Quit Smoking Tip of The Week: Keep the weight off! Part 3

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So far we have covered nutrition and exercise as tools for a healthy weight and lifestyle. Now, third but definitely still just as important as the former two, is sleep! We often disregard or forget about this oh so important factor altogether, in the go-go-go lifestyle that comes along with our society. Sleep is one of the most crucial ingredients for health and well-being. Sleep is what regulates your hormones, repairs your body, promotes a healthy mental state, and so much more.

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If weight loss is your goal and you’re eating healthy foods and working out but not seeing much progress, it is time to evaluate your sleep. Not only will your “gains” from working out be lost if you are deprived of sleep, but your body will crave more food to help fuel your body as it goes into “overtime,” and usually the foods we crave are not the foods we need for proper nutrition. Let’s dig a little deeper, here, and see what else is effected by sleep and HOW to get the most out of your sleep!

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In addition to getting enough sleep (a recommended 6-8 hours for adults), the timing of your sleep is also crucial. Research shows that your body starts to release melatonin in the evening as it starts to get dark out, then begins to release cortisol as the sun begins to rise. Melatonin is the sleep hormone responsible for putting your body at rest and cortisol is the sleep hormone responsible for waking your body up. An optimal sleep schedule is to sleep from 10pm to 6am (8 hours), as 10pm-2am is the time in which your body reaches its peak hormone balance to promote optimal restoration for your cells. When you stay up too late, or sleep in too late, your body is thrown off by hormone dysregulation. This can explain why you may still feel tired even after getting a solid 7-8 hours of sleep, because getting 8 hours of sleep from 12am-8am, is not the same as a 10pm-6am schedule. When you go to sleep at 12am you have already missed the first two hours of REM sleep. Dr. Oz has a great article going deeper into the science behind the 10pm-2am cycle of restorative sleep here if you’re interested in learning more.

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What happens to your body when you get a good night’s sleep? A ton of great things, such as:

  • Blood sugar regulation, important for preventing type 2 diabetes
  • Your muscles rebuild themselves, utilizing essential amino acids that you have digested throughout the day (making your workout actually worth it!)
  • Your body repairs itself from internal and external stressors (inflammation reduces, mood regulates, free-radicals that cause disease are removed, all thanks to the antioxidant properties of melatonin)
  • Long-term memory is reinforced, helping you perform cognitive tasks more efficiently

All of the above (expect for the last point, which should still be an important factor for people) aid in weight loss. When you don’t get a quality amount of sleep, the above either will not happen or will occur at a much less efficient rate.

So, get those ZZZ’s because they’re a lot more important than you think!

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Setting a routine for better sleep

Now, let’s address HOW to get this restorative, restful sleep, because as we all know, insomnia can be a withdrawal for many smokers who begin their quit journey.

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  • Only use your bed for sleep and sex. When you do other activities in your bed (such as reading, watching tv or eating) your brain does not associate your bed with sleep as strongly, and your bed should only be associated with relaxation.
  • When you can’t fall asleep, get out of bed. This might sound like bad advice, but it goes along with the first tip. If it is taking you up to an hour to try to fall asleep, get out of bed and read on the couch or stretch until you feel sleepy, then hop back in bed. When you can’t sleep and stay in bed, feeling anxious or upset that you can’t fall asleep, you are unintentionally associating your bed with negative emotions.

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  • Exercise early in the day, if possible. It is proven that moderate exercise (try for 30 minutes a day, even if it’s just walking) will help adults get a better night’s sleep. Even further, if you exercise before 3pm you will be getting the most from this benefit as it is also proven that exercising after 3pm can cause your sleep hormone production (melatonin and cortisol) to get post-poned, potentially making it harder to initially fall asleep.
  • Consistency is key. Try to go to sleep at the same time each night, and wake up around the same time each morning. Building a consistent routine around your sleep schedule helps keep your hormones in check and makes it easier to fall asleep (and stay asleep) at night.

