those babies grow up, the resulting decrease in estrogen receptors makes them less attentive to their own babies [4].

Epigenetics and Mental Retardation: “Fragile X syndrome” is the most frequently inherited mental disability, particularly in males, leading to severe intellectual disabilities, delayed verbal development, and “autistic-like” behaviour. Studies show that individuals with this syndrome have a more “turned off” gene than normal, stopping the gene from producing an important protein. Other such mental disorders with altered epigenetic mechanisms have also been discovered [5].

Epigenetic Therapy: Because so many diseases, such as cancer, involve epigenetic changes, it seems reasonable to try to counteract cancerous growths with epigenetic treatments. However, to be successful, epigenetic treatments must be selective or specific to the diseased cells. Otherwise, changing gene expression in normal cells could make them cancerous, causing the very disorders they are trying to counteract. Despite these possible drawbacks, epigenetic therapy is increasingly promising as researchers are finding ways to specifically target abnormal cells with minimal damage to normal cells [1].

Sources:

  1. Egger G, Liang G, Aparicio A, Jones PA. “Epigenetics in human disease and prospects for epigenetic therapy.”Nature. 2004; 429(6990): 457-63. 
  2. Feinberg AP, Vogelstein B. “Hypomethylation distinguishes genes of some human cancers from their normal counterparts.” Nature. 1983; 301(5895): 89-92.
  3. Dolinoy DC, Huang D, Jirtle RL. “Maternal nutrient supplementation counteracts bisphenol A-induced DNA hypomethylation in early development.” Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2007; 104(32): 13056-61.
  4. Hurley, D. “Grandma’s Experiences Leave a Mark on Your Genes:”    Discover May 2013
  5. Weaver ICG, Cervoni N, Champagne FA, D’Alessio AC, Sharma, S, Seckl JR, Dymov S, Szyf M, Meaney MJ. “Epigenetic programming by maternal behavior.” (2004) Nat Neurosci. 2004; 7(8): 847- 54.
  6. Penagarikano O, Mulle JG, Warren ST. “The pathophysiology of fragile x syndrome.” Ann Rev Genomics Hum Genet. 2007; 8: 109-29.

Book Review: Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers: The Acclaimed Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Diseases, and Coping

By Robert M. Sapolsky. (3rd ed.) New York, NY: Henry Holt & Co., 2004.

Reviewed by Dr. Jackie Gardner-Nix

Dr. Sapolsky is a Professor of Biology and Neurology at Stanford University, and has researched animal behaviour in Africa for many years. It is this leading-edge research that forms the basis of his book, which looks at how stress impacts humans and offers strategies to cope. Specifically, chapters deal with how stress affects memory, growth, the immune system, sleep, depression, aging, addiction, and many other mind/body systems. This book, therefore, is a great companion to our mindfulness courses because they share the same message.

Dr. Sapolsky sets out to explain that medicine now understands that every cell in our body is influenced by not just our lifestyle habits, but also by our personalities and emotions. Accordingly, we cannot know much about the disease or dysfunction afflicting an individual, unless we understand how that individual interacts with their environment — socially, emotionally, physically, and even spiritually.

Dr. Sapolsky manages to use humour to enliven what could otherwise be dry material. He amusingly describes how our body maintains its natural balance of hormones and chemicals. He defines the word “homeostasis”, which means constancy through change—like having a caretaker to ensure that when our systems are pulled too much in one direction, compensation occurs so that everything else is still adequately supported. For example, when we stand, instead of our blood pressure dropping into our boots, our brain detects the change so quickly that a hormone or two is secreted instantly to narrow the blood vessels serving our brain, thus avoiding dizziness. Some medications, and sleep deprivation, can interfere with that.

The human brain is so well developed compared with many other mammals that it even anticipates when a change may occur, so as to be even more ready to compensate. This may sound ideal, but it can end up lengthening the period of “standing by”, or stress, especially in anxious individuals. The chronic nature of this “on alert”, continually anxious and stressed state has many adverse outcomes on our bodies and minds. Interestingly, this is not seen as much in zebras. Also, when zebras are running from lions, their very activity is good for their systems. So, once out of range of the lion, they recover faster. Unfortunately, this is not the case for humans experiencing stress.

One size never fits all, so some individuals handle stress better than others—there are reasons for that—but there are some universal outcomes: the child denied loving handling tends to be growth-stunted; we will all age, but at different rates depending on our lifestyle choices, stress exposure, coping, and genetics; and, our immune system is suppressed by chronic stress exposure and also aging.

Although this book is intended for the general public, it can be a challenging read. Health care professionals who may be more comfortable with the material will find this to be a fabulous read. Regardless, this book can help show everyone ways in which we can soften the effects of these stressful challenges on our bodies and minds, in order to maintain an optimal quality of life.

Expressing Pain Through Art

The following poem was written by a participant during the creative task part of our Mindfulness-Based Chronic Pain Management (MBCPM) course. It was requested to be placed in the Newsletter because it resonated with several other participants who heard it. It accurately captures the journey that many embark upon in doing the work of the MBCPM course.

The Journey

You’ve been there for quite a while
I spent so much time ignoring you…
Going on with my daily life…
Working…at times struggling…
Yet pretending you didn’t exist.
And then your presence became more evident
I could no longer ignore you
You started to devour me…
Taking me a prisoner.
One day I was working
And the next I was home…
Terrified… Wondering what was happening…
There were moments when I could close my eyes
And visualize that you were gone…
And all was right in my world
And then… then you would consume me
All I could feel… all I could think of
Was you…
I fought you… wanted you out of my life…
At times I was so anxious I thought I’d be hospitalized…
That you were taking over my very existence.
I have gone from pillar to post…
Trying to find a solution…
I would fight this… I would win…
And each visit led to disappointment…
There was no magic cure.
What would happen to me???
From one there was reassurance that this
Was temporary…
From another… there was little they could do…
And the beat went on.
And in my moments of clarity
I realized that this is part of my journey…
That there are lessons to learn…
One of them being patience…
Another – one of the most important
To love my body…
To care for me…
Be gentle with me…
That the pain is a part of me…
Not to be ignored, to be treated with tenderness…
And if possible, not as an enemy, but a friend.
The Pain Management Course
Has helped me greatly on this path…
This Journey on the path called life.
Meditations at times have soothed me…
Have reached to my soul…
Bringing a feeling of peace.
At other times… the meditations have
Brought me to the depths of despair.
Yes… it is a journey of discovery…
Of hope… of recovery…
My life will never be the same
Yet for the most part…
The anxiety is less…
The pain is a part of me…
We’re learning to be on friendlier terms…
Possibly you could call it co-existence…
What will tomorrow bring???
Will this pain fade???
I only have this moment…And when I focus on the now
I feel a sense of serenity…
A feeling of hope…
And gratitude.
My friend and I
Are living in the moment…

By Marilyn G.
MBCPM Class Participant, November 2013