Beating heart, flowing veins

Cardiovascular Health

Low calorie, low fat, right? Avoid eggs, red meat and I’m good to go, right?

Nope. In fact, enjoy those eggs and healthy animal fats. The real culprit behind cardiovascular disease is sugar. Cholesterol jumps in to help save the day, and has gotten much of the blame off and on for many years. What’s really going on? Inflammation.

Eggs and spinach

Eggs and spinach

Cardiovascular health myth: follow a low-fat diet if you have high cholesterol. The Reality: Often people associate high cholesterol with dietary cholesterol intake and hence cut out nearly all of the fat from their diet, thinking it will reduce their bad LDL cholesterol levels. Excellent, beneficial foods such as nuts, olive oils, and guacamole get eliminated. Unfortunately, slashing fat intake too drastically can cause ‘good’ HDL levels to drop as well. Foods rich in monounsaturated fats like nuts, olive oil, and avocados help to lower total cholesterol and bad LDL cholesterol, without dropping good HDL cholesterol.  Atherosclerosis is progressive, but it’s also preventable.

Atherosclerosis is the hardening of the arteries, a fatty buildup along arterial walls throughout the body. It is an underlying condition leading to heart attacks, strokes, and central to all forms of heart disease. Atherosclerosis is caused by the formation of plaque along the walls of the blood vessel. Plaque formation is a gradual process that occurs over several years. As plaque accumulates, it narrows the arterial lumen and restricts blood flow.

1. Oxidative damage to the endothelium (arterial wall) induces secretion of growth factor[1] and causes plaque to form. This layer protects the endothelial cells. Result: endothelial cells are exposed to damage by free radicals.

2. White blood cells migrate to the site of injury and attach to the endothelium. Plaque begins to form. The white blood cells also initiate an inflammatory reaction. In response to the inflammation, cholesterol and other immune cells are deposited at the site of the injured arterial wall to help repair the damage.

3. Cells from smooth muscle layer also migrate toward the lesion.

4. The deposits lose their endothelial covering, allowing blood platelets to adhere and secrete potent growth factors.

5. The endothelium may remain intact, but growth factors secreted by smooth muscle and endothelial cells continue to enlarge the plaque.

Clogged blood vessels increase the risk for clot formation (blood doesn’t flow smoothly through vessels) by increasing platelet aggregation (blood thickens). Clots in an artery that lead to the heart are what cause a heart attack, clots that lead to the brain are what cause strokes.

Cholesterol numbers. There are several types of cholesterol that can be tested from the blood. 

  • Total cholesterol: shows the total number of each of the following. Alone it is not very useful as it includes both HDL nad LDL (good and bad) levels of cholesterol. The ratio between these is much more important and informative to cardiovascular health
  • LDL (low density lipoproteins, recommended to be lower than 130mg/dl), and VLDL (very low density lipoproteins) are the ‘bad’ cholesterol numbers.
  • HDL (high density lipoproteins, recommended to be greater than 35mg/dl) is the ‘good’ cholesterol number.
  • Triglycerides (recommended to be lower than 150 mg/dl) show fat levels in the blood, which can be raised by high intake of sugar and refined carbohydrates. How
  • Smoking
  • Physical inactivity
  • Low antioxidant intake (veggies & fruit)
  • Low levels of essential fatty acid intake
  • Mineral deficiencies
  • Chronic inflammation
  • Uncontrolled diabetes
  • High cholesterol levels
  • High blood pressure
  • Abdominal obesity
  • Uncontrolled Stress
  • Excess alcohol intake

Nutritional Protocols

The foundation of prevention and treatment of atherosclerosis is based on minimizing oxidative damage and inflammation. The following are major nutrients for treating and preventing atherosclerosis. The best protocol is to remove the substances that cause harm: environmental toxins, especially smoking, oxidative foods such as rancid oils, hydrogenated oils (trans fats), sugar, and processed foods; and increase vegetables and health-promoting fats.

  • Increase fiber (aim for 35-50g/day), fiber has a number of jobs in the body. Primarily it helps slow the absorption of glucose (sugar) to balance blood sugar levels, and it also helps ‘clean’ the digestive track, keeping good bacteria and getting rid of all the ‘junk’.
  • Reduce sugar as it causes systemic inflammation.  Sugar: refined sugar, refined carbohydrates (reduce/eliminate gluten), and artificial sweeteners (they create an insulin response in the body).  Reduce processed foods and table salt (processed foods are often also loaded with sugar and highly processed sodium).
  • Eat ‘real’ food. Turn to produce for carbohydrates, get more vegetable based proteins, increase dark leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables (chard, kale, collard greens, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts). ‘Cleaner’ meats and dairy, such as pasture raised, hormone/antibiotic free, will contain less toxins that that body will not have to process (which results in more stress on the liver, and oxidative stress in the blood).
  • Increase vegetables: The more vegetables you can consume, the more fiber and phytonutrients your body will have to combat disease and ‘clean’ out the systems for a healthy body.
  • Omega 3 essential fatty acids (EFA): will provide the nutrients that every cell in the body needs to survive, and help to raise HDL (good) cholesterol levels.  These fats are absolutely essential to keeping cells healthy, well lubricated, and help protect against oxidative damage. Examples are avocados, nuts, seeds, fresh fish, olive oil, etc.

Antioxidants are very important to combat oxidation in the body, they block the formation of harmful compounds:Vitamin E, Vitamin C, Flavonoids (found in red wine, berries, grape seed extract, and pine bark extract),Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10), Essential fatty acids (EFA) (tuna, herring, salmon, mackerel and sardines, flax seeds, chia seeds, walnuts). Fish oil, such as cod liver oil, is a good supplement to add to the routine (2,000-3,000mg+/day), and magnesium, potassium (Swiss Chard, yams, spinach, papaya), and calcium (tofu, sesame seeds, sardines, goat milk, collard greens, spinach).

Focus foods

  • Cruciferous vegetables: Broccoli, kale, chard, collards, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, cabbage
  • Garlic, onions
  • Dark berries, nuts, seeds, flax seeds, walnuts.
  • Flax seed oil or fish oil (cod liver oil, i.e.).
  • Cold water fish: mackerel, herring, halibut, salmon
  • Eggs, legumes, ancient grains (amaranth, quinoa, etc.), poultry

Lifestyle recommendations

  • Exercise: pushes the big muscles of the body, strengthens the heart, reduces stress reactions in the body, and helps maintain a healthy weight (or reduces obesity). Minimum of 30 minutes of moderate intensity (increase heart rate!) 5 days a week.
  • Limit alcohol (more than one drink for women, one or two drinks for men, per day).
  • Quit smoking &/or exposure to cigarette smoke. Smoking contains chemicals that can directly tear and damage arterial linings, increases clotting risks, increases blood pressure.
  • Reduce stress. Stress has a direct chemical reaction in our bodies. The hardworking body does not know the difference between a mountain lion attacking or stressing over bills, work, a big test: it reacts the same chemical way. Stress can affect everything from food cravings (leading to obesity) to exhaustion/fatigue, and poor health.

[1] Growth factor is a protein molecule, a naturally occurring substance made by the body. It regulates cell division and cell survival.

The most important.

What is the first thing you consume in the morning? Is it something to hydrate, nourish, stimulate, or something that smells good, looks good to you along your daily commute? What do you consume and why?

It was a busy morning rushing around getting the dogs walked, cleaning up little messes, getting to the grocery store, and my fridge was bare to the condiments. I knew I needed something soon, least my cranky, unfocused, and unmotivated empty tummy monster emerges. I grabbed some left over green juice from the night before. WOW! It has been a while since I’ve had blended greens for breakfast. I had forgotten how much of a punch they pack in the energy department. The punch is way more potent than what coffee ever gave me, and it lasted much longer.

