Saturday, March 24, 2012

Managing Inflammation

About a month ago I went to a see dermatologist/nurse practitioner about a rash that had developed on my face.  She told me I had a condition called perioral dermatitis – an inflammation of the skin.

Last week, I had a dentist evaluate my teeth and gums.  She advised me that I had inflammation in my gums – particularly in the gums around the teeth with metal (amalgam) fillings.

This week, while I was getting a deep tissue massage (similar to physical torture, but with nice music and no lasting effect), I was experiencing a great deal of stinging pain in my left upper arm.  She said to me, “It shouldn’t hurt that much.  You may have some inflammation there.  Put ice on it.”

Hmmm…there is definitely a theme developing here.  So what’s going on?  Am I just getting old?  Or is there something more devious lurking under the surface of my otherwise tolerably good health that I should be addressing? 

In and effort to get to the bottom of my inflammation problem, I’ll start with that wealth of infallible online knowledge – Wikipedia:
     "Inflammation is part of the complex biological response of vascular tissues to harmful stimuli, such as pathogens, damaged cells, or irritants.  Inflammation is a protective attempt by the organism to remove the injurious stimuli and to initiate the healing process."

We notice and recognize inflammation right away as a response to infection--the skin turns red, swells up and hurts like heck, usually prompting us to do something about it.

In a healthy body, our immune system can usually fix what’s ailing us within a relatively short period of time, sending out the antibodies to seek and destroy the invading substance—whether it be bacterial, viral, or some kind of chemical toxin.  And sometimes, like a national army attacking its own citizens, the immune system will turn on the body, attacking the very cells it was created to protect—this is called autoimmune disease.  Arthritis is one (I have that too), but there are many others.   And finally, the immune system’s inflammation response can even be triggered by stress.  Stress raises the cortisol level in the body, which results in an immune system response—only in this case, the immune system is fighting a shadow.  In his book, The Body Electric, Dr. Robert Becker suggests that low-level electro-magnetic frequencies (EMF) trigger stress in the body because they disrupt the body’s natural electrical pathways by which cell information is passed, creating a condition akin to internal confusion.  When the immune system struggles over long periods of time attempting to remove injurious stimuli that cannot be removed (such as stress or amalgam fillings), eventually it becomes weakened.  A weak immune system is like a weak army...when new invaders show up, it may not have the resources it needs to win the battle.

Inflammation, then, is the evidence that the body is fighting against something, foreign or domestic.

When the inflammation persists, or shows up in multiple places, it’s because our immune system is not strong enough to fix the problem without a little outside help.  Typically, that’s when we run to the doctor… followed shortly thereafter by running to the pharmacy.

There it is-- I have some harmful, what is it?  The fillings are obvious, and it wasn't surprising to hear they were the likely cause of my tender and bleeding gums.  But what about the dermatitis?  Or the stinging muscle?  The problem is, sometimes we don't know the underlying cause of inflammation.  And, frankly, more often than not, neither does the doctor.  So how do you treat something without a known cause?  

With diet.

When the psalmist said, "I am fearfully and wonderfully made" Psalm 139:14 (translation: God's handiwork is awesome!), he wasn't kidding.  The body has amazing potential to heal.  But we have to give it the tools it needs.  A starving or malnourished body will do a very poor job of healing.

So what should I be eating--or not eating--to give my body the tools it needs to overcome the inflammation and heal?  There are a lot of opinions out there about what's healthy, and everyone should do their own research, but here are some of the things I found.  Among the more mainstream advice found in sites like About.Com and, they give the following suggestions (among others I haven't repeated because I don't agree with them)...
  • Foods to avoid:  junk food, processed food, sugar, trans-fats, nightshades (potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers), alcoholic drinks, corn oil, dairy products
  • Foods to eat:  green vegetables, berries, lots of water, fish
  • Get lots of sleep
But there's an underworld of wisdom that doesn't get much press, but has been extremely successful in producing good health...the folks commonly referred to as naturopaths-- doctors and nutritionists out of the main stream whose life work has been in the study of natural remedies.  What do they have to say?

