Every year I attend the CHFA (Canadian Health Food Association) trade show that’s open only to retailers and health professionals. This past Sunday I spent the day wandering through the aisles with my mom (she’s a nurse practitioner), checking out what’s available in health supplements and healthy food options.
This is what I picked up.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I love the tried and true stuff. After all, I am practicing a medicine that has a history of thousands of years–Traditional Chinese Medicine’s foundations began 4000+ years ago. But, I also like to find out what’s new. Even TCM continues to evolve, with elements of our practice being fully modern. After all, don’t you prefer your acupuncture with sterile, fine, filiform needles that are thin as hair and glide with ease rather than a sharpened stone? Uh huh, I thought so. Plus, I love being able to offer biopuncture, press needles, silicone cups for cupping, microcurrent stimulation, Swarovski crystal ear seeds (a different post I’ll need to write about soon), and other newer aspects of TCM practice.
So, without further ado, here are some of the things I was most excited to see at this year’s CHFA trade show: foods with more medicinal benefits, companies giving back, healthy things that are also convenient, people passionate and knowledgeable about health!
Okay, so I’ve often been a bit perplexed about the idea of “functional foods.” After all, aren’t all whole foods functional, i.e. have health benefits? But the term functional foods refers to foods that “have a potentially positive effect on health beyond basic nutrition.” Still, the category is pretty broad. We’re finding out more and more that many foods contain phytonutrients, i.e. chemicals that the plants produce for their own benefit that also provide health perks for us.
Another definition of functional foods is “processed foods containing ingredients that aid specific bodily functions in addition to being nutritious.” What I saw at the show were foods that have been added to. You get the food…plus you get a supplement of some sort. It’s not a new idea. Vitamin D has long been added to dairy products, you can buy omega-3 eggs, and iodine is added to table salt. What I saw though, were the addition of herbs and other nutrients, like this probiotic granola bar. This one is delicious (if you have a sweet tooth), soft, and chewy. It contains 4 billion active probiotic cultures. That’s a good amount! They also make drinks with their probiotics too, though I haven’t tried it yet. Plus, I see that they’ve partnered with the Creation of Hope initiative to help build water wells in Africa, with 5 cents donated for every bottle they sell.
You may know, I’m a big fan of reishi mushrooms. It’s one of TCM’s top herbs! How can it not be, when its Chinese name “ling zhi” translates to “holy mushroom,” and when it’s also known as the “mushroom of immortality!” I write articles regularly for Mikei Red Reishi Mushroom, so I’ve done lots of research beyond the usual for this particular power herb. So, I was excited to see a snack bar with reishi in it (and one with cordyceps too–another powerful Chinese herb!). Though this brand’s reishi uses only the mycelia (root-like structure of a fungus), rather than the fruiting body (the stem and cap–the part you usually think about when you think “mushroom”)–unlike the Mikei brand–meaning it doesn’t contain all the beneficial compounds, it does still contain many polysaccharides that help with immune health. The powerful medicinal compounds in reishi and cordyceps taste awful. They are bitter. So, I was surprised to see them in a granola bar. But, here they were, and the bars taste good. They are crunchier, much firmer than the probiotic bars, and much less sweet. I’m not giving up my daily reishi supplement, but I’d have these snack bars as a topper up on occasion.
Ok, this food isn’t about adding something medicinal to a food, but instead, it’s a functional food that is now being used when it was previously tossed away. Do you love coffee? Did you know that the coffee plant leaf has health benefits? Like many teas, it is rich in antioxidants. The cool thing about attending a trade health show is learning the stuff you didn’t know you didn’t know. Like, the coffee plant leaf contains mangiferin (found in mangoes, but not only mangoes), a compound that is anti a lot of things–antioxidant, antimicrobial (kills bad things you don’t want in your body), anti-diabetic, anti-inflammatory, anti-allergic–and analgesic (should I have called it “anti-pain”?). It also contains about as much caffeine as green tea and chlorogenic acids–the same compound that has made green coffee beans popular for weight loss. Bonus is jobs. The coffee industry is huge and many people are employed by it, but only for the 3-4 months per year when coffee beans can be harvested. What can they do during the remainder of the year? By harvesting the coffee leaf instead of tossing it, those people can still be employed. Plus, waste not, want not. This really a wise product: Wize Monkey Coffee Tea Leaf.
