Omega-3s: the essentials, and how to choose what’s right for you

Omega-3 EFAs, Fish Oil, Krill Oil, or Cod Liver Oil. Which do you choose? 

20180409_213158.jpgIt doesn’t really matter what we eat because the body can make anything it needs from what it gets, right? Well, not exactly. If the raw ingredients aren’t there, the body can’t operate properly.

Essential fatty acids, which fuel the brain and keep the heart healthy, are commonly missing ingredients that the body cannot make on its own. According to the Linus Pauling Institute, “Clinical signs of essential fatty acid deficiency include a dry scaly rash, decreased growth in infants and children, increased susceptibility to infection, and poor wound healing.”  It also impacts memory, neurological function, and coronary heart disease. And it’s far from rare. A Harvard study named omega-3 deficiency as one of the top 10 causes of death in the US, causing up to 96,000 preventable deaths per year.

Essential fatty acids are mainly thought of in two types. Omega-6  fatty acids are found in vegetables, nuts and seeds, common in household cooking oils, as well as processed and fried foods. They are important for immunity, and have been shown to help reduce inflammation and symptoms of many chronic diseases. However, omega-3s (DHA and EPA) are not so prevalent, only available in fatty fish and shellfish in any appreciable amount. They are crucial to building cell membranes.

The issue at stake is that omega-6 oils from plant foods must be kept balanced with omega-3 oils from fish, and most people don’t eat enough fish to make an impact. Actually, it would be very difficult to accomplish. The ideal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 should be in the range of 1:1 to 4:1. Most people are in the 10:1 to 25:1 range. This is why omega-3 supplements have become big business.

But the minute you go to buy a bottle at the store, you’re confronted with choices: Omega-3 EFAs, Fish Oil, Krill Oil, or Cod Liver Oil. Which do you choose?

Omega-3 EFAs can be vegan, made of seed and nut oils (ALA), which must be converted by the body into the DHA and EPA it uses for brain development and activity. Flaxseeds are the best source of ALA, but it takes twice as much flaxseed as fish to get the same amount of omega-3s. Since only 3% of ALA are synthesized into what you need, it’s not overly efficient. I’m a huge fan of flaxseed oil – just not for balancing omega-6s. Check the label for what it truly is.

Fish oil is omega-3s that are derived from various fish, usually herring and mackerel, which tend to build up EPA and DHA in their flesh. Since many fish also build up mercury in their flesh, there is a risk in the oils derived from them. All omega-3 oils are polyunsaturated, which makes them very vulnerable to rancidity. They should always be processed quickly and without heat or chemicals to avoid destroying them. When the type of fish is unspecified, it may be a cheaper form of supplement, subject to cheaper and harsher forms of processing. Not necessarily, though; take the time to research your source and ensure that you have a high quality one.

Krill is a type of shellfish, which is important for people who follow a biblical diet or have shellfish sensitivities. Krill oil contains astaxanthin, a pigment which has anti-inflammatory properties and fights free radicals, as well as stabilizing the oil somewhat. Unlike other fish oils, the omega-3s in krill are bound to phospholipids, a type of lecithin, that are said to reduce fish burps and increase absorption. Many makers of this supplement do not divulge their extraction process, however, which may be chemically based and impacts its purity and freshness. This is a “buyer beware” supplement, a mix of great benefits with possible negative aspects. Do your research.

Cod Liver Oil comes from (obviously) the liver of the codfish, which is a concentrated source of EPA and DHA combined with vitamins A and D.  These vitamins work synergistically with the fatty acids to help absorb calcium and thereby build strong teeth and bones, as well as promoting eye health.  Compared to fish oil, there is less omega-3 per serving, but the integrated vitamins improve utilization in the body. The amount of vitamins A and D is high, which may be desirable in light of studies indicating that vitamin D deficiency is also very common. Cod liver oil is a time-tested supplement (the Vikings used it extensively) that builds a strong immune system and improves longevity. Tests have shown that it improves cognitive development, reduces depression, improves wound healing (even when used topically), and reduces upper respiratory illness in children.

Personally, I have used all of them, rotating supplements to get the benefits that each offers while offsetting the drawbacks. Take note of which one makes you feel the best – that’s your winner!

Connecting the Dots to Health

The cycle of chronic illness can be broken. The integrity of the body is the key.  If the spiral can go down, it can also go up. We can use the connectedness of the body to reverse chronic problems and launch a cascade of health.