In short, the key to good health is the gut.  That's right.  Bowels, intestines, the gut.  According to Dr. Mercola, a prominent naturalist physician and nutritionist, a healthy diet won't matter if your digestive system isn't operating properly.  So this is the first place to start.  Adding foods to the diet high in probiotics, such as raw milk (good luck finding THAT), and fermented foods such as kefir, raw-milk cheese, pickles, olives, sauerkraut, along with other lacto-fermented foods that you can actually make yourself, believe it or not (check out  PickleMeToo).  If you're not able to get enough natural probiotics, there are good quality supplements you can take to build up the "good bacteria" in your gut and help your body regain its optimum gut flora.  Be sure to look for high-potency probiotics free of additives (particularly soy).  

Another place to look for healing help is in the medicinal properties of herbs.  One that I have added to my diet in the past week is Turmeric, a root herb long valued for its anit-inflammitory properties.  Among other herbs known to fight inflammation are ginger, licorice (yum), and chamomile. 

Who knows... maybe I AM just getting old.  But, isn't the ultimate goal to get there as comfortably as possible?  That God has put within our reach the means to be healthy even in a cursed world shows His great love for us.  

Knowing something and doing it are two very different things.  The question is, can I stick to the healthy stuff and stay away from the "devil's food?"  You know what I  mean... the stuff that tastes so good, but is SO BAD for us.  (I need to build some side-rails on that wagon I keep falling off of!)

The battle against inflammation begins!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Children Are Fighting

Sugar is sugar?  Apparently the sugar cartel is suing the Corn Refiners Association for having the audacity to call its refined high fructose corn syrup "sugar"-- accusing them of false advertising.

According to an article today in Yahoo News, Sugar Producers Say Corn Syrup Not The Same, the sugar folks have taken the corn folks to court.  "The sugar groups are seeking damages that are yet to be determined and want the Corn Refiners Association advertising to stop. The group also wants to launch 'corrective advertising,'" says the story.  The HFCS producers have a marketing campaign to change the name of their product to just "corn sugar."  Here's an example. Video Ad.  I like this one better, though it didn't come from the corn producers... Other Ad.

But, back to the issues at hand...IS sugar sugar, or are there real and significant differences?  Aside from the fact that corn syrup, particularly the high-fructose variety, is violently forced out of corn and really is not a natural byproduct of this plant like it is from, say, sugar beets or sugar cane, can the body tell the difference?

You’ll find “experts” on both sides of the debate.  Like this one, quoted in the article:  “The real deal about high fructose corn syrup is that your body doesn’t see it any differently than sugar or honey.  Why?  Because HFCS is comprised of approximately equal ratios of glucose and fructose just like sugar (sucrose) and honey.  It is purified from corn with no artificial ingredients as sugar is derived from sugar cane and sugar beets,” Susan Mitchell, Ph.D., R.D., L.N.
     On the other hand, experts like this doctor, Dana Flaven, M.S., M.D., Ph.D., will tell you another story altogether:  “While regular table sugar (sucrose) is 50% fructose and 50% glucose, high-fructose corn syrup can contain up to 80% fructose and 20% glucose, almost twice the fructose of common table sugar… calories alone are not the key problem … Rather, metabolism of excess amounts of fructose is the major concern.”

There are a couple problems with HFCS.  First, fructose is metabolized primarily by the liver, which means that the more you ingest, the harder your liver works.  Second, HFCS is in everything!  From soft drinks to cookies and candy, to ketchup, soup and even crackers.  For people who eat a standard American diet high in processed foods, there is no such thing as eating this stuff in moderation.  Corn sweetener is impossible to avoid.