ZING!Why is this meal so darned important? It’s important, so very important, because it sets up our metabolism for the day. It helps feed the adrenal glands (these puppies work hard to help us deal with stress of all kinds) and strengthen our cortisol output (this naturally rises and falls throughout the 24-hour day). If we give the body what it needs at the start, it can function exponentially better the rest of day (&/or better deal with whatever junk we toss it later, food or stress). If we set up our metabolism so the organs (brain included) have the nutrients they need to function well, cravings diminish, excessive weight drops off, moods improve, afternoon slumps dissipate, and our hormones are regulated. All this is from good nutrition, good day-starting nutrition.

What is the best way to start the day: pack in the greens, good fats, protein, and carbohydrate from a vegetable/fruit source (sweet potato, beets, carrots, apple, pear, peach, etc.). With a nutrient dense breakfast the body is ready to roll with the fuel it needs most. If you give it sugar and caffeine only, you’ll have problems later in the day. The mid-day crash will be hard, food cravings will increase (especially for quick boosting, and consequently fast energy dropping, foods such as refined sugar and processed carbs, caffeine), and likely sleep will be disrupted from the blood sugar and hormonal imbalance from the sugary and caffeinated ‘pick me up’ foods.

Guidelines

Ideally we should replenish the body within an hour of waking up. If you work out first thing in the morning, have a small snack before your workout, and a full meal after. If not, your body will quickly go into ‘starvation mode’ and the cravings can get out of control, fat can be stored and muscled burned for energy. I’ll write more another time on athlete nutrition and how to turn the body into a fat burner instead of muscle burner.

Greens/veggies, protein, fat, vegetable carbohydrate. I start each day with some eggs, greens, or left overs from dinner the night before. Dinners usually have a lot of good breakfast components, so don’t be shy in digging in to the yummy goodness of last night’s chili. Soups are also a quick and easy to-go breakfast. Boiled eggs, or a salad are also an easily packable breakfast. Here are some egg combinations I love.

My favorite egg dishes are usually two eggs and left overs (over yesterday’s chili, or roasted veggies, or salad). Here are seven of my favorite combinations. Note: I cook them in butter (more good fats), but I also recommend coconut oil for cooking. You can see more here about eggs.

  • 2 eggs over medium, half an avocado, Celtic sea salt, dash of hot sauce
  • 2 eggs, spaghetti squash, spinach, salt
  • 1 egg over green chili, 1t goat cheese, roasted butternut squash
  • 2 eggs, spinach, ½ avocado, lime juice, salt, dash of hot sauce
  • 2 eggs, kimchi (or other fermented veggies), avocado, spinach, sea salt
  • 2 eggs, 2T onion minced, 1/4c yellow squash (or any kind), ½ avocado, lime juice, turmeric, sea salt
  • 2 eggs, mixed greens (lettuce, kale, chard), shredded raw (or cooked) beets

Blend it. Is that still too much work for what you have time for? Skip it and juice it all up! See my post on Green smoothies 101 for some blended goodness you can toss in your to-go mug and hit the day.  Just make sure that you get some fat for the fat soluble vitamins in your greens: toss down a handful of nuts, or add some chia seeds (good omega 3 fatty acid!) or flax seeds into the blender.

What will you make for breakfast tomorrow?

Crisis Mode

Life has a funny way of tossing the unexpected at us. There is always the potential for something to derail us from our goals. Getting derailed can be very disheartening, and, sometimes, it can even be devastating. The tricky part is getting back on track, pave a new path, or even to set new goals. The biggest challenge is letting go of those goals after you’ve invested a lot of your energy, emotion, and time into them. It can be pretty damn depressing. However, I have learned that it’s naive to put all your energy into only one goal and expect happiness. Why? Because life happens, and as a friend of mine says, ‘life doesn’t ask permission’, it just keeps charging forward. Charging forward is my mantra these days. Being in my own crisis mode, the very least I can do for now is to keep moving forward and set new goals for happiness and health.

This past summer I was hit hard with a tragic family crisis. Unfortunately the end of this crisis is completely unknown, unless I walk away, which I’m not ready to do yet. It’s been an ongoing nightmare. It’s affected nearly every aspect of my life, and, due to the intense stress, it has been inching in on my health. Being a Master Nut, I know how to heal myself in theory. I also know first-hand how easy it is to slip down that slippery slope and make unhealthy choices.  My greens intake decreased significantly, I haven’t been cooking for myself very much at all. I’ve noticed the physical effects: headaches have returned, sleep isn’t as sound, joints ache more, and depression threatens. But wouldn’t all this be because of stress? Yes, definitely. However, stress works a very specific chemical process in our body that robs us of nutrients, affects hormonal feedback loops, and further causes crisis on the body’s systems, which results in a plethora of symptoms, far greater what I’ve listed already.

Break the cycle.

My approach is to chip away at the unhealthy habits, bit by bit, and add in a healthy habit. Just the idea of diving back into cooking all my meals again, on top of everything else I’m managing: not helpful and even more stressful. I’m requiring very little, manageable rules:  one thing at a time. This week, for example, I have been ignoring all else and adding in more water. I tell myself I can do/eat whatever, but I have to finish the pitcher of water on the counter. Next weekend, I will work on the cooking and plan to make a big pot of stew I can have for the week. Bit by bit, I take manageable bites.

Forgiveness.

Knowing what I know about nutrition and how stress affects the body, I am my biggest critique, which also, is stressful. The other step of this process is to let go and forgive myself. The damage from the cookies I ate will be plenty reminder to myself (migraines), no need to berate myself on top of it all, right? It’s easy to tell someone to ‘take care’ of themselves, but much harder to actually follow up on that.

First steps.

These are the most important nutritional steps for me to take, to get out of this crisis mode and get back to better health. Hopefully they offer some help for your own crisis, or even nutritional ruts we often slip into.

  1. Take supplements. Supplements are critical right now, since I’ve been eating poorly. These will give me some bare minimum nutrients (especially for brain chemistry) to keep on top of everything. If my mind is in the game, the rest will follow.
  2. Drink more water. Being essential, this will give my body the building blocks to utilize any good nutrients I take in and help flush out toxins from stress and poor food choices. Being well hydrated will also help keep my sugar cravings down to a dull meow.
  3. Eat more greens. Greens have exponential amounts of needed phytonutrients (plant-based nutrients) that the body uses to function and thrive. As much as some (self included) would like to live off cookies, potatoes, and meat, it’s not enough to keep the body working at optimal levels. Getting enough phytonutrients, feeding the body the nutrients it needs, will also help kill cravings.
  4. Cook food. This is not only a way to get better nutrition, but it’s also a form of self-appreciation, a mental health exercise (use that brain and feed it good stuff).  It is also much easier on the wallet than eating out every day.

What have you done in the face of your own crisis? How have you helped pull yourself back up again, and thrive? What other tools do you have to deal with life’s challenges?

Brain pain

There are many types of headaches, and even more potential causes to headaches. Food intolerances, however, are the most common, and yet, the least-considered source of many headaches, especially chronic migraines. Other common causes (which I’ll save for another post) are aspartame, candida, and other types of bacterial overgrowth. The health of the gut is a direct indicator of the health of the brain. The two are inseparable for good health.

My headache story. My headaches grew over time. They seemed to get the most intense when I was in my late 20s and 30s. I was afflicted with daily headaches (they would last anywhere from 2 to 6 days), sinus headaches (which I thought all of them were initially, turned out many of my ‘sinus’ headaches were migraines), exercise-induced headaches, low-estrogen headaches, and eventually chronic migraines. I would get about one migraine a week (or more). I had a daily prescription medication for the daily headaches, another for when I ran, and another for the migraines, in addition to taking over the counter medicines (NSAIDs, pseudoephedrine). Needless to say, my liver wasn’t doing too well (it has to process all these medications). I was also put on birth control for the low estrogen levels, with the idea that would help keep enough estrogen in my system to keep my bones strong. I tried every treatment I could think of and that was suggested: acupuncture, massage therapy, chiropractic care, hydrotherapy, a neurologist (cat scans), a general practitioner physician, and an ObGyn.

