Category Archives: Health & Nutrition

“Odd” Habits – Part 2: Detoxing

I sometimes get anxious about all of the potential things in our environment that can cause us harm.  It’s overwhelming to weigh all of the advice: don’t eat that kind of seafood unless you love mercury…sunscreen can do more harm than good…sure, that food is healthy but did you know that the container it comes in causes cancer?  Good grief!  Is there really anything I can do about all of the things I’m exposed to every day?

When I was thyroid sick, I decided to learn the ins and outs of detoxing, pun intended.  I had no clue what it was, much less whether or not I should be doing anything about it.  Here is a simple run-down of detoxing:

WHAT: Detoxification is a multi-phase process that our bodies go through automatically and continuously.  Some of the primary players in detoxing are the: skin, lungs, lymphatic system, liver, kidneys, and large intestine.  We take in all sorts of toxins from our environment; it is amazing how our bodies were designed to get rid of the bad stuff!  Unfortunately, today we are inundated with toxins, and our built-in mechanisms are overburdened. Consider that Americans of all ages are carrying over 219 toxic chemicals in their bodies, according to the CDC’s 2009 report.  Many don’t realize that they also have genetic predispositions that inhibit their body’s detoxing capabilities.

WHY: I was surprised to learn that many of my symptoms that I shrugged off as “just the way I am,” could be the result of my body’s increased toxic burden.  This burden is described as the point when the level of toxins coming into the body exceeds the body’s ability to remove them.  Toxins can cause a wide variety of symptoms: fatigue, inflammation/joint pain, bad breath/coated tongue, digestive complaints/constipation/hemorrhoids, general nausea/lack of appetite, weight gain, acne, excessive body odor/belching/gas, headaches, brain fog, hot flashes, allergic reactions, sinus problems, and infertility.  Taking steps to support detoxification can improve or eliminate these symptoms, and optimize the body’s metabolism.

SOURCES of TOXINS

Food – It might seem obvious that processed foods, food additives/preservatives, artificial sweeteners/colors, sugar, alcohol, and pesticides are toxins.  Would you believe that excessive amounts of certain foods are also toxic?  Brazil nuts, tuna, cruciferous vegetables (kale, Brussels sprouts, spinach, etc.), and certain spices (cinnamon, nutmeg).

{I personally overdosed on cruciferous vegetables several years ago.  I ate a lot of raw kale and spinach (approx. 7 cups/day) and gave myself a serious iodine deficiency, which was crippling my thyroid.  Our bodies need iodine and I was repeatedly depleting my body of it because those vegetables in raw form steal iodine!  I still eat those foods, but I cook them and balance them with other non-cruciferous vegetables. This was a valuable lesson in the realm of “more isn’t necessarily better.”}

The point is that if certain healthy, natural foods can be toxic in massive quantities, how much more-so are processed, fake foods.

Environment – heavy metals, medications, beauty and self-care products, plastics, air, water (even tap water), and cleaning products.  These toxins can disrupt hormones and cause disease, including cancer.  Good grief. Do you feel like you want to live in an organic, BPA-free-non-plastic, bubble yet?

The Body – Before you start googling alternative living arrangements, you must know that your body is also a toxin source.  Chronic stress alters the body’s metabolic processes, hormonal balance, and immune system functioning.  It can also increase inflammation and the overgrowth of bad bacteria, hampering the body’s natural detoxification processes.  This bad bacteria can produce endotoxins that accumulate in the body’s fat stores and bloodstream, making us sick.

HOW:  So what can we do?  First, detoxification in the liver (our primary detox organ) occurs in two phases, and then the toxins exit through the bladder via the kidneys, or the bowels via the bile/gallbladder.  You may have seen “cleanse” or “detox” products on the market – many of them are merely colon cleanses, and do nothing to help with the first 2 detox phases.

Before you turn to products on the market, here are some things you can do on your own:

DAILY Detoxing 

Decrease the burdens on your body: try natural personal care and cleaning products; drink the cleanest water you can; use glass instead of plastic; choose organic whole foods; eliminate processed foods, sugar, and reduce/eliminate alcohol consumption (which impacts the liver’s ability to detox).

Manage your stress effectively by building in regular activities (daily/weekly) that relax and recharge you: walking (not speed walking), restorative yoga, tai chi, meditation, quiet time, unplugging from media, naps (can I get an amen?), face to face social connections, Epsom salt baths, sauna and spa time.

Nutritionally support body’s detox mechanisms: drink plenty of water; eat plenty of vegetables –especially leafy greens (deeper color is best), beets, carrots, and celery; fruits –especially berries and granny smith apples; and use spices such as turmeric, rosemary, cayenne, cumin, and curry. Fiber and probiotics are crucial. If your liver is good at detoxing, but everything gets backed up in the colon, you’ll make matters worse.  Toxins need an effective exit strategy!