Doctors have taught us to look at each specific symptom separately, going to an optometrist for eye troubles, the psychiatrist for mental breakdown, and the gastroenterologist for stomach ulcers. If the problem is an injury, that is a very appropriate approach. But most troubles today are chronic and not so specialized. The question needs to be: What is the cause of my symptom? This question is key to achieving health.

Remember in high school, when we were taught that the brain sends a message for the hand to move and the hand moves? But the body is a lot more complex than this. In a burn situation, the hand can retract independently, even before the brain knows of a problem. Nerves in the hand then sound the alarm, and appropriate rehabilitation processes begin right in the immediate area as well as in the brain, where larger scale measures are engaged.

And then the stomach may get upset.  Ever think about why that happens? It has nothing to do with the injury. Yet it’s part of the nerve response, the switching from normal to emergency procedures. All digestion shuts down for more important issues. No one piece works alone, but in concert with all others to accomplish the body’s purposes.

If the emergency lasts too long, such as if you are traveling and can’t address the burn properly, an ulcer may appear. Or migraine headaches. The ulcer or headache is not the problem; it’s a reflection of an inability of the system to rebalance.

Our bodies are integral. Once we truly grasp that everything is related, health can be effectively addressed. It seems so elementary, yet so profound. The true solution to your ulcer is not another swig of Mylanta; it’s to overcome the obstacle which has kept you in emergency mode. The inability to relax will keep your stomach overly acidic and underactive. In time, the burn will heal, but the stomach, once a complication, is now its own issue, causing new consequences.

The body is composed of entire systems of nerves and chemical reactions that send messages and receive feedback, act independently, respond to commands, and transmit status reports to maintain balance in the organism. The same network that causes proper response in an emergency will make problems when the situation turns chronic.

But the cycle of chronic illness can be broken. The integrity of the body is the key.  If the spiral can go down, it can also go up. We can use the connectedness of the body to reverse chronic problems and launch a cascade of health:

  • Most important is a good night’s sleep. Cleaning and maintenance happens during sleep, especially in the pre-midnight hours, to clean out cell debris and restore readiness for a new day’s work. Cleanliness starts at the deepest levels.
  • Eat whole foods the way they grew. Life starts at the ground level. Minimal processing means the energy of the food can be transferred to your cells effectively. Dead or synthetic foods are no way to live.
  • Pure, filtered water and plenty of it washes the body clean, lubricates moving parts and maintains proper temperature. Hydration also keeps the skin wrinkle free and younger looking.
  • Exercise daily. Whether walking or high intensity interval training, strong muscles prevent injuries and movement promotes detoxification. Fitness is good medicine.
  • Collect like-minded people on your path. Together, you can develop a culture of healthy practices, encourage accountability and celebrate success. The difference friends make to your brain health is significant.

Even if you can only do one of these points, it will make a positive difference. That investment will compound when combined with other steps you can add. Just like a savings account, a little bit added regularly turns into a big deposit in your future. Even if you’re inconsistent, as more pieces are added, you’ll begin to see benefits. Consistency will get easier. And the sooner you start and the more diverse your efforts, the more secure your health will be.

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SAD: What’s going on and How do I get out?

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) feels like a dark, cumbersome blanket that holds you back from life – and yet you just want to wrap yourself inside it and disappear.

Port Aransas (personal collection)

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is something I’ve struggled with most of my adult life, as did my dad. It just feels like a dark, cumbersome blanket that holds you back from a vibrant life – and yet, because it’s cold outside, you just want to wrap yourself inside it and disappear.  It is bleak. Nobody seems to understand depression, much less when it is merely seasonal.  It’s easier to deny the problem and hope nobody notices.

But it is real. The brain is dependent on light hitting the eye, where the photosensitive retina communicates directly to the pituitary gland. Signals from the pituitary are sent to other glands and cascade through the body to regulate mood, digestion, sleep and memory. When the days are short and dark, there just isn’t enough light to trigger the communications to other glands. Depression and fatigue result as the normal interplay of hormone messages falls into disrepair. And just about the time it becomes debilitating, Spring appears and everything miraculously returns to normal.  My dad, like many people, never understood that it was light, not post-holiday letdown, that caused his winter doldrums. Knowing that it will pass with the cloud cover, though, doesn’t make it any easier. It also becomes a major drain on the body’s defenses long term.

 

Like so many maladies, knowing the cause leads to the cure. If I’m tired, I grant myself extra sleep. But sleeping in isn’t the answer here. It is the bright morning sun, with its higher ratio of blue rays, that is most effective for regulating the body’s rhythm. And it’s often obscured.

