Author Archives: kaycierosen

Homemade Tomato Sauce and the Benefits of Lycopene

Homemade Tomato sauce

Homemade Tomato Sauce

It’s tomato harvest time here in my backyard, and as my mom says, we are up to our earballs.  Each year at the beginning of September, I go through the same process of frantically calling upon friends and neighbors to please come with large bowls and take some home to enjoy. I also repeat the same ritual of attempting to make a large pot of sauce so I can preserve some of the garden goodness for the months ahead, but always with mixed results.  This year, however, I decided to stop cutting corners and do it right: I grew more romas than slicers or cherry tomatoes, and went through and blanched, skinned, and seeded the tomatoes before putting them in the pot. I always cringe at the thought of getting rid of so much of each precious tomato, but it yielded a thick sauce free of skins and seeds that is worth sticking in the freezer for a colder month.

Because I love to get the most nutrition possible out of my food, I am always wary of any process that involves taking out a significant portion of the food (like skins and seeds) and then cooking it for many hours, so making sauce seems a bit antithetical to this principle.  However, in this case, this food processing can actually boost the benefit of the food because of a little molecule called lycopene.  Lycopene is a carotenoid, or substance that gives the tomato its red color.  It is also found in other pink fruits such as watermelon, papaya, and guava, but the highest amount in the western diet is found in tomatoes.   

In the body, lycopene acts as a powerful antioxidant, meaning it gives electrons to oxygen or other molecules that are missing an electron.  Without an antioxidant these molecules then “steal” electrons from places like our DNA or cell membranes, causing damage to the tissues.  Lycopene has been shown to be a more effective antioxidant than Vitamin E or beta carotene, and can help to prevent cancer of the liver, lung, prostate, breast, and colon.  In cancer cells, it can arrest cells growth and promote cell death while having no effect on normal cells.  It also has been shown to prevent inflammatory disease of the liver, heart and neurological systems.

Interestingly, there are two ways in which cooking helps boost the benefits of lycopene.  First, by cooking out the water, the lycopene content becomes more concentrated, so you get more of it in each bite.  For instance, in a raw tomato, you may get as little as 8.8 mcg/g of lycopene, whereas in tomato sauce, you may get as much as 131 mcg/g. Powdering and freeze drying tend to decrease the amount of lycopene and makes it very unstable, whereas freezing and heat processing stabilizes the lycopene. Also, there are two molecular forms of lycopene, called trans and cis.  In a raw tomato, lycopene is in the trans form, while heat processing converts the lycopene to a cis form.  The longer the cooking, the more of this conversion takes place.  This cis form is more “bioavailable” to the body, meaning it is easier for it to utilize.

One other important thing to note is that how the tomatoes are grown also makes a difference.  Conventionally grown tomatoes have been found to be lower in many nutrients, including Vitamin C, polyphenols, quercetin, and flavonoids like lycopene.  So looking for tomatoes that have been organically grown or growing your own will yield a sauce richest in this health-promoting substance.  Plus, it will be the best sauce you’ve ever tasted.  

Enjoy!

Tomato sauce from scratch:

This is not a quick recipe, but it is a great way to use the bounty of your garden and you will never get a sauce from a jar that tastes as good as this!

Yield: 3-4 quarts

8 pounds fresh roma tomatoes

½ cup red wine

2 Tbsp olive oil

1 yellow onion, diced

5 garlic cloves, minced

2 stalks of celery, diced

2 tsp dried basil

1 tsp dried oregano

½ tsp black pepper

1 Tbsp kosher salt

1 heel of parmesan (optional)

1 small can tomato paste (optional)

Fill a large pot with water and bring to a boil.  Put the tomatoes in (as many at a time as you can fit) and let them sit 2-3 minutes, until you can see the skin starting to crack on a few of them).  Strain the tomatoes out and put in a large bowl, repeat until all the tomatoes are done.  Empty the pot.  With each tomato. make a small slit in the skin and “pop” the insides out.  Cut this in half and gently squeeze out the seeds.  Place the skinned and seeded tomato in the pot.  Repeat until all the tomatoes are done. Add the rest of the ingredients except the tomato paste to the soup pot. Cover and bring to a simmer over medium high heat. Reduce heat and continue to simmer, about an hour.  At this point, you can take a potato masher and break up the tomatoes a bit more.  Continue to simmer uncovered until the sauce thickens, about 2 hours more. If you want to add some extra lycopene and give the sauce a bit more heft, you can add the tomato paste for the last hour of cooking.  Serve with pasta and homemade meatballs.

