In the Age of Aging

You may have noticed that many diet books tell you that their diet method is the best because it’s proven to help you lose body weight.

“…And?” I think to myself.

I take some issue with many of these diet books.  So often, the pages are full of simple and repeated messages that lack in-depth explanation of how the steps actually affect your body.  There is an assumption that the reader doesn’t want to know why it works but only that the reader can and should believe it does.  I need a bit more convincing these days.  And I want so much more from my dietary changes.  I want real and lasting health benefits.  I consider many of these books as the literary equivalent of snake oil.  Caveat emptor – let the buyer beware.

It may be a worse assumption, however, to believe that treating symptoms like high cholesterol, high blood pressure, or obesity separately – as though they were diseases in and of themselves – will bring about a person’s overall health.  Dr. Ron Rosedale makes clear that this is an assumption we cannot afford to make in the pursuit of our health.  This is Part 1 of Rosedale’s ideas about insulin resistance as the root cause of symptoms such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and the inflammatory diseases plaguing us today.  I am paraphrasing from a 1999 lecture transcription available here: http://drbass.com/rosedale2.html.  I will be including some other information as I look into some of his claims and discussion points.

After some mention of patients that Dr. Rosedale successfully treated, he clarifies that all the patients suffered from one root cause: aging.  In looking at the commonalities among centenarians, Rosedale makes note that low blood sugar, relative to one’s age, appears to be a contributing factor to slowing the onset of age-related diseases.  Indeed, in centenarian studies I was able to find, low blood sugar relative to age was a commonality mentioned.  A person’s ability to take stressful events in stride, though, was the commonality most linked to a long life.  But let’s get back to stress later.  In the meantime, it seems worth mentioning here that Penny Burns, R.N. also notes in The Health Journal that the Institute of Natural Resources points to managing one’s blood sugar level (between 80-100 mg/dL) as one of the healthier common habits among centenarians that people should consider for themselves (http://www.thehealthjournals.com/2011/01/secrets-of-the-centenarians/).

At this point, none of this seems surprising to me.  Don’t overdo the sugar — we know this already (or we should).  It is well established in health communities that controlling blood sugar is a protective measure against the development of diabetes and insulin resistance.  The lay health enthusiast may not understand, though, that slowing the development of insulin resistance (inevitable in all of us) also slows the development of the chronic inflammatory diseases that we often focus on.  In the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, D. Craig Willcox, PhD (et al) mentions the connection between insulin and inflammation in reference to his study of the Okinawan diet: “Although the concept of atherosclerosis as an inflammatory disease is now well established, chronic inflammation is also very likely involved in the pathogenesis of insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes and may represent a common pathogenic step in a host of other chronic diseases” (http://www.jacn.org/content/28/4_Supplement_1/500S.long).  This connection will also be important to remember in a later post.

Here is a smattering of inflammatory diseases that are the result of oxidative stress that is partially linked to high sugar intake (sugar in ALL it’s forms):

  • Alzheimer’s
  • Arthritis
  • Asthma
  • Artherosclerosis
  • Crohn’s disease
  • Colitis
  • Dermatitis
  • Diverticulitis
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Hepatitis
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Lupus
  • Nephritis
  • Parkinson’s disease

So, let’s take a breath here and review.  Really old people get to be really old with a slower onset of the diseases of aging in part because they manage their blood sugar levels (conscious of the medical indications or not) and keep low relative to their age.  Managing blood sugar levels is the health measure often taken to prevent against diabetes and insulin resistance.  In other studies, insulin resistance and high sugar intake (lots of grains, foods made with grains, potatoes, beans, sweet fruits, sugary drinks, etc.) have been linked to inflammatory diseases.  We are aging ourselves way faster than need be the case.

Many in the medical community are tentatively making connections between inflammation and heart disease (see link below), but Rosedale seems more certain of the tie.  And, as Rosedale explains, treating these inflammatory diseases symptom by symptom doesn’t address what he believes to be the root cause.  He insists that the focus should be aimed at “the molecular and cellular level.”  Otherwise, our efforts to combat the symptoms may counteract important protective measures our body takes.  One example he gives is the use of HMG coenzyme reductase inhibitors (statins) to reduce cholesterol.  Statins shut off the body’s production of CoQ10 even though CoQ10 has the highly beneficial cellular energy boosting properties that are important in the treatment of a weakened heart.  There are even rumblings in health circles that LDL may have less to do with heart disease than previously perceived (http://www.wellnessletter.com/ucberkeley/feature/inflammation/#).  Again, as Rosedale says, we have to look for the key at the molecular and cellular level.

