Friday, February 24, 2012

Holy Guacamole!

It is a strange time of year for me to craving avocados, but I am.  I am adding them to my smoothies, sandwiches, salads, and eating right from the skin these days.  Of course, there's the favorite - gaucamole.  Perhaps my appetite knows that it is heart health month and avocados are a heart healthy food.

That's right!  Maybe you heard differently?  I remember that my grandmother, who died of heart disease, was told not to eat avocados.  We know more these days.  Yes, avocados are fatty, but some fats are really good for you and you need, yes need, to eat them!  The fat in avocados is mono-unsaturated. There is a small amount of saturated fat, but not the kind that you have to worry about. The avocado can help lower cholesterol, regulate blood pressure, and protect against heart disease and stroke.  Not bad.

A study was done giving an avocado to male volunteers daily - their cholesterol numbers went down after just 1 week!  Most importantly the bad LDL went down, the HDL good cholesterol went up.  Avocados also contain beta-sitosterol which has been shown to reduce blood pressure.  They contain lutein - good for the eyes, heart, and skin.  Plus, there is fiber (it is a fruit afterall), potassium, folate, vitamin A and some carotenes - all good for immunity and cancer prevention.  That doesn't mean overdo it. Enjoy a half to whole avocado here and there, get the good fats, but don't overdo the calories.

To buy, choose the avocado that is slightly soft to the touch.  A firm avocado will be tasteless and the fruit hard rather than smooth and soft.  An overly soft avocado will have brown areas when cut open and the taste will be smokey and sour.  The 2 best ways to rid the flesh of the skin:  cut in half length-wise.  One half will come away with the pit.  Use a spoon to trace around the pit and remove.  Then you can either scoop the flesh out with your spoon or squeeze it out, pinching the skin.

My favorite guacamole recipe:
3 ripe avocados, scooped from the flesh and diced (I don't mash)
1 tomato, diced
1/3-1/2 onion, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tsp dried cumin
1/4-1/3 bunch cilantro, chopped finely
1 tsp. lime juice or lemon juice

Mix and eat!

How will you enjoy your avocado this week!?

Tuesday, February 21, 2012


Loving-kindness meditation has been a staple of my meditation practice for years.  I don't practice it daily as I am the type of meditator that needs to fit my meditation needs to my current state.  However, as I explore Loving-kindness more and more, I find it is deeper and more encompassing than I could or probably can imagine!

There are various versions, many similar and others different as the translation and personal preferences come into play.  Here is how I have memorized it and how I teach it currently:
May all beings be safe and free from suffering
May all beings be happy
May all beings be free from attachment and aversion
May all beings know freedom's true joy

This has evolved, of course.  I now often omit "be safe", because as I more deeply understand the meditation, I realize the true meaning of "suffering" is not just to avoid bad things happening, but to teach the mind not to attach to and create suffering.  Our minds create so much suffering.  Now, when I am feeling down, scared, angry, irritated, I ask - "how is my mind making me suffer?"

When I explore the second phrase, I am sometimes challenged by the impossibility of all beings finding happiness.  I am challenged when I make this wish for specific people in my life.  I find thoughts such as, "oh, but she will never be happy, because she clings to the past....."  Going back to the first phrase, all beings have the potential to release the mind's hold on suffering and through this we find happiness.  Not "happy, happy, joy, joy!"  all the time, but a deeper sense of happiness in waking and living each and every day.
The third phrase contains so much great potential for peace and joy and is incredibly difficult for the Western mind.  In our world, more stuff = happiness.  Non-attachment as a concept means in one sense, less stuff!  Or that your stuff is not what happiness is made of.  But it is more than that.  It is not attaching to the story of who you are, what you are trying to be, concepts we create as our sense of self.  It is not believing in a beginning or an end to your life or to anything or anyone within your life experience.

The final phrase can mean freedom in body - many are imprisoned in various ways physically.  However, we have examples in many - Viktor Frankl, Nelson Mandela and others who have been physically imprisoned, but kept their minds and spirits free.  Freedom in mind and spirit occurs when we do not let the external conditions of life determine our sense of joy.  This means incorporating the above phrases and the lessons and opportunities that come along with their practice. Also, when we send this to other beings or to specific people, there is great potential for forgiveness which gives the practitioner freedom from suffering.  Letting go of the pain and anger directed at another is very freeing!

