Longer Telomeres for Longer Lives

How do we live longer healthier lives? Is it inevitable that our cells will stop functioning properly and we will get chronic degenerative diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and dementia? My goal is to support my body now so that I can delay the “inevitable” for as long as possible.

We can keep our DNA and therefore our bodies functioning optimally by emphasizing healthy diet and exercise. A recent small study by Dr. Dean Ornish demonstrated that following a healthy lifestyle plan could actually lengthen our telomeres. Telomeres are the genetic caps on the end of each DNA strand. I think of them like these plastic protectors on the ends of shoelaces.

shoelaces
As our cells divide, our DNA is copied. With each copy, the telomeres get a little shorter. Eventually, we can lose so much of our telomeres that our DNA is not longer protected. The cells produced at this point don’t have all the tools they need to be fully functioning cells and our health can suffer.

The shortening of telomeres has been linked to many chronic diseases including some forms of cancer, stroke, cardiovascular disease, obesity, osteoporosis and diabetes. Because of this, some people regard telomere length to be the best marker of our true biological age.
In Dr. Ornish’s study, participants followed a plant-based diet, exercised regularly, and participated in stress reduction activities like gentle yoga-based stretching, breathing exercises, and meditation. The 10 men doing these lifestyle interventions had a 10% increase in the length of their telomeres over 5 years. The control group showed a 3% decrease in their telomere length during that time.

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This was just a small study using participants who had prostate cancer, so we cannot definitely say that everyone making similar healthy changes will see the same results. We also need more studies that confirm that longer telomeres contribute to longer healthier lives, but we know that these types of beneficial changes make sense anyways. Additionally, another study showed that women who took multivitamins had longer telomeres that their peers the same age who didn’t.
I consider studies like these to be further motivation for us to make these types of healthy changes to our lives. They give us hope that we can even undo some of the damage we might have already done by making better choices today.

Homemade Vanilla Extract

I started making my own vanilla extract a few years ago, and I am hooked. I even did a taste comparison between my vanilla and a store bought one. As you can probably guess, mine won. My recipe is a tiny bit more complex than some, but it is worth the extra effort. If you start your vanilla in the next month or two, you can give it as gifts during the holiday season.

Vanilla

Homemade Vanilla Extract

2-4 vanilla beans

3 ounces of vodka

1 ounce of bourbon or dark rum

1 Tablespoon glycerin

Cut vanilla beans into about ½ inch pieces. Combine all ingredients in a jar. Let sit in a dark place for 2-4 weeks. Strain and enjoy in your favorite recipes.

I get my vanilla beans from Frontier, which is a cooperative distributor of bulk herbs, spices, and more. I spent the last few days visiting their operations in Iowa and was very impressed by their emphasis on quality and their dedication to improving the lives of the farmers who supply their products.

For instance, vanilla is one of their biggest sellers, especially their Bourbon vanilla beans grown in Madagascar. In general, Frontier makes efforts to ensure fair treatment of farmers and workers, sustainable production, and adherence to food quality and safety standards. Additionally, they really care about the communities where their farmers live. Whenever they visit, they take soccer balls for the local children’s groups. This is hugely popular, but even more important they help provide schools, meals for school children, and more. In a recent initiative, they dug wells in 38 villages in Madagascar that supply their vanilla beans. This provided clean drinking water to over 25,000 people.

Additionally, the farmers use this clean water to wash the vanilla beans. This helps ensure that the vanilla beans and other spices are safe for us to consume. On top of this, Frontier has multiple layers of quality control at their facility to guarantee that all herbs and spices are correctly identified, have the best flavor or medicinal constituent profile, are free of contaminates, and safe for our consumption.

It feels good to support businesses like Frontier who care so much about the herbs that I get and the people who grow them. So enjoy some delicious vanilla and some of the good that is done in the world by companies that care.

Potassium Powerhouse Foods for Stroke Prevention and More

I frequently recommend foods high in potassium to my patients with high blood pressure. A recent study has me thinking I need to recommend these foods to more patients. This new study revealed that postmenopausal women who consumed the most potassium reduced their chance of stroke by 12% compared to those who ate the least. Women who didn’t have high blood pressure noticed an even better outcome from eating more potassium with a 27% reduction in strokes. Potassium is thought to improve the functioning of small blood vessels in the brain and throughout the body, partially by improving nitric oxide formation which can help open up blood vessels.

