How to Stay Healthier This Winter

On the heels of the nastiest storm we’ve seen in quite a while, we may be bracing ourselves for a pretty harsh winter.  To minimize our chances of getting sick, we know that we should wash our hands often, try to avoid people who are sick, and take our vitamins (because no matter how much we TRY to eat well, it’s likely we’re still missing something).  We might supplement with vitamin D and a few others, or try to boost our immune systems with Echinacea and zinc.

But how much does our attitude affect our health?  This article on the Mayo Clinic site discusses how positive thinking can have a dramatic effect on your health.

How do you react when you first start feeling like you’re coming down with something?  Do you try to stay positive that you might have caught it before it got too bad?  Or do you bemoan how terrible you feel, and how certain you are that it’s only going to get worse?

I’m not trying to say that positive thinking can keep you from ever getting sick.  A virus is a virus, and sometimes they just get us.  That’s what they’re designed to do, of course.  But keeping a generally positive attitude can do several things for you.  First, it gives a boost to your immune system, thus making it harder for the invader to get a foothold in the first place.  Second, it allows that heightened immune system to fight the invader more effectively and evict it sooner if it actually does manage to get through your defenses.  Third, it makes the recovery time more pleasant for you and those around you.

Positive people also generally tend to be kinder to themselves and take better care of themselves.  They eat better, get up off the couch and get moving more (but NOT obsessively exercise), and make healthier life choices (such as not smoking).  All of those things are certainly going to have a positive impact on your overall health.

“But I’m just not naturally a positive person!  I can’t be Pollyannna all the time!”  I call bull.  While some people do seem to have a naturally positive attitude, and some seem to be Eeyore, when it comes right down to it, most of your attitude is a conditioned, trained response.  Which means that if you WANT to, you CAN un-learn your bad habits.  Again, this may come easier to some people than to others.  But I truly believe that everyone can improve their outlook if they are willing to give it some work.

It all begins with self-talk.  We internalize everything that happens to us.  Those things that pop into our heads, unbidden, are often not very positive.  The stuff we say to ourselves has far more impact on us than anything that comes from outside.  True, we may be hearing bad stuff about ourselves from the outside, but it’s not until we believe those things to be true about ourselves and beat ourselves up about them that they really begin to harm us.

We may not have much control over the fleeting negative thoughts that pop into our minds without invitation, but we certainly CAN control how much we dwell on them.  We can decide whether we kick them to the curb immediately or allow them to take up permanent residence in our thoughts.

When faced with the thought “I am a horrible person because of X”, we can choose whether we agree with that mental negative and berate ourselves for every wrong thing we’ve ever done, or we can choose to contradict that thought with this:  “Yes, I may have made x mistake, but I have also done x, y, z, etc positive things”.  Counter the “Oh, I’m so miserable because I have this disease or that illness, or I’m just sick all the time, or I have no motivation or willpower or blah, blah, blah” with “no, I don’t like where I am right now, but I don’t have to stay here forever”.  Temporary illness will pass, and lifelong illness can be dealt with.  Sometimes life sucks.  It is what it is. But there are also plenty of things that don’t suck.  You can choose to constantly complain about all the suckiness, or make the best you can of a bad situation.

As for the motivation and willpower thing, ask yourself if you really don’t like that aspect of your character.  If it’s not something that really bothers you, then quit bemoaning it.  If it IS something that you don’t like about yourself, then CHANGE IT.  Don’t keep talking about how much you don’t like it.

It’s not going to happen overnight.  It will not be easy to overcome years of conditioning.  We may have fallen into the negative self-talk habit so often that we aren’t really aware of it any more.  But we can retrain ourselves out of even the most ingrained of bad habits.  Is it going to take a lot of work?  Probably.  But it’s so worth it.  Your health and well-being depend on it.

100 Days of No Processed Meals

http://www.stacymakescents.com/100-days-of-no-processed-meals-crock-pot-style

I’m all for simplification.  And it doesn’t get much easier than crock pot meals!  Hope you guys enjoy some of these recipes–let me know which ones you like best, and I’ll do the same!

