Lifestyle strategies to prevent brain shrinkage and get smarter!

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In a recent post I looked at lifestyle factors that cause brain shrinkage. (Missed it? Check it out HERE.) In this post, I dive into the lifestyle strategies that not only prevent brain shrinkage, but can help make you smarter, too! (Read this post to learn the nutritional tactics that help you achieve these goals.)

Humans have a high-degree of neuroplasticity, which is the "brain's ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. Neuroplasticity allows the neurons (nerve cells) in the brain to compensate for injury and disease and to adjust their activities in response to new situations or to changes in their environment." (definition courtesy of medicinenet.com.) This is good news. We can harness this neuroplasticity to our advantage. Our brains thrive on novelty and learning new things. By engaging our senses and our curiosity we can create habits that will help keep our brains humming and our cognitive abilities sharp for many many years. 

So how do we do it?

Lifestyle Strategies to make you smarter and keep your brain full size: 

  1. Get enough sleep. I've written at length about the importance of sleep (go HERE to read my most recent article on the topic), and mentioned it in last week's article on causes of brain shrinkage. It's so important that I'm talking about it again here. In terms of brain health, sleep is important because it is when our brains clean out, through the glymphatic system. In particular, sleep is the time the brain cleans out a protein called beta-amyloid (BA). BA is implicated in the development of Alzheimer's disease. Sleep deprivation leads to impaired attention, focus, and retention. Sleep is when our brains perform memory consolidation, which is the process of moving short-term memories to long-term retention. Sleep loss can lead to or aggravate depression and anxiety, 
  2. Get smarter while you brush your teeth. If you've ever broken your dominant arm, you know how awkward using your non-dominant hand can. But did you know it was making you smarter? Your brain is divided into two halves, a right hemisphere and a left hemisphere. The two hemispheres operate both independently and in concert with each other. The left hemisphere is known as the logical, rational side (and controls the right side of your body) and the right hemisphere is known as the more creative, intuitive side (and controls the left side of the body). The middle part of our brain that joins the two together is called the Corpus Callosum. When you use your non-dominant hand for routine activities (like brushing your teeth or using your computer mouse), you strengthen the corpus callosum and grow new neural connections, better integrating the two halves which in turn leads to better communication between the two. The reason this works is because the controlling half of the brain for your dominant side is active when using your dominant hand (ie, your left brain is active when using your right hand if you are right handed), but both sides are active when using your non-dominant hand! So use your non-dominant hand for brushing your teeth, pouring drinks (be prepared for a mess the first couple of times!), opening jars, learn a new musical instrument, and using the mouse or remote control. 
  3. Dance! In this study from Stanford, the authors state that "Dancing integrates several brain functions at once — kinesthetic, rational, musical, and emotional — further increasing your neural connectivity." Dancing also helps release serotonin (the "feel good" neurotransmitter that is responsible for runner's high) and decreases stress. From the Stanford study: "The essence of intelligence is making decisions.  The best advice, when it comes to improving your mental acuity, is to involve yourself in activities (such as dancing) which require split-second rapid-fire decision making, as opposed to rote memory (retracing the same well-worn paths), or just working on your physical style. Do all kinds of dancing lead to increased mental acuity?  No, not all forms of dancing will produce the same benefit, especially if they only work on style, or merely retrace the same memorized paths." Learning new things (in this case, learning new dance moves or styles) is the key to neuroplasticity. Being good at dance is not the point, it's the process of learning that is critical. Other studies have shown that freestyle social dancing is the best for improving cognitive function, because you have to coordinate with and respond to other people's moves. So go find a dance class and shake your groove thang to a new beat. Your body and mind will thank you! 
  4. Vary your routine. Habits are important for us to function at optimal levels (they are activities that run on autopilot, freeing up valuable brain energy for tasks requiring more though and concentration). But habits can turn into ruts. If you do the same things the same way day after day, you may be treating your brain of the novelty and stimulation it needs to thrive. Variety helps stimulate new/underutilized areas of the brain and grow new neural connections. You can literally grow your brain. Varying your routine requires that you have a healthy routine to begin with. If your morning routine consists of hitting the snooze button three or ten times before jumping out of bed, gulping a cup of coffee and grabbing a donut on the way to work, then creating a healthier morning routine is needed before varying it. That said, doing things in a different order (exercise in the afternoon if you usually so it first thing in the morning for example), driving to work along the scenic route (which may require you to get up a bit earlier than usual), try a new form of exercise (try yoga if you always run the same three miles, or try CrossFit if all you've done is yoga for the last five years).
  5. Watch (a little!) TV. Turns out that watching a short amount of TV, such as a half-hour comedy show, can actually make you smarter. Strange, but true. Sitting in front of the TV for hours every day will definitely not make you smarter, but using it as an occasional tool to relax and de-stress can be an effective way to utilize this ubiquitous object. Stress is notoriously bad for our brains, decreasing focus and attention. So next time you feel like vegging out with a (short!) TV show, instead of feeling guilty, enjoy your time knowing you are actually doing something good for your brain.  
  6. Meditate. Maybe you've heard meditation has many health benefits, including reduced stress, lowered blood pressure, and improved sleep. Now you can add increased brain size and improved memory to the long (and growing) list of benefits from regular meditation. Meditation increases density (as seen in MRIs) in the areas associated with learning and memory, compassion and empathy and sense of self. MRIs also show that the grey matter of the amygdala actually shrinks at the same time as the memory and learning centers are growing. The best news of all is that you don't have to become a monk to gain these benefits. Studies show improvement occurs in as little as 30 minutes a day in just eight weeks. 

This is not a complete list, but a good starting point for improving your brain function and keeping your cognitive abilities strong for years and decades to come. 

Click HERE to learn the Nutritional Strategies to make you smarter and keep your brain full size. 

 

 

Join me for a LIVE fermentation class this Sunday!

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If you are not yet eating lacto-fermented vegetables on a regular basis, you are missing out on one of the most cost-effective, nutritious and delicious ways to improve your gut health - and therefore your overall health - you have available to you. Join me THIS Sunday, June 10th, on beautiful Orcas Island to learn how easy it is to make one of the original superfoods, Sauerkraut. 

Click THIS LINK to learn more. 

If you are not familiar with the health power of fermented foods, here is a quick list of the many benefits:

  • Fermentation is a traditional means of preserving foods. Before there was refrigeration and chemicals to do the preserving for us, salt was used. The salt creates an environment for beneficial bacteria to proliferate while harmful bacteria can't get a toe-hold.

  • Fermented vegetables are rich in probiotics, which are critical to the health of our guts. The beneficial bacteria found in our guts are mini factories pumping out serotonin, B vitamins, vitamin K, immune system modulators and much more to keep us healthy.

  • They contain prebiotics, which is the food that feeds the good bacteria.

  • Fermented vegetables contain enzymes, which helps our bodies digest and absorb the nutrients in our food.

  • The nutrients contained in the vegetables are enhanced and more easily absorbed. Cabbage, for example, is a nutritional powerhouse, but like many cruciferous vegetables can be hard for some people to digest. The process of fermenting cabbage into sauerkraut increases the nutrient profile, especially the amount of Vitamin C, while making it easy to digest, and oh-so-yummy!

  • Check out this post for a more in-depth look at the many ways lacto-fermented foods support your health and happiness. 