Rainbow Chard

Rainbow Chard

In truth, I recommend high potassium diets to most of my patients by encouraging them to eat a lot of vegetables. I believe that one of the reasons we need to get our 5-7 servings of veggies and fruit every day is to make sure we get adequate potassium. The average adult needs about 4700 mg of potassium a day. Many of the best potassium-rich foods are vegetables. For instance, a cup of cooked Swiss chard offers around 900 mg of potassium. Other high potassium foods include spinach, bok choy, beets, nuts, and dried beans. For a great list of potassium-rich foods, I like the chart available from World’s Healthiest Foods. My husband and I additionally take an electrolyte mixture that includes potassium when we work on the farm during these hot summers. Another good choice might be coconut water to help replace some of the potassium lost through sweating.

By emphasizing potassium intake, we get all of the benefits offered by this crucial mineral. Potassium is essential for nerve function throughout the body and especially in the heart. Getting adequate potassium can help preserve bone density and prevent the formation of kidney stones. Potassium deficiency might contribute to premenstrual issues and possibly the development of diabetes. As I mentioned above, eating high potassium foods can be one of the steps to help people reach a healthy blood pressure goal. And when we eat high potassium foods, we also get the full range of powerhouse nutrients that these foods provide. It is likely that these additional minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants from fruits and veggies contribute to some of the cardiovascular protection seen in these studies.

So figure out what high potassium foods you love to eat, and if you want some tips on getting more vegetables in your family’s life, check out my blog on getting kids to eat veggies.

Working in the Garden to Save the Bees

I have been really enjoying watching all the varieties of bees and butterflies in our garden this year. When our catnip was blooming, I swear the entire hive that lives in one of our trees was collecting nectar from it. I feel a pure delight just from knowing that we are creating a happy home for them on our farm. And we know that we have all of the pollinators we need to keep our crops producing.

This bumblebee is enjoying my basil flowers

This bumblebee is enjoying my basil flowers

As I plant my fall garden, I am going to continue to keep the bees in mind. There are many plants that I love that also feed the bees. Some bee friendly plants are dill, maple, yarrow, cosmos, Echinacea, sunflower, comfrey, elderberry, black-eyed Susan, squash, and basil. And it is important to make sure that in every season the garden offers something for our helpful insect friends. Especially, the bumblebees need continuous blooms throughout the warm seasons since they don’t store honey like the honeybees. We are talking about doing a late planting of summer squash and dill for us and the bees.

Our farm is also an organic farm, which means that we don’t use any of the pesticides that may bee threatening bee populations. It is estimated that one third of the honeybee population has been wiped out since 2006 due to colony collapse disorder. No one is sure what exactly is causing the colony collapse, but many scientists now believe that some pesticides are a significant factor. So by not using insecticides in your yard and garden and buying organic foods, you can reduce that amount of pesticides that both you and the bees are exposed to.

To learn about more things you can do to support bees, check out bumblebee.org.

How to Make New Herbal Friends

Herbal medicine is just one attribute of naturopathic medicine, but it is one of my favorites. In my mind, herbs are like friends with individual personalities. While two herbs might share some of the same activities, they can vary in their strength and their affinity for different areas of the body. I am a huge fan of both marshmallow root and slippery elm bark. Both are soothing herbs that can be used for irritated mucous membranes. Marshmallow would be the best choice for urinary irritation, while slippery elm support the digestive tract, partially because it helps feed our good bacteria. Of course, if I only had one of these two herbs, I would use the one that was handy for either issue.

Photo copyright Henriette Kress, http://www.henriettesherbal.com

Marshmallow; Photo copyright Henriette Kress, http://www.henriettesherbal.com

Herbs are also usually very gentle friends that help me keep to the naturopathic principle  First Do No Harm. In fact herbs are so gentle, it can often be challenging to draw the line between medicinal herbs and food. Which of these is a medicinal herb and which a food: cinnamon, turmeric, myrrh?

Most of you realized that is a trick question. Depending on the culture and the use, all three could be either. In some cultures, myrrh is added to foods as a spice despite its strong flavor. It happens to also serve the medicinal benefit of lower cholesterol while being part of those dishes. (We would use its relative Guggul in a capsule instead to reduce cholesterol.). If you asked someone in that society why it is added to the dish, they would probably say that is the way they like it. This is probably how many of our culinary spices came into common use. They are all medicinal spices that we have grown to love and expect in our everyday cooking. We often start to love foods and herbs that are good for us.

