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Tips to Strengthen and Stabilize Your Digestion (the Earth Element)

October 1, 2015
Pumpkin (Winter Squash) excellent for digestion@

Happy October! I hope everyone is having a great week! I’ve been focusing on our digestion and how the spleen-pancreas and stomach work together to digest and transform what we eat into usable energy (i.e., qi, blood, and fluids – read here and here to review these concepts). Our digestive systems thrive on an intricate balance between extremes. In order for plants to grow and thrive, the earth that nourishes them cannot be too wet or too dry, too hot or too cold. Our digestion works on the same principle. A healthy digestive system has just enough fluid and enzymes to digest properly (it is not too damp/wet or too dry). Our stomachs are the strongest when its internal environment is not too cold or too hot. Like the late summer season and the earth element, our digestion represents being balanced and centered. So what do we do when our digestion goes out of balance? Here are some tips to strengthen and stabilize your digestion.

1) Healthy eating habits = healthy digestion

Our digestive systems become weak with poor eating habits. Eating too quickly, skipping meals, eating too late at night, overeating, eating too many rich or sweet foods, eating when you are angry or stressed, and eating with people you don’t like, all contribute to poor digestion. If you are guilty of any of these habits, the best way to begin healthier eating habits is to first set regular times of the day to eat, make sure to chew your food enough for easier assimilation, and eat food that is at least moderately well-cooked (not too raw and too overcooked).

2) Eat warm foods (thermal nature and temperature wise)

Foods that strengthen digestion are generally either warming or neutral in thermal nature. Cold foods and food cold in temperature weaken digestion. The rule of thumb is to choose foods that are not too warming or too cooling but in between and balanced in nature. Are you getting the theme here? Balance, balance, balance!!!

The spleen-pancreas doesn’t like the cold. Foods that are cold in temperature (raw and chilled foods) weaken digestion (i.e., cold foods “extinguish [or put out] digestive fire”) requiring more digestive energy to secrete enzymes and absorb nutrients. The raw food diet is not for everyone. If your digestion is weak, it’s best to moderately warm/cook food to make digestion easier. Be careful not to overcook as this can leech out nutrients. Also, drinking iced drinks expands the stomach, and if done chronically, will injure the digestive system in the long run.

3) Eat sweet flavored foods

Foods with sweet flavor (review The Five Flavors here)  strengthen digestion. I am talking about full sweet (real whole foods) and not empty sweets (e.g, refined foods usually full of sugar like cookies, cake, ice cream, candy, etc). The sweet flavor is abundant in our foods because it is the core or central food for our bodies and digestion.

  • Begin with complex carbohydrates – Carbohydrate rich vegetables include winter squash (pumpkin, butternut, acorn, spaghetti to name a few), carrots, rutabaga, parsnip, turnips, garbanzo beans, black beans, peas, sweet potato, and yams. Avoid simple carbohydrates such as sugar, refined grains, flour, pasta, and white rice. Simple carbs are the carbs you want to “cut”, as they break down fast in the body, causing blood sugar spikes. The more complex the carb, the slower it takes the body to breakdown, which helps to stabilize blood sugar.
  • Whole grains all have a sweet flavor. Again, eat grains that are neutral or warming in thermal nature such as buckwheat, rice (long grain, short grain, black, brown, or red rice), quinoa, millet, spelt and amaranth.
  • Root vegetables are neutral to warming in nature and very sweet like beets, carrots, parsnips, yams, sweet potatoes, and potatoes. Some are also complex carbs also mentioned above.
  • Lentils and legumes (all beans and peas included) are sweet and complex carbohydrates.
  • Whole fruit are full sweets with varying degrees of sour and bitter (as opposed to fruit juices which tend to be more empty sweet without intact fiber). Most fruits are more cooling to neutral in nature. Peaches are slightly more warming. Berries tend to be sweet and sour (which is also good for the liver), while apples are sweet and slightly sour, and bananas are sweet.
  • Add small amounts of sweeteners and cooked fruits like barley malt, molasses, cherries, and dates to help stimulate digestion.
  • Meats, (yes meat!) are sweet and most have a warming thermal nature. Use beef chicken, turkey or lamb, with minimal seasoning in soup or congee (rice and water) especially if you are having GI issues (nausea, vomiting, diarrhea). This helps to soothe digestion. Always remember to chew meat more thoroughly to aid digestion. Seafood such as mackerel, tuna, halibut and anchovies are also good sweet sources of protein.
  • Nuts and seeds are all sweet and neutral to warming in nature. They are also very good for heart health (review here).

