Living Lite

Meditation on the Grace, Flux & Fettle of Fall

November 5, 2018

Getting out in nature, among trees, in the fresh air, and even a little sun, is essential to your health, according to medical experts. Happily, here in Washington, DC, there are still wild forests and waterways to enjoy close by and in every direction - even right in the middle of the city, too. 

Song for Autumn 
by Mary Oliver from New and Selected Poems:  Volume II (Beacon Press)

In the deep fall
don’t you imagine the leaves think how
comfortable it will be to touch
the earth instead of the
nothingness of air and the endless
freshets of wind? And don’t you think
the trees themselves, especially those with mossy,
warm caves, begin to think
of the birds that will come — six, a dozen — to sleep
inside their bodies? And don’t you hear
the goldenrod whispering goodbye,
the everlasting being crowned with the first
tuffets of snow? The pond
vanishes, and the white field over which
the fox runs so quickly brings out
its blue shadows. And the wind pumps its
bellows. And at evening especially,
the piled firewood shifts a little,
longing to be on its way.


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Chopping Down Ginkgo Trees in Georgetown? The Debate Gets Heated

October 31, 2018

Ginkgo trees. They're all over the city, on several blocks in Georgetown, and have been here for at least 40 to 50 years, and some, for over 100, even perhaps 150 years or longer. "The 27th Street stand of Ginkgos in Georgetown are the largest and oldest in the United States, according to National Arboretum staff," said long-time Georgetown resident Nancy Flinn. Some neighbors don't want them, at least not the female Ginkgos, because at a certain time of the year, they can be pretty messy and smelly. But not everyone agrees with the proposed solution of eliminating the trees. It's a hot debate in a community, such as Georgetown, which values its trees and historic preservation. 

A huge Ginkgo Tree being enjoyed by Georgetown resident Lloyd Thorson at 1527 30th Street in front of the Downing and Vaux Building (Photo by: Katherine Tallmadge) A huge Ginkgo Tree being enjoyed by Georgetown resident Lloyd Thorson at 1527 30th Street in front of the Downing and Vaux Building

Ginkgos, besides their stunning, bright saffron-yellow Fall display, and the canopy of shade they provide, are ideal city trees for many reasons. They rarely suffer diseases, are virtually insect resistant, invulnerable to wind and snow damage, pollution tolerant, and are deep-rooted, needing little soil, and do not disturb pavement. Ginkgos are so resilient, they're one of the few living things to survive the 1945 Hiroshima atom bomb blast. In fact, six of those trees are still alive! They're such an old plant species, ginkgos are considered "living fossils," dating back 270 million years, first appearing in the early Jurrasic period.

"They're glorious trees! They shouldn't cut them down; it's the reason I live here!" said Georgetown resident Lloyd Thorson, who believes the tree in front of his building, Downing and Vaux, on 30th Street, "must be at least 300 years old." 

A closer up view of the 30th Street Ginkgo showing the huge girth and age of the tree, being enjoyed by resident, Lloyd Thorson in front of the Downing and Vaux Building (Photo by: Katherine Tallmadge) A closer up view of the 30th Street Ginkgo showing the huge girth and age of the tree, being enjoyed by resident, Lloyd Thorson in front of the Downing and Vaux Building

Some experts date the tree back to at least the 1840s. Ginkgos grow very slowly, so getting to such a large size indicates it is quite old, probably at least 150 years old. Here, the Ginkgo next to Mr. Thorson, in a closer up photo, shows the wide girth of this ancient specimen.

"There are amazing Ginkgos on the Capitol grounds, including one near the Supreme Court that dates back to Frederick Law Olmsted's landscaping [Olmsted designed NYC's Central Park], said Melanie Choukas-Bradley, author of The Joy of Forest Bathing: Reconnect with Wild Places & Rejuvenate Your Life, and other nature books, who leads nature walks sponsored by the Smithsonian Associates and the Audubon Naturalist Society. "Behind the Smithsonian castle ... there are some beautiful Ginkgos," Ms. Choukas-Bradley said.