Celiac Disease and Gluten Intolerance

Since I’ve talked about it several times now, and I’ve had friends and family test positive, test negative, or determine sensitivity through trial and error, I thought I’d try to break it down for those of you who are wondering what the heck everyone is talking about, and if this stupid “fad” is ever going to go away.

First, Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease which causes a host of nasty symptoms, and can actually be life threatening.  A true wheat allergy, also can be life-threatening in extreme cases.  But non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) confers a dizzying array of symptoms with a vast range of levels of miserableness.  There is a definitive test for celiac which involves a biopsy of the intestines (and who wants to have one of those?), but the blood tests are extremely unreliable.  If you have a family history of celiac or other autoimmune diseases, it’s worth it to insist on all four of the most common blood tests, rather than just any one test.  But remember, even if you are NOT celiac, even if it is proven definitively by the biopsy, it doesn’t mean you’re not gluten sensitive. There’s a basic overview of celiac, gluten intolerance, and wheat allergy here.  These are not all the same thing, although a lot of the symptoms are the same.

Gluten sensitivity or intolerance is not a black and white issue.  It is a continuum from the person who can’t tolerate the cross-contamination of a single bread crumb, to those who only have mild issues if they eat a lot of bread, and everything in between.  There are a mind-bogglingly large number of symptoms that have been associated with gluten sensitivity.  The fact is, MOST people are probably at least a little sensitive.  Are you willing to suffer through a little bit of discomfort in order to enjoy that yeast roll?  Perhaps.  Are you thrilled about the idea of spending the next several hours in the bathroom because some waiter thought it would be OK to pick the croutons off your salad instead of making a fresh one that has never touched breadcrumbs?  Probably less likely.  So obviously your level of sensitivity is going to have a pretty strong influence on how picky you are.

Now, there are people out there who are avoiding gluten just because it’s the thing right now.  I must say, while this attitude can occasionally be annoying, those of us who MUST avoid gluten are generally grateful for those “jumping on the bandwagon” simply because it makes it easier for us to find gluten-free offerings on the grocery store shelf and in restaurants.  There are so many more options out there than there were even a mere six months ago.  Unfortunately, many stores use the specialty nature of these items to completely swindle you.  I mean seriously, does a cereal made with rice instead of wheat really cost them 2-3 times more to produce???  And some of it just flat out tastes like crap.  A tiny loaf of gluten free bread costs $6, and tastes like a slightly scorched cross between styrofoam and cardboard, with the texture of really dry pound cake.  NOT good eats.

But if you find that you feel tons better when you don’t eat wheat than when you do, you’re willing to make concessions.  Mine is just to skip the bread altogether unless I’ve made it myself.  And remarkably, most of it I don’t miss.  Hamburger buns?  I prefer without anyway.  My palate has changed significantly since cutting out bread, and since I’ve gone mostly “paleo/primal”, some of that other stuff just doesn’t appeal to me any more.  Mark’s Daily Apple is one of my favorite primal sites, just because it’s pretty sensible about eating at least 80/20 primal instead of never eating any special treats.

My biggest symptoms (and the ones that have shown the most dramatic improvement) are hair loss, chronic fatigue, severe achiness/inflammation, and skin issues.  I have had problems with my skin since I was about 12, painful (and horrifyingly embarrassing) cystic acne on my face and shoulders which is now entirely gone (incidentally, I kept thinking I would grow out of it, but as of turning 40 I had not, until eliminating wheat).  In the experimentation phase, every time I reintroduced wheat, I had a significant breakout.  I also had annoying scaly patches on my upper arms which I always thought were just dry skin, but they have disappeared as well.  I’ve since learned that the scaly skin thing is pretty common.