Don't be fooled into thinking that the sugar industry cares about false advertising or your health.  What they care about is money.  They're fighting for their economic life!  Corn producers are heavily subsidized by the government (that would be us, the taxpayers).  For this reason, they can sell their corn products --in this case, sweetener-- at a much lower cost than natural sugar producers, putting them at a disadvantage.  Farm subsidies benefit all types of farming, including sugar beet farms, but corn subsidies are king.  In Michael Pollan's book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, he explains the vicious circle that gives us the cheap corn.  In 2007 the federal government was spending up to $5 billion a year subsidizing corn growers.  The more farmers grow, the more cash they get -- which they turn around and invest into planting more acreage, until there's so much corn, they're feeding it to grass-eating cattle and other livestock, turning it into vegetable oil and ethanol, and finding any and every other possible way to refine it into a marketable product-- including, of course, SUGAR.

While the courts decide whether corn refiners have the right to call their processed product "sugar," the bigger question is, should we be eating sugar of ANY kind?  Put another way, which is better:  liver disease or diabetes?  According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), the average American consumed roughly 158 pounds of added sweeteners every year in 1999.  That's a little over 3 pounds a week.  And that number gets bigger every year.  No wonder we're having health problems!

The better path is to eat our food as close to nature as we can, say "no" to processed products, and get our sugar straight from fruit.  Then when we want a treat with a little refined sugar in it from time to time, it really will be an act of moderation, for which we can feel no guilt.

I hope the sugar people win... if for no other reason than to prevent the unmitigated spread of disinformation.  All I want is the TRUTH.  I'm a grown-up.  Tell me the truth about the food supply, and let me make my own decisions about what I will eat.  Let's have clear and honest labeling.

For starters, there's no such thing as "corn sugar" or "soy milk" or "healthy" processed food.    

Monday, March 12, 2012

Turmeric - A Health Goldmine

During my weekly trip to the grocery store this weekend, I bought some whole turmeric... (why?) because it was there and I've never cooked with it before, and I thought I'd try it.  Turmeric?  Sounds familiar.  Where have I heard of it before.  Oh, yes... it's used as the natural food color that's not Yellow Number 5.

In it's whole form turmeric looks a little like ginger.  As a matter of fact they're relatives.  Both are rhizomes, the same kind of roots that you see on an iris.  I bought it on a whim before I realized what it was, and then I went home and researched it because I had no idea how to prepare it or what to do with it.  What I discovered was a health goldmine.

Among its many known benefits, turmeric
  • is a natural antiseptic and antibacterial agent
  • is a natural liver detoxifier
  • has long been used in Chinese medicine as a treatment for depression
  • is a potent natural anti-inflammatory that works as well as many anti-inflammatory drugs but without the side effects
  • may help in the treatment of psoriasis and other inflammatory skin conditions
  • because of its anti-inflammatory properties, it is a natural treatment for arthritis and rheumatoid arthritis
  • is a natural painkiller and cox-2 inhibitor
  • speeds up wound healing and assists in remodeling of damaged skin
  • has been shown to stop the growth of new blood vessels in tumors, along with other positive anti-cancer applications 
(From "20 Health Benefits of Turmeric")

Turmeric has been valued for its healing powers for thousands of years... and Americans put it in mustard, cheap butter and cheese because it's a great food color!  Considering our disconnect between health and our food (as a nation), this shouldn't surprise anyone.  By the time the turmeric has been processed into mustard, who knows if it's still therapeutic... but we can hope.  On the other hand, those who specialize in natural medicine in this country continue to prescribe turmeric supplements for ailments like those listed above.

So, we know it's good for us, but how do we cook with it?  Most often turmeric is used in its powdered form, alone or as part of curry, a favorite Indian spice mix.  But you can also cook with raw fresh turmeric.  The outer skin must be peeled, then it can be grated or finely chopped and added to soups, stews, vegetables, etc.  (Be careful - it will stain.)  It can also be steeped as a tea.  I did both with my little piece.  From my thumb-sized tuber, I got a little more than a tablespoon of chopped turmeric.  I put about a teaspoonful with my Chai tea mix and steeped for about 5 minutes for a cup of tea (no difference in taste noticed, most likely because of the already strong spiciness of chai).  The rest went into my left-over beef and root vegetable stew.  In it's whole form, the strength of this "spice" is quite mild.

