Musicians' Health Collective

Musicians' Health Collective: Supporting the health of musicians (and normal people)

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The Sour Side of Sugar

I recently asked fellow YTU teacher and health coach, Christina Medina to write a short piece on the consequences of sugar.  Like many people, I was impressed and disheartened by the documentary, "Fed Up," and have been shocked at some of the truly detrimental consequences of refined sugar. 

Christina Medina, RYT 200 is an Integrated Yoga Tune Up® Teacher and an Integrative Nutrition Health Coach. Her passion in life is to age with grace AND share that passion with others by helping them to live, move, and feel better in their body naturally. When she isn¹t spending time with her husband of 30 years or her four adult daughters, you can find her studying topics like anatomy, biomechanics, or nutrition, coaching clients to live the healthiest version of themselves, or cooking up something gluten, grain, and sugar free in the kitchen.

“Like heroin, cocaine, and caffeine, sugar is an addictive, destructive drug, yet we consume it daily in everything from cigarettes to bread.”

~ William Duffy, author of Sugar Blues

I’m sure you’ve been there – countdown to show time, time to get it done, time to do
your thing, show up, perform – whatever that means to you in your current situation. For me, it’s teaching movement classes and working weekly on a few big projects. Either way, I’m expected to show up with my “A game” and be ready to go. But lately, my energy level has been lower than normal and dragging me down, which gets me thinking about reaching for a little pick-me- up. You know, something to jumpstart my energy and propel me towards my goal. As a recovering sugar addict whose been on the wagon for three years now, I confess, there are still times when I long to grab something sweet and sugary and (misleadingly) satisfying, something that I think will give me the boost I need to get the job done and maybe make my heart sing all the while. The truth is that I know enough now about sugar and how my body will respond to the consumption of it. Sugar isn’t going to really give me what I want – the energy to be my best or perform my best for whatever the task is at hand. Quite the contrary, it’ll do me more harm than good.


Sugar, I know, gets a bad rap. But, it does so for good reason. Scientific research is clear. And, more and more evidence is coming out validating the sour side of sugar, the negative effects it can have on the body and mind, things like: brain fog, fatigue, moodiness, nervousness, arthritis, headaches or migraines, mild memory loss, immune suppression, emotional instability including depression, asthma, low blood sugar or hypoglycemia, which can cause confusion, irritability, and forgetfulness. The list goes on and on. 1 None of these sour sides of sugar will help me bring my “A game” to the table or allow me to perform at my best.

Image from the documentary Fed Up courtesy of  Eater.com .

Image from the documentary Fed Up courtesy of Eater.com.


But what about a little bit, I ask myself? Just this once? Maybe you’ve thought that too. Unfortunately, the one time, the “spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down”, so to speak, lights up the brain like the brain of an addict on crack. 2 Sugar stimulates the brain, tickles the reward center, and releases dopamine. Blood sugar quickly goes up in response to the sweet thing eaten, then comes crashing down just as fast, leaving you feeling low and slow and wanting more. Recent research shows strong evidence supporting the idea that sugars and sweets can induce cravings almost comparable to addictive drugs. Therein lies the problem: for many, the occasional becomes a habit, and the habit becomes an addiction. In this way, sugar and the craving for more pushes out the nutrient-dense foods that might otherwise be eaten.


Let me be clear here: I’m talking about refined sugar like good ole’ C&H pure cane sugar, from Hawaii, growin’ in the sun (anyone remember the commercial?) – aka table sugar or granulated sugar. I’m talking about any sugar that has been so refined it no longer, in any way, shape or form, resembles anything near to what it was as it is grew from the earth. I’m not referring to natural sugars like in a piece of fruit, or that in honey or maple syrup, etc. which also comes with vitamins, minerals, and fiber. I’m talking about the stuff that has been extracted from either the sugar cane plant or from beets (which, by the way, are typically GMO these days). Once extracted, these sugars are then devitalized, meaning stripped or depleted of all nutrients. And, if the sugar is white, it has been bleached.
Some folks say that sugar is sugar, but I disagree. Yes, sugars may be isocaloric, meaning they contain similar calories, but they are not isometabolic, meaning they are not metabolized by the body in the same way. The body processes natural sugar, for example in an apple, completely differently than the refined stuff, in say a Snickers bar, and even more so than the man-made stuff (those alternative sweeteners like Splenda, aspartame, Equal, etc., which are toxic) found in something like a diet Coke. The beauty about natural sugars is that they contain easily digestible micronutrients that make it possible for the body to process and metabolize the sugar, as it should be, at the cellular level.
Some of these micronutrients are B vitamins, and minerals like magnesium, phosphorous,
iron, and zinc to name a few. Refined sugars are void of these micronutrients and fiber, which are necessary to break down the sugar to use it as energy. There are no added benefits to eating it; it’s mostly just calories (hence the term: empty calories, meaning no nutritional value).

