Improving sleep during a pandemic

Many people experienced insomnia or had some difficulty sleeping before the pandemic. Now, with all the additional fear, uncertainty, isolation, and economic challenges, many with no prior sleeping concerns are struggling to fall asleep or stay asleep.

Getting at least 7 hours of quality sleep each night is even more important now, since it provides the foundation for our daily functioning, moods and decisions. Getting quality sleep also strengthens the body’s immune system, which is essential during a pandemic. Not getting enough sleep each night, on the other hand, is associated with weight gain, diabetes, high blood pressure and depression.

Here are some tips to help you get to sleep and stay asleep. 

  • Have a going to bed ritual: Just like children, who have a book read to them prior to bedtime, adults need ritual signs that tell our brain it is time to sleep. That may involve listening to relaxing music, reading a book or taking a warm bath.
  • Don’t use your bed as your office: Many are working from home during the pandemic and it may seem that a bed would be a comfortable place to work. Unfortunately, this just confuses the brain, rather than training the brain that a bed is a place to sleep.
  • Get some exercise during the day: Exercise reduces stress and possibly improves sleep since it tires the body.
  • Don’t take long naps: A short 15 to 30 minute nap is OK, if it’s not too late in the day. However, sleeping longer can disrupt your sleep cycle.
  • If you wake up in the middle of the night and can’t sleep, get out of bed: Again, a bed is for sleeping, not tossing and turning, so getting out of bed helps you reset. You will want to keep the lights low and then follow your going to bed ritual.
  • Limit alcohol and caffeine: Caffeine use before bedtime may make it more difficult to get to sleep and even though alcohol might help a person fall asleep, it does not necessarily help a person to stay asleep or sleep well.

If you are struggling with stress related concerns, contact the Iowa Concern Hotline at 1-800-447-1985.  Iowa Concern provides confidential stress counseling and resource/referral services 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. 

Free virtual counseling and consultation is also available through COVID Recovery Iowa at https://covidrecoveryiowa.org/ to any Iowans impacted by COVID.

Written by David Brown, Behavioral Health State Extension Specialist

Jody Gatewood

Jody Gatewood

Jody Gatewood is a Registered Dietitian who enjoys spending time in the kitchen baking and preparing meals for her family. She does lots of meal planning to stay organized and feed her family nutritious meals.

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Reducing Stress through the Benefits of Nature

As daylight hours dwindle and the air becomes crisper, thoughts and activities tend to focus less on the outdoors and more on the long winter months inside. And yet, the benefits of the outdoors and experiences with nature in reducing stress apply all year round.

Cortisol, an important stress hormone, has been mentioned a few times in this series on stress. Conditions associated with the pandemic, like decisions related to activities, continued cancellation of events, financial changes and health considerations are all potential sources of stress that can increase cortisol levels. Cortisol may cause our muscles to tense, impact our appetite, and decrease our concentration. Getting outdoors, it turns out, has been shown to reduce cortisol and stress for all ages!

  • A University of Michigan study found 20 minutes outdoors can drop cortisol levels in adults by over 20%.1
  • A review of research on college students discovered as little as 10 minutes in nature increased happiness and reduced both physical and mental stress.2
  • Studies on access to nature have repeatedly shown positive impacts for children related to physical activity, weight, attention, mental health and stress.3

How can you apply the stress reducing benefits of nature to you and your family as the seasons change? Most outdoor advocates insist there is “no bad weather, just bad clothes”, so start with planning ahead for what you might need in colder weather. Dig out hats, scarves, mittens, and coats now, so layers are available when temperatures shift. Next, be intentional about increasing your time outdoors. Take short walk breaks during the daylight hours, pausing to enjoy the changing autumn colors or the crisp scent of snow. Iowa is one of only a few states with a county conservation system – take advantage of this incredible resource! Many county conservation locations have outdoor programs all year where you can try new activities, like fall scavenger hunts or snowshoeing. If you need ideas to get children engaged outdoors, check out resources available through trusted sources such as Nature Explore and Project Wild.

Finding time to get outdoors, especially as the seasons change, can be a challenge, but the benefits related to stress are worth the effort!

