Rob Brown, MD

A Physician's Unique Perspective on Wellness

Free will versus spiritual guidance: How the universe sometimes calls the shots

Have you ever been frustrated by the experience of wanting something badly, but never truly being able to have it? No matter how hard you try, it seems as if the universe will provide you glimpses of your desire, but forbids you to have ownership. This has been my experience with the plant Wysteria.

Descending down the hillside on the Isle of Capri, we headed towards the grotto. I’m sure Capri’s tourist attraction was beautiful, but to be frank, I don’t remember it. I don’t even remember if we were heading to the Blue grotto or the Green grotto! What I do recall of that day was our walk down the hill and standing beneath an arbor covered with blooming Wysteria. It was the first time I had ever seen this flower and I was awestruck by its beauty and scent. The grape-like clusters of purple flowers hung underneath a wooden lattice and surrounded me and Kristin. I remember the fragrance was intoxicating. We sat there for a while before continuing our journey down to the water. I fell in love with Wysteria on that day and vowed that I would grow those blooms in my future backyard.

So, 5 years later after purchasing my first home in Shadyside, a section of Pittsburgh, the first thing I did was to plant Wysteria. The plant grew and grew, but didn’t bloom. I read about taking care of Wysteria and learned that it could take a few years for the plant to be mature enough to flower, so I waited. But, after 3 years, no success. I read that by cutting the branches and sometimes the roots, the plant could be stimulated to blossom. So, I did just that. But, pruning didn’t work either. After 7 years, I changed jobs and planned a move to New York City.

Before the internet, securing housing in New York City was difficult. It helped to know people. Rent controlled apartments and other desirable places to live were hard to find. People used to check the obituaries to find vacancies. There weren’t many, if any “For Rent” signs on the street. Using an agent made the process less onerous, especially if one was moving to the big apple from out of town. My two closest friends, both living in the East village, a neighborhood of Manhattan, didn’t know anyone influential. My hope was to live somewhere near them. My only real “want” for housing was to have outdoor space. That way my two cats, who had been used to roaming Shadyside, could get spend some time outside. I contacted an agency and planned a trip to the city.

The weekend I visited, the agency had nothing to show me. So my friend, David, and I criss crossed our way through lower Manhattan, starting at 22rd street. We walked across town from 1st Avenue to 9th avenue. Then, walked one block South to 21st street, and walked back down to 1st avenue. We made our way down through the East Village, Greenwich Village, the West Village, and Gramercy. During one of the two days, while walking down West 13th street, I admired a Wysteria vine growing up the facade of a brownstone. It was June and I knew that Wysteria back home had already leafed out. This plant though was oddly in full bloom. I walked up the stairs to the front door of the stone home where I was able to reach and smell the sweet aroma of the flowers. “Wow.”, I said, “This is amazing!” We continued our journey all the way down to Houston street, where the numbered streets began. In all, we must have walked well over 100 city blocks and passed thousands of apartment buildings, brownstones and businesses.

No place to live and a bit disappointed, I got back home to Pittsburgh when the rental agent called. There were now 3 units available with outdoor space. I made a few calls and arranged for the agent to take David to see the units. I couldn’t fly back to New York and I trusted his judgement. He knew my taste.

When he called me later the next day, I asked, “So how were they?”

He said, “Well, you know one place already.”

“I do?” I asked, a bit confused.

“Yes. It’s the place with the Wysteria. You’re gonna love that apartment. It’s a split level on both the first and second floors. And, it includes an outdoor patio.”

I was amazed. Out of over a thousand buildings I saw that weekend…

I took the unit “sight unseen” and chuckled as I mailed the first rent check to my new landlord who lived at 69 Fifth Avenue.

When I moved to West 13th street a month later, the first thing I noticed driving up to the Brownstone was that the Wysteria had been removed!

Since then, I have encountered Wysteria in bloom only a few times, each time during a crossroad in my life. I’ve also re-tried to grow the plant. This most recent time, I purchased two mature Wysteria plants, both of which were in full bloom in the greenhouse when I purchased them. But, once they were transplanted into the yard, the blooms quickly dropped off and neither plant ever bloomed again.

Now, 8 years later, I’ve come to accept that Wysteria is more than a plant for me. It is a spiritual beacon. A guide that I cannot have on my own terms. I must simply experience the beauty of the flower when it mysteriously manifests in my life, and take confidence in knowing that its presence is directing me to a new destiny.

The Art of Manifesting… Art!

The law of attraction, vision boards, and focussed meditation are all techniques credited for bringing about manifestation. Sometimes creation can happen in a moment. At other times, it can seemingly take years.

A skeptic may define this phenomenon as random, ‘luck of the draw.’ Sometimes though, coincidences leading up to a manifestation are so uncanny, it is hard not to question whether or not there are other forces at work, including divine intervention. At one time, I only attributed my synchronistic events with spiritual guidance and the number 69. But, over time, life experiences helped to broaden my understanding of manifestation, and I evolved.

A Manifestation of …Art?