If you want a hands-on class to learn step-by-step how to make this delicious traditional food, join me on Sunday June 10th at Wild Island, 3 pm to 5 pm. Participants will take home a jar of organic sauerkraut made during the class. I hope to see you Sunday! 

San Juan Islands: An epicure's delight!

The San Juan Islands are an archipelago of verdant gems nestled in a corner of the Pacific NW. Our temperate climate allows a wide variety of fruits and vegetables to grow here, and our farmers take great pride in growing everything from spicy radishes and arugula to bright green cabbage, fat onions, juicy apples, crisp carrots, sweet corn, tomatoes, peas, strawberries, dozens of herbs, wild-foraged greens, broccoli, kale, squash, chard and more! Whew! And to round out your meal, you can choose from an impressive selection of locally-raised, grass-fed and pastured lamb, beef, chicken and eggs, as well as goat and cow dairy products. These tasty morsels can be found at Farmers' Markets on all three islands, as well as at grocery stores including the Orcas Food Co-op.

Locally grown produce is fresher (and therefore better tasting) than its counterparts grown in far-away places that often have to be shipped hundreds or even thousands of miles. Long transportation can often lead to lower nutrients due to the amount of time the produce has to sit around in warehouses and shipping trucks. But as with all good things, even our lovely and delicious produce has to end at some point. And that is where the magic of fermentation comes in handy. Lacto-fermentation is the perfect way to preserve the vibrant but fleeting abundance of the San Juan’s growing season.

First, let me tell you that eating fermented vegetables, such as sauerkraut and kimchi, can be one of the best things you can do for your health. 80% of our immune system is regulated in our guts, and fermented vegetables are one of the best ways keep our guts healthy.

Additionally:

  • Fermentation is a traditional means of preserving foods. Before there was refrigeration and chemicals to do the preserving for us, salt was used. The salt creates an environment for beneficial bacteria to proliferate while harmful bacteria can't get a toe-hold.

  • Fermented vegetables are rich in probiotics, which are critical to the health of our guts. The beneficial bacteria found in our guts are mini factories pumping out serotonin, B vitamins, vitamin K, immune system modulators and much more to keep us healthy.

  • They contain prebiotics, which is the food that feeds the good bacteria.

  • Fermented vegetables contain enzymes, which helps our bodies digest and absorb the nutrients in our food.

  • The nutrients contained in the vegetables are enhanced and more easily absorbed. Cabbage, for example, is a nutritional powerhouse, but like many cruciferous vegetables can be hard for some people to digest. The process of fermenting cabbage into sauerkraut increases the nutrient profile, especially the amount of Vitamin C, while making it easy to digest, and oh-so-yummy!

If you want a hands-on class to learn step-by-step how to make this delicious traditional food, join me on Sunday June 10th at Wild Island, 3 pm to 5 pm.

Cost is $25 for Orcas Food Co-op members, $30 for non-members and all participants will take home a jar of organic sauerkraut made during the class. For questions or to register, email info@orcasfood.coop.

Are "vegetable" oils healthy... or Toxic?

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Almost a year ago, the newspaper USA Today published an article condemning coconut oil as having "never been healthy". The proof for this statement? None. Zip. Zilch. It is based on an extrapolation of decades-old data that the American Heart Association trots out every so often to revive the tired old Diet-Heart hypothesis. The hypothesis states in a nutshell that saturated fat raises Low density lipoprotein (LDL) which, in turn, causes heart disease. Problem is, that's simply not true. This hypothesis was based on flawed epidemiological studies and has been proven wrong. (For an excellent book on the subject of how the faulty diet-heart hypothesis became so firmly entrenched in our medical establishment and the science behind why it is wrong, check out The Big Fat Surprise by Nina Teicholz. Spoiler alert: saturated fat is good for you, so is cholesterol. In fact, both are vital for long-term health and energy.)

So what does the Diet-Heart hypothesis have to do with vegetable oils? Back in the 1950s, the medical establishment started to promote the idea that saturated fat is bad for us, based on the Diet-Heart hypothesis. Saturated fat is found in foods like butter, cream, fatty meat, lard, eggs and more. These foods were the staple of the American diet for a very long time. However, margarine, Crisco, corn oil, canola oil and other generic vegetable oils (all low in saturated fat and high in polyunsaturated fats, PUFAs), were being praised as more "heart-healthy" than these traditional foods. (Newly revealed documents have shown that the sugar industry was involved in promoting the diet-Heart hypothesis as far back as 1965. Sugar is one of the main culprits in coronary heart disease, and pointing the finger at saturated fat as the demon took the heat off the sugar industry. Read this New York Times article for the sordid details.)

PUFAs are easily damaged by oxygen and heat and can become quickly rancid and oxidized, leading to a number of health problems when we consume them. PUFAs can cause mutations in cell membranes, as well as free radical damage throughout our bodies, including damage to the skin causing wrinkles and potentially even skin cancer. Free radical damage can lead to inflammation, autoimmune disease, premature aging, dementia and more. 

Most of us are aware that highly processed sugars and carbohydrates cause serious health issues; the same is true of highly processed oils.

Most vegetable oils sold today are rancid, highly processed foods that contain enormous amounts of toxic chemicals. Corn oil, soy oil, canola oil and “vegetable” oil are usually made from genetically modified organisms (GMOs) that have been heavily treated with herbicides and pesticides and go through a series of chemical processes to make them edible. Unlike butter or coconut oil, these vegetable oils can’t be extracted just by pressing or mechanical separation. They must be chemically removed, deodorized, and altered. These are some of the most chemically altered foods in our diets.

Let’s look at the process to manufacture Canola Oil, an oil often promoted as a healthy alternative to butter or other saturated fats. Canola oil is made from the rapeseed. Rapeseed oil contains high amounts of the toxic erucic acid, which is poisonous to the body. Canola oil is an altered version, also called Low Erucic Acid Rapeseed (LEAR).

Canola (modified rapeseed oil) is produced by heating the rapeseed and processing with a petroleum solvent to extract the oil. Then another process of heat and addition of acid is used to remove nasty solids (wax) that occur during the first processing.

At this point, the newly created canola oil must be treated with more chemicals to improve color and separate the different parts of the oil. Finally, since the chemical process has created a harsh smelling oil, it must be chemically deodorized to be palatable.

This is the typical processing that all industrially produced vegetable oils go through. Compare that to the process for making butter:

1)      Milk the cow.

2)      Separate the cream from the milk.

3)      Shake or whip the cream until it becomes butter.

4)      Rinse.

5)      Enjoy!

That’s a simplified look at the butter-making process, of course, but it illustrates the point that industrial processing requires a lot of chemicals to achieve the end result. This processing leaves toxic residues in the end product, BHA and BHT for example. BHA and BHT (Butylated Hydroxyanisole and Butylated Hydroxytoluene) are artificial antioxidants that help prevent food from oxidizing or spoiling too quickly. These chemicals have been shown to produce potential cancer causing compounds in the body, and have also been linked to liver/kidney damage, immune problems, infertility or sterility, high cholesterol, and behavioral problems in children.

Vegetable oils also contain residues of the pesticides and chemicals used in their growth and manufacture and most often come from genetically modified sources. These pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals used in the manufacture of vegetable oils are lipophilic, meaning that they adhere to fat and are therefore highly concentrated in vegetable oils. 