I am, of course, just touching on the gifts that loving-kindness meditation can provide.  Their are entire books written on the subject, practitioners study and practice this for hours a day for years and years....the potential is infinite!  I recommend beginning your practice today!

The process is to state the 4 phrases for the self:  "May I be ......."  Then, send to someone you love.  Picture that person, "May you be..."  Then to someone neutral, say the guy behind the counter at the gas station, someone you saw in the elevator today, etc....  Then to someone difficult and challenging.  This is hard for folks to do, but keep at it.  It isn't necessarily about the other person, it is about you healing and freeing yourself!  Finally, send the meditation to all beings as is written above.  Also, find a teacher! Read a book!  Listen to a podcast online!

What is your experience in practicing loving-kindness meditation?

Friday, February 17, 2012

Younger with Yogurt!

Yogurt is really good for the belly.  Maybe it lengthens our lifespan as was once part of those commercials back in the 60s and 70s.  Research is heading in that direction.  Many experts believe that all health good or bad begins in the gut.  Yogurt is definitely good for the gut.  It contains the good bacteria we need for digestion and absorption of nutrients.  It creates the balanced environment we need for digestion and proper immune function, and it fights over-growth of yeast and bad bacteria.

Been hearing the word pro-biotic?  Well, that actually means "for life" and not in the political way, but in the life and health promoting way.  Yogurt contains pro-biotics.  It does, because it is fermented milk.  Fermented foods are a really good and healthy way to eat!  Sauerkraut, miso, kim-chi and others are fermented and are rich in enzymes that have many health benefits. 

There are many different types of bacteria (lacto-bacillus for example) or pro-biotics.  You can tell this by buying different types of plain yogurt.  They are all likely using different strains of bacteria to ferment and these different strains create different flavors.  When I make my own yogurt, if I haven't been keeping up with a batch in the fridge, I go out to find the brand that tastes best to me and I use that as my new starter for a new batch of yogurt (more on making your own later). 

Lacto-bacillus has been found to increase immunity - especially when looking at chronic and degenerative diseases.  They help control inflammation which is being connected to so many chronic diseases (heart disease included).  They increase the immune systems natural killer cells for fighting infections and cancers.  they also help with good cholesterol! 

Unfortunately, there are plenty of yogurts sold without actually having been fermented and therefore lacking the pro-biotics which are so beneficial.  These are thickened with products other than the natural fermentation process or the fermentation process has been pasteurized away, killing off those little good guys.  Make sure the package and the ingredients say contains live and active cultures - NOT "made with live and active cultures" as they could have been pasteurized into oblivion.

Or, make your own!  It really is easy!
Thermometer (the kind for cooking), heating pad, towel, saucepan, quart jar, lid, stock pot, whisk, bowl
1 Qt milk, 1/4 C of your favorite live cultured yogurt
Time: See each step's time estimates in (  )

*Warm the milk to 180 degrees over medium heat, whisking a bit (15 min.)
*Let it cool to 115 degrees, whisking a bit (30 min.)
*Pour a ladle of milk into a bowl and add the 1/4 C yogurt as your starter, whisk
*Add the starter mix back to the yogurt in the pot and whisk more
*Pour into the jar (may go over) and put on the lid, wrap in a towel, place onto the heating pad (on    low) and cover with the stock pot
*Let sit for 8-48 hours, testing after 8 hours.  It sours more with more time.
*Set aside 1/4 C for your next batch and eat up the rest!
*You can safely freeze the starter, if it will take more than a few days for you to begin the next batch.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Yoga Your Way Thru Winter Blahs

We sometimes call it cabin fever - this time of year when there are no holiday activities and general busy-ness to keep our minds occupied.  We get tired.  We get moody.  We get SAD - Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Seasonal Affective Disorder is just the lack of energy, motivation, and happiness that comes with this time of year.  It might be difficult to get out of bed, to cope with challenges, and/or to keep up with an active social life.  You feel more like staying home with a movie and some kind of carb-laden snack! Women are particularly vulnerable to SAD due to hormonal fluctuations that come with menstruation.  It is often treated, not very successfully, with a good dose of vitamin D and some light therapy.  But what about yoga?