This for me is one of the most astonishing.  Commercial smoothies and juices are SO high in sugar.

This for me is one of the most astonishing.  Commercial smoothies and juices are SO high in sugar.

That’s another sour side of sugar: since refined sugar doesn’t have any built in micronutrients, it’s a micronutrient depleter. Let me explain: eating an average orange is like making an energy deposit in the body of approximately 60 calories plus loads of vital micronutrients. To digest and metabolize the orange and the sugars therein, the body uses the necessary micronutrients from the orange to do so. Simply put, eating the orange is like making a deposit to the body’s energy bank. Now, for the same number of calories (60) you could eat 4 teaspoons of sugar. However, there are no micronutrients – no fiber, B vitamins, minerals, etc. in the sugar to help the body turn the sugar to fuel. The body has to take all the micronutrients to digest and metabolize the sugar from the body’s micronutrient reserve. In eating the 4 teaspoons of sugar, the energy withdrawal far exceeds the energy input. Herein lies another sour side of sugar: continual energy withdrawals without valuable energy input will deplete the body of vital nutrients. If the
energy withdrawal is done consistently enough, for long enough, the body goes bankrupt. This is how sugar can cause so many problems in the body. Micronutrient and energy bankruptcy could lead to depression, adrenal fatigue, chronic disease, inflammation, and more.

So, the next time you’re feeling like you need a little pick me up to get the job done, grab something more wholesome and healthier than your usual sugar laden treat, something that is sweetened with natural sugars. When choosing pre-packaged snacks, look for items containing unprocessed and unheated such as honey, molasses, maple syrup or sugar, coconut, palm, or date sugar, green stevia leaves, or dehydrated sugar cane juice like Rapadura or Sucanat. These last two natural sugars are also great choices to use as substitutes for granulated sugar when you’re baking.

You say you prefer savory and don’t eat many sweets? Chances are that you’re probably eating more sugar than you think. Refined sugar is in just about everything that’s packaged on the grocery shelves: yogurt, granola bars, peanut butter, and your favorite chips and salsa. Start reading food labels. You’ll be surprised where you’ll find sugar once you do. Unfortunately, sugar is ubiquitous. This fact was exposed in the recent documentary, Fed Up. It is currently estimated that the average American eats about 130 lbs of added sugar a year, or approximately ½ cup (22 tsp.) a day. This far exceeds the USDA’s daily recommendation of 9 teaspoons for men and 6 teaspoons for women.

The bottom line is that there are times when we crave a little pick-me- up and we want it to be sweet. When that time comes, try some of my go to favorites: a raw milk latte sweetened with raw honey and a dash of cinnamon, a banana with raw almond butter, a Hail Merry Chocolate Mint Miracle Tart 5 and kombucha. In choosing to fuel the body with natural sugars found in nutrient-dense foods, which are loaded with all the other micronutrients needed for digestion and metabolization, you’re choosing to make an energy deposit, not just an energy withdrawal. In this way, you’ll stay off the sugar roller coaster; you won’t experience the high from the blood sugar spike followed by the debilitating letdown. And, you’ll have the energy you need, when you need it to perform your best in daily life and on the concert stage.

Focal Dystonia: A Violist's Perspective

Dystonia is a neurological movement disorder that can cause muscles to involuntarily contract, resulting in uncontrollable  movements. For musicians, focal dystonia or focal task-specific dystonia often affects muscles that are used for repetitive movements. Musicians can suffer from focal dystonia in the fingers or hand, embouchure dystonia, or even dystonia of the vocal chords.

I first noticed symptoms of focal dystonia in 2011. My ring and pinky fingers would involuntarily pull in towards my palm, and I would accidentally pluck the strings. I also noticed my ring finger wouldn't lift as quickly as I wanted it to on descending scales. For both issues, I thought that I just needed to practice harder, do more technical exercises, and relax my hand. When I had a quartet recital coming up and couldn't make my fingers work despite practicing as much as possible, I finally saw a doctor and went to physical therapy. After googling my symptoms, focal dystonia came up, but when I asked my first physical therapist about it, she said it couldn't possibly be that.  My PT sessions ran out, but nothing really improved. I continued to blame myself, my technique, and continued to practice harder. Finally, it all caught up to me. I was super tense and anxious because I couldn't play, and I was creating all kinds of extra tension trying to make my fingers work. My ring finger and pinky were curling in and my forearm was killing me after just a few minutes of playing because of the tension. I had to stop playing in the orchestra and figure out what was going on.