I’ve recently become minorly (my husband might say it’s not that minor) obsessed with essential oils. I blame two of my friends/colleagues (you know who you are!) who are even nuttier than I am about E.O. I’ve spent way too much money stocking up on oils, but the good thing is that I use them regularly, and I find them helpful! It’s a whole huge topic to go into all the health benefits of E.O., but it’s way beyond smelling nice. For one, did you know that your sense of smell is one of your most primitive and powerful senses? Your olfactory (smell) receptors are directly linked to your limbic system, the part of your brain that helps control your drive for survival, emotional stimuli, motivation, and some types of memory. You’ve likely experienced a powerful memory prompted by a smell–I love the smell of ice rinks because I spent a lot of time there as a figure skater, and Chinese herbal stores always make me feel instantly better.
So, when I came across this company, Divine Essence, I was riveted with amount of information I learned about oils. Many of their oils are organic and they can offer the chemical breakdown analysis for proof of purity, if you ask. The thing about essential oils is that quality can vary. I bought one set of E.O. on a Groupon from a different company. Serves me right. It was cheap. Too cheap, and what I found was that the oils they sent are more like water. Good quality essential oils will have the Latin species name (there are many types of lavender, for instance, each with a different profile), where it was sourced, and that it’s 100% pure and natural. You know when you meet someone who is clearly passionate about what they do? These guys are that. Plus knowledgeable. This may be my favourite product I picked up at the CHFA show: organic helichrysum (also called everlasting or immortelle). It’s beautiful for skin health, an antiviral, antifungal, anti-inflammatory, etc. (note that most E.O. should be diluted in oil to use topically and should only be used internally with guided support from someone who’s qualified, despite what some marketing companies say).
If you’re not planning on going E.O. nuts, but you’d like your car or closet or gym bag to smell nice, here’s an option. I’m trying the peppermint one in my car. It’s strongly scented right now, so it’s a good thing I love peppermint. They apparently last for 3 weeks. Please, please, please don’t use the fake scents–those cardboard pine tree-shaped smelly things for your car, Febreeze, fake scented air fresheners, cologne, perfume. The chemicals in those products are harmful to us and to our environment. Raise your hand if you, like me, hold your breath when you walk through the perfume section of a department store or past the store Abercrombie & Fitch (stinks like a cologne war). I love these Purple Frog air fresheners because they combine one of my favourite animals (I collect frog knick knacks) with essential oils. 🙂
Toiletries and Topicals
Toiletries. What an awful name for things that you use to make yourself look better. But, I didn’t create the word and it makes for nice alliteration in my subheading. 😉
Brushing your teeth may not be exciting or ground breaking. But this oil (Body Food Dental) used as an alternative to toothpaste is quite different. It doesn’t foam. It doesn’t have chemicals. No SLS (sodium laureth/lauryl sulfate) or fluoride. You don’t need much. Just add 1-2 drops on your wet toothbrush and brush as you normally would. It’s a specially chosen blend of essential oils (you’ve already seen my love for E.O., as mentioned above) in coconut oil. It also tastes great. Not sure yet if I’ll convert over entirely, but I am alternating it with my natural toothpaste.
I often recommend dry brushing. Why? Because your lymphatic system will benefit, as will your skin. Why do I want to support my lymphatic system? Because the lymphatic system is part of your circulatory and immune systems, clearing away the garbage–dead cells, bacteria, viruses, cancer cells, toxins, excess fluid, and other waste products. I’ve written about lymphatic support here and here. This isn’t a new product at all, but it’s one I was happy to pick up–a dry brush. Practice dry brushing before you hop in the shower and you may find you catch fewer colds, have less puffiness, feel more energy, and have healthier skin. This brush by Urban Spa has a nice long handle, but I did notice that some of the bristles came off when brushing, so I might better recommend the Merben brand, as it comes with options for sensitive skin and is ethically sourced and made.
This product counts as the one I’ve used the most since I picked up a sample. Some of you, as my patients, have already had this EpsomGel applied to your area of pain. I’ve tried topical magnesium products before. But they made me itchy, so I stopped using them. This one didn’t itch. Plus, it also contains arnica, which is good for treating injuries. It does have a light scent, but it’s not overwhelming. If you find that epsom salt baths help you relieve muscle tightness and cramping, then here’s your quick version that doesn’t require you to draw a bath (though you still might like to do that). I find it helpful for menstrual cramps or other muscle cramps, as well as tight muscles in general. If you want something topical for joint pain, and something that you can really feel as cooling and instantly pain relieving, then you might want to try SierraSil’s topical spray (I use that at the clinic). Either way, it’s great to have options for pain relief that won’t damage your liver, stomach, heart, or kidneys.
