“Flowers are the sweetest things God ever made, and forgot to put a soul into.” ~Henry Beecher

Monday, December 28, 2009

Stay Healthy with Probiotics

Probiotics is a term defined by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations as "live microorganisms administered in adequate amounts which confer a beneficial health effect on the host". It is estimated that the human body plays host to over a trillion microbes from over ~1000 different species on our skin, in our mouths, noses, gastrointestinal and reproductive tracts. Most are from the Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, Saccharomyces and Enterococcus genera and a wealth of research has been carried out pinpointing some of the benefits that many of these microbes confer and the roles they play to ward off sickness and disease:

Production of Beneficial Compounds and Vitamins:

Two metabolic by-products of Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria in the intestinal tract are lactic and acetic acids. These help to produce an acidic environment that is less conducive to harmful bacteria.

Some healthy strains of bacteria in the colon produce nutrients such as vitamin K, which is required for normal blood clotting as well as bone building and maintenance. They are also a source of B vitamins.

Completion of the Digestion Process:

Most foods are completely digested and the nutrients absorbed in the small intestine; however, some carbohydrates such as fibers and oligosaccharides (considered prebiotics) require the help of microbes in the large intestine to finish the job. The combination of pre- and probiotics creates what is referred to as a “synbiotic” relationship because it supports the growth and proliferation of beneficial bacteria in the colon.

Degradation of Carcinogens:

Probiotics such as Lactobacilli degrade the carcinogenic compound nitrosamine and are thought to bind and detoxify additional carcinogens within the intestine, inhibiting their uptake into the bloodstream as well as preventing them from inducing genetic mutations and the production of cancerous cells within the colon.

Promotion of a Healthy Digestive Tract and Immune System:

Inflammation and intestinal permeability are hallmarks of diseases such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), Crohn’s Disease (CD), and Ulcerative Colitis (UC). Healthy bacteria are believed to help combat these diseases by competing for binding sites on intestinal cells to prevent the attachment of pathogenic bacteria that can do damage. Good bacteria also stimulate immune cells to make anti-inflammatory proteins and additional factors, helping to ward off these diseases.

A large portion of our immune systems operate within the mucus layer that lines our digestive tract, which acts as an interface between the inside and outside of the body. Healthy flora found here and foreign antigens that pass through help to prime immune function. Good bacteria are also thought to reinforce this barrier by helping to regulate interactions between intestinal epithelial cells, preventing bacteria and foreign matter from entering the rest of the body, which can lead to infection, allergic reactions and the diseases such as those mentioned above. This suggests that the key to a strong immune system is a healthy digestive tract. This is something that I strongly believe and have written about in the past (see my post Maintain Health Through Proper pH).

Probiotics in the Diet:

One way to maintain healthy intestinal flora within the gut that is gaining interest is by adding probiotics to the diet. They are found in many forms, including pills and powders as well as cultured or fermented drinks and foods. As suggested by the definition, in order to be considered a probiotic, an organism must be live and have previously been shown to produce health benefits to the host. This suggests that the term “live, active culture” may not necessarily constitute a probiotic. However, some common cultured and fermented foods promoted as sources of probiotics include yogurt, kefir, kombucha, miso, tempeh and fermented vegetables such as sauerkraut and KimChi. There are vast resources for recipes online on how to make yogurt or kombucha or ferment vegetables. I have been making my own organic yogurt using a very simple method found here. My friend Claire Criscuolo shows how to make it in the first video on the page. I often eat it with granola or add it to my morning smoothie. This website,, has instructions and recipes on how to ferment vegetables and includes suggestions for foods, recipes and more tips on maintaining a healthy digestive tract that will keep you happy, youthful and full of energy. A recipe for fermented vegetables can be found here.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Spread the Light

It’s the holiday season. This is a time when many households show their creativity and enthusiasm by decorating, both inside and outside their homes. Years ago, outdoor decorations were mostly limited to simple strings of lights and Christmas wreaths hanging on the front doors; however, these days, the lights and displays have become much more elaborate, beautiful and inventive. There’s something about lights that lift my spirits. Maybe it’s because they generate an extreme yet comforting contrast against the backdrop of the night. They brilliantly illuminate the darkness and at the same time create a pleasurable feast for the eyes. As I was driving through town the other night, I took my time to enjoy a number of decorated yards, often stopping to look.

