Friday, October 14, 2011

Will taking vitamins really shorten your life?

Suddenly everyone is talking about nutritional supplements. And the IowaWomen’s Health Study that showed that they may be actually bad for you.  In case you missed it, this study showed that taking certain supplements causes older women to die prematurely. If you are thinking “Oh, no, I’ve been doing it all wrong!” – just hang on a minute.

Let me ask you now to get out a piece of paper and start making a list: What kind of supplements have you taken in the past 11 years? What exactly was in them, what was the dosage and how often did you actually take them and for how long of a time period. Do you find this question absurd? Ok, fine. How about the past 7 years?

Sadly, that’s how the study was conducted:  Roughly 29,000 women with a mean age of 62 years self reporting 3 times over a period of 18 years.

As a nutrition therapist, I can state this with absolute certainty: At least half of you reading this can’t remember what you had for lunch yesterday – let alone what pills you popped 10 years ago. And if you think that the women participating in this study simply wrote down their supplement intake for all these years, I’d say probably not.  When I ask my new clients to come to their first appointment having written down 3 days of diet diary most either forget it or only sit down once or twice during those 3 days to actually try to remember what they put in their bodies.  And that’s something I ask them to do for 3 days. Not for 18 years.

There was also no control group, no accounting for why those women who were taking more supplements were taking them in the first place (Did they have underlying illnesses they were trying to remedy by taking extra supplements? Were they already less healthy than those taking less?), on the specific combinations taken, no report on the quality of the supplements or their origin (synthetic or food based), very little reported on lifestyles and dietary habits, no note on quality of life for the participants of the study. In fact, the reported deaths were categorized as “Cancer”, “Cardiovascular Disease” and “Other” with no further explanations. There was never any causality established. Just correlation – and not a very significant one at that.  

All in all, I have to admit, I’m a bit confused how this passes for science. No, I don’t think supplements are without risks but I think the way the media is passing on this information, essentially discouraging all supplement intakes, is very counterproductive to the average person.

And if you are wondering: I am not a supplement pusher. I generally recommend only taking supplements to support specific underlying imbalances or to correct a deficiency – both under a practitioner’s care. I do like professional quality food based multi vitamins which I recommend often – though you could argue those are simply food ground up and put in a pill…

Friday, September 16, 2011

Corn Sugar = High Fructose Corn Syrup

Be on the lookout. If you are avoiding High Fructose Corn Syrup, you'll have to add Corn Sugar to your list. It's the same thing! Just cleverly rebranded.

And the FDA is taking action. 

Thursday, March 31, 2011

One Word: Plastics - Oh, okay, and Cans....

Cans are lined with plastic...
Ah, The Graduate. One of the best films of all times. Ask anyone who has seen the movie and I bet you they only remember two things about it:

- Mrs. Robinson
- And that unforgettable scene by the pool where Benjamin is lectured to by Mr. McGuire regarding the future. "One word.... plastics."

Turns out Mr. McGuire was right. Plastics was the future - and is the present. Boy, that sounds confusing.

Take 10 seconds and look around you. I bet you have just noticed at least 3 things that never even occurred to you was plastic 10 seconds ago. But yes, plastic is all around.

You see those fingers on the keyboard or the mouse? Yep, there is some plastic in there too. Sounds funny but I'm serious. You are what you eat - and trust me... You eat plastic. And probably every day.

By definition, plastic is a bunch of chemicals. Sadly, some of those chemicals plastics are made out of are not very stable - the most buzzworthy of those is BPA. BPA is moderately soluable. In other words, keeping your flour in a plastic container in your pantry might be okay. Microwaving your lunch in the takeout container? Not so much.

BPA is an "endocrine disruptor" - in other words it messes with your hormonal systems. It is a "xenoestrogen" - a chemical that acts as a strong estrogen. As such, it has been linked to lovely things like estrogen dependent breast cancer, prostate cancer, obesity, Type 2 diabetes and infertility.