I didn’t take a picture, but if there was one line of product I wish would disappear, it’s the bottled water category. I get it, sometimes you’re out and you want water. For sure, buy bottled if you’re in a country where the water will make you sick. Otherwise, drink tap or filtered tap water. I have a filter at home and plenty of re-usable, very nice looking and practical containers (some are collapsible and thus more portable for travel). At the trade show, I saw Mood Water. It was plastic bottles of a clear liquid and labels with pictures of emoticons. Cute, but “what’s in it?” I asked. “Water,” she said. Simply that. It was a marketing gimmick: Water is healthy; people like emoticons. But what an environmental waste. As much as I loved the show and am excited to see the innovations put forth next year, I’d like to no longer see stuff like that.
I’ve now recovered from my sampling of too many gluten-free, dairy-free, free trade, organic, vegan snacks, chocolate bars, cookies, ice cream, pastas, breads, spreads, etc. from last Sunday. But I’m still absorbing all the information that I gleaned from that day!
Did you know that a simple turmeric tea can help you stave off a number of diseases and treat a large number of symptoms and diseases? Turmeric has long been recognized for its powerful medicinal benefits by Traditional Chinese Medicine and Aryuvedic medicine, but more recently is also being studied by western researchers for its ability to treat a wide variety of health issues. One of the root causes of many health issues is chronic inflammation.
Turmeric, as a result, has been shown to help treat and manage Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, stomach ulcers, arthritis, dementia, colorectal cancer, surgery recovery, and much, much more.
Is this part of the reason why Okinawans have a well-known reputation for longevity?
Ukoncha (ウコン茶?, “turmeric tea“) is a kind of turmeric tea which originates from Okinawa, in southern Japan. Ukoncha is made of the rhizomes of turmeric
While I prescribe standardized, concentrated turmeric in capsule form for treatment, you can certainly also benefit both preventively and as treatment by having a regular turmeric tea. Super easy to prepare in advance, you can keep it on hand so all you have to do is add water.
Turmeric Tea Recipe
Turmeric Honey Tea
An anti-inflammatory daily use tea
- 1/3 cup good quality raw honey
- 2-3 tsp powdered turmeric
- lemon (optional)
- Mix the honey and turmeric and keep it in a jar.
- When you want a tea, stir a heaping teaspoon of the turmeric/honey mix into 1 cup of hot water. Add " a good amount" of fresh ground pepper to enhance the absorption of the turmeric and improve its health benefits. Optional to squeeze in lemon, to taste.
Acupuncture, TCM, natural health, Vancouver, BC http://www.activetcm.com/
The Vancouver Sun recently wrote an article titled, “Chinese herbs mixed with medications can be hazardous.” Now, the article doesn’t really say that Chinese herbs themselves are dangerous. It discusses how patients (particularly those from China) often take Chinese herbs, but don’t tell their medical doctors about it. And the onus of blame for health risks from drug-herb interactions always lands on the herbs, not the pharmaceuticals.
Chinese herbs mixed with medications can be hazardous
Using traditional Chinese herbal remedies while also taking prescription medications can cause potentially life-threatening reactions. After a survey of Chinese immigrants in Vancouver found that many use traditional herbs and fail to disclose it to …
The Good Side of Awareness for Drug-Herb Interactions
A group of medical students is working with an emergency medical doctor at Vancouver General Hospital to provide a checklist of common Chinese herbs with a listing of the herbs’ actions. The intent is to provide the list to TCM practitioners, TCM herbalists, and TCM doctors to have them check the box next to any of the herbs they prescribe to each of their patients. The idea is that the patient would then provide this checklist to their MD.
I do agree that dangerous drug-herb interactions need to be avoided.
I do agree that it’s important that patients notify their MDs about any herbs or supplements they are taking. And that they also tell their TCM health professional (and any other health providers) about medications they are taking.
I do agree that Chinese herbs can have powerful medicinal effects. This actually is refreshing to me to hear medical students and a VGH ER doc note the potent physiological actions of Chinese herbs. TCM offers effective medicinal results, and too often the conventional side questions the efficacy. This group of conventional health providers do not question that there are medicinal effects. Bravo!
Should We Be Concerned About Dangerous Chinese Herbs?
But, is it really the Chinese herbs themselves that are the problem?
How herbs are being taken
Part of the problem is it that patients may take herbs improperly, taking the health advice of a friend or family member (or Dr. Google), rather than seek the help of a qualified TCM doctor or herbalist.
As a registered doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine, I know that when we prescribe Chinese herbs, the herbs are almost never prescribed as a single herb. We gather a lot of information from our patients about their health conditions, their medications (we too learn about drug-herb interactions), their other supplements, and a long list of symptoms, life patterns, and medical history. We do this so that we can work to avoid side effects and negative interactions.