Another issue with vegetable oils is the high Omega-6 content, which is a pro-inflammation essential fatty acid (EFA) in the body. When Omega 6 EFAs are out of balance with the inflammation-reducing Omega 3 EFAs, our health suffers in many ways. Many people try to increase their intake of Omega 3s to even out the balance, but a healthier approach is to reduce the Omega 6s, which are found in abundance in industrially processed vegetable oils. (Omega-6 EFAs are not "bad" for us. They are an important player in the necessary and healthy acute inflammatory response. The problem comes from the ratio of Omega 3 to Omega 6 EFA. Most of us consume far too much Omega 6 and far too little Omega 3.)

So what to eat?? Eat the Good Fats!

High quality fats are an efficient, slow-burning fuel that provide steady long-lasting energy. Here is a list of healthy fats you can consume freely. When you nourish your body with healthy fats, your appetite will naturally regulate itself, making it easy to maintain a healthy weight and avoid the many health dangers associated with eating too much sugar. 

  • Coconut Oil and Palm Oil: These fats contain Medium Chain triglycerides, which is very efficiently utilized by the body. They are anti-bacterial and anti-viral, have immune-boosting properties and taste great.
  • Butter: Yay Butter! Butter from grass-fed cows is a great source of fat-soluble vitamins A & D, and a lesser-known fat called Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA). Vitamins A & D are important to the health of our hearts, brains and immune systems among many other benefits. CLA is a potent protector against cancer, inflammation, diabetes and heart disease to name just a few benefits, as well as helps the metabolism work efficiently and maintain a healthy weight. Plus, butter is delicious!
  • Organic Cream: also a good source of healthy saturated fat, organic heavy cream is essentially liquid butter, and is great served whipped on top of fruit, in desserts or in cream based recipes.
  • Oily fish: Salmon, tuna, mackerel and sardines are rich sources of Omega-3 fatty acids, which reduce systemic inflammation. The omega-3 essential fatty acids (EFAs) found in fish are in the form of DHA and EPA. Both of these EFAs are critical for optimal brain function and health. Farmed fish is very low in the critical EFAs, so be sure to get wild-caught fish from reputable sources.
  • Lard, beef tallow and duck fat: These are very stable high-heat cooking oils that are rich in the crucial fat-soluble nutrients vitamins A, D, E and K. Quality matters! Buy only meat products from 100% pastured animals.
  • Eggs: According to “conventional” wisdom, the versatile and delicious egg has a double-whammy against it: fat and cholesterol. Turns out, cholesterol is an important nutrient in the body, and the saturated fat found in eggs is very healthy. In addition, egg yolks are a rich source of choline, which aids in proper neuronal signaling (ie, improved communication between neurons). Choline is a precursor to acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that supports learning and memory, as well as deep sleep. And, if all those health benefits are not enough, egg yolks provide ample quantities of Vitamins A, D, E and K. Be sure to eat eggs from pastured chickens for the most health-bang from your food buck.
  • Olive Oil, Avocado Oil and avocados: Healthy oils that should not be heated. Use in salads and dressings.·      
  • Flax seed, Walnut, Macadamia and other nut oils are good choices for occasional variety. These oils should also not be heated and instead used in dressings or drizzled on vegetables after cooking for flavor.

Want to learn more about what foods you should and should not be eating to maintain high energy levels? Check out my six-week e-course, “6 Weeks to Abundant Energy”.

Fabulous fermentation: the many benefits and types of kefir

What is Kefir?

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Kefir is traditionally a cultured dairy product that is one of the most probiotic-rich foods known.


The homemade version is easy to make and far outweighs store-bought kefir in terms of health
benefits. Store-bought kefir often contains added sugars and does not contain the diversity and abundance of beneficial bacteria and yeast that homemade kefir boasts.


Kefir is made from starter “grains”, otherwise known as a SCOBY. A SCOBY is a "symbiotic combination of bacteria and yeast". Scientifically speaking, kefir grains contain a complex microbial symbiotic mixture of lactic acid bacteria and yeasts in a polysaccharide–protein matrix. These organisms interact with the milk to produce a fermented product that even most lactose-intolerant individuals can drink. (Yeast often gets a bad rap because Candida can cause yeast infections. However Candida itself is not a problem unless there is an overall imbalance or disbiosis in the gut, and there are many beneficial yeast strains as well.)
Kefir can be made from cow, sheep, goat or coconut milk. Dairy kefir contains between 20-35
strains of beneficial bacteria and yeasts. It also contains high levels of vitamin B12, calcium,
magnesium, vitamin K2, biotin, folate, enzymes and probiotics. The precise content values can
vary based on the breed of cows, sheep or goats the milk comes from, time of year and
nutritional content of grasses fed to animals, kefir cultures used and region where it’s produced.
If you are using raw, whole milk from pastured cows, you are also getting significant amounts of vitamins A & D, as well as the essential fatty acid Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA). CLA has
numerous health benefits of its own, including that it helps regulate a healthy metabolism, may
prevent cancer, and boosts the immune system.


More benefits of dairy kefir:


1. Boosts Immunity. Kefir contains many compounds and nutrients, like biotin and folate, that help kick your immune system into gear and protect your cells. It has a large amount and diversity of probiotics, the “good” bacteria. One in particular that’s specific to kefir is called Lactobacillus Kefiri , and it helps defend against harmful bacteria like salmonella and E. Coli . This bacterial strain, along with the various others handfuls, helps modulate the immune system and inhibit many predatory bacteria growth.

Kefir also contains another powerful compound found only in this probiotic drink, an insoluble
polysaccharide called kefiran that’s been shown to be antimicrobial and help to fight against
candida. Kefiran has also shown the ability to lower cholesterol and blood pressure.
2. Builds Bone Strength. Osteoporosis is a major concern for many people. While calcium gets a lot of press for being essential to help prevent osteoporosis, the truth is that calcium alone, especially in supplemental form, is not enough to prevent this devastating disease. (Click HERE to learn more about the dangers of taking supplemental Calcium.)
Dairy kefir has ample amount of calcium, and more importantly, bioactive compounds that help
absorb calcium into the body and stop bone degeneration. Kefir also contains vitamin K2, which has been shown to be vital in improving bone health, density and calcium absorption, while vitamin K deficiency can lead to bone issues. The probiotics in kefir improve nutrient absorption, and the dairy itself contains all of the most important nutrients for improving bone density, including phosphorus, calcium, magnesium, vitamin D and vitamin K2.
3. Potentially Fights Cancer. Kefir can play a big role in helping your body fight this all-too-prevalent disease. Kefir plays an important anti-carcinogenic role inside the body. It can slow the growth of early tumors and their enzymatic conversions from non-carcinogenic to carcinogenic
4. Supports Digestion and Combats IBS. Dairy Kefir helps restore gut bacteria balance and fight against gastrointestinal diseases like Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Crohn’s and ulcers. Drinking kefir, loaded with probiotics, also helps your gut after taking antibiotics. The probiotic compounds help restore the lost flora that fight against pathogens. The probiotics also protect against disruptive diarrhea and other gastrointestinal side effects caused by these types of medications.
5. Improves Allergies. Various forms of allergies and asthma are all linked to inflammatory issues on the body. The live microorganisms present in kefir help promote the immune system to naturally suppress allergic reactions and aid in changing the body’s response to the systemic outbreak points for allergies. There’s evidence that allergic reactions are the result of a lack of good bacteria in the gut. Researchers from the Vanderbilt University Medical Center performed 23 different studies with almost 2,000 people, and in 17 of those studies, test subjects taking probiotics showed Improved allergic symptoms and quality of life.
6. Heals Skin. When your gut is imbalanced (known as dysbiosis ), it can send signals to your skin that disrupt its natural balance and cause all sorts of problems like acne, psoriasis, rashes and eczema. Kefir helps bring good bacteria back to the forefront and level out the homeostasis for your largest organ, the skin.
7. Improves Lactose Intolerance Symptoms. The good bacteria found in many dairy products is essential for a healthy gut and body. However, there are many out there who cannot tolerate dairy because they have an adverse reaction to digesting lactose, the key milk sugar that’s active when it’s digested. The active ingredient in kefir helps break lactose down into lactic acid, making it easier to digest.
Furthermore, kefir has a larger range of bacterial strains and nutrients, some only specific to
kefir, that help remove almost all of the lactose in the dairy.

