Note to Self

Posted on Posted in Brain Science, Continuing Education, Elder Care, Psychology, Seminars, Webinars

By Mary O’Brien, M.D.

Anthony Bourdain. Kate Spade. Robin Williams. They had what most people dream of having: massive success; fame; money; and a fabulous lifestyle. And yet, on the most profound and intimate level, they were utterly miserable. They couldn’t find a way to love themselves enough to keep living.

They are not alone. Millions of people, known only to a few folks around them, suffer the torment of suicidal thinking. We’ve known for decades that most suicide victims see some sort of health care professional shortly before they die. There is no shortage of studies, articles, committee meetings, and conferences on the subject. But somehow very little seems to change.

Two days ago I heard an “expert” on TV insist we should ask every patient about his or her personal life, marriage, relationships, family and financial problems, and work stress. I’ve been quite ill in recent years, and I’ve seen multiple physicians. No one has ever asked me about any of these matters. Perhaps, since I’m a physician, they feel too uncomfortable to ask. I suspect, however, that the larger issue is our obsession with time and money. Herd ‘em in, herd ‘em out, generate more revenue. A discussion about personal problems can become lengthy and emotionally charged. It’s difficult to get a tearful, distraught patient out of the office. In far too many cases, we’d really rather not know about it. Besides, when someone is crying, it’s tough to stay focused on your computer.

We live in an ever more detached, isolated, dissociated, overstimulated, and under-loved culture. All the “fans,” “likes,” and “followers” in the world cannot take the place of one sincere, sympathetic listener who actually cares.

Morals, Manners and Mindsets

Posted on Posted in Brain Science, Continuing Education, Elder Care, Homestudy, Psychology, Seminars, Webinars

By Mary O’Brien, M.D.

Our culture appears to be in free fall.  Movie moguls assault young women.  Campus doctors exploit and molest patients.  Gymnastics coaches and doctors engage in appalling sexual crimes.  The abuse of women and children has occurred for millennia. However, as individuals and as a civilization, we’re supposed to be advancing.

The human person, the human body, must be treated with dignity and respect at all times, at every stage of life.  The notion that we can do whatever we want, whenever we want is wrong.  It always has been, it always will be.

Professional stature is non-existent without self-restraint and honor.  And those in leadership positions who merely look the other way bear just as much guilt as the perpetrators.  It’s shocking to realize how much disgraceful behavior is tolerated out of ineptitude, laziness, greed, or complacency.  Virtually every sector of our society is at fault here.  Until we reach a critical mass of people willing to challenge this horrid behavior, nothing will change.

In our professional realm, there are a few things we can do to restore respectfulness:

  • Call patients or clients by their proper names: , Mrs., Mr., Dr., Reverend, Judge, etc. are all appropriate until someone invites familiarity.  Using first names with a new patient is not “friendly” as we have been led to believe.  It merely signals a sloppy level of unearned familiarity and unprofessional demeanor.  A medical or dental office is not a nail salon.
  • Male professionals should not be alone in an examination room with a female patient. The “expense,” “inefficiency,” or “inconvenience” of having a nurse or assistant present is an unacceptable excuse for this breach of protocol.
  • Manners matter. “Old school” nurses and doctors were taught to ask the patient’s permission before we touched him or her.  “May I listen to your heart?”, “May I examine your abdomen?”  No doubt some youngsters in health care would roll their eyes at this.  But we should never make assumptions about touching anyone (apart from emergencies), and yet it happens routinely today.
  • It’s good to remind ourselves, our colleagues, and our students that decorum and propriety are not old-fashioned and unnecessary. On the contrary, they are critically important, and their absence is palpable.

Morals, manners, and mindsets do not exist in a vacuum.  When someone is disrespectful or unethical in one domain, that vice will eventually metastasize.  Regardless of our age, culture, or profession, we should always try to treat others the way we’d like to be treated.  It’s not corny.  It’s not outdated.  It’s our only path forward.