British Columbians are lucky. TCM is a regulated profession. TCM herbs are prescribed by health professionals who are registered, licensed, and insured. We are held accountable, just like MDs, nurses, physios, and other health professionals under the Health Professions Act. So, make sure the person who tells you to take your Chinese herbs is actually qualified to do so. Note that if you want Chinese herbs, check our regulatory body’s website and choose only those with Dr.TCM, R.TCM.P., or R.TCM.H. Registered acupuncturists (R.Ac.) are not qualified to prescribe Chinese herbs.
What about the pharmaceuticals?
How about the pharmaceutical medications themselves? Do they hold some responsibility, or is it a dysfunctional blaming relationship? “It’s not me, it’s you.”
For example, the blood thinning drug warfarin (that they mention in the Vancouver Sun article) does not play well with others. Many others. Including A.S.A. (e.g. Aspirin), ibuprofen (e.g. Advil), and acetominophen (e.g. Tylenol); thyroid medicine, some antibiotics, and some antidepressants; and even many foods, like grapefruit, avocado, large amounts of kale or other otherwise healthy dark leafy greens, and store-bought mayo, salad dressings, and margarine.
I’m not against the proper use of pharmaceutical medicine. I work in an integrative medicine clinic with MDs and an ND who prescribe them. My mother is a nurse practitioner. I will take an Advil or Tylenol if I am suffering pain and need quick relief. But, too many people are too over-medicated because it’s easy to do. Because MSP or extended health plans pay for the medications, but not our herbs, vitamins, and other supplements. Because of scary articles like this one in the Vancouver Sun.
Why aren’t patients telling their MDs about their herb use?
Then, of course, there’s the big question…why aren’t patients telling their MDs about the herbs, vitamins, and other supplements they are taking? This article provides an answer, “A survey her group conducted of more than 300 Chinese immigrants to Vancouver revealed many don’t disclose their use of such remedies because they feel they’ll be harshly judged.”
That is a problem!
And it’s not just Chinese immigrants who feel that way. Many patients have told me that they take supplements or get treatments (like acupuncture, chiropractic, osteopathy, and more) despite the flak they take from their MDs. Some have learned to just shut it when it comes to that discussion. Easier not to have to argue. Or justify. Or try to explain how it’s actually working for them.
So, will my taking the time to print, fill out, and hand that checklist to each patient who receives Chinese herbs from me help?
Maybe a bit. Maybe it will open up some much needed dialogue between health professions so we can work better together. *I’m lucky because I work in an integrative medical clinic alongside MDs who are open-minded and who practice functional medicine–which really actually uses TCM foundational principles.
But, if only 1% of the herbal formula I make for someone is licorice root, will the MD still have them stop their herbs if they are taking warfarin?
And, above all, if patients feel they can’t discuss their health choices with their MDs, will they even hand that list to their MD?
Our world is full of chemicals that are toxic to us if allowed to accumulated in our bodies. Toxins are found in food, makeup, skincare products, and cleaning products, but also even in some supplements and herbal products. Canada has much stricter rules regarding these toxic chemicals than some other countries. For this reason, Aryuvedic herbs and Chinese herbal products are highlighted as possible sources for higher levels of these toxins. When patients ask me about the quality of Chinese herbs and other supplements I use–and it’s a good question to ask–I can assure them that the products I use have third party testing for safety and quality. Read more to find out what other things to consider in my 24 Hours Vancouver article, How to Clean Your Food of Toxins.
In March I went to the CHFA (Canadian Health Food Association) show held in Vancouver (they have one in Toronto every year too). Only retailers and health professionals are allowed entry, not general public, because these are the companies that sell to the stores and clinics who then sell to the consumer. I go so that I can see what’s new in the land of natural health products and foods, and every year I learn about at least a few products that I hadn’t known prior.
I’ve been meaning to write about a few of the products I’ve tried, so finally, a couple of months later, here I start.
Kombucha Tea—“Immortal Health Elixir”
Kombucha tea is one of those food/drink products that has been around for a very long time, but didn’t hit mainstream (well, relatively mainstream) until recently. It may not make you immortal, but because it’s rich in antioxidants, vitamins, phytonutrients, and probiotics, it has been shown to help improve joint health, support good digestion, boost under-functioning immune systems, aid detoxification, and perhaps even prevent cancer.
