How To Stimulate The Vagus Nerve To Improve Your Health

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Are you feeling a little out of control? Like you don’t know how to calm yourself down? Have you ever felt stress so deeply that it feels overbearing and like you might be swallowed up into a black hole at any given moment? 

You try so many practices to calm the mind or lessen the grip of that stress, but it still feels like a black cloud hanging over your head. 

So, you turn on some music — sometimes your favorite song and other times a song that feels emotionally strong — and you start to hum. You start to sing. And then it happens…

A break in that black cloud. A lessened grip. You know the stress is still there, but something feels different and a level of relief fills you. 

That relief might be minimal or it might be gigantic. All you know is that there is a shift in how you were feeling.

You are not imagining your relief! The lessening of the stress is all so real and that is because of what you have physically stimulated. What you activated. 

What you might not know is that a simple humming or a singing of your favorite song stimulated a nerve that is critical to help you not only manage your stress, but to also help you boost your immune system, optimize your gut health, balance your blood sugar — along with a slew of other health benefits. 

The Vagus Nerve

Your sympathetic nervous system is the part of your nervous system that moves you into action. It is your fight or flight system and if it detects a threat, real or perceived, it will trigger your fight or flight response. If there isn’t a real threat, and you do not need to activate the sympathetic nervous system, then you lean in and recruit the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the part that calms you down. 

The vagus nerve is the most influential nerve in your parasympathetic nervous system. It functions like your body’s natural reset button — playing heavily on both your emotional and physical body. The vagus nerve extends from the brainstem down into your stomach and intestines, through your heart and lungs, and connecting your throat and facial muscles. Movement or recruitment of these areas help to stimulate the vagus nerve so it can learn how to be more flexible (vagal tone). Healthy vagal tone can be thought of as an optimal balance of parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system actions that allows you to respond with resilience to the ups and downs of life. Learning how to stimulate your vagus nerve allows you to bring the calm and feel more collected.

Vagal Tone

Chronic stress and unresolved trauma can be a real bummer! Not only do they impact your life deeply, but it can also create a great imbalance between your sympathetic and parasympathetic functions of your nervous system. Because we live in a world that is over-stimulating and activating for the sympathetic nervous system, many of us need access to tools that help us engage the parasympathetic nervous system on a daily basis. 

Like I mentioned, the vagus nerve has a calming effect on the sympathetic nervous system activity. But, it is also important to recognize that individuals with unresolved PTSD or trauma often resort to a primitive expression of the parasympathetic nervous system which can lead to symptoms of fatigue or depression. When left untreated, chronic stress and unresolved PTSD can disrupt your physical, mental, and emotional health. The good news is that practices that focus on stimulating the vagus nerve can help regain balance if you are either keyed up with anxiety or shut down with fatigue.

This is why the tone of the vagus nerve is so significant.  Higher vagal tone is associated with better general health — better blood sugar regulation, reduced risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease, improved digestion and a reduction in migraines. Most importantly though, it is associated with increased emotional stability, resiliency and longevity, that which helps to balance out every other area of your life. 

Curious what your vagal tone looks like? You can easily measure it at home! Heart rate variability is a way to measure vagal tone. Your heart-rate speeds up a little when you breathe in, and slows down a little when you breathe out. The bigger the difference between your inhalation heart-rate and your exhalation heart-rate, the higher your vagal tone. The higher the tone, the more efficient you are at relaxing. 

An increase in vagal tone is linked to a reduction in overall inflammation and an increase in emotional health and well-being. Lower vagal tone is associated with mood instability, depression, diabetes, chronic fatigue syndrome, cognitive impairment, chronic inflammation, and cardiovascular disease. 