The Nature of Headaches. Headaches have a tremendous variety of causes and types of pain. Their pain can range from mild, steady, dull, to a vise-like aching in the head. They can be the result of a severe medical condition such as a brain tumor or simply from dehydrated. Tension headaches and migraines tend to be the most common for which people seek medical treatment. Migraines are the most painful. Headaches caused by brain tumors are very rare. According to the Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine, the primary classifications and subclasses of headaches are the following:

  • Vascular headaches include migraine, cluster, hangover, exertional, hypertension, and toxins/drug-related headaches.
  • Nonvascular headache include tension, TMJ, brain tumors, sinus/dental/inner ear infections.

migraineTension headaches are the most common type of headache. They are generally a steady, constant, dull pain that starts at the back of the head or in the forehead and spreads over the entire head­­ –­ like a vice grip on the skull. These types of headaches are usually caused by the tightening of face, neck, or scalp muscles (can be the result of poor posture and/or stress). The tightening of the muscles results in a pinching of the nerve or its blood supply, which results in the sensation of pain and pressure. Relaxation usually brings immediate relief.

Migraine headaches are vascular headaches, throbbing or pounding sharp pain, often associated with symptoms of nausea, sensitivity to light and noise. This type of headache is not as common as a tension headache, but they appear to be on the rise. Vascular headaches are caused by an excessive dilation of blood vessels in the head. The pain comes from lining of the brain (meninges) and from the scalp. Some can come on without any warning, other times some have a warning ‘sign’ or symptom, an ‘aura’ before the pain starts. An aura is an optical condition that can last from a few minutes up to 20 minutes. It is usually a visual experience of blurring, fragmented light/vision, or bright spots. Auras are also sometimes accompanied with anxiety, fatigue, numbness, or tingling on one side of the body. There is a theory that some famous artists suffered from optical auras (and the following migraines) and that the visual effects influenced their art, such as Picasso’s abstract paintings.

What Causes of Headaches. Tension and migraine headaches can have many causes, as I’ve learned. However, more often than naught, they are linked back to a few underlying issues such as food allergies or food intolerances, poor serotonin levels, or stress. Other common causes are from sugar, caffeine, withdrawal of addictive substances, low estrogen, PMS, dehydration, and/or chronic use of pain relievers. TMJ (temporomandibular joint) dysfunction syndrome, time zone changes, chemical inhalants (perfume, etc.), altitude, bone structure misalignment, nutritional deficiencies, or even fatigue. Many of these causes can be triggered by food allergies/intolerances. According to common research theories, the metabolic pathways leading to migraine headaches are triggered by serotonin, platelet disorder, stress, vascular instability, and/or nerve disorder.

Serotonin. Research suggests that migraines are partially caused by a drop in serotonin levels (a neurotransmitter in the brain). Serotonin is a chemical that serves many functions in the body: sleep regulations, feelings of wellness, and blood vessel health. Serotonin also plays a role in the state of relaxation or constriction of blood vessels. Too little serotonin can trigger constriction of the blood vessels, causing pain, which can play a role in the onset of a migraine. A deficiency may result in chronic pains, sleep disturbances, anxiety, depression and a overeating. Low serotonin levels are found in migraine sufferers with increased frequency including depression, irritable bowel syndrome, as well as, other chronic pain syndromes.

Platelet disorder. Migraine sufferers, in research studies, show spontaneous clumping of platelets during and between headaches and significant differences in the structural composition of the platelets.

Stress. Emotional stress is one of the most frequently cited triggers of migraines and also could explain, in part, why art has a therapeutic effect on migraine headaches; creating art increases serotonin levels, which reduces stress.

Vascular instability. Studies have shown reduction of blood flow prior to the migraine attack. This is followed by a stage of increased blood flow that can persist for more than 2 days. The abnormal blood flow appears confined to the outer portion of the brain.

Nerve disorder. The nerve disorder hypothesis is that the nervous system plays a role in initiating the vascular events. The nerve cell dysfunction releases into the blood vessels a compound known as “substance P” (P = pain). In addition to substance P being released, is the release of histamine and other allergic compounds by specialized white blood cells known as mast cells. Chronic stress is thought to be an important factor with nerve disorder.

The most common migraine triggers that stimulate the above action are as follows:

  • Low serotonin levels (genetics or shunting of tryptophan into other pathways)
  • Foods: food allergies, histamine releasing or containing foods ß primary cause of most migraines
  • Alcohol, especially red wine
  • Nutritional deficiencies
  • Chemicals: nitrates, MSG, nitroglycerin
  • Caffeine or drug withdrawal (blood-vessel constricting drugs)
  • Stress
  • Emotional changes (especially post-stress let down, and intense emotions: anger)
  • Hormonal changes: menstruation, ovulation, birth control pills, very low estrogen
  • Too little or too much sleep
  • Exhaustion
  • Poor posture
  • Muscle tension
  • Weather changes (barometric pressure changes, exposure to sun)
  • Eye strain
  • Drug-induced headaches
  • Substance withdrawal

Food allergies. Food allergies induce migraines as a result of platelets releasing serotonin and histamine. There are two primary types of food irritants, IgE (immunoglobulin E), which is an immediate severe reaction, rare, such as anaphylaxis reaction, and food intolerances or sensitivities, IgG (immunoglobulin G), delayed reaction, common, which causes systemic inflammation in the body. The immune system and inflammation reaction both play a role in a vast number of migraine cases. Identifying and eliminating allergic or intolerated foods has shown, in many double blind studies, to greatly reduce migraine symptoms in the majority of patients.

Dietary amines are another cause of migraines; amines such as chocolate, cheese, beer, and wine. These examples contain histamine and /or other compounds that are common migraine triggers in sensitive individuals, causing the blood vessels to expand. Red wine, for example, contains histamine that stimulates the release of vasoactive compounds by platelets (20-200x more than white wine). It is also higher in flavonoids (which are a good antioxidant) that can inhibit the enzyme phenolsulphotransferase, an enzyme that normally breaks down serotonin and other vasoactive amines in platelets.

Conventional Medical Treatments. Standard medical treatment for most headaches is over the counter (OTC) medication, generally non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as Tylenol, or ibuprophen. There are also a variety of prescription pain medications prescribed for severe and chronic migraine headaches that do not respond to OTC. These drug treatments, however, only address the symptoms of a migraine or headache, not the underlying cause.

Alternative Protocols. Alternative protocols for most headaches are generally more physically based: relaxation techniques, stress management, massage, chiropractic care, acupuncture, and transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS–low levels of electricity stimulate the muscles to cause them to contract and then relax)—such forms of body work have shown to be very effective. Headache relief from these protocols indicate that the headache is structural in nature; so addressing the physical body can often offer relief to chronic suffers of tension headaches. Other therapies that have been affective are art therapy and guided meditation or imagery.

Chronic migraines, however, that do not respond to structural therapies, require a more in-depth look at the body and what could be triggering the migraines. Keeping a journal and identifying triggers is a first step, next is to identify food allergies, and finally look for trends and/or the metabolic action of any medications taken that could be a contributing factor.

Nutritional Protocols for Prevention and Treatment

Elimination Diet. Given that there are so many potential food irritants that can contribute to systemic inflammation and consequently headaches, one of the most effective first steps is to identify and eliminate those irritants. The Elimination Diet (or Challenge Diet) is an effective means to doing that; no blood test or doctors needed. An initial phase removes common food irritants and then slowly adds them back in, noting any negative reaction. The most common irritant foods are gluten, dairy, eggs, corn, yeast, and soy. Removing (at least) these food categories, along with eating a diet high in plant fiber, calms inflammation and gives the body a break.

An anti-inflammatory diet can also significantly help reduce body-wide inflammation and eliminate inflammation-related headaches. An anti-inflammation diet is two-fold, one part riding the body of irritants, removing processed foods, pollutants/toxins, and increasing foods that will reduce inflammation. Following are the anti-inflammation diet’s guidelines.

