Since high blood pressure is such a significant and pervasive health issue in this country, I pay attention to the new research on it. I always stick with the basics of a healthy diet, such as one high in veggies and fruits. Many people with high blood pressure need the minerals like potassium that can be found in veggies, but new research shows us that there are other compounds in the plant world that can be helpful. One example is flavonols, antioxidants found in grapes, apples, red wine, tea and cocoa. I am going to focus on this last one because there has been a surge in research on the heart benefits of cocoa and chocolate.
A recent analysis of many different studies showed that dark chocolate can help lower blood pressure by a few points. This isn’t a huge reduction but could be added to other interventions to reach a healthy goal. More importantly, another multi-study analysis showed that people who ate 2 servings of chocolate per week had a 37% lower risk of cardiovascular disease and 29% lower stroke risk. These benefits are partially attributed to the cocoa flavanols antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. These cocoa compounds are also thought to help prevent atherosclerotic plaque formation in the arteries and improve insulin sensitivity to support better blood sugar control. Of particular interest was another recent study showing improved cognitive functioning among elderly adults who consumed higher amounts of cocoa. The study’s authors noted that the effects in cognition were most closely linked to the improvements in insulin sensitivity.
One of the big worries about chocolate is that it often comes in high fat and high sugar forms. Too much chocolate consumption could contribute to weight gain, which can increase blood pressure and other health problems. For chocolate, find a bar that has a low sugar content and high cocoa content. Cocoa nibs are another option since they are unsweetened. Maybe limit chocolate consumption to twice a week like in the heart health study, since that seemed to be sufficient. On the non-chocolate days, consider having other blood pressure reducing foods like green, black, and hibiscus teas.
Recently I attended the local American Diabetes Association Expo and spoke with a lot of people about blood sugar issues. But sugar is not just an issue for people who already have diabetes; it is a troublesome issue for a lot of people. Americans consume over 50 pounds of sugar a year, and this level of sugar can wreak havoc on our health from cavities to weight gain. My grandmother had diabetes, so like many Americans I may have a genetic predisposition that would make me more likely to get diabetes if I did eat sugar at anything close to the average American intake. In addition to the diabetes risk, sugar adds calories to the diet without nutrients, which can contribute to weight gain. Also, there is evidence that sugar may suppress the immune system.
Many people know sugar isn’t a healthy choice but are having trouble cutting it out of their lives. For some, this is just because sugar is addictive. For others, the issue may be that their blood sugar is dropping and they are choosing the quick, unhealthy solution of sugary foods. Instead, it is better to pick foods that will sustain you longer like those high in protein and complex carbohydrate. The mineral chromium can also be helpful for balancing blood sugar for some types of hypoglycemia as well as in prediabetes. Other sugar cravings are related to mood and stress. When stressed out, some people consume sugar to temporarily increase the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that contributes to feelings of well-being. Of course, there are healthier ways of supporting serotonin such as eating a high-protein food with all three meals. If none of these approaches is helpful, the health of the digestive tract needs to be considered.
If you need further motivation to drop some of your favorite sweet treats, check out this visual representation of the sugar content of some common junk foods compared to fruit.
And for more nutrition tips, I have posted my most recent PowerPoint presentation on Whole Nutrition for anyone who couldn’t make it to my talk.
My blog last week was about the connection between sleep deprivation and blood sugar issues. My goal was to encourage people to sleep more to help improve their overall health, but some people know they need more sleep but are struggling with insomnia. There are two different patterns of insomnia. Some people have trouble falling asleep. For others, the issue is staying asleep. Today I am focusing on this second type of insomnia known as sleep fragmentation. As I mentioned in my blog last week, insufficient sleep can lead to elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol, but sleep fragmentation can in turn be due to increased levels of cortisol. Stress can increase cortisol levels and shift peak cortisol production to later in the day, which may interfere with sleep. Our cortisol level is supposed to decline throughout the day so it doesn’t keep us awake at night. In addition, stress and worry can contribute to the sleep disturbance by keeping people up if they wake in the night.