3) Use pungent vegetables and spices moderately in your diet

Add onion, leek, black pepper, ginger, cinnamon, fennel, garlic, and nutmeg in your dishes. The pungent veggies all have a warming thermal nature that warms the stomach, strengthens digestion, and clears phlegm. You will see a lot of Chinese restaurants use garlic and ginger with their green vegetable dishes to balance out the cold of the veggies. The key word is use them moderately.

  • Warming pungents include onions, cabbage, brussel sprouts, mustard greens, bell peppers and spices like lavender, rosemary, oregano, basil, tarragon, and sage.
  • Some root veggies are neutral pungents like sweet potato, taro, and turnips.
  • Garlic and horseradish are hot so use sparingly as the stomach doesn’t like to be too hot or dry. Limit hot and spicy foods as well.

4) Avoid damp and phlegm forming foods

As mentioned before too much raw, cold, sweet, or mucus-forming foods cause dampness. Excess raw food including too much raw fruits, veggies, sprouts, and juices can cause a thin, watery mucus or dampness. Too much cold food (in temperature) will have a similar effect. Food should normally be room temp or warmer.

Other factors that increase dampness in the body:

  • Highly refined/processed or chemically treated foods
  • Too many ingredients in a meal (poor food combining)
  • Late-night eating and overeating
  • Foods that cause dampness and form phlegm include anything with refined sugar, refined carbohydrates, excess gluten, dairy products, cheese, greasy and fried foods. Damp foods cause the digestive system to be sluggish and slow. Too much dampness in the system also affects our minds, causing decreased mental clarity.

Foods that can dry dampness include rye, amaranth, corn, aduki beans, celery, lettuce, pumpkin, scallion, alfalfa, turnip, kolhrabi, white pepper, and raw honey. The one dairy product that will not usually contribute to dampness in the body is raw goat’s milk.

5) Exercise

The digestive system and earth element do not like to be inactive. In fact, inactivity will injure digestion in the long run. Keep active and moving so that your digestion keeps active and moving. Tailor your exercise regimen to fit your needs. Whether you like walking, jogging, swimming, kick-boxing, dancing, yoga, or sports, staying active will ensure your digestion is in good shape!

6) Supplement yourself

One of my must-have daily supplements is an effective pro-biotic to ensure the healthy flora (bacteria) of your digestive system is is not deficient. This is not only important for digestion but your immune health as well. Digestive enzymes may also be necessary for those who tend to have weaker digestive systems. I will focus more on digestive supplements in later posts.

Have a great weekend!

In health and wellness,

Dr Elain

References:

Healing with Whole Foods by Paul Pitchford
The New Whole Foods Encyclopedia by Rebecca Wood

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Baby Nutrition, Health for the Body, Men's Health, Supplements, Women's Health

Vitamin D – The Sunshine Vitamin

March 27, 2015
Sunshine and Vitamin D

One of the most important supplements I take is Vitamin D. Ideally, we should be getting Vitamin D from the sun. Realistically, most of us are indoors all day and do not soak up nearly the amount of sun we need to make enough Vitamin D.

Why is Vitamin D so important?

Vitamin D is actually a misnomer, because it is not a vitamin, but, in fact, a fat-soluble steroid hormone obtained from sun exposure, the foods we eat, and supplementation.

A few of its vital roles include:

  • absorption of calcium to promote strong bones and teeth
  • regulation of the neuromuscular system for muscle control
  • regulation of the immune system to fight infection
  • support of the cardiovascular system for heart function and circulation
  • support of the respiratory system for lung function
  • aiding brain development
  • anti-cancer effects

Recent studies have shown that Vitamin D deficiency has been linked to breast cancer, colon cancer, prostate cancer, heart disease, weight gain, and inflammation as well as Type 2 Diabetes and emotional disorders such as depression, dementia, and Alzheimer’s. It was found that people with higher levels of Vitamin D generally have a lower risk of these diseases. This is possibly because scientists have discovered about 3,000 genes that are controlled by the Vitamin D levels in our bodies.

How do I get Vitamin D and how is it metabolized in my body?

1) Sunlight is the best way to get Vitamin D. Your body can potentially produce 10,000 – 25,000 International Units (I.U.’s) of Vitamin D in half the time it takes your skin to turn pink or burn in the sun during mid-day (e.g., if it takes you 30 minutes in the sun to burn, expose your skin for 15 minutes). The most Vitamin D is produced when a large part of your skin is exposed to the sun (i.e., the skin on your back, rather than just your arms and legs).

Metabolically speaking, when UVB rays from the sun hit your skin, Vitamin D3 is produced and taken to the liver where it is changed to 25-hydroxyvitamin D3. 25-hydroxyvitamin D3 is then sent to your kidneys and transformed into its activated form or 1,25-hydroxyvitamin D3, the form that allows Vitamin D to carry out its various tasks.

