Brighten Your Day with Lemonbalm!

Meet lemonbalm. She could be your new best friend especially if you are dealing with a lot of stress. Many of us push ourselves so hard everyday, and this can contribute to mood issues. So we need an herbal best friend to bring a little sunshine to our days.

Lemonbalm

Lemonbalm is just such a friend. Her bright lemon taste sums up her personality. Lemonbalm can work to both lift low spirits and help calm us when the stress just gets to be too much. And then when you hear her scientific name, Melissa officinalis, you will definitely want to invite her over for a cup of tea (a cup of lemonbalm tea that is). Her name Melissa means honeybee because bees love lemonbalm so much, and I hope you will too.

Lemonbalm can help calm the nerves and is used for anxiety, nervousness, and irritability. Lemonbalm is wonderful for digestive problems and headaches, especially when they are caused by nervousness. Lemonbalm also mildly reduces blood pressure that is elevated due to stress. Some cases of mild insomnia respond well to lemonbalm. Lemonbalm is also a mild anti-depressive, making it a good choice for people who have a mixture of anxiety and depression. Lemonbalm is a nootropic herb meaning it can enhance memory and cognitive functioning. So, lemonbalm is for both brighter mind and brighter mood.

I feel that we can get more out of our herbs when we taste them. We learn more about their nature than if we are taking capsules of herbs. Try lemonbalm and you will see how the flavor really matches her uplifting nature. You can also taste and smell the essential oil in lemonbalm that help ease an upset stomach.

You can make a tea out of the dried or fresh leaves. I also like to add a few dropperfuls of lemonbalm tincture to a whole glass of water when I don’t have time to make tea. I prefer the brands like Herb Pharm that use both alcohol and glycerin to make their tinctures because this improves the taste significantly or you can add a few drops of stevia to sweeten it a little. Lemonbalm has such a delicious taste that is often used to improve the flavor of herbal blends.

Lemonbalm is a gentle herb that requires either large doses for acute issues or long-term use for optimal results. You can use it either way but since you have just found a new herbal best friend, I bet you are going to want to hang out everyday. Lemonbalm has no side effects except for possibly very rare cases of allergic reaction. Theoretically, lemonbalm could suppress the thyroid, but no cases have been reported of worsening symptoms with hypothyroidism.

So try a little lemonbalm, and make your brain and taste buds happy.

Cacao Nibs Unlock Chocolate’s Heart Health Secrets

What is the difference between cacao and cocoa?

Marketing.

Theobroma cacao is scientific name of the plant that produces cocoa or cacao beans, and therefore chocolate. Any product made from it could be called cacao. Usually, the term cacao is used to differentiate the raw forms of chocolate, while cocoa mostly refers to the powder made from roasted cocoa beans with the cocoa butter removed.

These cacao pods are full of heart healthy cacao beans

These cacao pods are full of heart healthy cacao beans

Generally, the more we process a food, the more nutrients are lost. So no matter whether it is called chocolate or cacao, the raw versions of chocolate will have higher antioxidants and nutrients than roasted ones. There are also differences among cocoas. The most common cocoas are Dutch or alkali processed. This process removes many of the brain and heart protective compounds in chocolate. So non-alkalized cocoa is healthier than the Dutch cocoa. There are some differences in the acidity of these different products so if you want to use raw cacao or non-alkalized cocoa in baking, do some reading to find the right approach. This may be as simple as using baking soda instead of baking powder.

As long as we are choosing a form of chocolate that still has a lot of the antioxidants intact, chocolate is an enjoyable brain and heart helper. Chocolate can significantly reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke, as well as drop your blood pressure a few points. Chocolate may improve your lipid profile and lessen inflammation. It is notably a nerve protector, which could help prevent Alzheimer’s disease. Chocolate can also improve digestion by supporting the growth of beneficial gut bacteria. Most of studies were done with cocoa, usually non-alkalized, or chocolate bars that have a high percentage of cacao solids. I don’t know of any that have been done using raw cacao, but we can assume the benefits would be even greater due to the higher percentage of protective antioxidants.

Chocolate is also high in minerals. Just one ounce of chocolate that is 70% cacao solids has 63 mg of magnesium as well as other minerals including 25% of your daily copper and manganese. It has some of the same antioxidants as green tea making it a potential cancer fighter. Chocolate is also well known for being a mood booster and may even modulate your production of the stress hormone, cortisol.