Kombucha is a fermented sweetened tea. Ya, I know, that doesn’t sound yummy, but you’ll find a wide variety of brands and flavours now available in the refrigerated section of many grocery stores. The most common brand I’ve seen is called Synergy. It comes in flavours like Gingerberry, Guava Goddess, and Cosmic Cranberry. Some of them also come with chia seeds that make the drink thicker and more filling—you get a bonus of essential fats, fibre, and protein. These latter options are a much healthier alternative to sugar laden bubble tea with those little balls of tapioca.
I had only tried Synergy before and I prefer it not with the chia seeds. I find that you can taste a bit of a fermented bite—vinegary—with this brand. I like it, but it might not suit everyone’s tastebuds. It does taste “authentic” though, and there are a ton of flavour options, so you can try a different one if the first one you try doesn’t click for you.
At the CHFA show I picked up a bottle of Rise Kombucha in Hibiscus and Rosehips flavour and a bottle of Brew Dr. Kombucha in “Clear Mind” option.
What I like about the Rise Kombucha tea is that it has a lighter taste, so I think it probably will have a wider audience. I’ve tried some other Rise products and could taste the flavours in each—Mint & Chlorophyll, Rose and Schizandra, and of course Ginger. I think I need to buy the Lemongrass one next, as the Rise website lists a couple of recipes (a salad dressing and a marinade for veggies) that use that Lemongrass Rise Kombucha. It’s also nice that it’s a Canadian product—from my home province, Quebec.
The Brew Dr. Kombucha tea is made in Portland, Oregon, as you might guess. It’s bottled in brown glass stubbies, like old school beer. If you check out their website, you’ll get a definite hipster vibe. But don’t hold that against them ;). This brand tasted more like a beer to me. So, if you want a healthy drink that will sub in for a beer and actually help your brain, rather than kill off brain cells, try the Clear Mind Brew Dr. Kombucha.
Oh, and for each of these, I have 2 tips.
- Don’t shake the bottle vigourously or you’ll be cleaning up a mess. Rise Kombucha recommends you turn the bottle upside down and gentle swirl it to mix in the sediment (the “mother”—the good stuff!).
- I usually find a whole bottle too much for one sitting for me. I pour about half into a glass and cap the remainder to keep in the fridge.
Let me know if you have a fave kombucha and if you have your own tips.
While the likelihood of being diagnosed with many diseases increases with age, there are some that are most likely to start in the “prime of life”—ages 20 to 40. Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis (UC), both inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD), fit this pattern. While I’ve written about IBDs before, this is an area of health that I’m particularly passionate about because I have a family connection. My sister has Crohn’s.
IBDs cause a host of challenges, including that there really is not that much known about them and that these diseases can be embarrassing. If you or someone you know has an IBD, here are some things to consider.
Both Crohn’s and UC are more common in first-world countries where a Westernized diet and lifestyle have been shown to increase the risk of IBD. There is thought that regular exposure to environmental toxins, synthetic chemicals, and bacteria are possible causes or at least aggravants. In addition—though IBDs are not caused by gluten—for those that are genetically susceptible, eating gluten can aggravate inflammation. Subsequently, it’s wise to consider a gluten-free diet, avoid processed foods, and try to limit contact with toxic chemicals, including pesticides, synthetic fragrances, and BPA plastics.
There are also some unusual treatments that are currently difficult to arrange, but show some promise. One involves infecting the IBD patient with a parasitic worm. Yup, you read that right. The reasoning is that in countries where parasitic worms are common, IBD incidence is low. This is called the “hygiene hypothesis.” It states that lack of these worm infections may result in immune dysregulation, leading to inflammation of the bowels. One worm that has been tested is called Trichuris suis ova (TSO), or pig whipworm egg. When ingested, the eggs only take up residency for a few weeks, and when they embed in the gut wall they help decrease the overstimulated immune cells and decrease inflammation.
Another type of treatment is fecal implants. Because one of the issues with IBD is an imbalance of intestinal bacteria, implanting a stool sample from a healthy donor has been found to effectively treat IBD. Preliminary studies showed reduction in symptoms (19 of 25 IBD patients), stopping of IBD medications (13 of 17 IBD patients on medications), and disease remission (15 of 24 IBD patients).
The problem with both of these last treatments is that they are not readily available options.
More easily accessible treatments include probiotics to help restore a healthy balance of good bacteria to the gut; omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA from fish oils to decrease inflammation; L-glutamine, an amino acid that helps restore intestinal cells; turmeric (curcumin) and boswellia, herbs to reduce inflammation; and slippery elm, marshmallow root, and aloe vera to soothe the gut lining.