The Shock Value of Anything

Posted on Posted in Brain Science, Continuing Education, Homestudy, Psychology, Seminars

By Mary O’Brien, M.D.

Our culture is in big trouble.  Civility is under assault.  Over the past 20 years, most of us have heard increasing use of vulgar language in public and even professional settings.  Some of us have even heard vulgar language used at funerals, especially when celebrities are involved.  It’s typically done in an effort to lighten the mood.  It doesn’t work.  It’s not appropriate, it’s not funny, it’s not hip, it’s not “cool.”  More of us need to speak up and call people on it.

Rude, crude, vulgar language merely announces to the world a limited vocabulary, emotional immaturity, and a lack of class.  The timid giggles elicited by comedians using crude language is nothing more than the nervous response of an insecure audience.  When a joke is truly funny, people laugh in a genuine, spontaneous manner because they recognize a universal truth.  Really talented people don’t need to rely on incessant efforts to shock an audience.  They actually have a gift for seeing everyday realities in novel, insightful ways. The shock value of anything wears off quickly.  Before long, the whole gig becomes tiresome.

The use of vulgar language often signals a nasty, vicious, vituperative mindset. Unfortunately, most offenders don’t even realize how badly they embarrass themselves.  The disgraceful monologue inflicted on people at the recent White House Correspondents’ Dinner was a case in point.

Cruel attacks on anyone’s appearance, wishing someone would be crushed by a falling tree, and “jokes” about abortion are not funny.  The nonstop use of the “F” word only underscored the pathetic mentality of the “comedienne.”  Some folks had the spine to walk out.  Too many sat there like overdressed lemmings.

Regardless of our age, gender, profession, economic status, political perspective, race, or creed, no one will ever think more highly of us for spewing vulgar language and nastiness.  Two thousand years ago, a very wise person said, “Out of the fullness of the heart, the mouth speaks.”

Truth is timeless.

Chocolate: A Smart Food

Posted on Posted in Brain Science, Continuing Education, Homestudy, Nutrition, Psychology, Seminars, Webinars

By Dr. Laura Pawlak

There is universal agreement that chocolate is a feel good food.  Chocolate melts in your mouth, releasing its sweet, creamy, cocoa flavor, and the brain follows with a burst of “happy” chemicals.

Beyond the sensory joy of eating chocolate, there are claims that chocolate is a healthy food for the brain.  Most of us would gladly eat more chocolate if proven to benefit the brain.

Several ingredients in cocoa have been proposed to explain the possible cognitive benefits of chocolate.  Cocoa contains caffeine, a substance that enhances cognitive functioning and alertness.  Major nutrients have also been identified in the cocoa bean.  Presently, studies focus on the chemical group called flavanols.

Flavanols are micronutrients found in many fruits and vegetables, especially the fruit called the cocoa bean, the basis of chocolate.  Flavanols have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties — important for brain health.

Small studies, often supported by chocolate manufacturers, state that the cocoa flavanols can boost mood and cognitive performance — as well as blood flow to the brain.  Researchers are now evaluating the significance of these small studies by conducting large, clinical trials using a cocoa extract with known flavanol content, not chocolate.

A dose of 600-750 milligrams of flavanols is considered healthful for the brain.  To obtain this dose, you would have to consume 4.75 ounces of dark chocolate, a total of 750 calories, or 40 ounces of milk chocolate, which has 5,850 calories.

A day with adequate flavanols from commercial chocolate is also a day heavy in sugar, saturated fat, and calories — not a formula for a sharp brain.  Perhaps future studies examining chocolate’s healthful ingredients in the cocoa extract will provide more healthful ways to capture the goodness of the cocoa bean.

Meanwhile, manufacturers divert your focus from calories to health by presenting chocolate paired with a superfood, the avocado.  Called a health food, the Avocado Chocolate Bar is made of freeze-dried avocado pulp powder, 70 percent dark chocolate — plus added sugar — and has nearly 600 calories.

