Monday, June 16, 2014

Eating to Combat Insomnia

As a person who struggles with insomnia, I generally avoid articles about insomnia. The main reason is that they all typically start with several brutal paragraphs detailing the importance of sleep and all the terrible things that will happen to you if you don't get enough sleep.

Every insomniac knows (better than anyone) how important sleep is, and all those terrible things? We live with them everyday. So yes, sleep is very important, and yes, the lack of it will wreck havoc on your life and cause you to sprout horns and a tail. We know this (and dress to conceal horns and tails.) Reading about it only compounds the anxiety we have about sleep. And usually the recommendations fall into the 'don't drink caffeine after 2pm' category. Duh.

Still, I struggle, and so I periodically brave the insomnia articles in the spirit of surely-there-must-be-something-that-can-help-me?? Hope springs eternal.

My recent focus has been diet. As I mentioned a couple of months ago, I gave up sugar hoping that it might help my sleep. I figured sugar is a stimulant, and less stimulant might translate into more sleep? Initially, my findings were very encouraging. For about two or three weeks after I gave up sugar, I was sleeping quite remarkably well. I tend to fall asleep fine, then wake up 4-5 hours later and am unable to fall back to sleep, but during those few weeks, I was falling right back to sleep! Wow!

Then the other shoe dropped--for some reason, my sleep got worse--way worse. In fact, the past month has been pretty abysmal. So I've been doing some exhaustive internet research. Here are a few things I found:

Eat more protein in the morning, and healthy carbs at night. This runs pretty contrary to what many people do--a bagel, cereal or oatmeal for breakfast and a big piece of meat for dinner. But digesting protein takes a lot of energy and can act as a stimulant, so it makes sense to have a protein-rich meal earlier in the day. There is evidence to suggest that carbohydrate intake can actually reduce the stress hormone cortisol, which is helpful for sleeping. Certainly you want to eat a healthy carb like a sweet (or even a white) potato vs. spongy white bread or sugar. But don't be afraid of high GI foods. Actually, carbs high on the glycemic index were found to shorten the length of time it took people to fall asleep.

I could see how not enough carbohydrate could have contributed to my recent sleep woes. Since I've reduced sugar, I've inadvertently reduced my carb intake, simply because a lot of carbs also contain sugar. In fact, if you're on a very low-carb diet and sleep is a struggle, it might be a good idea to increase carb intake throughout the day, not just at dinner. Yes, you can technically survive without carbohydrates, but if you're not sleeping, why would you want to?

Don't eat right before bedtime. I read that several studies have shown eating in general suppresses the production of melatonin, which is the body's primary sleep hormone. So avoid eating anything for at least two hours before bedtime.

If you're taking vitamin D supplements, do so in the morning rather than evening. In the past I've been vitamin D deficient, so particularly in the winter months, I take vitamin D. I didn't find any hard evidence suggesting that taking it in the evening is problematic, but it makes sense that it might be. Since vitamin D production is stimulated by sun exposure, it doesn't seem far-fetched that it could be sleep-disruptive, right? I'll talk more about vitamin D another time, but for now I'm switching my D to the morning.

Consume bone broth or gelatin powder in the evening to increase glycine, an amino acid found in animal skins or meat from the bone.
I wonder how Fred and Wilma slept??
This is new one for me, but apparently many people are glycine deficient... I'm not sure what I think of this because from what I read elsewhere, glycine is considered a 'non-essential amino acid,' so why is it problematic to be glycine-deficient if it's 'non-essential'? I need to do some more research on this. Am I just not getting it because I'm sleep deprived??

Anyway, I thought I'd just share what I read, in case another insomniac is out there debating whether or not to eat the chicken skin tonight. Go ahead and eat the skin... and let me know how you slept. 

Of course, I also read about eating turkey and drinking tart cherry juice and warm milk. Those all fit in the 'been there/done that/did nothing for me' category, but the above were a few new ones I thought I'd pass along. If you try them and they work, let me know. 