Next post, I’ll show more of Rosedale’s connections between blood sugar levels, insulin resistance, and disease.  Thanks for following along.

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Decisions, Decisions

I know I am not alone in the act of spending more time than I have researching, pondering, and making choices about my dietary health.  There are so many subtly convincing, authoritative voices telling us they have the solution.  And so often we are desperate to follow these voices.  We want someone to take the work out of the daily decisions we must make from all the choices available to us.  Some choices just feel right but are hard to stick with through the cravings.  Some are simply comfortable though their nutritional deficiency is obvious.  Still other diets seem almost right, so we follow them knowing deep down that the dietary change will be temporary.

In making decision after decision, we lose enthusiasm if good health is brief or eludes us altogether.  Many times, I have irritably waved off having too many food choices as a first world problem and gone back to what was comfortable and easy.  I know that my physical health should not be casually dismissed, but feeling so lost in the sea of misinformation – some cleverly disguised in “facts” – is cause to address one’s mental health on the matter.  I have to be able to just say “no.”  But what is it I should be saying “no” to?  Pushing away from the all the dietary ideas offered is a bit like shooting the messengers.  Some – most – deserve to be dismissed, but on occasion a kernel of truth arises.

I started a gluten-free, vegan diet at the beginning of the year as a result of falling into the sway of one of these messengers.  I had read a second-hand take on a study of the root cause of insulin resistance, and the author had concluded that a vegan diet was the only route to lowering blood sugar.  Lowering blood sugar appeared to be key to addressing the insulin resistance that causes PCOS (which can lead to diabetes if not addressed).  I began my plan in earnest, and yet for the second time in a long time, I heard my intuition telling me that I need to stop and take a step back.  I had stumbled into living gluten-free without much thought given to it.  It just felt right and it still does.  But If I was going to make a conscious choice to change my diet as drastically as going from meat-eater to vegan, I wanted to know that I had really sifted through the “solutions” and made a smart choice.  There is always the chance that I might make a wrong choice.  But at least I would know that I did my best with the information I knew how to access.

I went looking for that article one more time.  I didn’t find, it but I did find a few mimicking the same conclusion as that author.  I also found a few refuting the claim that vegan was best.  I was afraid I had stumbled onto yet another he said/she said type of argument.  Coffee’s good for you vs. bad for you.  Don’t eat eggs vs. you must eat eggs.  Arg.  Eye roll.  But I was determined to get to a deeper level.  If the “why” of the issue was not answered to my satisfaction, then the messenger would be dismissed.

It was an in-depth article by Ron Rosedale, M.D. (one much in need of my editing skills) that caught my attention.  He refuted the idea that a vegan diet was best with the most thorough explanation I have ever read of how insulin resistance develops, how the body is affected, and how to come back to a healthier state through diet.  And, not to boast, but that’s saying something given the amount of reading I’ve done through a decade and a half of battling PCOS and insulin resistance.

I’ve decided to use my next few posts to clarify Rosedale’s message because it is comprehensive and concise and goes beyond my own person health issues.  As Rosedale explains, we ALL develop insulin resistance over time.  It’s part of the aging process.  And it is the development of insulin resistance that is the root cause of aging and diseases – cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, and diabetes, to name a few.  The list goes on.

I’ll begin next post.  Until then – to your health and happiness!

Pumpkin Soup

I have had this small baking pumpkin staring at me from my kitchen countertop.  Since November, thoughts of homemade pumpkin pie have been floating through my seasonally provoked daydreams only to be dashed by the quick pace of diminishing hours in the day.  And while I admit to and cherish my daydream approach life, it has its downside: a whole lot of unfinished projects.  The most guilt-ridden of my neglected designs are the ones that involve perishable foods.  I do not like to waste food.  But, “forget” happens.

Fortunately, squash of the pumpkin and butternut and acorn variety are friends of the absent-minded.  The time for pumpkin pie seemed to have passed, though, and the new year called for new ideas.  I decided to make a vegan pumpkin soup.  If you happen to have one staring at you, here’s a way to make good on your purchase.