  • Avoid foods that cause inflammation:  trans fats (hydrogenated), carcinogens; most vegetable oils, fried foods, breads and other refined carbohydrates, packaged foods/microwave meals (processed foods), fast food, fruit juice beverages, sodas, and remove (or at least limit) nightshades (tomatoes, eggplant, peppers).
  • Eliminate sugar: refined sugar, artificial sweeteners, refined grains, sodas (diet and regular).
  • Embrace foods that reduce inflammation: omega 3s, antioxidants; olive oil, wild-caught cold water fish, fresh vegetables, low-glycemic fruits (berries), pasture-raised meats, game meat, mineral water.
  • Eliminate toxins by choosing organic produce, pasture-raised meats, dairy, eggs, and wild-caught cold water fish. This is one of the best first steps to reducing inflammation.
  • Wide variety of vegetables: this will increase nutrients via the countless phytonutrients vegetables provide.
  • Choose herbs and spices over table salt.
  • Use coconut oil and grapeseed oil for cooking, olive oil for salads, raw foods. These oils have a higher heat tolerance and will not go rancid.

Specific Nutrients for Headaches. The following supplements can help headache sufferers, especially if there are deficiencies, but if the underlying condition is a food allergy, the supplements cannot replace following an elimination and then anti-inflammatory diet.

  • Magnesium
  • 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP)
  • Vitamin B6
  • Essential Fatty Acids, always and forever: every cell in the body needs good essential fatty acids, especially the brain.
  • Riboflavin can increase cellular energy production, which could potentially have preventative effects against migraines.
  • L-tryptophan to increase serotonin, L-tryptophan crosses the blood-brain barrier, which is necessary for serotonin to be made in the brain and spinal cord.
  • Willow bark extracts
  • Feverfew, can help to decrease the frequency and intensity of headaches & migraines.
  • Ginger. Anti-inflammatory and has significant effects against platelet aggregation.

It is possible. But not always an easy journey.

Currently, I only occasionally get migraines, at most (knock on wood) 2-3 times a year. The rest are mostly gone. I do still have a sensitivity to heat that causes some headaches, which I am working on and hope to have figured out soon. I’ve been through this headache journey, and I know there are answers to the signals the body gives us of dysfunction.

Eliminating these headaches took a lot of work and investigation on my part. There was no one answer. I had to work at it and keep track of my daily foods, stress, and pain levels. I learned I had to eliminate many foods that were irritating my systems and made significant changes to my lifestyle (stress management) that brought about headache-free days. I am a living example that committing to addressing intolerances, removing toxins, reducing stress, and learning what triggers headaches can greater improve the quality of life of headache sufferers.

On top of the world and FREE of brain pain.

On top of the world and FREE of brain pain.

 

 

 

 

 

Sources.

Spring up!

The tulips and hyacinths are pushing through dirt on my little chunk of land. I’ve gone to 5 yoga classes in 6 days and am feeling sore, but also a little bit stronger. Yoga and spring, right after a detox is all such great timing for me. Although, any time we make positive changes in our lives is great timing. Now that I’m feeling a little strength come back, I feel more motivated to do even more. Get outside in fresh air, reconnect with friends and family I haven’t seen in a while. Weed the garden.

Exercise is the other critical factor to good health. Nutrition and exercise work together so well. Our organs and bones will age with us, but we can do a lot to keep them strong and functioning well into old age through exercise and eating nutrient-dense, foods (a wide variety of vegetables, fruits, legumes, especially). Muscles, however, are another story. We lose muscle mass in old age because of inactivity, not because of aging (excluding a very few disease conditions). If we strength train when young, middle aged, or when elderly, it will benefit our strength, stability, digestion, moods, and of course that cute tush. Some moderate cardiovascular exercise, strength training, and good nutrition can set up a beautiful foundation for health, energy, and quality of life.

What do you do to stay motivated to exercise?

Happy hiker.

Happy hiker.

Forward we march

Post detox. My cravings were anxiously waiting for the end of the 21-day detox; the end arrived, and well, meh. I wasn’t so interested in binging, splurging, indulging, or otherwise reverting back to where I was. Yes, this is a good feeling. The feedback from the other detoxers is also exciting. The level of compliance varied, but so did the individual goals. Any change we can make toward eating more health-supportive foods is a great accomplishment. Here are the most common results from the fellowship:

  • Cut out some processed foods and drank less soda/alcohol
  • 100% compliant with the protocols
  • Increased energy levels
  • Weight lost (5-15lbs!)
  • More real food intake
  • Less processed food intake
  • Cholesterol levels were cut
  • Tummy aches, sinus issues, were eliminated
  • Sleep was deeper and more restful

Those were just a few of the most common results of this detox. But the one I love most of all: awareness. Awareness was increased around foods that heal and foods that make us sick, stuffed up, and inflamed. Of course, a detox isn’t the answer to all that causes ill, but it can be a start. It can help give the liver a break so that it can function better. Bigger issues can take longer to heal and require specific nutrients, and lots of patience.

My next personal challenge: 20 yoga classes at my local studio in April. I’ve been out of practice for a couple months, too laden down by work, school, other work, pups, life. But I’m going to take advantage of this sense of commitment and get back to it! It’s all part of the equation to live long, strong, and energetically.

What is your personal challenge this month?

Day 20.

20/21 One more day!

This past week was a nutritional monkey wrench for me. I caught a stomach virus and was severely limited to what I could tolerate to eat and drink. But don’t fear, I still stuck to the detox protocols! Although, it was also because the protocol was what was best for me. My tummy and conscious limited me to mostly meals of brown rice, apples, and ginger kombucha. The kombucha was a life saver, packed with good probiotics, energy-boosting B vitamins and enzymes that help make everything work. It’s definitely the best replacement I’ve found for the ‘flat soda’ that seems to be common.

Ginger is an excellent tummy settler. Everything from when you’re sick and nauseous to pregnant and having morning sickness. Ginger also helps with nasal congestion, settling a bloated-gas belly, improves the absorption and assimilation of essential nutrients in the body, and it’s even been known to be an aphrodisiac. wink-wink!

I knew it was time to move back to more substantial food when I started to get a headache. It was a clear signal from my body saying “OK, we’re done healing, now let’s get back to full speed.” Not that I recommend getting sick, but I have to admit, I feel fully cleansed having done an unplanned mini fast this week. And, it’s nice to know my immune system is working! It was pointed out to me yesterday that getting sick now and then is a good sign that the immune system is doing what it’s supposed to do, keep us healthy and strong.

I let breakfast this morning go to whatever I craved, within reason; I needed more nutrients, so almost ‘anything goes’. When I say ‘whatever I craved’, I always think about my cravings, and try to get to the root of the real need. Craving: Big burger, cheese, and fries? Analysis: I need some minerals and protein. Action: What’s the best source for that? I had some roasted ham (pasture raised, no nasty additives) and juiced up some carrots, a beet, half an apple, and a lemon. Result: Happily, I am feeling very satisfied!

Done, good, completely rebooted, and strong. I also feel like the sugar-craving devils have been reduced to little mini devils I can squash out easily.

How do you deal with cravings?

 

Day 17.

17/21

Soooooooooooo, it’s been requested I discuss some cholesterol and glucose numbers. And since yesterday was “Diabetes Alert Day”, I’ll delve into that topic. Sugars (yes, again) are the fundamental source of so much that threatens our good health. We need glucose (sugar’s form in the blood) to fuel the brain, muscles, and create energy. However, the amount we need is grossly less than what the average American consumes. If the grocery store layout were indicative of what foods we need most, the produce section and the whole middle section with the aisles would swap places. All those aisles would be condensed to a few shelves in the corner.

And, this layout would help eliminate type II diabetes, much of the obesity issues and related diseases, cancer would be asking for handouts in the streets (kicked out its fancy mcmansions), and inflammation, rheumatoid arthritis, would be added to the rare species list. But, I diverge.