To me, these displays represent warm and inviting welcome mats. They say to me, we have so much joy and happiness on the inside, that we’d like to share it; and we hope, in some way, we touch your heart. If we could all find ways to shine our lights throughout the year, to say welcome to our neighbors and to spread warmth and peace, we would create a holiday atmosphere that never ended. So think about what it is that illuminates you and bring it out for everyone to see. The World will be a much happier and brighter place if you do. Happy Holidays!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Keep the Variety and Nutrients, Not the Chemicals

Many of us are well aware of bisphenol-A (BPA), an organic compound found in many plastic food and beverage containers. BPA is an endocrine disruptor – it mimics hormones in the body and has been linked to a number of diseases and disorders that include breast, prostate and brain cancers, obesity, neurological disorders including early brain development and abnormalities in thyroid function. What many people may not be aware of is that BPA is also found in the plastic linings of food and beverage cans as well. These include canned vegetables, fruits, soups and other prepared foods, beans, broths and just about anything else you would normally buy in cans. The most logical thing to do to lower our exposure to BPA is to avoid buying canned products and simply eat these foods in their natural form or prepare them fresh. But for many, canned products are a convenience that saves time. The last thing many of us want to do after a long day is to make broth or cook beans from scratch and depending on where you live, some items simply may not be available year round. We might be inclined to eliminate some of these foods from our diets altogether, however we’d be missing out on a wealth and variety of nutrients, for example from different types of beans/legumes that are a good source of protein, vitamins and minerals and fiber. With a little bit of planning, however, there are ways to conveniently keep these foods in our diets without buying them in cans.

Preparing some items in bulk ahead of time and then freezing them in smaller servings:

Soup broths – Meat, poultry and vegetable based soup broths are relatively easy to make and simply require a few hours to simmer. And making them at home lets you control the amount of sodium and fat. Most recipes begin with meat bones, poultry carcasses, or simply chopped vegetables that include onions, carrots and celery. Fresh or dried herbs such as thyme, bay leaf, salt and peppercorns are frequently used as well. The ingredients are placed in a pot with enough cold water to cover them and allowed to simmer. The broth is then strained through a fine mesh strainer or cheesecloth. Excess fat can be skimmed off of the top after it cools. It can then be divided and frozen for later use. I always make broth from the Thanksgiving turkey carcass and find that it is one of the best broths I have all year. So although it sounds like a lot of work, it is well worth it. Here is one recipe I found online with more detailed instructions than what I’ve mentioned above.

Beans – Kidney, navy, black, white beans, chickpeas and other legume varieties are nutrient dense and great in salads, soups, stews, and dips. They are also much less expensive than canned varieties when purchased dried, in bulk. To prepare properly, first pick through them to remove any rocks or bad beans, then soak overnight in clean water. This helps to eliminate toxins and cut down on the cooking time. The next day, drain and rinse beans, then add clean water and simmer on the stove or cook in a pressure cooker. Directions can be seen here both as text and as videos. If you plan to freeze the beans, slightly undercook them by three or four minutes, divide into smaller portions, submerge in liquid to avoid freezer burn and drying out and freeze in BPA-free, airtight containers. If I do use plastic containers, I often line them with wax paper to keep my food away from the plastic.

Opt for Frozen Versus Canned:

Fruits/Vegetables – I prefer to buy most fruits and vegetables fresh or frozen, and in fact, produce is usually frozen just after picking when the nutrient content is still high, so in the colder months, it is the best way to go. Tomatoes, however, are one thing I used to frequently buy in cans for sauces and soups. But the acid content in this fruit makes it more likely to leach BPA from the can lining (think about orange juice or colas in plastic bottles!). A trick I learned from a friend is to freeze tomatoes whole. I do this when they are in season, which is the only time I buy them fresh. And if you grow your own and are inundated with them at the end of the season and don’t have the time to make sauce, this is a good way to buy some time. The thawed tomatoes will not keep their shape for slicing or chopping, but they’re great for making sauces or adding to soups and stews.

Buy in Paper Cartons:

Items like broths, tomatoes and beverages can also be found in paper-like tetra pak cartons that are made with BPA-free materials.

Incidentally, Eden Organics is one company in the U.S. that uses cans that are BPA-free. Their products cost more, but so do their cans: