Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Context of Healthy Eating - In memory of Kirsten Swanz

On March 30th, 2010, my sister Kirsten passed surround by loved ones. She was 28 years old. Kirsten’s memory is vivid with me now having just crossed the 1 year anniversary of her passing and her liberation from the prison that was her physical existence during the last 3 years of her life. With the emotions so raw, I am reminded how her mental suffering stretched back so much further.

My sister died from complications from diabetes and an eating disorder. Her body and her soul were literally starving for nourishment. Looking at my sister, the deprivation was obvious. She was young, her mind was sharp, but her body had succumbed to the ravages of aging well before her time. Her kidneys had stopped functioning and dialysis was an every other day occurrence. She battled high blood pressure and Kirsten’s vision was qualified as legally blind. She had two toe amputations and her bones would fracture under the slightest stress. Anyone looking at my sister knew her health was degenerating. My sister was in the minority. For the majority of our population we don’t see the decline until the health situation becomes dire. As we look around today the disordered eating behaviors aren’t so obvious. Rest assured it is there.

I share my sister’s story to honor her memory and hopefully inspire others to avoid a similar journey. The issues that burden our culture regarding food, nutrition, and health are immense. There is no magic pill that will suddenly resolve this dilemma. As a society, we are over-fed, over-supplemented, over-medicated, and well under-nourished. The nutritional starvation we experience isn’t simply a description of the void found in the nutrient content of industrially grown and processed food. In fact I contend that it is equally the result of the emotional, or lack thereof, connection we have with our food and the people we eat meals with. The beauty of this problem is that it doesn’t require money to resolve. It simply necessitates a shift in the way we think about our food.

Healthy eating isn’t all about organic food. The term organic has become a buzz word exploited by industry to advance the sales of more of the same. Just because it is “organic” is no guarantee that it will support healing and sustenance. And in addition to the words describing a food, the context in which we consume it is crucially important. An all organic meal eaten while driving 60 miles an hour down the highway rushing from one appointment to the next while stressing out about how overwhelmed we are can’t possibly nourish our body the way food is suppose to. Conversely, a non-organic, non-local meal prepared with mindfulness and intent, consumed with those dearest to our hearts, and reflected on as a blessing to our body and soul will give us exactly the nourishment we need.

I am not saying the quality of our food doesn't matter… it absolutely does. The diseases of the past, those things that killed the most people even just 75 years ago were infectious diseases. The times have changed and people are still dying. Today though, entire cultures are dying from lifestyle diseases – cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. So the food does matter and we must realize the context from which we consume our food is a simple area that deserves serious attention.

Food has the potential to be the most powerful medicine we have. Greater than any drug now and any we may ever find. The context, the manner and means with which we consume our meals defines our relationship to the food. Food itself isn’t good or bad, organic or not. The benefit or detriment to our health from food is based primarily on the quantity, frequency, and context from which we consume it, our relationship with it. We must stop ascribing human qualities like good or bad to the food itself. It is just food.

Relationships on the other hand can be good or bad and I am sure most of us have experienced examples of both. Relationships of all sorts provide the opportunity for personal growth and betterment. Relationships are built on the foundation of the behaviors and the habits we as individuals bring to them. These behaviors and habits can be observed, understood, and replicated by those we hold most dear. Health is contagious. Build a solid foundation for yourself and your family by slowing down and eating together. Focus and cultivate a healthy, mindful relationship with food and eating. This will carry over to every meal we consume; with every person we break bread. This is the space from where true nourishment and genuine health will come. It will help propel us all into our most healthy future. It is a simple step with profound effects that we can all start embracing today.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Spring Time Allergies in Kentucky

What are the first thoughts that come to mind when imaging the beckoning of springtime in the Ohio River valley? I am sure many immediately want to talk college basketball and the madness that is March and the NCAA tournament. Others will drift to the Kentucky Derby and all the related festivities leading up to the most exciting 2 minutes in sports. Some may be eager to simply get outside the house and explore the beautiful scenery that is Kentuckiana (Indiucky from my side of the bridge). The burgeoning spring is many things to different people, regardless of your passions it can inspire and motivate us all to embrace this wonderful time of year.