  1. Hunter MR, Gillespie BW and Chen SY-P (2019) Urban Nature Experiences Reduce Stress in the Context of Daily Life Based on Salivary Biomarkers. Front. Psychol. 10:722. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00722
  2. Meredith GR, Rakow DA, Eldermire ERB, Madsen CG, Shelley SP and Sachs NA (2020) Minimum Time Dose in Nature to Positively Impact the Mental Health of College-Aged Students, and How to Measure It: A Scoping Review. Front. Psychol. 10:2942. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02942
  3. Together in Nature: Pathways to a Stronger, Closer Family (2013) Children and Family Network. https://www.childrenandnature.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/FamilyBonding_En_20141.pdf

Written by Cindy Thompson, Human Sciences Specialist-Family Life

Jody Gatewood

Jody Gatewood

Jody Gatewood is a Registered Dietitian who enjoys spending time in the kitchen baking and preparing meals for her family. She does lots of meal planning to stay organized and feed her family nutritious meals.

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Apple Cinnamon Bread

I suspect that my family’s favorite food for me to make is quick bread. Last week, my four year old told me that my banana bread was the best. It was zucchini bread, but that is ok. I enjoy making quick breads and my family enjoys eating them. Today I am going to share with you our October recipe of the month – Apple Cinnamon Bread.

I like this recipe because it is lower in sugar and fat and higher in fiber than other quick bread recipes. The sugar and fat are lower because applesauce is substituted in for some of the oil and white sugar. The fiber is higher because half of the flour is whole wheat and a diced apple is stirred into the batter. My family likes this recipe because of the cinnamon sugar topping. It adds extra flavor with each bite.

When making quick breads, I like to play around with using different pan sizes. Many quick breads take 45 minutes to an hour to cook in a traditional loaf pan. I rarely have that much time to bake a loaf of bread. So, I will spread the batter out in a 9-inch by 13-inch baking pan. When the batter is spread out, the baking time is cut nearly in half. Sometimes, I split the batter into muffin tins. In that case, the baking time is only around 15 minutes. Try this recipe out in a pan that works for you. Just remember to check the bread every 5 to 10 minutes the first time you are trying it in a new pan so that it does not get overcooked. This bread is done when a knife or toothpick inserted into the center of the bread comes out clean.

Enjoy!

Justine Hoover

Justine Hoover

Justine Hoover is a Registered Dietitian and mom who loves to cook for her family.

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Eating and Stress

I’m so stressed! I need chocolate!

Last week we started our series on stress and discussed in general how stress affects the body. Today, the focus is how stress affects eating habits.

With many of us experiencing higher levels of stress the past few months, you may have noticed that your eating habits have changed. I know at my house, we have had more chips and ice cream in the house than we normally do.

Stress can cause both a loss of appetite and also overeating. Studies show that in the short term stress tends to shut down appetite. The nervous system causes the body to release a hormone called adrenaline which helps trigger the body’s fight or flight response and temporarily puts eating on hold.

However, if the stress continues, the body releases another hormone called cortisol, known as the stress hormone. Cortisol increases the appetite and may ramp up the motivation to eat.

Stress also affects food preferences. The higher levels of cortisol increases cravings for sugary, salty, and fatty foods. Now you know why there are more chips and ice cream in my house!

Here are some tips to help manage the effects stress has on your eating habits:

  1. Know that it’s okay to eat sugary, salty, and fatty foods sometimes. Having something like chips or ice cream now and then will not ruin your health. So don’t stress out about eating them!
  2. Plan ahead for meals and snacks. This way you will have healthier options on hand for snacking and meal time. Keeping yourself nourished during times of stress helps keep your blood sugar steady so when you are stressed your emotions aren’t further effected by being hungry or having low blood sugar. Check out our meal planner and recipes for ideas.
  3. Be mindful when you are eating. Put your phone down, turn off the TV, and move away from your computer so you are not distracted. When at home, get in the habit of eating in the kitchen and not in other rooms in the house. Mindless eating can lead to eating more than your body needs and not enjoying the food you are eating.
  4. Get moving. While cortisol levels vary depending on the intensity and duration of exercise, overall exercise can reduce some of the negative effects of stress.

If you are feeling stressed, consider how you might use these tips to care for your body.

Jody Gatewood

Jody Gatewood

Jody Gatewood is a Registered Dietitian who enjoys spending time in the kitchen baking and preparing meals for her family. She does lots of meal planning to stay organized and feed her family nutritious meals.