Turmeric can also be boiled, dried, and ground into a powder for long-term storage.  This is usually the form we buy on the spice rack, cook with, and use in capsule form as a supplement.

Any way you use it, turmeric is sure to benefit your health.  So, eat up!

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Daylight "Savings"? Who Needs It?

First of all, how - exactly - does moving the hand on the clock "save" daylight.  You have to be impressed by government's skill at euphemism.

Every year, about this time, I ask myself the same question.  What good is daylight savings time, anyway?  Apparently some people love it -- I'm not one of them.  So this year, I thought I'd find out a little more about it.

We can thank Ben Franklin for the idea, though in his time there was really no way to implement it. 

Here's a little history from a National Geographic article on the topic:
    "It wasn't until World War I that daylight savings were realized on a grand scale. Germany was the first state to adopt the time changes, to reduce artificial lighting and thereby save coal for the war effort. Friends and foes soon followed suit.  In the U.S. a federal law standardized the yearly start and end of daylight saving time in 1918—for the states that chose to observe it.
     During World War II the U.S. made daylight saving time mandatory for the whole country, as a way to save wartime resources. Between February 9, 1942, and September 30, 1945, the government took it a step further. During this period daylight saving time was observed year-round, essentially making it the new standard time, if only for a few years.
     Since the end of World War II, though, daylight saving time has always been optional for U.S. states. But its beginning and end have shifted—and occasionally disappeared.  During the 1973-74 Arab oil embargo, the U.S. once again extended daylight saving time through the winter, resulting in a one percent decrease in the country's electrical load, according to federal studies cited by Prerau.
     Thirty years later the Energy Policy Act of 2005 was enacted, mandating a controversial monthlong extension of daylight saving time, starting in 2007."

So we learn that the purpose is not to save daylight (which, of course, is silly), but to save energy.  Does daylight saving time really save any energy?  A good question, to be sure.  In spite of the federal studies cited in the above quote, the answer is, no, not really.  More recent studies have shown that what is saved in the evening is transferred to... you guessed it, the morning.  People still have to get up at the same time and go to work -- in the dark (at least in the beginning and end of the change), necessitating the turning on of lights in the house.  We're using about the same amount of energy--just at a different time of the day.  And for those of us who live in the northern realms, daylight savings time gets more than a little annoying when the sun is still up at 9:00 at night (especially if you're trying to put small children to bed).  And, furthermore we tend to stay up later because, who goes to bed right when the sun goes down?... so we STILL have lights on at night...and most of us are probably getting less sleep.

Not only this, but "springing forward" significantly increases the risk of fatal car crashes and heart attacks, according to Dr. Charles Czeslier, M.D. Ph.D. of Harvard Medical School.  Add to this our summer sleep deprivation, and we discover that messing with our internal clock can be downright unhealthy!

The most audacious aspect of Daylight Savings Time, in my opinion, is this one-size-fits-all mentality of government.  Depending on what latitude you live, your day will be longer or shorter and the daylight hours will be different.  So exactly WHO does DST benefit?  It's probably no big deal if you're living on the 38th parallel (or below), but suppose you live in Alaska?  How about Maine, or Vermont, or the Dakotas?  In my opinion, there are some things the government ought to keep its hands off of...and time is one of them.

I love the sunshine as much as the next person.  But don't mess with my clock!

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Assault by Cereal

What’s for breakfast?  When my kids were young, there were always a half dozen or so assorted boxes of breakfast cereal lined up on top of the refrigerator (the only place they would fit).  Back then, cereal was actually affordable at about $1.50 for a great big box.  The kids loved it and it was easy to fix.  Pour on the milk – and what a good mom I am for feeding my children a healthy breakfast.  Yes, I admit it.  That’s what I thought I was doing.  After all, I chose the “good” cereal – usually without the sugar coating… mostly things like Cheerios, and Shredded Wheat, and Rice Krispies, and – okay – maybe one box of Cocoa Puffs or Trix (my favorites).  But, no worries!  The cereal is “vitamin fortified!”  And everyone knows a little sugar won’t hurt you. 