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  • Unplug! This one is so important in our busy, always accessible society. At least an hour before going to bed, stay away from your cell phone, computer, tv, or any other electronic device. Read a book, stretch or find another relaxing activity that you can participate in each night as part of your routine to help your body unwind and relax. This will help you rid yourself of your racing thoughts, as well as give your brain a rest by intentionally reducing the blue-light that you are exposed to. Blue-light interferes with our internal clock, which controls our sleep hormone (melatonin), causing hormone imbalance, anxiety and stress.
  • Ditch the late night snacks (or meals). Eating later in the evening and at night is tough on our digestive system. Historically speaking, when the sun goes down, so does our body. And with it, our bodily systems, such as digestion. Remember earlier when I said that our body repairs itself when we sleep? Well, when you eat a meal less than three hours before going to sleep, your digestive system is still doing a lot of work while your body is trying to rest! This might be why you wake up multiple times in the night to pee, can’t seem to get a deep sleep, or even have trouble falling asleep. Do yourself and your digestive system a favor and try to abstain from eating at least three hours before sleeping, four if you’re able to eat dinner earlier.
  • Dim your lights. Our sleep hormone, melatonin, is produced by our pineal gland which gets triggered to release or not release melatonin based on the light we receive. Similar to the idea of unplugging from technology, you should try to reduce the overall amount of light received as soon as the sun starts to set. In this way, you are mimicking the way nature intended and helping produce melatonin naturally in order to induce a restful sleep by 10pm.

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  • Reduce or eliminate your caffeine intake altogether. Caffeine is a stimulant and it has been proven that even having caffeine in the morning can effect your sleep at night. Try cutting down from 2 cups of coffee to 1, or switch to decaf if you really enjoy the taste. Be aware that a lot of teas have a ton of caffeine in them, so opt for the de-caffinated ones or something light like a white tea.

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Coming from someone who has personally had a bad relationship with sleep from my adolescence through my early 20’s, if you try all of these tips, you will be successful in helping to reset your sleep pattern. I never thought that I would have a “normal” sleep schedule, but the fact is most American’s are not getting a restful sleep due to the rise in technology and just lack of knowledge about how our sleep hormones are regulated and what environmental cues can throw them way off. Give it a try for a week, and be amazed that you will not need a sleep aid or other substances to help you sleep anymore! If you suffer from racing thoughts at night, as a lot of us do, and stretching or meditating is not working for you, you can try getting a magnesium supplement to help relax your mind (it also relieves muscle cramps!) or look into ashwaganda root to take mid-afternoon and in the evening for stress relief and relaxation. Always ask your doctor before adding any supplements to your daily regimen as some can interfere with medications.

Quit Smoking Tip of The Week: Keep the weight off! Part 2

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Last time we discussed the basics of weight loss and maintaining a healthy and active lifestyle. This week, I want to go a little deeper into exercise.

As mentioned before, doing cardio is good for your body as well as getting a jump start on weight loss. The real key to fat loss though, is to build lean muscle. I’m not talking body builder muscle, but a decent amount of muscle that is strong and appropriate for your body type to support your metabolism as well as your daily activities. Muscle is what promotes a faster resting metabolism (meaning, it helps you burn calories even while you are not doing any physical activity). So… how do we build muscle? There are a few different ways to build muscle that I am going to cover.

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First, there are body resistance training exercises. These are my favorite, because they require essentially no workout equipment due to you using your body to build upon itself.

Body resistance training 101:

  • Push-ups (Click here for a guide with different push-up variations)
  • Squats (Click here for a guide with different squat variations)
  • Ab sets (Click here for a beginners guide)
  • Lunges (Click here for a guide with different lunge variations)
  • Pull-ups (Click here for a step-by-step guide)

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Secondly, there are machine resistance training exercises. The amount of equipment required can vary here. From using resistance bands, to exercise machines that hyper-isolate one muscle group and build on contractions (pushing your muscles out, then stretching, and back again). Here is a guide that shows you variations with resistance bands.

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And lastly, another one of my favorite, are the free weight exercises. These are basically resistance training but I like to include them in their own category because they do such a great job at helping improve stability and target certain muscle groups while helping tone other areas of your body through stabilization. Here is a beginners guide for utilizing weight machines as well as free-weights.