SEMI-ANNUAL Detoxing

Every 6 months, especially in the spring, you can do a focused detox for 1-3 weeks:

  1. EAT more veggies (7-10 cups/day) and little or no animal protein or dairy (which increases the burden on the liver). Whole grains should be high quality: quinoa, aramanth, millet, or buckwheat. If you like protein shakes, opt for plant proteins powders (my favorite “affordable” powder is Naturade Vegan Smart). Focus on soups, salads, fruits, and healthy fats in food form (i.e., avocados, coconuts, olives, flaxseeds).
  2. DRINK tons of water, no alcohol or caffeine. Herbal teas (especially milk thistle and dandelion root teas). Some experts say green tea is ok, even though it does contain caffeine. I know, coffee lovers, this one kills me too.  It’s just a week or two, right?
  3. ADD fermented foods – cultured vegetables, kombucha (GT’s Organic multi-green flavor has a double benefit due to green ingredients and probiotics), and apple cider vinegar in water. Here is a drink that I make every day. I must give credit to Dr. Axe for the main recipe, and I’ve tweaked it a bit:
  • 12-16 ounces of hot or cold water
  • 1 T – Apple Cider Vinegar
  • 1 T – lemon juice or one drop of lemon or grapefruit oil
  • 1 tsp – wild raw honey
  • 1/8 tsp each: cinnamon, turmeric, and ginger
  • Pinch of cayenne pepper
  1. REDUCE stress – deliberately address your stress daily during your detox week(s) using tips from the list in the previous section.
  2. SWEAT, but don’t overdo the exercise – this isn’t the time to engage in intense exercise, but sweating is an excellent natural detoxifier. Spend some time outside in the warmer months, walk, do yoga, go kayaking, go to a sauna. If you are an avid exerciser, this is a great time to do a recovery week or two.
  3. THINK progress, not perfection. These brief detox periods can be a great way to gradually integrate healthy eating habits into your lifestyle. You may not hit all 5 of the strategies at first and that’s ok!  Strive for improvement each time you do it.  As a special note to women, it’s best not to attempt a detox week during the time of the month when you are ravenous and could eat anything not nailed down.  Believe me, it sets you up for failure!

There are more advanced steps that one can take to support the detox process (i.e., genetic testing for mutations that predispose one to impaired detoxification, supplementation, etc.)  Since I am not a doctor, it is beyond my scope to discuss these things.  I have tackled these issues in my own life with the guidance of an integrative/functional medicine doctor, and highly recommend this avenue for those who have tried all of the above and are still struggling.

High Cholesterol? Things to Consider Before Taking a Statin Drug

I never thought that I would write specifically on this topic, but my life experiences dictate my material.  Also, I embrace any opportunity to “geek out” with new research.  There was A LOT of information, some conflicting and controversial, to wade through on this topic.

Obligatory disclaimer:  If you are currently taking a statin drug to manage cholesterol, I am NOT telling you stop taking it.  I am merely advocating an awareness of the risks of taking these drugs.  It is better to be informed, so that you can ask the right questions the next time you see your doctor.  Moving on…

When my mom told me that she was being tested for lupus, fibromyalgia, and rheumatoid arthritis, I sprang into action, combing through research trying to understand the why behind her sudden onset of pain.  A red flag for me was her long-term use of a statin drug for high cholesterol.  I knew that this drug had potentially dangerous side effects, including muscular pain, and wondered if this was the underlying cause.  So this was my starting point:  what kinds of statin-induced pathologies are proven through research?

What I found might shock you.

Statin-Induced Pathologies

As I suspected, numerous studies have found that statins cause muscular and neurological damage.  This is extremely troubling, since the HEART is a MUSCLE and these drugs are supposed to prevent heart disease!  Statins also deplete some of the body’s cardioprotective minerals such as zinc and selenium, as well as more complex compounds, like Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) and Omega 3 fatty acids (found in fish oil).  Studies have also shown that statins can increase calcification in the arteries around the heart.

Other side effects associated with statins that are supported by research include: cataracts, pancreatitis, liver damage, kidney disease, memory loss, certain types of cancer, and autoimmune responses (http://www.greenmedinfo.com/disease/statin-induced-pathologies *).  Lupus and rheumatoid arthritis (RA) are specific autoimmune diseases that have also been linked to statin drugs.  In fact, my mom was ultimately diagnosed with Statin-Induced Lupus-like Syndrome, meaning that she had symptoms of lupus that were caused by her cholesterol medication!

A particularly alarming finding is the association between statins and type 2 diabetes, since many people who have high cholesterol also have diabetes.  Studies have shown that statins increase the risk of developing diabetes, especially for post-menopausal women.  This 2012 study, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, found a 71% increase in diabetes risk for women.  After controlling for age/race/weight/BMI, the risk was still high, at 48%.

Do These Drugs Actually Prevent Heart Disease?

With such serious risks on the table, the next logical question is:  do statins actually prevent heart disease?  The research findings are rather underwhelming.

Generally, there are two populations taking these drugs:  1.) those considered to be at-risk but with no known heart disease; and 2.) those with a history of heart attacks/heart disease.  Studies show that statins tend to be effective for people who have had a previous heart attack (#2), but not for people who have never had one (#1).  A meta-analysis published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, examined 11 different trials on the effectiveness of statins, involving over 65,000 patients.  Researchers concluded that, “statins provided no benefit in preventing all cause mortality in the high-risk primary setting” (i.e. the drugs did not prevent death for the people in the at-risk/no heart attack history population).

When discussing the effectiveness of a drug, the Number Needed to Treat (NNT) is very important information.  It refers to the number of patients that need to be treated, for a period of time, in order for ONE to benefit (compared to a control group).  The ideal number is 1, meaning that everyone who takes this drug will benefit.  Therefore, the higher the NNT, the less effective the treatment.  There are various NNTs out there, depending on the study.