Sources:

Hallmann E., Orv Hetil. The influence of organic and conventional cultivation systems on the nutritional value and content of bioactive compounds in selected tomato types.J Sci Food Agric. 2012 Nov;92(14):2840-8. doi: 10.1002/jsfa.5617. Epub 2012 Feb 20.

Györéné KG, Varga A, Lugasi A. A comparison of chemical composition and nutritional value of organically and conventionally grown plant derived foods. 2006 Oct 29;147(43):2081-90.

Shi J, Le Maguer M.   Lycopene in tomatoes: chemical and physical properties affected by food processing. Crit Rev Biotechnol. 2000;20(4):293-334.

Unlu NZ, Bohn T, Francis DM, Nagaraja HN, Clinton SK, Schwartz SJ. Lycopene from heat-induced cis-isomer-rich tomato sauce is more bioavailable than from all-trans-rich tomato sauce in human subjects. Br J Nutr.  2007 Jul;98(1):140-6. Epub 2007 Mar 29.

Trejo-Solís C, Pedraza-Chaverrí J, Torres-Ramos M, Jiménez-Farfán D, Cruz Salgado A, Serrano-García N, Osorio-Rico L, Sotelo  Multiple molecular and cellular mechanisms of action of lycopene in cancer inhibition. J.Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2013;2013:705121. doi: 10.1155/2013/705121. Epub 2013 Jul 21.

Lycopene. Wikipedia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beans and Hormone Health

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There is nothing more fun than returning from a few days away from the garden and finding what has sprouted and ripened in my absence.  This morning, after a weekend away camping, I discovered about 30 pounds of zucchini and a bumper crop of yellow string beans.  I love planting beans and peas in my garden both for the delicious harvest and the nitrogen they give back to the soil.  Let’s talk a bit about their specific health benefits as well:

Just about everyone has become familiar with the controversy surrounding soy and its effect on hormones.  We know that soy contains a class of compounds called isoflavones, which have a phytoestrogenic effect on the body.  Soy and soy products, particularly concentrated soy proteins (frequently found in bars, protein powders, and vegetarian “meat” products), are particularly high in these compounds, and can significantly impact the body’s hormone balance.  Why is this important when we are talking about beans?  While soy is particularly high in isoflavones, all members of the bean or pea family will contain some amount of these compounds.

So, what is a phytoestrogen?  To understand this, we need to know a bit about estrogen.  Estrogen is a hormone–a chemical produced by the body that stimulates a receptor on a cell and tells the cell what to do in a specific way.  Estrogen is a growth stimulator, so it tells your body to change from a kid’s body into a grownup’s body.  During the menstrual cycle, estrogen tells your uterus to grow the lining that will support a pregnancy.  It also helps to maintain the strength and integrity of the bones.  A phytoestrogen is a chemical that comes from outside the body that will stimulate an estrogen receptor. Phytoestrogens are generally not as strong as estrogen, so it stimulates that receptor weakly.  So, for people who have very low estrogen levels a phytoestrogen will help the body feel like it has “more” estrogen, but for those with very high estrogen levels, a phytoestrogen may block those receptors and help the body feel like it has “less” estrogen. Because of this moderating quality of these compounds, it can be useful to help balance hormones for those who are both deficient in or have excess estrogen.

As with many botanical families, the legume family has these isoflavones in common throughout its members.  This means that some amount of these compounds can be found in a wide variety of plants that belong to this family: licorice root, alfalfa, clover, lentils, dried beans, peas, and even those fresh green beans.  It is important to keep in mind that isoflavones are only one class of chemical among many found in these foods.  This phytoestrogenic effect will generally be gentle and will be accompanied by all the other benefits of legumes:  fiber, minerals, protein, starches, and green energy in those beans that are eaten fresh.