Blood tests for cholesterol and glucose levels can be indicators of how our systems are working (there are many more that can also help, but we’ll stick to these today). One member of the detox had her cholesterol and blood sugar checked last week, and the numbers were significantly better than what the were before the detox (eliminated the sugar in her diet and increased vegetables, variety, and home cooked meals). Consequently I went and had mine checked this week. Also, much better. My HDL (‘good’) cholesterol number (51) was higher than previously, my fasting blood sugar (glucose) levels were lower (82), and triglyceride levels (57) were lower. Huzzah!

Eating well really does make a significant impact on our health.

Day 15.

15/21

Well today stopped me in my tracks, hard. Apparently a stomach virus decided to give me a day of fasting (among some other less pleasant effects) to this detox. When I was able to keep down some water, I tried kombucha. It seemed to do the trick and give me a little energy (much better than chemically laden, HFCS flat soda and nutrient-void crackers).

Short post today, still in recovery mode. But yay! to ginger (good tummy spice and a natural anti-inflammatory) and kombucha.

Hope everyone is having a good start to the week..

 

Day 11.

11/21

We are adding back some foods, as they’re tolerated today (nightshades), and hopefully that will make some in the group sing or do the jig. Some questions came up about food reactions. One common reaction to a common allergen is gluten and joint pain/aches. Gluten acts like sugar very quickly in the digestive tract and is a very savvy inflammatory agent. And if the person is sensitive to gluten, it’ll be even more pronounced. How does this work? Well, let’s talk a little bit about food allergies (aka food intolerance, food sensitivities).

Food allergies. There are two common types, classic (IgE, immediate reaction) and non-classic (IgG, longer term reaction, 2 hours to several days) allergies. The classic type is well known, albeit less common, the make-sure-to-carry-your-epi-pen-with-you type. The non-classic type, however, is much more common and can cause an unlimited number of conditions, such as the following:

  • Chronically tired
  • Gain weight easily
  • Boated after eating
  • Frequent gas
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Abdominal pain
  • Sinusitis, runny nose, sneezing
  • Rashes, itches, asthma, shortness of breath
  • Recurrent colds, sore throat
  • Water retention, swelling under eyes or swollen fingers/ankles
  • Headaches/ migraines
  • Muscle or join aches after eating certain foods
  • Brain fog

Food allergies often develop when the inside lining of the digestive tract becomes permeable or abnormally ‘leaky’. This is likely due to many factors (one or a combination of) an abundance of sugar, processed foods, refined grains, antibiotic use, excess alcohol, use of OTC pain killers (aspirin, ibuprofen), gut infections, poor good gut bacteria, and/or excessive physical or emotional stress. A vicious cycle is created with a weakened gut and food allergies. A leaky gut can quickly lead to food allergies. Food allergies contribute to infections, candidiasis, lack of enzymes, lack of HCI, further contributing to a leaky gut.

The leaky gut allows incompletely digested food proteins to enter the blood stream, which the immune system sees as foreign invaders and attacks. The immune system attaches antibodies to the particles.  It then attacks and digest them with specialized cells, phagocytes, and releases a cascade of reactive chemicals (i.e., histamine), which also cause many of the sudden and chronic symptoms we experience as allergic reactions. (Note: Celiac’s disease a different category, it is an autoimmune disease, not a food allergy)

What can we do? An elimination diet is one of the best ways to determine food allergies. The good news is that you usually feel better fairly quickly once the allergen is not in the system. The next step would be to heal the gut and strengthening the immune system, all, naturally, with real food nutritional protocols. Don’t be sad, there’s hope and always lots of real food alternatives, right around the bend!

Have a great day.

Day 10.

10/21

Half way there! This detox is breezing by now, yes?

I got a big bunch of parsley the other day and have been adding it to nearly everything. It is used as a garnish so often that I think its nutritional value has been overlooked. Parsley can help purify the blood, cleanse the kidneys (healing balm to the urinary tract, gentle diuretic), is high in vitamin C (three times more than citrus juices), rich in potassium, helps balance blood sugar (especially with adrenal malfunction), helps lower blood pressure, is a warrior in protecting against cancer, and it also increases the depth of respiratory movement.

So grab a bunch of parsley and num num away.

Pretty Parsley

Pretty Parsley

Do you have a favorite herb?

Happy first day of spring.

Day 9.

9/21

The days are flying by. Spring is tomorrow. My garden is in need of some prep work. School work is piled high (understatement). Work is thankfully a bit slow this week. I’ve got nothing planned to cook today. I juiced this morning (beets, cucumber, lemon, pear, parsley, celery, carrots). I’m going to see what creative things I can do with my left over roasted chicken.

There’s something so fundamental for me about roasting a chicken, picking off the meat for another meal, making stock with the carcass, using that stock to make yet another meal. The original recycling. I like food that is nutrient dense and has many uses. Like the gardening cycle of planting, harvesting, eating, composting, planting. It’s beautiful in its simplicity. (simplicity = the theory, not necessarily the work, I’m still figuring that part out!)

Can't wait for summer's garden!

Can’t wait for summer’s garden!

Stress was my original motivator behind this detox. I’m happy to report, I feel like I have a much greater handle on my stressors than I did before the detox. Sugar (and this includes alcohol) is not a friend to stress. We may reach for it  when we’re stressed, but the biochemical pathways lead right to illness. Illness can range from a cold to chronic fatigue, tummy ache, painful joints, weight gain. Pretty much anything the immune system has under it’s control can be harmed by physical (including nutrition) and/or psychological (work, finances, relationships) stress. They both activate our sympathetic nervous system, which triggers our adrenals to get to work releasing hormones. Those hormones are designed to help us fight an attacking lion. Too much of these adrenal hormones and all hell breaks loose in the body (see above, about the immune system).

This week, I’m going to focus on psychological stress management, now that the nutritional stress has been removed from my body. More long walks with the pups, get my bum to yoga class, and even try some of the guided mediation I was taught once upon a long time ago. The goal, other than to get good and calm amid my life storm, is to get out of the sympathetic nervous system’s hormonal cascade and allow my parasympathetic nervous system to heal, digest, and be calm.

Om.

Day 7.

7/21

One full week! The group has been reporting better detox symptoms (less headaches, brain fog). It sounds like most have been compliant, too. This is great and warms my heart so very much. It was a rough week for some, especially with the caffeine withdrawals. But, alas, perseverance and good food have won out. Forward we march to better health and habits.

I had a delicious, slightly more bitter juice this morning: 1 small beet, 1 pear, 2 celery stalks, 2 small carrots, 1 lemon, and about 1″ of ginger. I had that with a side of garlicy guacamole and some flax seed crackers. Breakfast! My juicer hasn’t seen this much action ever. I’m happy to be getting some work out of it.

Now I’m off to take the crazy pups and myself for a nice long walk. Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Eat good greens!

Jones & Indy

Jones & Indy

Day 2.

2/21

Last night was better than I expected but not blissful. Habits are hard to change and I believe habits can last longer than cravings.

Planning and not planning. I think I need to balance these as well as the stress in my life. Stress is the primary motivator for my detox. I need to take the bull by the horns and get control of this runaway beast. School and work and life have all been kicked up a couple notches recently, and I’ve let my healthy habits fall to the side. My the excuse was that I’m too busy, too much else to focus on. But deep down, I know that this is the most important time to address and deal with these stressors. Or I will be trampled by that bull, and I only have myself to blame. My resolve: attack. Attack with a good diet, relieving a lot of stress on my organs, nervous system, brain chemistry. Attack with massage, stretching, yoga, long walks (my nutty pups love that one most), and deep breathing. I need to calm the heck down. Attack with attitude: Moxie and good vibes.

As I sipped on my tea last night, I found myself worrying about the weekend (still days and days away), about wine and chocolate temptations mostly (yep, total girl cravings). I thought “wait a second. that’s NOT today, and I’m doing GREAT today.”

