Tag Archives: nutrition

Enhance Digestion and Absorption with Black Pepper

This ubiquitous spice on nearly every table in America is for more than just flavoring. Black pepper actually increases your ability to absorb nutrient. Black pepper stimulates the activity of the digestive tract by increasing the production of digestive enzymes and supporting normal gut motility. Black pepper also is a circulatory stimulant so it increases blood flow to the gut, which helps the digestive tract to work more efficiently and carries the nutrient to the rest of the body. Black pepper as a medicinal herb was traditionally used for sluggish digest and low stomach acid, but it can help nearly anyone get more out of their food and supplements. Its effects are intensified by heating so adding black pepper to your food as it cooks makes it a better digestive enhancer, but watch out too much black pepper cooked into a dish can get very spicy.

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Because of these digestive benefits, black pepper extracts are used in some supplements to enhance their absorption. Piperine, an active component of black pepper sold under the name BioPerine, has been shown to increase the absorption of various vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. This is especially important with harder to absorb supplements like curcumin from turmeric, a popular inflammation-modulating herb. Supplement companies choose many different strategies to help get curcumin into the bloodstream, but BioPerine is one of the most popular approaches. I also mix a little bit of ground black pepper into my jar of turmeric so I know I am getting more out of my turmeric every time I cook with it.

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Vitamin C: Powerful Protector

For colds, most people reach for vitamin C to help them get back on their feet sooner. They might chose it because they can tell it helps them feel better, or they might have heard about one of the numerous studies supporting its use. Most studies show that vitamin C reduces the severity of cold symptoms. Even one famous “negative “ study showed that vitamin C reduced the severity of cold symptoms by 20%. This was only considered a negative outcome because these results were not deemed significant. Other studies show that vitamin C accelerates recovery, especially if taken early in the illness. One study using 3000-6000 mg daily showed an 85% reduction in cold and flu symptoms compared to the control. I notice that especially toward the end of a cold, taking vitamin C has a marked effect on my energy levels, helping me get back to work.

Vitamin C can be beneficial for other respiratory issues. In epidemiological studies, increased vitamin C intake is correlated to lower rates of asthma. Supplementation with vitamin C also has been shown to reduce exercise-induced airway reactions such as narrowing of the airways. Additionally, vitamin C may be helpful for asthma that is related to pollution. These benefits are partially due to vitamin C’s anti-histamine effects, which are augmented by the presence of bioflavonoids, compounds that occur in foods alongside vitamin C that potentiate its activity.

Vitamin C’s well-known antioxidant capabilities provide part of its protect of the respiratory tract. When we are exposed to pollutants and toxins, free radicals cause cellular damage, which in turn contributes to inflammation that can exacerbate conditions like allergies and asthma. It is probably these antioxidant actions that help me feel more energetic at the end of a cold. When the immune system is working hard it creates free radicals as part of the process, and these free radicals can contribute to fatigue. By helping remove these free radicals, vitamin C can help you feel normal again. Likewise, vitamin C can protect vital molecules in the body, such as proteins, lipids, carbohydrates, and DNA from damage by free radicals that can be generated during normal metabolism as well as through exposure to toxins. This preserves crucial cellular functions and can help prevent cancer. Finally, vitamin C can regenerate the antioxidant capacity of vitamin E, which is in turn one of the most important fat soluble antioxidant that supports heart health by preventing the oxidation of cholesterol. Again, bioflavonoids also can work as powerful antioxidants supporting the activity of vitamin C so I always look for these when I buy vitamin C.

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Omega-3s for Mood

Fish oil has numerous well-documented benefits for our health. It is probably best known for its cardiovascular advantages of decreasing cholesterol and clotting. Here I am going to focus on its mood supporting qualities, because there have been a number of exciting recent studies. In one study following patients with major depression, the likelihood of also having anxiety was much higher in those with the lowest blood levels of EPA and DHA, the major omega-3 components of fish oil. A second study found that in women a higher intake of omega-3 fatty acids reduced the incidence of elevated depressive symptoms by 49%. This study also pointed out the ratio of omega-3 fatty acids to omega-6 fatty acids was important. This means you can support your mood by both taking fish oil and reducing intake of omega-6 fats like those found in meat and most oils including corn, soy, and vegetable oils.

Fish oil may even be able to reduce suicidal tendencies. It has long been noted in epidemiological studies that low omega-3 levels are correlated with increased rates of suicide. Researchers have also found higher levels of a marker called SAT1 in people with strong suicidal ideation. This marker and related ones were also associated with stress, mood disorders, anxiety, and hallucinations. In mice that were genetically altered to have abnormal expression of these biomarkers, treatment with omega-3 fatty acids brought their levels of the troublesome markers back to normal. All of this very promising research reinforces the use of fish oil as part of the plan to support mental health for even very serious mood disorders.

