Thursday, February 9, 2017

What I’m Loving Lately 77

Good morning and very happy FRIDAY to you!

We got quite the snow storm in southern Massachusetts yesterday. We even had “thundersnow” at times, which I didn’t realized was a thing until it happened, and it was actually kind of unsettling. I thought I was hearing snow plows coming through our neighborhood until I realized the sound was not stopping and just getting louder. Whoa. It was not at all what I was expecting  and definitely a first for me! Anyway, we have quite a lot of snow to dig out from this morning, and I hope everyone in the area and surrounding areas is staying safe and warm. Ok, enough weather talk. Here’s the next edition of What I’m Loving Lately!

First things first: Zella Flash High Waist Leggings + Mindful High Waist Midi Leggings  Oh my gosh, I love both of these leggings so much. Super cute. And you can never have too many pairs of black leggings, right?!

super cute zella leggings

Also, lovvvving these Steve Madden ‘Ecentrcq’ Slip-On Sneakers – I absolutely need them in my life.

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EBATES – I’ve blogged about EBATES a number of times over the years because, well, it’s truly the best, but I just had to mention it again after I received my January Cash Back Statement. Hello, $134.96! I mean, I did do a lot of online shopping last month for the holidays, but, hey, that’s straight up cash back in my pocket. If you’re not using EBATES yet, GET ON IT!!

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Lightened-Up Mac & Cheese – An oldie, but goodie recipe! I made this for dinner the other night, and I forgot how delicious it is!

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365 Organic Texas True Barbecue Sauce – Oh, man, this stuff is so damn good, and I love that it doesn’t have a crapton of sugar in it. I love mixing it with roasted or steamed veggies to give them a little extra pizzazz!

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Lash Boost

I’ve used a few different lash “growers” over the years, but this one is THE BEST by far and totallllllllly works. The photo on the right is my lashes WITHOUT mascara after using it consistently for about 6-7 weeks now. And my lashed are still growing!!

lash boost no mascara

Retainer Brite – Ok, this one is kind of random, but it’s something I’m loving lately! 🙂 I used to use denture cleaner tablets to clean my retainer, but they’d always seem kind of scuzzy no matter how long I soaked them. I discovered these cleaning tablets specifically for retainers, and they work so much better! I wish I found them sooner!

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Pawsy Portraits – How adorable is this portrait of Murphy?! The nice people from Pawsy Portraits sent it to me, and it’s now displayed in my home office, so I can see his cute pug mug even while I’m working…. I mean, if he’s not already sitting on my lap. A portion of all proceeds are donated to animal rescue organizations, so your purchase will help other animals find their forever homes. Wouldn’t one of these pet portraits make an awesome gift?

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And, finally, just a quick shout-out to ButcherBox since we’re totally loving it lately!

Designed to Fit Nutrition Giveaway

Thank you to everyone who entered my giveaway to win a 4-week custom meal plan from Designed to Fit Nutrition! Here’s your winner:

shannon

I am a new mom and have really struggled going back to work full-time and eating healthy/meal planning. I feel like this plan is just what I need to help make life a little easier right now.

Congrats, Shannon! Please email me at tina@designedtofitnutrition.com to claim your prize!

Questions of the Day

What are YOU loving lately?

What’s up for the weekend? Any fun plans?

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Humor for Health: What Modern Science and our Evolutionary Story Teach Us about Lightening Up

Inline_Humor_HealthI’ve always believed you could tell a lot about a person based on when they laugh. Or if they laugh at all. Laughter provides a brief but in-depth window into arguably the most enigmatic organ in the body—as well as the idiosyncrasies at work for that individual.

I’ve suggested before that we adults take life way too seriously. Compared to the average child, who belts out around 400 laughs a day, we summon a measly 15-18 per day. Somehow I think we’re missing out with all that seriousness—mentally and maybe even physically.

Just think for a minute about how you feel when you DO laugh. (Can you remember the last time you did?) The almost involuntary force moving up the chest and out, the streaming eyes, shaking body, overall brightness, heady elation, the complete loss of anything even remotely resembling stress or worry. There you go.

