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Part VI: Brain reset: Physical Health in Bereavement

“Being heartsick, sick with grief, heartbroken: medical knowledge suggests that our bodies already know what our words have long implied: that grief can, quite literally, sicken.”   

 Cari Romm

The newly bereaved are more than usually vulnerable to illness and accidents. In the week following a close bereavement, the grief stricken are twenty-one times more likely to have a heart attack, and this risk remains elevated for at least a month afterwards. Cognitive impairments in grief: memory loss, vagueness, and flawed decision making, render us more than usually accident prone.

The death of a loved one feels like the worst that can happen in a family, but there is worse: the death of two loved ones. The likelihood of that happening after bereavement increases: most of us will know of an incident where the surviving partner of a long marriage dies soon after. Sisters, particularly, are more likely to die of heart failure (heartbreak?) in the weeks after the death of a sibling. A close friend of mine lost two siblings within months of each other last year, as well as almost dying herself of heart disease.

The day of my brother’s death, my husband and I were three hundred miles away at my father’s house. Dad’s desire was to get to his son as soon as possible. There was no way on earth I could have driven: I was in a daze of shock and grief and could barely breathe.  My husband drove, but that was not ideal either as he was pretty shattered too.

For the  bereaved, special attention to physical health is crucial, not least because grief will disrupt your usual habits and routines. Looking after yourself physically will help your mental state during this time of increased vulnerability. The temptation to turn to your mood altering drug of choice: alcohol, drugs, (legal or illegal), food, is strong. Physical health is a mood altering drug of a more sustained kind.

Here’s what we all know about physical health in a nutshell: you need good sleep, good nutrition, and regular physical exercise.  Here’s what most of us know less about: how to find the willpower to sustain these habits over time. Most diets succeed if you stick to them, as do most exercise programmes. It’s the sticking to them that is such a challenge, and a drag. So the first belief to consign to the category of inaccurate is: “diet and exercise are things you do for x weeks, succeed at and then stop.”  Replace that with the more resilient belief: “elements of diet and exercise need to become part of my way of life. Forever and ever, amen.”  Painful, I know, but true.

Sleep

The latest research tells us that the single most important thing you can do to improve your own psychological resilience, bereaved or not, is to sleep well.  The criteria for good sleep is: 7 – 9 hours, of which 1 – 2 should be deep sleep and 1 – 2 should be rapid eye movement sleep (REM) during which you dream.

During deep sleep our brains are carrying out crucial cleansing processes: your glymphatic system (similar to your lymphatic system but within the brain), is busily washing out beta-amyloids which are hiding in small cave like structures deep inside the brain.  (For some reason, I imagine these bad boys as Hell’s Angels, creating havoc and mayhem wherever they go). Beta-amyloids can build up to form plaques, which have been routinely found in the brains of sufferers of Alzheimer’s and dementia. Both President Reagan and Prime Minister Thatcher boasted proudly of their ability to function well on 4 – 5 hours sleep per night.  Both suffered from Alzheimer’s in their later years.

The health of your brain depends on good quality sleep; without it, numerous processes are disrupted including our appetite. Brainwashing specialists (and torturers..) use sleep deprivation as one of the quickest and surest ways of breaking a person down. (New parents will endorse this, I’m sure.)

During the acute phase of shock and grief after my brother’s death, I slept fitfully.  I was exhausted a lot of the time, sometimes napping during the day, something the sleep experts advise against, as it so often inhibits night sleep. Over time, my sleep returned to normal, which, for me, tends to be around seven hours.

Hacks and short cuts to improving your sleep:

  • Anything that helps you relax: a hot bath, a relaxing drink, reading.
  • Avoid anything that may make you tense: surfing the net, watching the TV news, picking a fight with your partner.
  • Is your bedroom dark enough? Quiet enough? The right temperature? Are your bed/bedding/pillows comfortable enough?
  • Try a guided visualisation: I used an App called DigiPill.  Their Sleep Deeply “pill” worked for me most of the time. (So did their Perfect Pitch “pill” for making professional presentations, but that’s a different story.) 
  • Take a magnesium supplement daily.
  • If sleep is very elusive try a melatonin supplement, or a herbal sleep remedy.  

It’s worth measuring your sleep, which you can do using a FitBit or the new Oura Ring, which I got for Xmas this year, and I love it.   That has really focussed me on trying to consistently get a good night’s sleep, to an almost obsessive degree….. but that’s a reliable way to make change happen, for me anyway.

Nutrition

As part of my brain reset, I resolved to lose a stone in weight, given the urgent motivation of two weddings in the summer of 2018 when I would be stepmother and mother of the bride.  I was determined to be fit, healthy, and, most importantly, slim.

Here is a not exhaustive list of all the current weight loss diets I can think of:

  • Atkins. Paleo. Keto. 
  • Low calorie. Low Carbohydrate. Low GI. Low Fat.
  • High protein. High Fat. High Fibre.
  • The Grapefruit Diet. The Cabbage Soup Diet. The Maple Syrup Diet.
  • Vegan. Vegetarian. Gluten Free.
  • Intermittent Fasting. Alternate Day Fasting. 5:2. 6:1. 4:3. 16:8.  

Loads of them… They’re all essentially ways of reducing calories, though some also claim a metabolic/chemical impact on appetite. They all work, if you can stick to them; unfortunately most of them keep you in a constant state of hunger. Finding the best regime should focus on how to manage your appetite, the basic formula for which is healthy sleep and high protein. As a general rule, protein controls appetite, and carbohyrdates increase it, especially sugars.