For the population that has no history of heart disease, even though they have risk factors, the lowest number that I was able to find is 60, over 5 years.  This means that patients would need to take the statin for 5 years in order to have a 1 in 60 chance of avoiding a heart attack (with no distinction between fatal and non-fatal).  I also found numbers of 100 and 155, while some analysts suggest that this number is over 1000 for men, and 5000 for women under the age of 50 (i).  Now, for the population with a history of heart disease, the most common NNT that I found was 83 (over 5 years) for fatal heart attacks.

Another very important point to consider is that the Number Needed To Harm (NNH), is 50 for type 2 diabetes, and 10 for muscle damage.  Meaning, after 5 years of taking this medication, 1/50 will develop diabetes and 1/10 will have muscle damage.  Based on this data, patients are more likely to develop a serious complication than to prevent a heart attack!

Is High Cholesterol a Big Deal?

There is no question that statin drugs reduce cholesterol, but we have seen that when taking these medications, heart attacks are not overwhelmingly prevented.  Does this mean that high cholesterol might not cause heart disease?

This is a complex issue.  After LOTS and LOTS of reading and research, I can tell you this:  Cholesterol plays a role in heart disease, but there are many factors that determine whether high cholesterol will actually cause heart disease.

When you get your cholesterol checked, you are given some numbers referring to LDL and HDL.  Technically, these are “transport molecules” (lipoproteins) that move cholesterol through the body, allowing it to perform very important jobs.  Our bodies need cholesterol.  It is the building block of hormones, cell membranes, and brain cells.  Cholesterol also aids in bile production for digestion and vitamin D synthesis.

Problems occur when the LDL doesn’t get the cholesterol into the cells and is just hanging out in the bloodstream.  The longer it stays outside the cells, the more it breaks down, which isn’t a good thing.  This leads to inflammation…and diabetes and metabolic syndrome make this situation worse.

Interestingly, research has repeatedly found that inflammation (measured as c-reactive protein, or CRP) is associated with heart disease.  The higher this number, the higher your risk.  One landmark study (AKA the JUPITER trial) demonstrated that lowering inflammation in the body is instrumental in preventing heart attacks and death.

To summarize, the key is not necessarily to lower the concentrations of lipoproteins (LDL) in our body, but to prevent the inflammation that can occur when they break down.  Even though statins are known to reduce inflammation for some patients, there is a much safer way to tackle it.

What Can I Do?

It doesn’t surprise me that this rabbit hole led to the conclusion that cholesterol doesn’t entirely cause heart disease.  The enemy is inflammation.  It is the root of all disease, including cancer.  Here is an action plan to manage your inflammation:

– Have your c-reactive protein (CRP) checked in order to assess your risk.  This is a blood test that your doctor must order.

– Engage in regular exercise and manage your stress.

Avoid:

– all processed foods, including processed meats and vegetable oils (canola, corn, safflower, soybean, cottonseed, and anything listed as hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated).

– refined carbs like sugar and flour

– foods that trigger allergic reactions and intolerances for you.  This takes some detective work, but the biggest offenders are gluten, dairy, corn, soy, nuts, and eggs.

– alcohol consumption (or dramatically reduce it)

Consume:

– vegetables, especially broccoli, kale, spinach, bok choy, celery, beets

– fruits, especially blueberries and other berries, tart cherries

– fatty fish, such as Wild Alaskan salmon, Atlantic mackerel, sardines, rainbow trout, tuna, Pacific halibut

– healthy fats in food form (preferred source): avocados, olives, walnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds, unsweetened coconut, other nuts and seeds

– healthy fats in oil form: olive, coconut, avocado, palm

– spices, such as turmeric and ginger

– dark chocolate, small amounts at 70% cacao or greater (this one is for all of the chocolate lovers out there, myself included)

– bone broth (I make my own, with bones left from cooking a chicken)

In conclusion, it’s always scary to experience serious side effects from medications, and it has been astounding to hear from other people, especially women, who have suffered while taking statins.  I wanted to share my investigation in hopes that others might be empowered to ask questions and advocate for their health.  I personally have “high cholesterol” and needed to get to the bottom of this long-standing debate for my own sake, as well as my mom’s.

* © GreenMedInfo LLC. This work is reproduced and distributed with the permission of GreenMedInfo LLC. Want to learn more from GreenMedInfo? Sign up for the newsletter here http://www.greenmedinfo.com/greenmed/newsletter

i.  Austin Publishing Group.  Statins and Changing Number Needed to Treat (NNT). J Cardiovasc Disord. 2015; 2(3):. 1018. J Cardiovasc Disord – Volume 2 Issue 3 – 2015

“Odd” Habits That Might Actually Be Healthy

I used to be skeptical of this list…or at least I’d chuckle to myself that these habits were odd and probably not effective.  However, as a mom who is engaged in my family’s health, and a woman who faced the threat of thyroid cancer and the diagnosis of an autoimmune disease, I chose to re-evaluate my own habits and consider the possibility that I could do a better job managing my health. Here are some seemingly “odd” habits that are actually good for you. I hope that you learn something new and might consider giving some of these a try. Let’s jump in!