Laughter is infectious, and there’s a reason for that. It heals the body, lifts the spirit, and elevates mood like nothing else can. It eases tension—for you and for a group. Emotionally, socially and physically, laughter’s benefits seem thoroughly underrated. The science seems to agree.

Grok as Funny Guy

Let’s back up a minute and look at the ancestral picture. Humor performed a critical function within evolution by encouraging social cohesion and alleviating the personal stress that could’ve otherwise kept Grok and his kin angry, desperate and inflexible in conditions that required a more adaptable response for survival.

Research shows that our ability to find amusement in dialogue and situations actually evolved in parallel with our neurological and physiological changes over millions of years. Researchers at Binghampton University postulate that laughter is a “preadaptation that was gradually elaborated and co-opted through both biological and cultural evolution.”

Humor in its early form probably developed in our distant hominid ancestors 2-4 million years ago. At this point, experts theorize that it was incorporated into those primal “societies” to promote resource-building and bond-forming social play during the brief periods of safety.

It makes sense. As our brains developed, our skill sets broadened, and more disposable chill time on our hands, a more complex social structure would have emerged. Humor and laughter were one of the binding agents that allowed tension between clan members to be alleviated, friendships to be formed, and (let’s be honest) sexual relationships to flourish.

With time, humor began to diversify into the varied forms we see today. Presumably, the way in which social humor forced Grok’s mind to compare and cross-reference imagined hilarity with real-world situations would have contributed to cognitive complexity. With an expanding brain, Grok and his line were more capable of creating and understanding complex humor, allowing more intricate and stronger social ties but also more innovative, creative thinking.

It’s interesting to look at the role of humor and the image of the humorless in existing hunter-gatherer societies. Take the Ju/‘hoan, a small population of hunter-gatherers in the southern part of Africa, for whom humor is used to encourage humility and cohesion: “humor is used to belittle the successful but boastful Ju/‘hoan hunter; if that fails, he will be shamed with the label !xka xan, ‘far-hearted’, meaning mean or stingy.” Man gets cocky, man gets a chance to not be so cocky courtesy of a few humorous wise cracks. If man doesn’t comply he gets called names. Fair—and usually enough in that setting to smooth things over and regroup.

While it can be said that we still share many behavioral and societal similarities with our ancestral cousins, it’s reasonable to say that humor was one of the things that set us apart during the early stages of our evolution. The frontal lobes of our brains make sense of the discrepancy between what we know to be true and the actual joke or comedic antics in question. This ability is unique to humans. While apes can “act up” and tease each other, they can’t actually shift back and forth between multiple interpretations of a scenario. This requires a comprehensive memory, which our brains were already in the process of developing over 4 millions years ago but went on to hone ever since.

With a larger brain, the depth and breadth of Grok’s memory database increased, enabling him to create and appreciate more subtle forms of humor. In this way, we see the evolution of humor in parallel with the evolution of the human species. Pretty darn cool, if you ask me.

Window into the Laughing Brain

Researchers at the University of Dartmouth sought to find out what parts of the brain fired up in response to humorous stimuli. They hooked study participants up to an fMRI machine to determine which areas of the brain activated during episodes of Seinfeld (great choice) and The Simpsons. Based on their responses, the team ascertained that joke detection occurred in the left side of the brain: specifically, the left inferior frontal and posterior temporal cortices.

This makes sense from what we already understand of these sections of the brain, with the left side helping us to process strange or curious information and cross-reference it with information already stored in our memory database. So, the jokes or on-screen shenanigans go in, are processed in relation to what we already know (a la memory bank), and emotional appreciation is created in the insular cortex and amygdala. Head-scratching jargon aside, that all seems relatively straightforward.

Scientists then looked at how different types of jokes were processed, finding that semantic jokes were processed in one area of the brain, puns in another, and cheesy “guy walks into a bar” type jokes processed in yet another location. Kind of makes you want to laugh at anything remotely funny when you imagine how hard your impoverished brain is working to process it!