Soy does tend to contain isoflavones in higher amounts than other members of the legume family, and they will be particularly concentrated in processed soy protein products and soy extracts.  In this case, there will be a more specific medicinal effect because they are being used in a more drug-like manner.  For people who are concerned about a history of estrogen-dependent cancers, this will be more relevant with soy protein products than with other legumes.  Soy protein can also be inappropriate in large amounts for those who would normally have a very low amount of estrogen in their systems, such as young children and men.

Dr. Kaycie’s Top Ten Detoxifying Foods

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Strawberries are high in bioflavonoids that protect the cells of the liver. The whole plant can also be made into a medicine that is good for restoring digestive health.

Spring has finally arrived!  I don’t usually find myself waiting until the end of May to say this, but I think the snows are finally behind us, and the garden is planted.  Now that the weather has warmed somewhat, our bodies are also starting to warm and be ready for the exercise and outdoor activities of summer.  In addition to getting our bodies into ideal shape for the summer through exercise, we can also help to boost vitality through cleansing.  For more information on what spring cleaning and detoxification is, you can look at my article “What is Detoxification?” from last spring. There are many detoxification protocols out there, and finding the right one will depend on your constitution, health status, and commitment to the program.  However, an easy first step is to start incorporating detoxifying foods into each meal using the basic theory of detoxification: improve elimination of waste through optimizing the function of the digestive tract, urinary tract, skin and liver.  Here is a list of my top ten favorites:

 

10. Garlic

Garlic can help to reduce blood triglycerides and improve circulation and sweating to remove wastes via the skin. It also helps stimulate digestion.

9.  Apples

Apples are a great source of insoluble and soluble fibers.  The insoluble fiber helps to move waste through the digestive tract. When cooked, the pectins found in apples help to absorb excess cholesterol, delay absorption of sugars into the bloodstream, and bulk the stool.

8.  Dandelion Greens

Dandelion greens, which are commercially available in many areas, act as a diuretic to help remove wastes through the urine.  The beauty of dandelion greens is that they also replace any minerals lost through the process of diuresis.

7.  Sweet Potato

Sweet potatoes are thought of as one of the least allergenic foods available.  Unless you have an intolerance to all carbohydrate, sweet potatoes are a good source of lower glycemic carbohyrates that help to soothe the digestive tract and decrease inflammation.

6.  Cilantro

Cilantro and its seed coriander are calming to the digestion and help to dispel gas.  Cilantro also helps to convert blood cholesterols into bile which can aid in reducing blood cholesterol levels.  Cilantro extracts have also been shown to remove mercury from a water solution, so there is speculation about whether cilantro could aid in mercury detoxification when consumed.

5.  Seaweed

Hijiki, Wakame, and Kombu (all types of seaweed) have all been shown to increase breakdown of fats in the body.  Seaweeds are also a good source of iodine, which is necessary for proper thyroid function.  These two actions together help to boost metabolism and removal of excess fats from the system.  Traditional Chinese Medicine also regards seaweed as a detoxifier which mobilizes heavy metals and turns them into inorganic salts that can easily be excreted through the urine.

4.  Lemon

Lemon and lemon juice are wonderfully bitter and sour.  Taken especially before meals, they help to start the digestive process early, which makes the digestive absorb nutrients and eliminate wastes more effectively.

3.  Kale

Kale and other members of the cabbage family contain indoles, which help the body metabolize and remove excess steroid hormones such as estrogen. Members of this family have also been found to repair damage to the liver.  Kale is also high in fiber and chlorophyll to increase energy and optimize digestion.

2.  Flax

Flaxseed is high in omega 3 fatty acids, which help to balance cholesterol and reduce inflammation.  Even more important for detoxification though is the high concentration of soluble fibers that help to trap excess fats and cholesterol, bulk the stool, and ensure effective elimination of waste via the digestive tract.

1.  Beets

There is extensive research supporting the protective and regenerative effect of beets on the cells of the liver.  This effect has even been seen with molasses derived from sugar beets.  The pigments in beets have also been shown to have a protective effect against the formation of cancer cells. Beets are also great for assisting with effective waste elimination through the bowels.