Now I'm going to turn off the blue light of my computer and say night-night. Hopefully this long day will end and tomorrow will not start at 3am. If it does, I'll be doing some gelatin powder shots. Stay tuned...

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Pull Up A Chair: How to Create the Barre Studio Experience at Home

Before I launch into (what I hope will be) a very informative post, I would like to mention a few changes to A Mom Walks into a Barre:

We're now on Facebook! 

Yes, faithful readers, you can keep up with the blog and post comments, questions, or vehement (but  respectful) counterpoints on Facebook, and you don't even need to be my friend. Isn't that nice? Click here for the the link to 'like' the page.

Also, blog posts now have labels! You can search topics that interest you, or you can pop some popcorn, sit back and read your favorite rants. 


Ok, back to the topic at hand. Several readers have written asking about barre workouts at home, which workouts I like, what do I use for a ball or a barre, etc. Until very recently, I've exclusively been a home exerciser. While I still recommend taking some live classes with a good, trained instructor, nothing beats the convenience and cost-effectiveness of getting your lalas in the comfort of your own home. I love my classes, but they can be pricey and time-consuming, so I supplement with workouts at home. Here's how you can, too.

The Workout

A few months ago, I compiled a list of my favorite barre DVDs. Several readers added their faves in the comments section, so check out this link for the skinny on DVDs.

If you prefer online streaming workouts, Suzanne Bowen Fitness and Barre3 offer large libraries of workouts at very reasonable monthly rates. Both have free trials, too. The Bar Method has launched a streaming service with a variety of subscription options. Jessica Smith also has a wide selection of FREE workouts on Youtube, some of which are barre-focused.

If you need a book workout, The Physique 57 Solution is great, and the paperback edition comes with a 30-minute compilation DVD. I used the book when that mean girl storm Sandy knocked out our power for days. It gives detailed instructions of different exercises and suggested sequencing. The Bar Method blog recently posted these suggestions for making your own music playlist.

The Barre

In a class, participants use a wall-mounted barre. It provides light stability for some moves, or you can pull off the barre for certain exercises. Home workouts do not require a super-stable type barre, because obviously most people don't have one. They all say, 'you can just use a chair!' and often show someone doing the workout with a regular dining room chair.

I don't like using a chair.Your support should ideally be hip-height and most chairs are not high enough for me. They're also not very sturdy. You can put weights on the seat to stabilize it, but I'd suggest using something else. A counter top can work nicely, as well as a stair railing. That's what I usually use here at home:

My railing can support my weight AND Darling Son #2's. This is definitely an advanced variation.

If you don't have any suitable surface, you might want to invest in a barre. Here are a few options:

  • The best barre I can recommend is Fluidity.

Yes, it's that's sturdy, though anyone over 30lbs. should not try this move. 
Like other barre brands, Fluidity is based on Lotte Berk's original method. Creator Michelle Austin launched a set of DVDs and this barre for home use in 2006. The workouts are dull as dry toast, with mind-numbing music on loop, but the barre is a tank. It was designed by MIT engineers and simulates a wall-mounted barre.

Pros: It's VERY sturdy. If set up properly, you can do all the same moves you'd do in a class with a wall-mounted barre--chair, waterski, flat- and round-back abs, you name it. You can adjust the height, and it folds up for storage. The whole set comes with other toys--a ball, attached mat, resistance bands, and the boring DVDs.

Cons: It's expensive. The whole set is almost $500 retail. I got mine on Craig's List for a lot less. There's one for sale right now in my area for only $50. It's also wicked heavy, so even though it folds up and has wheels to maneuver it around, it's a pain to set up and take down everyday. Mine lives under the guest bed because I just don't have room to leave it up. But if you have the space for it, it's awesome.

  • The Portable Ballet Barre is also a good option. It's priced around $100. There are a number of different types. I found a whole website devoted to portable barres,

Pros: Adjustable height, pretty stable and easy to move around. This is the barre you see used most often in  videos.

Cons: I don't have one, but it doesn't look like it folds up or comes apart very easily, so you'd need to have space to leave it up. You also can't do moves that involve pulling off the barre, but again, those are not usually included in home workouts.