It was probably about 10-12 years ago when I started noticing pretty dramatic hair loss.  I was literally throwing huge handfuls of hair away every time I washed it.  The only reason I wasn’t nearly bald is that I started out with abnormally thick hair, so it was actually quite a while of this drastic hair loss before it was visually noticeable.  My biggest frustration with that as a symptom is that the doctors didn’t want to take it seriously.  Yes, in some ways it’s vain, but if you are losing HUGE amounts of hair for no apparent reason, your body is screaming at you that there is something wrong.  In the case of gluten sensitivity, the damage done to the intestines interferes with nutrient absorption.  So even if you’re obsessively overdosing on B vitamins and biotin, you’re not really going to benefit much from them, because your body just isn’t processing them.

The fatigue.  Ugh.  It started about the same time as the hair loss, and is what made me keep nagging my doctor about thyroid issues in spite of the fact that my TSH kept coming back “normal”.  That’s a whole other story.  I have been told I have chronic fatigue syndrome (which I honestly think is just a lazy doctor’s way of saying you’re tired, but they don’t really care to investigate the CAUSE), I have found that I have Hashimoto’s thyroiditis (in which my immune system has decided that my thyroid is foreign and it must systematically obliterate it), and I have Addison’s disease (AD) (that splendid immune system is attacking my adrenal cortex as well, and so I can’t recharge my daily battery).  I’ve also been told that I’m just too busy, which I freely admit has been true at many points in my life.  But slapping the CFS label on it and telling me to get more sleep is just not going to cut it.  And there is a drastic difference between feeling tired because you’re too busy and absolutely not being able to lift your head off the pillow.  Treating the thyroid helped a bit. Treating the adrenal insufficiency helped quite a bit more.  (By the time I was diagnosed with AD, I was almost entirely non-functional, literally bedridden with unexplained weakness.)

But I was still more exhausted than I should have been, most days.  Although I didn’t expect it, my energy level has rebounded phenomenally since I’ve cut out the gluten.  I attribute this mostly to the inability to absorb nutrients stated earlier.  It doesn’t matter how nutrient dense your diet is if your body is simply not incorporating it.  Now, because I still have those other auto-immune diseases, I still have low days.  But they’re nothing like the intensity or frequency I was having before.

Another totally unexpected improvement was my chronic pain.  I was in a car accident several years ago which required PT and daily NAIDS.  I was also told I had been blessed with early onset arthritis, which runs pretty rampant in my family.  So I had pretty much resigned myself to being in constant pain for the rest of my life, which was pretty depressing since I hadn’t yet hit 40.  I didn’t know that the primary cause for my pain was chronic inflammation, almost entirely attributable to my diet.

Because I was constantly popping pain pills just to get through the day, I also had pretty severe reflux, which was also being treated with prescription meds.  When I nixed the gluten, I noticed that I didn’t feel as achy.  I didn’t need as many pills.  I had so much less early morning stiffness.  And it kept getting better.  I went from having 4-5 days a week where it was agony to drag myself out of bed, to having a moderately achy day every couple of months.  And so I decided to try to cut back on the GERD meds.  Then stop them altogether. Because not only was I no longer ripping my stomach up with NSAIDS, I was having almost no digestive issues after the removal of wheat.  That reason alone would make me want to stop.

There have been a number of other positive effects, including losing nearly 40 lbs with virtually no effort, fingernails no longer peeling, migraines disappearing entirely, headaches in general fairly rare, insomnia no longer a multi-night-a-week celebration, generalized intestinal distress now a very rare occurrence.  I’ve fine-tuned it a bit by minimizing, if not completely eliminating other things that can cause issues, such as legumes, most grains, and dairy.  I’m not hyper-sensitive to any of these things, but I’ve noticed that a meal with a fair bit of corn tends to sit in my belly like a lead weight.  I don’t seem to have any trouble with cheese, but I drink almond milk instead of cow’s milk.  Beans never made me tremendously gassy, but now that know what it feels like to NOT be bloated, I’m surprised at how much more obvious it is.  It’s also funny how much overlap there is between the people who eat gluten-free and the ones who end up going full paleo and giving up all grains (so obviously paleo=gluten-free) and legumes.