Goat’s milk is one of the original ways to make kefir, and I highly suggest goat’s milk, which is
naturally homogenized and contains less casein than cow’s milk. Goat’s milk is also easier to
digest even before the fermentation process begins.
It will result in a thinner kefir than cow’s milk. Any milk that’s ultra-pasteurized, or UHT milk, will not work to make kefir.


How to make dairy kefir:


1. Place the grains in a clear glass quart jar. For every 2 cups of milk, put in 2 tablespoons
of grains.
2. Cover the jar with a coffee filter or cloth, and secure with a rubber band.
3. Place the jar out of direct light in a room-temperature place.
4. Leave to ferment for 1–3 days depending on the level of fermentation and sourness you
prefer. Temperature also factors into the fermentation. A cooler climate will take longer
to ferment so adjust accordingly. A shorter fermentation leads to a more mild flavor, and
the longer it goes, the zestier it will be. Experiment to find what you like best.
5. Strain the kefir using a plastic strainer, catching the kefir in a cup or container.
Immediately place the grains in a new batch of milk to start over.


A dairy-free version of kefir can be made with coconut milk. Use the same process as above, but substitute coconut milk in place of the cow or goat milk. Easy! 

Join me for a live class on how to make your own Kefir at home! I will be teaching on Sunday, June 24th, 3 pm - 5 pm at Wild Island on beautiful Orcas Island! Click HERE for details. To register, email me at regina@zwillinghealth.com.


What is Water Kefir?


Like traditional dairy kefir, water kefir is made from “grains” of bacteria and yeast, also commonly known as a SCOBY. As the name implies, it is made from water. The water needs a source of carbohydrates to feed the SCOBY, usually from sugar or fruit juice. Water kefir made from coconut water is particularly rich in potassium and enzymes. The SCOBY produces a lightly fizzy beverage that is low in sugars and contains many beneficial probiotics.
Water kefir does not contain most of the vitamins and minerals found in dairy kefir, but it does
contain some enzymes and probiotics. It contains between 10-15 strains of beneficial bacteria.
When a secondary fermentation with fruit juice is added to the first fermentation, the result is a delicious, low-sugar fizzy beverage that is delicious, hydrating and good-for-you too! As we head into summertime, water kefir is a huge hit at my house. My kids love a refreshing, cold glass of fizzy water kefir on a hot day. 


How to make water kefir (about 1 quart):


1. Put ¼ cup organic raw sugar, or organic brown sugar, into a jar and add 2 cups hot water.
Stir well to dissolve the sugar.
2. Add ¼ cup water kefir grains.
3. Fill the jar the rest of the way with water.
4. Cover with a coffee filter or cheesecloth and secure with a rubber band. Leave at room
temperature for 1-3 days. Temperature will affect the speed of fermentation. A lower
temp will take more time to ferment.
5. Strain the water kefir through a plastic strainer, and go back to #1.

For a secondary fermentation:
1. Add about ¾ cup of your favorite organic fruit juice to the freshly-strained water kefir. Put
both in a quart jar with a tight fitting lid, or a bottle with a swing top if you have it
available.
2. Leave on the counter for another 24-48 hours.
3. Put in the fridge to chill.
4. Enjoy!


To make coconut water kefir:


1. Put ¼ cup water kefir grains in a clear glass quart jar. Add a quart of coconut water.
2. Let it ferment for 1-3 days, depending on temperature and desired level of sourness.
3. Strain the coconut water kefir through a plastic strainer, and go back to #1 to make more
Water kefir grains can be used interchangeably with plain filtered water and sugar, and coconut water.

Pro Tips:

  • Always be sure to use filtered water to remove any chlorine. Chlorine can kill the yeast and bacteria that are working so hard to ferment your beverages for you!
  • Adding a few drops of liquid minerals to your first step fermentation can keep your grains vigorous and active. They are living organisms that need minerals to thrive. Dairy kefir does not need this addition because there are plenty of vitamins and minerals in the milk, regardless of the type.

Join me for a live class on how to make your own Kefir at home! I will be teaching on Sunday, June 24th, 3 pm - 5 pm at Wild Island on beautiful Orcas Island! Click HERE for details. To register, email me at regina@zwillinghealth.com.

 

Tasty ways to stay hydrated this summer!

Here in the beautiful Pacific NW, we have been enjoying unseasonably warm weather. At any time of year it's important to stay hydrated to keep your energy levels up and feel your best, and even more so as we head into the warm summer months of outdoor fun and play. Sometimes water just doesn't quench your thirst. It can be tempting to reach for something sugary and carbonated when water just doesn't cut it, so here are some tasty alternatives that won't give you a sugar rush and crash. 

Switchel: This old-fashioned refreshing drink is making a comeback. And with good reason. This recipe includes inflammation-reducing ginger and digestion-boosting apple cider vinegar. There are lots of ways to make switchel so feel free to experiment and find your own favorite recipes!

Download the recipes for easy access HERE

Ingredients: 

1 quart filtered water

1 inch piece of ginger roughly chopped (or more if you like it spicy!)

1/2 cup organic maple syrup or raw honey

1/4 cup raw apple cider vinegar

1/4 cup freshly juiced lemon

Directions:

Simmer the chopped ginger in water for 15 - 20 minutes. Let cool. Strain. 

Combine the sweetener with apple cider vinegar and lemon juice and stir till combined. Add the ginger tea and stir well again. Serve chilled. Simple and delicious! 

Shrub: This is a drinking vinegar concentrate. Shrubs are very popular in upscale bars right now, but you can make your own at home and just add club soda for a refreshing, bubbly drink that tastes sophisticated and is kid-friendly, too! I chose this one to make use of the abundance of fresh fruit available at this time of year. There are endless varieties of shrubs so again, find your combination that has you drinking lots of tasty, nutritious beverages.

Ingredients:

1 cup fresh strawberries, cut into 1/4" slices

1 cup rhubarb, cut into 1/4" slices

6-8 fresh mint and/or basil leaves

1 1/2 cups organic sugar

1 cup balsamic vinegar

1 cup raw organic apple cider vinegar

Directions

  1. In a bowl, combine the cut up strawberries and rhubarb. Sprinkle the sugar on top and then mix together until all the fruit is coated with sugar. Let sit for 1 hour at room temperature.
  2. Mash the fruit with a wooden to break up the fruit. Once you have done so, let sit for another hour. The fruit should be getting very juicy at this point. 
  3. Let sit for another 2 -3 hours. Mash the fruit again until it is completely mushy. Let sit, covered, at room temperature, for 24 hours. Transfer fruit to a Quart size Mason jar.
  4. Add in the vinegars, mint/basil leaves, stir, and let sit, covered, for one week, making sure to give it a good stir every day.
  5. After a week, strain the fruit from the mixture and save the liquid in a mason ja

The shrub will keep in the fridge for several weeks. To serve, pour  1 - 2 ounces over ice and top with club soda. 