A couple of simple things you can consider include extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) and also green tea. These two seemingly simple ingredients may very well help treat IBD. Taking 1-2 Tbsp of EVOO daily can help soothe the gut lining and decrease inflammation. Studies have also shown that green tea may help treat mild to moderate UC, and recommendations are for 5-6 cups daily, particularly of organic matcha green tea powder.
For a more in-depth treatment, Traditional Chinese Medicine offers a customized approach to identify individual digestive and health issues, using acupuncture, Chinese herbs, and nutritional advice.
Roundoc Rx: Optimal Integrative Treatment for Ulcerative Colitis by Robert Roundtree, MD; August 2014
I wrote this article and then the very next day had 2 patients email to ask me for information about treating insomnia. That on top of the usual in clinic requests I hear during appointments. That just goes to show how ubiquitous sleep issues are.
I know many of you take sleeping pills, but I highly recommend looking for other options. I mentioned it in my 24 Hours article, but didn’t include the quote:
Receiving hypnotic prescriptions was associated with greater than threefold increased hazards of death even when prescribed <18 pills/year.
That’s huge! Here’s a link to that research: Hypnotics Association with Mortality or Cancer
Acupuncture, herbs, and supplements offer healthier alternatives. Check out my article on sleep in 24 Hours by clicking here.
Yes, Chinese herbs tasted awful to most. I tell my patients to be ready for the worst tasting “tea” they’ve ever had. Either they agree it’s the worst, but are prepared for it, or they are happy to report that it’s “not that bad.” The good news is two-fold. One, it doesn’t generally taste that bad by week 2, as your taste buds adapt to bitter–they’re usually much more accustomed to sweet and salty. And two, the health benefits start to kick in. Click here for the PDF of my article in 24 Hours Vancouver newspaper: Get past ‘ick’ factor for herbal benefits.
The following very LONG page is from 2 articles I wrote for a local magazine. I thought some might find it useful here:
Have you ever walked into a pharmacy or a nutrition store and gazed upon the bottle upon bottle of options for supplements? Perhaps you want to buy some calcium, but find it hard to pick out the best one. Price is certainly one thing to consider, but it is definitely not the most important thing to mull over when purchasing. You wouldn’t just pick the cheapest car when auto shopping, just because it’s the cheapest. That $200 “deal” might be trash on wheels and what a waste of your money it could be.
To Supplement, or Not to Supplement, That is the Question…(part 1)
The first question is whether you actually need to buy any supplements. Even the Canada Food Guide now recommends a multivitamin/mineral supplement. There are many reasons why a supplement may be useful or even essential.
- You don’t eat enough healthy, nutritionally balanced and varied meals. Broccoli, tomato, and lettuce are not good enough to cover your vegetable category. Can you try to guess the most consumed vegetable of North America? Potatoes. Usually in the form of French fries. Really not good enough.
- You have higher nutritional needs. Illness, stress, medications, and higher activity levels are examples of situations that cause a need for more nutrients. Some medications cause specific nutrient deficiencies. Ask your health practitioner or pharmacist about your medications and their impact.
- You have poor digestion/absorption. Just because you consume something does not mean that your body uses all those nutrients. We tend to produce fewer digestive enzymes as we age. Those with digestive issues such as irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s, colitis, indigestion, and others may not have good digestive absorption of vitamins, minerals, and other key nutrients from food. Also, as we age, we produce less stomach acid and fewer digestive enzymes. Even if you have heartburn or acid reflux, you may still have insufficient stomach acid. It may be that the problem is not enough of a protective lining of mucus to shield the stomach tissues or that the valve that stops stomach acid from rising is too loose and allows stomach acid to seep back and irritate the esophagus (the tube that brings food from your mouth to your stomach).
- Our food is less nutrient-rich than it once was due to nutrient-poor soils from over farming, early harvesting so that foods can be send on long journeys across the continent or from the other side of the world, pollution, and poor quality foods. We used to grow our own food or buy it from our neighbours. We used to pick up fresh foods daily. We now buy foods laden in preservatives. We add artificial or “natural” flavours to try to make them tasty again. We buy foods from the other side of the world. Try eating a banana in Thailand. It tastes totally different than what we eat here. Why? Because we don’t grow bananas here! Those bananas are picked long before they are ripe.
It is impossible for me to list all the supplements that you could or should consider, so we’ll just cover a few fundamentals about multivitamins/minerals in this article and expand on other important supplement categories next month.