Activating Your Vagus Nerve

  • Do yoga, but specifically any yoga practice that stimulates the path of the vagus nerve can have a profound influence on the tone of the vagus nerve.
  • Meditation — especially loving-kindness meditation, mindfulness meditation, and Om chanting increased heart rate variability
  • Slow, rhythmic, diaphragmatic breathing. In studies, ujjayi breathing showed quite effective. This type of slow breathing involved 6 breaths per minute, which would be about 5 seconds per inhale, 5 seconds per exhale.
  • Humming, chanting, or singing — especially emphasizing the long, slow exhalation to stimulate the vocal cords.
  • Thinking positive thoughts of others and increasing social connection — this stimulates the heart center of the vagus nerve.
  • Using cold water. Take a cold shower or splash cold water on your face. You can also achieve the same effect by holding a ziplock bag filled with ice cubes against your face and holding your breath. Or submerge your tongue in cold liquid.
  • Laugh more and laugh out loud!
  • Practice the Valsalva Maneuver — Exhale against a closed airway by keeping your mouth closed and pinching your nose while trying to breathe out. It increases the pressure inside of your chest cavity thereby stimulating your vagus nerve.
  • Take your probiotic. Cultivating healthy intestinal bacteria improves the mind-gut connection and your vagal tone.
  • Get some mild exercise in — it stimulates gut flow and vagus nerve activation needed to initiate this response.
  • Do some gargling. It activates the vagus nerve by activating the muscles in the back of the throat while exhaling slowly.
  • Get a massage. Neck, foot, and pressure massages may stimulate the vagus nerve, as can gently massaging around the carotid sinus located on the sides of your neck.
  • Get enough zinc. This was shown to increase vagus stimulation and is a common mineral that some people don’t get enough of.
  • Eat more seafood — According to several scientific reviews, omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA increase heart rate variability (HRV) and lower heart rate. HRV is directly linked to vagus nerve stimulation.
  • Engage in prayer and pray out loud.
  • Spend time in nature. Nature is soothing and calms the nervous system, but some studies link sunlight to increasing vagal tone.

Stimulating the vagus nerve stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which in turns reduces your neurophysiological experience of stress — super important for optimal health and wellness. It reduces your heart rate and blood pressure, influences the limbic system in your brain (where emotions are processed), and stimulates digestion so your body can absorb the nutrients you are giving it. Start practicing the art of stimulating your vagus nerve to relieve anxiety, depression, tension and the general sense of unease when stress builds up. 

Try to practice daily as a preventive measure to ensure greater emotional resilience and improved health!

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8 Ways To Relieve Seasonal Affect Disorder And Depression

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Winter used to be synonymous with feeling sad and not like myself.

The holidays would come and go. And so would my spirits — feeling like I was constantly in a state of doom and gloom. 

I truly dreaded winter time because of this. As I got older, I started to realize that I was not alone. Others felt the stranglehold of winter’s grip around their hearts and I started to feel something new…

Normalcy.

And for many years, I lived in normalcy where I would curse the winter and grump my way through my day. That was until I learned about what it really meant to be SAD. 

Seasonal Affect Disorder (SAD) is a form of seasonal depression triggered by the change in seasons that occurs primarily in winter. The shorter the days are, the more you might be prone to this phenomenon. I felt massive relief in knowing that there was a reason I felt not like myself. I wasn’t broken. But then that left me questioning…

Why do some people get SAD? I found that experts aren’t certain, but some think that seasonal changes disrupt the circadian rhythm — the 24-hour clock that regulates how we function during sleeping and waking hours, causing us to feel energized and alert sometimes and drowsy at other times.

Yet, another theory is that the changing seasons disrupt hormones such as serotonin and melatonin. These hormones regulate your sleep, mood, and feelings of well-being. It also turns out that women and young people are more likely to experience SAD, as are those who live farther away from the equator. People with a family history or diagnosis of depression or bipolar disorder are also more susceptible.

What does SAD look like? According to valleyrecovery.com, common symptoms include:

  • Feelings of extreme hopelessness, depression, sadness
  • Changes in eating and sleeping patterns
  • Withdrawing from social activities and/or hobbies
  • Inability to tolerate stress
  • Difficulty focusing or procrastination
  • Cravings for sugar and carbohydrates

The light started to turn on and I quickly realized two things:

  1. SAD can be treated and managed.
  2. SAD needs to be treated and managed — all forms of depression limit people’s ability to live their lives to the fullest, to enjoy their families, and to function well at work.