  • I've also heard good things about the Cardio Barre. I'm not a fan of the workouts, but I'm told the barre is good.

Pros: It's lightweight, comes apart easily for storage, and it's priced around $90.

Cons: Maybe $90 is still more than you'd like to spend?

In which case, you can always go the DIY route:

  • You can make a barre using PVC pipingHere's a link for instructions.

Pros: CHEAP. Really, the materials would cost just a few dollars. It's also very lightweight and easy to move around.

Cons: It's very lightweight and easy to move around. I used one in a community class I took and the instructors used sandbags to stabilize the base for us. That may not be entirely necessary, but you might find it not quite sturdy enough on it's own. FIY. Also, you need space to leave it up because it wouldn't come apart after using the sealant.

Now moving on to BALLS.

Most barre workouts use a ball. A ball can recruit more muscles in an exercise and can help stabilize your joints in certain moves.
A ball between the inner thighs uses more lower body muscles and recruits the core.
Instructors typically refer to them as 'playground balls' because they're just like the balls small people use in gym class. Most big name studios have balls for sale with their logo printed on it, but you can skip the high-price studio balls and just buy one at any toy shop or general merchandise retailer like Target.

Here are a few from my collection:

My fave is my Physique 57 ball... and not just because it's Physique 57. It's about 27" in circumference, the size used in most workouts. The material is not as thick as other ones I've used, and it has some springyness to it (I'm sure that's a real word.) If you order a Physique 57 DVD set, however, this is not the ball that comes with it anymore (though you can still buy the original in the NYC studios.) The new balls they use are more like the one on the left.

The advantage is that it's easy to inflate with a straw, rather than having to use a needle pump. You can inflate it easily with the straw, and it packs well for travel. This ball was a gift, so I don't know exactly where to buy it, but I believe it's similar to this one.

You can use a ball between the knees in c-curve abs and another behind the lower back for support.
Six-year-old under the knees is optional.

The smallest ball (16" in circumference) is closer to the size that's used at Pure Barre studios. It can be handy for certain exercises in other videos, too. For example, it's easier to keep behind your knee in certain seat exercises:

The last thing I'll say about balls is that you don't need to inflate them a whole lot. Ideally, you want your ball to have some give to it.


Most barre workouts use light dumbbells--and by 'light' I mean 2-5lbs. Physique 57 workouts go slightly heavier (8-10lbs.) but that's about as heavy as you'll need. Before you get all smug and think you're going to be such a badass, let me take a moment to warn you that barre people can seriously hurt you with those little weights, so pace yourself.

You can find very cheap light weights all over the place. I see them for a very little at discount shops, so you don't need to pay much. Honestly, my weights are the best fitness investment I have ever made. I've had my 5 and 8 pounders for over 20 years and have gotten more use out of them than any other piece of equipment I own.


Depending on the workout and your environment, you might need a few other odds and ends. A mat is useful, unless you have very cushy carpeting. Some workouts employ a strap for stretching (you can just use a bathrobe tie), thick cushions (I use patio furniture pads) or pillows. But really, that's about it. One of the reasons barre is such a great home workout is how little stuff you really need. Barre mostly uses your body weight for resistance, so it's also great for travel.

Lastly, I'm going to suggest a full-length mirror. Oh, a mirror... so helpful. In class, I try to get a spot in the corner with two mirrors, so I can check my form from more than one angle. Sometimes I think my posture is good, but a glance in the mirror tells me otherwise. You can find really cheap full-length mirrors at Target. A mirror will change your life. Get a mirror.

As you see, it's very easy to set up for barre at home. Have fun! (And by 'fun' I mean burning, shaking, lalas, etc.)