We all know that sugar goes really well with chocolate, but sugar causes many of the health problems we are trying to fight with chocolate. I like eating cocoa nibs and raw cacao beans. They taste much more like black coffee than the chocolate bars you might be used to, but they can help satisfy the chocolate craving in a healthy way. For a high antioxidant snack, try mixing the cacao nibs or beans with goji berries or other dried fruit. So join the healthy chocolate revolution and cacao your heart out.

Herbal Supplements: Sorting the good from the bad

Don’t waste your time on worthless supplements. I have warned many of my patients away from the low quality supplements sold at some large discount retailers that I will not name here. A recent investigation in New York indicates that my warnings were right. They found that only 1 out of 5 herbal supplements from these store’s house brands really contained the herb named on the label.

So, let me tell you how the supplement industry works. A vitamin company, whether high or low quality, buys their vitamins and herbs from a supplier and then blends and encapsulates those ingredients. One of the main differences between a good company and a poor one is where they get those raw materials.

I am particularly concerned about the quality of herbal supplements, which were examined in the recent investigation. In addition to the possibility of the herbs being adulterated with random junky ingredients, it matters how the herbs are grown. An herb has to be grown under the right conditions and harvested at the proper time to ensure adequate potency. This is why I particularly want to get my herbal supplements from companies that really care about quality. They often show this concern by testing each batch for the proper chemical markers and/or standardizing the herbal extract to contain a specified amount of the active ingredient. I particularly support companies like Gaia Herbs, which actually grows many of their herbs on their own farm in North Carolina.

Echinacea

Another wonderful company specializing in vitamins is Biotech, located right here in Fayetteville, Arkansas. I have toured Biotech’s facilities and saw their commitment to quality at every step in their process. Biotech again consistently buys their ingredients from high quality suppliers. They do test every shipment they receive to make sure of the strength and purity, but they rarely have to reject a shipment because they are working with suppliers that care about the products as much as they do.

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Other supplements are of concern too. It is hard to mess up a basic vitamin C, but some companies don’t put the amount in capsules that the label claims. I have also encountered rancid fish and flax oil from some of the big box store brands. When oils go rancid, they can develop toxic compounds that damage our DNA and may even contribute to heart disease. If one of my patients brings in fish oil from one of these questionable brands, I actually bite into the capsule and taste the oil. A bitter or excessively fishy taste usually indicates it is rancid and should be tossed. One person that I had shared this advice with found her fish oil to be rancid and tried giving it to her dog. Her dog was too smart and refused to take it. She bought a high quality brand like Nordic Naturals, and her dog approved of that one.

Not all supplement companies are alike. Some take steps to guarantee quality at every step of the manufacturing process and others are just trying to get the cheapest possible pill on the shelf. If you aren’t seeing the benefits you expect from your supplements, switch to a company that really cares.

Fight the Sugar Monster

Sugar is pretty much the worst food we can eat. On top of that, it is addictive and extremely prevalent. We are hardwired to crave sweet foods for the quick energy they provide, but this is a throwback to ancient times when sweets were very rare. Now, nearly every breakroom in this country has sugary temptations on a regular basis. Not to mention the entire grocery store aisles dedicated to cookies and sodas. With all of this abundance of sweets, the average American ends up eating 22 teaspoons of sugar daily, which represents 355 calories.

How is sugar bad for us? In addition to the obvious concerns like diabetes, sugar consumption can throw off our cholesterol. People who eat more sugar have higher triglycerides and lower HDL cholesterol, the good cholesterol. Eating sweets can dramatically affect our dental health and may suppress our immune system. Some researchers are also linking excess sugar consumption with dementia, describing dementia as diabetes of the brain. Finally, sugar can feed harmful bacteria and yeast, such as candida, in our digestive tracts. This imbalance of gut bacteria can have tremendous negative consequences on our health including reduced ability to get rid of toxins.

So how do we fight the sugar monster? First, I try to figure out if there are any health issues contributing to sugar cravings. These can be things like insomnia, hormone changes, unstable blood sugar, stress, and brain chemistry imbalance. In addition if we have harmful bacteria and yeast overgrowing in our gut, they can release compounds to make us crave their favorite food: sugar.

As well as addressing any of these areas that might be an issue for you, come up with some strategies to help banish the sugar fiend. First, don’t keep sweets in your house or keep them in the garage or somewhere else where they are out of sight, out of mind. I have found it helpful to try to go cold turkey with sugar. The more I avoid it, the less I want it. Of course, I still crave sugar sometimes, often after a meal. Sometimes, brushing my teeth does the trick or I will tell myself wait 30 minutes. The craving will often pass in that time.