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I recognize that a lot of people who might be reading this may be thinking at this point, “but what if I can’t do any of these exercises due to an injury, or general immobility?” Don’t worry, you can still build muscle! It may take a little longer, but there are some great ways to modify workouts so that anyone can participate.

My guide for limited mobility:

Items Needed:

  • 2-5lb (or heavier) Dumbbells *can substitute for 16oz water bottles or any similarly heavy set of objects
  • Medicine Ball *can substitute for a sturdy medium sized ball, such as a basketball or soccer ball
  • Resistance Bands *optional
  • Chair
  • Paper plates *or socks that allow for easy sliding

Instructions: It is advised that adults get approx. 30 minutes of exercise each day. Find which exercises below work best for you or are the most enjoyable and rotate between them as needed for 30 minute intervals. Be sure to include at least one rest day in your routine if you are new to exercise.

 

Legs: Seated Slides Back and Fourth

Sit tall and place paper plates under each foot. Push onto the right plate and slide the foot forward.  Slide the foot back, pressing onto the plate to activate the hamstrings while sliding the left foot forward.  Continue alternating for 16 reps (one rep includes both right and left slides).

 

Legs: Seated Outer Thigh

Sit tall in the chair and tie a band around the mid-thighs.  Step the right foot out to the side, touch lightly and then bring it back in, focusing on the outer thigh.  Repeat, stepping out with the left foot and repeat for a total of 16 reps (one rep includes both the right and left taps).

 

Leg Extensions

Sit tall with feet flat on the floor and knees together.  Squeeze the quads (upper thigh) to straighten the right leg, foot flexed. Bend the knee to lower the foot, lightly touching the floor. Repeat for 20 reps and switch sides. Add ankle weights for more intensity if desired.

 

Legs: Seated Ball Taps

Place a medicine ball (or a medium sized ball of choice) in front of you and sit tall with the abs engaged. Lift the right foot and tap the toes on top of the medicine ball. Take it back down and tap with the left foot. Continue tapping the ball, alternating feet, as fast as you can repeating for 16-20 reps.

 

Legs: Inner Thigh Squeeze

While seated with tall posture, place a ball between your knees. Squeeze the ball by contracting (pulling in) the inner thighs and release slightly–don’t release all the way–and repeat for 16 reps.

 

Arms: Seated Lateral Pull With Band

While sitting tall, hold a medium-tension band in both hands up above and slightly in front of your head. The distance between your hands will determine the intensity of the exercise (closer together is harder, further apart is easier). Contract the back and pull the right elbow down toward the ribcage.  Release and repeat for 16 reps before switching sides.

 

Upper Body: Chest Squeeze With Medicine Ball

Sit on a chair, back straight and abs in. Hold a medicine ball (or any other type of medium sized ball) at chest level and squeeze the ball to contract the chest. While continuing to squeeze the ball, slowly push the ball out in front of you at chest level until elbows are almost straight. Continuing the pressure with your hands, bend the elbows and pull the ball back to chest. Repeat for 16 reps.

 

Upper Body: Seated Lateral Raise

Sit with a tall posture holding 2-5lb dumbbells (or 16oz water bottles) at your sides. Keeping the elbows slightly bent and wrists straight, lift the arms up to shoulder level (palms face the floor). Lower back down and repeat for 16 reps.

 

Upper Body, Shoulders: Overhead Press

Sit with tall posture holding 2-5lb dumbbells (or 16oz water bottles) in both hands. Begin the move with arms bent to 90 degrees, weights next to the ears (arms should look like a goal post). Press the weights overhead and lower back down, repeating for 16 reps.

 

Arms: Biceps Curls

Sit and hold 2-5lb dumbbells (or 16oz water bottles). Curl the weight up toward your shoulder and release. Avoid swinging the weights and keep the abs engaged. Repeat for 16 reps.

