Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Good, The Bad, and the SAD

Despite all the joy and anticipation, the holiday season can also be a time of great sadness and depression. For some, it’s just a case of the post-Christmas blues. The best remedy for this kind of sadness is to revel in the darkness. Go to bed early whenever possible, and take advantage of any opportunity to sleep in. If you must get up before the dawn, indulge in the sensual luxury of showering in the dark. At the end of the day, eat dinner by candlelight or enjoy a cozy fire on a cold winter night. For a real treat, indulge in a warm, candle lit bath. Add essential oil of lavender to ease dry skin and help you relax.

If all these delicious remedies don’t shake your winter blues, you might just be suffering from a mental disorder called Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD for short.

Getting enough sunlight, particularly during the winter months, can be critical to our mental health. This seasonal lack of sunlight can affect the balance of chemicals in our brain, including serotonin. That’s the chemical responsible for regulating sleep patterns and it can also affect our moods and our appetite. For most of us, the next sunny day will be enough to brighten our spirits. But for some people, lack of sunlight can cause SAD.

SAD sufferers can have symptoms that range from chronic fatigue and oversleeping, to overeating and subsequent weight gain. In severe cases, individuals are unable to function normally. SAD sufferers may also experience persistent physical symptoms such as headaches, digestive disorders, and chronic pain that doesn’t respond to treatment. In extreme cases, SAD patients may even become suicidal.

Women are four times more likely than men to suffer from SAD, but it can affect anyone at any age. SAD symptoms in children include irritability, difficulty getting out of bed and school problems. This could help explain why your child has trouble making it out of the door in time to catch the school bus during the winter months.

Fortunately, for most SAD sufferers there’s a relatively simple solution – light therapy. Sitting in front of specialized lamps or light boxes that produce 10,000 lux of light for as little as 30 minutes a day has been proven to be more effective than drug therapy in combating the effects of winter light deprivation. (By comparison, ordinary house lighting produces about 300 lux.)

Given our geographical location, it should be no surprise that Canadian companies are leading the way in this specialized lighting to combat the symptoms of SAD. Northern Light Technologies in Montreal, Quebec, and Uplift Technologies Inc. in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia both have a wide range of SAD lighting that can help restore the brain’s normal serotonin levels. Drug therapy and diet are also being looked at as possible treatments for SAD.

Common sense can go a long way to reducing the impact of the disorder. If you suspect that you or a family member might be suffering from SAD, consult your family doctor for a referral to a qualified specialist. A diagnosis of SAD requires a professional evaluation by a psychiatrist, psychologist or social worker.

If you have been identified with SAD, contact your Human Resources Department. Given the prevalence of this disorder, many HR departments are developing programs to assist employees suffering from SAD.

Educate your family and close friends about SAD to gain their understanding and support. Daily outdoor exercise can also help reduce milder symptoms. A morning walk is a good idea –without sunglasses. They filter the helpful rays of the sun. SAD sufferers should also avoid staying up late, because it disrupts your biological clock. The best option is to stay on a regular sleep schedule seven days a week.

For those who can afford it, one of the best treatments for SAD sufferers is a week on the beach. If that’s not in your budget, take heart. Since passing the winter solstice on December 21st, the days have already begun to get longer. While the weather outside might be frightful, spring is already on its way back.


The Canadian Mental Health Association has great information and resources for SAD sufferers. Visit www.cmha.ca for more information.

To find out about SAD lighting visit:

• Uplift Technologies at www.day-lights.com, or call toll-free at 1-800-387-0896.

• Northern Lights Technology at www.northernlighttechnologies.com, or call toll-free at 1-800-263-0066.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Christmas Miracle

Last Saturday night my husband and I attended our daughter Sarah’s Christmas concert. The girls’ voices soared beautifully as they sang a collection of sacred and seasonal music. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, the choir began to hum in harmony as one young woman stepped forward to sing.

“Oh how I wish I could sing like an angel,“ she began in a soft, lilting soprano, “I’d sing carols so high and sweet.”

The soloist looked toward me and smiled, and all the cares and worries of the past week melted in one perfect, shining moment. I was mesmerized by the beauty of her voice and the majesty of the music. I smiled back rather sheepishly, as shameless tears of joy welled in my eyes and plopped rather unceremoniously down my cheeks.

I found the soloist after the concert and told her that she did indeed sing with the voice an angel. She thanked me with a big, adolescent grin, and then quickly melted into the noisy crowd of girls, family and friends who had braved an early winter storm to attend the concert.

The magic continued as we drove home in the snow, enjoying the displays of Christmas lights and talking about the concert with our weary but happy daughter. After we returned to the house we rejected the idea of turning on the television. Instead, Brian lit a fire and Sarah began playing the piano with an ease and excellence that startled me. I realized that she had become a very accomplished musician while I had been too busy doing something other than paying attention.