93% of Americans have detectable levels of BPA in their bodies. I don't know about you, but I kind of would like to be in that 7%...

A recent (albeit very small) study shows that we can reduce the BPA concentrations in our bodies dramatically by modifying some eating habits. Here is a bit on the study: 

So if you are interested in making changes in your life to reduce your BPA exposure, here are some tips:

  • Never buy acidic foods in cans. I'm talking tomato sauce, stewed tomatoes, etc. You can often buy then in jars or why not use fresh tomatoes? And really, just try to get away from using cans all around. 
  • Do not drink soda. (Like you needed another reason)
  • Never eat or drink anything that has touched hot plastic - I'm thinking microwaving your lunch in a plastic container, storing dinner leftovers in plastic while still hot. 
  • Use a ceramic or stainless steel cup for coffee and other hot liquids. Did you know that disposable cups have BPA in them? Yep, that's the lining that keeps the liquid from soaking thru the paper cup. Not to mention the plastic lid where the hot steam deposits, and then falls back into the liquid you are about to drink.
  • Store your leftovers in glass containers whenever possible. 
  • You know the inside of takeout containers? Same as the papercup idea. Lined with BPA.
  • Microwave popcorn - yep, the bag is lined with plastic. That's why the trans fats in the packet don't soak thru the paper bag. 
  • And for heaven's sakes, get rid of those old, beat up, scratched up Nalgene bottles. Glass is the most inert substitute out there but stainless steel will work in a pinch too. Personally, I adore quart mason jars but I realize that screams "Hippie!" from a mile away...
Now, I know that you can't get away from being exposed to BPA alltogether. I mean, really. This is the 21st century. The tops of mason jars are lined too and glass containers have plastic lids. But if you just start paying a little attention to this one known issue, you might have the chance to significantly improve your odds of living a healthier and longer life.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Waking up at 3 in the morning?

If you are one of the many people waking up at 3 in the morning and can't get back to sleep, you might want to read this...

While you could pop a prescription or over the counter sleep aid, I recommend against it. First off, you are facing a laundry list of side effects, but also people with sleep aids often do sleep but the sleep they get is not productive. In other words, they get no rejuvenating deep sleep so they find themselves just as tired the next day. Of course, in some cases they might work okay on the short term. In the long term they might lead to dependencies.

So maybe you could just pop a natural supplement, right? What's the harm? The most often recommended sleep aid is melatonin. But melatonin is a hormone and it's nothing to play with. First off, this approach still will not get to the root cause of your issues. Secondly, taking hormones brings a whole other level of complications. Did you know that if you take a hormone, your body will be flooded with it and therefore the receptors that respond to it will down-regulate over time. So this means you will need more and more of it to produce the same effect. You ever heard of women taking progesterone in some form and then saying it worked for a while but became ineffective overtime? Or a man taking testosterone, feeling like a million bucks for a time, then getting worse? In the case of testosterone supplementation there are other pretty well known body processes going on as well (excess testosterone may convert to estrogen for example) but this is just to underscore that supplementing with hormones should come as a last resort and with supervision.

So what's one to do? Staring at the ceiling wide awake at 3 am is really not that much fun. Especially if the next day you feel like a wet rag. 

The solution to the root cause of the problem is blood sugar control. More than half of Americans - and I'd argue over two-thirds - have improperly balanced blood sugars. Messy sugars overtime will lead to insulin resistance, then pre-diabetes, then ultimately Type 2 diabetes. That's the bad news. The good news is, that in most cases this is not that hard to support nutritionally. 

So maybe you are not convinced. Maybe you are normal weight- or even underweight and you just don't see how you might be headed for diabetes. Fair enough. Keep in mind though, the progression of this imbalance might take decades. But just answer these questions:

- Do you get shaky, irritable, or lightheaded if you miss meals?
- Do you get tired after meals? 

If your answer is yes to either one of those, you do belong to those with blood sugar imbalances. The first answer generally indicates reactive hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), the second tends more toward higher blood sugar. You might even have both symptoms which just means you are probably transitioning from low to high blood sugars.