Bone Broth

Bone broth can easily be made by cooking the bones from a chicken or turkey.  First, bake the “bird” in a crockpot or oven, depending on the size. (I put a frozen chicken in my crockpot and cook on low for 10 hours –no need to add water if it is frozen.) After pulling the cooked meat off of the bones, place them in a separate crockpot, fill the pot with water, add some vegetable scraps, pepper, a bay leaf, and cook on low for at least 24 hours. Then, pour it through a mesh strainer and store in the refrigerator for a week, or the freezer for a longer period of time.

You can use bone broth in soups, to make rice/quinoa/whole grain pasta, or you can just drink it plain. (I like to mix in a little chicken broth to enhance the taste and I recommend drinking it hot.)

Health benefits:

The lengthy cooking process extracts essential nutrients from the bones, which results in a broth that is high in collagen, amino acids (the building blocks of protein), minerals and electrolytes.

These nutrients have a tremendous impact on strengthening bones, muscles, and joints as well as reducing inflammation and fighting osteoporosis.

Gut health is enhanced because the nutrients help to form a solid barrier in the intestines, aiding in repair, boosting digestion, and protecting against ulcers.

Other health benefits include: boosting the immune system, maintaining normal blood sugar and cholesterol levels, heart protection, boosting energy, protecting eye, brain, and kidney health, and enhancing mood and sleep.

Bone broth is an inexpensive, yet broadly effective way to stay healthy!  It really isn’t that “freakish” or trendy, as bone broth has been around for over 2500 years.

Probiotics

The gut “microbiome,” AKA the unique bacterial environment in your body, is linked to many of the body’s systems and functions. Many professionals estimate that the gut: is home to two-thirds of the immune system, manufactures 80% of the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin, and produces many other hormones (including thyroid and sex hormones). When the gut is out of balance (bad guys overpowering good guys), one will have problems with: digestion, frequent illnesses, autoimmune disease, weight gain, skin issues, brain functioning (neurological, cognition, mood), liver functioning, and hormone imbalances.  And this is just what we know today.  Research in this area is exploding and has only begun to scratch the surface.

While the use of probiotics has become a mainstream practice, there are some things you must know. These “good guys” are live bacteria and yeasts that protect the intestinal tract from dangerous organisms, toxins, and inflammation.

I am NOT referring to the commercial “probiotic yogurts” advertised on television that have little, if any, live cultures, and contain more sugar than anything beneficial. Instead, I am referring to supplements and fermented foods.

Supplements vary in their quality. If you choose to take them, make sure you are purchasing a reputable brand.

Probiotic capsules have 2 important pieces of information on the bottle:

1.) The number of live, active cultures guaranteed at the time of manufacture. This number ranges from thousands to billions, and will be lower by the time it reaches your home.

2.) The specific strains of beneficial bacteria included.  As a rule, I buy capsules for my family from a reputable company that contain the largest variety of strains (5-6).

Major DOWNSIDES to probiotic supplements are: they may not be able to survive the harsh acidic environment in the stomach; they don’t have an immediate effect on repopulating the good guys; and they have limited strain variety and potency.

Fermented and cultured foods are an even more effective way to introduce probiotics.  You can find them in the refrigerated section of health food stores – sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir (not the commercial kind with lots of sugar), kombucha tea, or you can make them yourself using a good culture starter kit. If you are interested in learning more about fermenting your own foods, Summer Bock is THE guru.

Fermented foods contain vastly more active cultures and varied strains than capsules AND their nature allows them to effectively navigate the digestive system.  They contain protective mechanisms that help them survive the stomach environment, and have an immediate impact on the gut microbiome.  They also contain prebiotics, which feed the good bacteria and keep them growing. A little bit goes a long way…gradually work up to just one forkful per meal or 4 ounces of kefir/day.

A quick word about kombucha tea: it contains yeasts, so if you struggle with candida overgrowth, this may not be a good option for you. Some people report gas/bloating/heartburn after drinking it, which can mean that their systems don’t tolerate it well. If this happens to you, either reduce the amount or frequency you drink (4 oz a few times a week is plenty), or switch to another fermented food.

My own experience with fermented foods has been gradual; it takes time to get accustomed to the sour taste.  Honestly, my family refuses to try them, which is why I give them supplements. The good news is that you only need small quantities of fermented foods AND the taste helps to combat sugar cravings.

Whether you choose supplements of fermented foods, is it necessary to keep taking them? Can’t we just take them once and be done? Unfortunately, there are many things that we consume, both willingly and unwillingly, that kill off probiotics: sugar, processed foods, tap water, prescription antibiotics, NSAIDs and other medications. Even stress can impact your microbiome! Alas, we must keep adding in the good guys to try to stay balanced.

Like bone broth, fermented foods have been around for a very long time. We have we tried to bottle these benefits, with some success, but nothing can fully replace the “real food” option.

Stay tuned for more “odd” habits in this series and feel free to post a question or comment below!

Moderation is a Myth

moderationI used to have one day per week when I allowed myself to have a sweet treat.  One month went something like this:

Week 1:  I dutifully scoop out ½ cup of all natural vanilla ice cream into a small dish.  I eat it slowly and savor every delicious bite, patting myself on the back for my impeccable self-control.  I finish the ice cream and am successfully satisfied.

Week 2:  I try the same strategy, but this time my ice cream needs a buddy…a small homemade gluten free brownie.  I thoroughly enjoy my treat.