Food quickly becomes a factor. Less stimulation of the pituitary means digestion is impaired, which slows the system and encourages weight gain. The same stresses that slow digestion also trigger a desire for comfort foods, which further strains the already struggling system of checks and balances among the organs. Lack of sunshine depletes Vitamin D in the body, compounding the insufficiency of the (also SAD) Standard American Diet and lowering the immune response. The spiral of effects reaches far into the body’s systems.

The need for support during these days is essential. Fresh whole foods are difficult to find in the pseudo-death of winter, but they supply the life that the body needs to get through it. Fermented foods are time-honored for preserving and actually improving enzyme activity and digestion. Sprouting is an easy, uplifting hobby during the winter, and snips of whatever is growing in your windowsill can be a very nutritious finishing touch to soups, stews and casseroles just before serving.

Exercise, particularly outside during the bright mornings, helps on all fronts. Movement helps to improve mood and normalize glandular activity, as well as move toxins out and oxygen through every cell. Sunshine on any exposed skin converts to Vitamin D and boosts immune response.

Avoid wearing sunglasses during the winter to encourage as much light as possible to reach the pituitary gland,  If the weather really doesn’t cooperate with providing sunshine, full spectrum lights can be a useful addition to the regular morning routine. Limit artificial light at night, whether it’s cutting out TV before bed or drawing the shades against street lights outside while you sleep, to support your body’s efforts to maintain normalcy.

In short, every little thing that you can do to maximize light and proper diet during the bleakness of winter will help to keep the SAD blues away.  Those that become habit will protect you from succumbing again in future years. My worst season was cured by a camera I was given as a gift. I vowed I would take one picture a day, and the more I moved and spent time outside looking for that photo, my depression melted. Find your “camera” – whatever keeps you moving in the sunlight and seeking health – and know that you are not alone. You and I are in this together.

 

For further reading:  https://philmaffetone.com/sun-and-brain/ 

 

 

The basics of staying healthy when everybody is sick

Illness occurs, partly from bad salsa, but primarily because of the poor state of the body at large.

Everybody has something right now. It’s flu season, cold season, and basic communicative crud season. Those who aren’t sick are disinfecting like crazy, trying to keep from getting it all.

It seems like a good idea, but fighting to keep every germ away or dead is not overly effective. Honestly, if hanging hand sanitizer amulets around every child’s neck and every stroller handle were a real solution, why does illness still plague us?

The average person carries 39 trillion bacteria – for reference, there are about 30 trillion human body cells – and yet somehow most of us stay resoundingly healthy. There’s something else going on here than the stray dirty germ.

Susceptibility to disease has more to do with the strength of the person than the amount or virility of the attacking germs. The body needs bacteria for digestion and neutralizing invaders. Most of the bacteria we fear are everyday residents of our intestinal tract, essential to proper digestion and assimilation, which have just gotten out of balance.

Balance is key.  Just like a muscle must contract one side while relaxing the other, intestinal flora must have an equilibrium of forces. Germs are not terrorists that run amok under cover of anonymity until bombing an unsuspecting organ. If we seek to eradicate any germ of this sort, we may avert disaster to that organ, but we are simultaneously allowing that organ to become weak in its defenselessness.

The body is equipped with detoxification systems and an immune system to keep the person well. As long as those systems are functioning properly, disease is not  really a worry. Bacteria on unwashed vegetables are immobilized and discarded. Viruses are identified by the immune system, which then adapts to the current threat to appropriately overcome it.

But if the liver or kidneys are overworked by a season of eating rich desserts and overindulging in alcohol, the body has less ability to detoxify a bad batch of salsa.  Add some stress to those holidays, and the body’s pH level actually turns acidic – which makes a much more hospitable environment for germs to take root. The body has become a Petri dish of sorts, an acidic environment replete with sugar to feed the quickly multiplying intruders while the systems designed to keep this at bay are buried in work, unable to keep up. Illness occurs, partly from the bad salsa, but primarily  because of the poor state of the body at large.

This is where many believe that antibiotics are necessary. While there is certainly a place for emergency medicine and acute care, I like to prevent using them if possible. Antibiotics kill good antibodies as well as the invading bacteria. In essence, antibiotics work on the premise that once everybody on the battlefield is dead, the war is over. The patient goes home. But the next day, he comes in contact with another germ. Only now there’s nobody guarding the fort. He is completely undefended from invaders, and the inhabitants will be pillaged without another infusion of antibiotics. Anybody who’s had a toddler suffer 10-12 earaches in a year has seen this. It’s not rare.