I mixed and matched my own formula as follows:

  • I’ve eaten largely gluten free for decades. If you don’t, this is a rapid way to lose weight.
  • I added to that a low carbohydrate diet, aiming for around 70g of carbohydrate per day, on average.
  • I reduced sugar to a minimum, about 25g per day.
  • I followed the 16:8 intermittent fasting regime for 4 – 5 days a week: 16 hours without eating and 8 hours with; this may sound horrendous, but essentially means skipping breakfast. If you eat dinner at 7pm, don’t snack, and then skip breakfast, by the time you have lunch at 12 noon you will have gone 17 hours without food.  You then eat as you please till 7 or 8pm then stop; so you eat your days food during an eight hour window. (My appetite has adjusted to this; I rarely eat breakfast now).
  • I cut out alcohol except on social occasions; this meant I drank about four glasses of wine per week. Tough one, I know.  

I recorded everything I ate and drank using MyFitnessPal, which calculated my daily calories, gave me an analysis of my diet in terms of protein, carbohydrates and fats, and predicted my weight loss five weeks hence if I continued as I was doing. It also collected my weight from my HealthMate scales and plotted it on a neat graph with all the other data. (Total torture.)

I lost a stone in weight over six months, so about 2.5 lbs per month, which is slow, but hopefully sustainable.  This cheered me up immeasurably, as well as making me feel, lighter, better, happier. The consequent retail therapy was right up there in terms of happiness quotient.

With both weddings behind me, I’ve got a bit lazy so have put a few pounds back on.  But I have a formula that works for me and that I can sustain. 

Hacks and shortcuts:

  • Find a method that doesn’t keep you permanently starving, and that fits in well with your lifestyle.
  • Start with small simple changes that you can stick to. 
  • In the early days, keep healthy protein snacks to hand: walnuts, protein balls, a cube of parmesan cheese, a hard boiled egg. 
  • A shortage of sleep stimulates your appetite and makes you hungry, so try to get enough sleep.

Exercise

We all know the benefits of exercise physically.  Mentally, exercise changes our brain chemistry for the better, stimulating the production of endorphins, and dopamine, the feel good chemicals.  Regular exercisers are generally happier and more optimistic and positive  than couch potatoes: a healthy body promotes a healthy mind.

Aim to exercise lightly most days, with more vigourous exercise 3 – 4 times weekly.  Ideally, try to build exercise into your daily life, by walking briskly whenever possible, don’t spend hours sitting on the sofa/at your desk, without taking breaks to walk around a little.  Sitting for long periods is now considered to the be new smoking healthwise: moving around little and often is a simple way of incorporating activity into your normal life. Choose your exercise from:

  • Aerobic fitness: walking, running, rowing, cycling, dancing, housework, gardening, high intensity interval training (HIIT).
  • Strength: weight training, yoga, circuit training, HIIT.
  • Flexibility: yoga, pilates, dancing.

I have been an exerciser from my early years as a child gymnast. At this stage of my life, I go to the gym or practice yoga 3 – 5 times weekly.  In the last year, as I focussed on fitness for bereavement, vanity and weddings, I seriously upped the ante by hiring a personal trainer to revitalise my gym sessions and work on the important things, like the tone of my arms and the size of my thighs.

My trainer, twenty years younger than me and glowing with health, said authoritatively: it’s all about weights.  Yes I replied, proudly, I weight train regularly.  What size weights do you use? she asked.  3kg I replied.  She looked stunned.  See? I thought, surprised aren’t you? A woman of my age using such heavy weights! She shook her head: that’s where we’ll start straight away she said; to tone those arms we need to get you up to 5 or 6kg weights. Now, I looked stunned; I don’t want to end up looking like Madonna. (Fat chance.. ).

The new training regime she put together for me made me realise how lazy I had become in the gym, going through the motions of the same old routines rather mindlessly.  It definitely upped my game; though sadly, I have to say, after a certain age (unless you’re Madonna) there’s a limit to what even 6kg weights can do for a woman’s upper arms… 

Hacks and shortcuts

  • Weight training at least twice a week makes you physically stronger and mentally happier: it has a proven impact on your brain chemistry.  
  • Exercise snacking is the new big thing in exercise science, following on from the success of HIIT which showed that small regular bursts of excercise can be equally or more effective than long training sessions.
  • HIIT is great for quick exercise: I use an App called the 7 Minute Workout as a quick way of getting some good quality exercise in and raising a sweat.  It incorporates all the exercises known to tone the whole body, in bursts of only 30 seconds. (Star jumps, sit-ups, squats, lunges, plank, press ups). 
  • Yoga stretches are a brilliant stress reliever, taking tension out of your body; and calming the mind. Try Yoga with Adriene on YouTube for a whole series of brief yoga sessions for all ages and ability levels. She’s my favourite.

It takes a great effort of will and energy (and two weddings….) to motivate yourself to focus attention on your health regime.  If some of the things I tried made you think “I could never do that!” notice that that is an inflexible belief that is not resilient. Maybe you could believe, instead: “Phew, tough one. I should try it. If I could do it once, maybe I could to it twice; and if I could do it twice, I could make it a habit.”  

At a time when your spirits are so low, the pull to the sofa, TV, cake and wine can be overwhelming.  Give yourself some time to wallow, but not too much; then push yourself, just to go for a short walk; or see a friend; go shopping… Do something positive even though you really don’t feel like.

Remind yourself: this too will pass.

Back when there were four of us: Dorothea, Chrysanthy, Tino and Voula

“The mind and the body are like parallel universes. Anything that happens in the mental universe must leave tracks in the physical one.”    

Deepak Chopra

Next blog, coming soon:  Activities that soothe or inspire 

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