Week 3:  I’ve been dying for this day to come.  I serve up some ice cream that might have been a little more than a serving.  I reason that the brownie really added something to the ice cream last week, so I try it again.  I finish my dessert and then find myself returning to my kitchen for a little more…in the dish goes another small brownie with a little ice cream because I can’t eat one without the other.  I finish the dessert feeling uncomfortably full.

Week 4:  Finally it’s dessert day!!  (…despite the fact that I snuck in some treats throughout the week.)  I serve up over a cup of ice cream, add my two small brownies, and decide that melted Nutella with some peanuts on top would be the perfect accent.  I sit down on the couch to enjoy my concoction when I feel my husband staring at me:  You ok hun?  Is it that time of the month?  This isn’t like you at all.

I finish the dessert because I’m not a quitter.  Then, I admit to myself that I’ve clearly taken my “small weekly indulgence” too far.  I’m off in the ditch…again.

Everything in moderation.  This advice has been a part of the diet/nutrition conversation forever.  I’ve even clung to these words in an attempt to achieve balance with food, while recovering from an eating disorder.  The brownie sundae story, one of many in my life, is evidence that this strategy has been ineffective.  The longer I’ve studied how the body works, the more I’m convinced that this approach sets people up for failure.  What makes me say this?

First, research shows that this advice can lead to unhealthy outcomes.  In a 2015 study, researchers found that more varied diets (the presence of both healthy and unhealthy foods) were associated with larger waist circumference and type 2 diabetes.  When people adopt the moderation approach, they tend to apply it to both healthy and unhealthy foods.  As a result, people are sacrificing veggies and fruit for junk food.

Second, the concept of moderation is subjective and difficult to define.  People are notoriously bad at estimating portions and serving sizes, and prescribing “moderate” amounts for themselves is no different.  It is a vague concept with a lot of individual variation.  A moderate amount for me may be way too much for you.  Taking this further, we would never use this standard when recommending how much sugar a diabetic should eat, or how much gluten someone with celiac disease should consume.  It would be ludicrous to suggest that people with food allergies or sensitivities merely enjoy the offending foods in moderation.  Regardless of the context, it isn’t a helpful term.

Finally, moderation is a poor strategy when faced with “avalanche foods.”  Most of us have them.  You know, the foods that you simply cannot eat in small amounts –before you know it, the entire bag, box, or pan is gone?  The problem is that we tend to allow for larger “moderation” quantities when we are dealing with foods we enjoy.  That gets us into trouble every time.

The “everything in moderation” approach assumes that calories are all that matter –as long as you keep your calories in the right range, you’ll be fine.  Not so!  Introducing poor quality calories into our daily diets will ultimately throw our crucial weight management hormones out of whack, causing weight gain and difficulty losing.  You can read a former post on this topic here.

Since moderation doesn’t really work, let’s look at some more effective strategies:

Know Your Own Needs and Tendencies – What foods cause you to go off into the ditch?  Are there certain situations that make this more likely?  Do you have food allergies or intolerances?  Do you have a chronic disease, such as diabetes?  In these situations, I would strongly urge you to consider a zero tolerance approach to the food in question.  Having “just a little” will do more harm than good, or will cause your train to derail every time.  I have these foods in my own life –it is what it is.  I’d rather feel amazing than dance with misery.

“All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful.  “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up.  1 Corinthians 10:23

Become Savvy About What Makes You Tick – What are situations where you tend to have a strong resolve?  When are you most vulnerable?  Hint: many times when we are sleep-deprived, running on empty, and stressed out, our resolve to eat healthy and to resist temptation takes a nosedive.  What are some intentional ways that you can guarantee more success?  Are there some delicious healthier alternatives that you actually enjoy?

Break it Down – Don’t be afraid to be a data head about this.  I suggest following at least an 80/20 plan, eating whole, unprocessed foods 80% of the time.  This gives you 20% to play with.  Keep in mind, this isn’t a license to go nuts (refer to strategy #1).  There might be things that are best to stay away from, even within this 20% margin.  Only you will know that.  Literally do the math:  multiply the number of meals you eat/week by .2 to give you your number of meals that can be less rigid.

Keep in mind that it takes time to be a good detective, so don’t give up.  You may be wondering how willpower factors into this discussion.  Research has been turned upside down in this area and I plan to unpack it in a future post.  Stay tuned!

 

Do You Need Sleep More Than Exercise?

And The Greatest of These is…

sleep

Sleep!!!  Ok, I don’t know exactly how true this is, but I say it this way because we, as a society, tend to downplay the importance of good, old-fashioned sleep.  There is a reason that we were created to need sleep, as inconvenient as it may seem at times.  I’m all about productivity, and I’ve often lamented that, if I didn’t have to sleep, I could get SO much done!  But the reality is that our productivity, among other things, takes a hit when we are lacking quality pillow time.

Sleep has been a huge topic of conversation in our household.  I have struggled with thyroid-related fatigue off and on for the past 7 years; my husband works 3rd shift and finds himself perpetually exhausted.  As you may already know, when I struggle with something, I research it.  Today, I am a passionate protector of sleep for myself and my family.

Researchers agree that 7-9 hours of sleep per night is optimal for adults, but most people are falling short of this mark.  A secondary issue is that people might achieve this quantity, but not necessarily the best quality of sleep.