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Rainbow of Antioxidants

I often come up with the ideas for my blogs while working in my garden. This one started with a very simple thought: I love purple. I was admiring the purple cayenne we are growing this year. They have that lovely deep purple like eggplant.

Purple cayenne

Purple cayenne

We are growing several other purple varieties in our garden this year like carrots, tomatillos, and okra. The presence of this purple color indicates that these vegetables provide a specific type of antioxidant known as anthocyanins. Other sources of anthocyanins are purple cabbage, purple potatoes, blue corn, black beans, plums, dark grapes, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and black berries, as well as herbs like elderberry, hawthorn, and acai. Anthocyanins are considered to be one of the best antioxidants for protecting our brains, hearts, and blood vessels.

Our Purple Crops

Our Purple Crops

Even though purple is so enthralling, we need other colors to round out our intake of antioxidants. Leafy green veggies are a great source of chlorophyll, which can help protect our DNA from damage and aid the detoxification process. Leafy greens also hide a bunch of beta-carotene under that green. So along with carrots and other orange foods, we can eat our greens to help maintain our vision and enhance the ability of white blood cells to neutralize carcinogens. Lycopene is one of the most potent antioxidants for cancer prevention, especially prostate cancer. It is found in the pink foods: tomatoes, watermelon, and pink grapefruit.

Overall the goal is to eat a rainbow of foods so we are getting a diversity of antioxidants to protect our cells from damage and help prevent cancer.

If you want to try some of my purple okra, we are now selling it in the produce department of Ozark Natural Foods.

Wristful Thinking: Natural care for aches and sprains

Those of you who regularly read my blog might have noticed that I didn’t have one last week. That is because I sprained my wrist last Wednesday and it was still too painful and inflamed last week to type. I seem to be recovering quite well and wanted to share with you some of things I am doing to speed my healing. I am lucky because I have access to so many health resources, so I have probably done more than most people can, but others could use even a portion of my treatment. And in addition to my natural treatments, I did get x-rays of my wrist to rule out a fracture.

Arnica flower

Arnica flower

The very first thing I did after being injured was take homeopathic arnica and apply an arnica gel topically.  Arnica is useful for pain, swelling and bruising, and it is my first step for any type of injury like this. I continued to take the arnica several times a day for a few days afterwards. I also took nutrients that the body can use in the formation of connective issues such vitamin C, manganese, zinc and silica. I am also using inflammation-modulating herbs with Boswellia being the lead herb. Boswellia is actually frankincense and it inhibits inflammatory mediators in the body, while not irritating to the stomach like some over the counter pain relievers do. It is also mildly pain relieving while being thought to help preserve the cartilage in our joints. The pain was so bad the first two days I did take two of the pain pills I was prescribed, but after that I could manage the pain with herbs, appropriate activity and the following physical therapies.

In addition to supplements, I employed several different types of physical medicine. I used Enertropic Therapy  to open up the energy pathways in my body and help speed up healing. Enertropic Therapy is one of the healing modalities offered at Harrison Optimal Health in Harrison, Arkansas where I work once a week. Dr. Ali Racheotes, DC of Sports Chiropractic Acupuncture did very gentle adjustments of my wrist and the rest of me. She also used cold laser therapy on my wrist to help reduce pain. I am doing contrast hydrotherapy on my wrist since the first 24 hours. This involves soaking my hand in hot water for 3 minutes followed by a minute in cold water. This is repeated two more times ending on cold and is done once or ideally twice a day. The alternating hot and cold water pushes stagnant fluids out of the affected area and can help reduce pain and inflammation. Finally, I am doing passive range of motion exercises where I am gently moving my wrist using my other hand, but it is best to discuss with your doctor or physical therapist how and when to do these.

It has only been a little more than a week, but so far I am healing well. I can’t wait to be back to back to normal so I can do all of my regular activities like blogging, gardening, cooking and canning.

Grow Your Own

My husband and I own a minifarm, named Downstream Farm Organic Produce. We provide tomatillos and soon burgundy okra to Ozark Natural Foods and a local restaurant. But our main goal is to grow as much of our own food as we can. This year we are growing for ourselves onions, garlic, leeks, carrots, potatoes, collards, chard, cucumber, beets, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, sweet peppers, hot peppers, dried beans, blueberries, apples, and numerous herbs and flowers. We also raise our own chickens for eggs and meat, and my husband hunts and fishes. With a few of the foods we raise like onions, carrots, potatoes, and beans, some people might argue that these aren’t worth the effort to grow because it doesn’t cost much to buy them in the store. But growing our own food isn’t just about saving money. We know where our food came from and how it was grown. Overall, our efforts leave us with a sense of pride when we can look at our well-filled freezers and pantry at the end of the season.