The bar is a convenient, but calorie-laden, snack.  The alternative — consuming whole, fresh plant food — is always a good choice for the brain.

My suggestion:  Eat dark chocolate in moderation if you like it, not because you think it will make you smarter.  For added flavanols, focus on the abundant amounts of this nutrient in grapes and berries.  Enjoy!


Dr. Laura Pawlak (Ph.D., R.D. emerita) is a world-renowned biochemist and dietitian emerita.  She is the author of many scientific publications and has written such best-selling books as “The Hungry Brain,” “Life Without Diets,” and “Stop Gaining Weight.”  On the subjects of nutrition and brain science, she gives talks internationally.

Steady As She Goes

Posted on Posted in Brain Science, Continuing Education, Homestudy, Psychology, Seminars, Webinars

By Mary O’Brien, M.D.

Are you afraid to open your financial statements for March? Have the recent market gyrations triggered a sudden interest in Xanax? Nonstop news cycles and social media postings have spawned massive overreactions to every comment made by political or business leaders. Down drafts of 1,000 points can cause even the most seasoned investors to panic. Over the past two months I’ve had to curtail my exposure to the business networks. Watching the Dow Jones Industrial Average plunge 700 points at 2 P.M. can make me feel as if I’m about to go into ventricle fibrillation. I’d rather stay in normal sinus rhythm.

Sadly, that is not a joke. I have a vivid memory of sitting at a stoplight in Little Rock, Arkansas, on October 19, 1987. It was about 5:30 P.M., and I was headed home from my office. Over the car radio I heard, “The Dow Jones Industrials are down 517 points.” I distinctly remember thinking, “Oh, he’s reading that wrong! The DOW couldn’t possibly be down that much.” It was.

Shortly after I arrived home, my beeper went off. One of my favorite patients was in the emergency room (ER) with a massive myocardial infarction. George A. was a 76-year-old gentleman from Hope, Arkansas. He had grown up in poverty but had educated himself and built up several successful businesses. He was bright, witty, charming, dapper, and gracious. But on that day, George A. had lost over a million dollars, at least on paper. He was devastated.

I grabbed my bag and raced back to the hospital. We got George admitted to the cardiac care unit (CCU). His electrocardiogram (EKG) looked awful, and he looked worse. He was utterly convinced that one dreadful day on Wall Street had destroyed his future. Around 8 P.M., George become very ill (coded). We worked on him frantically for over an hour, but we couldn’t bring him back. There was no doubt in my mind that the thought of financial ruin had literally scared George to death. I felt numb.

Later that week, two of my colleagues committed suicide. They had also lost a fortune, at least on paper. Everyone was stunned and afraid that week. One year later, however, the market had recovered nearly all of its losses. Thirty years later I still mourn the loss of three good people. For all intents and purposes, they died from acute financial panic.

I am no financial genius. But forty years of investing have taught me a few lessons that may help someone else:

  • Don’t watch market moves minute to minute. Before long, you’ll need heavy sedation.
  • Don’t dump stocks when everyone is panicking. You’ll almost always miss out on the best part of the recovery phase.
  • Remember the wisdom of the ancient Greeks: Moderation in all things. Balance stocks, mutual funds, bonds, certificates of deposit (CD’s), cash, real estate, and precious metals based on your age, health, family needs, and risk tolerance.
  • Don’t give in to ignorance, laziness, fear, or greed. Sixty-six percent of millennials have nothing stashed away for retirement. Failure to invest is one of the greatest mistakes of all.
  • No matter what happens, avoid the temptation to overreact. You are infinitely more important than your financial statements.

Now take a deep breath and open the statements from March. Steady as she goes. You’ll be fine.

A Bit of Common Sense

Posted on Posted in Continuing Education, Elder Care, Homestudy, Pain, Seminars, Webinars

By Mary O’Brien, M.D.