Obviously, when we’re all over a punchline, our brains release a heady mix of dopamines via the amygdala. When we crack up, those dopamines are transmitted across the brain, which in turn helps us to join in, and possibly contribute to, the ensuing hilarity. When we’re depressed or anxious, however, our mesolimbic reward system switches off the dopamine valve, making it harder for us to find things funny when we’re in this state. The take-away? When you’re in a crummy mood, it’s difficult to open the humor valve, but once it’s cracked open, it’s hard to return to the doldrums.

Another study approached the use of MRIs and humor from a different angle. Researchers gathered up a crew of professional comedians, amateur comedians, and non-comedic volunteers, exposed them to certain amusing cues, and watched closely to see what parts of the brain lit up. In addition to verifying that specific regions in the left brain respond, they also discovered something interesting about the way comedians’ brains work.

Those professional comedians – and to a lesser extent the amateur comedians – had far more activity in the temporal lobe, which is associated with the generation of humor, than did the crackless non-comedic participants. In a curious tradeoff, however, they showed the least activity in the ventral striatum, the quintessential “pleasure center” and the location most associated with appreciation of humor.

It’s an intriguing bit of irony. In the process of becoming funnier, comedians increasingly lose the ability to appreciate humor generated by others. Maybe it’s a Faustian bargain. Or perhaps they’ve simply immersed themselves in so much humor that those same dopamine receptors just don’t respond to the stimulus anymore. In any case, a bummer for them.

Professional comedians aside perhaps, the neurology of humor can tell us something about a person’s mental health. Neuropsychiatrist Richard Restak notes, “humor impairment may point to operational problems at various levels of brain functioning.” Restak goes on to explain that physical injuries to the right hemisphere of the brain, which plays an important role in enabling a “holistic” view of situations, can damage our ability to process and appreciate humor.

Damage to this part of the brain can prevent a person from shifting between pre-conceived assumptions (using that memory database I talked about earlier) and an ironic or silly alternative presented by a joke or cartoon. These patients would instead show a tendency towards being excessively literal, with an inability to make the comparisons between reality and make-believe that enables an appreciation of humor.

Humor’s Health Bonuses

And then there’s the other side of the coin—how our natural, human ability to appreciate and process humor confers physical benefit.

Not that this is a new insight. In the 14th century, French surgeon Henri de Mondeville recognized that humor was an important part of the healing process, actively encouraging friends and family to visit his patients in order to tell them jokes and cheer them up. The original Martin Luther, philosopher and catalyst in the 16th century Protestant Reformation, used humor in his mission to cure depressed followers. 18th century English physician William Battie used humor to treat illness.

You get the point. More recently, Norman Cousins described in his bestselling book, Anatomy of an Illness, how he attempted to treat a mysterious and rapidly progressive inflammatory illness (ankylosing spondylitis) of the spine by watching hour after hour of Marx Brothers films and reruns of Candid Camera (apparently that was actually funny in the 70s!).

While his claims were not, of course, scientifically verified, modern research suggests that any progress he made with his illness could indeed have been due to watching people, dogs, and other animate objects make fools of themselves. One study found that so-called “natural killer cells” were more active against cancer cells after people were shown a funny video. Curiously, those people who laughed out loud, as opposed to just smiling or smirking, had greater immune activity and increased killer cell activity.

Next, there’s the fact that laughter can provide a physical workout for the body. Research also demonstrates that laughter “can lead to immediate increases in heart rate, respiratory rate, respiratory depth and oxygen consumption.” Those effects are very similar to what we experience during moderate to intense exercise, burning off stored energy. Of course, it’s only around 50 calories per hour, but I’d venture to say it’s one of the more enjoyable ways to be “active.”

Finally, there’s the oft-repeated claim that humor, and particularly laughter, cuts through stress like a hot knife through butter. Sure, many of the studies that have sought to quantify the stress-alleviating effects of humor are contradictory, involved small control groups, and were driven by a bias in that the researchers started out to prove that laughter has benefits. All fair points. Admittedly, there’s a certain irony to the entire process as a whole. As E. B. White once noted, “humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process.”