"What a fabulous tradition to have in our historic village," said Outerbridge Horsey, noted archtiect and Georgetown neighbor, referring to the the Ginkgos' provenance. Mr. Horsey is a co-founder of "Trees For Georgetown," dedicated to "plant and maintain the trees that line the residential streets of our community." Trees For Georgetown along with Casey Trees and the DC Urban Forestry Division, nowadays, only plant male ginkgos, such as the "Princeton Sentry" in Georgetown, according to Mr. Horsey.

A Ginkgo Fossil (Photo by: Wikipedia.org) A Ginkgo Fossil

Ginkgo leaves are uniquely fan-shaped and prized for their beauty. 

Ginkgo trees are either male or female. The females develop 1/2 to 3/4 inch seeds with a soft yellow-brown outer layer and a hard shell on the inside. The nut-like shells in the center of the seed are prized in Asia as a delicacy. You'll often see Asian cooks gathering the Ginkgo seeds on DC sidewalks! To some Georgetowners, though, female Ginkgo seeds, once they drop and get crushed - often on sidewalks - are thought of as a smelly nuisance during the month their berries drop (about November/December). And herein lies the controversy: What to do about those stinkin' berries?

Ginkgo Leaves are Prolific in Various Art Forms (Photo by: Wikipedia.org (by James Field)) Ginkgo Leaves are Prolific in Various Art Forms

The people who want to replace the old-growth, large, old female Ginkgo trees with young male trees say the fallen berries are slippery and dangerous, and the smell is noxious (not many would disagree with that assessment!). One neighbor lamented that the berries might affect the real estate value of his home if he needed to sell during the month that the berries have dropped.

Others are passionate about saving the Ginkgo Trees. They say Georgetown's Ginkgos are historic, "old growth," huge, beautiful, and provide much needed shade. New Ginkgos would take decades to match the size of the ones they'd be standing alongside in Georgetown. Besides, trees are naturally messy, all have their drawbacks and need maintenance: Slippery leaves... sticky pollen... dirty berries that stain... dangerous branches... nasty bird droppings... Is the only fix to chop down all the trees?

None of the solutions seem perfect. Sweeping or hosing down the Ginkgo berries off the sidewalks works, but only if everyone would cooperate and do their share. One neighbor said, "Little would be the task of most residents along 27th Street [where many Ginkgo trees live] to simply sweep the pods out of harm's way now and again during the Fall season. Could those residents enjoy the pleasures of being out and about to conduct such sweeping? ... [Together] with nearby neighbors? ... Trash collectors could perhaps play a role as well."

Ginkgo Seeds (Photo by: Wikipedia.org) Ginkgo Seeds

In years past, the District sprayed the Ginkgos annually to prevent the trees from reproducing and developing berries in the first place. But the spraying hasn't been done consistently, and since the Ginkgos have to be sprayed at a specific time in their reproductive cycle, if it's raining, the spray may not be effective. Perhaps the spraying could be made more effective if the DC government cooperates, and possibly sprayed twice, said one resident.

The Georgetown East Village neighbors who want to cut down their female Ginkgos were given permission to do the deed. But so much community angst has erupted over the possibility of losing these majestic trees, the decision has been put off until the Advisory Neighborhood Commission's December 3rd meeting, when there will be a discussion and a vote by the entire ANC, the non-partisan neighborhood body made up of locally elected representatives known as Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners. The ANC must "support" removal for it to take place. Previous to that meeting, "there will be public notice and the opportunity to comment," said Jim Wilcox, the ANC 2E06 Commissioner, who represents the neighborhood in Geogetown's East Village in which this heated argument about chopping down the Ginkgo trees is on-going.


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Enjoy Halloween Sweets, But Don't Get Hooked! 8 Strategies...

