Sunday, April 29, 2012

Are You Addicted to Caffeine?

I admit it; I love coffee.  I love the smell, the taste and the jolt it gives me.  For many years, a cup or two of coffee was part of a morning ritual for me.  It got me through grad school and beyond.  But these days, coffee is more of an occasional treat, mainly because of the caffeine.

In North America, 80-90% of the population regularly consumes caffeine, making it the most widely used mood-altering drug.  Although there are a number of sources of caffeine on the market today, for adults, coffee represents the most common source and soft drinks are at the top of the list for children. 

It’s no surprise that we’re addicted to caffeine.  Today, we live in a very “yang” society.  Many of us are stressed out, wound up tight, multi-tasking and running on overdrive.  To find balance, we naturally reach for “yin” producing substances, like caffeine, which is expansive and lightening.

To get an idea of just how much caffeine you may be consuming, refer to the table on this page.  For example, a 6 oz., regular brewed cup of coffee contains ~100 mg of caffeine and a brewed cup of black tea can have 40 mg.  Green tea will have slightly less.  A 1.5 oz. serving of dark chocolate will have ~30 mg.  Based on research from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the American Medical Association, 200 - 300 mg of caffeine per day is considered moderate consumption that is generally regarded as safe. 

The trouble comes when we begin to rely too much on caffeine to get us through the day.  To the cells in our brain (neurons), caffeine looks very much like the brain chemical adenosine, which binds to adenosine receptors and slows down the cell’s activity.  It also causes blood vessels to dilate, which is believed to let in more oxygen during sleep.  When caffeine binds; however, it prevents adenosine from binding but unlike adenosine, caffeine speeds up the cell’s activity, causing that caffeine buzz, which we all know can interfere with sleep.  It also causes blood vessels to constrict (which can be a good thing if you have a headache).

The affects of caffeine don’t end in the brain.  The increase in neuronal activity causes the pituitary gland to release hormones that instruct the adrenal glands to produce adrenaline, which puts you into fight or flight mode.  One problem is that over time, this consistent, artificial stimulation can put a strain on the adrenal glands.  In fact, if you’re having trouble getting off of caffeine, you may have nutritional deficiencies that are causing you to reach for artificial energy from caffeinated foods or beverages like coffee.

Back in the brain, similar to heroine and cocaine, caffeine also slows down the reabsorption of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that stimulates the pleasure centers of the brain, which explains why you may become addicted.  This is also one of the reasons we love chocolate.  When the caffeine wears off, however, you may experience fatigue and depression and the cycle begins again, reaching for caffeine to increase your energy and brighten your mood. 

To minimize the negative effects of caffeine or to wean yourself off:
  • limit coffee consumption to one or two cups early in the day;
  • cut down on the amount of caffeine in each cup by drinking half regular and half decaf coffee;
  • check in on your diet to see where you may be deficient in nutrients;
  • slowly reduce the number of cups you drink and alternate them with glasses of water
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Are Your Vitamin D Levels Optimal?

Until several years ago, you probably hadn’t heard much about vitamin D, unless you saw it listed on the back of your milk carton.  Today there’s much more talk about it because it’s become clear that it’s important for much more than preventing rickets and that we need much more than was previously suggested.

Despite it’s name, vitamin D is actually a hormone that is naturally synthesized by UVB rays and cholesterol in our skin.  It is then carried through the blood and makes its way to the liver then kidney where it undergoes additional biochemical steps to convert it to it’s final, active form.  The image below from a recent review paper in Nature Reviews Cancer illustrates the process:

Vitamin D has been given so much attention in the last several years because it’s involved in so many functions in the body:
  • It works with calcium and omega-3 fatty acids to make brain chemicals such as the stress fighting adrenaline and norepinephrine;
  • It helps to increase the absorption of calcium and phosphorus in the intestines and is required to build and maintain healthy bones with both minerals;
  • It keeps the immune system strong;
  • It regulates the parathyroid gland;
  • And deficiencies have been linked to certain cancers, such as colon, prostate, breast and ovarian cancers, heart disease, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, depression, fibromyalgia, PMS, and the flu; 

So how do you know if you’re deficient in vitamin D and what should you do about it?