Going hard-core paleo is not for everyone, and I’m not that, anyway.  But I CAN tell you what a fantastic improvement removing gluten from my diet has made on my entire health, in so many different ways.  If you check out that gluten-sensitivity symptoms list, and you recognize some of them, I would challenge you to just give it a try.  Try it for a month.  If you can’t commit to that, just try it for a couple of weeks.  Or a week.  But you have to commit to having absolutely NO gluten for the trial period, so that you can really see the changes, and there will be no doubt of the reason you’re feeling so much better.  The worst thing that could happen is that you notice no difference and go right back to your pasta and yeast rolls.  But if you do see that change, you might just decide it’s worth it to permanently alter what you feed your body.  That’s definitely a win.

Caring for Baby: Diapers, Sleeping, and Feeding

Since I’ve been watching little Rose five days a week since she was about 2 months old (she is now 14 mo), I’ve been thinking a lot about how I would do things differently and what I’d do the same as when my kids were small (they are now 20 and 16).  This is not an attempt to make anyone feel guilty for not being super-mom, it’s just that I’ve reconsidered some of the decisions I made then.

I think in nearly all cases there are plenty of “right” ways to raise your children, and not very many “wrong” ways.  You have to decide what’s best for YOUR family.  Sometimes it’s hard to not let other moms get to you when they tell you you’re doing it wrong.  My intention here is not to start a fight, because a lot of these topics can generate pretty volatile “discussions”.  I’m just considering what I might do differently if I were raising a kid now, instead of 20 years ago.

Diapers

I used exclusively disposable diapers for my kids.  At that point in time, nearly everyone used disposables.  This was a phenomenal expense, but it was a burden mostly borne by Rob’s grandparents.  They would constantly stop by after a shopping trip with a huge box of diapers.  I felt at the time that I simply didn’t have time for cloth diapers, and they weren’t all that good then anyway.

Now I’ve seen some of the new-fangled cloth diapers out there, and I think that if I were an at-home-mom with a new baby, I would probably give them a try.  It’s a lot more work and the initial cost is high, but in the long run it saves a lot of money.  And let’s not even talk about the literally TONS of diapers I’d be saving from the landfill.  I think it would be a lot harder to keep up with them if I were working full-time outside the house, though.  And I can imagine I would carry disposables in the diaper bag as back-up for emergencies while I’m out and about.

Napping/Sleeping

Although I didn’t really get into the co-sleeping thing at the time, there were many times that my babies fell asleep in my arms during a nighttime feeding in the recliner.  I didn’t sleep with them on the couch (which carries a high risk of accidental death), and there were probably only a few times that they fell asleep in my bed (usually during those nighttime feedings).

While I have posted before on the power of touch, and I’m a huge proponent of physical contact with the people we care about, I’m not sure I’m sold on the co-sleeping thing.  A large part of my concern with it is that the baby gets so used to having you right there beside them when they go to sleep that they get to the point where they HAVE to have you right there beside them in order to GET to sleep.  Even if you are committed to co-sleeping, there are times when you will want to try to accomplish something while the baby is napping, and if you’re out somewhere you obviously can’t just lay down with the baby.  I’m really not sure how I would deal with this issue if I had another child.  Perhaps someone who has tried co-sleeping could offer some input.

As for the timing, I pretty much let my kids dictate their own schedule, within reason.  I tried to encourage them to be awake during the day and asleep at night.  But I wasn’t a tyrant about making them take their nap at exactly the same times every day.  That I would probably do the same.  While it’s good to have a general schedule, and definitely better to have them sleep more at night and less during the day, I can’t see myself being inflexible about bedtimes.  Sometimes life happens, and not being able to go with the flow just causes unnecessary stress for both mother and baby.