Downstream Farm Organic Produce

Downstream Farm Organic Produce

Of course, very few people have the space and time to produce as much of their food as we do, but most of us can make small steps. Consider a small garden plot in your yard. I used to have a very shady yard, but I still managed to have herbs and strawberries, and leafy green veggies. A friend living in an apartment filled a small kid’s swimming pool with soil to grow some veggies. If you don’t even have a balcony, culinary herbs like parsley and thyme will grow well in a sunny window. Sprouting is another option for nearly any home as you don’t even need a sunny spot to grow a jar of sprouts any time of the year. Have alfalfa sprouts in just a few days following these simple directions (http://www.simplebites.net/how-to-grow-sprouts-at-home/). And you can experiment with many different sproutable seeds and blends that include: fenugreek, broccoli, radish, daikon, clover, lentils, and mung and other beans.

For flavor, nutrition, and satisfation, growing your own foods can’t be beat. It is not too late to get started on growing something for a fall harvest.

The Power of Pickles

I took a vacation last week and it wasn’t a travel vacation or even a staycation. It was a preservation vacation, as in I spend quite a bit of my time harvesting and preserving food from our garden. I freeze foods and dehydrate them, but some of my favorites are the foods I pickle. I make a couple of varieties of cucumber pickles as well as pickled okra and a style of pickled jalapeno known as Jalapenos En Escabeche  that includes carrots and onions. My next project is to try this pickled tomatillo recipe.

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When I was child I loved pickles. I even asked for a gallon jar of pickles for my birthday one year. I used to think pickles were an unhealthy indulgence. Now I use pickles to increase my diversity of vegetables throughout the year. Other than watching that we don’t get too much salt or sugar, pickled vegetables are a healthy treat that can help stimulate our digestion. I always make sure I use real apple cider vinegar to get the benefits from it.

In additions to the basics like dill, celery, and mustard seeds, other spices that make occasional appearances in my pickles are allspice, caraway, cloves, cumin, coriander, fennel, peppercorns, and turmeric, as well as garlic and chiles. Many of these spices are also good for the digestion, by either stimulating digestion or easing indigestion. I never put alum in my pickles since it is an aluminum product, but my pickles are always crisp. I credit this to the freshness of the produce I use (from my own garden) and soaking my cucumbers in ice water for a few hours before I pack them into the jars.

Another option for preserving food is fermentation. If you want recipes of how to make your own fermented vegetables, get a copy of Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon or the Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz. I made a version of the sauerkraut from Sally Fallon’s cookbook, and it was the most awesome sauerkraut I have ever had.

Taking the extra effort to preserve foods in the middle of summer’s bounty will ensure the satisfaction of a well-filled pantry throughout the year.

Here is a picture of my bountiful cucumber plants, which are doing much better this year with the additional rain we have gotten in the Ozarks.

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Vitamin D: Getting Your Right Dose

My grandfather had multiple sclerosis, which is an illness that is more prevalent in northern latitudes like South Dakota where he lived. Some researchers are investigating whether lower vitamin D levels might contribute to this trend. Data like this has increased our awareness of the need for vitamin D over the last few years. There seems to be an epidemic of vitamin D deficiency in this country especially since Americans are spending more time inside and doing a good job of using sun screen when outside. As I noted in a previous blog, exposure to toxic chemicals like pesticides might also be interfering with our ability to make vitamin D from sunlight. There is strong evidence showing that appropriate levels of vitamin D reduce falls and fractures and improve bone density. Vitamin D is also useful for helping prevent influenza and maybe even asthma attacks. Additionally, vitamin D might also help prevent some cancers and autoimmune diseases. Finally, I always make sure my patients that are taking calcium have adequate vitamin D levels. Without adequate vitamin D in the body, calcium supplements might increase heart disease, but when given together they reduced mortality by 9% in a recent study.

However, more isn’t always better. With all of the hype about vitamin D, I have seen people taking high doses for long periods of time. All medicines and supplements have optimal dose ranges: too little isn’t enough to help, but too much can cause problems. A common dose of vitamin D used to be 400 IU, but now the thinking is that this is probably too little. Likewise, regular dosing over 2000 IU might offer no additional benefit and in some cases may even diminish the desired outcome. For instance, in a study on influenza, Japanese children given vitamin D had a 64% reduction in the rate of influenza compared to placebo. But when children already taking vitamin D had more vitamin D added, their rate of the flu increased by 11%. This number wasn’t high enough to be sure it wasn’t just random fluctuations, but at the very least, it showed that more vitamin D didn’t lead to greater benefits. For Caucasian women with osteoporosis, higher doses didn’t necessarily have any negative consequences, but the increases in bone density were the same between two groups with one taking 800 IU and the other taking 6500 IU. While I sometimes recommend vitamin D testing, it is important to know that there are different optimal levels for different ethnicities. For instance, Caucasian women whose vitamin D levels less than 20 ng/ml had a significant increase in fracture risk, but African-American women whose levels were above 20 ng/ml had 45% increase in fracture risk. So while vitamin D can offer us several benefits, it is important to figure out your right dose.