This is the original recipe: http://recipes.howstuffworks.com/vegan-pumpkin-soup-recipe.htm.  The recipe is probably good as is to some, but I made modifications during and after cooking that I think improve the flavor.  This is what I came up with:

1                      small cooking pumpkin, seeds scooped out

pumpkin seeds, lightly seasoned and roasted (see below)

1      tbsp        olive oil

½                   large yellow onion, sliced

1 ¼ cups      vegetable broth

3      cups       almond milk

½    tsp          100% maple syrup (grade B is best)

½    tsp          ground nutmeg

1      tsp          ground ginger

1      tsp          sea salt

¼    tsp         black pepper

Italian seasoning (optional)

Instructions:

1.  Preheat oven to 400 degrees.  Cut the stem off the pumpkin and slice the pumpkin in half.  After scooping out the seeds and stringy stuff (bleh), cut the pumpkin into wedges and place on a baking sheet.  Roast for 30 minutes or until tender.

2. While the pumpkin is roasting, clean off the pumpkin seeds as much as possible and lightly pat them dry with a paper towel.  Place them in a bowl and mix them with 1 teaspoon of paprika and one teaspoon of sea salt.  Melt one tablespoon of coconut oil (or use 1 tablespoon of olive oil) and add 2 dashes of Worcestershire sauce.  Stir this combo in with the seasoned seeds to coat and place them on a baking sheet.  When the pumpkin is done, reduce the oven temperature to 300 degrees and roast the seeds for 45 minutes (turn the seeds a couple times during roasting).

3.  Peel the skin off the pumpkin with a knife or peeler (it should come off easily) and place the chunks of pumpkin meat in a Cuisinart.  If the pumpkin seems dry, add a tablespoon of water at a time as needed.  Pulse until the larger chucks are gone.

4. Slice the half onion radially for even cooking.  Sauté the onion in olive oil until it’s softened.

5. Add the pumpkin, vegetable broth, almond milk, maple syrup, nutmeg, ginger, sea salt, and pepper. Here I’d add about one teaspoon of Italian seasoning.  Stir and cook for 15 minutes over medium heat.  When done, use a blender on small batches of the mixture until smooth and creamy.  Garnish with your roasted pumpkin seeds.

The maple syrup can be sugar, coconut sugar, or honey – I just though maple syrup fit the sweetness of the pumpkin.  Maple syrup and coconut sugar are at a 1:1 ratio with sugar for sweetness, but honey is slightly sweeter.

The idea for adding the Italian herbs (a blend of marjoram, thyme, rosemary, savory, sage, oregano, and basil) came from my daughter who enjoyed some Italian herb crackers with hers.  I added a sprinkle of the herb mix to my bowl and suddenly understood her avid interest.

Stay warm, people.  And don’t forget to keep celebrating those wonderfully patient squash.

“Experiencing” PCOS

I began this year with the intention of starting another new dietary regimen.  This new way of eating is not just for losing a few more pounds but is part of a lifestyle change to further improve my overall health.  For the past 15 years, I have been aware of a condition – polycystic ovaries syndrome (PCOS) – that I experience.  This condition results in a myriad of issues (e.g. weight gain, hirsutism, subfertility, insulin resistance) and has the potential to lead to diabetes and heart disease if not addressed.  By the beginning of the summer last year, I was at my highest weight, became extremely winded just walking up one flight of stairs, had dangerously high blood pressure, a high blood sugar level, and high cholesterol for which my doctor began treating me with statins.  I was 43 years old.  For all the time and effort I had put into fighting the condition it just didn’t seem right, but there I was.

I would like you to notice, though, that I didn’t say “I have PCOS” or “I suffer with PCOS.”  I have spent too much of my time thinking this way.  Over the years, I had let the condition turn me into a victim.  I had felt dominated by the problems associated with the syndrome and had experienced all the psychological stages we associate with grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance – with each issue so that I came to a gradual ownership of the condition.  Until this last summer, it seemed the only recourse I had was to live a life-consuming uphill battle against chronic fatigue, intense food cravings, and disappointing body size.  I stopped hoping for a way to regain control of my health.  That is, until I gave up wheat.

It happened mostly out of the necessity to keep my child fed.  My daughter had been on a peanut butter and honey kick since summer vacation started.  Any food that allowed for the delivery of that combination into her system was an imperative staple in our house.  We had been running low on wheat-based staples near the end of June, so I had decided to personally lay off the bread and crackers for her sake and just focus on the other less refined foods available in the refrigerator and cupboards.