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Strength in Stress

The past seven months have been stressful, so over the next few weeks we are going to have a series of blogs on stress. Contributors to the blogs who have expertise in the area of stress will teach us more about what it is, how to manage it, and how to use stress for good! The blogs will include how stress affects the body, eating habits, physical activity, sleep patterns, and family relationships. Today’s blog was written by Share Kelley, an Iowa Concern Hotline staff member, and will cover how stress affects the body.

Think of your body like a computer. It takes in information, and puts out responses. Pressure can be useful or harmful, which can result in brief responses like ‘Fight or Flight’. If our body had to respond all day, every day, it would drain our system. Like any computer, the body needs breaks.

Here are six ways you can recognize when your body needs a break:

  1. Headaches: Stress can trigger and intensify tension headaches. Drink a lot of water, avoid caffeine, take brain breaks, and limit screen time.
    1. Pro Tip: Schedule water breaks throughout the day.
  2. Stomachaches:  Stress can make tummy aches, nausea, and GI upset worse. Make healthy food choices for meals and snacks. Choose vitamin rich fruits and vegetables.
    1. Pro Tip:  Plan regular meals and snacks to refresh yourself.
  3. High Blood Pressure:  Stress tightens blood vessels causing high blood pressure. Schedule time during the day to do some deep breathing.
    1. Pro Tip:  Try 4-7-8 deep breathing. Inhale on a count of 4, hold for 7, exhale on a count of 8.
  4. Tense Muscles:  Stress tightens muscles causing stress aches in the head, neck, and back. Take time throughout the day to loosen tight muscles.
    1. Pro Tip:  Use muscle relaxation. Tighten then fully release one muscle group at a time from your toes all the way up to your forehead. Then sit with all muscles fully relaxed.
  5. Insomnia:  Stress can make it hard to fall asleep. Try reading, listening to relaxing music or guided meditation. Avoid screens before bed.
    1. Pro Tip:  Schedule sleep and block interruptions during that time. No calls, texts, or screens.
  6. Frequent Illness:  The immune system cannot function as well when the body is already stressed.
    1. Pro Tip: Use the tips above to create a routine so your body is ready to fight infections.

If you are struggling with stress or if you would like more information, check out the Iowa Concern website.

In addition, the State of Iowa has received federal funding to offer free virtual counseling and assistance to those affected, in any way, by COVID-19. COVID Recovery Iowa provides counseling, virtual activities, referrals and help finding resources to any Iowan seeking assistance or a listening ear. For more information, visit https://covidrecoveryiowa.org.

Jody Gatewood

Jody Gatewood

Jody Gatewood is a Registered Dietitian who enjoys spending time in the kitchen baking and preparing meals for her family. She does lots of meal planning to stay organized and feed her family nutritious meals.

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Ways to Enjoy Garbanzo Beans

Garbanzo beans, also known as chickpeas, are a nutritious legume grown all over the world and popular in many cuisines. Garbanzos are a great source of protein, fiber, and healthy fats. They are very inexpensive and can be found canned or dry. They can be used in many dishes and can be swapped for other beans or lentils in your favorite recipes.

Try them:

Here are some ways to cook dried chickpeas:

  • In a large pot, using 3 cups of water for every 1 cup of chickpeas, bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer until desired tenderness (usually anywhere between 1 hour to 2 hours)
  • In a slow cooker on high for 3-4 hours or low for 6-8 hours
  • In a pressure cooker with a sealed lid (12 minutes if pre-soaked or 50 minutes without pre-soaking), and naturally releasing the pressure for 10 minutes

My favorite way to prepare garbanzos is to cook them until soft and mix them with a stew made of pureed carrots, onions, peppers, and garlic. The veggies can be cooked (without chopping them) with the garbanzos and then pureed separately to make the stew. You can add whatever spices on hand to the stew such as salt, pepper, cumin, and turmeric to taste. I then add the garbanzos to the stew and serve over rice.

I encourage you to give garbanzo beans a try!

Written by: Paula Gutierrez, ISU Dietetic Intern

Jody Gatewood

Jody Gatewood

Jody Gatewood is a Registered Dietitian who enjoys spending time in the kitchen baking and preparing meals for her family. She does lots of meal planning to stay organized and feed her family nutritious meals.

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Vegetable Quesadillas

Would you like to know what my family’s favorite recipe is to make when we are short on time? It is our September recipe of the month, Vegetable Quesadillas. I can get this recipe on the table in 15 minutes or less, and I think you can too.