If any of the four listed issues above are ones that you think affect you, then consider a multivitamin/mineral. As mentioned, not all supplements are created the same. When picking up a multi, read the label or ask someone to help you. These are some things to look for:
a) We all have different needs at different stages of our lives. Women are different than men. Age plays a factor. So, if you are over the age of 45 or 50, pick a multi that is designed and labeled as specific to your age group.
b) Some nutrients are trickier than others. Looking at a multi, one way to assess quality is to check out the vitamin E. Does it read dl-alpha-tocopherol? If so, then that company is using a synthetic vitamin E which is poorly absorbed. Make sure that it reads d-alpha-tocopherol. Note the missing l. If the multi has mixed tocopherols or, even better, includes tocotrienols, you are getting a leg up on your vitamin E source and that multi is likely a very good one.
c) Check out the “non-medicinal” list of ingredients. I recommend avoiding supplements that add in extras like aspartame (an artificial sweetener—more likely found in the chewable forms), hydrogenated palm or soybean oils (hydrogenation produces trans fats, that bad stuff you have been hearing more and more about), sodium benzoate (a preservative), and FD&C dyes.
d) Remember, multis are a mix of various vitamins and minerals. If your multi is a single colour (usually a bright reddish orange), then dyes and other coatings have been used. Multis also often smell bad. The B vitamins, in particular, smell bad. That’s normal. If you have to, plug your nose when you take them.
Here’s a hint about swallowing these usually large pills: Have a small mouthful of food, chew it well, and pop in 1 or 2 of the supplement tablets or capsules with the food. You will find it much easier to get down.
Supplement How-To, (part 2)
Last month I covered some basic things to consider for choosing and taking supplements to optimize your health. This month’s article will cover a few specifics about some particular areas of health, but do remember that these recommendations are still generalized and you may want to discuss your particular needs with your health care provider or qualified natural health practitioner as each individual’s needs will vary.
Essential Fatty Acids (EFA)
You’ve likely heard about the importance of essential fatty acids (EFAs). Some best sources are found in flax seeds, hemp seeds, chia seeds (yes, of the famously known “Chia Pet” plants), and fish such as salmon, tuna, sardines, herring, and mackerel. The merit of EFAs is not overstated. They are “essential” because your body cannot make them on its own and they need to be consumed in foods.
There are some supplements where the cheapest brand may be just as good as the most expensive. That is not the case with EFAs. While you don’t necessarily have to search out the most expensive one, quality of oil is important.
When choosing fish oils, the small fish are best, i.e. sardines, mackerel, herring, rather than the large salmon, tuna, halibut, and cod. This is because the larger fish, being higher up on the food chain, have potential for a higher accumulation of heavy metals such as mercury.
Flax seeds are a great source of omega 3 EFAs (and fibre), but in order to get the oils out, you need to either buy flax oil, flax oil capsules, or grind flax seeds. Once ground, the flax seeds need to be kept in the fridge. Another option is to buy husked flax seeds as the oils are readily accessible and they are shelf stable.
Hemp seeds and chia seeds are great snacks as they can be chewed to access the oils, protein, and fibre.
In order to properly absorb and utilize all nutrients, your digestive system has to be working well enough. You may not need any of these supplements, but if your digestive system is impaired, you can ask me which, if any, might be best suited for you and what others might you include that I haven’t written about here.
Some key digestive nutrients include the following:
a) Digestive enzymes: As we age, we produce fewer digestive enzymes, substances that our bodies need to break down the foods that we eat so their nutrients can be absorbed and used. Eating raw or lightly cooked (TCM prefers lightly cooked, steamed, slow cooked, and soups and stews) vegetables, fruits, grains (especially sprouted grains), and legumes will provide some enzymes. Supplemental enzymes in capsule format are also available. If you are lactose intolerant (problems digesting milk and dairy products), make sure your enzyme supplement includes lactase.
b) Probiotics: Probiotics are the “good bacteria” that you hear a lot about in yogurt commercials. Yogurt is an okay source, but if you are taking or have taken a lot of antibiotics, or if you have digestive issues (constipation, diarrhea, bloating, cramping, etc.), probiotic supplements are best as they contain much higher dosages of the good bacteria. There are many strains of these bacteria, so it may be best to talk to a natural health care practitioner to determine which is best for you. This is another category where quality makes a difference because if the quality is poor, not enough of the good bacteria will survive and live in your intestines.
c) Fibre: Most of us do not get enough fibre in our diets. Although many people think that we only need to worry about fibre if we are constipated, its benefits are many. Fibre does help with regulating bowel function, will not cause “too many bowel movements” when taken properly, helps keep blood cholesterol in check, helps regulate blood sugar levels, and may even help prevent cancer, kidney stones, and gallstones.
d) Senna: I want to mention this one because it is commonly taken to remedy constipation. Note, however, that it can become habit forming because the body can become dependant on it. Talk with your health care provider for other options so that you can limit or avoid senna.