Let’s take a look at what happens when we aren’t getting optimal sleep:

Weight gain and difficulty losing weight:  Even one night of poor sleep can have a significant impact on our appetites and food intake.  Two important appetite control hormones are leptin and grehlin.  Leptin makes us feel full and grehlin makes us feel hungry.  Poor sleep causes our leptin levels to drop and our grehlin levels to rise, regardless of the fact that we have had enough to eat and should feel full.  Additionally, poor sleep is a stress on the body and causes cortisol levels to rise.  In this situation, these three hormones create hunger, cravings for carbohydrates and sugar, and weight gain.  Have you ever been up all night and found that the next day you were reaching for all things sugar and carbohydrate…and you couldn’t seem to stop?  Yep.  This is why.

Poor sleep affects other weight control mechanisms as well.  The body loses its ability to regulate blood sugar, which can ultimately lead to insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.  Thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH), which impacts metabolism, isn’t properly signaled by the brain.  Finally, growth hormone levels drop, which negates all of our hard word in the gym.  We need growth hormone to build and repair muscle and burn fat which, interestingly, occurs while we are sleeping.

We will get sick:  While this might be a no-brainer, it is helpful to understand why this is the case.  There are many mechanisms in place to bolster our immune system while we sleep, but here is one interesting example.  Around 9 to 10pm, the hormone melatonin begins to rise, peaks at midnight, and then gradually declines until it reaches its lowest level around 9am.  Melatonin is a sleep-inducing hormone, but it is also responsible for reducing inflammation and performing an antioxidant role.  While we sleep, it is busy clearing away free radicals (damaged DNA) that build up every day due to all kinds of stress in our lives:  emotional, physical, and environmental.  Reducing inflammation is key in protecting our bodies from all kinds of disease, from the common cold to cancer.  If we are going to bed at midnight (peak melatonin levels) or after, we are not giving our bodies the best opportunity to repair and restore the immune system.

Many experts recommend going to bed by 10-11pm every night to work with our melatonin and sleep cycles.  Sleeping from 10pm-6am gives us the best chance to feel restful upon waking because we are in rhythm with our melatonin and able to get the optimal 5 sleep cycles that our bodies need.  Have you ever felt groggy after sleeping 8 hours, but you went to bed at midnight or later?  I have.

Daily functioning and productivity suffers:  Research has repeatedly shown that poor sleep significantly impacts:  memory, mental clarity, athletic performance, cognitive functioning, energy levels, mood, the ability to manage stress, and mental health.

Should we exercise when we are sleep-deprived?  Many of you have probably experienced the feeling of finally getting on track with a regular exercise routine and then life hits.  Our child has us up all night, or we are ramping up for a work deadline and logging multiple late nights.  Travel can also throw off our sleep patterns.  Life happens, so what do we do about exercise?  It’s always good for us, right?

Exercise creates stress within the body.  When we are rested and nourished, our bodies handle it very well.  However, we can create more stress if we push ourselves too hard while at a sleep deficit.  Remember how sleep deprivation can cause weight gain and stress?

There are times when I would actually recommend that a person log some extra sleep as opposed to exercising.  Other times, it might be beneficial to do more restorative exercises.  If you find yourself in a time where sleep is less than optimal, consider doing shorter sessions (even 10-20 minutes) of walking, stretching, yoga, and/or balance work.  It might be just enough to rejuvenate you without creating added stress.  Pushing yourself to exercise when you are sleep-deprived can also invite injuries because your ability to concentrate (on proper form, how you are moving, etc.) is impaired.

It’s important to think of our sleep as a bank account.  If we aren’t making regular deposits, the balance is dropping.  Eventually we will notice the effects, in our productivity, exercise performance, and our overall health.

Here are some tips to improve your sleep:

Whenever possible, start to wind down 2 hours before bed, dim the lights and limit TV watching.  This is not the time to exercise, tackle a mentally taxing project, do your budget, or even check your email.  I know, I know.  This is hard.

Remember that exposure to light before bed and during the night can disrupt the production of melatonin.  Avoid being on the computer and other devices before bed, and make sure your bedroom is cool and dark.

When you are getting enough sleep, you will wake before your alarm.  If this isn’t happening, gradually move up your bedtime by 15 minute increments until you are waking before your alarm.  If an alarm is waking you from deep sleep, you are more likely to feel groggy and unrested.

Stay away from sugary carbs at night.  This can spike blood sugar, making it difficult to fall and stay asleep.

Magnesium-rich foods make a good nighttime snack:  pumpkin seeds, almonds, an ounce of dark chocolate (70% cacao or higher), yogurt (make sure there isn’t added sugar), figs, bananas.

Limit caffeine after noon.  It has a half-life of 12 hours, so it is still in your system at bedtime, depending on how fast or slow you happen to metabolize caffeine.  Some people, like myself, are slow metabolizers and hang on to the effects of caffeine longer than others.

Drink tea with chamomile.  My favorite is Sleepytime Vanilla tea by Celestial Seasonings.

If your mind is racing before bed, do a “brain dump.”  Write down everything that has your head spinning and resolve to work through what is within your control the next day.

Prayer, meditation, or very light yoga can help to clear our minds.

If you find that you are waking a lot in the night, consider seeing a doctor to rule out any medical conditions such as sleep apnea, which is very serious.

Quality sleep is more important than exercise.  If we aren’t sleeping (and eating) well, we won’t have the resources to make exercise effective and beneficial.  Guarding your sleep takes deliberate practice and patience.  Stick with it and your body will thank you!