October 28, 2018

The holidays, wonderful times with family and friends, have their upsides, and their downsides. But you can minimize some downsides by heeding these cautionary tales. Starting with Halloween, the holidays can trip up even the most conscientious and healthy eaters, can wreck the fittest bodies, and ruin the most beautiful skin. This has happened to people I know, who eventually became clients.

One had lost and kept off 20 pounds successfully. The Halloween trap caught her by surprise. She bought several bags of Snickers, her favorite candy bar, and began a binge that did not end until the candy was gone – long before Trick or Treat even began! That brought her up a couple of pounds. Next, the holidays came and before you know it, she had gained almost ten pounds before winter was out.

Another client traces the beginning of her adult acne to overeating Halloween candies brought home by her children. She still battles it years later.

The research on acne confirms sweets are a primary dietary reason for skin problems, especially acne in adults, and in teens whose acne doesn't improve at the usual rate, according to Advances in Dermatology and Allergology

With Halloween and the holidays looming, it’s important to determine your strategy for dealing with the temptation of sweets: what you eat, how much, what you bring in your home, and what you serve others.

My philosophy is, without exception, all food should be enjoyed! 

But there are special challenges posed with some foods, particularly sweets, which have been confirmed by solid science – it’s not just in your head! Understanding the science behind sweet cravings and overeating can help you eat in a way that saves your body, your skin, and your health.

People have an inborn attraction to sweets. If you don’t believe it, simply watch an infant’s response to something sweet versus, say, a vegetable. There’s an automatic acceptance, even joy, after eating something sweet. On the other hand, vegetables are an acquired taste, which may take 10 to 20 tries before acceptance, as well as experiencing positive examples set by their peers and family. This is partly explained by evolution. We’ve been eating naturally sweet foods such as breast milk and fruit for millions of years. They contain life-sustaining nutrients, and a love for those foods helped keep us alive. Also, during evolution, an attraction to scarce calorie-dense foods, such as sweets and fats, improved our chances for survival, according to an NIH Director's Blog article.

But there are other explanations.  The research surrounding our attraction to sweets has stepped up in recent decades. Scientists are grappling with understanding the calorie imbalances causing the obesity epidemic, which is partly fueled by eating too many sweets.

Our brain chemistry holds an important clue. Research shows that sweets, like many antidepressants, increase the brain chemical, serotonin, which helps regulate mood and appetite. Without carbohydrates, your brain stops regulating serotonin. Eating carbohydrates improves mood; which is why a handful of candy corn may make you feel better.

When we’re stressed, anxious or depressed, serotonin levels can drop, and one way people modify their bad mood is by eating carbohydrates. But, Halloween and holiday sweet cravings may be uniquely influenced by seasonal changes, too. Studies show that as days get shorter and we are exposed to less sunshine, serotonin levels drop and this leads to increased carbohydrate cravings in susceptible people. Women are particularly vulnerable to sweet cravings perhaps because their brains have less serotonin than men, according to the Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience. This leads to increased levels of depressiom, which may be the trigger for overeating in some women, depending on their coping mechanisms for depression.

There have been other explanations for women’s reported increased sweet cravings and indulging. Some researchers attribute the difference to the female hormone, estrogen. It’s been reported that sweet cravings change according to where a woman is in her menstrual cycle, circumstantial evidence that estrogen may play a role. But the findings are inconsistent, as some report increased cravings during menstruation, while others report higher cravings as a premenstrual symptom, a time when serotonin levels may be low. But studies have not confirmed a hormonal connection to sweet cravings, though there can be a connection to depression.

But the bottom line is clear: Females overeat sweets compared to males. A study of female rats found they ate more rat chow when it was sweetened, compared with males, according to a study in the American Journal of Physiology. In animals, having high levels of estrogen is associated with eating more sweets. This theory has yet to be proven in humans.

Cravings and overeating are difficult to study because they can be subjective and multifactorial.