When I learn a new herb, I like to understand its personality to help me remember it better. I do this by both studying and experiencing it.

Start with a few herbs or even just one. Experience it in as many ways as you can, with as many senses as you can. If you can find a living plant, spend a little time observing it. This might not tell you anything about the herb, but it gives you an image and the beginnings of a personality to connect with the other things you learn about the plant. If the plant doesn’t grow nearby, find a picture of it. Smell a crushed leaf from the plant. Taste a tea or tincture make from that medicinal herb. By engaging more of your senses, you are stimulating your memory on deeper levels. Sometimes the taste or smell or even appearance can help you make educated guesses about the activity of its medicinal components.

I also like the scientific side of things. I review studies when available to learn what conditions my herb treats. I will review the herbal medicine books to see what medicinal actions the plant has. Ideally, my herb has more than one of the activities I am looking. For instance, Echinacea stimulates the immune system while also having some antimicrobial benefits to help fight a particular illness on two fronts. The combination of these two activities can give you a much more rounded view of your chosen herb than if you just did an Internet search for “medicinal benefits of plantain” (hopefully my last blog will show up though). Take all that you have learned to create an idea of its personality. Is it a fierce herbal warrior like the antimicrobial yarrow or is it a calming nourisher like the heart-protecting hawthorn. These stories can help you remember when to choose a particular herbal ally.

I would love to hear about your experiences making new herbal friends.

 

You Can Heal Nearly Anything with Plantain

No, not this plantain.

plantains

I am talking about this common weed that grows in nearly every yard and roadside in the United States.

plantain

Plantain weed is a first aid miracle that is usually close at hand for summertime boo-boos. And if you want it even handier, local midwife Maria Chowdhury uses it as a key ingredient in her Birth Song Botanicals Healing Salve, where she combines it with other great skin healing herbs like comfrey, calendula, pau de arco, and Oregon grape root. She made it as a nipple salve for nursing mothers or a diaper rash ointment for uncomfortable babies, but it is has such versatile herbs it can be used for nearly any skin complaint.

Plantain is a common choice for insect bites and cuts and scrapes. It is well known for its ability to soothe itchy and irritated skin through its high mucilage content, which moistens and protects inflamed tissues. Plantain can also reduce inflammation and calm itchy rashes such contact dermatitis and hives. Plantain speeds the healing of skin as well as having antimicrobial properties, making it a very useful herb for cuts and minor wounds.

Internally, plantain can be used as a soothing herb in similar ways. It is helpful for inflamed and sore mucous membranes such as sore throats and irritated stomachs. Its other internal uses range from coughs to constipation, hence my statement that this handy herb can heal nearly anything.

The dried herb is not commonly available because a lot of these medicinal benefits are lost when it is dried. In the summertime, it can be used straight from the yard. A common application is a spit poultice where a few leaves are chewed up and then put directly on a bug bite or sting. In the wintertime when plantain is not so plentiful, reach for Birth Song Botanicals Healing Salve.

Birthsong

Granny’s Pickled Okra Recipe

This unusual cool spell has made me start thinking it is already fall. Like women and grannies of the past, I spend considerable effort in the summer and fall getting ready for winter. While my husband gathers firewood for us, my job is to preserve the summer’s harvest so we have an abundance of our own food through out the winter.

I particularly love making pickles. I give them as gifts as well as enjoy different pickled vegetables throughout the winter. When it comes to okra, this is a great way to preserve it without adding a bunch of calories like frying okra does. Okra is a good source of several vitamins and minerals as well as fiber, which is important for colon health and blood sugar. Finally, there are other health benefits from that okra mucilage, which is responsible for its slimy texture. This mucilage can soothe the gut and help absorb toxins in the digestive tract. It may even promote healthy cholesterol levels.

My friends tell me I make the best-pickled okra. I use the red okra we grow on our farm and sell at Ozark Natural Foods. It gives it a pretty pink tint.

Pickled okra

This recipe is one I got from husband’s granny who got it from her mom. I am proud to continue this Arkansas tradition by making it for my friends.

Granny’s Pickled Okra

20 ounces of small okra

2 pods hot red or green pepper

2 cloves garlic peeled

2 cups vinegar

¼ cup water

3 Tablespoons salt

¼ tsp celery seed or mustard seed (optional)

Pack okra into 2 hot sterilized pint jars. Put 1 pepper pod and 1 garlic clove in each jar. Bring remaining ingredients to a boil and pour over the okra leaving a ½ inch head room.