Congee Takes Away the Chill of Winter

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In my first year of medical school, I had a delightful roommate who was of Vietnamese descent, born in China, and raised in her family’s restaurant in San Jose, California.  Lucky for me, she was a wealth of food knowledge and was happy to share.  From her, I learned about sticky rice steamed in banana leaf, hot pot, geoduck, how to efficiently dispatch a live crab in the kitchen sink, and the magic of congee.

During the winter, the body craves warming foods that provide optimal, easy to assimilate nutrition.  In Chinese medicine, there is a concept called “digestive fire”, which roughly equates to your body’s ability to break down food and absorb it properly.  The bigger the fire, the better you can digest.  I like the metaphor of fire because it seems to parallel how our bodies generally are able to digest:  in the summer when the weather is warm, we can break down much more complex foods and do better with raw fruits and vegetables.  In the winter, we lack that external heat source and so we must apply heat to our foods to assist our digestive fire. Congee is the ultimate digestive assistant.

So what is congee?  Well, more than a specific recipe, congee is more of a concept.  The basic rule of making congee is you take a pulse (most often rice, but millet, wheat, barley, sorghum, mung beans, or other grains or legumes can be used), add a high proportion of water, and cook it for a long time over low heat.  Congee is a traditional food all over Asia, India, and even Portugal, and has historically been viewed as a medicinal food in all of these cultures.  Depending on taste preference, regional specialty, and the specific medicinal quality desired, other foods, herbs, and spices are added.  It can be served for any meal, and depending on your preference can be served sweet or savory.  Many Indian congees are served with milk and jaggery (palm sugar) but many Asian congees contain meats, pickled vegetables, ginger, eggs or crispy fried onions. (for more information, Wikipedia gives a great description of traditional congees across the world).

In my practice, I often recommend making congee as a winter food to bolster nutrition.  However, it is an especially good food for people who are recovering from extended illness or have significant digestive problems.  For patients who seem to “get sick no matter what I eat”, congee is a great place to start.  In people who are needing the simplest, easiest nutrition possible, white rice congee is appropriate. If your digestion is rather intact, brown rice should be fine.

In his book Healing with Whole Foods Paul Pitchford talks about many foods that can be added to congee to boost its healing properties.  A few of the most useful options I’ve found are: Using chicken or mutton broth instead of water is recommended for wasting illnesses and injuries, and duck or fish broth are supposed to relieve swelling. Ginger is warming to the organs and improves digestive function.  Fennel and black pepper also assist in reducing gas and improve digestion. Brown rice is good for nursing mothers and general nutrition, while sweet rice is more specific for recovering from digestive illnesses.

Chicken and Ginger Congee
Use bone-in chicken for this recipe.  The skin, bones, and connective tissue are rich in hyaluronic acid, chondroitin, and other building blocks of a healthy digestive tract and properly functioning immune system.

1 cup rice
2-inch piece of fresh ginger root, sliced thinly
1 chicken cut into parts
1 onion or 2 shallots, thinly sliced
6 cups water
1 tsp salt
soy sauce, sesame oil, and cilantro for serving

8-10 hours before eating, place rice, ginger, chicken, onion, and water into a large soup pot on low heat or ideally a slow cooker on low. When you come back 8-10 hours later, you should have a thick porridge.  Remove chicken parts from the porridge.  Remove the skin, then remove the meat from the bones and shred.  Skim the top of the porridge if necessary.  Ladle porridge into bowls and top with shredded chicken.  Garnish with soy sauce, sesame oil, and cilantro to taste.

Inspiration to Cook Seasonally in January?

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What’s for dinner? Now that January is here, it’s getting a little less exciting figuring out what to eat.  We are firmly sandwiched between the festive excesses of December and the first exciting green things to emerge in March.  Additionally, many of us (myself included) are starting to long for a bit of “spring cleaning” after all the heavy foods of the holiday season.  However, despite our crazy see-saw we call Colorado weather, when it comes down to it, January is just a cold month.  With this in mind, true detoxification must be put off until our bodies are warmed enough from the outside world to feel good with the cooling action of cleansing foods (aka, you gotta wait a couple of months).