Here are 8 things you can do to start releasing SAD’s grip on you:

 1. Tidy Up Your Nutrition

Nutrition is the first place to look. Yes, there are specific foods and nutrients that will help you feel better, but I think the real power is in looking at what you are already taking in. Keeping your blood sugar balanced is key to stable mood and hormone balancing. Limit the amount of sugar that you consume because sugar is directly linked to brain health. A sugar high may have you feeling good momentarily, but will knock your blood sugar out of whack. Once the sugar high wears out, your blood sugar will drop and increase lethargic feelings and irritability. 

You also want to look at the amount of processed foods and gluten that you have in your diet. Eliminating gluten from your diet can heal your gut health, balance your blood sugar, clear up brain fog, and balance your hormones. 

Eat consistent meals to keep your body fueled and and your energy high. Not eating consistently can cause dips in your blood sugar and you might notice higher levels of feeling “hangry.”

2. Listen To Music That Makes You Feel Good

One of the most immediate ways to alter your mood is to listen to music. You can probably remember a time you put on a song to elevate your mood or to even trigger sadness. Music therapy has been used as a medicinal alternative for a wide range of health problems from autism to healing from a surgery. Remember the power of music — it can increase sadness so choose music that is lighter and not tied to painful memories.

3. Get More Vitamin D 

Vitamin D has many health benefits. It is also known as the “sunshine vitamin,” because your body produces it when your skin is exposed to UV light. Unfortunately, you may not be able to head outdoors once the temperature drops, which greatly decreases your daily dose of vitamin D. Low levels of vitamin D are linked to SAD in research reported in 2014 in the journal Medical Hypotheses. Adding in a supplemental vitamin D may be helpful to release the depression.

4. Keep A Gratitude Journal (Or, Any Journal) 

Writing down your thoughts can have a positive effect on your mood because it can help to get your negative feelings out of your system. What is even more powerful for depression is keeping a gratitude journal to help you see what is good and bright in your life. 

Having trouble knowing where to start in your journaling journey? Click here to get you started.

5. Stick To A Schedule

Sleeping at night can really feel like a chore with those dealing with SAD. And if you can’t sleep at night, getting up in the morning may be even harder. Maintaining a regular schedule improves sleep, which can help alleviate symptoms of SAD.

Keeping a regular schedule will also expose you to light at consistent and predictable times. And eating at regular intervals can help you watch your diet and not overeat. Many people who live with SAD find they gain weight in the winter because of this, especially if you are prone to emotional eating.

6. Add Aromatherapy 

If you like essential oils and smelly stuff, then you are in luck — Aromatherapy may also help those with seasonal disorder. Essential oils can influence the area of the brain that’s responsible for controlling moods and the body’s internal clock that influences sleep and appetite. 

You can simply add a few drops of essential oils to your bath at night to help you relax or plug your diffuser in and left the smell waft through the air. Click here to read more ways you can use specific oils for symptoms of SAD. 

7. Let The Sunshine In

Getting outside as much as you can during the day and take advantage of what sunlight there is can dramatically improve SAD or any kind of depression. If you live where it’s cold, be sure to bundle up, but take a stroll around the block at noon or soon after — that’s when the sun is brightest.

Also, when you’re indoors, keep your blinds open to let as much natural light in as you can. You want to be in bright environments whenever possible to stimulate the brain.

8. Use A Light Therapy Box

Light Therapy Boxes give off light that mimics sunshine and can help in the recovery from SAD. The light from the therapy boxes is significantly brighter than that of regular light bulbs, and it’s provided in different wavelengths.

Try sitting in front of a light box for about 30 minutes a day. This will stimulate your body’s circadian rhythms and suppress its natural release of melatonin. Research shows that most people find light therapy to be most effective if used when they first get up in the morning. 

Seasonal Affect Disorder does not have to be something that you suffer with. You can take back control of your life. Remember, exercise and socialization and having something to look forward to are just as important as any of these other tips above. But if you feel like you do those things and you are still feeling stuck, give the tips above a try and see how you can begin lifting the heavy cloud of winter blues!

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4 Surprising Things That Drain Your Energy

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Sometimes it can feel like the wind has been taken right out of your sails. One moment you are flying high and the next moment, you feel like curling up on the couch with a  pint of Ben and Jerry’s tucked under you arm while you watch your favorite Netflix special. I have been there.