 

Tips for Increasing Your Veggie Intake

While there are veggie lovers out there, I have to say that I have met far more people who are not fans of these amazing plants.  I used to be one of them.  I really didn’t eat vegetables, unless we were at someone’s house who prepared them for a meal.  I would put a few token pieces on my plate to be polite.  I only prepared them on my own if it was a holiday…or if I literally had nothing else in my kitchen.  When eating a salad, it had to be smothered in dressing to help me choke it down.  Oh, and we can’t forget the croutons and bacon bits!

Today is a different story.  I love vegetables and I commit to eating large quantities of them every single day.  As a trainer, the number one question that I am asked is how to learn to love vegetables and incorporate them into the daily diet.  Here are a few tips:

First, changing your palate (your preferred tastes) takes time, but not nearly as long as you might think.  The taste buds in our mouths have a 2-week lifespan and regenerate every 10-14 days.  This is good news!  We can remove the things that are not as good for us (sugar) and will find that after 2 weeks, we won’t have the same degree of preference for it as we had before.  On the flipside, we can keep adding in new foods (vegetables) and eventually develop a preference for their taste.

Second, it helps to understand exactly what vegetables can do for our bodies.  It is equally beneficial to learn what sugar and processed foods do to the body.  Notice that I said that vegetables do for, yet processed foods and sugar do to the body.  This is an important distinction.  What do vegetables do for us?  They provide many vital nutrients that help with all of the processes that occur within the body.  Without these nutrients, the body cannot run as efficiently.  Vegetables also prevent heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and protect against some cancers.  Green leafy vegetables, such as kale, balances hormones by clearing excess estrogen from our bodies.  Additionally, greens aid the liver in its crucial job of removing toxins from the body.  The build-up of toxins can cause weight gain, hormone imbalances, and disease, so we want to support our livers!

Third, be intentional about adding vegetables into your day.  Experts agree that, in order to get the maximum health benefit from vegetables, people need to have at least 7 servings per day.  Plan your meals one to two weeks ahead of time on a printable calendar or device.  This will allow you to shop for everything you need, including vegetables.  When planning your meals, list vegetables FIRST before your protein, fats, and healthy carb.  This will give you a “veggie-centered mindset” that puts vegetables in the forefront, rather than the typical afterthought that they have become.  You’ll have them in stock because you’ve made your list and done your shopping.

If you currently do not eat vegetables, start intentionally adding them into your day, one cup at a time.  For breakfast, chop up spinach or peppers/onions and cook it with eggs.  You can’t go wrong with salads and soups, or even hiding veggies in a healthy smoothie or protein shake.  Blending greens like kale or spinach into a smoothie with half of a frozen banana and some berries will cover up the “green” taste.

Healthy eating is an evolution and doesn’t happen overnight.  It requires intentional persistence, as it takes time to retrain your palate.  Just because you tried something and didn’t like it doesn’t mean that you will never like it (I used to say that about Brussel’s sprouts).  Maybe it needs to be prepared differently or seasoned in a new way.  Challenge yourself to try new vegetables and recipes several times a month; you never know when you will find something that you like.  Don’t give up; if I can do it, you can too!

Inspiring Your Kids to Eat Healthy

As a mom, I have control over most of the food that enters our home –at least until my sons get jobs and driver’s licenses.  It’s hard enough to teach ourselves to eat healthy, but inspiring our families to adopt our habits can seem like an impossible task.

The obvious choice is to start when your children are young, so that healthy food is a part of their daily experience.  That’s wonderful, but what about those of us who entered the healthy eating game later in life?  Is it too late?  Or, what about parents who have picky eaters?  This is a real struggle with my own family.  I’m always trying to reign in the sugar maniacs while cajoling the picky eaters.  Over the years I have found a few things to be helpful:

 

dsc07107It takes time, but be persistent.  Chances are you didn’t arrive at a healthy lifestyle overnight, so be patient with your family.  Continue to set an example –educate yourself on the “what and why” of healthy eating.  Children are curious; they’ll ask questions about what you are eating.  It helps to tell them why your food choice is healthy, and to offer them a taste.  They may pass, but remember that we are rarely stagnate in anything; we can go forward or backward.  Your children’s tastes and preferences will change, and we as parents can choose to gradually nudge them in the right direction.  In our house, it is a challenge to get our kids to eat vegetables.  If this sounds familiar, I suggest starting with one meal a day, putting a few vegetables on their plates.  Eventually you can get away with offering it for snacks and other meals.  If they don’t like something, try serving it seasoned or prepared in a different way the next time.

Keep an on-going dialogue about the importance of quality nutrition and what sugar, for example, does to the body.  Since nutrition is one passion of mine, I talk about it often.  But you don’t have to be an expert to educate your children about healthy choices.  Children need lots of repetitions in order to master a concept, so expect to sound like a broken record.  Eventually it does sink in!  Recently I was in a store with my youngest son (age 6); he pointed out a box of Pop Tarts and loudly declared, “This is fake food, people!”  While I was slightly embarrassed, I was proud to see that he was retaining what I was teaching him.  If you have an intellectual and/or slightly older kiddo, consider watching some documentaries about nutrition.  We watched That Sugar Film with my 11-year old son and it was very compelling.  (Two great ones for adults are:  Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead and Hungry for Change).