1.  Have your levels checked by your doctor - Optimal levels fall into the range of 40-65 ng/ml.  If you’re low, Dr. Mark Hyman recommends between 5,000 and 10,000 IU to reach your optimal levels (get checked after again after three months), and then 2,000-4,000 IU for maintenance.   And those of us living in Northern latitudes, indoors most of the time, or with darker skin may need to adjust these amounts.

In fact, the government’s recent recommendations for 600 IU of vitamin D3 is believed by many to be enough to prevent rickets, but not nearly enough to protect us against the diseases mentioned above.

2.  Increase your dietary sources of vitamin D - Here are some foods to include:
  • cod liver oil
  • fatty fish such as mackerel, sardines, and salmon 
  • eggs
  • fortified milks (dairy or non-dairy)
  • mushrooms - some types of mushrooms that have been exposed to UV light contain vitamin D2

3.  Get more sun - We’ve also been given the most effective tool for making vitamin D, the sun’s rays, but we’ve created a lifestyle that keeps us covered up and indoors most of the time.  Just a few minutes a day with your arms and legs exposed, without sunscreen, will allow your body to naturally make vitamin D.  If you’re really interested, there’s a site where you can find out based on latitude, longitude and time of year, how much sun you would need to make your vitamin D quota.  You can look up the latitude and longitude of your city here.

Of course, if you live in a seasonal climate with cold winters, diet and supplementation are the best ways to ensure that your vitamin D levels stay optimal to help keep you healthy.     

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Hold the Tomato

I’m forever going on about plant-based foods such as vegetables and why they should be the bulk of our diets; however, I am also the first to acknowledge that there are no perfect foods and for many of them, how they’re prepared will make a big difference in what we gain from them.  Here are some things to be aware of:

Cruciferous vegetables - This wonderful bunch of vegetables in the genus Brassica, including bok choy, broccoli, Brussel sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collard greens, kale, and many others, contain something called goitrogens which suppress thyroid function by interfering with the uptake of iodine.  In their raw form, they are mildly goitrogenic; however cooking inactivates their thyroid suppressing activities.  Culturing or fermenting also works.

Legumes - Legumes such as beans, lentils, and chickpeas are all high in fiber and protein, but they also contain enzyme inhibitors that block the digestion of proteins as well as phytic acid that prevents the absorption of minerals such as calcium, magnesium, and zinc.  To reduce these antinutrients, soak the legumes for several hours in water and replace the water for cooking.  Also, skim any foam off the top of the pot that accumulates from boiling.  Sprouting will also reduce both forms of toxin. 

Grains - Similar to legumes, grains such as wheat, rye, barley, brown rice, and oats contain enzyme inhibitors and phytic acid and should be soaked for several hours and rinsed before cooking.

Greens - We love leafy green vegetables for their health promoting qualities; however, a few greens, including beet greens, Swiss chard, and spinach, contain fair amounts of oxalic acid, which binds calcium and interferes with its absorption.   To eliminate the oxalic acid from these vegetables, boil, steam, or sauté them before eating.

Nightshade vegetables - This group includes vegetables and fruits such as tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, and most peppers (except black pepper), including cayenne, as well as paprika.   They contain relatively small amounts of compounds called alkaloids, which plants produce for protection, so in that way they act as pesticides for the plant.  There are several types of alkaloids; a well known one is nicotine. 

At high levels, the steroid alkaloid solanine, in potatoes have been shown to block the activity of an enzyme in the nervous system called cholinesterase, which is normally responsible for breaking down the neurotransmitter acetylcholine.  Inhibition of this brain chemical results in a loss of control of muscle movements, including twitching, trembling and difficulty breathing.   And although there is no solid scientific data to back it up, it’s often recommended that anyone with arthritis, gout, or GERD avoid nightshade vegetables.   In potatoes, alkaloids will accumulate around potato sprouts and green potato skins, so they should be removed completely, or simply not eaten.  And they should also never be eaten raw.

Image courtesy of Grant Cochrane

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Herbs Add More than Just Flavor

If you’re someone who adds herbs to your dishes on a regular basis, you likely do so for the flavors they add to food.  What you may not realize, though, is that when used even in small amounts, many herbs have powerful health benefits, whether they’re used fresh or dried.  