So how do you stay well and promote wellness? Let yourself ride the next little cold. Don’t run to the doctor for antibiotics to get rid of the discomfort of the war within. Each time your body is allowed to run its course and triumph over the minor stuff, it gets stronger and there are fewer bouts with big league illnesses. Probiotics, either in capsule form or in naturally fermented foods, are the best way to rebuild the body’s defenses after a round of antibiotics. They are also helpful pre-season strategy, too, to build up the body’s strength before flu season or traveling.

Staying healthy is a combined effort. Proper handwashing keeps intruders at bay, and proper nutrition keeps the defensive lines strong. The body is a living organism, capable of adapting to new invaders and becoming stronger with each test of its abilities. Don’t give the bad guys the upper hand by submitting to fear.

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When Food is a Problem

Using the Wheelbarrow Concept to unravel food sensitivities and work toward a solution.

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Most mothers will struggle at some point with at least one of the following scenarios, all of which involve food:

  • the child who, after eating a bowl of breakfast cereal, either becomes argumentative or hyperactive, only to crash into depression or fatigue after an hour.
  • the adult who develops a headache after lunch, especially fast food.
  • a toddler with recurrent ear infections and nonstop congestion year-round

Reading labels on foods can help to identify additives that may be a problem, like high fructose corn syrup causing a “sugar high,” or synthetic ingredients triggering headaches. But often that isn’t enough; finding conclusive patterns of what causes an issue is nearly impossible with the extensive and often vague ingredient lists for most foods. Whole, unprocessed foods are simpler and limit the variables, but this, too, is often inconclusive.

Keeping a food journal is an effective way to spot patterns. With my own son, I found about a dozen suspect foods but eliminating them wasn’t resolving his issues. Tests revealed he was sensitive to more than 50 common food items and many neighborhood trees.

We can’t just eliminate 50 common food items for a child; he still has to eat.

Enter what I call the “wheelbarrow concept.” On any building site, workers haul loads of rocks, dirt, and bricks. No load is particularly heavy, and the workers continue all day until the work is finished. While it’s tempting to want to just make one heavy load of everything, that load overwhelms the tools and strength available. Essentially, what the wheelbarrow concept explains is that no worker can haul rocks, bricks, and dirt together in his wheelbarrow without it tipping over or breaking.

It translates to food this way: many people, adults and children alike, don’t handle milk products well, but they can have them in moderation. Sugar is a burden but not normally a problem. Corn products are unnoticeable in nearly everything.  However, combine those ingredients in a bowl of Frosted Flakes, and the food sensitive person’s wheelbarrow tips over. Hyperactivity and emotions become nearly uncontrollable. The very predictable crash happens about an hour later, with apathy and sometimes severe depression lasting for several hours. The reaction is totally out of proportion to the ingredients and not always obviously related. Add a cheeseburger and a soda for the next meal (more corn syrup and milk products along with the related beef proteins), and the body begins protecting itself by producing mucus which plugs the ears and inflames the gut.

Essentially, this is negative synergy at work. Several items that aren’t significant stressors on their own combine together to make a big reaction.

Now think about the ramifications. To a person with grass allergies, eating wheat bread during hayfever season could be life threatening. Recognizing that it may not be one ingredient, but a combination of seemingly benign ones, helps to understand why that person’s wheelbarrow has tipped over. It also leads us to the solution.

The only way to strengthen a weak muscle, organ or system is to give it a rest. Problem foods and exposures must be separated. Rotation allows an overactive immune system to heal while still eating.

Since the body takes approximately four days to completely clear a meal from its system, nothing is eaten more than once every 4 days. Different grains go onto separate days, as do meats, vegetables and fruits. Sweeteners are separated out into different types. The idea is to give the body time to clear small problems singly and not overload it with troublesome combinations. It also ensures eating a varied diet, which begins building the immune system to handle food more effectively.

This requires a plan to administer, and the discipline that goes into actually accomplishing it is admittedly huge.  But the benefits are worth the investment. The longer you can maintain it the better the results. Beginning after a few weeks, inflammation and congestion begin to disappear, excess weight drops off, learning difficulties can clear up, and seasonal allergies lessen or go away. The food budget has probably gone up, but the medical line item goes dramatically down.

“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”
― Hippocrates

 

 

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Achieving Your Fitness Goals

The most important goal is the one that makes a difference at the end of the year.