Note that for this category, I didn’t simply label it Calcium. Many nutrients are key to good bone health.
a) Calcium: Calcium carbonate is commonly used, but it is generally poorly absorbed. Calcium carbonate is what antacids use to decrease stomach acid. The problem with that as a calcium source is that we need stomach acid in order to absorb calcium and our stomach acid tends to decline as we age (even if you have acid reflux, it does not mean you have too much acid, just likely not enough mucus to protect from the acid). Better options include calcium citrate, calcium chelate, and my preferred, calcium microcrystalline hydroxyapatite complex (MCHC). The last one can not only slow the rate of bone loss, but also reverse bone loss attributed to osteoporosis.
b) Magnesium: More than 60% of the body’s store of magnesium is in the bones. Sufficient magnesium is required for vitamin D and calcium absorption. In addition, magnesium on its own has been shown to slow the rate of bone loss. Magnesium oxide is a poorly absorbed form, so what you are best consuming in supplement form is magnesium citrate, magnesium chelate, or magnesium glycinate. Magnesium may also help reduce muscle cramps and help with relaxing for sleep.
c) Vitamin D: Vitamin D is essential for optimal calcium absorption. While your body can make this nutrient from exposure to sunlight, many of us do not get enough sun throughout the year to support our needs.
d) Others: Manganese, copper, zinc, strontium, boron, and phosphorous are other key bone nutrients.
Supplements is a huge topic and I’ve only covered a very small part of it, but some things to remember are that no supplement should be used to replace a healthy diet and lifestyle, that while generally safe you should make sure that the supplements that you take are suitable for you and in combination with any medications that you take, and that quality of product and an appropriate dosage will impact the effectiveness of any supplement.
I recently did a talk for a class of pharmacy students at the University of British Columbia. I was happy when they asked me lots of questions though and I thought you might have some of those same questions.
How many Chinese herbs are there?
There are more than 6000 herbs–including plants, minerals, and animal parts–with 600 used commonly.
Do you prescribe things like tiger bone, bear gallbladder, and rhinoceros horn?
NO! A big emphatic NO! Though they have been used traditionally in TCM in the past, they are illegal in Canada. Not only that, but they are not necessary to use. There are many substitutes that are effective and ethical to use.
What herb is best to treat…[fill in the blank, e.g. headaches]?
In TCM, the key is to obtain a TCM pattern diagnosis. Everyone is different, so 10 people with a headache might all have different herbs and treatments. Not only that, but Chinese herbs are almost always prescribed in combination, almost never as single herbs.
How do you make sure that herbs you prescribe are safe?
An herbal prescription is chosen with safety at top of mind. We consider the length of time that the herbs will be prescribed, the quantity of herbs prescribed, the methods of processing the herbs, whether there’s any risk of conflicting with any pharmaceuticals or other nutraceuticals, each individual’s health issues, and allergies and sensitivities.
Do the herbs come from China? Is the quality safe?
Some of my patients are concerned about the quality of the herbs I prescribe as they hear about quality issues with come products and foods that come from China and other countries. Some problems include that poor quality herbs can low quality or incorrect herbs; can be adulterated with pharmaceuticals; laden with heavy metals, pesticides, fungus, molds; and manufactured in substandard facilities.
But, not all herbs can be painted with this same brush! The herbs I use go through rigorous testing. They are extremely high quality herbs that much attain a Certificate of Analysis (COA). They must pass the strictest criteria of standards from U.S., Singapore, Japan, and E.U. Herbs go through a process of identification that includes selection by qualified professionals, microscopic inspection, chemical identification, and chemical “fingerprinting” (thin layer chromatography) to make sure that the right herb is chosen. Herbs are cleansed of dirt and other foreign particles, prepared with traditional methods, and extracted while making sure to maintain the integrity of the volatile essential oils. They are then concentrated with low temperature methods so as to not destroy any of the components. Every batch is tested with microbiological assays to make sure there is no e.coli, salmonella, molds, yeast, or other contaminants. Gas Chromatography tests for safety, making sure there are no pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides. High Performance Liquid Chromatography measures for key active ingredients while Inductively Coupled Plasma – Mass Spectrometer tests for heavy metals.
Phew! So, as you have learned, there is a lot that goes into the selection of each herbal formula that I create!
Any questions? Ask me!