Feeding

Not being able to eat wheat means you can’t just throw together a PB&J sandwich.  I wasn’t aware of my wheat sensitivity when my kids were little.  Knowing what I know now, and considering that there are MANY people on both sides of our family who are gluten sensitive to some extent, I think I would wait as long as possible to introduce wheat into her diet.  Part of the problem is that most “beginner” foods contain grains.  We have been told over and over how nutritious whole grains are, but if you can’t digest them properly, you simply can’t get the nutrients out of them, no matter how many nutrients they may be purported to contain.

I did breast feed for the first several months with both of mine, and I still think that is best whenever possible.  It is the balanced nutrition that babies are designed to thrive on.  But I’m not one of those who feels compelled to shame others for NOT breast feeding, or not breastfeeding long enough.  Breast feeding for “too long” is another issue entirely, and has nothing to do with nutrition; I’m not going to open that can of worms here.

It’s when we start to introduce other foods into baby’s diet that things really start diverging.  When it comes right down to it, grains are hard to digest, even if you’re not overtly intolerant.  Out of the grains, rice is the easiest, and least likely to produce an allergic reaction, but whether you are feeding your little one breast milk or formula, the reality is that either one has everything they NEED, nutritionally speaking, so adding in other things just supplements and gets them gradually used to the other foods that they will soon be eating more regularly.

As soon as they were ready, we started giving our kids smashed up bites of tender fruits and veggies from our own plates, along with the standard jar foods.  I didn’t have one of those magical food processors, or I probably would have made a lot more of my kids’ first foods.  But we didn’t really eat as many whole foods, fruits and veggies as we should have in those days.  I would definitely try to get more veggies in their diets as toddlers than I did.

There’s a nice “back-to-basics” list 0f first foods here.  It’s markedly different than what most doctors are recommending, but then they’re also recommending that adults get 60% of their calories from carbs, and most of those whole grains, and that’s not best either.

All in all, I think I would do most things just as I did, if I had it to do all over again.  Not that I think I am the perfect mom, or anything, but it seems that they managed to survive all of my shortcomings.  I guess that’s the best bit of encouragement I can offer to new moms–don’t overly stress yourself out over every little detail.  So many things are a matter of personal preference, and even more have to take into account the individual child’s personality.  Don’t beat yourself up about being “imperfect”.  There is no such thing as a perfect parent, any more than there is such a thing as a perfect human being.  And don’t let other moms guilt you into thinking you’re a failure because you’re not doing something the way they would.  Unless it’s a matter of threatening a child’s physical or emotional well-being, rest assured that there is more than one “right” way to raise your kids.  And the “best” way for another family may not be the “best” way for yours.  You will also find that parenting involves a whole lot of trial and error.  Even things that worked well for one child in your family may not work as well with the next one.  I think the most important thing of all is to love them like crazy, and let them know that you do, often!

I have several friends with little ones, so if you have any input, I’ll be sure to pass it on–I encourage you to comment! Civilly, please!

Food: Good Versus Evil

I thought this blog post, Why Food is Beyond “Good” and “Evil”, was a breath of fresh air.  It really brings to the table (pun intended) the idea of developing a healthy relationship with food instead of

Too often we vilify certain foods because they are not “good” for us.  I’m not saying we should exist solely on potato chips and ice cream, but we really need to adopt a healthier relationship with food.   Ultimately, food is fuel.  I believe we should nourish our bodies primarily with the kinds of fuel that are best for them, so our engines don’t sputter around on crappier fare.  But I really think we do ourselves a disservice when we approach asceticism in our attitudes towards food.  And some people need to honestly be concerned about eating disorders.

If we berate ourselves for an rare indulgence, we do not have a healthy relationship with food.   If we never even permit the occasional indulgence, we do not have a healthy relationship with food.  If we allow the occasional indulgence to become far more often than occasional, we do not have a healthy relationship with food.  None of these approaches are healthy, either physically or mentally.  Nor are they sustainable.

What we need to do is give up the idea of indulgence completely.  Everything is allowable, nothing is an “indulgence”.  I try to mentally group foods more into categories such as “very rarely”, “occasionally”, and “regularly”.