 

Core: Seated Rotation for Abs

Sit tall, holding a 5-8lb dumbbell (or an equally heavy object) in front of your chest. Keeping the abs contracted, rotate the torso to the right while keeping the hips and legs facing forward. Contract abs to bring the weight back to center and then rotate to the left. Repeat for 12 reps.

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Hopefully after reading this, you have been able to think of a few ways that you will be able to implement strength training into your daily routine. Play around with these guides and even create your own fun way to get active, while building muscle, by exploring different sports or activities such as hiking. The most important part of exercise, is that you are enjoying it and doing it to better your body and mind rather than seeing as a chore because you “need” to lose weight. Rethinking physical activity is the start to a healthier, happier life.

Quit Smoking Tip of The Week: Keep The Weight Off! Part 1

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Post cessation weight gain can cause a lot of stress for most people. You don’t want to put on 10-15 extra pounds, especially if that will put you in the overweight or obese category. That’s completely understandable, and there are small changes you can make in order to achieve and maintain a healthy weight but most importantly a healthy and active lifestyle.

First, I do want to address the fear of gaining weight while quitting smoking. If you are concerned about the health implications of gaining weight, know that putting on a temporary 10-15 pounds is far healthier than continuing to smoke or use tobacco. This is something I touch on with my clients who bring up weight as a major concern or trigger in their reduction/quit journey. I also like to let clients know that the upside to quitting is that even when you do gain a few pounds, your body is continuing to detox and rebuild its cellular processes post smoking cessation. This means that you will be able to more efficiently burn fat and put on healthy amounts of muscle because you are no longer doing continuous damage to your organs (which must function optimally to lose the RIGHT kind of weight).

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With my background in nutrition and weight loss coaching, I understand that this can feel like an uphill battle oftentimes, but rest assured that all you need is patience and dedication and there is no reason that you won’t be able to prevent or remedy weight gain after quitting. The best thing you are doing for your physical health and appearance is quitting smoking. Let’s face it, it’s hard to be fit and also a smoker- something to keep in mind.

Okay, so HOW exactly do you manage your weight?

Now let’s get into the details: how do you lose weight or even prevent the weight gain altogether? This is going to be a multi-part blog series, because there is no one magic secret that is going to do the trick. Tons of things factor into weight and how you gain and lose it, and it takes a long time for both to happen. In America especially, we get so caught up in the “immediate results, immediate gratification” mindset that we don’t step back and take a look at the whole picture.

Two Major Components: Exercise and Nutrition

These are the most well-known components to a healthy weight and lifestyle, yet most people are still not eating the right types of foods and either not exercising enough or exercising too much.

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A healthy diet includes a diet consisting of healthy fats, proteins and vegetables and a moderate amount of complex carbohydrates, such as the Mediterranean diet. The Mayo Clinic offers a great, easy to follow guide here.  One of the most important things that you can do for yourself regarding weight loss or maintaining a healthy weight is to eliminate as much processed food from your diet as possible. This includes chips, donuts, cereal, etc. This doesn’t mean that you can never eat these types of foods, but it’s encouraged to limit these to a “once in a blue moon” snack and not a daily (or even weekly) item to have.

bodybuilding close up dumbbells equipment

Now it’s time to touch on physical activity. You should strive to get 20-30 minutes of exercise each day at minimum. These guidelines are from the American Heart Association. This includes walking, so don’t let yourself get discouraged if you don’t have time (or the strength) to hit the weights every day. If you work, try to get up every hour or so to do a lap around your building. Take the long way to the restroom. Even park farther away (or, if you utilize public transportation and live in a safe area, try walking to your destinations as much as possible). Walking and more intense forms of cardio can be wonderful for jump starting a weight loss journey. But if you stick to JUST cardio, it will be just that and only that: weight loss. Not fat loss. Excessive cardio eats away your muscle, so you want to be careful to not overdo it. Muscle is what you want to keep, and build, in order to actually loose fat. The more muscle you have on your body, the higher your resting metabolism. It’s important to mix up your routine if you’re looking to lose fat rather than maintain your weight. Work on building strength, and the weight will come off (as long as you stick to a healthy diet—trust me, I have personal experience from years of learning that you can never out train a bad diet! Fat loss starts in the kitchen). Next week, we will go a little deeper in proper exercise and nutrition as well as touch on another important, but often neglected factor in healthy weight and lifestyle.

