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Reflections on Health

I’ve been reflecting more and more about the purpose of this blog as I watch my personal path transition from a career-focused life in the city to growing a family in Vermont.  I am incredibly thankful to have made certain health-specific discoveries in this journey, before we started thinking about having children.  I want to share them with you.  Read on to hear the story.  It’s long but worth reading, especially if you’re thinking about having kids or are working to solve a chronic health issue…

This blog was started to answer questions frequently being asked of me while I was still living in Somerville coordinating school gardening programming.  It was 2010.  I had a thriving porch container garden and had built up considerable experience growing food in the city at my first job after college.  Rather than answering the same question multiple times, I’d write about the topic on my blog and share it with my urban gardening friends.  The blog also served as a journal, allowing me to make note of ideas, projects, and changes that seemed important at the time.

It is now seven years later.

My work transitioned away from kids and gardens.  I live in Vermont.  Many of my interests and hobbies, however, are still related to health, food and nutrition.  These topics have become even more important to me as I experience pregnancy and prepare for a growing family.  I love being outside in nature, managing (and eating from) a big garden, cooking and playing with new flavors, reading articles about nutrition, and listening to podcasts focused on food and health.  Because of all this, I now field a lot of questions about healthy lifestyles.

I rarely, however, am asked about the exact same topic by numerous people all at the same time.  In the past week or two I’ve fielded many questions from friends and family who watched the movie “What the Health.”  The movie promotes a diet free from meat and animal products.   Realizing how many people were watching the movie, I became concerned that these ideas were being promoted with cherry-picked data as a healthy life style.  My deep concern was rooted in my personal journey, which taught me that organic pastured or wild animal products are crucial for my body to be optimally nourished and able to have children.

The back story:

When living in the city ten years ago, there was not good access to pastured organic animal products.  Having grown up with backyard chickens, I thought grocery store eggs tasted disgusting.  I felt similarly about out-of-season produce, conventional meat, and many available dairy products.  And so, without realizing it, I adopted a low-fat nearly vegan diet.  I was always excited to eat “happy” animal products, but that opportunity rarely arose.  I thought I was living healthily and ethically.

And then I started having some health issues.  Most significantly, I lost my period.  Doctors tried to figure out the underlying cause without success, so I was put on some vitamins and the pill.  Prescribing hormonal birth control is a very common “solution” for a wide range of complaints including acne, depression, irregular periods, and PMS.   However, taking the pill didn’t fix my underlying issue, it just patched symptoms.  I would need to figure out the real solution to my missing period later, when coming off the pill, which would likely correspond to the time when I was thinking about having kids.  At the time, however, I accepted my doctor’s advice and moved on with my life. 

About five years ago my boyfriend and I decided to move to Vermont.  The move led to many other transitions in my diet and lifestyle.  We had access to raw dairy, homemade yogurt, garden-grown produce, pastured organic meat and backyard-grown eggs fed organic feed.  We lived around others who felt like all of these local whole foods were an important part of a healthy diet.  Without making a conscious effort, I found myself eating a lot more pastured animal fat but less highly processed vegetable oil.  I learned how to make sauerkraut and other ferments at a free hands-on workshop.  I learned about Weston A. Price’s research, which clearly illustrates the value of nourishing traditional diets for reproduction, growth, and health in all stages of life.  I was struck by the fact that traditional diets studied by Price contained ten times the quantity of fat-soluble vitamins compared to a typical modern American diet.  I ate organ meats I’d never tasted before.  I drank well water.  I spent a lot of time outside: barefoot, breathing clean air, soaking in sun, and swimming in the lake.

These changes marked the start of a transition in my nutrition and health beliefs.  I stopped trusting the recommendations from groups like the USDA and CSPI.  They just weren’t resonating and started to seem contradictory and industry- (rather than data-) driven. I started reading more about the microbiome, traditional diets, truly nutrient-dense foods, the nutrient differences between pastured and conventional animal products, health impacts of various common household chemicals, and more.  A lot of information on the internet is sensationalized and misleading, but there is also a lot that is based on data and science.  I read with a discerning eye about one of the most emotionally-charged topics out there: health and nutrition. I soaked it in.

My new diet, like my old one, was made up of whole foods prepared from scratch.  Now, however, it included a variety of pastured or organic animal parts; raw dairy from grass-fed Jersey cows; soaked, soured, or sprouted nuts, grains, and seeds; bone broths; plenty of fermented foods made at home; eggs with golden-orange yolks; vegetables grown in the backyard without pesticides; local maple syrup and honey; and sun-ripened organic fruits picked nearby.  Besides these wonderful attributes, it all tasted amazing as well.  I minimized vegetable oils that weren’t cold-pressed, white sugar, and all processed foods.