Lemonade: A classic. Who doesn't love an icy glass of lemonade on a hot day? This beverage disappears fast at my house.

Ingredients: 

Juice of 1 lemon, freshly squeezed

3 cups of filtered water

2 tablespoons raw honey

A handful of ice

Directions: 

Put all ingredients in the blender and blend until honey is dissolved. The fresh lemon adds an extra boost of enzymes. Sprinkle a pinch of grated lemon zest on top and enjoy! 

There you have it. Three simple, healthy, delicious recipes that will keep you and your family hydrated, happy and healthy through the hot summer weather. 

 

 

How to get more sleep

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Health is a habit. It's not a destination to be achieved, but rather a skill that you can learn and practice. (Click HERE to read about the habits that create the foundation of vibrant health and lasting energy.) 

Ready to learn the daily habits in the four major areas of nutrition, movement, lifestyle and mindset in an easy and effective plan? Check out my e-course "Six Weeks to Abundant Health".

One of the foundational habits you can practice is getting enough sleep. let's start with why sleep is so important and then move on to how you can get more of it. 

The Importance of Sleep:

1) Sleep is when we consolidate memories. It helps us remember things we learned. Lack of sleep or fragmented sleep reduces your ability to form concrete memories, for facts and figures, as well as emotional memories.

2) Adequate sleep reduces inflammation. C-reactive Protein, a marker that indicates heart attack risk, is higher in people who regularly sleep six hours or less. 

3) Spurs creativity. In addition to consolidating memories, or moving them from short-term to long-term memory, your brain also seems to organize and structure them in new and creative ways. This can lead to heightened creativity, as your brain puts things together in new and different ways. 

4) Helps maintain a healthy weight. Insufficient sleep or abnormal sleep patterns lead to insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome, increasing your risk of diabetes, obesity and heart disease. 

5) Sleep is the time your brain cleans itself. Cerebro-Spinal Fluid (CSF) is pumped through the brain to nourish and protect the brain and spinal cord. While asleep, the brain's neurons shrink up to 60%. this shrinkage allows for greater space and therefore movement of CSF to wash away build up of bio-toxins that that accumulate throughout the day. One of the substances cleaned away is amyloid beta, AB. In a healthy brain that gets adequate sleep, the AB is removed during sleep. If allowed to accumulate through lack of sleep, AB forms a sticky plaque that is implicated in the development of Alzheimer's disease. 

Sleep does all this and more, but I hope those tidbits are enough to inspire you to go to bed early tonight. While that's a great start, here are some tips to catch plenty of ZZZs tonight and every night. 

1) Develop a “power-down” ritual before bed. Turn off the screens at least an hour before bed time. Make a plan to sleep 8 hours every night. Let’s say 10 pm to 6 am fits your schedule. Turn off all screens at 9 pm and cozy up with a good (relaxing!) book. Or do some light stretching and meditate. Write in your gratitude journal, trade foot rubs with your sweetie, or take a warm bath. Screen time is disruptive for a couple reasons. It makes our mind too active at a time when it should be winding down. And the blue light from the screen disrupts melatonin production. And while there are blue-light blocking glasses and screen apps to reduce the blue light, I suggest you just turn off the screens and go to bed. Your body and mind will thank you.

2) Don’t consume any caffeine after noon and no alcohol less than 3 hours before bed. So if you are going to bed at 10 pm, no alcohol after 7 pm. Be aware that caffeine is in LOTS of places you wouldn’t expect. It can be hidden in energy waters, pain relievers, sodas, chocolate, even decaf coffee or tea can have some caffeine. When you eliminate caffeine for a while and then consume it again, you realize what a powerful drug it really is. A little bit at the wrong time of day can be really disruptive for some people. So read labels and be aware of what you are getting.

3) Get outdoors every day, even if for only half an hour. Our bodies’ circadian rhythms, the body clock that tells us when to sleep, eat, wake up, and regulates many of our bodily processes, is set by things like sunlight and temperature. Most people spend a lot of time indoors, and don’t get enough bright light to help set their body clocks every day. We don’t get enough bright light exposure (ie, outdoors light) during the day and too much at night. This throws off our melatonin production and throws our circadian rhythm into disarray. Get out at lunch time and take a walk – you get to move your body (exercise helps you sleep too!) and get light to help keep your circadian rhythm humming.

4) Keep your room pitch black when sleeping. No night lights and no screens. Watch out for blinking lights or green “on” lights on all sorts of electronic devices, and cover them with a small piece of electrical tape. Better yet, get them all out of your bedroom, including phones. If you have an alarm clock, drape an old t-shirt or some other fabric over the digital numbers so the light doesn’t disturb your sleep, but the sound of the alarm will still wake you up. Use black-out curtains to keep outside light from leaking in.

5) Keep your bedroom cool. Research suggests that the ideal temp for sleeping is 65 – 68 degrees Fahrenheit. Throw an extra blanket on your bed to stay warm.

There you have it. Five good reasons to get plenty of sleep every night and five solid recommendations to get that sleep. Start creating your sleep habit tonight! 

 

You can't afford NOT to eat organic!

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Think you can’t afford to eat organic food? The truth may be you can’t afford NOT to eat organic food!

Many people ask the question “Why is organic food so expensive”? The real question is “Why is highly refined and denatured food so cheap”? The distinction is a critical one, and science is starting to show us the reason why paying more for organic food may save us money on our health bill.

Many foods require processing; wheat berries, for example, are inedible in their natural “whole” form. Traditional farming methods grew wheat in soil that was highly amended with natural fertilizers like compost and manure, adding important nutrients to the soil and creating a healthier, more robust plant that contained more nutrients for the person eating it and didn’t pollute the environment it was grown in. Traditional processing methods would grind wheat into flour at the time it was needed so it was fresh and not rancid, ferment it for 24-48 hours (sourdough bread is one example), then mix with a few simple ingredients like salt and olive oil and bake. Simple, delicious, nutritious.

Our modern industrial farming system, on the other hand, has created a genetically-modified wheat designed to withstand high amounts of toxic chemicals in the form of herbicides and pesticides, and then uses chemical fertilizers high in a couple of nutrients designed to stimulate fast growth at the expense of nutritional value and taste. The industrial food complex then takes this nutritionally-void wheat berry and strips of it any remaining nutritional value (but leaves in all the toxicity of the chemicals sprayed on it during growing), adds back in a few synthetic vitamins so it can be marketed as “fortified” and adds a host of other genetically-modified, industrially-processed ingredients and toxic chemicals to make it palatable. The industrial food complex relies heavily on sugar, rancid fats and hydrogenated vegetable oils to make edible food-like substances that are cheap and filling and will last a long time in transit and on supermarket shelves. Cheap, fast and highly unhealthy.