The Connection – Smoking and Anxiety

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Many people are under the false assumption that smoking helps relieve anxiety OR they know intellectually that it doesn’t help, but they don’t actually know why or how the brain tricks you into still craving that cigarette as the “only” thing that will take away the panic, the racing thoughts, etc. The association between cigarettes and anxiety can be confusing when you don’t know the whole story of how they affect each other.

close up photo of cigarette

Clients with anxiety, depression, or who have beat other addictions are the ones who will benefit the most from quitting! Most of the time, one drug has a learned association with another that is being used. Think about coffee. If you’re a coffee drinker and a smoker, you probably associate the two together. Same with alcohol and other drugs. So staying abstinent from all drugs, including nicotine, is a good way to stick to your sobriety.

It is backed by science and many studies that quitting smoking only has a positive effect on mental health and to continue to smoke is to continue to agitate the symptoms of anxiety as well as speed up the progression to HIV stage 3 (AIDS).

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How smoking increases anxiety and why your brain still tricks you into thinking that smoking helps relieve anxiety and stress

Nicotine is a stimulant. When it enters the bloodstream and makes its way to the brain (within 7-10 seconds) it increases the heart rate, increasing your cortisol, as well as your alertness. These are symptoms of physical stress, and for people with anxiety or a predisposition for anxiety, these stress catalysts can make anxiety even worse.

Persons with a predisposition to anxiety also may experience more anxious thoughts as they enter nicotine withdrawal, which happens many times during the day for cigarette smokers. On the graph below, you can see that after the first cigarette, throughout the rest of the day there are continues spikes going up and down. The spike up is the initial pleasure response (release of dopamine) from smoking. The down spikes are the withdrawal cues that tell your brain to smoke again- manifesting themselves in excessive worry, irritability, tiredness, etc. This cycle of smoking to relieve withdrawal symptoms is very taxing on the body and can cause unnecessary stress on the body’s nervous system as you are constantly trying to find equilibrium yet being stuck in a cat and mouse game of highs and lows from nicotine.

nictotine withdrawal graph

Acute tolerance is what tricks the body into thinking that smoking that cigarette is the magic stress reliever/ anxiety killer. But, acute tolerance is actually your body trying to protect itself from the effects of smoking. What happens is, as soon as you light up your cigarette when you’re feeling anxious, your body knows that your heart rate will increase rapidly, and you will get a short burst of energy. To defend against this, your body slows its heart rate down before you inhale. The cigarette did not relieve your stress or anxiety symptoms. Your body did (right before you smoked) as a response to what it knew was going to happen. Once you light up and smoke that cigarette, your body gets a wave of anxiety-causing symptoms again from the increased heart rate and raised alertness, yet thanks to acute tolerance, you would never even know!

One of the best things that you can do for your mental health is to reduce or quit your tobacco use and trade in your cigarettes for healthier, effective coping strategies for anxiety and stress. Reach out to a tobacco treatment specialist (TTS) at UNIFIED- HIV Health and Beyond now to see how we can work with you to reduce your stress and anxiety without cigarettes! To contact the TTS at our Detroit office, call (313)446-9817 to speak with Amber Jager, and for our Ypsilanti/Jackson area office, call (734)572-9355 to speak with Erin Suprunuk.

Tobacco Reduction Program Services

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Happy New Year, everyone! As we enter 2019, most of us have goals of renewing ourselves and refocusing on our health- whether that’s mental or physical. Along with those goals may be a big one: quitting tobacco or continuing to reduce your tobacco use as we enter the New Year. Whether you have never quit before, or have been quitting for the past year, the Tobacco Treatment Specialists at UNIFIED want to help you quit and stay tobacco free- whatever that looks like in your life!