When my third child came along, I was traumatically introduced to the dark side of food allergies—particularly food additive allergies, an event that marked the beginning of my label-reading obsession.  But that’s a long story I won’t go into right now.  Suffice it to say, I began to take a serious look at what is in our food.  Did it stop me altogether buying processed food?  Not for a good long while… and, I’m sorry to say, not soon enough.  Perhaps the overall healthiness of my children would be considerably better today had I paid better attention to what I was feeding them then.  But, we won’t wallow in regrets. 

Today’s topic is cereal, motivated by my youngest child (now an adult) who has been known to eat cereal for breakfast AND for supper on many if not most days.  And not your standard three-quarter or one cup serving, either.  We’re talking a serious main course serving of two to three cups of cereal along with its obligatory ratio of milk in a bowl normally used to mix up potato salad (okay, maybe not quite…but you get the point).

So the question is, what exactly is she getting in that cereal meal?  

First, I give you my favorite childhood cereal, Trix...

In all fairness, this is obviously not the cereal anyone would pick out for it's "healthy" qualities, so here's Cheerios, a more modest offering...

Ready-to-eat cereal, according to an article by Mike Hughlett that came out in today’s Minneapolis Star Tribune, is a $6 billion-plus business in the U.S.  Cheerios, for example, is a product that crosses every demographic, from toddlers (often their first solid “snack” food) to people my age looking for a fiber solution—including the occasional 30-year old looking for a convenient meal. 

Most cereal companies market their products these days with some kind of “health food” angle (notice the "whole grain" in the Trix), whether it’s low fat or high fiber, low sugar or more whole grain, gluten free or heart healthy.  But are they really any of those things?  Without the synthetic vitamin supplements pumped into the mix, what you’re getting is nothing more than a paste made from highly processed grain, sugar, and water (and very often artificial flavors and colors) that has been extruded under high heat and formed into some pleasing shape (usually resembling dry dog food), toasted and packaged into a nice box decorated with clever marketing slogans. 

Extruded?  What the heck is that?  From an eye-opening article on the Weston Price website, Dirty Secrets of the Food Processing Industry, Sally Fallon has this to say:  “In his book Fighting the Food Giants, biochemist Paul Stitt describes the extrusion process, which treats the grains with very high heat and pressure, and notes that the processing destroys much of their nutrients. It denatures the fatty acids; it even destroys the synthetic vitamins that are added at the end of the process. The amino acid lysine, a crucial nutrient, is especially damaged by the extrusion process.”  …So much for the added vitamins.  “When we put cereals through an extruder, it alters the structure of the proteins.” (emphases added)

Some studies have concluded that this extrusion process actually turns the proteins into toxins.  As a matter of fact, in a 1960 study by the University of Michigan (referenced in the above article), rats fed corn flakes died before the rats that ate the corn flake box—from malnutrition.  

“Furthermore, before death, the cornflakes-eating rats developed aberrant behavior, threw fits, bit each other and finally went into convulsions. Autopsy revealed dysfunction of the pancreas, liver and kidneys and degeneration of the nerves of the spine, all signs of insulin shock. The startling conclusion of this study was that there was more nourishment in the box than in the cornflakes. This experiment was designed as a joke, but the results were far from funny.”

So, BRAVO to the marketing masters who have convinced us all that ready-to-eat breakfast cereals will make us strong and stave off disease.  And what a choice we have.  More likely, at $5 a box, eating this stuff will keep the cereal manufacturers rolling in our dough… not to mention the pharmaceutical companies and our family physicians. 

Here's an idea... why not abandon the cereal aisle altogether, and cook up a couple farm fresh eggs for breakfast.  Throw in an orange for good measure and a link or two of pastured pork sausage; and instead of some dubious frankenfood, you'll be getting REAL food loaded with natural vitamins, minerals, enzymes, healthy fat and protein.  (I’m feeling healthier just thinking about it!)