The effect on me after a year was tangible.  I felt more balanced and healthy, so I decided to try going off the pill to see what happened.  It turned out that all those lifestyle changes (or who knows, maybe just one of them) had solved whatever imbalances or inadequacies existed in my body five years earlier.  Everything that was broken before was now functioning normally.

Interestingly, I was still under a lot of stress at work.  This was one of the factors I thought might have caused me to lose my period.  As I was still experiencing considerable stress, I feel quite strongly that it was my higher consumption of fat soluble vitamins via pastured animal products that helped my body decide that I was nourished enough to reproduce.

Time went on, my boyfriend and I got married and we built a house together.  In the building process, when possible, we chose non-toxic options.  We filled our pantry with only organic foods.  We use soap, baking soda, and vinegar for most of our cleaning.  I make my own salve and picked out a new shampoo without any crazy chemicals.  Call me crazy, but we eliminated wi-fi and other sources of electromagnetic radiation from our house.  I transitioned out of a job that was full of joy but also stressful – both mentally and physically.  After doing all these things I felt ready to start a family.

I am writing this post now because I’ve realized how big of an impact small changes can make and that time is often needed before seeing significant health improvements. Looking back, I didn’t have a road map. For that reason I am incredibly grateful that this progression happened gradually and naturally for me.  It was mostly a result of personal interest and happenstance.  Mixed with a lot of luck.  I was lucky to experience near-perfect health over the last several years.  I was lucky to be able to make decisions about my living environment.  I was lucky to be surrounded by friends and family who were adopting similar changes in their diet and lifestyle.  I was lucky to live close enough to farmers that I could get to know them and their agricultural practices personally.  We are all lucky to live in an age where options exist to live a healthful yet modern lifestyle.  We don’t need to run back to caves to eat a balanced diet and live a fulfilling life.  For everyone, but especially those thinking of having kids, today is a good day to implement a small change to improve your well-being.  Similar to planting a tree, the best time to start thinking about your long-term health was 20 years ago.  The second best time is today.

Feeling good and being healthy doesn’t need to be a lesson in sacrifice.  I still enjoy trips to the creemee (a.k.a. soft serve) stand, have slices of birthday cake, and eat out at restaurants that are making dishes from food that is not organic.  But my daily life, which encompasses the huge majority of my time and eating, reflects my new health values and I feel better for it mentally and physically.

I realize that I live in a setting that makes my diet and lifestyle easier to sustain.  I realize how much work it takes to grow my own food and cook from scratch.  If those things don’t increase your inner joy there are still options, like mail-order companies, that make these foods readily available to those without enough free time or interest and those lacking access to the ingredients in their community (links below).   It might cost more in the short term, but everyone can make any number of these transitions without spending too much additional time and effort!

The time and effort I put into my family’s health feels worth it to me.  I bet your wellness is worth it too.

Almost every one of these paragraphs could be it’s own blog post, but I’m stopping here for now.  I hope you gained something from reading through to the end.  I would love to continue this conversation or go into more specific detail with anyone who is curious – just let me know!  Wishing you happiness and good health.

Sustainable Nourishing Sources of Meat Available Online: U. S. Wellness Meats, Vital Choice Seafood

Weston A. Price Dietary Principals: (Not delivered with sleek graphics, but info about dietary guidelines and nutrition that makes the most sense to me).  Characteristics of Traditional Diets, Dietary GuidelinesPrinciples of Healthy Diets, Vegetarianism and Plant Foods

Women’s Health: Learn what nutrient deficiencies are caused by taking oral contraception, and take steps to nourish yourself accordingly.  This book, and the accompanying website, would have been super helpful for me 10 years ago!  If you’re wanting to conceive in the next few years, it will make life way easier to start thinking about your (and your partner’s) fertility and health now!

Categories
Home Gardens Personal Sustainability: How-To Recipes

Warm Up With Herbal Teas

herbal-teaAs temperatures dip back down to zero, I find myself making cups of tea more and more often.  I enjoy picking herbs that energize before work, calm before bed time, sooth the itch I feel starting in my throat, or simply to provide a flavor that seems just right for the moment.  Here are some of my favorites that we grow and dry ourselves:

lemongrass

Lemongrass: This is my favorite lemony herb to use for tea.  I discovered my love of lemongrass in Tanzania, where it grew in every kitchen garden.  Some neighbors used it specifically to treat high blood pressure.  In Vermont, we harvest leaves at the end of the summer, dry them in little bundles (above), and take our plant inside for the winter.