The magical evening was in sharp contrast to the hopeless week that had preceded it. Politicians behaving badly, the economy performing even worse, and our young men dying half a world away in a senseless war, wrestling with an often invisible, yet deadly enemy.

I thought about all of these things the next morning when I awoke before the dawn to another world of contrasts. The howl of winter winds outside was in sharp contrast to the sleepy warmth of our home. The peacefulness of our haven was in equally sharp contrast to the world outside that seems hell bent on destruction.

And then I thought about the voice of that earthbound angel and the season of hope called Christmas. I’ve often speculated why we celebrate the birth of Christ at the darkest time of the year, when historians tell us that He was most likely born sometime in late August. Suddenly, I had my answer.

We are all waiting for a miracle. At this the darkest time of year, we need to stop and remember the Gift of this season. Instead, we plow through our lives on autopilot, not seeing or feeling the days as they slip by. We promise to do better, and invariably do worse, while secretly holding out hope that somewhere, someone will rescue us. We pillory the politicians that we elect. We abuse our bodies, and then wonder why our beleaguered medical system can’t keep up with the job of saving us from ourselves.

And then there’s our poor planet. The lowliest animal knows better than to foul its own nest, and yet we consciously continue to pollute land, sea and air with reckless abandon, while unconsciously hoping that someone will rescue us from our own excesses. Once again, we are waiting for a miracle.

Here’s the secret. We are the miracle. We are the last best hope for mankind, the crown of creation. While we have the capacity for great cruelty and stupidity, we also have an even larger capacity for great acts of compassion and kindness. It is within each and every one of us to capture the spirit and innocence of the young Christ Child, to bring His love and compassion to our fellow man - to sing with the voice of an angel, and to bring light to an ever-darkening world.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Toronto's Bag and Bottle Ban

On December 3rd, Toronto City Council approved a controversial surcharge on plastic bags. Effective June 1, 2009, consumers will have to pay five cents for each disposable plastic shopping bag. Once the fee goes into effect, retailers will be required to accept reused bags or other containers.

Toronto Council also joined other Canadian cities such as Vancouver and London by banning the sale and distribution of bottled water at City Hall. Arenas and other city-owned facilities won’t have to follow suit until the end of 2011. The move came despite heavy lobbying from the bottled water industry, which is desperate to keep the very lucrative myth alive that bottled water is a necessary commodity.

“I don’t believe that as Canada’s largest purveyor of tap water we should be selling water in our facilities,” said Mayor David Miller in defense of the ban.

Toronto’s actions come one month after a private members bill to ban water bottles sales across the province was defeated in the Ontario legislature. The province has yet to tackle a surcharge or ban on shopping bags.

The common element with bags and bottles is plastic, and the common problem is blatant consumerism.

Let’s start with bottled water. The bottling and selling of water is arguably the marketing success story of the century. Specifically, bottled water sales now top $ 100 billion annually, making water the world's fastest growing beverage industry. Small wonder why the bottled water lobbyists worked so hard to prevent a ban by Canada’s largest city.

The majority of people who consume bottled water also have access to clean tap water, as Mayor David Miller recently pointed out. The only difference between the water that pours from the faucet and bottled water is the cost. The Earth Policy Institute estimates that bottled water can cost up to 10,000 times more than municipal tap water. And while we rant and rave if gas prices go above the $ 1.00 per litre mark, most of us routinely pay twice that amount for half as much water.

And then there’s the waste. Most water bottles are made from polyethylene terephthalate (or PET), a plastic derived from crude oil. According to Emily Arnold, a researcher with the Earth Policy Institute, this translates into 1.5 million barrels of oil used annually in the US alone, or enough to fuel 100,000 cars for a year. On a global scale, we use 2.7 million tons of plastic just to bottle water, very little of which is ever re-captured through recycling programs. The remaining bottles are tossed into our landfills where they can take up to 1,000 years to break down. When you add it all up, it seems like a ridiculous waste of a finite resource for a simple drink of water.

Over to plastic bags – another disposable product made from the same non-renewable resource, oil. Globally, an estimated 500 billion single-use plastic bags are distributed for free every year.

“Free” is the key word here. The cost of providing plastic bags to customers in the US costs retailers an estimated $ 4 billion annually, which is ultimately passed on to the consumer. Given the Canadian marketplace is about one-tenth the size of the US, this roughly translates into $ 400 million for Canadian retailers.

When you consider the cost of providing plastic bags to customers, it would seem logical that retailers would be leading the charge to eliminate them. But they’re not. The reason, quite simply, is that many of those 500 billion plastic bags carry company logos of the companies who distribute them, effectively turning each bag into a mini billboard. Talk about a marketing bonanza!

But the real problem with plastic water bottles and bags isn’t their disposability. It’s their durability. Scientists estimate that they can remain in the environment for hundreds or even thousands of years.