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Judge Not: Why We Need to Get Over What Other People Are Eating

I got a little fiesty this week. A fitness person I just started following on social media (not anyone I've blogged about) posted the following:
I know it's "easy" to feed kids French fries but I am gonna go out on a limb and say if you put poor effort in helping your kids eat healthy you're gonna get undesired results. We are away and almost without fail every kid is eating fries and burgers or pizza at every meal. Not because their parents don't believe in feeding them spinach but because it's too easy to give them the crap and too much effort to teach them how to enjoy a piece of grilled chicken and vegetables. Invest in long term health for your kids for the sake of their future!
I was irritated.

Do I disagree that kids should eat healthy food? Of course not.

Do I think we parents need to resist the urge to take the path of least resistance? Do we need to teach our children to cultivate a taste for things like 'grilled chicken and vegetables'? Sure.

Do I think the state of 'kids meals' in restaurants is generally lamentable? Absolutely.

Am I just a grammar snob who's annoyed when people write 'gonna' instead of 'going to?' Fer shur.

But what really ticked me off is the idea that this person is looking over at other people's plates and making sweeping generalizations about their parenting based on what their kids are eating at one meal. The assumption that if you're letting your child eat French fries and pizza, you must just be too lazy to bother exposing them to other foods.
Treat Exhibit A: Light saber popsicles made with the dreaded juice.

For some reason when you have a child, everyone seems to feel the right to judge what you're doing. I live in a glass house (or at least, I did before I had kids), so I'm not throwing any stones, but really, why do we do this? Why do we think we can form negative opinions about total strangers from a brief snapshot in time?

The last time I got my knickers in a twist about this was after reading an article about parents needing to be more present with their children. The author walked past a playground and saw a few mothers talking on their phones while their children played. How awful that these mothers should be attached to their phones while their precious treasures are socializing with other children or learning to amuse themselves! The author felt it was a missed opportunity to bond.

Please. We don't know ANYTHING about these allegedly opportunity-missing mothers. Maybe they're stay-at-home moms who are with their children all. day. long and were using the twenty minutes available to them to return a few phone calls or check email.

Am I projecting here? YES. I am.
Bonding with the Darling Son #1 while making cupcakes. At least I wasn't on the phone...

Now of course, many of us spend too much time buried in our screens. And many children are not eating balanced diets. But let's not sit around like Judgey McJudgersons and make assumptions about people we don't even know.

Honestly, I really don't care. At least, not that much. This is one of the nice things about being in my 40's. I get much less worked up about what other people think. So why am I ranting? Because I think parents get dumped on way too much. People probably judged just as much years ago, but at least then they had the decency to talk about you behind your back after you left the school bus stop. Now it's plastered all over the internet. It adds to the parenting anxiety with which so many people struggle.

If the fitness person who posted the above went on a little rant about kids meals in restaurants and how vegetable-deficient they are, I'd say a hearty amen. I usually have to negotiate a veg for my kids, and if I can't (and I almost always can), then I order for them from the regular menu. As I've mentioned before, my kids are fabulous eaters. We eat the vast majority of our meals at home, so when we go out, it's a TREAT. Yes, I make them eat a veg, but I also let them eat burgers and French fries and sometimes even--wait for it--sugary desserts!

Which brings me to my main point. (I know, sometimes it takes me a while to get there, but I always do in the end.) I was going to update you on my sugar fast.

I'm pretty much done with it. After about three weeks with absolutely no sugar (not even fruit), I started reintroducing sugars into my diet. I'm eating fruit and drizzling a little bit of maple syrup on my yogurt. The great thing is that I'm satisfied with far less sweet than I used to have. If I have too much, I feel AWFUL. I mean, seriously awful, so I'm careful to limit my sugar. And I'm tasting sweetness in things I never thought of as particularly sweet, which is delightful.

I'm back to enjoying sweets, but in much greater moderation than I did before. The other night we had company and enjoyed delicious grilled burgers on sprouted wheat buns, homemade mango salsa and chips, sweet potato fries, green salad with beets and chevre, beer and a divine chocolate peanut butter gelato. It was wicked good. The food police could look at that meal and lament the omega-6 fatty acids, the carbs, the presence of wheat and too much fructose. Whatever. It was yummy and festive and summery.

Anyone want to judge? GO AHEAD.