What does this all have to do with you waking up at 3am? A lot. Let's look at a typical day in a person who wakes up at 3 am. 

"Alice's alarm goes off at 7am. She pushes the snooze button 3 times by the time she finally gets up to get ready for her job. No time to eat breakfast, so she grabs a quick muffin and a cup of coffee in the morning. She has some deadlines to work on and immerses herself in her work. At about 10, she finds herself unable to concentrate. She grabs another cup of coffee and a candy bar. She feels better, full of energy. She gets that pressing project finally done and on the boss's desk by noon. Then she grabs a chicken sandwich and some salad with fat free dressing plus a bag of baked chips at the corner fast food place and hurries back to work. Within a half hour, she is yawning. Contemplating a cup of coffee, she decides she is going to pull through and just eat a banana she threw in her purse that morning. But that really didn't help much and by 3pm, she is eagerly waiting for the coffee maker to be done. She gets a second wind after that, then it's time to leave work, pick up the dry cleaning, and go to the gym. Dinner is a slice of veggie pizza at 7pm. She watches a movie and decides to fight her urge for a snack. She goes to bad at 10. She falls asleep right away but finds herself wide awake in the middle of the night. She looks at the clock: 3:30. Why do I always wake up at the same time? - she ponders. Then she starts counting sheep, she tosses and turns for what seems like forever, then she drinks a glass of warm milk. Finally she falls asleep - but the alarm goes off almost immediately. It's 7 am. She presses snooze 3 times like every morning."

Let's look at what happens to Alice physiologically. She has carbohydrates, sugar and caffeine for breakfast. Great recipe for spiking your blood sugar right off the bat. No fat, no protein and probably very little fiber - all the things you need for balanced blood sugar are missing. So after her blood sugar spikes, her pancreas panics. Very high blood sugar sets off alarms in the body. So in comes a bunch of insulin, gets the sugar out of the blood and into the cells and her blood sugar tanks. Another alarm reaction. Without adequate glucose (=sugar) in the blood, her brain starves. She gets sleepy, maybe cranky, might even get blurred vision, inability to think. So she grabs that candy bar and coffee. Blood sugar spikes, probably crashes again. Good thing it's lunch break. For lunch she does it a bit of fiber, but no fat and little protein along with a bunch of refined carbs (bread, chips). Her sugar goes up and maybe that bread was just a bit much adding to the insults of her meals in the morning. This time when insulin comes to the rescue, the cells are unable to accept insulin and the sugar it carries. This is the beginning stage of insulin resistance. Her sugar is still high. To save the day, the liver quickly converts the sugar into fat. This process takes a lot of energy, making her sleepy. In comes the banana, then the coffee, etc. 

So I'm hoping you can see what a roller coaster this diet is causing her. When she finally goes to bed, you can only guess what her high carb dinner (pizza) is doing to her blood sugar. But when the food goes thru her, then her body tries to adjust for the fluctuations and ultimately fails. After 3 am her blood sugars dip so low, that her body experiences an alarm reaction. The brain can't function without glucose. The body can't function without the brain. So a massive stress hormone release happens: adrenaline and cortisol come to the rescue, suppressing her sleepy hormone: melatonin. She wakes up wide awake and can't get back to sleep for hours. Will it help her to eat something? Probably. Would that warm milk help her? It might - even if it's cold since it will provide her with some glucose. But ultimately this scenario could have been completely avoided, if she had just had a blood sugar balanced diet throughout the day. 

If you are "Alice" but you still don't believe me, try this simple trick. Don't even go as far as a blood sugar control diet. Just do this: Before going to bed (yes, I'm talking 10 pm or right before your head hits the pillow), eat a healthy snack rich in complex carbs, fat and protein. Try one of these: A green apple with a handful of almonds. A pear with some cheese. A piece of turkey and some baby carrots. In addition, you could keep a handful of raw nuts by your bedside, and pop them in your mouth when you wake up very early in the morning.