While this modern system of farming and creating food-like substances seems cheap on our wallets, it externalizes the true costs of the food. Externalized costs mean:

  • the cost of the toxic run-off from herbicides, pesticides and chemical fertilizers that pollute drinking water, streams and lakes, killing fish and other wildlife and making people sick is not paid for by the company causing the pollution.
  • the cost of the pollution from manufacturing the chemicals and flavorings that go into the food is not paid by the company that makes them.
  • the costs of the obesity, heart disease, cancer, diabetes and myriad other crippling diseases strongly correlated with the refined and denatured foods we choose to eat is not paid by the companies making the food that is making us sick.

So who does pay for all these externalized costs? We all do. Through higher taxes and higher health-care costs including doctor visits, medications and lost productivity and enjoyment of life.

There are thousands of examples of nutrient-dense traditional foods that have been turned into junk food by the industrial food complex for the sake of profits. How do you know if a food is refined and denatured? Here are a couple hints: it has LOTS of ingredients, and most of them are really long and unpronounceable. A good rule of thumb is that if a food has five ingredients or fewer, and they are all readily-recognizable as food in their own right, it’s probably okay. Even better, make your own food as much as possible using whole, organic foods so you know exactly what is in what you are eating.

What’s important to understand is that the “cheap” food, is not so cheap. And now there is more and more science to show that with organic foods, you get what you pay for. According to a study published in the British Journal of Nutrition, [the research] “showed that organic crops and crop-based foods are up to 60% higher in a number of key antioxidants than conventionally-grown crops and contained less of the toxic metal cadmium.

“We have shown without doubt there are composition differences between organic and conventional food. Taken together, the three studies on crops, meat and milk suggest that a switch to organic fruit, vegetables, meat and dairy products would provide significantly higher amounts of dietary antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids,” concludes Professor Leifert.” To read the full study, go to http://www.ncl.ac.uk/press/news/2016/02/organicandnon-organicmilkandmeat/.

Omega-3 fatty acids are important because our diets are skewed too far towards Omega-6 fatty acids, which promote inflammation in the body. Inflammation is implicated as an underlying cause in many lifestyle-related disease. Antioxidants are well-known for their disease-fighting and health-promoting properties. Also, organic dairy, produce and pasture-raised meat is not only better for your health, it’s better for the animals, and better for the environment.

In another meta-study “analyzing 343 studies into the compositional differences between organic and conventional crops, the team found that a switch to eating organic fruit, vegetable and cereals – and food made from them – would provide additional antioxidants equivalent to eating between 1-2 extra portions of fruit and vegetables a day.

The study, published in the prestigious British Journal of Nutrition, also shows significantly lower levels of toxic heavy metals in organic crops. Cadmium, which is one of only three metal contaminants along with lead and mercury for which the European Commission has set maximum permitted contamination levels in food, was found to be almost 50% lower in organic crops than conventionally-grown ones.

Newcastle University’s Professor Carlo Leifert, who led the study, says: “This study demonstrates that choosing food produced according to organic standards can lead to increased intake of nutritionally desirable antioxidants and reduced exposure to toxic heavy metals.”

Read this full article here: http://www.ncl.ac.uk/press/news/2015/10/organicvsnon-organicfood/

So next time you are shopping and tempted to bypass the organic apple and reach for the non-organic apple to save a few pennies, think about the consequences to your health. Still think you can’t afford to eat organic? Keep the Dirty Dozen list from Environmental Working Group handy when you shop to find out what conventionally-grown produce are most heavily-pesticide- and herbicide-laden and that therefore are extra important to buy organic:

1)      Strawberries

2)      Spinach

3)      Nectarines

4)      Apples

5)      Grapes

6)      Peaches

7)      Cherries

8)      Pears

9)      Tomatoes

10)    Celery

11)    Potatoes

12)    Sweet Bell Peppers

And always buy organic grains and products made from grains. On-organic wheat and other cereal grains are sprayed with Roundup (Glyphosate), an herbicide used to desiccate the grain and make it easier to harvest. Glyphosate is an antibacterial agent that disrupts the balance of helpful and harmful bacteria in your gut, leading to leaky gut syndrome and chronic inflammation and the many harmful effects that stem from these conditions. Organically grown grains are not allowed to be sprayed with the toxic Roundup.

Lifestyle fixes to keep your bones strong

The last two weeks we have explored why supplemental calcium is more harmful than helpful to your health (read it HERE) and the nutritional powerhouses that will keep your bones strong for a long time to come (read that post HERE). This week I will explain the lifestyle changes that will help prevent osteopenia and osteoporosis. 

Lifestyle changes for strong bones

  1. STOP DRINKING SODA. Period. Full stop. Soda is one of the worst things we can consume for so many reasons. A 12 oz can of an average soda contains 44 grams of sugar. That's 11 teaspoons of sugar in a single serving. All that sugar causes a rapid rise in blood sugar and an accompanying spike of insulin. This can lead to insulin resistance, diabetes and obesity and all of their related health disasters. (Diet soda is no better. Artificial sweeteners come with a host of health concerns of their own.)
    • The phosphoric acid in soda binds to minerals such as zinc, magnesium and calcium, critical nutrients for bone health. Once these minerals are bound to the phosphoric acid, they are passed out of the body via urine so can't be absorbed to help build strong bones or perform any of their other crucial functions in the body. Phosphoric acid has an even more directly detrimental effect on teeth. It is a powerful acid that can actually dissolve tooth enamel which is not able to be restored. 
    • Caffeine may also prevent the absorption of calcium and other minerals. It is also a diuretic, and may contribute to mineral loss by increased excretion through urination. Other beverages that contain caffeine and phosphoric acid are bottled coffee drinks, energy drinks and even some flavored water beverages. Stay away from all of them.
  2. Exercise. You know you should exercise. Every day. But do you do it? A major risk factor for osteoporosis is living a sedentary lifestyle. It's so easy to not move. But daily weight-bearing exercise such as walking, biking, yoga, jumping rope and lifting weights are highly protective against bone density loss. (Swimming is not a weight-bearing exercise due to the buoyancy of the water so not ideal for building bone strength. But it can help build muscle strength and improve cardiovascular function.) Need more inspiration and some tips to work daily exercise into your life? Read this post
  3. Get enough sleep. We all know the importance of a good night's sleep. Now you can add maintaining bone density to the long list of benefits. Our bones, like all the tissues in our bodies, are in a constant state of breaking down and building up. This is known as catabolism (breaking down and disposing of worn-out tissue) and anabolism (repair and building up of new tissue). Both are natural and necessary processes. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of anabolic processes take place while we sleep. This is the time when our bodies repair, clean out and rebuild. Lack of sleep means lack of adequate time for bones to repair and rebuild themselves (among many many other problems). Need some help getting a good night's sleep? Read this post.

It is possible to heave strong healthy bones well into your later years. They are literally the backbone of a healthy vital life. Follow the steps outlined in this series of posts about bone health and you will be well on your way to enjoying the health and vitality you deserve for a long time to come! 

If you are ready to take your energy and health to the next level in just six weeks, check out my ecourse "Six Weeks to Abundant Energy"

What you really need for strong bones

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In last week's post, I explained why taking supplemental calcium may be more harmful than helpful for the health of our hearts or our bones. (Read it here if you missed it!) Strong healthy bones are crucial to living an active life to its fullest well into our 80s, 90s and even beyond. Osteopenia and osteoporosis are very real threats to our bones, and there are many approaches to preventing these debilitating conditions. This week I'll give you nutrition tips on how to keep your bones strong and healthy for the long run. Next week's email will offer lifestyle tips for strong bones.

