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.

Is Vitamin K2 the New Vitamin D?

Vitamin D has received a lot of interest in the last few years as an essential nutrient to possibly help prevent serious health issues. Not as much thought has been given to its helper Vitamin K, but I think this is going to change. Several of the conditions that are thought to be associated with vitamin D deficiency, such as osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease, and cancer, as also linked with vitamin K deficit.

Like vitamin D, vitamin K is a fat-soluble vitamin that occurs in several forms. The most commonly known form is vitamin K1, which is necessary for proper blood clotting. Vitamin K2 is the form that is gaining interest right now for its importance in bone and heart health. Sources of vitamin K2 are natto (fermented soybeans), tempeh, grass fed butter and beef, eggs, cheese, and possibly sauerkraut and other fermented vegetables. It is also sold as a dietary supplement under the name MK-7, which stands for menaquinone-7 the scientific name for vitamin K2.

Swiss cheese

Most of what vitamin K does in the body is help different protein handle calcium, but it is through the appropriate use of calcium that vitamin K has so many benefits.
Vitamin K helps certain proteins hold on to calcium. For instance in bone formation, a protein called osteocalcin needs vitamin K to be able to deposit calcium in the bones. This is why the combination of calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin K was superior for helping improve bone density than was calcium and vitamin D alone in a 2012 study.

Some recent studies have linked calcium intake to increased hardening of the arteries. My hypothesis is that if we don’t have adequate vitamin K2, taking calcium may be an issue for heart health. Vitamin K2 is an essential part of a protein in our artery walls that helps prevent calcium from being deposited in the arteries. Indeed, a few studies have demonstrated that higher vitamin K2 intake is associated with lower rates of cardiovascular disease. So I always tell my patients if they take calcium, make sure they also have adequate levels of vitamin D and vitamin K2 to help ensure the calcium is going to the bones where we want it and not to the arteries.

Gluten Free Coconut Flour Pancakes for the Holidays

I find this time of year to be a great one for experimenting with food. I am not as busy with farm chores, and the cooler weather makes me want to stay warm in the kitchen.

Recently, I have been experimenting more with gluten free baking. Nothing fancy. I have just been wanting a little diversity in what I am eating while still keeping it healthy and delicious.

This last part can be a challenge because many gluten free items are lower in fiber than the whole grain versions I would have normally chosen. So, I started experimenting with coconut flour because it is high in fiber and healthy fats. Coconut also has some antiviral benefits that may help us stay healthy during the holidays. But the pancakes I made with just coconut flour were too coconut for me. It was nearly like I was eating a macaroon. Don’t get me wrong. I love macaroons, but that coconut flavor and texture wasn’t what I wanted in a pancake.

This is my less strict version of coconut flour pancakes where I added other grains and flours to find a balance between health and taste. I find them to be so tasty that I eat them with just butter and no syrup. This cuts out additional pointless sugar in my diet.

coconut flour pancakes

Coconut Flour Pancakes
3 eggs
¼ cup yogurt
¾ cup milk (or can drop the yogurt and use 1 cup of milk)
1 tablespoon honey

¼ cup coconut flour
¼ cup flaxmeal (aka ground flax seeds)
¼ cup cornmeal

½ cup gluten free flour (I used a mixture of arrowroot and potato starch)
2 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp baking soda
¼ tsp salt

Butter or coconut oil for cooking

Beat eggs until frothy. Combine yogurt and all but ¼ cup of the milk. Stir in honey, coconut flour, flaxmeal, and cornmeal to soak while the mix up the remain ingredients.

In a medium size, mix the remaining dry ingredients. Mix wet ingredients into dry ingredients. Add remaining milk if mixture is too thick.

Preheat griddle or pan and grease with butter or coconut oil. Ladle 1-2 tablespoons onto hot pan for each pancake. Cook for a few minutes on each side until browned.

Gluten Free Experiment

My mom is gluten sensitive so I knew I had at least a 50% chance of having the genes that can predispose one to gluten issues. I had experimented with going gluten free before and hadn’t found gluten to be a problem for me. Since these issues can manifest as we get older, I still was paying attention in case I developed a sensitivity later. Recently, I did notice digestive discomfort and bloating after I ate meals with lots of wheat in them.

So now I am going to be gluten free for 2 weeks. At the end of the two weeks, I am going to do a gluten challenge where I will eat a normal serving of wheat with all three meals on one day. This is a step that a lot of people skip. It helps us know how big of a deal it is for us to eat wheat or gluten. Without this step, I see people often slowing adding gluten back to their diets and not knowing whether to associate it with the symptoms they are having.

I don’t believe that everyone needs to go on a gluten free diet, but foods high in gluten are over consumed in America. This is partially due to the convenience of burger buns and wheat tortillas for making inexpensive foods for on the go. But overconsumption of wheat and other high gluten foods might be contributing to health issues in all people. Dr. Perlmutter claims that all grains in high amounts are bad for our brains. Another research found that gluten may cause some degree of leaky gut in all people. Again this doesn’t mean that everyone needs to be gluten free. I would like to see follow up research done on this new idea, and even if this theory is correct, we can rely less on wheat in our diets, but don’t have to eliminate it entirely necessarily unless it is a real problem for us.

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Gluten is a protein in wheat made up of smaller molecules called gliadin. Gluten is primarily useful for making bread since its stretchy nature allows bread to rise. When it comes to quick breads like pancakes, muffins, cornbread, and cookies, other flours can be easily substituted like the Bob’s Red Mill Gluten Free All Purpose Baking Flour. Your pancakes might not hold together quite as well, but they will often be lighter and fluffier. There are of course some tricks to learn about gluten free cooking such as coconut flour cannot be substituted in a one-to-one fashion for wheat flour. You use ¼ cup coconut flour for every cup of flour and add extra eggs to the recipe. I find the best success from using a mixture of gluten free flours. For instance, if I make pancakes with the Bob’s Red Mill Gluten Free flour, I also add cornmeal and flaxmeal to give it a more whole grain texture.

Overall, I am not eating very many of these substitute foods. Mostly I am eating foods that have always been gluten free such as vegetables, meat, quinoa, beans, nuts, etc. But here are a few of my favorite substitute products for when I want something that would normally have wheat in it:

Udi’s Gluten Free Bagels

Rudi’s Gluten Free Multigrain Bread (But my mom disagrees. She like Canyon Bakehouse 7-Grain Bread)

PaloWraps

Against The Grain Pizza (and everything else they make)

Applegate Gluten Free Chicken Tenders (a coworker who isn’t gluten free likes these better than the regular version)

Amy’s Gluten Free Indian Aloo Mattar Wrap

Blake’s Gluten Free Chicken Pot Pie

Blue Diamond Nut Thins

WOW Baking Company Chocolate Brownies

Jennie’s Gluten Free Macaroons

And last but not least the Gluten Free Chocolate Ganache Cupcakes from A La Carte

If get accidentally glutened or want to cheat on rare occasion, try the GlutenEase enzyme from Enzymedica.