Now this might not work for you right off the bat, but if it does I hope you know what that means. It means you have whacky blood sugar. If it doesn't work, your blood sugar might just be too messed up for a simple trick like this to work. 

If you would like to go further, and want to fix the root cause of your issues, you can go on a blood sugar control diet. Here are the basic rules:
  • Eat 3 square meals a day plus 2-3 snacks.
  • Combine good fats, protein, and complex carbs with each meal. 
  • Never skip meals
  • Never eat a carbohydrate on its own
  • Avoid sugar
  • Eat breakfast within an hour of waking
This is not that hard - and I could go on for hours about people whose lives this simple strategy has changed forever. For the better, of course! 

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Can a Candy Bar give you the Flu?
Why do we get sick with infections? It is well known that there needs to be a pathogen present (such as a virus or bacteria) but being exposed to them is no guarantee we will get sick. Ultimately our immune system needs to fail in order to give way to sickness.

There are several pieces of research today which prove that our immune system can fail us following the consumption of high sugar foods. Consuming 100 grams of simple sugars (glucose, sucrose, or fructose) including honey or orange juice can reduce the ability of your immune system to destroy pathogens. The effects start within 30 minutes and last for about 5 hours with roughly a 50% reduction of white blood cell action. (Sanchez, Reeser, Lau, & al., 1973). Another study confirms this by looking at what happens to immune defenses after ingesting Coca-Cola (Ringsdorf, Cheraskin, & Ramsay, 1976).

While 100 grams of sugar sounds like a lot, it is important to realize that your average bottle of Naked Juice contains about 60 grams of sugar (do not forget to look at serving sizes!). Grab a scone with that and you are looking at another 24 grams of sugar ( Or have a venti Starbucks Tazo green tea Frappuccino without the whipped cream and you are looking at 95 grams of sugar from your drink alone. (Starbucks Coffee Company, 2009)

Although the mechanism is unknown, we can speculate that sugar’s negative effect on the immune system has to do with the fact that Vitamin C appears to compete with glucose in cellular absorption (Mann, 1975). In other words, if we can consume foods which will NOT flood the system with glucose, Vitamin C will still be able to get into our cells and do its job. (Murray, 1998)

These foods include those which do not contain either sugar or refined carbohydrates (which turn into glucose rapidly in the bloodstream). Think foods high in protein, fiber, and good fats. So instead of having a flavored drink from the local coffee shop with a muffin for breakfast, consider having 2 free range eggs, with a slice of organic whole grain toast and some fresh tomatoes from your garden harvest along with a cup of unsweetened herbal tea.

Consider your 3 year old preschooler having an organic apple juice box. With 26 grams of sugar, you ought to question what effect that might or might not have on that little body’s resistance to germs. Offer some animal crackers or organic fruit leather, and you might be heading for trouble. Please remember that young children seem to most often catch infections in daycare settings and examine the provided meals with this perspective.

While there are a lot of effective strategies that will help boost your immune system, first and foremost we must ensure that we provide our bodies with nutrition that will help the immune system work as it was intended.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Yum - Asparagus

April is the beginning of asparagus season. Since this lovely vegetable is now making its way to markets, this is a great time to pick some up!
I love asparagus mostly because it's tasty and super easy to prepare. But let's not forget how healthful this food is. It is a great source of fiber - and in fact it contains inulin which feeds healthy gut bacteria and therefore can support our immune systems. Asparagus is also very high in vitamins C, K, folate and carotenoids (Vitamin A precursors) especially. In this day in age where inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthiritis are so common, I'd like to point out the wide range of anti-inflammatory and antioxidant compounds packed into this veggie. Asparagus is not a starchy vegetable and can be a very productive part of any diabetes prevention diet. 

So let's talk about my favorite part: eating it. There is no reason not to eat asparagus raw. You can dip the crispy spears in hummus or any dip of your choice or just snack on them on their own. 