Process for 10 minutes in a hot water bath following professional instructions like these from Ball. http://www.freshpreserving.com/tools/waterbath-canning

Let stand for 4 weeks before using.

 

I have to admit I usually quadruple the recipe and use this ratio of water and vinegar for the brine:

1 scant cup salt

2 quarts apple cider vinegar

1 quart water

1-2 tsp celery or mustard seeds (or combination of both)

I sometimes additionally put in 1 tsp of dill seeds to the brine and/or 2 whole black peppercorns per jar. I also bring the brine to a boil while I am sterilizing the jars, but I wanted to give you granny’s original recipe the way she wrote it.

Here is an interesting recipe for bread and butter okra pickles I’ll have to try next.

And finally, here are some pictures of my husband from today doing his winter preparations. One of our shade trees died of Dutch elm disease, but at least we know where our firewood is coming from this year.

Tree cutting

Tree down

Winter is coming!

Shower Hokey Pokey: 1-minute a day to decrease your stress

I put my right leg in. I take my right leg out. I put my left leg in. And I think you can guess some of the next steps, but why am I doing this in the shower?

After my normal warm shower, I turn the temperature to cold and step aside. Then I put one limb at a time into the stream of cold water, usually with that silly children’s song going through my head. I have to confess I don’t usually do this in the wintertime, only summer.

The theory is that exposing yourself very briefly to cold water helps your body learn to adapt to stress. Cold is one of our most ancient stressors, and our body can use it to learn to respond to all stress better. We can’t necessarily do the same thing by exposing ourselves to terrible traffic or bad bosses in short doses.

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A small study showed that a 1-minute cold shower at the end of a regular shower increased immune function and decreased the number of colds among participants. Improved immune activity is just one of the benefits from improving one’s stress response. By balancing out our cortisol response to stress we can potentially increase our energy, mood, memory, and metabolism. Elevated stress levels can also contribute to cardiovascular disease and blood sugar issues. So this simple 1-minute activity has the potential to help our health in numerous and profound ways.

The exposure to cold water might also improve metabolism as the body warms itself back up. This could possibly help some of us achieve our weight loss goals.

In addition to doing the shower hokey pokey, I take adaptogenic herbs to further improve my stress response. These herbs can help with all of the issues I mentioned above. I notice that they particularly help my stamina so I can work long days at my job and than some more on our farm. One of my favorite blends of adaptogenic herbs is Gaia Adrenal Health. It contains Ashwagandha, Holy Basil, Rhodiola, and Schisandra. Other great adrenal herbs are Maca, Astragalus, and American Ginseng. Try a few to see if one works better for you.

Directions for the Shower Hokey Pokey

After your normal shower, turn the faucet to cold or at least cool and step away.

Put the back of your right leg in the cold stream. Take it out.

Put the back of your left leg in. Take it out.

Turn around and put the front of your right leg in. Take it out.

Then front of left leg.

Put the outside then inside of your right arm in.

Same with left arm.

Then put your chest and face into the cold water.

Turn around and get your back in briefly.

And that’s what it’s all about!

Maca Smoothies for More Vibrant Days

On hot summer days, I tend to have more smoothies for breakfast. Though there are many ingredients I love, the maca I am adding seems to contribute to my sense of wellbeing. This is probably because maca is an adaptogen and a hormone balancer.

By adaptogen, I am referring to maca’s ability to reduce the negative impact stress has on our bodies. We might still experience the stress, but it is not as harmful on our overall health. A recent study showed that women who experienced more stress burned fewer calories after eating a high fat meal compared to the women with fewer stressors. The study showed that the higher stress levels correlated with higher insulin levels, which can contribute to belly fat. The study didn’t address adaptogens like maca, but in theory, these types of herbs might improve insulin levels and therefore help our metabolism. I also find that adaptogens give me more stamina to get through long days.

Maca powder

Maca powder

The other popular benefit of maca is as a hormone balancer for both women and men. It is maybe most widely known as a libido enhancer. It isn’t going to necessarily help everyone since not all libido issues are related hormones, but for those cases, it can be a great choice. Consuming maca might also help conditions like prostate issues, PMS, hot flashes, acne, and even some types of depression.