So, we have to find a way to feed ourselves in a way that is consistent with the season but respects our need for simpler, more wholesome foods.  If you take a look at my article from last year about the basic principles of supporting the body through food for the winter, there are three primary goals: Keep blood sugar balanced, support the endocrine system, and eat foods with bountiful stored energy.  Keeping this in mind, we can easily cut back on rich, refined foods while honoring the body’s need for nutrient density.  Here’s a few tips for jazzing things up a bit in the kitchen during the January lull:

Try Something New
This, of course, is a handy state of mind no matter what time of the year you’re cooking.  However, there are many ways to add variety by experimenting with different members of familiar families of foods.  For example, try out kabocha squash instead of butternut, mung beans instead of black beans, or a new kind of leafy green instead of spinach again.  Last week, my local grocery had a giant pile of a leafy green they called chicory.  Despite the checkers’ inability to even locate a PLU code for it, I brought it home and found some amazing italian recipes (thanks to Mario Batali) for this nutty, escarole-like green. It can also be exciting to discover a new way of preparing basic foods by exploring other culinary traditions.

Make a Kitchen Garden
There’s not many fresh fruits and veggies coming out the garden these days, but you can bring a little excitement to the table by growing something small in your kitchen window.  Herbs will do well in a pot in a window with good light, or you can use something like an aerogarden to grow vigorous greens, herbs, and even tomatoes.  My father gave me a grow-your-own oyster mushroom kit this year for my birthday, the picture above shows the unexpected and delicious meal that came of it.

Use Your Kitchen Tools
For the time-limited, cooking winter foods can be challenging because often they require extensive cooking times.  A good pressure cooker can cook beets in 10-12 minutes, a pot of dry beans in 20 minutes, or chicken soup from scratch in 25 minutes.  On the opposite end, a crock pot is a super handy way to spend just a few minutes in the morning and come home to a wonderful, rich and warming dinner.  A rice cooker is also a handy way to produce a side dish with minimal thought or effort.

Keep it Simple
Remember the basics:  vegetable, protein, starch.  In the winter it is important to focus on blood sugar supporting foods, so for starches stick to sweet potatoes, winter squash, beans, and whole grains such as quinoa, buckwheat and brown rice.  Choose veggies that are in season and look good in the store; deep green veggies such as broccoli, sea vegetables, or leafy greens are going to be high in minerals that support the endocrine system.  Make sure protein sources are high quality and responsibly raised. Generally, if you can get something from each category on the table you will be doing well to nourish yourself and your family without a lot of fuss.

Enjoy!

Garlic to Prevent and Treat Colds and Flu

This Year’s Harvest

It’s garlic planting season again.  It catches me by surprise every year because I’m just simply not in planting mode in mid-October.  Which means that every year in February I’m out there trying to hack a hole in the frozen ground to plant some garlic, realize that’s a dumb idea, and then go back to it in late March.  This year I added to the dumbness by trying to mulch my garlic (embedded in half frozen ground) with hay rather than straw (in case you don’t know the difference, hay has seeds in it, straw does not) which meant I spent the entire spring and summer pulling grass out of my garlic patch.  And then when I pull the garlic up in October as I did last week it’s very nice but not as large as I was hoping for.  So this year I’m making a Halloween resolution to plant garlic this month, and perhaps scare away some vampires for good measure.

Why do we love garlic? Let me count the ways.  Garlic has been researched for its health promoting properties to regulate blood sugar, blood lipids, and even treat cancer, in addition to being an indispensable addition to almost everything I cook.  Today, however, I am going to focus on its role in preventing and treating infections.

As I’ve mentioned before, a primary health focus for the autumn months is immunity, and this year colds, flus, tonsillitis and all their buddies all seem to be starting up earlier than ever.  When fighting viruses such as cold and flu, garlic has been shown to help prevent these illnesses.  When taken internally (aka eaten), garlic activates immune cells called T cells and NK cells to help the body fight off viruses before we get sick.  The primary active constituents that help garlic be such a powerful immune booster are called alliin and allicin; these are also the source of garlic’s pungent and wonderful scent.  Alliin is enzymatically converted to allicin when garlic is crushed or chopped so swallowing whole cloves won’t do you as much good.