We all are highly participating players at one time or another in our lives. We push ourselves hard, but at the same time, we are pushed back by the impact of those that we interact with. It is a never-ending cycle of energy exchange and stressors placed on our bodies.

When I get stuck in an energy drain,  I am usually left feeling unmotivated, uninspired, exhausted, and like I have been hit by a truck.

 And it comes at the most unexpected times…

As I stood in the driveway, looking him in the eye, I could hear the hate and anger spewing out of his mouth as he complained about the woes of the world and the heaviness in his heart. I could feel the daggers being thrown into my body — one painful hit after another. He ranted and raved about the injustices and his views about politics. All I could do was stand there in silence, taking the blows of his words and feeling the drain of my energy seeping out of my body. I just wanted to escape.

All of this during a family picnic. A time for happiness. A place of laughter.

Yet here I was stuck as his negative energy vomited all over me.

As I planned my escape, all I could think of was…

“Get me to the couch, pronto!”

The energy drain is real and it can seem like every day is a game of “will I” or “won’t I” be exhausted by the end of the day. When you aren’t prepared like I was at that picnic, you can never really know how the day will turn out. There are obvious energy drains like eating unhealthy foods, finding your stress unmanageable, not getting enough sleep, and not exercising enough. But, there are many drains that you don’t even realize exist — and, that you are participating freely in!

Here are 4 things that could be draining your energy and leaving you exhausted:

Energy Drain #1: Nature Blindness

Nature is healing, even for the the non-outdoor lovers. Plants, trees, fresh air, sunshine — all can lift our spirits and calm our senses. But most of us don’t fully engage in nature to get the real benefits. To get the full benefits, you want to engage your senses. If you have a cellphone attached to your ear or you are focused on how much mileage you are tracking, you may want to reconsider how you engage your senses. The color green evokes feelings of calmness, forest dirt microbes are linked to healthy immune systems, inhaled cypress tree compounds reduce stress hormones and blood pressure and birdsong supports brain neuron health.

But it doesn’t stop there! To really achieve full wellness, get your hands and feet dirty — play in the dirt or dig in a garden. This creates a grounding effect, aka Earthing, and has researched health benefits such as neutralizing free radicals, improving sleep, decreasing stress, decreasing pain, boosting immunity, decreasing inflammation, just to name a few.

Go for a hike and listen to the birds. Get out onto a lake and kayak through the calming waters. Breathe in the fresh air and enjoy the sunshine.

Feeling the sunshine against my skin, smelling the fresh breezes, and running my hands over grass or leaves or flowers brings a sense of peace and vitality. It’s an instant mood booster!

Energy Drain #2: Exercise Overload

Too much exercise could be too much of a good thing. It can drain your energy and create an imbalance in your hormones. Especially when it is not the right kind of exercise for you or it is something that you really don’t even enjoy doing. The key is to listen to your body.

When we push ourselves too hard and increase our cortisol levels, a stress hormone, that creates a state of inner body stress. If that inner stress is coupled with other forms of stress that infiltrate our daily lives, then that extra stress from too much exercise can place a deplete on other hormones — causing weight gain, fatigue, and other health issues. Excessive stress can also fatigue your adrenal glands, setting you up for some chronic fatigue issues.

Listen to your body. If your body is feeling overly fatigued, then take a yoga class, participate in some deep stretching, or even take a rest day. Your body knows what it needs.

Energy Drain #3: Negative Friends And Family

This has always been a wrecking ball on my energy, but I never really knew it until I actually KNEW it. Who you surround yourself really does make a difference to your energy levels. The best tip of advice? Seek what restores you. 

According to a study published in the journal Neurology, high levels of negativity is linked to an increased risk of dementia. Negativity increases stress in the body. Increased stress in the body increases body inflammation. And, increased body inflammation increases inflammation on the brain, which is the primary cause of dementia. The people you spend time with at home, at work and in social circles contribute to your emotional and physical health.