“You’re not an art collector.” my uncle once blurted out during a phone call. He used his demeaning tone. It was true. At the time, I didn’t have any art that one would have considered collectible. I explained to him that it was how I found my first piece, or rather, how it came to find me, that inspired me to take the plunge and make the purchase.

It happened one weekend during my residency training when The Rolling Stones came to town. The Saturday night concert was phenomenal. On the following day, I unwound while strolling through the Andy Warhol museum in downtown Pittsburgh.

On one of the middle floors of the 7 story building, there was a room hosting a collection of oversized, floating silver clouds. The effect was awesome. But, what really struck me in that room was on the wall, behind the pillows.  There, hung in succession, was a series of Mick Jagger serigraphs. I stared at the collection, absorbed by the combined talent of the singer/songwriter’s expressiveness and style created by the master graphic artist. One piece was better than the next. “Aren’t these amazing?” I said to my friend, Ann.

“Wouldn’t it be amazing to own one of these?”

I muttered, mostly to myself, but Anne heard me and replied, “I could see you owning one of these, Rob!”

We both smiled and continued our journey through the museum.

The next morning, I arrived at the 7 am conference, and I sat in my chair exhausted from the long weekend of partying. One of the other residents, Barb, struck up a conversation with me.

“Rob, you’re never going to guess what my husband saw in a pawn shop in Missoula, Montana this past weekend!”

“What?” I asked, half interested and half asleep.

“An Andy Warhol painting!”

“Really?” I said, confused and not quite sure I heard her correctly.

Why would she think I would be interested to hear about an Andy Warhol painting? Then, I remembered that she was a collector.

“Yes. He was walking through this pawn shop in Missoula and came across an original Andy Warhol serigraph. It’s of Mick Jagger!”

My mouth must have dropped open.

After a brief pause, I think I blurted out “It’s mine!” But, I tried to tether myself from the elation, because I realized that maybe the next thing she would tell me was that her husband bought it for their house.

She continued, “Yes, it’s apparently in perfect condition! I’d love to have it, but we just purchased an Andy Warhol truck, so I told my husband,  No way!”

Feeling intense joy, I beamed and exclaimed more assertively, “It’s mine!”

I told her of the amazing coincidence. What are the odds of something like that happening, I thought?? Then I wondered if it was a gift from spirit? At the time, I didn’t know about manifestation.

Something new

A few years later, having always loved the Beatles, and John Lennon’s music, in particular, I thought I wanted to buy a John Lennon’s doodle. I had seen Lennon’s artwork displayed in many galleries, but nothing ever seemed to grab me and hold my interest.

After many disappointments, I lost the interest and gave up the search. It was about that time when Yoko Ono brought a collection of John Lennon’s artwork on a national tour. The Pittsburgh show began on a Friday evening. I felt the need to be there as close to the opening as possible, for I suspected there might be a piece there that I would feel passionate about. My sister, Jackie, and I drove to the exhibition after work  and upon entering the showcase room, were surrounded by walls filled with artwork and hundreds of people. Beatles songs played in the background, helping to create n awesome atmosphere! I quickly moved around the room scanning all of the doodles until I came to one that stopped me in my tracks.  It was the exhibit’s signature piece, a simple unique line drawing called “John and Yoko.”

“Oh my god”, I said, “This is the one!”

I found the curator for the show and as we started talking about the piece, the song “Doctor Robert” came on over the speakers. I chuckled. “Why do you laugh?” He asked.

I explained to him that my name was Robert and that when I was a kid, I wanted to be a doctor. So, I always considered this to be my song.

We talked a bit more, but I swiftly decided to buy the piece. The curator had requested that I leave the artwork at the show and return late Sunday afternoon to pick it up.

That Sunday, Jackie and I went back to the gallery. As we walked into the exhibit, a song ended and the song “Doctor Robert” came on the overhead speakers. “That’s odd”, I thought to myself.

We received the wrapped up picture and carefully placed it in the car trunk. Afterwards, while drinking sangria at a nearby Spanish restaurant, we reminisced with tears streaming down our faces. Neither of us could believe that something John Lennon actually drew was sitting in the trunk of the car.

We said our goodnight early for the next morning I had to work. The clock radio sounded off at 6:00 am. I heard a click and then John Lennon singing the words

“From me to you. To you. Na na naaa na na naa naa naaah”

I sat up in bed feeling intense love and joy. What an incredible coincidence! Or, was it?

I’m still not sure whether these two pieces of art came into my home by way of my manifestation or if they represented spiritual gifts. But, one thing that I am certain of, is that these were not random events. Does it matter? I think so. Yes.

Numeric Symbols as Spiritual Guidance

For years, friends commented that I was blessed to live under a lucky star. Things often worked out according to plan, but I didn’t subscribe to the religious belief that someone could be blessed or in the childhood fantasy of lucky stars. I rode the streak of good fortune for many years until my luck faded and I became submerged in misfortune. As crazy as it may sound, doing so was a conscious choice.