Garlic has also been shown to kill bacteria and fungi, which can be useful for strep and other forms of tonsillitis.  In open wounds, garlic helps to prevent the formation of what are called biofilms.  Biofilms are a handy little trick that bacteria have of banding together to make a wall around themselves and prevent our immune cells or antimicrobial agents from getting in–sort of like bacterial armor. Because it can prevent this, garlic applied topically can prevent a wound from getting infected.

In Chinese medicine, garlic is seen as a very hot herb; it gets your circulation moving and boosts your temperature to more effectively fight and get rid of bugs.  Generally in this tradition garlic is not recommended for kids to eat every day because they are so warm to begin with.  However, garlic is seen as a wonderful medicine for children with colds and flu.  In his book Healing with Whole Foods Paul Pitchford recommends making a sandwich out of thin slices of apple with a slice of garlic between to help prevent and treat colds for kids.

Because of this quality of heating the body and helping to move illness out of the system, garlic can also be used to treat coughs, particularly those that have settled in and been hanging around for too long.  One of my mentors Bill Mitchell, ND specifically used it for  “excessive, irritating, and persistant coughs.” His prescription in this case is to chop 2 cloves and swallow them in a slug of water four times per day for an adult.  This would be sure to exorcise any cough, demon, or vampire without fail.

With this in mind, get out there and celebrate at your local garlic festival, make a batch of pesto, or roast a head to spread on some crackers with brie.  Your immune system will thank you for it.  As for me, I will be in the garden digging and planning for next year’s harvest.

Health Benefits of Pickles

PIckle Night!

Pickle NIght!

Pickling is one of my family’s favorite yearly traditions.  It has been going on since my family came to Denver in the early 1900’s and I suspect long before they immigrated from Eastern Europe.  I can’t recall a meal growing up where meat was served without a pickle to accompany it.  I know it was much more commonplace in the past: there is a famous story of a family friend who used to hold a contest to see who was making the best pickles in the neighborhood.  He, of course, was the judge, and in the end I don’t know if he ever awarded any prizes, he mostly just ate everyone’s pickles.  The point is, at that time just about everyone on the block was making their family’s brand of homemade pickle.

Today, we still get together with my folks once a year and make enough pickles to supply our own pantries, give as gifts to friends, and serve as a favorite side dish at celebrations with the extended family.  Although this is a bit of a novelty in our contemporary culture, pickles have played an important role in many culinary traditions.  From German sauerkraut to Korean kimchee, pickled foods have added an extra zip to food and have historically been a handy way to bring a bit of summer into the winter months.  What we are also finding today is that pickled foods are also important for health reasons.

The health promoting aspect of pickled foods lies in the pickling process itself.  Today, much of what we find in the store that is labeled a “pickle” is actually preserved in vinegar.  A natural pickle, however, is generally placed in a salt brine and allowed to ferment.  This process is called lactic acid fermentation.  What happens during this process is lactic acid producing bacteria (generally in the lactobacillus family, which included our good friend l. acidophilus) “eat” the sugars in the cucumbers and turn them into energy and lactate.  We know this is happening properly when we go to open the jar (always over the sink!) and it starts bubbling–this is the moment when my dad shouts “It’s working mom! It’s working!”  From a chemistry standpoint, this process increases the acidity of the brine and kills any pathogenic bacteria that may be present.  From a culinary standpoint, this results is a tangy, probiotic-infused vessel of crunchy deliciousness.

In our family, there are several other important ingredients in pickle making, all of which play a role in making a delicious and healthy food.  Fresh dill is what is called a carminative, which means it helps to dispel intestinal gas.  The spices in pickling spice, including allspice, cinnamon, cloves, and black pepper, are also digestive aids.  Garlic is antimicrobial which helps to insure that the “bad” bacteria don’t get a chance to culture.  The result is a product that helps to break down heavy foods, dispel gas, and provide probiotic cultures to insure healthy elimination.