It is so easy to get pulled into negativity. It may feel satisfying to a certain respect because it creates a sense of community or like you are building friendships. And we all do it from time to time. But over time, it can lead to patterns of negative thinking and negative mindset. Negative mindsets create a feeling of drain and dissatisfaction — and, it can increase the inflammation in the body, zapping your energy quicker than you realize.

One of the best ways to know if you are stuck in a negative cycle is to go on vacation and see the difference in your body and attitude. Are you suddenly getting good sleep? Do you feel less tension in your body? If so, it’s important to find ways to relax and replenish positive energy!

You can not pick your family. But you can balance a negative day with something positive by listening to your favorite music, going for a walk, engaging in your favorite hobby, or chasing your cat around your house.

Energy Drain #4: Water Shortage

Dehydration is a real problem. Not only is it a problem in the moment, but it creates a slew of health concerns, all leading to energy drain. Drinking enough water is super important, but sometimes that can feel very challenging. That is when it is smart to start choosing high-water-weight foods.

When you feel thirsty, that is a sign that you are dehydrated. Catching it ahead of time can be a critical step for managing your energy levels. Since the human body is composed of about 60-65% water, you need to stay hydrated so that all your organs function properly and your body runs like a smooth machine. When it starts to wear down and get overworked, that can steal more energy from your reserves, create an imbalance in your hormones, and make you feel sluggish and fatigued.

You can determine whether you need to adjust fluid intake by how you feel, where and how you live and how much you are sweating, to name a few. For instance, if you are tired or constipated, drink more fluids or eat foods high in water content, such as watermelon, spinach, tomatoes and broth. Women who are pregnant or breast-feeding, as well as athletes and people living in warmer climates and at high altitudes, all need to consume more fluids than the general population. The demands are higher.

How can you tell if you aren’t getting enough? You can tell you aren’t getting enough water if your urine appears dark, you feel dizzy or lightheaded or you aren’t thinking clearly. When you feel hungry, drink a glass of water first because you may just be thirsty. Keep a refillable water bottle with you all day. And of course, drink before and after a workout.

The things you do every day to manage your energy levels matter on a greater scale — they matter to your body, mind, emotions and even longevity. These common energy drainers can wear you down, but making a few small tweaks, you can set yourself up for a lifetime of energetic wellness.

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Calm Your Stress In 5 Minutes Or Less

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“It’s like every time I look at a piece of chocolate, I put on 5 lbs.”

Sometimes the dread sets in like that.

And the fear and the anxiety increases with each whiff of freshly baked brownies and each glimpse of decadent chocolatey goodness. 

No matter how healthy you eat throughout the day or how often you push that brownie away, it seems like even the smell of that brownie or the crinkle of the tin on that piece of chocolate puts an instant 5 lbs on the waistline. 

Sure, some of that has to do with hormones or the way that your body responds to nutrients like sugar or carbohydrates. Maybe you have sensitivities that throw your body into a tailspin. But often it relates right back to one tiny little thing…

Or maybe not so tiny in your case!

It makes sense why this thing has a stranglehold on your waistline and how it influences your cravings — cravings to those foods that wreck havoc on not only your waistline, but also to how your body feels.

And, it is even more of a tyrant for women and their hormones, especially as we age or for reasons why our hormones get a little wonky on us.

Stress And Our Hormones

Stress and chronically elevated cortisol levels have long been talked about wrecking havoc on our health and causing an upset in our hormones. It is one thing to have increased stress in our lives, but it is a whole other story when we know exactly how it effects our bodies and influences our delicate hormonal functioning.

The 3 Big Players

The Adrenals. The adrenals are those tiny little glands that sit so regally on top of your kidneys. They are important to keep balanced for many reasons — one of them being that they are our ‘fight or flight’ response in the body, or survival center. When your “ready to run from a tiger” response is turned on, it will dominate over other functions, such as reproduction and metabolic rate. When it is constantly turned on, it begins to steal nutrients that help other hormones function correctly, such as testosterone and estrogen and DHEA. This leads to imbalances and disruptions in other areas of health. This may look like fatigue, brain fog, pregnancy issues, decreased libido, and trouble sleeping. Does that sound familiar?