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You may be wondering “Do I qualify for these FREE services, and if so, what exactly do these services provide?” To qualify for the Tobacco Reduction Program at UNIFIED you need to be an individual living with HIV/AIDS, qualify as low-income and live in either the Detroit, Ypsilanti or Jackson area. If you have never received case management services with UNIFIED before but fit the above qualifications, you still qualify for these FREE tobacco cessation services!

So what does a tobacco reduction counseling session consist of, anyways? The short of it, is that it is different for everyone and up to you what you want your reduction and quit plan looks like. We, as tobacco cessation counselors, are here to offer proven-strategies, non-judgmental support and accurate information to help guide your journey to a successful smoke-free life.

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When I meet with my clients, I think of it as them driving the car and me simply navigating the route for them. Most smokers know what they need to do to quit, but need a little guidance to create an individual and effective game plan to get there. That’s where Tobacco Treatment Specialists come in!

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Not ready to quit or reduce, but a little concerned about the health, social or personal implications of tobacco use? Come talk to a cessation counselor! We respect the boundaries of our clients and don’t push when an individual is not ready to make this big change. What we will do is offer information when appropriate, have open conversations about the pros and cons of smoking, and help you decide if it is the right time in your life to quit and give real feedback on what tools (mental coping strategies) you will need when you decide you’re ready to work towards reducing or setting a quit date. There’s nothing to lose by speaking with a tobacco cessation counselor, except maybe a pack of cigarettes or two!

Give us a call today! For our Detroit location, reach Amber Jager at (313)446-9817 and for our Ypsilanti and Jackson location, reach Erin Suprunuk at (734)572-9355.

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Quit Smoking Tip of The Week: Fight Post-Cessation Depression!

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Quitting smoking can momentarily bring on a more depressed mood as your body adjusts its hormone balance and the nicotine receptors slowly start to decrease back to a normal level. Think of it this way- when you smoke a cigarette, nicotine attaches to naturally occurring receptors in your brain. When this happens, you get a flood of dopamine (the feel good hormone). As time goes on and your smoking becomes a habit, your brain develops even more receptors allowing more nicotine to bind to receptors, resulting in a huge flood of dopamine. Well, your brain is not used to having this much dopamine readily available and down regulates this amount. Think of it as you listening to uncomfortably loud music and putting earplugs in to lessen what you can hear (Sleight, VJ. (2016, September 18) A craving is just your brain screaming, “WHERE’S MY NICOTINE?” Retrieved from https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/craving-just-your-brain-screaming-wheres-my-nicotine-vj/). This is what your brain does with dopamine.

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Once you stop smoking, your brain will take a while (a few weeks usually) to adjust to the lessened amount of dopamine that is being produced. Your brain is still down regulating the amount of dopamine being produced, leading to even less dopamine being processed in your brain than before you started smoking. So, you’ve turned the music down but you haven’t taken the earplugs out yet (Sleight, VJ.). The time it takes is different for everyone’s brain to adjust to the normal hormone levels now being produced (some only days, some up to a few weeks) and this could by why some people experience depressed symptoms after quitting tobacco use and some do not. It could also be the reason for increased agitation and feelings of anxiety as part of the withdrawals.

Also, as we dive into the winter season in Michigan we need to be aware that seasonal depression is among us. Up to 10% of adults will experience SAD, Seasonal Affective Disorder (Mental Health America, http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/conditions/sad).

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Here are a few things that you can do consistently throughout the week to help fight the onset of depression or to just increase your happiness in general: 

  • Keep a Gratitude Journal
  • Savor the moment. This could be any moment- having dinner with a friend, talking with a loved one, walking outside, etc. Savor it by being completely present in this moment- no thoughts of the past or future, electronics put away, thoughts on what you feel, see and hear in that moment.
  • Be kind to someone. This could be someone that you know, or a complete stranger. But the idea is to act with kindness without expecting anything in return. Open the door for someone, smile at a stranger, give someone a compliment.
  • Spend less money on things and more on experiences (but free experiences are an added bonus). We get used to and bored with things. Experiences are encoded as memories that we can cherish forever, and they foster personal growth.
  • Make a new social connection or strengthen a friendship that you currently have. Say hi to a stranger, call a friend that you haven’t spoken to in a while, check-in on your neighbor.