In today’s grocery stores, particularly those geared towards natural foods, there are more and more natural pickle options.  They will provide the benefits listed above and will probably taste pretty darn good.  However, they tend to be rather expensive; I’ve seen as high as $15 per jar, which makes them a bit cost prohibitive.  My recommendation is to pull out that ancient copy of The Joy of Cooking (or do a little internet search) and make your own! Start a new family tradition in your kitchen today!

picking peaches

Oh how I love summer vacation.  We just returned from a week at the “beach”–in Colorado, this means a chilly, snowmelt-fed reservoir at 8000 feet with a rocky shore, but it still qualified to fulfill my dream of a leisurely week of swimsuits and barbeques with my family.  On the way home, we decided to take a detour to the land of peach orchards in Paonia, Colorado.  It took a bit longer than I expected, when my Google map told me 200 miles, I thought “great, 3 hours” without remembering to take into account high mountain passes with winding descents, torrential rain, hail, and small children who need to do things like pee and have lunch.  So, pulling into town at 5pm on Friday seeing farm stands boarded up for the night, I wasn’t hopeful that my peach picking fantasy would come to fruition.

Fortunately, the nice folks at Austin Farm picked up the phone when we called and told us to come by. When we arrived, we got to hop on the back of a golf cart and take a tour of the farm:  apples, peaches, plums, nectarines, chickens, blackberries, cows, and bees, with detailed descriptions of natural farming techniques and grafting to develop new fruit varieties.  The orchards were beautiful and the kids loved getting to pick their own fruit, feed the calf, and watch the magic trick of breaking an apple exactly in half with your bare hands.

I’m not writing about peaches today because I love peaches.  I do love peaches of course, especially right from the tree; a soft, juicy, fragrant peach is really unparalleled in the world of fruit.  However, from a health perspective what is so much more important than the peaches is the experience of going to meet them where they grow.  What is the difference between a peach you picked yourself and one you picked off the pile at the grocery store?  There are the obvious things:  a peach at the store had to be picked a bit early so it would ship well, not squish when it’s stacked in a pile, and not mold within a day of the store receiving it.  A tree ripened peach won’t do any of those things, but the flavor and texture will be far superior.  Also, the peaches sent to the store will all look perfect; the best peach I ate at the farm had a large hole in it because it had grown so large and soft it punctured itself on the branch.  Beyond this, however, is the understanding of where the food comes from and the gratitude for the food that comes from this awareness that is also a fundamental factor in eating to be healthy.

In this culture, the things that make us sick are wildly different from any society in the past.  While we still have infectious diseases and malnutrition, by and large our illnesses are chronic and based on lifestyle.  That is, we don’t nourish ourselves properly and we don’t move enough.  I say we don’t nourish ourselves properly because the problem is more than just eating too much.  In my practice, I also see many people who eat too little or just eat in a way that does not support health.  I see the issue not as as a lack of willpower or gluttony, it’s more just being disconnected from our food.  Eating isn’t just something we do out of habit, because our stomachs rumble, for comfort or to be social, it is (or should be) an act of nourishing the body.

Eating to be healthy is so much more than counting calories and analyzing nutrient content.  It’s even more than getting the freshest, most responsibly raised seasonal foods.  Healthy eating is about recognizing how the earth provides the energy to sustain us and help us grow.  To truly appreciate what we eat, we must get closer to our food sources so we can appreciate the miraculous event that occurs when water, sunlight and dirt work together.  When we don’t understand where our food comes from and how it is produced, it is easy to lose track of the fact that it is (or was) a living thing; when we eat something we use its energy to fuel our own bodies.  When we frame the act of eating in this way, it is so much easier to remember to eat intentionally. Just sitting down to eat and remembering to be thankful for our food helps us digest and utilize food more efficiently and make better choices.  This can be done regardless of if you’re eating the world’s most divine peach right from the tree or a snickers bar from the gas station.

Though I would highly recommend the peach.