Identify the most challenging meals/foods and gradually switch out the favorite unhealthy foods…and explain why you are making the switch.  For example, instead of potato chips, buy a mandolin slicer and slice your own potatoes and bake in the oven.  For us, the challenging meal is snacks, so I set out a bowl of fruit, apples, bananas, cuties, pears, and let the kids know that something from this bowl is the first stop when wanting a snack.   Other great snack options are homemade granola bars and trail mix, mozzarella cheese sticks, hormone and nitrate free deli meat, air-popped popcorn, and Greek yogurt with berries or granola.

Tap into each child’s personality. This is probably the most effective tool in a parent’s arsenal for any behavior change.  By focusing on what motivates your child, you can channel their personality in order to positively influence them.  One of my boys sees everything in black and white (he has autism); I can give him a choice between two healthy foods and he will choose one because that is what he was asked to do.  I need to approach my second son intellectually (he’s a thinker):  “This is excellent for your immune system, and I know how much you don’t like to get sick.”  With my third, spitfire-of-a-son (Lord have mercy!), we have to make it all about competition and/or reverse psychology, “Whatever you do, don’t eat all of your salad like your brother just did.”  And he’ll immediately fill his face with salad…every time, without fail!

If it isn’t in your house, it can’t be eaten.  Sometimes I’ve had to take a firm stance on not buying any packaged or favorite unhealthy foods.  The kids freak out a bit, but they eventually get used to having only real food to choose from.  Confession: I use this trick on myself as well.

Ok, Better, and Best.  This is a great concept for teaching kids about the progression of healthy choices.  For example, an “ok” choice might be cereal that is low sugar or a packaged granola bar (not a lot of nutrients there), while a “better” choice would be a homemade, whole food granola bar, and a “best” choice would be a real piece of fruit.  In our house, we try to make the better and best choices more frequently than the “ok” choices.  But hey, we aren’t perfect!

Relax. There are no “Healthiest Kids on Earth” awards being given out anytime soon.  Yes, their health is very important, but it isn’t worth fighting over every morsel of food that goes into their mouths.  It’s ok to allow the occasional indulgence.  It’s ok to be honest about our own struggles with craving unhealthy foods versus knowing that they aren’t good for us.  This helps kids to interpret their own cravings with a healthier frame of reference instead of thinking that they are “bad” or “wrong” for wanting certain foods.  We can’t be perfect, but we can be better.

Proverbs 22:6 says, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”  Spiritually and nutritionally, this concept applies.

Please share your tips below!  I’d love to hear what works for your family!

Cholesterol and Fat: What’s the Truth?

Have you been confused lately about what you should be eating in order to keep your cholesterol in a healthy range?  Is there the “right” food plan out there?  High fat diet?  Low fat diet?  Paleo?  Vegetarian?  There is so much conflicting information out there and it can be difficult to separate fact from fiction.  A few doctors and researchers are working hard to bring the latest facts and findings to the general public.

Dr. Mark Hyman, M.D., is one of these professionals and has written extensively about heart disease and diabetes.  He is one of my go-to authorities on these topics.  His article “Is Coconut Oil bad for your Cholesterol?” clears up some confusion on the issue of dietary fat and cholesterol.  I will give you the highlights in layman’s terms, but here is the article link if you would like to read it for yourself:  http://drhyman.com/blog/2016/04/06/is-coconut-oil-bad-for-your-cholesterol/.

There is a certain “profile” that puts you at higher risk for heart disease.  Small LDL (“bad” cholesterol) particle size, along with high triglycerides and the presence of systemic inflammation (measured as CRP, or c-reactive protein) is considered to be the most at-risk profile according to Dr. Hyman.  It is important to understand, too, that systemic inflammation is at the root of all disease, so we want a low CRP number.  Small LDL particles can cause clogs as they imbed themselves in small spaces, which can eventually lead to heart disease.  This is something that can be tested, but it is not a standard test.  You have to request it and you should check to make sure your insurance will cover it.

Coconut oil contains medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), and has numerous health benefits.  These fats are utilized very efficiently by the body for energy; they boost metabolism, burn fat, balance hormones, control the appetite, and improve the lipid profile.  In terms of the lipid profile (the point of this article), coconut oil increases LDL particle size and reduces inflammation (that CRP number).  This oil increases the HDL (“good” cholesterol), which is very important for protecting the heart.  What most people don’t know is that consuming SUGAR actually decreases the HDL!  Not good!

So how can we consume coconut oil?  You can cook or bake with it, or you can melt some and drizzle it on a salad.  Some people like to add it to coffee or smoothies.  I prefer to sauté vegetables and cook my morning eggs with it.  I also pop my popcorn in it, and sometimes I’ll just eat it straight.  It is important to buy unrefined, virgin oil.  Also, it is in a solid state below approximately 74 degrees F.  Most experts agree that we need 1-3 tablespoons a day in order to receive the health benefits, but any amount will yield some benefits.

I could go on and on about the health benefits of coconut oil, but wanted to stick to the topic of cholesterol and heart disease risk.  However, I do want to mention that if you have had your gall bladder removed, coconut oil is essential.  The gall bladder’s function is to break down and utilize dietary fat.  When you no longer have this tiny organ, your body is unable to properly digest fat.  Healthy fats are extremely important and our bodies (and brains) NEED them.  Fortunately, coconut oil is easily digested, even in the absence of the gall bladder.  That is great news for so many people!

How do you incorporate coconut oil into your diet?