This sequence of events began after returning home from my semester abroad in Rome. My life became filled with extraordinary coincidences. With frequent moments of serendipity and good fortune, I began to notice the number 69. It was on license plates driving by, price tags, addresses, jerseys, everywhere! At the time I thought it was a funny coincidence.

After graduation though, I moved to Miami, Florida and the phenomenon seemed to follow me. I got used to seeing the number 69 and even began to look for it as a symbol to let me know that I was in the right place at the right time. Sometimes, I would see the number 96 with frequency, as if to tell me that I was “ass backwards!” Over time, I began to notice the number 73, too. The two numbers 69 and 73 seemed to be related to each other as I would often encounter them together.

On one such occasion, my housemate, Paul, and I had gone exploring South Beach to look for a place to rent the following year. Most of the small homes we saw were run down as it was 1988, just before gentrification took place. While meandering the streets, we came across the 100 building, a high rise on Lincoln Road. Neither of us had considered living in an apartment building, but as we drove up to the entrance, a car pulled out of a parking place right in front. Perfect timing. I noticed that the car to the left of the empty space had a license plate with the number “6969” on it. The license plate on the car to the right had the number 73 on it. I thought to myself, “This is meant to be!” My buddy and I walked into the lobby and asked for the rental agent. We were quite sure that rates in this building were way out of our price range, but we had time explore. The agent was out on break. So, we casually asked the doorman if there were any units available.

“I think there’s one in the penthouse,” he said.

Stepping away from the desk, I looked at Paul and said, “I’ve never seen a penthouse, have you?”

He smiled and with that, we walked quickly across the marble flooring to the elevators. We pressed PH for the first time. When the doors opened, we stepped out into a long hallway. I’m not quite sure what we thought we would find up there, maybe an open door? Then, we heard a creek at the end of the hall. A big man, wearing a bathrobe and large gold medallions around his neck stepped into the hallway and faced us. Paul and I, looking suspicious, turned around quickly and headed back towards the elevator.

“Hey, what are you boys doing up here?” He barked.

We turned around nervously and told him that we were looking for an apartment to rent.

“There’s one available across the hallway here. Do you want to see it?”

I grinned from ear to ear as the man pulled out a huge ring of keys and opened up the door. We walked into the living room of a huge 3 bedroom apartment with balconies, roof access and spectacular views of Miami beach and the ocean. He stood in the doorway as we checked out the apartment.

“This is my room!” I called out excitedly.

My future bedroom for the next 3 years had 3 walk in closets, a balcony and its own bathroom!

Initially, the cost of the rent was more than twice what we were able to afford. But, the manager, apparently wanting to attract younger people to Miami beach, lowered the rent until we could make it work. My rent, $490 a month! What at an amazing experience! The sequence of events that lead to us to finding and securing the apartment was unbelievable.

During a conversation with my father afterwards, I mentioned to him about my fascination with the magical numbers 69 and 73. His response shook me.

“That’s interesting. My father died when he was 69 and my mother died when she was 73.”

Upon hearing this, the hairs on the back of my neck stiffened.

My grandfather had died early during my childhood and I didn’t know him well. But, I knew I loved both Nanna and Grandpa. He had been a controlling person, making his fortune in an international art supply business.

It was strange, but somehow, attaching these two numeric symbols to my grandparent’s spirits made sense. I was grateful. But then, the feeling of gratitude dissipated and I felt I had been manipulated. Having this extraordinary gift left me feeling privileged, but also isolated from my friends and family who didn’t seem to be living under the same guidance. It may sound silly, but I wanted to have the same struggles as everyone else. I wanted my success to be from my inspiration and my failure to be from my own lack of performance. I wanted to control my own destiny.

One evening, I went out on to the roof and yelled up to the sky, “Thank you for your help, but please leave me alone and let me be!“

And then, the free-fall began.

At first, I noticed a small discoloration on my earlobe, but it quickly turned into a rapidly enlarging bump, maybe a wart? Melanoma had been an unsuspected diagnosis, even by the dermatologist, and so the the initial attempt at removal was performed incorrectly. This error led to further problems in assessing the severity of the disease. After extensive surgery on my face and neck, I experienced another problem. Because of uncontrollable bleeding in the recovery room, I was rushed back to the operating room to find the “bleeder.” I think I spent over 11 hours in surgery that day.

My classmates were wonderfully supportive. The love I felt from them all made the whole situation during and afterwards manageable. Yet,  I experienced frequent mishaps and I felt vulnerable. One night while looking out over the beach, I quietly sang the lyrics to the Carole King song “Up on the Roof”. Tears welled up in my eyes, and I prayed to my grandparents for help. Afterwards, I felt better for I sensed I had not been abandoned. But, the guidance I received from that point forward was subtle. I observed the number 69 at important junctures, but much less frequently. The sporadic guidance left room for me to make mistakes. Life was less easy than it had been before, but the new paradigm allowed maturation.

The number 73 never resurfaced.