The Medicinal Value of Culinary Herbs (With a recipe for Tummy Soother Sleep Tea)

One of my favorite ways to help people connect with nature and health is to take them out on medicinal herb walks.  Often, as we walk around in a wild space, someone will point to something and say “is that an herb or a weed?”  Well, the difference is really just semantics: when we decide that a plant is valuable to us personally, we call it an herb.  When we decide we don’t like it, it’s in the way of something else we’d prefer to have in that spot, or we just don’t know what to do with it, it’s a weed.

The dividing line between medicinal and culinary herbs can also often be thin.  On a broad level, the differences are obvious: medicinal herbs serve a health promoting purpose and culinary herbs taste good.  Also, many medicinal herbs have potential toxicity so they must be taken in specific dosages to avoid causing problems.  However, on the other hand many culinary herbs have potent medicinal properties of which we are often unaware.  Often these herbs are dried, concentrated, or distilled to create medicines, but they also have value fresh from your backyard or the fridge.

For many culinary herbs, they are medicinal for the same reason that they are delicious.  Their flavoring properties come from volatile oils contained in the seeds or foliage of the plant.  Those oils can also be medicinal.  Oregano and thyme oils are quite good at killing yeasts, and lavender and garlic are useful for killing bacteria.  Rosemary oil has been found to be an excellent antioxidant and is actually used as a preservative in many natural foods.

Beyond this, we can find that almost all of our common culinary herbs can be of use to promote health.  Mint and lemon balm teas are quite good for soothing an upset stomach, and fennel is quite good at helping to dispel gas.  Parsley (most often the root) has traditionally been used to promote kidney health.  Cilantro is an excellent adjunct to a detoxification regimen as it helps to move toxins from the body.  And sorrel is a very cooling plant that can be eaten to reduce a fever (raspberries and mushrooms are good for this as well)!

Every parent is a nurse and a doctor at some point and it always helps to have some tricks up your sleeve when a little one is feeling yucky.  The recipe below is handy for babies, kids, and adults with a colicky or upset tummy and helps to promote restful sleep through the night.

Soothing Tummy Sleep Tea

In a glass jar, combine equal parts (start with ¼ oz or 3 Tbsp of each):
Peppermint
Lemon balm
Chamomile
Lavender
Put 1 tsp of the mixture in a tea ball or bag.  Pour 1 cup boiled water over the tea, steep 5-8 minutes (you don’t need to take the tea ball out when it’s done steeping).  For adults and kids over 12 months, add 1 tsp honey.  For babies over 4 months, add 1 oz apple juice and give them 1-2 oz of the mixture  in a bottle (can combine with breast milk or other milk without the sweetener).

Transitioning into Summer Eating

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As summer quickly approaches, we are naturally falling into a new rhythm as a family.  Mealtime has moved from the kitchen out to the deck.  Later sunsets mean bike riding into the evening hours and thus dinner and bedtime have been pushed back.  And it’s getting hot in the house which means we have started to minimize our indoor cooking activities.  On days that hit 95, we have a no indoor cooking rule, which means the rice cooker gets plugged in out on the deck, the grill gets fired up, and anything else we eat will be raw.

When the weather gets warmer, our bodies do not have to work so hard to maintain warmth.  The heavy, cooked foods of winter are unnecessary; we are able to break down and absorb less processed foods more easily during the summer.  In chinese medicine, this is called “digestive fire”. The stronger our digestive fire, the more efficiently our digestive tract will work.  When the body does not have to put energy into warming itself, there is more energy available for digestion.  For this reason, raw and lightly cooked foods become easier to utilize during the summer.

In addition to this, we are starting to get some of the fun stuff out of the garden (or farmer’s market, or even local delights from the supermarket).  When the produce is local and fresh the nutrition contained in these foods will be optimal.  Especially during June, the produce available here in Colorado tends to be of the “get to it quick!” variety.  We are harvesting peas, strawberries, lettuce, chard, and fresh herbs from the backyard right now.  These are not storage vegetables; I find that even overnight in the fridge significantly diminishes the quality of these foods. What we see with our eyes and feel with our tongues is true; nutrient content will plummet the more we wait or cook any of these foods. My recommendation is straight from the garden to your mouth with as little fussing as possible in between!

Enjoy moving into the bounty of summer.  The veggies are fresh, our bodies are ready, so get out the wooden bowl and get ready for salad time!