Cooking Like a Farm Wife

Recently my husband asked me why I hadn’t made a certain dish in a while. My answer was that I was trying to cook like a farm wife by focusing on the ingredients from our farm, whereas the dish he wanted featured spinach, which I don’t have great luck growing. My husband and I run a small organic farm, Downstream Farm Organic Produce, about 8 miles west of Fayetteville on Clear Creek. We mostly grow food for ourselves and sell the extra produce to friends, restaurants, and Ozark Natural Foods.  We raise chickens and grow vegetables like okra, tomatoes, tomatillos, bell peppers, and too many others to name.

Oyster Mushrooms, Wood Ears, Coral Fungus, and Boletes. FYI, I didn't eat all of these mushroom varietes

Oyster Mushrooms, Wood Ears, Coral Fungus, and Boletes. FYI, I didn’t eat all of these mushroom varieties.

Recently, my husband found a bounty of wild mushrooms, including oyster mushrooms and wood ear mushrooms, so I made a special dish to feature them. My venison and wild mushroom stew also included our venison, radish greens, fresh herbs, and tomatoes. Not all ingredients have to be from the farm. For instance, this farm wife happened to have some red wine around. The carrots and potatoes were also from the store since we had run out of our own a few months ago.

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I know that everyone can’t grow as much of their food as we do, but you can still incorporate some of my thinking into your own cooking by focusing on local and seasonal ingredients. Local foods can be fresher and therefore higher in nutrients. Seasonal ingredients tend to be more affordable and often shipped shorter distances so fewer resources are used to get them to us. I try to avoid buying certain summer foods, like melons, in the middle of winter when the only ones available have been shipped from South America or even further away. And these foods aren’t necessarily appropriate for our bodies during the winter. It makes sense that we need cooling foods like melons and cucumbers in the summer and warmer, higher calorie foods in the winter. Part of my process is to be creative with substitutions. For instance, I still look at recipes to get a basic framework for a dish, but readily add or subtract vegetables and other ingredients based on what is available at that time of the year.

I also focus my cooking on nutrient dense foods, as in foods that provide a lot of our necessary vitamins and minerals per calorie. Or in the case of the wild mushrooms, add medicinal benefits to the dish. Nearly all culinary mushrooms strengthen the immune system and help reduce inflammation. Oyster mushrooms may also help lower cholesterol. Consumption of mushrooms like these may help prevent cancer, partially because of the beta-glucans they provide. Oyster mushrooms are fairly commonly available in stores, so you don’t have to find them on a log after the rain like my husband did. And you can grow your own using a mushroom kit or mushroom logs. Since some mushrooms are poisonous don’t eat wild ones unless you know them well like my husband does.

The Power of Green Tea

As well as being a wonderfully tasty beverage, green tea contains fantastic compounds that can help prevent many common health conditions. Green tea comes from the same plant as black tea, Camellia sinensis. The difference, however, is that green tea is camellia-sinensisblanched before drying, while black tea is allowed to oxidize, effectively converting many of the beneficial catechins into astringent tannins. In part because of these catechins, like EGCG, green tea is antimicrobial, astringent, antioxidant, cancer fighting, and inflammation modulating. Not only does it contain less caffeine than black tea, green tea also has theanine, a relaxation-inducing compound that can help reduce anxiety.

Just three cups a day may be helpful for the prevention of cancer and atherosclerosis. Numerous studies have shown green tea to be useful for lowering cholesterol, especially LDL cholesterol. Additionally, when combined with sensible diet and exercise, green tea may help with weight loss, especially in people with increased belly fat. Green tea’s ability to help reduce glucose and insulin could explain why it helps induce belly fat loss, as insulin resistance and elevated glucose tend to encourage weight gain in that region of the body. Regular consumption of green tea is also thought to be one of the reasons why Asian women have a consistently lower rate of breast cancer. Furthermore, if you swish it around your mouth before swallowing, green tea can help stop gingivitis.

To prepare, you need only to steep your green tea for one minute to extract these incredible compounds, but feel free to steep it longer if you prefer a stronger, more bitter flavor.  During these hot Arkansas summers, green tea also makes a refreshing iced tea that can help beat the heat. To give you another way to enjoy green tea this summer, our bulk herbs department has added a delicious raspberry flavored green tea.

If you wish to read Dr. Michael Greger’s other ideas on why there are lower rates of breast cancer in Asian demographics, check out his recent post.