Kaycie Rosen - ND's blog
Hooray for March! My favorite bipolar season. In the past week we’ve had powder days at the ski resorts, hot days of rock climbing in shorts and a t-shirt, rain, sleet, and a foot of snow in my front yard. We have been lucky and mother nature has been giving us some moisture in the past couple of months, so the garden is starting to awaken. After the snow melted away this weekend, we discovered the garlic I planted in November is starting to poke out some green shoots. This means it’s time to start thinking about planting.
I almost don’t need to even mention the health benefits of gardening. Aside from getting the freshest, most nutrient packed foods that are grown exactly to your standards, gardening deepens our awareness of what’s in season (and consequently what foods are best for our bodies). Having the kids help also encourages them to eat more fresh fruits and veggies and teaches them about where our food comes from.
If you haven’t done a lot of gardening, you live in a place with limited space, or you don’t have a lot of free time to spend in the dirt, here’s a quick list of things to try to optimize your production this year, plus a reminder of what you should be doing right now:
Plants with the best effort/output ratio:
Cherry tomatoes--these can be successful from indoor sprouting, buying a plant from the store, or direct seeding to a pot or garden. Sun Golds are our family favorite for flavor and abundance.
radishes--Very satisfying for the impatient gardener. Generally you can go from seed to salad in about 3 weeks
zucchini--if you have some room in the garden and a good water supply, zucchini wins for easy to grow and maximum poundage.
peas--if you have a place to trellis, peas are my kids’ favorite for direct snacking from the garden.
kale--One or two kale plants usually keeps my family eating greens (and kale chips!) from late may to late November.
Plants that are best for limited space:
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.
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.
I learned my lesson this year when it comes to hydration. As I wrote about last month, we did our first long bike tour this summer: The Courage Classic. The first day of the classic this year we started in Leadville, looped around Turquoise lake then rode up to Fremont pass before descending to Copper Mountain resort. The first 15 miles or so around the lake were beautiful and exciting with steep, winding ascents and descents. The next 18 miles up to the pass was a steady climb with a steep finish. I knew as I started the final climb up to the pass that I was feeling slower and slower, and when I finally reached the pass I was ready for a snack. Over the past 3 ½ hours I had drained my large bike water bottle, perhaps 25 oz or so, plus 4 or 5 oz at one of the aid stations.
At the aid station atop Fremont pass, I got off my bike and found a snack--a crustless pre-manufactured white bread pb&j in a plastic wrapper. Under the circumstances, absolutely delicious! I took a couple sips of water then went to chat for a moment with someone from my team. We gave high fives, said good job, I smiled and turned away. As I turned, I noticed that all the muscles in my face had frozen into place. It occurred to me at that moment that perhaps I had not properly prepared with water and electrolytes for the race. I forced my cheeks out of their joker-mask configuration and got back on the bike.
The rest of the day was good, I had a fun screaming fast ride down into Copper Mountain and all was well; but I paid for it with a doozy of a headache for the rest of the day. I also know my performance and fatigue was seriously affected by my dehydration. The next day I doubled the water consumption, rode faster, and wasn’t tired at the end of a similar ride.
The answer, of course, is that every person has different needs, so it is important to find a calcium supplement that is right for you. For anyone taking Calcium, I recommend balancing it with Magnesium, Boron, and Vitamin D, as all of these are critical for healthy bones. Many people also find Calcium to be constipating; Magnesium tends to help things move along so a supplement containing both can be beneficial to the digestion.
Although there are many Calcium supplements out there, I carry three basic types of Calcium ath the Golden Naturopathic Clinic. Liquid Calcium Magnesium is what I use most often because it is easy to take and easy for the body to absorb. In addition to bone health benefits, this formula can help with constipation, muscle cramping and can improve the quality of sleep. For this reason I usually recommend taking this at night before bed. For people with greater severity of these symptoms, I will often use a formula with equal parts Magnesium and Calcium; otherwise there is a formula with equal parts of these minerals.
Cal-Mag Chela Max is a chelated formula that is very easy to break down and absorb. It is formulated specifically for people who have difficulty taking other calcium supplements because they irritate their digestive tract.
For people with osteopenia or osteoporosis, I use a formula called Osteoprime. This formula contains Strontium, the only mineral found to help replace bone rather than just prevent further bone loss. Osteoprime also has a full complement of Vitamins and Minerals so it can substitute for your regular multi.