Why have I shared this incredibly personal story? Because I know that this phenomenon occurs to many if not all of us, regardless of whether or not we recognize it. I have heard similar stories from others and now accept that the frequent reoccurrence of numbers in our lives can most definitely be an indication of spiritual guidance. The number usually has a significance to the person who has passed and may indicate the prior relationship. Recently, a friend shared with me an experienced of a reoccurring 4 digit number that he realized had been the numerical birthdate of his sister who had passed on many years prior.

If you too have noticed a recurring number in your daily life, I suggest you try to figure out who you might be receiving communication or guidance from. Be grateful when you do and your life will become that much more meaningful.

I now think we are all blessed.

A Reincarnation “Bleed Through” in Rome?

At a recent panel discussion, I was asked a question to the effect of, “How is it that you, as a classically trained physician, have gotten interested in the spiritual?” This inquiry got me to revisit my long and multifaceted journey. After much contemplation, I feel compelled to publicly share some of my most memorable experiences. Until now, I’ve saved these stories for close friends and family members. But, I suspect this series of blogs may help others see patterns in their own lives and help bring to conscious awareness their own spiritual existence.

My journey into the metaphysical began 30 years ago during my junior year semester abroad at Brown University. My closest college friend, Ken, an East Asian studies major, planned to spend the year in China to further his exposure to Chinese culture and increase his fluency. As a premed student, I would receive no academic benefit towards my biology major from study abroad. Regardless, I decided to go to Rome, Italy, for no other reason than because I had always loved Italian food.

In preparation, the program, sponsored by Temple University, mailed me a packet which included an introduction to Rome, a basic vocabulary list, and instructions on how to get to the pensione, our lodging for the upcoming semester. As the time to leave approached, I became increasingly excited for the opportunity to see famous collections of art, and the colosseum.

Upon arrival into the pensione, my two roommates and I unpacked our luggage in the tiny room. We walked to the school and around the neighborhood to become familiar with the surrounding streets. Later that day, our group met at a nearby restaurant for dinner. The 14 of us sat at a long banquet table. After handing out menus, the waiter unexpectedly addressed me, in Italian, for the entire table’s order. This would become commonplace at almost every restaurant we dined in. I tried to explain to the waiter, in English, that I didn’t speak Italian. He didn’t seem to understand me, or maybe he just didn’t care. I placed the order with finger pointing and hand gestures.  All seemed successful until my plate arrived hosting a few slices of tomato and a few slices of cheese. I realized that I had better learn Italian quickly! After the meal, the waiter handed me il conto, the bill. Why to me? I had no idea.

The next few days were spent in class and eating in local bars and restaurants. We were living in an area of Rome that was anything but touristy. At what quickly became our neighborhood bar, the bartender served me a cappuccino and said “You are Roman!” I laughed and said, “No.’ I’m Jewish.” He insisted, “Ah… No, You are Roman.” I smiled awkwardly, not sure what to say next. He followed up with, “You look like Chessaray!” I enjoyed his friendliness and my new nickname. It wasn’t until much later that I realized Chessaray is the Italian pronunciation for Caesar.

After a few days, during our first afternoon off, we decided to venture into the old city. I remember it was a beautiful day and I was excited to see the Colosseum. We walked down the streets en masse, while one of the group held a map directing us towards the old city. Although I typically had an excellent sense of direction, I was very confused about our location and could not get oriented looking at the map. So, I left the navigation to others.

We approached a great stone wall and walked through the gate to Piazza del Popolo, Awe came over me. The piazza was beautiful with a central stone obelisk and 3 roads that splayed out in front of us, one in the middle, and the other two going off at 30 degree angles.

The group stopped in the center of the piazza so our leader, Christine, could study the map. My eyes were fixated on the buildings and grand architecture. Christine wanted to head to the Pantheon first. The map of Rome was in Italian and not a tourist map, per se. Finding the landmarks was a bit challenging, especially while on foot with cars zipping by. I became increasingly impatient. Then, as if a light had been turned on in a dark corner of my mind, my confusion cleared and I suddenly knew exactly where I was.

“Follow me! I know where it is!”, I said.  I started down the main road in front of us, which I later learned was Via del Corso. I stared ahead and walked quickly down the road in front of me. My speed picked up as my excitement built. One of my companions call out with irritation, “Where are you going?”

I darted into an alley on the right and kept walking, taking unknown, but purposeful right and left turns down the narrow stone streets. When I finally stopped, I found myself in a square hosting an imposing ancient building. The group quickly gathered around me.

“Is this is the Pantheon?” someone questioned. “How did you know where it was?”

I became choked up, almost in tears. My head was swirling and I felt dizzy. I looked at them and cried slowly, “This is My City. This is My City.” That was all I could say.

After this experience, I wasn’t quite sure what to think. How could I have possibly known where the Pantheon was without a map? Why did I get so emotional? Nowadays in the eurozone, street signs containing symbols and English translation point out tourist attractions, but in the 1980s, this was not the case. In fact, I don’t think there was any signage that said “The Pantheon”.