But I don’t need science to prove beyond an exacting shadow of doubt this particular health claim for my purposes. I know it has substance, based on the fact that every time I laugh I feel good. My mood changes. The air clears. Those I’m with feel it, too, and we’re suddenly all the better for it. To me, these are easily the most important benefits of laughing. The physiological bonus is gravy, fascinating as it is.

Because ultimately I’m out for quality of life. Like good Primal eating, like play, like rest, humor offers the best of all worlds. It’s an essential hallmark of human identity. It’s a healing practice, a social unifier. It’s therapy, elixir and entertainment all at once. In ancient ancestral community, these purposes inherently coexisted—for living social tradition and just holding one’s existence lightly. There’s a thought… We moderns miss the point of this grand venture when we limit our experience of finer states like curiosity, awe, euphoria—and most easily (and maybe especially) laughter.

So, go forth and find something to laugh at today. Netflix, YouTube, improv, memes, practical jokes in the office…whatever works for you. And share your thoughts (and favorite sources) in the comment section. Take care, everybody.

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Exercise May Not Only Make You Fitter, But Happier Too

Those of us who (try to) exercise regularly often do so with our weight or overall health in mind. Both great reasons, obviously. But there’s another benefit to staying active: It could make you a happier person.

“Exercise on a regular basis can keep your mood elevated,” says Ramona Braganza, a fitness expert and celebrity trainer whose clients have included, among others, Jessica Alba, Halle Berry, Scarlett Johansson, Zac Efron and Ryan Reynolds. “Mood swings don’t occur as much, and overall wellness is achieved when balance takes place in the body.”

Exercise’s mood-boosting benefits were recently underscored by researchers at the University of Cambridge in England, who asked more than 10,000 study participants to track their happiness and physical activity using a specially developed smartphone app. The participants’ self-reported activity data (the researchers asked them what activities they were engaged in the last 15 minutes) was then tracked against information collected directly from built-in activity monitors (accelerometers) on their phones.

At the end of the 17-month-long study, published in the journal PLoS One, the researchers concluded that people who are more physically active are happier than those who are less active. “We found that, regardless of whether we looked at self-reported physical activity or physical activity sensed via the accelerometer on their phones, people who were on average more active were also on average happier,” says study co-author Gillian M. Sandstrom, Ph.D., who contributed to the work as a postdoctoral research assistant at Cambridge and is now a lecturer at the University of Essex.

What’s more, the study, which sent notifications to participants asking them to fill out surveys twice each day, determined that people are happier in the time period in which they are engaged in physical activity. When participants reported that they had been more active — walking, running or cycling, as opposed to standing, sitting or lying down – as well as when their phone’s accelerometers indicated that they had been active, “they also reported being in a better mood,” Sandstrom says.

Still, while the study shows a link between exercise and happiness, Sandstrom notes that it does not prove that exercise causes happiness. In fact, the researchers believe the relationship may go both ways. “We suspect that being happier probably causes people to be more active, and being more active causes people to be happier, resulting in a positive feedback loop,” she says.

The bottom line, Sandstrom says, is that exercise may improve not only our physical, but also our mental health. “Adding a little more physical activity to your day, even if it’s not rigorous exercise, might have the added bonus of making you a little bit happier,” she says.

Amy Reiter is a writer and editor based in New York. A regular contributor to The Los Angeles Times, she has also written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Glamour, Marie Claire, The Daily Beast and Wine Spectator, among others, as well as for Salon, where she was a longtime editor and senior writer. In addition to contributing to Healthy Eats, she blogs for Food Network’s FN Dish.



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Sandals St. Lucia Trip – Part I

As many of you saw on Instagram, Thomas and I took a trip to St. Lucia last week. It was a wonderful, warm, beautiful, romantic, fun getaway, and we had such an amazing time!