Growing up in this region, the arrival of springtime has also always suggested the arrival of seasonal allergies that are unmatched in other areas of the country. Hay fever (not necessarily related to hay and seldom associated with a fever) can be incapacitating and the number of individuals affected in the spring is staggering. Allergic rhinitis – inflammation of the nose and/or sinuses – is accompanied by sneezing, nasal mucus discharge, nasal congestion, nasal itching, and watery, itchy eyes, and affects countless individuals. The increased mucus creates an environment that is an ideal place for bacteria to grow and lead to sinus infections and sinus pressure. This process is a hypersensitive reaction to the increased pollen count in our environment as the new grasses, trees, and weeds begin to grow.

It may seem as if we are helpless against this increased pollen count since when we walk outside we are exposed. Fortunately, there are steps we can take to help minimize our overall inflammatory burden which will subsequently decrease the severity of our inflammatory response to the pollens. The at home solutions we will talk about today include monitoring the foods we eat, increasing omega 3 consumption, as well as washing out our sinuses.

The first way to address allergies of all types is to examine what we consume. What we put into our body on a daily basis has a lasting effect on how we feel each and every day. Seasonal allergies are no exception to the rule. In order to address allergies with diet modification, it is vital to explore the individual’s sensitivity to particular foods. Often we consume foods that we are sensitive to without noticing any direct reaction from the offending food. The food sensitivities we are concerned with will not cause our nose to drip or our eyes to itch. It is not the type of allergic food reaction that requires an EpiPen and a quick trip to the emergency room. Instead, it is a low-level sensitivity that cumulatively contributes to our overall inflammatory burden and hence produces a hypersensitive response when we are exposed to something non-threatening like plant pollens. In my experience, food sensitivity is a completely unique response. I have seen it repeatedly in my office that even within families there is a totally independent reaction to particular foods. Eliminating a particular food for one person will not necessarily work for another.

It should be noted that a diet that is high in omega 6 fatty acids and deficient in omega 3 fatty acids increases systemic inflammation. Both essential fatty acids (omega 3 and 6) must be acquired through our diet. The standard American diet (SAD) is extremely high in omega 6 fatty acids and extremely low in the omega 3 fatty acids. Both essential fatty acids are crucial for healthy inflammatory pathways in the body. When the omega 6 pathway is activated, the body experiences a more exaggerated inflammatory response. The omega 3 pathway is activated it produces a less inflammatory response. When the body has a healthy ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acids, the resulting inflammatory response is likely to be appropriate to the offending agent. When the body has an excess of omega 6 fatty acids, it is more often the case that there will be an extreme inflammatory response to an offending agent, regardless of the severity of the particular antigen. This is a simplified description of the phenomenon happening at the cellular level in the majority of Americans, children included, on a daily basis. It is important to strive to bring our body back into balance and reestablish a healthy ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acids. I generally recommend that patients supplement with 500 to 1000 mg of EPA from a high-quality pharmaceutical grade fish oil. My favorite product is MorEPA by Minami. You can also increase your omega 3 levels by eating grass fed meats and avoiding any grain fed products.

In addition to avoiding food sensitivities and increasing omega 3 consumption, it is also important to consume as many fresh, local vegetables and fruits as possible. This local produce is grown in the same environment where we live. It thrives with exposure to the same air and water pollutants that we must deal with in the spring. The natural defenses and bountiful phyto-nutrients offer us the same protection that they provide for the growing plants. These nutrients and bio-flavenoids have natural anti-inflammatory properties and the volume of benefits from a diet high in variety and colorful vegetable and fruit consumption is too vast to include in this article.

One other simple method for reducing allergic symptoms is to utilize a neti pot saline wash throughout the spring to wash the pollens directly from the nasal passage. A neti pot is a device used for flushing out excess mucus, pollen, bacteria, and foreign agents from the nose and sinuses. This technique is becoming more and more popular, even within the conventional medical system. Neti pots are available for purchase at many drug and retail stores. A neti pot is a safe, simple, and effective tool for supporting healthy sinuses.

The techniques described above are painless and inexpensive, and the benefits can be enormous. By incorporating these suggestions into your healthy daily routine you will be more able to enjoy time planting a garden, watching the horses run, or doing any other activities you enjoy in the springtime.