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If my sugar cravings persist, I will eat something else like fruit, in moderation. Or I have a small amount of a xylitol or stevia sweetened treat. But don’t choose artificial sweeteners like splenda and nutrasweet, as these cause other problems. Some people notice that a spoonful of coconut oil a few times a day significantly cuts their sugar craving. Others find that amino acids, such as glutamine or tryptophan, help them out, especially if they have mood issues. And if it is time to actually have some sugar, do it in style. Choose a high quality and lower sugar treat such as a part of a very dark chocolate bar.

I feel like I could go on and on about this topic since I tend to have a sweet tooth myself. But the simplest message I could share with you is start cutting back on sugar in any way you can. Small steps are better than no steps.

Have a Healthier Winter with Vitamin D

We have been lucky this January to have so many sunny days, but are we still getting enough vitamin D? I know that most days I am working inside and only see the sun when I am taking care of my chickens in the morning. If we don’t get enough sun and our vitamin D levels go down, we can start suffering from the winter grumpies, or seasonal affective disorder, as it is technically known.

I often encourage my patients to take a low dose of vitamin D during the winter or all year long, especially if they are taking a calcium supplement. I am not necessarily a fan of the higher doses such as 5000 IU once a day, since too much of a good thing isn’t always a good thing. Vitamin D is actually a hormone that regulates calcium metabolism, and as with hormone replacement therapy, there is a normal range for our bodies. Unless someone is deficient, the higher doses might actually reduce some of the vitamin D benefits. Additionally, sometimes we need to dig deeper. If someone is vitamin D deficient, it can be due to excessive inflammation in the body, and this may need to be addressed more than the vitamin D levels

Adequate vitamin D is associated with many health benefits including stronger bones, lower rates of influenza, reduced blood pressure, and reduced breast and colon cancer risk, but some of the benefits go away if people take too much. Therefore, I have been encouraging people who don’t know their vitamin D levels to stick with doses around 1000 IU. One study demonstrated that just 800 IU a day slightly reduced mortality due to any cause in elderly people, mainly women.

So if you are dealing with the wintertime blues, considering adding a little vitamin D to your routine, but remember don’t overdo it.

And get some sun when you can!

Winter Trees at Sunset

Astragalus: Traditional recipes for the immune system

When it comes to staying healthy during the winter, astragalus is my favorite herb to strengthen the immune system. Astragalus is an immune modulating herb, meaning that it helps rev up or calm down the immune system based on what the body needs. I love this “wisdom” that some herbs offer us by cooperating with our bodies instead of forcing us in one direction like some medications do. Astragalus can be used long term, so it is a great choice to take all of cold and flu season. Astragalus also has some antiviral properties, and research shows that it may help to prevent upper respiratory tract infections.

Astragalus roots

Astragalus roots

In addition to its immune benefits, astragalus can help the body compensate for long-term stress. Stress has many negative effects on our bodies, particularly on our adrenal glands that help regulate our metabolism among other things. Our adrenal glands release cortisol in response to stress. Disrupted cortisol production can be associated with fatigue, insomnia, and even high blood sugar and blood pressure. By balancing adrenal output, astragalus can be a great part of the plan to help us recover from these types of issues. Because astragalus is high in antioxidants, it can also help protect the liver.

This winter I am enjoying my astragalus the traditional way by making astragalus soup and astragalus bone broth. I looked through several different recipes for astragalus soup, the traditional Chinese way of using this immune boosting herb. I was trying to decide how long the soup needed to simmer. Some recipes recommended adding astragalus root to any chicken soup and simmering for 10 minutes, but I didn’t think this was long enough. Then I found a traditional recipe. It called for 2/3 of an ounce of astragalus in 5 cups of liquid cooked over medium heat until only 2 cups of liquid was left. This was clearly a “real” recipe with its longer cooking time to extract the maximum benefits from the astragalus, so I decided to add astragalus root to my bone broth.

Here is my recipe for Astragalus Bone Broth:
Place chicken or other bones in a pot or crockpot
Cover the bones with water
Add about 2 tablespoons of raw apple cider vinegar for every 8 cups of water
Add 1 ounce of dried astragalus root for every 8 cups of water or so
Cover with a tight fitting lid
Simmer very low on the stove or cook on low in the crockpot for 12-48 hours
Strain the broth and enjoy

I drink this broth as a hot beverage with a little bit of salt. The astragalus has a mild nearly smoky taste and the broth is quite delicious. If you want to try astragalus soup but aren’t ready to make a bone broth, try adding the astragalus roots to any soup you are making. Cook the soup with the astragalus roots for at least 20 minutes. Then remove the astragalus roots before you serve the soup just like you would with bay leaves. And of course, astragalus comes in capsules too so you can get these immune benefits no matter how busy your schedule is.