“Plastic is still plastic,” said Dr. Anthony Andrady, a senior research scientist at North Carolina’s Research Triangle. “The material still remains a polymer. Polyethylene is not biodegraded in any practical time scale.”

Toronto’s actions are considered newsworthy – and that’s what’s wrong with this picture. Given the economic and environmental costs of creating single use products out of plastic, every jurisdiction should be taking aggressive steps to eliminate them altogether.


To read more about the environmental impacts of plastic, read Alan Wiseman’s stunning article, Polymers are Forever, which is available online at www.orionmagazine.org. While you’re there, buy a subscription (or two) of this amazing magazine for those special people on your Christmas list.

For more interesting facts about plastic bags, visit www.reusablebags.com.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Great Green Gifts

With Christmas only a few weeks away, it’s time to get serious about making that list and checking it twice. To help you select gifts that don’t cost the Earth, here are some eco-friendly suggestions.

Number one on my list is Black & Decker’s new Power Monitor. The two-part system consists of a wireless transmitter, which is attached to your electricity meter, and a wireless handheld device, that uses data from your electric meter to provide real-time information about energy consumption, appliance by appliance. The Power Monitor retails for $ 99 – a bargain when you consider it can help save up to 20 percent in home energy bills each month. The Power Monitor is widely available at Canadian Tire and other retailers.

Backup-Power.ca has a great selection of solar-powered gifts for just about everyone on your list. For commuters and students, solar-powered backpacks have an integrated solar panel that provides about 2.5 watts of power that can be used to recharge cell phones, PDAs, GPS, batteries, iPods and MP3 players. The backpacks use the same 12V automotive charging adapter that is used for plugging devices into car DC outlets.

The same solar-powering technology is in Backup Power’s laptop, camera and fishing tackle bags. For the cyclist on your list, there’s a special bicycle trunk bag. All bags sell for around $ 150.

If you’re looking for a less expense gift, there are a variety of interesting items including solar battery chargers and solar headset radios. As an added bonus, Backup-Power ships directly from its Canadian warehouse, which eliminates a trip to the mall (and the gas used to drive there and back).

With so much attention being paid to the environmental impact of bottled water and the potential health effects associated with plastic containers, the “must-have” eco-gift this year is a stainless steel water bottle. It’s important to buy stainless steel, not aluminum, because the later can leach toxic chemicals if it comes into contact with anything acidic (such as orange or tomato juice.) Stainless steel, on the other hand, is one of the healthiest and most durable materials available and is also virtually indestructible with normal use.

Kleen Kanteen produces the gold standard for stainless water bottles. Prices range from $ 18 (for a 12 oz. sippy cup) to $ 26 (for a 40 oz. bottle). Kleen Kanteen has a variety of fun accessories including insulated totes, slings and other carrying paraphernalia, as well as an assortment of caps and spouts. Kleen Kanteens can be purchased online, and are also available at a number of retail outlets such as Home Outfitters.

If you’re purchasing a water bottle other than a Kleen Kanteen, make sure that bottle or neck isn’t lined with plastic. This sort of defeats the whole idea of buying a stainless steel bottle for health and safety.

On the same note, stainless steel coffee travel cups are a great gift idea. They share all of the great qualities of stainless steel water bottles, and as an added bonus will keep beverages hot for up to an hour. The trick is to make sure that the cups are lined with stainless steel, not plastic, and that they have a double wall for insulation. One more tip – avoid cups that are too tall or have a tapered bottom. They have a tendency to tip over in the car. Good quality mugs retail for between $ 10 to 15 and can be found at most retailers.

If you’re looking for eco-friendly stocking stuffers, check out Tom’s of Maine. Since 1970, Tom’s has been producing personal care products without artificial or animal ingredients, or animal testing, and without chemicals. Products range from toothpaste and mouthwash to deodorants, soaps and shaving creams, and are available at retailers across Canada.

Other cool green gift ideas include Nellie’s Dryballs (which cut drying time by 25 percent and eliminate the need for dryer sheets), beeswax candles; crank powered flashlights and radios, and clothing or linens made from hemp (a renewable fabric that doesn’t require the use of pesticides). Ho ho ho!


For a huge list of ecoproducts by category check out www.ecomall.com.

For a list of Tom’s of Maine products, or to find a retailer near you, visit www.tomsofmaine.com.

In addition to its solar-powered gear, Backup Power’s website is filled with interesting products, including emergency generators and sump pumps. Check out www.backup-power.ca.

For more information on the Power Monitor, visit www.blackanddecker.com.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Advent Sharing Calendar

Shop Locally, Support Fair Trade

The Advent Sharing Calendar was created to help us to be mindful of those in need during the holiday season. Given the state of the economy, many of those who have contributed to help others in previous years may find themselves unable to meet the needs of their own families this holiday season.