With any new diet change, your best friend is going to be planning (and best defense against the stress from the changes). The better you plan, the more successful you’ll be. However, I think it’s important to know when not to plan. But, this is nothing new, it’s the old wisdom of taking one day at a time. Let go of yesterday, let go of tomorrow, live in today.

With a slow deep breathe, I tackle today. And only today.

Last night I made stock out of the chicken bones, and roasted a butternut squash. There will be soup with lots of ginger very soon. And Congee is up next as well! Stay tuned.

What is interesting on my menu for today? Probably lunch (and hopefully soup): Shrimp sauteed in garlic, onion, ginger, turmeric (one of the best health supportive seasonings out there), in coconut oil, with quinoa & arame.

Hope you all had a great day 2! I know a lot of caffeine headaches and moodiness are running bulls out there. Address, breathe, and remember, it’s just today. Tomorrow is its own problem, not today’s problem.

March Group Detox

I’m leading a group detox (welcome detoxifiers!) starting this Monday. My hope is that in the end everyone feels rejuvenated and has installed some better habits. For most of us it will be 21 days long. No alcohol, sugar (or sugar subs), low glycemic fruits, and a few other eliminations. The deeper goal is to give the liver a break, relieve it of some of the load it has to metabolize to keep us healthy.

Our liver works incredibly hard to keep us healthy, periodic detoxes can help give it a hand. The liver detoxifies booze, medications, processed foods, and the metabolic waste from poor stress management. It also balances out hormones and rids our bodies of everyday normal metabolic processes. But it still needs nutrients to do this. So this will not be a ‘water only’ cleanse (but water is very important). Whole foods will be part of this journey. Ready?

Estrogen, the masked villian

Estrogen tends to be the culprit behind many symptoms of PMS and menopause, specifically estrogen dominance. Estrogen dominance is where the hormonal balance is offset (the whole endocrine system plays a dance that keeps us health, full of energy, sane and happy) and there is too much estrogen and not enough progesterone. Hormonal function relates to the health of the whole body, not just estrogen or progesterone, the health of the ovaries, liver, lymphatics, and thyroid are all affected. The whole body needs to be functioning well for there to be proper hormonal balance. There are many drugs out there given for this, but there are also FOODS we can eat to help bring balance back to our bodies.

The endocrine glands work in concert with one another. If one system fails, others will suffer, which can lead to various issues: digestion, infertility, weight gain, mood changes, depression, apathy, sleep disorders, immune system, etc.

3-5lbs a week of cruciferous veggies!

3-5lbs a week of cruciferous veggies!

Chronic stress and liver congestion are considerable contributors to excessive estrogen levels. This is a functional imbalance for which most doctors do not test because it is not a clinical diagnosis.

Some symptoms of low progesterone/ high estrogen (around the menstrual cycle): PMS, heavy bleeding, spotting, clotting, cramping, water retention, bloating, weight gain (especially common in pre/menopausal women), headaches/migraines (could also be not enough estrogen), depression, breast tenderness, lumpiness, post menstrual headaches/migraines, irritability, anxiety, anger, nervousness, decreased sexual response, endometriosis (low progesterone), infrequent menses.

Estrogen and the Liver. If the liver is stressed by excess toxins it can result in a hormonal imbalance. Examples of toxins are: processed foods, trans fats/partially hydrogenated oils, sugar (including gluten, which acts like sugar in the digestive tract), infections (especially mononucleosis).

The endocrine glands secrete hormones that need to be altered and eliminated by the body. This job falls to the liver. The liver excretes these waste products into the bile, which then gets eliminated by the bowel. If the liver is not functioning properly (or is over taxed by environmental and/or dietary toxins), there may easily be an excess of hormones circulating in the body. A poorly functioning liver is often a primary reason for excess estrogen.

Balancing estrogen starts with the liver: eliminating environmental and dietary toxins that are over stressing the liver.

Correcting excess estrogen also involves increasing the body’s ability to detoxify (i.e., estrogens and toxins), and addressing the health of the whole body. Nutrition that can help in these processes, especially with liver detox of estrogen, are:

  • Only eating organic produce, pasture-raised, hormone free meat & dairy, wild caught fish
  • Avoid processed foods
  • Lots of cruciferous vegetables (3-5lbs/week, fermented, cooked, or raw), such as cabbage, kale, broccoli, Brussels sprouts
  • Whole food sources of vitamin B: sardines, salmon, tuna, chicken, venison, kombucha, turmeric, dark berries, potatoes, spinach.

Supporting progesterone. Progesterone cream can help some, adrenal gland support (see section on adrenals), Iodine (sea vegetables, meats, Celtic sea salt), Chase tree (vitex) in the morning to support the ovaries. It strengthens the link between the brain and the ovaries—stimulates the pituitary to send a message to the ovaries to produce more progesterone.

 Xenohormones. Other major contributors to imbalance of hormones are xenohormones. These are man-made substances that have hormone-like properties. Most have estrogen-like effects on the body; however, they are foreign to the body and can cause many menstrual and fibroid issues. Common sources of xenohormones are:

  • Birth control pills
  • Conventional meat sources (beef, chicken), which are fed estrogen to fatten them up faster
  • Pesticides, herbicides (nearly all are petro-chemicals)
  • Solvents/adhesives (nail polish and remover, glue, cleaning supplies)
  • Car exhaust
  • Emulsifiers (soap, cosmetics)
  • Plastics (BPAs)
  • PCBs (industrial waste)

What harm can they do? Decrease fertility, increase reproductive cancers, decreased sperm count, lower testosterone levels and abnormally small penis size, increase incidence of retracted testicles, increase PMS issues, estrogen dominance.

How can they be avoided?

  • Organic meat, dairy, and produce
  • Avoid all synthetic and horse hormones (oral contraceptives, and conventional HRT, hormone replacement therapy)
  • Reduce/eliminate conventional pesticides, lawn and garden chemicals
  • Do not cook or heat in plastics, substitute with glass

Adrenals & hormone balance. Stress is the most common interrupter of hormonal balance. If the female body is in a chronic state of stress its likely going to shut down a system that requires 9 months-to several years of attention.

During times of stress, the adrenal glands will trigger an overproduction of cortisol and DHEA (precursor hormone to estrogen and testosterone). Chronic overproduction eventually leads to adrenal gland exhaustion, in which state the body can no longer respond to stress adequately. Depleted DHEA leads to less available reproductive hormones and, hence, poor reproductive health.

Diet: Adrenals need essential fatty acids, from a quality source. Omega 3s: fish oil, cod liver oil. Chia seeds, flax seeds (fresh ground), salmon, sardines, whole eggs, and real butter, olive oil. Eat whole fat, skip the ‘low fat’ or ‘non’ fat; it will contribute to adrenal exhaustion as well as poor cellular health (which equals poor overall health).

What to do:

  • Try to get 8 hours of quality sleep (this will go a long way for hormonal balance.
  • Take time to rest (or better, meditate) each day.
  • Reduce/eliminate sugar (including gluten, acts like sugar).
  • More protein in the diet, to help energy stabilization.
  • Opt for Celtic or Himalayan sea salt, over conventional (processed) salt.
Breathe.

Breathe.

Sources: Encyclopedia of Nutritional Supplements, scientificpsychic.com, phytochemicals.info, Dr. Bob’s Drugless Guide To Balance Female Hormone, Robert DeMaria

Scale me no more!

Dear Scale,

You no longer dictate what my day will be like, or how I’ll feel about myself. You never controlled how my clothes fit. You never made my meals or made me feel strong or healthy. You can F**K OFF scale.  I am free of you. It was hard to quit you, I was tempted more than once to pull you out of the back of the closet and check in. I turn to myself now, to check how I feel. I ask my gut and my head “Hey Gut, Hey Head, how do you feel today? Feeling good? Then awesome! Feeling bad? Well, let’s fix that!” Green smoothies are my current best medicine for days when I feel brain foggy or feel a bug trying to latch on. They’re packed full of all those thousands of phytonutrients that science still hasn’t fully identified, but science does know they make us better (magic!). Bug be gone, shoo! Go hang out with my Scale for all I care, just not here, no room, too much good green stuffs.