If you are wondering how much Calcium you need, this will vary somewhat based on your individual needs. Pregnant, lactating, and postmenopausal women, for example will have greater Calcium needs than other adults. That said, shooting for somewhere between 1000 and 1200mg/day is a good rule of thumb.
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.
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!
I admit I have found it a bit of a challenge to sit down and write this week--it’s May 15th! Here in Colorado, this mystical date is what we call “last average frost”. In our house, this means turn over the soil in the garden, plant the squash and corn seed, transplant all the tomato, cucumber, eggplant, fennel and jalapeno sprouts we started back in March out to the garden, and put flowers in all the pots out front. To us, this is the real beginning of summer.
This year is particularly exciting because we are starting to see some of the fruits of previous years’ labors arrive. Fruit trees we planted 4 years ago are starting to put on their first apples, plums and pears. Strawberries, raspberries, grapes, rhubarb and asparagus are returning in quantities ample for harvest this year. And the drip system we laid last year is watering away without much hassle. It’s still a fair bit of work and time, but we are starting to get into a rhythm.
Gardening has been wonderful for the health of my family. There are the obvious reasons: the produce is fresh and seasonal. We know exactly what went into growing these plants, including the compost from our backyard tumbler. There are no yucky chemicals to worry about washing off the food. Also, the kids are so much more enthusiastic to eat something they planted themselves; tonight my kids wolfed down a bowlful of radishes they picked, which is not your usual 2 and 3-year old fare!
There are more subtle reasons the garden is good for our family health as well. It is an ongoing project we all get to do together. We all have our own gardening bag with gloves and tools, so going out there is shared quality time. We all get to learn together about how our backyard ecosystem works: butterflies and bees are pollinators, spiders and ladybugs eat aphids, and worms aerate and feed our soil. It gives us a better understanding of where our food comes from and what is available in each season of the year.
Growing up in Boulder, Colorado, I was exposed to much that has gone through the world of “health food” in the past 35 years. From the days of the small local co-op (the smell of comingled bulk grains, greens, and patchouli still feels like home to me), through the advent of larger stores such as Wild Oats and Alfalfa’s (where the milk is dairy free!), and into the more recent years of much larger, corporate, sparkly beautiful and expensive stores where you can find just about anything under the sun, there has clearly been a revolution in how we view and value natural foods in this country.
One of the most beautiful aspects of this revolution is that those foods that used to be an adventure to locate are now coming home to my local conventional grocery store. When I started naturopathic medical school in 1999, gluten free grains such as quinoa, millet, and buckwheat were relegated to the bulk bin at the co-op, and gf bread was usually a sort of dense brick-like affair that required many condiments to choke down and crumbled into dust within a few hours of purchase. I had several celiac patients who flat out refused to change their diet because they just couldn’t live with the thought of eating that way for the rest of their lives, regardless of how bad they felt. Today, there are so many good tasting gluten free alternatives, ranging from pastas to breads to pizzas, cookies and more, most of which are easily located at my local supermarket (I’m in Golden, CO now, but this is true in much of the country).
During the springtime we focus on setting the stage for good absorption and low inflammation. For kids and adults, much of this will include some sort of spring cleaning. However, for infants, we focus simply on developing a healthy digestive tract and giving optimal nutrition. Many parents ask me for information about when to start infants on different types of foods. The needs of each infant will vary somewhat; however, the following is a guideline for food introduction and timing.
A good rule of thumb is to wait until baby seems very interested in what you’re eating—reaches for the spoon or food etc. Baby spends his or her last months in the womb storing iron to use in the first few months of life because milk is a poor source of iron. For this reason, many of the first foods listed are higher in iron. Rice cereal is often recommended as a first food; this is not necessarily a problem but it tends to be somewhat lower in nutrients and can be quite constipating so in this chart isn’t recommended until 7-8 months. Remember, at the beginning foods are more something to explore rather than a source of nutrition; let baby experiment and see what he or she likes.
At first, food should of course be pureed—a stick blender is a wonderful tool for this job! Over time, though, baby may start to prefer food cut in small pieces (and soft!) that he or she can feed herself. Some babies will quickly tire of the texture of pureed food. Baby food in jars can be very handy in a pinch, but it is much more economical (and tastes better!) to make your own and freeze it in larger quantities. When choosing jarred food, keep in mind whether you would want to eat it yourself—if the food is a nice color and tastes like the food (aka carrots should taste like carrots and be orange!) then baby is more likely to enjoy it.