Many unanswered questions

Upon returning home from my favorite city, I was left with uncertainty. How did I  know the location of the Pantheon? Why did waiters consistently address me as if I were hosting a private party at each group meal? Why did people throughout Italy assume I was Roman? And, why did the bartender insist on calling me Caesar?

After some time, I dismissed the experience as weird things that happened to me in Rome. There wasn’t much written about reincarnation at that time and the term spirituality wasn’t common. Either one subscribed to a religious doctrine or was agnostic or atheist. A clear memory of this day stuck with me though and I occasionally shared my story with others. Years later, while reading a book by Brian Weiss entitled “Many Lives, Many Masters”, I curiously came across a short blurb about an American doctor who had a reincarnation experience in Rome. It wasn’t until speaking with Dr. Weiss at a meeting that I  learned this paragraph referred to my trip. Dr. Weiss had been one of my psychiatry professors at the University of Miami a decade earlier, at which time he was writing his pivotal book.

Looking back, I do consider this to have been a reincarnation “bleed through” phenomenon. Despite proof, my mind opened to the possibility that there are forces at work in our lives that cannot be explained by the physical here and now. And, by doing so,  allowed for additional future metaphysical experiences.

Balance and Learn to Trust the Rocks

“Trust the Rocks.” That was Sonam’s advice as I cautiously surveyed each stone in the stream prior to stepping. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was sage advice. By day three of the trek through the Mustang region of Nepal, many in the group were already exhausted. Sonam, however, moved quickly over the terrain wearing a pair of open toed sandals. We trekkers were, of course, wearing the latest hiking boots designed to maintain a proper arch and provide ankle support, seemingly helpful while traversing narrow ledges carved out in the shale, glacial moraines, and other equally treacherous terrain. My sense was that to keep my balance and prevent injury, every step required focused attention. As a result, I moved slowly.

As the days progressed, I realized Sonum was right. If I relaxed and trusted the rocks, I could walk over them quickly without falling or twisting an ankle. But, I also learned that trusting and being unconscious are two different states of mind.

At just over 18,000 feet, while descending from a pass, I found myself alone with Karmu, a Nepali Nurse who had joined our team. The wind howled and blew the clouds in. Then, the rain began. My body went from hot and sweaty to freezing in a matter of minutes. Although Karmu didn’t speak much English, her presence was comforting. While moving quickly down the narrow traverse, Karmu communicated that she loved American movies.

“No kidding,” I replied. “What’s your favorite movie?”

She said, “Fever.”

“Saturday Night Fever?”, I asked.

I thought she said “Yes”.

After this basic exchange, my mind wandered and I showed off a brief 70s dance move while navigating down the trail of rocks, singing “Staying Alive”.  It was then that I fell on my face. Luckily, I wasn’t too badly hurt, except for a few strains, a bloodied finger, and a bruised ego.

Now that I am back relaxing at home in the US,  I have become aware of how easy we have made our lives by creating floors, paved roads and other level surfaces to walk on, everywhere. It occurred to me that these conveniences might be one of the reasons why so many older people now suffer from “vertebrobasilar insufficiency”, a condition where the balance center on the brain, the cerebellum, loses its blood supply. People with this condition become more apt to fall.

Balance is a primitive brain function achieved by a coordination of different parts of the brain, including the cerebellum, the brain structure that sits in the back of the head. This part of the brain usually gets its sole blood supply from the posterior circulation, a different source than the carotid arteries which supply the majority of the brain.

Although the number one cause of vertebral-basilar syndrome has been ascribed to atherosclerosis, in many cases, the posterior circulation becomes small in caliber without obvious areas of narrowing caused by atherosclerosis on medical imaging studies. Could this be another case of “Use it or lose it?” Are creature comforts such as finished floors, walkways, chairs, etc., causing the posterior circulation to wither and leading to a loss of balance, coordination and other cerebellar functions?

What Can You Do?

Spend time each day practicing balance. Whether through indoor exercises or while outdoors, walking on uneven surfaces such as at the beach in the sand or hiking on an unpaved, non-groomed path. Using your sense of balance will increase blood flow to the back of your brain. With continued practice, over time, your ability to balance will increase. If this regimen is incorporated into daily life, it will help you maintain your ability to walk and balance into older age.

Does Cellphone Distraction Cause Food to Stick in your Throat?

Mealtime is often teeming with device distraction and I suspect digestion can be affected.

Personal devices have completely consumed the attention of many during mealtime. While dining at a restaurant in the historic district of Rome, I recently witnessed a couple sit across from each other, both firmly grasping their personal devices. They couldn’t have spoken 10 words to each other during the entire meal. Each blindly reached for the table, grabbed a forkful of food, and mechanically fed themselves, while their vision remained focused on their respective screens.

At first, I felt badly for this couple. They were oblivious to the ambiance. Their was no apparent personal connection with each other. I can’t imagine they were able to enjoy the taste and aroma of the delicious food they ordered. While focused on the little screens, their conscious awareness was brought into a reality apart from that which their physical bodies were experiencing.

Our bodies need attention.