Do you take care of patients?  Are you in a position to teach students or other caregivers?  These days, everyone in healthcare is simmering in a sea of policies, protocols, rules, regulations, and algorithms.  Some of them are reasonable.  A few even make good sense.  Unfortunately, however, many of them are downright dumb.  Often, by the time someone reaches the lofty position of creating assorted rules and policies, she has lost touch with her sector of the real world.  The results are not good.

In recent years I’ve been sidelined with a growing list of autoimmune diseases. I used to joke with audiences that with red hair, green eyes, and see-through skin, I was a walking collection of recessive genes.  It’s not a joke anymore.  Being in constant pain and steadily losing functional ability is not fun.  However, in my new role as “patient,” I have learned a few things that are not taught in most training programs.

In the hope that it might help a few other folks, here’s some of what I’ve learned:

  • Sunshine is our friend.  Over the years, I’ve spent far too little time outdoors.  I was a sickly little kid and a natural-born bookworm.  From the mid-1980s on, I was afraid of “skin damage.”  Swell.  Now I have decent-looking skin but my musculoskeletal system is so badly compromised I struggle to get in or out of a chair.  Please encourage patients to get some fresh air and sunshine on a regular basis — especially if these patients suffer from any chronic illness.  Vitamin D supplements are fine, but they can’t undo the damage of decades of deficiency.
  • Small comforts matter.  The point of health care is to relieve pain and suffering.  Many of our colleagues have apparently forgotten that.  Computers can provide information.  They cannot provide comfort and consolation.  There is a true art to easing another person’s misery, and it usually involves small, simple measures.  “Hugging” a king-size pillow while lying on your side can ease pressure and strain on shoulders, elbows, and knees.  Massaging a nicely-fragranced body butter into hands, arms, legs, and feet before bed can help ease the achiness that accompanies chronic illness.  It’s not a substitute for proper medication, but these measures can provide a few moments of respite.
  • Being squeaky clean feels good.  I was obsessed with hygiene even as a little kid.  But chronic pain and illness can make taking a shower, washing your hair, and brushing your teeth feel like a triathlon.  Nearly anyone who has had the flu can relate.  The most simple measures can make a difference:
    • Change pillow cases every 12–24 hours.  I did this for patients when I was a nurse’s aide 45 years ago.  I do it for myself now.  If feels nice.
    • Step up oral and dental care after meals and before bed.  This feels nice, too.  And, there are discernible medical benefits.
    • Try a shower in the morning and a warm bath at night (as long as it’s safe).  Baby wipes, facial wipes, and dry shampoo are essential for travel and chronic illness.
  • Never wake a sleeping patient for vital signs.  I can hear nursing instructors screaming right now.  However, if a patient is sound asleep, her vital signs are probably fine.  Despite all of our impressive technology and sophisticated medications, we have found nothing more restorative than good, deep sleep.

If policies and protocols eased misery, everyone would feel fine by now.  Sometimes what we need is a bit of common sense.

A Very Long Reception Line

Posted on Posted in Continuing Education, Elder Care, Homestudy, Psychology, Seminars, Webinars

By Mary O’Brien, M.D.

He was a bright light shining in the darkness.  Billy Graham changed the lives of hundreds of millions of people.  His message was simple and consistent:  God loves you.  He wasn’t concerned about denomination or fine points of theology even though he knew the Bible about as well as anyone.  He was a bold but humble force for good in the world.

In an age when being snide and snarky is considered “cool,” Billy Graham’s sincerity, honor, and compassion provided a beacon of hope.  Today, few things come more easily than cynicism.  I struggle with it every hour of the day.  But Billy Graham managed to rise above that temptation throughout his long life.  He never worried that someone might ridicule, criticize, or dismiss him because he never worried about himself.  Few people manage to subdue their egos the way Billy Graham did.  His lifelong focus was to share God’s love with as many people as possible.