Chamomile:  Chamomile soothes and comforts me.  It’s my favorite bedtime tea.  It seeds itself in our garden, coming back year after year.  If flowers are harvested regularly, the plant will continue to produce vigorously until the hottest driest part of the summer.

Anise Hyssop: These flowers are amazing  pollinator attractors in the garden and make a sweet mild licorice-flavored tea.   Traditionally used to treat respiratory ailments, I love combining hyssop with sage when I have a sore throat or cough.

Sage:  Best known as a culinary herb, I learned about sage’s medicinal properties when I was told to make a gargle with it to treat my sore throat.  I’ve come to enjoy its flavor in a variety of tea blends.

Bee balm:  The source of the flavor in Earl Gray Tea, bergamot is another name for bee balm.  The hummingbirds love this flower in our garden.  It is in the mint family and spreads quickly, so be careful where you plant it!  I harvest petals to add bright red flecks and unique flavor to tea mixes.

Catnip: Another calming herb, catnip seems to have the opposite effect on our feline friends.  We like to use it in tea and sneak leaves into the stuffing of hand-sewn toys for cats.

Coriander:  We harvest coriander from cilantro plants that have flowered and gone to seed.  We save some for planting and some for eating!  Used in Indian cooking, coriander is now a common flavor for craft wheat beers.  It adds a nice citrusy flavor to tea blends.

Mint:  Most people are familiar with this one.  Mint and ginger tea is my favorite for soothing an upset stomach.  Mint tea is also soothing on a sore throat.

Raspberry Leaf:  After learning their use for tea, I now save the tender raspberry leaves pulled from our patch when thinning each spring.  They are said to help treat diarrhea and inflammation of the mouth and throat.

Nettle:  Surprisingly, stinging nettle looses its sting when dried or boiled.  This leaf is very high in iron and can be eaten or used to make tea.  It has a “green” flavor that can be enhanced by adding another herb whose flavor you love.

Sumac:  The red fuzzy seeds of the staghorn sumac have been used in North America for hundreds of years to make a drink similar to pink lemonade.  Sumac is high in vitiamin C and can be used instead of rose hips to add a sour flavor to tea.

Check out past GrowingStories posts to learn how to preserve herbs and flowers and to consider which plants you may want to grow or forage this coming growing season.

tea-counter

Categories
Personal Sustainability: How-To Recipes

Get Well Soon: Chicken Soup and Elderberry Syrup

It’s that time of year when many people are wondering: is that achy throat, dripping nose or sneeze a sign of sickness to come?  Whenever I feel like I might be getting sick, I turn to Chicken Soup and Elderberry Syrup.  Both have long histories of promoting wellness, with more and more rigorous studies proving their immune boosting and nutritious qualities.  Chicken broth freezes well and elderberry syrup can be kept in the fridge for months.  Keep some on hand all fall and winter to keep everyone in your household healthy!

Chicken Broth: Bone broths are healing and nutritious, and they’re very simple to make.  Making broth does take a while – it’s the perfect activity for a cozy day at home.  The warm steam will make your whole house smell delicious.  You can use a chicken carcass or parts of the chicken that your local butcher would otherwise throw away.  Feet are especially great for making sure your broth has plenty of gelatin!  The pictures below show a broth I made with chicken necks and feet.

chicken-stock-Chicken bones with some meat and skin
-Onion, garlic, carrots and/or celery
-Sage, rosemary, thyme, parsley and any other favorite green herbs
-4 quarts of water
-Sea salt and pepper to taste
-Optional: 2 T. vinegar

This works great in a crock pot or on the stove.  If you want to get even more minerals out of the bones, soak chicken parts, water, and vinegar for 30 minutes before cooking.  Next, bring all ingredients – excluding the green herbs and seasoning – to a boil.  I use the old limp veggies from the back of my refrigerator to flavor the broth, so the exact amounts and ingredients change every time.  Reduce heat, cover, and simmer for 3 to 6 hours.  Strain to remove solids.  I compost the veggies because they loose most their flavor.  Pick the meat off the bones.  Put the broth back into your pot and add picked meat, green herbs, and any additional vegetables you want.  Bring back to a boil and season to taste.

Elderberry Ginger Syrup:  Elderberry season is over, so you may have to save this one for next year.  It’s great to have in the back of the fridge at this time of year to help keep your family from getting sick.

elderberry-syrup-2 c. Elderberries
-3 ½ c. Water
-2 T. Ginger Root
-1 t. Cinnamon Powder
-½ c.+ Honey (to taste and preserve)

Bring all ingredients but honey to a boil.  Reduce heat and simmer uncovered to reduce  for about ½ hour. Cool slightly, smash, and strain.  Add honey while warm.  Refrigerate to store.