A new year is here: it’s time to renew the quest for a better self. Whether you start the year with a detox program or a new diet or exercise routine, the trick is to get past February to accomplishing lasting change. So it must be a goal that’s challenging yet still achievable. It must make a difference at the end of the year.

What, honestly, is really important? Define your terms – what would make you healthier?

A popular option is detoxification. Basically, it means cleaning out any poisons or accumulated junk that are overwhelming our normal filtration systems. It usually means some sort of fasting. The Master Cleanse, also known as the Lemonade Diet, features lemon juice, maple syrup, salt water and cayenne for 10 days. Many supplement companies offer packages of nutrients, fiber, and colon cleansers to be taken along with a limited list of other foods for 21 – 30 days, thereby bypassing the starvation factor. Since motivation is high at the beginning of the year, many people like to start strong with a detox so that the larger goal of eating clean is easier as life crowds back in. It’s not a long-term diet, but a yearly cleanse to release old junk and jumpstart a new, healthier lifestyle. It’s just very difficult to get through the first few days: the body hits panic buttons when the usual crutches of caffeine or sugar don’t arrive on cue.

Dieting, as a longer term strategy, has unlimited options. When choosing what’s right, it’s important to know what the real problem is. Is overindulgence the issue, or is there a food sensitivity that’s causing inflammation? Or is the body depleted of a particular nutrient that’s driving overeating? It’s easy to see this in teenagers, who eat almost embarrassingly at a party and yet still continue browsing the snack table because their bodies need something that hot dogs, chips and soda aren’t providing. Limiting amounts of food isn’t the right solution. I’ll go into different types of diets in future posts, but for now, if this is where you’re heading, choose what seems right and achievable.

Be aware, too, that an overarching change in diet, while it may be a good idea, can be pretty formidable. The body doesn’t respond well to edicts, and a sudden overhaul with no comfort foods and no end in sight is not a recommended path to lasting change. Better to start with smaller changes and more gradually adapt to mostly whole foods. Leave the complete vegetarian or ketogenic status for later, when your body is closer and can make a step to that level.

Exercise is always a good idea, as long as it’s approached realistically. Beware of the “couch to tri-athlete in 5 weeks” plans. Start with a shorter-term exercise routine and take it up a notch as you progress. Darebee.com has a ton of free exercise programs, challenges and fitness information at all fitness levels to get you started and keep you going. No gym required!

Whatever the goal, put it on the planner or set an alarm, and don’t rely on good intentions to get it done. The routines and muscle memory aren’t in place yet. Habits are ruts that we fall into that make moving through the day easy. They should help us by doing tedious work while we plot bigger things. So the hardest part of achieving a resolution is getting out of the bad habit rut. In order to change the tracks, we have to fall off the edges back into the bad rut many times before the new, good track is formed. Making it permanent comes with learning how to overcome failure and strengthening muscles to hold the intended course. Once a good rut is formed, the routine takes over and there is no discussion about whether you will stay on the diet or do the exercises today. Healthy habits have become part of the routine.

Treat yourself like you’d like to be treated. Don’t lay down the law for your body and expect it to obey. Set real-life objectives that allow for interruptions and don’t require around-the-clock toilet access. Some great plans that allow for actual life are:

– Study or exercise plans that take weekends off, allowing for catch-up if you’ve missed or taking a break if you haven’t

– Six day diets that are fairly strict but then the seventh is a free day to eat whatever you like

– Exercise programs that mix things up daily to maintain interest

Intermittent or partial fasting: either not eating for a period of time each day, or excluding a particular food. Both can be a great way to take control of health.

The takeaway is not to expect perfection. You are regrooving a rut – the aim is progress in the proper direction. If you take a break on the wrong day, it’s no big deal. Just keep going as though you kept to the plan. It’s more important to finish strong than make every step perfect. Look for improvement and celebrate it. It may not be what you shot for, but it’s a step in the right direction. Positive motion – or lack of negative motion – is more certain than unsustainable perfection. I went 12 weeks once on a diet and exercise program before the scale let go of that number. Frustration was mine, but I wouldn’t let it be the last word. I put a picture of myself with a cow on the fridge and vowed to be able to discern the two when summer came. By the end of the year, I’d dropped 30 lbs. Celebrate the score days and don’t sweat the dropped ones. Each day is new; just start back over on the plan.

You’ll get there. Hopefully I can give you some useful information that will help move your health in the right direction this year. What would help you the most? Let me know in the comments, and I’ll put it on the list of topics!

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