Living a faith-filled life is very difficult.  Mother Teresa understood that. Pope John Paul II knew it.  Brave souls like these never agonize over focus groups, polls, or surveys.  Political correctness and fence-straddling, psycho-babble have no place in their lives.  They really do answer to a Higher Power.

Billy Graham gave spiritual counsel to 12 presidents regardless of their political party or religious affiliation.  He didn’t need to play games, massage egos, or create clever sound bites.  He said what he meant and he meant what he said. He had a clear understanding of right and wrong, and he wasn’t embarrassed by it.

Status had no claim on him. He lived a simple, scandal-free life.  For decades he showed as much attention and kindness to orphans in huts as he did to heads of state in palaces.

Finally, Billy Graham gave us all a noble example of how to endure the ravages of illness and old age with grace and dignity.  As we have seen with other saintly individuals, his patience, courage, and good humor endured until the very end. Protracted illness, pain, and suffering could not conquer the Spirit that worked within him.

I’ve heard it said that when you die, all the souls you’ve helped along the way are there in heaven to greet you.  In Billy Graham’s case, it must have been a very long reception line.

One Devastating Flaw

Posted on Posted in Brain Science, Continuing Education, Homestudy, Psychology, Seminars, Webinars

By Mary O’Brien, M.D.

It happened again.  Seventeen precious lives were snuffed out by a vicious young man.  Before their bodies were laid to rest, “experts” began screaming at one another on TV.  However, finger-pointing, shouting matches, and emotional rants do not solve problems.  Thoughtful, well-informed, practical strategies solve problems.

Clearly what we have been doing to prevent school shootings has been inadequate.  The reasons are myriad.

  • Gun control laws are flawed.  I’ve long been baffled by the fact that there are more restrictions on me as a physician prescribing four ounces of cough syrup containing codeine than there are on a violent teen buying an assault rifle. Most reasonable people would probably agree:  This makes no sense.
  • Counseling is a fine endeavor.  We need more of it. But caring, prudent advice will not stop slaughter.  It’s impossible to reason with someone who is irrational.
  • School security needs attention.  In Israel, schools are locked at the final morning bell and teachers with military training carry hidden weapons. We now have hundreds of thousands of well-trained veterans who could help secure schools and do data mining of social-media sites to enhance intelligence analysis.  Why are we not enlisting their help?
  • Over the past 30 years, children have been exposed to tremendous levels of violence on TV, in movies, and perhaps most intensely, in video games.  Here there are no consequences to killing, apart from racking up points. Many kids who have been left to fend for themselves never have been taught to respect another person.

Additional resources providing better security, practical law enforcement, and sensible mental health care are needed almost everywhere.  But one devastating flaw remains.  Many people realized the shooter in Florida was dangerous.  The police had been called multiple times over the years.  He had beaten his mother and reportedly tormented and killed small animals.  His social media postings threatened murder.  Other students feared him and school authorities expelled him.  The FBI failed to follow-up on two credible reports.

Why do any of us fear getting involved in difficult situations?  It’s simple. We’re scared to death we might be sued.  We’re afraid of revenge or even the possibility of being called “mean.”

Many years ago, I had to confront a serious situation in a training program. Patient safety and professional standards were on the line.  I took action I deemed necessary and was clobbered with a lawsuit along with several other faculty.  It made our lives a living hell for nearly five years.  Other physicians and administrators simply looked the other way.  They suffered no retribution.  Some of us did what we believed was right.  Some chose to remain silent.

On February 14, 2018, many people did the right thing.  Some of them died trying to save others.  None of us is off the hook here.  Fear can have fatal consequences.  Courage is the antidote.

The Party’s Over

Posted on Posted in Continuing Education, Homestudy, Nutrition, Seminars, Webinars

By Dr. Laura Pawlak

Holiday food and spirits may have disappeared, but those extra calories can stubbornly remain as body fat.  With each new year, an array of diets emerges, promising to restore your former shape.