You will notice that the bottom of the spears are hard and too fibrous to eat - but it's easy to snap them off. In fact I find it very irritating when I eat an asparagus dish at a restaurant and end up picking fibers out from between my teeth for the next half hour - no fun. So I find it's a good investment of time to just snap them and compost the woody ends. 
Here is my favorite way to make asparagus (have I mentioned I like simple?):

Take a bundle of asparagus, wash and snap off the woody ends
Heat extra virgin olive oil or extra virgin coconut oil in a stainless steel pan on medium heat.
When the oil is hot (but not smoking!), add the asparagus and 2-3 cloves of chopped garlic and some coarse salt to taste.
Stir fry (though you really don't need to sir much - just enough for it not to stick to the bottom of pan) for a few minutes till the spears are cooked but still crispy. You might need to add just a bit of water during the cooking process to make sure the spears don't burn. And that's it! Serve with a chunk of wholesome grass fed meat.

Asparagus season lasts for about 2 months, so soak it up!

Monday, March 21, 2011

How I fixed my Sinus Infection

I have been hearing so much about people having sinus infections, I thought I'd quickly type up my experience  with it a few months back.

This was my first experience with sinusitis - and let me tell you, it was no fun. It came on fast and it HURT badly. I had a headache and very intense pressure under my right eye. I was cranky and tired - mostly from all the pain. After a couple of days of this - and right after I talked to someone who had just went to the ER for sinusitis, I decided to make an appointment with my family doctor. I called  but he wouldn't be available for 2 days. I made the appointment though I sincerely thought I'd end up at urgent care before those 2 days would come to pass.

So I kicked into high gear- I knew I was on a deadline. I came home, looked up sinusitis in a bunch of books, did some research, drafted up a plan and set out to do nothing all day except take care of myself and do my best to get rid of the sinusitis. A crucial first step, by the way. In this modern age we all seem to expect to handle illnesses without slowing down - hence we so often wait too long, then end up popping pills for things that could have otherwise been handled naturally.

I took some supplements - these are all things I carry in my practice so luckily I had everything on had. 250 mg of food based Vitamin C (works a lot better than ascorbic acid) every couple of hours is the first thing I start with when I feel under the weather. Since sinusitis can be caused by bacteria, virus, or fungi, I decided to have a broad approach. Obviously, the Vitamin C would support my immune system. Vital Nutrients Herbal Biotic and Vital Nutrients ViraCon are herbal supplements - the first one has anti bacterial, the second has antiviral effects. I decided its not fungi - mostly from gut feeling but also because it seems like if my sinusitis had been fungal, it would have been more chronic, not such sudden onset acute. I took 2 of each pill 4 times that day. I crushed a clove of garlic and swallowed it with some water - then chased it with a bit of honey. I only did this once because I couldn't stomach it that day but there is no reason not to do it multiple times.

About 4 times that day, I boiled some water, added a bunch of salt, hovered over the pot with a towel over myself. I steamed my sinuses but decided to kick it up a notch and added some tea tree oil to sanitize my airways- and quickly found out why that one book specifically said "Add 1-2 drops". Whoa! That stuff stings... but also luckily evaporates quickly. So I ended up adding just a single drop every couple of minutes.

I did compresses with wet, warm washcloths throughout the day which I found very soothing.

I did Neti pot rinses  2-3 times as well.

I drank herbal tea all day long - not that that's really any different than any other day for me but the hot liquid was certainly smoothing. I opted for rosehips, peppermint and chamomile that day.

I ate nothing all day. Mostly because I just wasn't hungry but it is also important to note that your immune system is most active when you are fasting. So in a way it makes sense. However, I wouldn't recommend fasting if a sick person is hungry - but if you are under the weather and can't imagine eating, don't shove food down your throat because you think you have to.

The next morning I woke up and felt okay. The pressure was mostly gone and my hunger was back. I continued my Neti pot rinses and the supplements but didn't do anything else. I did go in to my appointment with my family doctor the next day who said I was obviously recovering on my own but handed me a prescription just in case since the weekend was coming up. I never did use it...