Other researchers stipulate sweet cravings are mainly determined by culture or by psychological and behavioral factors, rather than physiology.

In some cultures, people don’t crave sweets because they haven’t been exposed to them as regularly as Americans. A study of chocolate, for instance, found that American women crave chocolate significantly more than Spanish women. And while a large percentage of American women reported increased chocolate cravings surrounding their menstrual period, Spanish women did not, according to the journal, Appetite.

Other studies confirm that exposure during childhood is the major determinant of what we crave and are susceptible to overeating.

I copied my mother’s love for sweets and baking; it was a fun activity we did together. In college, to combat loneliness, and heck just for fun, I over-indulged my love for sweets (as the pounds went up and up).  I would regularly bake my favorite chocolate chip bars and caramel popcorn, both of which I made in childhood. Study after study shows the importance of parental modeling on a child’s preferences, according to a study in the journal, Nutrients.

Availability and proximity are two of the most important factors science have found influences what we crave and overeat and they probably trump all of the other reasons combined, according to a study in the European Journal of Nutrition. When tasty foods, such as sweets are around, we simply eat more of them, according to The Annual Review of Nutrition.

Chances are, a combination of factors is responsible for craving and overeating sweets at Halloween and the holidays. Holiday sweets are novel, they only come around once a year. They come in small pieces so you fool yourself into thinking you’re not eating as much. You put it in bowls around the house and eat it mindlessly.

If you have a strong desire for sweets, it may be a sign that you’re depressed, anxious or stressed. But you don’t have to indulge in sweets to raise your serotonin levels or to feel good. Physical activity, stress management, meditation, spending time with loved ones are activities which will help reduce depression, anxiety and stress. Physiologically, they will increase seratonin and dopamine levels, two brain chemicals responsible for happiness, according to Frontiers in Psychology (My client discovered a psychological basis for her binges, which she is successfully averting these days).

Using candy to feel better is not a great solution for your waist line. It is so high calorie, it doesn’t take much to overeat and forget your weight loss plans or your health. For the same calories in a candy bar, you could eat four apples, or maybe you couldn’t – and that’s the point!

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not urging you to be a Halloween Scrooge. I believe it’s possible to have fun with Halloween, and even eat Halloween candy, but still avoid some of the excesses that many of us have fallen victim to in the past. Here are a few suggestions: 

  • To reduce the possibility of seasonal cravings, make sure you’re getting 30 minutes to one hour of sunlight each day by taking a walk in the mornings or at lunch. You may be able to “catch up” on the weekend, if you didn’t get enough rays during the week,
  • Eat plenty of healthy carbohydrates, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes, to keep serotonin at optimum levels and reduce cravings of less healthy carbohydrates, such as refined sugar,
     
  • If you feel driven to eat sweets, it may be a signal that you’re depressed, anxious or stressed. Reduce tension and anxiety by exercising, meditating or talking with loved ones. It’s important to understand the core of the problem and for that, you may need to seek help from a professional,
  • If you want to lose weight, keep your candy – or other “extra” calories - to no more than 10% of your daily calories (that’s 200 calories for the average 2,000 calorie intake, or 150 for 1,500 calories). You may even get away with one big splurge on Halloween. But if you splurge for two or more days, it will probably effect your waist line negatively,
     
  • If you can’t resist eating too much candy, wait to buy it on the day of the party or event (or, don’t buy it). This way, the candy won’t be sitting around as a constant temptation,
     
  • Buy only what you need for the event and buy your least favorite candy. Give away the remaining candy at the end of the evening so that there’s nothing left,
     
  • Try fun and healthier alternatives to sweets to have around your home and serve to family and guests, such as popcorn, roasted pumpkin seeds, sliced apples and fruit with nice dips,
     
  • Most importantly, if you do find you overeat, lighten up, don’t dwell on the negative and get over it! Analyze objectively what you can do differently next time,

With awareness and good planning, you can have your sweets and eat them, too!

 


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