The Buzz About Bone Broth

When I first heard of bone broth, I had no idea what people were talking about. I mean obviously it was a broth made from bones, but what made it special. So I looked up a recipe. People were simmering bones in water for long periods of time to extract the minerals and other nutrients.

Then I realized I had made bone broth on and off for the last 15 years. I had just called it broth. Fifteen years ago, I was a vegetarian so I wasn’t making it for myself, but every time my cats got sick, I would turn to my copy of Dr. Pitcairn’s Complete Guide to Natural Health for Cats and Dogs. He recommended that a special chicken broth be made to help sick animals recover faster. So even though I didn’t eat meat myself, I bought a chicken and made chicken broth. I don’t even remember what I did with the meat, but after I had made the normal chicken broth, I put the bones back in it and cooked it for many more hours. Dr. Pitcairn recommended added a few tablespoons of vinegar to the broth to help get the minerals out of the bones faster. This made total sense to me so it became a regular practice when I had a sick cat.

Cooking bone broth on my wood stove

Cooking bone broth on my wood stove

Eventually, I started eating meat and now I even raise my own chickens. Whenever I cook chicken, I like to save the bones in the freezer. When I have enough of them, I stick them in a pot and add enough water to cover the bones and a few tablespoons of vinegar. Then I cook it for as long as I reasonable can, adding more water if needed. Many people do this in a crockpot so they can leave it simmering for 24-48 hours. If you can cook it long enough, the bones become easy to break and you know you have extracted most of the nutrients. After whatever period of time, just strain and enjoy. I often freeze any extra for later use. If you are not ready to make your own, companies are starting to sell real bone broth ready to use.

Bone broths have been a part of traditional cooking throughout the world. For instance, I am also a huge fan of pho, the Vietnamese soup made with beef bone broth. If you asked a Vietnamese granny for her recipe, I bet she would tell you to simmer the broth at least overnight. Bone broths can be used as the base for any dish you would normally make with broth, such as soup, sauces, or as the cooking liquid for whole grains. Or you can drink it hot with salt and any other spices.

Bone broth is going to be rich in minerals as well as gelatin, glucosamine and other nutrients our bodies need. In addition to calcium, bone broth contains magnesium, potassium, phosphorus and a host of other trace minerals. We can also get collagen, gelatin, and glucosamine from the connective tissue on the bones. These combinations of nutrients are obviously good for bone health, but they are also likely to enhance the health of your hair, skin, and nails. Bone broth might also help keep your joints and connective tissues in good shape. Of course, many other conditions could benefit from this boost of minerals and nutrients, from insomnia to heart palpitations. And at this time of year, remember that broth is the traditional remedy during cold and flu season (or for a sick cat).

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Beyond Thieves Oil for Wintertime Immunity

Yes, you can use herbs and essential oils to help kill bacteria and fight off wintertime infections. But you don’t have to just rely on the one product that a certain essential oil company sells. They make a blend of essential oils known as thieves oil, but it is probably not even be the original formula the thieves used during the plague. I am not saying that the eucalyptus, rosemary, cinnamon, lemon, and cloves blend sold under this name is ineffective. I saying there are way more options out there.

So how did this name thieves oil come about? In Europe during the plague known as the Black Death, a group of thieves made an herbal vinegar concoction to douse themselves in and successfully robbed houses and bodies without coming down with the plague. This vinegar concoction was thought to contain garlic and rosemary and a variety of other herbs that no one seems to agree upon. It possibly had thyme, sage and lavender, but there are so many herbs with antimicrobial properties that could have been used.

I am making a Four Thieves Vinegar. I will probably also use it for salad dressing.

I am making a Four Thieves Vinegar. I will probably also use it for salad dressing.

To protect yourself and your family from wintertime germs, there are still a lot of options to choices from. If you like to make stuff at home, there are great recipes out there for Four Thieves Vinegar, which can be used as a surface disinfectant or taken internally as an immune booster. You can also make your own thieves oil blend from common essential oils. For hand and surface sanitizers, I also like the Clean Well products that use thyme essential oil as their active ingredient. And you can support one of our local businesses by checking out Essential Arts Well Being oil. It is in a base of grapeseed oil so it ready to be rubbed into the soles of the feet or used as a chest rub for colds and coughs.
This just scratches the surface of all of the amazing way herbs and essential oils can be used to help us be healthy this winter. So remember you can stay well and smell great doing it (if you leave the garlic out).