No studies on yoga and SAD are out there, but there are studies on yoga and depression and anxiety.  Yoga has shown that it helps to modulate the stress response in the body.  For some a stress response will look more like anxiety.  For others, it looks like depression.  In the case of depression, there is an over-reaction in the stress response that shuts us down or turns us off as far as motivation, energy and emotion.  The response is to turn everything off in order to avoid feeling the stress.  Not all of us do this.  Some of us move in the direction of panic, fear or even rage in response.  Yoga helps either way.  In another study, yoga helped, after just 3 months of practice, to improve depression scores by 50%, anxiety scores by 30%, and overall well-being by 65%.

The breathwork practiced in class is repeatedly shown to have benefits - mindful breathing, breathing with control, and other methods teach us to control the stress responses in the body.  Yoga has shown to have great effect on those diagnosed with PTSD.  Symptoms range from depression, anxiety, sleep issues, hyper-vigilance, outbursts of rage and fear, etc.  All have shown improvements with yoga.

I would highly recommend doing some research into the yoga classes in your community before jumping into a practice.  Yoga varies greatly by teacher and studio.  There are very athletic and difficult classes, to very therapeutic and gentle classes.  If you are looking to improve your SAD symptoms or general cabin fever, look for a class that has breathwork, meditative techniques, active asanas that flow and move at your fitness level, and a relaxation period at the end of the class.  Search for someone who offers yoga therapy that can help you create a home practice perfect and unique for you!

How will you practice yoga and get yourself through the rest of this winter?

Friday, February 10, 2012

How Sensitive Are You?

Food sensitivities are really hard to pinpoint and are rarely diagnosed or acknowledged by the medical profession.  So, are they real?

I'm not going to pretend to be a medical professional, but because of my mental health training and my experience in working with addictions, I got interested in how food and other substances affect our mental health and wellness.  I started seeing the connections and so began my encouragement toward changing diet in order to change your mood.

A food sensitivity is not an allergy.  True food allergies happen in only about 5% of the population.  They are triggered by a certain food that causes the immune system to react - often in a deadly way (anaphylaxis).  Food sensitivities also may begin in the immune system, but reactions are usually subtle and variable, which causes them to be difficult to pinpoint. Some reactions can interfere with activities of daily living and create discomfort, but they tend not to be dangerous in the short term.  An intolerance to food is more along the lines of the digestive system's inability to digest a food well - for example, milk lactose.  Some in the medical field group or speak of intolerance and sensitivity as the same.  I keep them separate according to the above definitions.

I am sticking with sensitivities today.  I am going to include here a long list of symptoms that may or may not be due to a food sensitivity:  fatigue, lethargy, sleeping after eating, drowsiness, poor memory, poor concentration, mental agitation, mood swings, compulsive eating, cravings, water retention, weight problems, depression, restlessness, irritability, headaches, migraines, swollen and painful joints, physical sensitivity and increased discomfort during menstruation, muscle pain, stiffness, gas, bloating, flatulence, indigestion, heartburn, constipation, blurry vision, spots in eyes, poor sleep....and others.

It's pretty overwhelming and so many of these symptoms could be due to other issues and disorders.  I have heard of tests to detect food sensitivities, but I have no experience with them nor do any of my trusted sources suggest or recommend them - yet. You can probably look up these tests online - ALCAT or ELIZA are the acronyms.  That might be the method you take (I can not recommend or dis-recommend) or it might be easier and cheaper to do an elimination diet.  For some foods this is easier than with others.

Caffeine could be to blame for several of the above symptoms.  It's easy to locate in your food sources and therefore "easy" to eliminate.  Yes, I know how hard it is to give up chocolate and coffee/tea.  I am not minimizing that, but get through just one week and see what you find out.  If you can get through a month, even better.  You will get a much more accurate picture of caffeine's effects.

Other foods are harder to find and locate, they are hidden in our foods.  The biggest culprit is sugar.  It is in everything!  The first time I did a detox and tried to get rid of all sugar, I quickly learned that I had to make my own food in order to avoid it.  There was not a can of soup in the natural foods co-op where I shop that was sugar free.  Check your labels and you will see that ingredients ending in -ose are prevalent.  However, sugar is so worth the effort.  If I can get a client to decrease sugar intake, there are so often obvious and almost immediate reactions.  You might not be able to get rid of it completely, but do your best to decrease the sugar in your foods as much as you can by making things yourself, reading labels, not adding sugar to foods, and keeping away from sugary snacks and desserts.  And, please don't substitute with fake sugar!  Aspartame, Splenda and the like have similar and worse problems in store for us all.