Much of what occurs in the human body is run on automatic pilot, through the autonomic nervous system. But, there are some bodily processes that require some degree of conscious thought. Eating is one of them.

Daily, people show up in my radiology department for a swallowing evaluation. Often, these patients are much younger than they should be. Their common complaint is that food gets “stuck” while they are eating. Then, while motioning to their neck,  they say, “around here.” A common fear, is a blockage, a hidden cancer, which is almost never the case.

During my examination, I am able to see that food isn’t sticking, but rather “mishandled” by the esophagus, the muscular tube which delivers food from the mouth to the stomach. The technical term for this is called dysmotility. This tube relies on the coordinated effort between different groups of muscles and nerves in the upper chest, to propel the food properly. If this coordination is awry, some food gets left behind, typically in the upper esophagus. Eventually, gravity will allow the food to fall to the stomach. Drinking liquids can help bring it down a little faster.

As we age, this discoordination becomes common. But, could it be that by not paying attention to our meal while eating, that muscles are losing their coordination in younger people? I think this is quite possible. If you suffer from this type of condition, turn off the TV and put away your devices while you. Relax and pay attention to what you are eating. Visualize the food being pushed to your stomach with ease. Master it, like any other activity at which you excel. It may take a few weeks to normalize, but I suspect your swallowing problems will turn around.

If the sensation of food sticking doesn’t resolve after becoming conscious while you eat, take a trip to to your doctor to investigate this problem further. Particularly, if you currently or have previously experienced reflux symptoms, such as heartburn, in the past. Although less common, there are other causes for food sticking which can be caused by obstruction, which may need to be diagnosed and treated.

How to Avoid Catching Cold During Climate Change

Phil saw his shadow this year, so the word in Punxsutawney is that we have 6 more weeks of winter. Weather in Western Pennsylvania, however, has been erratic and anything but usual this year. Today there were snow flurries, but a few weeks ago, we had a long stretch of temperatures reaching into the upper 60s. It was so warm, many deciduous trees looked as if they were going to start budding.

Why do we value a 6 year old groundhog’s observation when we have 50+ year old trees to learn from? With an understanding that the global climate is changing, most of us have information that Phil and most trees don’t know. Trees might think that these blocks of abnormally warm winter days indicate that spring is around the bend. Some are waking up too early.

Trees prepare for wintertime slumber by taking steps to protect them from harsh freezing temperatures, particularly in northern latitudes. Most are familiar with the visual display of impending dormancy by the majestic tree losing its leaves in the fall. Trees, particularly older trees, have been around in a single, uninterrupted lifespan for much longer than many of us people. I take pride in following their lead. Mature trees have lived through many long, dark winters and have usually been able to sense when it’s safe to awaken and sprout their leaves. My understanding is that this process is guided by both a circadian rhythm of light and dark as well as warmer temperatures of springtime.

Why Does it Matter When Spring Starts?

One of the tricks for staying healthy in the wintertime is to not “catch a cold”. I used to think that a cold was some type of bug and that catching a cold meant catching the cold virus. But there are hundreds of different viruses that can cause the “common cold” and they are pretty much everywhere.

A more helpful expression is to not “catch cold”.

It has been shown that if you catch cold and let your immune system off guard, you can inadvertently find that you have been hosting a virus which has suddently found it easier to replicate in your cold nose, throat or lungs. Viruses aren’t really alive and they aren’t really dead. But, they can be considered to have a sort of consciousness in that they can mutate and occasionally wreak havoc if a host immune system is off guard. The aim is not to let a virus take hold of your body and “make you sick”.

One of the ways to keep the body warm in the wintertime is to wear an undershirt each and every day. Even though there are increasingly common warm days in the midst of winter, I keep an undershirt on for I know my body is still used to having an extra layer of insulation.

Yes, I let the trees guide me as to when I should change my wardrobe from winter to spring, and back again. Animals slowly build up their winter coats, a gradual transition which is hard to emulate. Trees however, lose their leaves quickly, providing a clear signal for me to start wearing an undershirt. Spring leaf sprout is my indication that it’s safe to put away my undershirts for the season. I try to make sure my kids wear their undershirts on warmer winter days too for I know from experience that if they don’t, I’ll probably be nursing them back to health the following day.

Given a day of warmth in the midst of winter though, kids think it’s “cool” to wear as little as possible. This past January, I drove by students waiting for the early morning school bus wearing light jackets. I did a double take as I passed one child wearing shorts. It was relatively warm out that day, but chilly enough to “catch cold”.

Groundhog day left us with the proclamation that spring is 6 weeks ahead, but I’d suggest looking at the trees to determine whether Spring has arrived and to determine when it is time to take off your undershirt. Until then, stay warm and, as your mother might have suggested, stay out of drafts. Finally, if you want to do your body’s immune system a real favor this winter, drink plenty of water, and supplement your diet with Vitamin C, Vitamin D and Zinc, daily.

Take care of yourself physically the remainder of this year’s wintertime by staying warm, hydrated and well nourished.

Grace and the Himalayan Salt Lamp

Grace and her husband, JB, are both wonderful friends and accomplished physicians. Their home is reminiscent of a rejuvenation spa with a relaxing, health conscious atmosphere. Attention is paid to every detail. From organic food and air purifiers on each floor to house plants, essential oil bathroom sprays, and organic soaps, I always leave their home with new ideas for my own. During my most recent stay with them, I gained a new appreciation for the Himalayan salt lamp.

My first morning, I awoke before the sunrise. I navigated the dark bedroom carefully and as I opened the door, I became subtly bathed in a warm, inviting reddish glow. On a hall tabletop sat a Himalayan salt lamp. I hadn’t noticed the crystal the day before. At 5 am, though, this lamp created a memorable and favorable impression. It created a tranquil light especially appreciated at this early hour. Bleary eyed, the light filled me with joy.

I purchased a salt lamp many years ago and placed it in my office. During stressful days, I plug in the lamp to help me stay calm amidst the chaos at work. When the lamp is turned on, coworkers will occasionally enter my office and comment on how calm and welcoming the room feels. Whether the effect be a real physical reaction to negative ions or a placebo effect doesn’t concern me. The lamp helps me relax.

Salt lamps are typically carved from a solid block of salt and hollowed out to make room for a light source. Some manufacturers create lamps with a scalloped recess suitable for a tea light while others contain a small bulb and attached electrical cord. The lamps are attractive in their own right, creating an earthy table top sculpture. When illuminated, they emanate a reddish glow. The reddish glow is a perfect color of light for a hallway or bathroom night light because it has much less of an inhibitory effect on melatonin production than would bluish colored light.

Salt lamps have also been attributed to be a source of negative ion production. Although this claim has not yet been verified in scientific literature, the relaxation effect created by the lamp is similar to that serenity experienced with other locales known to be associated with a greater concentration of negative ions.

What are Negative Ions?

Atoms, the building blocks of our world, commonly become charged. The acquisition of a charge turns the atom into an ion. A charge allows ions to form bonds with each other. Negative ions, referred to as anions, are attracted to and form chemical bonds with positively charged ions, also known as cations, forming molecules.

Ions are a ubiquitous component of the natural world. Moving water is a known source of negative ions. Plants undergoing photosynthesis are another common source of negative ions. Most people are familiar with the sense of relaxation associated with a walk through the forest, a trip to the beach, or by sitting next to a running stream or waterfall. In a typical home, the only sources of negative ions are houseplants and running water filling a sink, bath or shower.

Research has shown that negative ions promote relaxation and improve moodIn the 1980s, several papers were generated discussing a reversible phenomenon known as “serotonin irritation syndrome” in which anxiety worsened when people were exposed to positively charge ions. This effect however was reduced with exposure to an increased concentration of negative ions. Serotonin, a neurotransmitter within both the brain and body, is associated with many functions, including mood regulation and is thought to be affected from exposure to charged ions.

Some who suffer with asthma have reported a sense of improved breathing and a decrease in asthmatic exacerbations when exposed to negative ions, perhaps by a possible cleansing effect on the air. This effect, however, has not been proven.

I’ve been a fan of Himalayan salt lamps for years. Regardless of scientific validation, I have found these light sources to induce a sense of calm and relaxation. Although I have been using a salt lamp at stressful times during the work day for years, I have gained a new appreciation for them, now as a hallway night light!

Western Medicine is OK, but I Love my Magnets

The instant I stepped down awkwardly on to the rock and felt my knee “squish”, I knew there was trouble.
Quickly, the knee swelled and stiffened. Thankfully, it was the last day of vacation.
After a week of self medication with Advil, I gave up and went to an orthopedic surgeon. He expressed concern about the meniscus and prescribed me a 6 week course of a potent anti-inflammatory. The pain improved and the swelling subsided. But, an unnerving twinge continued to plague me with certain movements. Stepping on the clutch in my standard transmission car continued to be particularly bothersome. A few days after finishing the treatment, the pain returned and then worsened.
At my follow up appointment, the surgeon offered me a choice of physical therapy, another round of anti-inflammatory medication, or arthroscopic surgery.
Back at my work desk, I hopelessly weighed my options. That’s when my colleague, a physician in the next work station, cautiously asked if I was “open minded” and if I would consider an “alternative treatment?”
Intriguing… I thought. “Tell me more.”
This rebel of the medical establishment handed me two metallic discs and explained that his wife was a distributor for a Japanese company called Nikken that manufactures magnets. It sounded like a “woowoo” treatment, along the same line as snake oil. But, I had nothing to lose, so I let him tape the two discs onto my hurt knee.
I kept those magnets on for the rest of the day. It wasn’t until I was halfway home that I realized I hadn’t felt any twinges of pain while shifting gears.
“Hmm,” I thought. “That’s interesting?!”
I continued to wear those magnets for two months.
No weakness. No pain. No medication. No surgery.
And, today, 25 years later, no arthritis.
A True Believer
Since that fateful day, I have used magnetic products over and over again on myself, family, and friends. In fact, a whole shelf in my medicine cabinet is dedicated to this technology. I have accumulated an assortment of sizes and strengths of round magnetic discs, wraps, insoles, jewelry, and even spinning varieties that penetrate deeper into the body. My first mode of first aid is usually to tape a magnet onto an injury. From experience, I have learned that this will almost always speed up the recovery time and often without the need for other medication.
The trick is to know when to use a magnet and when to go to the doctor for a more formal evaluation. That, unfortunately, cannot be taught on a blog post. If one hears a noise during an injury, the suspicion should be raised for the need of a professional medical assessment. Tendons snap, ligaments pop, bones crack.
Visible deformity, numbness, and severe weakness should also direct one to seek a medical professional at an emergency room or urgent care center. An inability to fully move a joint due to a sense of “locking” or a feeling of “instability”, will also more than likely require a doctor’s evaluation, but not typically as an emergency.
Most strains, sprains, bruises, and other localized injury, even lower back pain, can often benefit from the application of magnets. I have even observed fractures heal much more quickly than expected following the application of magnets to a cast.
How Do they Work?
Nikken’s magnetic products penetrate and infuse the body with a magnetic grid. Blood flow improves and… the rest is seemingly magic. I imagine that the magnetic framework helps the body to heal itself, similar to scaffolding workmen use to repair a damaged edifice. I have no experience with other brands of magnetic technology and therefore cannot comment on their effectiveness. It is important to understand though that magnets aren’t “medication”. In fact, the FDA forbids magnet manufacturers from claiming that these products heal or cure.
Despite not clearly understanding how they work I can tell you unequivocally, as an orthopedic radiologist, that these strange discs from Nikken help the body heal, and often without any additional medication or treatment.
Sustainable
An anti-inflammatory with no side effects. No needed prescription and no concern for refills. In fact, unless you lose them, they seem to last forever.
Do you have an open mind?

The 5 Second Rule and Fallen Food

“Oops!”

The woman knelt down to pick up the chocolate covered strawberry from the floor and called out gleefully, “Three second rule!”

Then, she ate it.

I watched the scene from across the room and chuckled, remembering the rule from childhood. The candy covered fruit was delicious. I understood why she didn’t want to waste even one piece.

On one other recent occasion, I witnessed someone claim a “two second rule” before ceremoniously brushing off and eating a fallen morsel. I imagine that this person thought two seconds was a safer window than three for retrieval.

The rule, more commonly called the “Five second rule”, is based on the notion that bugs on the floor, seen and unseen, will not have enough time to crawl onto a piece of dropped food if the edible is picked up within 5 seconds.

I suppose this rule would be somewhat true for tiny insects like ants. But, bacteria don’t scurry, bacteria stick like grains of sand adherent to food dropped at the beach.

Researchers at Rutgers University recently proved that bacteria can stick to food the instant it hits a floor or dirty counter top. Furthermore, they clarified that the wetter the food and the longer the surface contact, the larger the number of bacteria that will become attached to the food’s surface.

Whereas I agree that eating food off the floor in a public place is risky, bacteria living in one’s home could be considered an extension of one’s microbiome and should usually not cause disease. All bets are off though if family members and guests wear outdoor footwear into the kitchen. Consider that unknown bacteria and viruses can be transported to the kitchen floor along with outdoor chemicals including pesticides, petroleum residues etc. by footwear.

In addition, be on alert if cooking with ingredients such as poultry possibly tainted with disease causing bacteria such as salmonella or E. coli. If contaminated chicken, for example, is placed on a countertop before it is cooked, bacteria on the chicken can contaminate the countertop. If bread is then placed on the countertop where the raw chicken had been, the bread can pick up the bacteria left by the chicken. This is called cross contamination. Unlike the chicken, the bread will not be cooked to a proper temperature to kill off the bacteria and may cause disease if eaten. Similarly, one sneeze can deposit a film of bacteria or virus onto a countertop surface and cause food contamination if someone in the home is ill.

If you consider your floors and countertops to be sanitary and clean enough to eat from, evaluate the ingredients within your cleaning agents. Many floor cleansers and countertop sprays not only remove dirt and accumulated grime, but contain harsh chemicals that will kill off nearly all types of bacteria, mold and viruses, creating a nearly sterile surface. Toxic residues from these products may stick to a dropped piece of food and be could damaging to one’s health.

In our home, we do eat an occasional piece of food from the floor. We frequently clean the kitchen floor and counters with edible household ingredients such as vinegar, water, salt, lemon juice and baking soda. In addition, we take our shoes and sneakers off at the front door and ask guests to do the same.

Finally, if you are seated at a festive dining table covered by a freshly dry-cleaned table linen this holiday season, it is best if you don’t eat food that has been placed or dropped onto the cloth. Dry cleaning chemicals are known to be very toxic and can also quickly leach into a piece of food.

A bit of friendly advice to help you stay healthy and enjoy the season that much more.

Happy holidays to all!

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