Cortisol is produced by the adrenal glands in response to stress and low blood sugar. Herbs known as adaptogens can help balance adrenal output of cortisol. Examples of these herbs are ashwagandha, rhodiola, and astragalus just to name a few. Some people benefit from including these herbs to their sleep protocol. These herbs don’t necessarily have an immediate effect. They are taken during the day on a regular basis to help tone the adrenal glands and compensate for the effects of long-term stress. They may even increase energy during the day.
Another related issue that can interfere with a good night’s sleep is blood sugar. If blood sugar drops during the night, the body releases cortisol and adrenaline to help raise it. Then these stimulating hormones can wake us up. For this issue, a healthy, balanced snack before bed may help us sleep through the night.
Using healthy food choices to maintain a steady blood sugar is important because of the relationship between blood sugar and cortisol. Low blood sugar can cause cortisol release. This cortisol can interferes with sleep, which leads to further increases in cortisol. Cortisol has several effects on the body including interfering with sleep and contributing to insulin resistance so it can throw off our blood sugar further. This is yet another reason we all need to continue to focus on healthy foods, good sleep, and stress reduction. I hope you get some of all of these this weekend.
Spring isn’t quite here, but it is starting to feel like it. As much as I love spring, these shifting temperatures can be stressful on the immune system. That is why early spring tends to be a prime season for cold and flu. I have personally added the herb Astragalus to my daily regimen to help strengthen my immune system since I am around sick people often. Astragalus is categorized as an immune modulating herb, meaning that it helps rev up or calm down the immune system based on what the body needs. I prefer this type of “wise” herb to the ones that just stimulate the immune system like some species of Echinacea. Also unlike Echinacea, astragalus can be used long term. Astragalus also has some antiviral properties, and research shows that it may help to prevent upper respiratory tract infections.
In addition to its immune benefits, astragalus has other powerful benefits that make it worthy of our consideration. Astragalus is an adaptogen, meaning it helps the body compensate for long-term stress. Stress can have a negative impact on our bodies, particularly 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 may help with these issues. Adaptogens may also help increase stamina during exercise. Another advantage of astragalus is it is high in antioxidants and helps to protect the liver. Because of this range of very useful benefits, astragalus is definitely an herb to get to know better.
It is the first day of winter, and though the weather has been slightly warmer than usual here, I am still having some trouble adjusting to the cold. It is no wonder that many of the traditional holiday treats involve warming spices to help us feel cozy. Some of my favorites are mulled apple juice with cinnamon, cloves, and ginger and hot teas that have similar spices in them. Warming spices can also stimulate our digestion to help us with heavy holiday meals. Cinnamon, cloves, or ginger can help ease discomfort associated with indigestion.
Cinnamon is a favorite herb of mine because of its diverse benefits. It is antimicrobial and breaks up mucus making it useful for colds, flus and cough. It is also astringent and can help slow down bleeding, such as with heavy menstrual periods. It can also help reduce blood sugar. Many people look for the true cinnamon that goes by the Latin name Cinnamomum zelanicum, but in this case the more common Cinnamomum cassia is a better choice, according to a study. Many cooks also prefer the cassia cinnamon for its more robust flavor. I have personally found cinnamon to be a little bit stimulating. Once I drank so much of a spicy tea that contained cinnamon that I had insomnia. When I backed off, my sleep normalized.
Ginger is another powerhouse herb that has many uses beyond making gingersnaps. It addition to the digestive benefits I already mentioned, ginger is a very popular herb for nausea and motion sickness. Ginger is also a great inflammation fighter that can be considered for nearly any inflammatory issue from colds to arthritis. Ginger has antimicrobial benefits that make it further useful as part of protocol for upper respiratory infections. Ginger is also one of the many foods that help reduce the formation of new blood vessels by cancerous tumors. Without increased blood supply from new blood vessels, cancers cannot grow as quickly. Finally, ginger can help protect blood vessels, kidneys, and the liver. I hope I have given you plenty of reasons to add these tasty herbs to your winter recipes or enjoy them as teas to help you stay warm and healthy.