In the meantime, I had been logging my blood pressure daily to see if the statins were making any difference.  I had taken the new medication for close to a month, so at that point they had been a disappointment.  The change I had seen was negligible.  I had also decided to note my weight on a weekly basis since I had started walking more.  This had resulted in a loss of two pounds in the previous two weeks.  Within a week of eating no wheat, however, I had lost eight pounds.  I should have been excited about that fact alone, but I had seen this same phenomenon in the past when altering my food intake.  Most new diets gain results at the outset and peter off once the body gets used to the new food habits.  But since I was losing weight I figured it couldn’t hurt to keep going with the no-wheat change.  I changed nothing else.  By the end of the second week, I had lost another five pounds!

Still, it was the change in how I felt that had astounded me.  I was walking the same amount as I had for the previous two weeks but suddenly my energy seemed to double from my usually fatigued state.  The headaches I suffered from every other day had disappeared.  My blood pressure was going down (whether advisable or not, I tossed the statins at this point).  I no longer had the intense food cravings I fought every day.  This last improvement – the lack of cravings – was a huge gift to myself.  It’s almost mind-blowing to me how easy I find doing without baked goods has become.  By the end of a month with no wheat, I had dropped a total of 20 pounds.  By the end of two months, I was down 30 pounds.  Most importantly, I felt amazing – better than I remember feeling all through my thirties.  No wheat was now, for me, a no-brainer.

All this came about without research.  I have since heard of books on the negative effects of wheat in the diets of people worldwide, and I am glad to add my personal testament to the growing mass of voices.  But it is also my wish that people who “experience” PCOS find some renewed hope from reading this.  If it seems like an uphill battle, just know you don’t have to feel like that.  And there are other steps you can take, too.

I’ll return with updates on my new diet regimen and on living gluten-free.

Hungry

One evening in late September of 2012, my family and I had been making stops around town after my daughter’s gymnastics class when I happened to glance to the west at the crescent moon.  It hung heavy in the sunset of pinks and purples and something – maybe the combination of its rich amber color and its transitioning shape – made it seem plump rather than stenciled into the darkening sky.  It looked like a sweet potato, I thought.  But like something more.  Something truly magical and rewarding.  Like a hardy, mouth-watering, all-in-one feast for the soul.  I couldn’t seem to take my eyes off of it as we turned out onto the main highway.  And as the sky blackened and the color contrast sharpened, this lunar tuber only seemed to draw me closer.  I had this urge to reach my arm out, pluck it from the heavens, and consume every ounce of nourishment it had to give.  We had just eaten dinner, but I felt so hungry right then.  So hungry.  Hungry down to my bones.

Since then, I’ve returned a few times to the memory of that sweet potato moon, and I’ve puzzled over the depth of the want I felt.  I was certain my reaction on that night was about more than nutritional hunger (although I suspect it played a part).  It’s true that I had upended some major aspects of my life just a few months prior.  I had stumbled on one major change to my food diet that made a profound improvement to my physical health.  I had decided to take more proactive steps to enrich my life beyond my home.  And I had decided to approach love with more vulnerability in order to be true to myself.  My family has not been so sure where they fit among these changes, and to be honest I am still working all that out for myself.  These were, indeed, shaky times.  But I had drawn some confidence from the idea that I had, a last, taken these steps for the purpose of reaching real moments of happiness.  Or at the very least, I felt I was taking a path away from the tired, self-imposed emptiness I had lived for so long.  Yet despite all my positive efforts, I only then was awakening to the enormous state of my “starvation.”

And so this blog is the onset of what I hope to be a new journey to understanding how I might better maintain my whole self.  It is also meant to serve as a record of the journey I take out into the world as changes lead to new challenges.  And, as an introvert and techno-phobe, this embarkation IS my first challenge.  I hope you’ll join me.  I hope to facilitate better health for myself and perhaps for all of us.  I hope to deconstruct personal myths and inspire new beginnings as much as I hope to create and be inspired.  It is a journal, an art book, a cookbook, notes on research, and a forum to share your positive, constructive, and challenging thoughts.  Thank you for being a part of my journey.  Welcome to Sweet Potato Moon.