Nutritional approaches to maintaining healthy bones

So if calcium isn't the answer, what is?

  1. Vitamin K2: This fat-soluble vitamin is being extensively studied and gaining respect for its critical roles in:
    • reducing and preventing inflammation
    • working synergistically with other nutrients such as calcium and another fat-soluble vitamin D to help shuttle calcium to where it is needed, such as bones and teeth and keep it out of the places where it is detrimental, such as blood vessels and other soft tissues.
    • preventing atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) and kidney stones due to its role in keeping calcium out of soft tissue.
    • increasing or enhancing insulin sensitivity, which helps stabilize blood sugar and lowers the risk of diabetes.
    • Unfortunately, Vitamin K2 is extremely difficult to get in sufficient quantities from diet alone. K2 is found in high-fat animal foods such as hard cheeses, liver, egg yolk, butter, and ground beef. It is also found in the Japanese fermented food known as natto. The problem with many of the animal sources is that they are not fed a nutrient-rich diet themselves and therefore may not provide substantial amounts of K2. Even pastured, grass-fed animals eating the diets they were meant to eat may not provide enough K2 because our soil has been so severely depleted through years of intensive farming practices that have eroded nutrients from the soil. K2 supplementation may be a helpful approach to getting enough. If you decide to go that route, look for the version of K2 known as MK-7. This is the type found in natto, which most people may find to be, shall we say, unpalatable. Be sure to eat plenty of nutrient-dense animal foods from pastured animal sources to round out your K2 intake, and always take any K2 supplement with healthy fats to help your body absorb it. (Read this post if you want to know what nutrient dense foods you should be eating.)
  2. Omega 3 fats. Omega 3 fatty acids are relatively well known for their many health benefits, such as reducing the risk of cognitive decline. (Want to learn more about how to keep your brain from shrinking? Read this post.) The two main essential fatty acids (EFAs) are DHA (Docosahexanioc acid) and EPA (Eicosepentenoic acid). They are found primarily in fish and fish oils. they may help increase bone mineral content, leading to stronger, healthier bones. While it is important to get enough Omega 3 EFAs, another factor is to decrease the intake of Omega 6 EFAs from sources such as industrially produced and rancid vegetable oils. These oils are cheap, very unhealthy and found in most refined, processed foods. The ideal ratio of Omega 3 to Omega 6 is roughly 1-to-1, but in the average American diet it can be as high as 20 or even 30-to-1 in favor of Omega 6. This imbalance can lead to inflammation and its many health challenges. Only increasing Omega 3s without decreasing Omega 6 intake won't get you to the vibrant health and energy you deserve. Omega 3s are easy to obtain by eating more oily fish such as salmon (always choose wild-caught and always avoid farmed fish!) or through supplements. 
  3. Vitamin D: This fat-soluble vitamin already mentioned above is another heavyweight nutrient with a host of health benefits. Among the many tasks vitamin D performs in your body are protection from cancer, depression, heart disease and cognitive decline. In terms of bone health, Vitamin D helps your intestines absorb the calcium you get through food. Calcium absorption may be increased by as much as 50% in the presence of adequate Vitamin D. the food sources of vitamin D are similar to those for Vitamin K2. Supplementation can be important in winter months or for anyone who doesn't get 15-20 minutes of sunshine on their skin most days. Our skin makes vitamin D form sunshine when we get enough sun for our skin to turn just pink. People with darker skin may need more time in the sun to make Vitamin D. 

Including these three nutrients in your diet will not only help improve bone health, they will have other far-reaching benefits for your overall health and well-being. Next week, I'll send you lifestyle habits to further enhance bone health and more! 

Is taking supplemental calcium really a good idea?

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Standard medical advice for women is to be taking supplemental calcium. But is that really a good idea? New research published in the journal Heart suggests that taking elemental calcium (such as is found in 90% of supplements) may be doing more harm than good. Much more harm.

The research reviewed two controversial studies on calcium supplementation and heart attack risk published in the British Medical Journal in 2011. The studies found a 24-27% increased risk of heart attack for people taking 500 mg a day of elemental calcium. The results of the latest review, involving 24,000 people between the ages of 35 and 64, were even more alarming. Participants in this review who took 500 mg of elemental calcium a day increased their risk of having a heart attack by 86% versus those who took no calcium supplements at all.

What are the risks of taking supplemental calcium?

Elemental inorganic calcium comes from limestone, oyster shell, egg shell and bone meal (hydroxylapatite). This type of calcium is not bound to the natural co-factors, e.g. proteins in the from of amino acids, lipids (fats) and glyconutrients, found in food (plants and animals) that are the natural delivery systems our bodies know how to use. Without this built-in delivery system, elemental calcium can end up in the wrong places, a process known as ectopic calcification. 

Ectopic calcification is a pathologic deposition of calcium salts in tissues or bone growth in soft tissues.

The body tries to rid itself of what it considers to be excess calcium (ie, calcium that cannot be utilized because it is in the wrong form) in the following ways: 

  • Constipation. Calcium is dumped into the bowels to be removed from the body.
  • Kidney stones. The calcium is pushed through the kidneys to be removed.
  • Hypercalcemia. Too much calcium in the blood can lead to abdominal pain, depression, abnormal heart rhythm and more. 
  • Hypertension. That's why calcium channel blockers are used to treat high blood pressure. (hint: diet, exercise and stress management are far more effective and safer ways to lower blood pressure.)
  • "Brain Gravel". An increasingly prevalent concern, brain gravel are pea-sized calcium deposits found in the brains, including the pineal gland, of autopsied individuals. 
  • Pathological microcalcification of the breast. Breast tissue is particularly susceptible ectopic calcification. Hydroxylapatitate crystals found in malignant breast tissue may be a cause, and not an effect, of breast cancer. 

Elemental calcium found in antacids are particularly problematic. Antacids such as Tums or Rolaids decrease the stomach acid needed to digest and absorb the calcium, so that even more can potentially end up in places where it can do damage.

So supplemental calcium is not a good idea for a healthy heart, kidneys or bones. Should you be eating pounds of spinach and drinking gallons of milk to get enough calcium? The answer to how to keep your bones strong and healthy throughout your life may surprise you. (Hint: it's not about the calcium.) 

Next Week: What you really need for strong bones.

 

The medicine cabinet in your backyard

 Oregon Grape, Mahonia aquifolium

Oregon Grape, Mahonia aquifolium

 Dandelion, Taraxacum officinale

Dandelion, Taraxacum officinale

 Stinging Nettles, Urtica dioica

Stinging Nettles, Urtica dioica

 Plantain, Plantago major

Plantain, Plantago major

The difference between a flower and a weed is a judgment.
— Wayne Dyer

Springtime. That magical time when Mother Nature throws off her winter cloak and dazzles us with emerald greens, jaunty yellows, iridescent blues and purples, outrageous oranges and flamboyant reds. While we are admiring the spectacular displays of color, the less-showy plants are quietly growing their potent medicine to help us clear out the stagnant winter energy and prepare our bodies for the change of seasons.

The Pacific NW First Nations’ people understood the powerful medicine that sprang up all around them every Spring. Today we may be less connected to our natural surroundings but the plant world still offers us incredible benefits if we know what to look for and how to use them. This short guide is a starting point for some of the more common herbs (what we call weeds) that are easily found in the Pacific NW. Be sure to look in areas as far from the road with car exhaust and gas fumes as you can.