Now I’m not talking about foods that actually cause us problems and really should be avoided all together.  Obviously, those things belong in the “never” category.  I have discovered that I am gluten intolerant.  This affects roughly 15% of the population, which is far more common than I ever imagined.  (Read more about gluten intolerance here.)  I really need to try to avoid gluten completely if I want to be healthy.  Likewise, if someone has a food allergy or sensitivity.  But I’m talking here about treats that we tend to beat ourselves up about eating.

“Junk food” should not be a main staple of our diets.  But one occasional cookie is not going to permanently harm us, nor should we consider the “slip” on our diet to be an excuse to give up on the attempt to eat better. In fact, I’m all for giving up dieting altogether.  When we allow ourselves to have the rare treat, completely guilt free, we will be far better off than if we fall into a cycle of strict adherence punctuated by binges.

Dieting is, ultimately, self-destructive.  Eating a healthy diet is far different from dieting.  I eat a healthy diet.  Does that mean I never have an “unhealthy” food?  No.  Does it mean that I never take in more calories than I burn off?  No.  It does mean that I have stopped counting calories, stopped bowing to the number on the scales, and stopped beating myself up for not having the willpower to say no.  When you truly give yourself permission to eat anything, you’ll find that the temptation to binge wanes.

The beauty of this approach is that it is so simple.  Eat when you’re hungry, instead of going by the clock.  Stop eating when you’re no longer hungry, instead of cleaning your plate regardless.  You don’t have to carry a food scale and a set of measuring cups with you wherever you go.  And let’s not even talk about those calorie booklets.  Simplify your approach to food.  Be kind to yourself.  Self-flagellation is not going to remove that piece of cake you just ate from your thighs.  In fact, love your thighs, and the rest of your body too.

For a while, you may want to have cake for lunch.  Go ahead and savor it; it’s not going to kill you.  Unless you never eat anything but cake, ever again.  Eventually it’ll lose its “forbidden fruit” status, and the allure will fade.  You may still want to have cake occasionally, but you’ll stop feeling the desire to have ALL of the cake.  You’ll also probably find that you really enjoy eating nutritious foods just as well as not-so-nutritious foods.  And once everything starts to balance out, you may just discover that you really like the way you feel when you feed your engine high-nutrition fuel.

 

Fat: Using the Other F-Word

Fat: Using the Other F-Word 

Here is a fantastic article about being comfortable in the skin you’re in, regardless of your size/weight/shape.

Self-Esteem: What (Some) Men Really Like

Be comfortable in your own skin, because that’s the skin you’re in.

It is far too easy to get drawn into the habit of “I would be happy with myself if…”.  If I were thinner, if I weren’t so thin, if I didn’t have so many wrinkles, if I had flawless skin, if I were taller, blah, blah, blah.  I know I do it to myself all the time.

And unfortunately, I have unwittingly passed that habit on to my daughter.  I have tried to point out to her the things about her body that are beautiful, and discourage her from focusing on the tiny details that she is unsatisfied with.  But I am a hypocrite.  I can’t really expect her to do what I am unable to do myself.

I constantly need reassurance from my husband (poor thing) that he truly finds me attractive.  Because I don’t see it myself, I have trouble seeing what he finds appealing about me.  And make no mistake, women.  We are not only torturing ourselves by doing this, we are torturing our men as well. (I’m assuming at this point that I am not the only woman who does this to her poor defenseless man.)

Mind of Man: The Types of Women That Really Turn Us On

I thought this was an interesting (and humorous) viewpoint on the idea that real beauty is only defined as waif-thin.  It’s a little crass, but it points out that some men really do prefer curvier women.  So adopting a lifestyle of extreme dieting, extreme exercising, or even eating disorders to lose those stubborn pounds might actually be counter-productive.

It is far more important to eat well because we want to be healthy, and to learn to love ourselves just as we are, even if we are working to improve the way we look. In the meantime, there are so many things about you that are beautiful!