Over the course of 2 years, I saw 3 orthopedic surgeons with 3 different diagnoses, 3 physical therapists,  2 massage therapists, and a chiropractor, all with only minor temporary improvements. Finally, my last 2 physical therapist, who were amazing but still couldn't fix me, recommended I see a neurologist. I knew at that moment that it was focal dystonia. I waited weeks for my appointment at the Cleveland Clinic. After a thorough exam and seeing my symptoms while playing viola, the neurologist confirmed my suspicion of focal dystonia. I was waiting for him to tell me of this great new amazing way to treat it, but his outlook on my treatment was pretty grim. He said I could do Botox injections, but they really don't work unless you can find someone to help retrain the hand to use the correct muscles. I asked about playing right-handed and had actually already borrowed a student instrument to do this, but he said I could develop the same symptoms in my right hand. I asked about drugs, but he said there was nothing that would help this enough to play.

I decided that there must be someone doing research and looking for a cure, and I found them at the University of Michigan. Again, I had to wait about 6 weeks for an appointment. I saw a general neurologist who (again) diagnosed focal dystonia, but then referred me to a dystonia specialist. Another 6 or so weeks... In the mean time, I was trying Acupuncture, Alexander technique lessons, and had a body mapping lesson. When I finally got to the last appointment, all they had to offer was Botox. Really? No one will help me retrain? I had also heard that Botox could cause lasting side effects on my muscles, and that wasn't a risk I was willing to take.

I tried another acupuncturist and tried a chiropractor-neurologist. Nothing was helping enough to make a difference. I even gave up coffee, gluten and dairy. The jury is still out as to whether or not this is helping, so I (mostly) stick to it. Apparently, gluten is processed in the same part of the brain as dystonia. As for coffee and dairy, I don't understand exactly why, but two different specialists recommended it and I'm desperate!

As all of this was going on, I would try to play a little bit each day. Some days, I would only last for about 2 minutes because the symptoms were too bad or I would just break down because I really wanted to just play some Bach, not try to make my finger lift up or keep it from curling in. On good days, I could play for about 10 minutes.

Focal dystonia has affected many musicians, most notably pianist Leon Fleischer, who had focal dystonia symptoms in his right hand for many years.   He began to regain movement in his right hand more than thirty years later.   Other musicians with FD include violinist Peter Oundjian and pianist Glenn Gould.

Focal dystonia has affected many musicians, most notably pianist Leon Fleischer, who had focal dystonia symptoms in his right hand for many years.  He began to regain movement in his right hand more than thirty years later.  Other musicians with FD include violinist Peter Oundjian and pianist Glenn Gould.

Finally, I found a doctor in Canada, Dr. Joaquin Farias, who works with musicians who have dystonia. I have heard of many people starting to recover and who make full recoveries after meeting with him and following an individualized recovery plan. So, I made an appointment. This last January, I went to Toronto and met with him for 4 days in a row. He analyzed the movements of my hand and gave me exercises to help retrain the correct muscles to start working again. Within 2 days, I was able to play simple pieces. A lot of recovery is 2 steps forward, 1 step back, sometimes 3 steps back of 5 steps forward, but now I have hope.

I try really hard to accept whatever state my playing is in and look at any issues like a puzzle. It not only helps me make progress, but it helps me stay positive. I have learned that even on bad days, I am still making progress, even when it doesn't show. Recently, I had two weeks of bad days and then reluctantly went to practice. I found that my hand was working better than it had in at least a year. It still comes and goes, but I keep making new discoveries that help me to move forward.

I am still teaching private lessons, but my students and I have learned to have successful lessons without me having to demonstrate very much. My students listen to their pieces at home to enable them to guide themselves when learning new music, I use YouTube when necessary in the lessons, and I can use my right hand to play on the piano when needed. I have also been taking classes to become a certified Montessori teacher in a 3-6 year old classroom. I am learning tools through my classes and in the classroom that help my teaching in general, despite my lack of playing. It's been a learning process and very frustrating at times to teach without playing, but I'm grateful to still be able to work with kids who love music. I do think everything I'm learning to help my dystonia get better also helps me understand my students' challenges and be able to break things down better for them.

Aside from viola and violin, my focal dystonia only really interferes with typing. I have mostly typed things on my phone with my thumbs since last January. I have ninja-like skills :) I have become healthier by trying to take care of myself with enough sleep, healthy food, less caffeine, etc., and in trying to not be consumed by not being able to play. It helps to focus on other cool things I'm doing and the progress that I'm now making.

One thing I'm focusing on is raising money for dystonia research by running the Glass City Half Marathon on April 26th. If you'd like to check out my fundraising page or make a donation, click here! Any donation would be greatly appreciated!

While focal dystonia is not fun, it is not a death sentence. I do believe that someday, I will beback playing. I've gotta "Just keep swimming, just keep swimming" :)

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