It’s time to consider the source. Supporting local businesses not only helps local commerce, it builds resilient communities, and ultimately stable national economies. Locally produced goods and services don’t have to travel thousands of miles, which reduces their environmental footprint. Environmental standards are much higher in Canada than they are in many of the countries that we import cheap consumer goods from. With all that in mind, this year’s Advent Sharing Calendar will focus on shopping locally and supporting fair trade.

To begin, create an Advent Sharing box. Take a small box or coffee can, put a slot in the lid, and then wrap the container in recycled Christmas paper. Monetary gifts are added every day until the Epiphany (January 6th). Gifts should be added as follows:

December 1st – December 1 to 7 is Buy Local Week. For more information, visit greenenterprise.net or put a loonie in the box.

December 2nd – Check out www.buycanadianfirst.ca for great Canadian gift ideas or put a loonie in the box!

December 3rd – In addition to the extra dollars you put in your tank, add five dollars if you drive to another town to visit a big box store in another community.

December 4th – Deduct five dollars if you buy from a local artisan or jewelry store.

December 5th – Add five dollars if you have your company Christmas party at a chain restaurant. Deduct five dollars if you eat at a locally owned restaurant.

December 6th - Add 10 cents for every plastic bag you brought home after Christmas shopping. Deduct a loonie if you took your own!

December 7th – Add a loonie if you don’t buy fair trade coffee.

December 8th – Add a loonie if you don’t know what fair trade is, and then go to www.fairtrade.net to find out.

December 9th – Add 10 cents for every produce item you bought this week that was imported from the US.

December 10th - Add 25 cents for every produce item you bought this week that was imported from Asia.

December 11th - Drop in a loonie every time you see a Salvation Army kettle, and congratulate yourself for supporting local charities.

December 12th – Add a loonie if you visited a dollar store this week.

December 13th – Add a loonie for every big box store you visited today. Subtract a twonie if you can call your local storeowner by name.

December 14th – Read the label. Find out where your Christmas lights were actually made. Buy Canadian or contribute a loonie for every string that isn’t.

December 15th – Add a loonie for every disposable or single use product you purchased as a stocking stuffer.

December 16th – Add 25 cents for every gift packaged with Styrofoam.

December 17th – Add 10 cents for every present that you wrap with previously unused paper. The comic section makes colorful gift wrap for kids of all ages.

December 18th – If you purchased an imported item because it was cheaper than a Canadian-made equivalent, put the difference in the box – plus a loonie.

December 19th – Deduct a twonie for every gift purchased from a local winery, fruit producer or chocolatier.

December 20th – Add five dollars if you shopped at a Big Box electronics store. If you patronized a locally owner-operated store, put the five bucks back in your wallet.

December 21st – On this the darkest night of the year, remember to bring light to a needy child and donate a new toy to your local toy drive.

December 22nd – Add ten dollars if you haven’t contributed to your local food bank. Better yet, make a donation the next time you’re out shopping. Food banks are in desperate need this time of year. Every donation helps.

December 23rd – Add 25 cents for every stocking stuffer that was made in China.

December 24th –When the stockings have been hung by the chimney with care, add 10 cents for every gift under the tree. If all your gifts are locally produced items, congratulate yourself with a glass of Canadian cider or wine.

December 25th - If you don’t recycle Christmas wrappings and boxes, add a loonie.

December 26th – If you don’t compost the remains of Christmas dinner, add a twonie. Deduct a twonie if you did.

December 27th – If you braved the Boxing Week sales, add five dollars. If you drove alone to the mall, add a twonie.

December 28th – Add a loonie for every item purchased in the Boxing Day sales that wasn’t made in Canada.

December 29th – Add a loonie for every fast food restaurant you visit over the holidays.

December 30th - Add 25 cents for every bottle of imported wine you purchased over the holidays. Purchasing VQA Ontario wine puts as much as 4 to 6 times more money back into the local economy than an imported wine.

December 31st – Add 5 cents for every disposable glass, plate and napkin you use at your New Year’s Eve party.

January 1st – Resolve to think before you buy. Think locally and buy locally. It makes a difference.

January 2nd – Sit down with your family and plan how your weekly purchases can support local business in 2009.

January 3rd – Whenever possible, shop locally. The San Francisco Retail Diversity Study found that diverting just 10 percent of purchases from national chain stores to locally owned businesses would create 1,300 new jobs in the city and yield nearly $200 million in incremental economic activity annually.

January 4th - Make a list of large ticket items you plan to buy in 2009 and commit to buying goods made in Canada. For example, according to the Canadian Auto Workers, every job in the auto industry creates an additional 7.5 jobs in related sectors.

January 5th – Sit down with your family and decide where you would like to send the contents of your Advent Sharing box.

January 6th- (The Epiphany) – Send a cheque to the Canadian charity of your choice or support your local business development association.