These are just a few! I encourage you to do some of your own research, try out new things and see what works for you to lessen the seasonal blues. I strongly believe in taking care of your mental health and reaching the highest potential as possible regarding your happiness– we all deserve it! If you would like to work on more specific coping mechanisms with a smoking cessation counselor one on one to develop an individualized approach with tangible resources to help you quit with less distress, reach out to Amber Jager at (313)446-9817 for persons living in the Detroit area, and Erin Suprunk at (734)961-1077 for persons living in the Ypsilanti and Jackson area to see if you qualify for FREE smoking cessation services!

Please take into consideration that the combination of these activities are meant to be a part of lifestyle changes in order to help increase general happiness and fight off mild feelings of depression, but are in no means meant to treat Major Depressive Disorder or other extreme conditions that need to be treated by a physician. If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or experiencing extreme or worsening depression, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, and prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones.

National Suicide Lifeline

What Does This Worse-Than-Normal Flu Season Mean for PLHIV?

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Sad woman with tissue and medicines lying on bedI found myself unable to sleep the other night because I was so worried about this year’s severe flu, and if I, a person living with HIV (PLHIV), am more susceptible to acquiring it. The stress of outbreaks is already heightened given the recently increased rates of Hep A. My paranoia isn’t unfounded; after all, HIV is a virus that weakens the immune system. And most of us Positive folks have received a stern warning from a doctor or nurse regarding the vulnerabilities of our weakened immune systems. In response to my concern, I looked into why this year’s flu is so bad and if PLHIV are more susceptible to flu in any given year.

Thankfully, the Washington Post read my mind and reported today on this flu season and why it is the most widespread (see map below) on record. The Post’s article explains that more than 8,900 people have been hospitalized since Oct. 1, the beginning of the flu season, and has lead to a higher than normal number of deaths of children.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) further explains that part of the problem this year is that this strain, H3N2, is one of the “nastiest” to confront our modern population. It is good at working around our immune systems’ defenses and current vaccinations are less effective at blocking it. They also state that the season was predicted to peak the first week of January, but rates have continued to rise. So we, as a general population, are up against a powerful influenza virus without knowing when it will end.

But what about us Positive folks? Are we even more at risk of catching this year’s scary flu? I read a December 2015 interview with Christina Schofield, M.D., from The Body Pro, a go-to site for many HIV health professionals. Dr. Schofield says, “There’s probably a little bit of physician bias, and a bit more cautious treatment toward patients that are HIV positive, despite the fact that our patient population is a very healthy HIV-positive population.” She continues, “I would say that, just because somebody’s got HIV doesn’t mean they’re going to have more severe disease.”

But us PLHIV know that not all of our HIV experiences are the same. If you are one who has an immune system already damaged by HIV, then your doctor may suggest flu-fighting medications sooner than they would to someone who was able to fight against their HIV earlier on.

Doctor giving patient a shot

With that said, it remains important to take steps to protect yourself against this year’s flu, just as your HIV-negative friends and family ought to do. The CDC continues to recommend a flu shot even though it has been less effective this year. They recommend it is because states where H3N2 has been prominent have also seen high rates of more common strains against which the current flu shot is more effective. They caution that there is still a long time to go in this flu season and, like stated above, it is very difficult to predict when it will end.

Beside the flu shot, there are many ways to protect yourself and we hear them every year: wash your hands with soap for at least 20 seconds; cover your mouth and nose when sneezing and dispose of tissues right away; avoid touching your nose, eyes, and mouth; and avoid contact with sick people. I’ve also seen it suggested that you keep your toothbrush away from others’, clean surfaces with anti-bacterial products, and frequently launder your bedding.

A note on adherence: It can be difficult to maintain your HIV-medication regimen when you are sick with the flu or otherwise. Heck, it can be hard to remain adherent even when you feel great. Remember: it’s just as important to take your antiretroviral therapy when you are sick as when you are not.