Refined carbohydrates and even whole grain carbohydrates are another good one to try eliminating.  Grains, mainly wheat-based have a similar to near exact digestive effect on the body as sugar.  The more refined, the more like sugar the digestive reaction.  Mood swings, cravings, constant hunger, depression, relapse, sleep issues, irritability and others can often be reduced significantly by eliminating or reducing sugar and carbohydrate intake.  Again, it is seriously worth the effort to try and eliminate pasta, bread, pastries, sweets, bakery of most kinds just to see how you feel.  Try gluten-free, it may solve the problem.  I often recommend that clients begin with eliminating all sugar and wheat from breakfast as a first step.

Other foods to consider eliminating temporarily:  eggs, nuts, alcohol, soy (be aware that this is often used as a preservative and is in many foods),  dairy, and various protein sources such as seafood and beef.  I know this sounds overwhelming, but it doesn't have to be.  Take baby steps, one food at a time.  Try not to eliminate more than one food at a time, so you know the source of your relief or problem.  Or eliminate them all with a detox and begin to re-introduce one at a time.  Get someone else to do it with you.  If you mess up and have something you were trying to eliminate, then just get back to it the next day, it's all progress and you might notice something/learn something!

What will you try to eliminate this week?

Friday, February 3, 2012

The Udder (other) Milks

I recently did a detox, avoiding amongst other things, dairy.  This caused me to have 3 different milk alternatives in the house - coconut, soy, and hemp.  I have also had almond and rice milk in the past.  I thought I would talk about the pros and cons of each from my perspective.  My primary use of milk or milk alternatives is to add to smoothies and to my tea (I assume this can transfer to coffee).  I can only speculate on other uses of the following products.

Coconut milk:  I found one brand - Coconut Dream.  This is a new product for me.  It was creamy and worked pretty well in my tea.  I also tasted it before adding it to my smoothie just to see if it tasted alot like coconut or was sweet and it was not.  There is a really slight hint of coconut, but it is minimal.  I would recommend trying this for cereals, soups, and just plain drinking.  It is fortified with calcium and Vitamin D.  The ice cream is amazing!

Hemp milk:  I switched to hemp milk way back when, thinking it would be higher in and have a more complete protein.  I was wrong.  It has less than 25% of the protein in soy milk and is no more complete.  To make things worse, it's not particularly pleasing in taste or in texture.  There's something grainy to it and it has an aftertaste. I can add it to smoothies, but not to tea.  There are naturally some great Omega3s (twice as many as soy milk) and it is usually fortified with other vitamins.  However, there was no info. on how the Omega 3s stacked up against organic milk (organic milk is fortified in some brands with Omega 3s). In addition, I found that the one I have is sweetened with rice syrup which is disappointing - read the label!  There is an unsweetened version as well, I just made the wrong assumption in buying the "original." 

This is something to note when buying these milk alternatives - there is original, original unsweetened, sweetened, unsweetened with vanilla, etc.  Kind of confusing.  Just set aside a little extra time when you shop to read the labels.  Once you know what you like, you are set to buy the same one each time.

Almond milk and rice milk:  I used both of these products in the past.  They are both lacking in creamy-ness.  They have a more water-like texture.  Almond milk is sweet whether you buy sweetened or not and has a nice flavor.  Rice milk lacks flavor and is sweet only when sweetened.  Both can be added to smoothies, but not tea - they separate and are too watery.  All are fortified, depending on brand.

Soy milk:  This is my milk alternative of choice!  Now with soy milk, you will find a few brands to choose from and this is important!  Silk is found in the refrigerated area which is different from the others I have mentioned so far.  It is soy milk primarily, but I see the brand has now created almond milk as well.  I swore off the Silk brand long ago and despite trials here and there, I still find the aftertaste and the texture unpalatable - true of the yogurts as well.  However, I tried West Soy brand on a whim one day when there was a coupon and love it!  The texture and the flavor are great.  I buy unsweetened vanilla and it is perfect in my tea.  The 9 gr. of protein per cup (about the same as cow's milk) make it perfect for my smoothies, as well.  The protein is complete and soy protein is really good for heart health. 

You can bake and cook with all of these alternatives.  However, do some research and make sure the amounts equate to milk needs.  For more on the pros and cons of actual milk from the cow - see my December 16th blog.

Which alternative will you try?