I tried on a pair of my jeans recently, which I have been ignoring lately. Hey! They fit! Yippie! My jeans fit, my gut feels GOOD, my head isn’t plagued with headaches every day, migraines every couple weeks. I know how to keep illness away. I am off all my medications for allergies, hormones, sadness, achy parts, and I’ve gained super powers. Well, ok, that last part is a stretch. But I feel that way sometimes. I had some guests recently, they were all sick with colds. I pumped them full of good stuff all week, and didn’t even consider I might ‘catch’ what they had. I didn’t. I never do. Or very rarely do, it’s been a long time. If I get sick next week even, that’ll be the first time in years. My ‘illnesses’ used to show up as headaches, brain conditions, mostly. But, I have to stay on top of it; I have to eat lots of greens (basically, not exclusively, of course, but those are the easy to NOT get, and the  most important to load up on) and some smart supplements, and, voilà, good to go. If I get off that regime and eat sugar and drink wine (my weaknesses), I start to feel like poo again.

So, my not-so-dear Scale, I really don’t care about you anymore. I’ve got much more important things by which to judge myself: shiny skin, healthy bones, strong heart, and happy outlook.  In the immortal words of the Bill the Cat:

Very Sincerely,

Mariah

Feed me, Seymour! FEED ME!

Sadly, one very important point has been neglected more and more as the standard American diet (aka S.A.D.) dives into processed, refined, genetically modified foods: how we feel. How does food make you feel? These days we tend to eat more to satisfy cravings, hunger, emotional stress than to heal our bodies and enjoy feeling good. Think about how food makes you feel, not just emotionally, but physically. Do you feel energized and happy, restored, revitalized after a meal or a snack? Do old aches feel better? Do you sleep better?

It’s taken me a long time to make the connection between food and how I feel, and as long to make adjustments to my own diet. Not just physically but emotionally. Food is more than something fun and tasty to shove in our mouths, it provides essential, vital nutrients to make us function well, and not get sick. How long has it been since you last got sick? If it’s less than a year ago, something is not functioning well. Nutrition could very well be the reason: an irritation or a deficiency in most cases.

Making changes to eat better is not easy. I’ve been there, I know intimately the processes. When I gave up gluten I had mini panic attacks, “where will i get carbs for running?!” I had considered myself a ‘really good’ eater back then, too. Nope. There was so much to be improved on to feel better. Fortunately, I stuck with it, continued to evaluate and make changes, and today am feeling tremendously better.

Best (or worse, depending on your view point) is that I didn’t even realize how bad I was feeling previously. I had learned to live with low energy, brain fog, headaches, endless mix of digestive issue. That was my ‘normal’. Doctors didn’t have any revolutionary diagnosis for me to play with, just meds to help with the symptoms. In the end, it was my diet that was the culprit.

My friend Aly picking up a massive purple cabbage from my garden.

If you look to your skin, your GI tract, your mind, your energy; is that how you envision your ideal ‘normal’ to be? Do you wonder if something can be done? What are you feeding your body?

‘I love you with all my liver': my detox

Ode to the mighty incredible, hardest working organ in our bodies, I detox for thee. (And all the other systems in my body.)

Recently I had a required detox retreat for class. I’m in my second year of school, and it’s no less intense as last year, and I had the brilliant urge to get a puppy on my month break between terms. Really, what the hell was I thinking? He’s a sweetie bug, cutie, snuggler, goofy ball dork, and I am happy to have and love him. But, still, puppies are a huge responsibility and a time suck: what was I thinking? Hahaha. “Just keep moving forward”, I tell myself. Needless to say, the ‘required’ part was adding a considerable stress load to my brain ‘plate’ of daily To Do items. What to do with the puppy, Jones, my other dog, Indigo, and the books that need to be read for my other classes, and my own health and race training.  Insert elevated stress levels here.

Detoxes are important to help flush our systems of harmful toxins, be them from the air we breathe, food we ingest, or chemical processes in our bodies. It also, as I learned, has an element of emotional detoxing. Stress, which shows up as cortisol in our system, is detoxed from our bodies. I learned later that this is a chemical reason behind the reactions I had. This was also my biggest challenge for this detox retreat: relax. I had been craving knitting, it being fall and all. I started a very small knitting project, which had a beneficial side effect of occupying my hands during the long discussions.

The assignment was to detox for 7-10 days. We were given a few products to try, packed with supportive nutrients for phase 1 & 2 liver detox. The dietary guides weren’t too restrictive for me. I already have a pretty sugar free diet, no gluten, dairy, eggs, no alcohol. Basically, for me this meant I had to eliminate eggs and wine.  I didn’t expect to have any standard detox symptoms (insert hindsight snicker). Little did I know.

The biggest challenge, as it turned out, for me was reducing stress from my life, which shows up as a chemical (cortisol) that works its ‘magic’ in the body. I fought it, resisted the retreat experience as much as I could, thinking I had bigger and better things to be doing, until I realized that I needed to experience this. I needed to heal my body, and I needed to know what it was like for myself and future clients I work with. Stress was clearly something that I wasn’t dealing with as well as I thought I was. I thought I was all mellow and organic in regards to dealing with all the stressors in my life. I was wrong, very, very wrong. I’ve come to accept that I am much more stressed than I thought, and it has a profound effect on my health. I eventually ‘let go’ and grabbed my knitting (pre-retreat instructions said ‘no homework…only relaxing activities like hand knitting’). There’s a detox reaction from stress too (more to follow, see Day 7).  Following is a sample of what I ate and what I experienced.

Neck warmer

Day 1: smoothie with the supplements (Vital Nutrients, ‘Vital Clear’), blending with water and some fruit, per the protocol I was given. Plus its ‘Fiber’ supplement that should have been named “Omega”, since there wasn’t that much fiber (less than 5 grams) and made up with mostly chia and flax seeds (good sources of omega 3s). It’s always a little angst inducing taking a new supplement. Any sort of a plethora of digestive results can result. Fortunately, nothing! Huzzah! And whew!

Day 2: craving some dark chocolate, at least.  And the monster started to set in.

Day 3: I replaced the water with almond milk, to add some substance to the smoothie. And smoothies were upped (per the protocol) to two times a day. The monster, Ms. Cranky Pants, arrived by evening. My poor pups had to endure my cranky butt.  I did roast a chicken that was very yummy. My best educated guess is that toxins were starting to be expelled from my liver, from my cells.

Day 4: about the same, but the cranky feeling was more intense.

Day 5: start of the detox weekend. We met at the school at noon. All meals from this point on were prepared by the chefs, with focus on our detox. The meals were about half the normal caloric intake I was used to. All vegan, gluten free. And, as a side note, very fresh and delicious; lots of cruciferous vegetables, soothing/healing soups, and juices.

Day 6: full on retreat mood. Yoga was offered for each day. Treatments of acupuncture and lymphatic massage were offered. I took advantage of all. The massage was toward the end of day 6, and helped tremendously. My headache went away and I felt revitalized. This is saying a lot. Due to type of foods, and the lower caloric intake, very little protein and fat, my mind was foggy and everything was tired. I did run about 7 miles that morning, but I was much too tired to just blame the run. The brain fog was apparently common among everyone. Fortunately I didn’t share the constipation that a lot of people seemed to have. At least in that area: ‘all systems go’, thankfully.

Day 7: the last day of the retreat.  I was tired, had some brain fog. We met, had breakfast, a light soup, “congee,” that was supposed to be healing for the digestive track and yet filling. It was my least favorite of the meals. But it did fill me up for quite a while.­ In addition to the physical symptoms, I had emotional symptoms.

Physical: Brain fog and headache. For all days I had a low grade headache, which could have been due to the low estrogen levels that week and the focus on foods that detox estrogen.