Because maca is traditionally used in fairly large quantities, it is a perfect item to add to a smoothie or other food. I usually put 1-2 teaspoon in each smoothie. When I added 3 teaspoons I noticed a bit of a spicy radish-like taste that I didn’t like.

Here is my current smoothie recipe:

1 scoop Sunwarrior Chocolate Warrior Blend or other protein powder

1-2 tsp Barley grass or other greens powder

1-2 Maca powder

2 Tbs Almond butter or other nut butter or nuts

1 tsp Cacoa powder

1-2 Tbs ground Flaxseeds and or chia seeds

1 Tbs Coconut oil

1 to 1 ½ cups water

Blend in a blender until smooth with any of these other ingredients I might want that day:

Fresh or frozen fruits or veggies like avocado, baby greens, or sprouts

Coconut water to replace some of the water

¼ tsp Turmeric with a pinch of black pepper

1/2 tsp Cinnamon

½ -1 tsp of the turmeric paste I made for my Bulletproof Turmeric #2 recipe

You can also empty the contents of supplement capsules into the smoothie such as probiotics, amino acids, and herbal supplements. Basically any that doesn’t make the smoothie taste strange.

Make it something delicious that you love to drink and enjoy some vibrant days this summer.

Drink Your Turmeric for Better Health: Bulletproof turmeric part 2

My bulletproof turmeric recipe has been very popular, partially because it is delicious and an excellent way to consume a more absorbable form of turmeric. I chose the ingredients for the recipe because I wanted to encourage people to consume whole turmeric instead of just the isolated “main” component, curcumin. The other constituents of turmeric have medicinal attributes of their own and can actually help increase the absorption of curcumin. If you do need that additional boost from the isolated curcumin, open up a capsule and add it to this blend.

Turmeric is such a tremendously useful medicinal herb and has been consumed as part of foods and teas for centuries. In additional to its inflammation modulating benefits, turmeric is high in antioxidants that might help prevent cancer and dementia. Among its gastrointestinal benefits, turmeric can help protect the liver and stimulate the gall bladder thereby improving digestion. It has also been shown to reduce the incidences of gastrointestinal infection. Finally, turmeric can improve cholesterol and reduce blood clotting making it a great cardiovascular ally.

By drinking your medicinal herbs as teas, you can sometimes get a better feel for what is working for your body. You can start craving something more or you may decide that you like it less. This can be a reflection of what is going to work well for your unique self. I have found that I love my bulletproof turmeric tea more with coconut oil instead of the MCT oil. MCTs (medium chain triglycerides) are isolated from coconut oil, but again the more whole version of coconut oil is agreeing more with my body. It could just be the delicious coconut taste, but I think that the greater complexity of the coconut oil might provide some other components that I need.

coconut-oil-224x300

A quick note on MCT oil and coconut oil: There is a lot of hype of how these might help with weight loss. There could really be something to this. A colleague of mine has been working on his own substantial weight loss goal and has made some huge strides by taking the MCT oil shortly before meals. He has noticed it reducing his appetite as the literature claims. So, here we have yet another wonderful use for coconut oil along with the brain boost some people notice from it.

Here is my original recipe for bulletproof turmeric tea:

1 cup water

1 tsp turmeric (optionally add one capsule of curcumin 95% extract)

¼ tsp garam masala

1 tsp maca (optional, but delicious)

1 Tbs grass fed butter

1 Tbs coconut oil or MCT oil

1 tsp honey

Simmer water with turmeric and garam masala for 10 minutes.

Strain through a fine mesh strainer.

Add remaining ingredients and whirl in blender or with immersion blender until foamy.

Before-and-After-Blending

Bulletproof Turmeric Before and After Blending

This week I am trying a different variation. I am making a turmeric paste that I can store for future use. Most turmeric pastes are turmeric and water, but mine is turmeric and coconut oil.

Bulletproof turmeric #2

4 tsp turmeric

1-2 tsp garam masala

½ cup coconut oil

Melt the coconut oil and mix in the spices. Cook on low for 10 minutes. Stain immediately and store for later use. (If you have time let the mixture cool before straining, then remelt and strain)

When ready to use, mix 2 Tbs of this mixture with:

1 cup boiling water

1 tsp honey

And optionally, 1 tsp maca and/or contents of 1 curcumin capsule

Whirl in blender or with immersion blender until foamy.

This paste can also be used to season many savory dishes like stir-fry and curries.