Is Coffee Good for You?

I remember when I was growing up many people who were trying to live a “healthy” lifestyle avoid all caffeine, even that in chocolate. Of course, our idea of what is healthy changes over the years. It used to be that fat was the culprit to avoid. Now, it is carbohydrates. Next it will be….your guess is as good as mine.

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With coffee, there is actually some strong evidence that it is a healthy choice for most people. Many studies have shown coffee to be a brain protector that could help prevent Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease. There are also studies indicating that coffee might decrease the risk of diabetes. And there are compounds in coffee besides caffeine that could be beneficial. For instance, chlorogenic acid is the active ingredient in the popular weight loss supplement Green Coffee Bean Extract.

For a small percentage of the population, these benefits might be outweighed by some potential health concerns. About 12% of us have a genetic variation in a caffeine-detoxifying enzyme, known as cytochrome p450 1A2, which leads to slower breakdown of caffeine. One study indicated an increased risk of heart attack among individuals with these genes who drank coffee. The risk increased with higher coffee intake. Likewise, coffee drinkers with these variations had higher risk of breast cancer in another study. The study seemed to indicate that if they didn’t drink coffee they had a slightly lower risk of breast cancer than the rest of the population.

So how do you know if you are in this 12%? Genetic testing is now a viable option since it has become inexpensive. Many people with this genetic variation can tell because caffeine will affect them longer or even cause strange symptoms. They might notice that a cup of coffee with supper or even lunch or breakfast keeps them awake at night.

For everyone else, some caffeine seems like a safe and possible protective part of the diet, but to quote one of my herbal medicine instructors, “the proper dose for this herbal medicine is 1-2 cups per day.” Over reliance on coffee to keep us energized might be masking underlying health issues to need to be addressed.

Simple Homemade Nourishing Face Oil

A few weeks ago, I ran out of my favorite moisturizer Dr. Hauschka’s Rose Day Cream. I wasn’t ready to spend another $43 or $54 or however much it is for more, so I decided to create my own face moisturizer that would provide some of the same benefits. I mixed up a combination of some of my favorite nourishing face oils and couldn’t be happier with the results, especially for the small amount of time and money I put into it. Over the years, I have made nearly every type of body product from lotions to bubble bath at home. Making a lotion or moisturizer is one of the most complicated usually, but my facial oil was both the easiest and the best yet.

Nourishing Face Oil
½ ounce argan oil
½ ounce rosehip oil
5-15 drops of lavender essential oil
Optionally add the contents of one vitamin E softgel to help preserve it

Combine ingredients in an essential oil bottle or other dropper bottle.
Apply 3-6 drops to clean skin. I apply it after my toner while my skin is still slightly moist. I rub it on my palms and pressed the oil onto my face more than rubbing it in.
If you still love something about your current moisturizer, try mixing a drop or two of this oil blend into it every day to give it an impressive boost.

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I chose these ingredients because they had the nourishing properties that I look for in a moisturizer for the face. Both the argan and rosehip oil are high antioxidants to protect the skin from environmental damage. Rosehip oil has been popular for years among people in the know. It can help rejuvenate skin and balance out uneven skin tone when used over time. It is high in vitamin C, which may help restore collagen for skin elasticity. Rosehip oil is also noted for its soothing and anti-inflammatory properties, which can be helpful for red and irritated skin.

Argan oil is considered to be nearly a miracle when it comes to helping keep the skin looking younger. In addition to sharing many of the anti-inflammatory and rejuvenating qualities of rosehip oil, many people notice smoother skin in just a month of using it. Other people report it helps balance out sebum production thereby clearing up acne prone skin. It absorbs quickly so my skin doesn’t stay oily long after applying it.

I chose lavender essential oil because I love putting it on my face. In the summertime, I like to mix a few drops into some aloe if I have been out in the sun. It makes my face tingle a tiny bit, but is gentle enough for sensitive skin. Lavender is considered to be an antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory essential oil that isn’t as harsh and drying as tea tree oil.

Of course, this recipe can be very easily altered for your skin type. I have dry skin and am old enough to be thinking about preventing wrinkles. For acne prone or scarred skin, consider added tamanu oil instead of rosehip oil. Jojoba is another very popular oil for nearly all skin types. And I know that not everyone loves lavender as much as me, so choose rose, bergamot, lemongrass, chamomile or another one of your favorite essential oils instead.

If you like this recipe as much as me, it is easy to make an extra bottle or two to share with friends for the holidays. I bet they will love it too.