The herbs mentioned here are some of the most beneficial, are relatively easy to grow, or are readily available in most supermarkets:


Parsley is probably one of the most widely used herbs to garnish a dish. It is also a practical tool for cleansing the palate and freshening the breath after eating, so in that way, it plays multiple roles on the plate.  However, limiting parsley in the diet to a sprig at the end of a meal greatly limits its true health benefits as an antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-carcinogenic, and digestive aid.  

Just two tablespoons of fresh parsley provide 1.5 times the recommended daily value for vitamin K, high amounts of vitamins A and C, as well as folate and iron.  In addition, one of its volatile oils, myristicin, also supports glutathione, a major antioxidant that works to detoxify the body. 

Parsley is one herb that tends to lose its flavor when dried, so fresh is best.  To incorporate more parsley into the diet, add it to scrambled eggs or omelets, sprinkle it onto grain dishes near the end of cooking, flavor sautéed vegetables, juice it, include it in soups and stews, mix it into salads and use it in your favorite pesto recipe.  This chicken soup recipe includes a wonderful pesto as a garnish made with parsley, garlic, and basil.


Oregano is another herb that acts as an anti-inflammatory, an antioxidant, and an antibacterial agent.  What also may surprise you is that its antioxidant capacity is actually greater than blueberries thanks in part to two volatile oils, thymol and rosmarinic acid.  Even dried, oregano is a good source of vitamin K, manganese and iron and also provides calcium and vitamins A and C.  It also provides fiber, and don’t forget, green herbs like oregano and parsley are sources of chlorophyll, which helps to purify the blood.

To add it to the diet, combine oregano with other fresh herbs in egg dishes, add it to sauces and soups, mix it into vegetables, and use it in marinades and dressings. Here is a quick recipe for red bell pepper, spinach and goat cheese salad with a simple oregano dressing.


Who does not love the smell of fresh garlic in a simmering pot on the stove?  Garlic is a powerful antibacterial, it also exhibits antiviral and antifungal properties and can be used to fight and prevent a cold.  As an anti-inflammatory, it has been shown to lower the risk of cardiovascular disease by reducing the oxidative damage done to blood vessel walls, lowering the accumulation of plaque. 

When using garlic, it should be crushed or chopped and allowed to sit for a few minutes for the conversion of alliin to allicin, one of its main, active ingredients.  Although some people may not be able to tolerate the heat of raw garlic, it’s best to eat it as raw as possible to get the most of its health benefits.  I like to add it to a dish at the end of cooking so that it just warms through.  Still, it is also wonderful roasted in the oven or sautéed in dishes. 

Garlic can be minced and added into dressings and marinades, included in sauces and soups, the bulbs roasted whole then spread onto bread, and soaked in oil to flavor it.  The tender shoots, or scapes can also be used any way that garlic is prepared.


Ginger is probably best known for treating conditions such as motion sickness, nausea and upset stomach.  It is also used to relieve gas, diarrhea, and loss of appetite. Ginger also contains compounds called gingerols that act as anti-inflammatory agents and are believed to help relieve the pain and swelling of arthritis.  Gingerols are also believed to act as potent antioxidants.

Ginger is a warming herb that can induce sweating and help fight an oncoming cold or flu.  Try making a tea by grating a small piece of ginger then squeezing the juice into hot water, or simmering hot water with sliced ginger and adding lemon and honey. It can be chopped and added to stir-fries, juiced along with vegetables, and crystallized or candied and eaten as a snack.  Powdered ginger can also be added to a variety of dishes and baked goods.  Below is a recipe for a fresh vegetable and fruit juice that includes ginger.


Maybe you have never heard of tumeric despite the fact that you’ve probably eaten it many times.  It is the culinary spice that gives yellow mustard its yellow color.   Tumeric’s main active component, curcumin, has been the focus of many studies as a therapeutic agent due to its anti-cancer, antiviral, anti-arthritic, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory properties.   It’s also a good source of manganese, iron, and vitamin B6.

To get more of this bitter spice/herb into your diet, add it into soups and stews, sprinkle it in eggs before beating and add it to dressings.   I recently posted this recipe for a tahini dressing/sauce that includes tumeric. 

Now that Spring is here, if you’re planning to grow a garden, consider planting herbs like parsley, oregano, and garlic, as well as rosemary, thyme, and chives.  They require very little care and are simple, whole foods that will help raise your diet’s nutritional density to the next level in a flavorful way.   

Image courtesy of Master isolated image