Our travels took us to the Sandals Regency La Toc in Castries, St. Lucia. Mazen’s teacher from last year, Rhonda, who is a travel agent, helped me choose a resort, and she recommended La Toc for its dramatic cliffs, stunning views and exotic atmosphere. We loved it! 

We got up at 3am to catch a flight from Richmond, traveled through Atlanta, and finally touched down in 82 degrees late that afternoon. After a one-hour bus ride, we were finally there and ready to relax.

Our room was stunning – it was a one-bedroom suite with sweeping views of the ocean high up on Sunset Bluff. We even had a ‘Tranquility tub’ on our balcony, a rain shower, and beautiful modern decor. I was very impressed!!

I loved that they provided full-size beauty products in the rooms, and they smelled amazing! Like passion fruit!

The resort feels like two resorts in one – the lower area by the beach is where the party people hang out, and there are all kinds of games and music going on. If that’s your thing, you’ll be very happy spending your time at the swim up bar!

The main beach area was very pretty, but the waves were quite rough and we couldn’t swim there on any of the days except the last! Note the bluff to the left – that’s where the good views come from!

I loved that the bluff area, which is open to all guests, was much quieter and more serene. And I never got tired of that cliff-top view!

We ate at Neptune’s on our first night, which is the ocean-side Mediterranean seafood restaurant, and it was our favorite atmosphere of all.

I ordered the Crab on Crab – soft-shell crab and a crab cake and probably some lump crab in there too! This was one of my favorite entrees of the vacation.

Evening entertainment was pool and ping pong. T killed me at pool, but I beat him at ping pong!

We had breakfast in the main dining room the following morning, and I was excited to find overnight oat-style muesli! I tried to restrain myself from eating all kinds of decadence for breakfast so I wouldn’t feel too weighed down at the pool all day.

It was so nice to just R.E.L.A.X. with no phones beeping or appointments to make. The sun told us what time it was : )

[This pina colada may have been consumed before noon 😉 ]

We loved the beach-side pizzeria for lunch, and shared two wood-fired pizzas and a couple of salads. And beer!

That evening we ate at Armando’s, the Italian restaurant up at the bluffs.

This was one of my favorite desserts of the trip – a Sambuca pudding in an edible chocolate cup!

On our second morning, we ate breakfast at at Armando’s again. As much as I like the variety of buffets, I decided that I enjoy ordering a la carte most of all. It’s much more relaxing, I think! Croissants, fruit, omelets and coffee with a breathtaking view!

After realizing that we would need to get up at 6am to scout out the best beach chairs, we decided to rent a cabana for the day instead.

This was one of the few things that cost extra, but we knew it would be worth it, and it was!

The cabana rental came with a private butler for the day, and Marcus was the man. He brought us drinks and snacks, and made sure we were comfortable all day.

We were able to order lunch from the restaurant next door and Marcus brought it over on a tray. Talk about luxury! I tried the St. Lucian special – a sausage with coconut rice, plantains, and peppers and sweet potato fries. Plus a great little feta and tomato salad. Marcus surprised us with rum balls for dessert!

We had dinner at The Pitons, which serves St. Lucian cuisine. I forget the details of this shrimp, but the conch fritters in the background of this photo were great!

There were stray cats all around the resort, and this mama had three kittens with her. I sure wanted to pick one up to snuggle, but I didn’t want to risk getting clawed by the worried mom – or the kitten itself! House cats these were not.

After dinner we went to a street party with a show featuring stilt walkers and fire dancers.

Coconut juice is the best cocktail!

To keep this post from blowing up your internet, I’m saving the details of our last two days for tomorrow. Stay tuned to hear about our trip off-grounds to visit the famous Pitons and a volcano!

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Clean Eating Coconut Hot Chocolate Recipe

Clean Eating Coconut Hot Chocolate Recipe

I should warn you, this is like drinking pure, creamy, melted chocolate. It’s thick, rich, waaaaaaayyyy creamy, and will definitely satisfy any craving you could ever have for chocolate.

Recently, I… Read more →



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