My suggestion?  This year, follow a new plan called Intermittent Fasting, which has captured the interest of both dieters and researchers.  Intermittent Fasting is a structured program without the drudgery of daily calorie deprivation.

Although traditional reduced-calorie diets are certainly science-based, intermittent fasting is a sensible alternative.  Studies suggest a modified fast is just as beneficial for weight loss as other diets.

For this program, the term “fasting” is defined as consuming a total of 500 calories for women and 600 calories for men on fasting days. If calorie counting is not convenient, you can eat about 25 percent of your normal calories on fasting days.  More importantly, you abstain from eating all calorie-containing foods and beverages for 14 hours (women) or 16 hours (men) on fasting days.

The popular 5:2 Intermittent Fasting Diet is appealing because the two fasting days each week can be chosen to fit one’s schedule best.  On the remaining five days, you eat sensibly.  If weight loss is your goal, it is important to avoid overcompensation during non-fasting days.

Alternate-day Fasting is a more aggressive approach to weight loss.  You consume only 500-600 calories every other day following the 14- to 16-hour fast. Recently, scientists compared the Alternate-day Fasting program with a standard weight-loss diet for six months followed by a maintenance diet for an additional six months.  Persons choosing the fasting program had slightly greater weight loss than individuals following the standard low-calorie diet.

To limit calories during fasting days, consider making a homemade soup, then establish portions and freeze individual servings.  A simple vegetable soup with legumes and wild rice or whole wheat quinoa is nutritious, high in fiber, and low in calories.  A variety of salad ingredients with fish or turkey and calorie-free dressing is always an excellent choice.  An egg-white omelet using fresh or leftover vegetables provides quality protein needed to protect muscle mass.

To dampen appetite during fasting days, choose vegetables high in fiber and protein-rich foods low in fat. Try adding herbs and spices to cooked vegetables.  They light up your taste buds with pleasing flavors and aromas.


Dr. Laura Pawlak (Ph.D., R.D. emerita) is a world-renowned biochemist and dietitian emerita.  She is the author of many scientific publications and has written such best-selling books as “The Hungry Brain,” “Life Without Diets,” and “Stop Gaining Weight.”  On the subjects of nutrition and brain science, she gives talks internationally.

A Different Tradition

Posted on Posted in Brain Science, Continuing Education, Homestudy, Psychology, Seminars, Webinars

By Mary O’Brien, M.D.

Has your home returned to a relative state of post-holiday normality?  I’m almost there.  The boxes and bags and bows and ribbons have been put away until next year.  The “thank you” notes are in the mail.  And my kitchen table has been restored to an acceptable state of neatness.

Many people will start to focus on new year’s resolutions now, knowing full well the resolutions are unlikely to last.  I have a different tradition at the end of December.  It goes back quite a few years.  In a reflective state of blissful solitude, I write down my own little “year in review.”  It takes some time, thought, and effort, but it’s an exercise that can generate some profound insights.

  • What were the best or most positive events of 2017 — personally, nationally, and globally?
  • What were the worst or most tragic events of 2017 — personally, nationally, and globally? How did I cope or respond?
  • What event or situation made me feel most grateful?
  • What was the most beautiful, unusual, or remarkable sight I saw in 2017? (Personally, it would be difficult to top the perfect, unobstructed view of the total solar eclipse I had from my own backyard in August 2017.)
  • What was the biggest mistake I made in 2017? This one can be tough and sobering.
  • What was the most important lesson I learned in 2017? It’s often related to the biggest mistake I made.
  • What experience or moment touched me the most deeply?
  • What was the most noble, courageous, or generous thing I did in the past year? Coming up short on this one is not a good sign.
  • And finally, what could I do in 2018 to become a better person — physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually?

The little, personal “year in review” may not be as fascinating as a list of the year’s top news stories, viral videos, or celebrities who have passed.  It will, however, become profoundly revealing to you 10 or 20 years from now.

Have a happy new year.