Oregon Grape: Contains berberine – a strong antimicrobial - and is high in vitamin C. Treats infections, stimulates liver function, improves the flow of bile and is a blood cleanser. The bark and berries were also used to ease digestive problems.

There are two varieties that grow in the pacific NW. One is a shorter variety; you will mostly have to harvest the roots of this to get the healing portion. The second variety is taller and you can harvest the stems to get the healing yellow-orange layer. To make a tincture: gently strip the brown outer layer of a stem or roots to access the fibrous orange-yellow layer. Separate the orange-yellow layer of stem or root from the remaining base white portion. The orange-yellow layer has the medicinal properties. Add 90 proof vodka in a 2-1 ratio to the shavings of the orange-yellow layer. (For example, if you have 4 oz of stem cover with 8 oz of vodka.) Let steep for six weeks, shaking occasionally. After six weeks strain the mixture through cheesecloth and save the tincture in colored glass dropper bottles. Add two drops of tincture to hot tea and honey – too much can cause stomach irritation.

The dried stem can be made directly into a tea that has both internal and external uses.

For internal use, the bitterness of Oregon grape is valuable in itself. As bitter compounds touch your taste buds on your tongue they send messages to your brain – causing an increase in many digestive secretions including saliva, hydrochloric acid, pepsinogen and hormones that stimulate the gall bladder and pancreas. This leads to better and more efficient digestion down the digestive tract.  Try Oregon grape tea or tincture before meals as a bitter tonic to prevent indigestion. Oregon grape also stimulates liver function.

For external use on wounds, you can either make a strong tea and soak the wound in it, or you can saturate a dry sterile bandage or very clean cloth in the tea, then secure it on the wound. 

Stinging Nettles: Maybe one of the original superfoods, Nettles are a powerhouse of nutrition. Compared to spinach, Nettles are 29 times higher in calcium, 8 times higher in magnesium, and 3 times higher in potassium. Nettles are also exceptionally high in the trace minerals silica, chromium, cobalt, zinc, and manganese. Nettles support our liver and kidneys so they can flush waste products and function at an optimal level. Wear gloves when harvesting nettles! Once cooked or dried they lose their sting. Gather nettles to eat fresh when they are very young – usually about 4-8 inches tall. The whole above ground part can be eaten, stems and all. To dry nettles, bundle them and hang them upside down in a dark dry place. Store in a dry place like a glass jar, away from sunlight. They can be made into tea or added to green drinks or smoothies. Other ways to use nettles:

  • Boiling – boil fresh nettles for 5-15 minutes. The cooking  water can be drunk as a tea.

  • Sautéing – Sauté until they are fully cooked and tender, usually about 5-8 minutes.

  • Steaming – place nettles in a colander and steam for 5-10 minutes.

Cooked nettles can be eaten straight as a vegetable with some butter and a pinch of salt or added to quiches, casseroles, omelettes and more. Nettles can be blanched in boiling water for a minute or two and made into a wonderful pesto.

Dandelions: This common weed is a nutritious food and powerful medicine. The leaves are high in potassium, calcium, magnesium, iron and vitamins B and C . The roots are also highly nutritious, with bitter properties that stimulate digestion, support liver function and when used fresh have anti-inflammatory properties. How to use:

  • Young tender leaves can be rinsed and added to salads. As they get older and gather more sunlight, dandelion leaves become quite bitter. The bitterness is excellent for digestion. Steam or saute the older leaves to remove some of the bitter taste. Cooked Dandelion can be used the same way as nettles, listed above.

  • Dandelion root can be used fresh to make tincture, preserving its anti-inflammatory properties. It can also be dried and used to make tea. Tea made from dried dandelion root is excellent for digestion and liver support and is highly nutritious. Use the whole root and be careful not to damage it when harvesting, to prevent loss of the white sap inulin. Inulin is a soluble plant fiber that improves gut, heart and digestive health.

To dry dandelion roots, dig up in spring through fall. Wash thoroughly. With a long piece of string, wrap each root a couple times, let out 6 inches of string and wrap another root, making a long dandelion chain. Hang until completely dry. Use clippers to cut into small pieces and store in a glass jar.  

To make dandelion tincture, add 90 proof vodka in a 2-1 ratio to the dandelion root, either fresh or dried. (For example, if you have 4 oz of dandelion root cover with 8 oz of vodka.) Let steep for six weeks, shaking occasionally. After six weeks strain the mixture through cheesecloth and save the tincture in colored glass dropper bottles.

Plantain: This lowly little weed is one of the most abundant and widely available medicine crops in the world. Plantain has antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties. It can soothe insect bites and superficial wounds, as well as prevent infections and accelerate healing. An active biochemical known as aucubin is mainly responsible for the antimicrobial action of the herb. Another substance allantoin in the herb helps with skin tissue regeneration.

Plantains also have an astringent property that has a cleansing effect on the body. It helps dry up excess secretions in the respiratory tract and the digestive system, thus being useful in treating colds and diarrhea. The astringency is moderated by the demulcent effect of the mucilage in the herb, so this herbal remedy is much gentler than other commonly used astringents.

The edible leaves of broadleaf plantain are rich in calcium and other minerals and vitamins, including Vitamin K. This vitamin helps stem bleeding from cuts and wounds. Tender leaves can be eaten fresh in salads, but older leaves can be cooked and eaten similar to both nettles and dandelion.  

Plantain is used to treat a variety of problems, from mosquito bites and skin rashes to kidney problems and gastrointestinal upset. Here’s how you can use this herb for healing other ailments:

Burns – Apply a poultice immediately and apply a bandage with leaves. Follow it up with a plantain salve.

Cuts and open sores – Stop bleeding from fresh cuts by applying crushed plantain leaves. Wash with plantain tea or diluted tincture (1 tbsp to a glass of water) to prevent infections and promote healing.

For sunburn – Apply fresh poultice liberally. Wash the area with the tea and then apply a plantain salve.

To improve liver and kidney function – Drink 1-2 glasses of plantain tea every day.

For relief from gastrointestinal inflammation – Take the tincture under the tongue or drink plantain tea.

For cold, flu, and respiratory infections – Take the tincture under the tongue or drink freshly brewed warm tea with honey.

To make a Plantain poultice: In case of an insect bite, bee sting, or poison ivy exposure, grab a few leaves, crush them between the palms, or pound them with a stone, and apply directly on the skin. If you are using it on yourself, just chew the leaves and use it as a poultice.

The mucilage from the bruised leaves will immediately soothe the pain while the anti-inflammatory effect of the herb reduces swelling and redness. The poultice will also draw the toxins from the sting, so it works best when applied immediately.

To make Plantain tincture: Fill a clean 16 oz Mason jar 1/3 to 1/2 full with dried plantain leaves. Filling half full will make a stronger tincture. Do not pack down. Add 90 proof vodka in a 2-1 ratio to the dried plantain leaves. (For example, if you have 4 oz of dried leaves cover with 8 oz of vodka.) Let steep for six weeks, shaking occasionally. After six weeks strain the mixture through cheesecloth and save the tincture in colored glass dropper bottles.

 

Note for anytime you are making tinctures: Always be sure to label your jars and bottles so you know what you are making and storing!

I hope this short guide gives you inspiration to make use of the many medicines available in nature. There are many more valuable plant medicines all around us. Enjoy!