Emotional. Clearly the Ms. Cranky Pants me was one, but by the weekend, I had some very significant emotional surges, which were almost alarming. During one of our yoga sessions, I was nearly overcome by an opening feeling. It was a very strong feeling of gratitude. I pretty much wanted to start sobbing, tears, cries. But, yet, still all very positive, like something was being shed, and a new openness was becoming available to me. It was strange, but completely real. Tears during yoga?!? It was a positive experience, so no complaints here.

We mostly had discussions this last day, in which we also discussed how we were feeling at different points in the detox.

Everyone was different. Everyone’s detox experience was different. I think this is an extremely important point. I’ve been through this process. I have my own reactions, experiences, and thoughts; however, my experience will be different from my colleagues and for everyone with whom I work. These experiences will all be different. Why? Because we are all biochemically unique: we all have our own unique biochemical signatures. These unique signatures come from our environment, our families and what we experience: allergies, genetics, and injuries, or experiences make our bodies and how they process toxins, food, air, we are all biochemically unique.

Have you tried a detox? What did it require? How did it make you feel? Or have you been interested in trying one? I’d love to hear your stories!

Ahh, the sweet stuff! CRACK!

How do I break my sugar habit? I’ve been getting this question a lot lately. I’m thrilled that my message of “SUGAR IS BAD! BAD! BAD!” is getting through to those around me. If asked one thing to cut from our diet: Sugar.  Big bad: refined sugar, wheat (any refined grains), high fructose corn syrup, agave syrup, etc. Honey is a border line one. In moderation it’s ok, as it at least offers some trace nutrients.

Sugar, the Big Bad, has many disguises that have thickly woven into the standard American diet over the past 50-60 years especially. The biggest disguise, I think, is wheat. Yes, even whole wheat. It has a higher glycemic index than a candy bar. Here are some more common places the Big Bad likes to slip into our systems: sauces, salad dressings, protein/performance bars, applesauce, cereals, Starbucks drinks, smoothies, protein powder, peanut butter, soup, medications, processed/frozen foods, milk, cheese, fruit juices, pretty much just about anything in a package. Don’t think artificial sweeteners are the answer either; they are equally bad, if not worse. They affect our brain chemistry, taste sensors, and appetite control centers.

Why, do you ask, is it the Big Bad? Isn’t it a natural, all-American product? Yes it is an all-American product. Natural, definitely not. It’s been so overly processed that sugar has been compared to cocaine, and not just in texture, but how it affects the body (and I’m just talkin’ about the white refined sugar; corn, rice, etc. syrups are even more refined/processed).  Check out the movie Hungry for a Change.

Sugar is deficient in nutrients. Processed sweet foods contain calories with no other nutrients, aka empty calories.  Other than the ones your parents and dentist warned you about, dental caries (bacteria in the mouth ferment sugar and produce an acid that dissolves tooth enamel), dental plaque (gummy mass of bacteria that grows on teeth; builds up depends on chemistry of saliva and genetics), tooth decay (starches and sugars begin breaking down to sugars in the mount), there are physiological effects it has on every system in our bodies: immune, cardiovascular, reproductive, neurological, etc.

Sugar and its effects. Don’t feel too bad about yourself at this point. Sugar creates cravings that are psychological.  There is a chemical reason behind these cravings. Sugar causes big spikes and big dips in serotonin. Serotonin, a brain neurotransmitter essential to brain function, levels are responsible for our moods, i.e., mellow, peaceful, relaxed.  It also, if in balance, increases impulse control, allowing you to ‘just say no’ (to that piece of cake). Low levels of serotonin are shown in depression cases, craving simple carbohydrates, the later which helps tryptophan move thru the blood brain barrier to make serotonin. By eating too much sugar, substituting nutrient dense foods with sugar, we are creating a vicious cycle (among other potentially very hazardous conditions) that messes with our brain chemistry, leaving us depressed, waiting for that next fix of goodness. Then dropping down to bottom again. Repeat. Great book on this topic, if you want more information is Potatoes Not Prozac, simple solutions to sugar sensitivities, by Kathleen DesMaisons, PhD, Addictive Nutrition.

What’s going on elsewhere? Here are some bullets on what sugar does to us.

  • Suppresses the immune system
  • Upsets the body’s mineral balance, chromium and copper deficiency
  • Causes kidney damage
  • Reduces HDLs (good cholesterol)
  • Causes inflammation in the body and increases blood pH, which is the source of many of the big illnesses we face today (vs back in the late 1800s, we were a lot less sick then than now): cancer of the breast, ovaries, intestines, prostate, and rectum.
  • Can cause/exacerbate (inflammation again) arthritis, asthma, candida, gallstones, hermorrhoids, varicose veins, increase cholesterol, cause food allergies, contribute to eczema in children
  • Interferes with absorption of calcium and magnesium.
  • Weakens eyesight
  • Produces an over-acid stomach
  • Raises adrenaline levels in children
  • Causes tooth decay and periodontal disease
  • Contributes to aging (inflammation, again)
  • Leads to anxiety, difficulty concentrating (kids and adults)
  • Leads to insulin resistance, leptin resistance, diabetes

Now, how to kick the habit? You can go cold turkey. I did that once, on a dare, gave up sugar for a year. And it was right between Halloween and Thanksgiving. NOT EASY! Kind of close to hell, actually. But I’m stubborn, so couldn’t lose the bet. I had a serious sugar addiction, and as addictions go, I still do. But I keep it under control. And the best way I’ve found to that is education and action. When I have a craving, I think about what I’ve eaten. Cravings, of any sort, are a sign of some nutrient deficiency.  Here are some tips and guides for gradually kicking the habit or going cold turkey.

  • Be aware of what you’re eating. Read labels, pick products that have less or no added sugar.
  • Drink more water, get more fiber. No brainer? Maybe. But we need to flush out the bad stuff and these two lovelies are the studs that can get the job done.
  • Try crowding the sugars out: fill your bowls and plates with nutrient dense foods. Aim for a minimum of 8 servings of vegetables a day (shocking how hard that might actually be). Green smoothies are a very quick way to do this. See my post on green smoothies: http://mariahehlert.com/2012/03/11/green-smoothie-101/
  • Pay attention to how you FEEL. A good friend said, after all the diets, numerous nutritionists, that only one of them ever asked how she FELT after eating crap food vs good food. You will notice a difference. Eventually you’ll become so sensitive that you’ll feel the sugar spike in your system from a few crackers (gluten free even).
  • Add bitter. Add bitter foods, our taste buds adjust to what we eat. Add in foods that taste bitter. Gradually! I started having lemon juice in my water when I learned how beautifully it helps the liver out and to help balance blood pH (=healthy. Good.). However, it was so bitter, I couldn’t stick to it. Next I tried a little lemon juice in warm water. That did the trick. After a couple weeks, I was able to add crazy amounts to my cold water. Added benefit to this: your tastes buds come alive! You’re able to taste flavors that you weren’t able to previously (masked by the sweetness).
  • Chew longer. Chewing combines digestive enzymes in your mouth with your food, and guess what? The food turns sweeter with this action. Chemistry is cool. So eventually that bitter veggie will start to not only have flavor, but taste kind of sa-weeeeeeet.
  • Craving replacements: Fruits are initially a good grab when a craving hits. Sugars from complex carbs such as vegetables, legumes, fruits come in a natural nutrient-dense package of fiber, protein, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients.  All things our bodies need.
  • Exercise. Aside from the plethora of benefits of exercise, this will also help brain chemistry, which will help keep cravings at bay, and help flush out toxins from sugar (detox).

Nutrient dense foods. In the end, we need to fill our bodies with what they need most: nutrients. Not empty calories that harm us. A diet made up of nutrient dense foods exclusively (think veggies, fruits, well-raised animal protein, seeds, nuts) is not only therapeutic, but promotes longevity, energy, and that all-over good feeling. When we are getting what we need, the cravings will go away, as will excess weight.

Good luck, fight the good fight! Let me know if you have any other tips!