The Liver. Healthy liver equals happy body. Part of the liver’s job is to deactivate hormones that no longer are in use or functioning as they should. These hormones then need to be broken down, conjugated, and removed from the body. Elevated cortisol (aka high stress) decreases the liver’s ability to detoxify and decrease the effectiveness of the liver pathways that perform the conjugation. 

The Pancreas. The pancreas secretes insulin when the body triggers that insulin levels are not where they should be. Chronically elevated cortisol levels increase insulin production. High levels of insulin are not responded to properly by the cell’s insulin receptor — simply meaning, the cell will not allow the blood sugar to enter the cell and give it the energy it needs. This then sends a message to the pancreas and says,” Hey, can you try giving us another shot of insulin?” This puts a strain on the pancreas to secrete more insulin in order to transport glucose into the cells. This then leads to all the negative impacts that high insulin levels have on the body — insulin resistance and the health conditions associated with the body’s inability to control blood sugar. What does this ultimately mean? When cortisol is high, our body does not effectively read the message to lower blood sugar and our pancreas can not work efficiently to do it’s job. This can lead to a slew of health problems such as diabetes, heart disease, and even Alzheimer’s disease.

5 Tips To Keep Your Stress Levels From Soaring

  1. Create more laughter in your day — everyday! Laughter really is the best medicine. By rapidly firing out endorphins in the brain, your mood increases and the stress-causing hormones (i.e., cortisol and adrenaline) decrease. Laughing tricks your nervous system into making you happy. Go and grab your copy of a funny skit that makes you laugh, like the classic Monty Python’s “The Ministry of Silly Walks.” Those Brits are so hilarious, you’ll soon be cracking up, rather than cracking apart.
  2. Eat more Omega-3’s and healthy fats. Stress levels and a proper diet are best buds. When we’re overwhelmed, we often are hit with cravings and feelings of wanting comfort that can resort to using sugary, unhealthy fatty snack foods as a pick-me-up. Try to avoid sugary snacks and plan ahead with more Omega-3’s and healthy fats — such as avocados, coconut oil, olive oil, ghee, butter, etc. Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to reduce the symptoms of stress and healthy fats are crucial for supporting the brain and balancing out your hormones. A tuna sandwich with avocado really might be brain food.
  3. Breathe easier. Cliché is the term, “take a deep breath,” but it holds quite true when it comes to stress. Buddhist monks have been consciously and deliberately practicing breathing during meditations for centuries. But breathing easier comes with technique. Shallow breathing causes stress, while deep breathing oxygenates your blood, helps you feel more centered, and clears the mind. For an easy three to five minute exercise, sit up in your chair with your feet flat on the floor and hands on top of your knees. Breathe in and out slowly and deeply, concentrating on your lungs as they expand fully in your chest and allowing your belly to expand out as you breath in (and pulling your belly in as you exhale).
  4. Listen to music. Music can be like a straight dose of happiness injected into your brain. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by a stressful situation, try taking a break and listening to relaxing music. Playing calm music or something that lightens your stress load and makes your feel upbeat has a positive effect on the brain and body. It can lower blood pressure and reduce cortisol. You could listen to an upbeat tune like Pharrell’s “Happy”, throw on your favorite classical track, or dive deep into ocean or nature sounds. 
  5. Create a nighttime routine. Everyone knows stress can cause you to lose sleep. Unfortunately, lack of sleep is also a key cause of stress. This vicious cycle causes the brain and body to get out of whack and only gets worse with time. Usually it is not the lack of desire to get sleep, rather the falling asleep is the problem! Nighttime routines are super helpful to get your brain primed for sleep and to get your body relaxed through habit and environmental cues. A nighttime routine could look like turning off the TV earlier, dimming the lights, making a cup of tea, taking an epsom salt bath, reading, and giving yourself time to relax before going to bed. It may be the most effective stress buster on my list.

Managing your stress and your endocrine system is not impossible. It takes some simple steps to get you on track and creating a strong foundation of balance and harmony. What is the one step you are going to start with today? 

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I love inspiration through story-telling! If you liked this article, then you will love my other blogs.

Click here to get my Free 10-day body reset detox guide. You will become part of my tribe and get weekly blogs delivered straight to your inbox (along with a free gift and other insider tips that only my tribe will get)!