I keep this recipe in my back pocket for times when I feel rushed to get a meal on the table or when my children need to eat – NOW! I do not usually put this recipe on my meal plan for the week, but I do try to keep the first three ingredients (tortillas, cheese, and beans) on hand. For the vegetables, I use whatever I have in the refrigerator or freezer like chopped onion, chopped pepper, or frozen corn. You can cook the vegetables first or put them in raw.

If you have never made quesadillas before, this is the perfect recipe to learn how. You heat your skillet over medium heat and place the tortilla in the skillet. Put the cheese, beans, and vegetables on half of the tortilla. Then fold the empty half of the tortilla over, like closing a book. Cook the quesadilla for a couple of minutes, flip it, then cook a couple minutes more. You want the tortilla lightly browned and the cheese melty.

My children eat these plain, my husband and I top them with salsa. You can get creative and top these with avocado, tomato, sour cream, a squeeze of lime juice, or whatever sounds good to you.

Enjoy!

Justine Hoover

Justine Hoover

Justine Hoover is a Registered Dietitian and mom who loves to cook for her family.

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Super Snacks for Super Kids

The return to school can be hectic for both children and parents. This year, school may look different for your family, but no doubt, your children will still be hungry come snack time! The good news is that snacks are a good way to make sure your child is meeting their nutritional needs. Sometimes it can be difficult to meet these needs simply through food at mealtimes.

While it is easy for kids to grab a bag of chips to snack on, there are some ways you can make snacking both hassle-free and nutritious!

  • Choose snacks that your kids enjoy: Make a list of snack options and ask your kids which ones they like the most.
  • Plan ahead: Choose and prepare nutritious snacks ahead of time so that they are ready to go. Your kids may be able to help in preparation as well!
  • Keeping them accessible: Keep nutritious snacks where kids can easily see or grab them.
  • Make snack time fun: Having snacks with bright colors and different textures is visually appealing to kids.

Luckily, there are many different ways you can incorporate nutritious food into your child’s diet through snack time. You can find them in every food group, so you can always switch it up to fit your child’s needs. Here are some quick and easy snack ideas you can try at home:

For additional snack and recipe ideas, visit Spend Smart. Eat Smart.

Written by Jonnee Sulzberger, ISU Dietetic Intern

Jody Gatewood

Jody Gatewood

Jody Gatewood is a Registered Dietitian who enjoys spending time in the kitchen baking and preparing meals for her family. She does lots of meal planning to stay organized and feed her family nutritious meals.

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Versatile Veggie

Zucchini is one of my favorite vegetables because of how versatile it is. You can use this inexpensive summer squash in several ways when cooking and baking. I didn’t appreciate zucchini as much as a child, but now that I do most of the cooking at my house, I love how easy it is to transform this veggie to meet everyone’s needs! Below are a few of my favorite ways to use this tasty green veggie. 

  • Sauté– I love to sauté diced or chopped zucchini in a little bit of olive oil with spices and other summer squash or tomatoes. It is a quick, tasty side dish that everyone enjoys! I also like using sautéed zucchini in recipes like Zucchini Hummus Wraps and Vegetable Quesadillas.
  • Bake– I like to add shredded zucchini to meatloaf, muffins and cakes. One of my favorite muffin recipes is the Chocolate Chip and Zucchini Muffins from Spend Smart. Eat Smart. My family also likes to have sliced zucchini baked in the oven with parmesan cheese for a crunchy snack.
  • Grill– As mentioned in a previous blog, we LOVE to grill at our house. We like to cut the zucchini in half lengthwise and cook it on the grill with a drizzle of olive oil and a blend of spices. I use leftover grilled zucchini in pasta and on grilled cheese sandwiches. 
  • Steam– If I want to have a lighter pasta, I make zucchini noodles with a cheap spiralizer I purchased several years ago at a home goods store. The noodles can be steamed and used as an alternative to heavy pasta dishes. When our daughter was a baby, I would steam zucchini to make baby food since it was inexpensive.

One of my favorite things about using zucchini in a recipe or as a side dish is that zucchini does not take long to prepare or cook. I love how zucchini takes on the flavor of what you cook it with, making it easy to prepare in a variety of ways. Watch the video for some additional tips on how to prepare this versatile summer veggie. Grab a zucchini next time you pick out produce- you won’t be disappointed!

Cheers to trying a new zucchini recipe this week!

Katy Moscoso

Katy Moscoso

Katy Moscoso is a Program Specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. As a new mom she is always on the lookout for easy, healthy recipes to prepare for her family.

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