2) Some foods that contain higher levels of Vitamin D include:

– Cod liver oil – 500 I.U.’s per teaspoon
– Fatty fish – 792 (eel), 645 (trout), and 307 (wild salmon) I.U.’s per 3 ounce serving
– Portobello and Maitake mushrooms – 384 I.U.’s per diced cup (86g)
– Cheese – 134 I.U.’s per cup (122g)
– Egg Yolks (hard-boiled) – 44 I.U.’s per egg

When you ingest Vitamin D supplements or foods containing Vitamin D, your gut will send Vitamin D3 to your liver and repeat the same reactions mentioned above.

3) Vitamin D3 supplements are necessary if you can’t get enough sun exposure or eat enough Vitamin D rich foods to produce sufficient amounts in your body.

Who is at risk for Vitamin D deficiency?

Risk factors for Vitamin D deficiency include:

  • age > 50 – With age, our ability to convert sunlight into Vitamin D and our kidneys’ ability to convert Vitamin D into its usable form decreases.
  • people with more melanin in their skin (darker skin) – If you have dark skin, you may need up to 10 times more sun exposure to produce the same amount of Vitamin D as someone with fair skin.
  • obesity – Vitamin D is fat soluble and gets trapped in fatty tissue preventing metabolization in the body.
  • people with malabsorption or gut problems – Any gastrointestinal issues that may affect your ability to absorb fat will also affect your ability to absorb Vitamin D (e.g., Crohn’s Disease, Whipple’s Disease, Cystic Fibrosis, Celiac Disease, any type of liver disease).
  • sunscreen use and staying indoors – Using sunscreen blocks the UVB light needed in our skin to convert Vitamin D to its usable form. This is a dilemma as we also need sunscreen to protect against skin cancer from prolonged sun exposure.
  • geographic latitude – People who live north of 35 degrees latitude receive less sunlight.
  • use of certain medications – Anti-seizure medications, glucocorticoids (steroid medications), Rifampin (Tuberculosis medication), HIV medication, and St. John’s Wart have been found to affect Vitamin D metabolism.

What levels should my Vitamin D be at?

The old school of thought shows a wide “normal” range for Vitamin D levels from 30-100ng/ml. Extensive research has now shown that the optimum level should be between 40-60ng/ml. We will revisit how researchers have come up with this number in a later post.

How much Vitamin D do I need to take to reach optimum levels?
First, get your baseline Vitamin D levels checked. The test you want is a 25-hydroxyvitamin D or 25(OH) D test (remember, this is what is produced in your liver). If you are not deficient, you may only need 1000-2000 I.U.’s daily to maintain your levels. If you are deficient, (i.e. under 40ng/ml), the guidelines are as follows:

Age Under 5: 1000 units daily
Age 5-10: 2500 units daily
Adults: 5000-6000 units daily
Pregnant and Nursing Women: 5000-10000 units daily

In general, to achieve optimal levels, most adults and the geriatric population need to be taking between 5000-6000 I.U.’s of Vitamin D daily, especially during the winter months, and from all sources combined (sun, food, and supplements). Don’t worry about overdosing, as there have been no reported cases of Vitamin D toxicity below 10,000 I.U.’s of Vitamin D per day. As with anything, everyone responds differently to supplementation. Some people may require a smaller dose to reach optimal levels while others may require more. These are, of course, rough guidelines and the best way to determine how much you need is to recheck your levels at least once a year and adjust your dose accordingly.

What is the best form of Vitamin D to take and when should I take it?
Because it is a fat-soluble vitamin, the best form to take is liquid Vitamin D3 with your heaviest or fattiest meal of the day to maximize absorption. When I am pregnant or nursing, I take 6000 I.U.’s of Ortho Molecular Products Liquid Vitamin D3 daily. Otherwise, I take 5000 I.U.’s daily. For my son, I gave him Carlson Super Daily D3 drops for babies, 400 I.U.’s daily until he was 6 months old. Afterwards, I increased his dosage to 1000 I.U.’s daily using Ortho Molecular Product’s Vitamin D3. My most recent level (taken last summer) was 44ng/ml, while his level was 49 ng/ml. As you can see, taking 5000-6000 I.U.’s daily kept me just above the optimal level!

I hope you now have a better understanding of the basics of Vitamin D. Have a great weekend!

In health and wellness,
Dr. Elain

References:
Mercola.com
The Vitamin D Solution (Book Excerpt) by Micheal F Holick, PhD MD

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