I made a commitment in January to take more tangible action in the world. I'm very clear on my personal values, and I do my best to live in a deliberate, integral way ... to ensure that my choices and actions align as closely as possible with my values (knowing that this itself is a journey and I'm deeply human and imperfect). But I often question if my actions are impactful enough. Although apparently Mother Teresa did not actually say this, she inspires me to do small things with great love. However, I despair that small things aren't enough to make a tangible difference. I fear for our future - the future of our children. I worry about climate change, with its catastrophic mass extinctions, resource wars, pain and suffering. It makes me sad that some seem to care so much more about their financial bottom line than the health and well-being of others. And I know that I am in SUCH a privileged position ... the last time I calculated my ecological footprint I was totally overshooting ... better than the average in Canada, but not even close to okay.
So I'm trying to seek opportunities to do better. I'm noticing how uncomfortable hard changes can be. I'm totally at ease being mindful of my purchasing ... but am I capable of completely doing away with packaged food? It's relatively easy to hang my clothes to dry and ride my bike most places ... but could I get rid of my car altogether? Could I stop flying? Travel brings me great pleasure, and the work I enjoy often involves flying. I emphasize plants in my diet, and eat vegetarian much of the time ... but can I eschew meat completely? I've done it before ...
And no matter what I end up doing, is it enough? Is it fair to my loved ones to impose my choices on them? How do I reconcile enabling them doing things that I have chosen not to do myself?
In my explorations, I've checked out various organizations in Toronto that are taking more coordinated action. I've attended protests, and written letters. I've posted information on social media (which others may or may not appreciate, but to me this is the beauty of social media ... the spreading of inspiration). I had a lovely conversation last night with a woman involved in Unify Toronto, a group that is working collaboratively to allow collective "small things" to add up to something greater. I'm still learning about all they do, but it looks beautiful to me - integrating ecological mindfulness (with assertive action to reduce global warming), social justice, Truth and Reconciliation, and spiritual fulfillment ... so tightly aligned with my values. They have reached out to collaborate with the team behind the Leap Manifesto, another group that I look to for guidance.
Unify Toronto is offering a five-session series on the Drawdown program, based on a book by Paul Hawken. Unfortunately I can't attend this series (because I have choir rehearsal on Mondays! Another way to make the world a beautiful place ... I hope you can attend our concert!), but I hope others will consider going! I have requested the book from the library and look forward to reading! And I hope to attend another offering of the first session in the series - will you join me?
And during the month of April, I am joining the Drawdown Ecochallenge. I'd love you to join my team! It looks like a fun, tangible way to draw attention to the choices we make everyday and how they have impact beyond ourselves. As per another quote apparently misattributed to Mother Teresa, "I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the water to create many ripples."
Recently at the naturopathic medical school where I teach I was approached by two students requesting that I record a guided meditation for students to use during final exams. I was pleasantly surprised, and curious about the request ... why me?
They told me that it was important to them that the person making the recording be authentic. They said that when I teach, I seem very calm and peaceful.
I found this very interesting. I have been teaching for close to a decade and a half, and throughout that time I've struggled with the dichotomy in the student feedback I receive. Very consistently I hear two strong themes. The first is that I am smart, strong, passionate, and a good role model - especially for women. The second strong theme is that I am unapproachable and intimidating.
This has always intrigued me. I'm the same person. I'm unaware of changing my persona from student to student. However, while some people are in a place in their journey where my assertiveness and confidence is motivating and exciting, others find it off-putting. As I've explored this over the years, I've played with looking at it from different perspectives. From one angle, I could simply say, "This is me - unapologetically me - if you don't like it, that's a you problem." From another angle, I could feel the need to hide my light and be less demanding in order to make others more comfortable.
As almost always, the wisest approach is a hybrid of the two. I have been sitting with the Serenity prayer over the past little while, reflecting on what role I have to play in situations, and what I can release. I don't ask anything from anyone that I don't ask of myself ... which is part of the struggle. My current prayer is to balance the pursuit of excellence with compassion towards myself. I have been working on fostering that, believing that it will spill over in my interactions with others. From a practical perspective, this means that when my students (or patients! or kids!) haven't done what we've contracted to do (prepare for a class; make the lifestyle change we discussed; done their chores), my role is to have compassion and curiosity about the obstacles to success. As the original serenity prayer acknowledges, the path to peace is often along a difficult road.
A very helpful tool along the way has been Metta, or loving-kindness meditation. I have danced with various types of meditative approaches over the years but I don't currently have a seated practice. I believe I am becoming more skilled at moment-to-moment mindfulness, and am practicing yoga quite regularly, but I have struggled with other types of meditation. Other than loving-kindness.
I find this style beautiful and healing. I was first exposed to it through song at my church - a simple, yet powerful musical prayer that consistently brings me to tears. When I discovered that this was a core practice of Buddhism, I found myself drawn to its cultivation. I can be moved to anger and disappointment quite easily; I find that practicing loving-kindness is powerful at fostering compassion ... both towards myself (where it needs to be directed most of all) and towards others. And how fascinating that students - at least two of them - are feeding back to me that I am, "calm and peaceful." I must be making progress along that road.
Different scripts phrase the sentiment in different ways, but the central theme is to extend a prayer for peace and serenity to oneself; to one's loved ones; to one's acquaintances; to those to whom the prayer is a struggle; and to the wider world. I find it nourishing and calming.
If you're curious to learn more about loving-kindness meditation, visit:
There are many resources available to explore this style, and every meditation app that I've used offers guided versions. May you be at peaceful and at ease.
A timely article given the debacle around sex education here in Ontario. Hats off to Rachel for her wise input! Part 1 and part 2. You're welcome!
Wish I was talking about an early spring! Alas ...
Enjoy the latest from EcoParent Magazine!
Walking to school was front of mind for me last week. My nine-year-old daughter (who sometimes takes the schoolbus and walks home from the bus stop, and sometimes walks to/from school) was grumbling that she didn't want to walk. Understandably it's dark and damp right now, and making the same trek day in and day out is tedious. She moaned that it was too far, and it was boring. I could have launched into a tirade about some children around the world walking for well over an hour to get to school (to get clean water for that matter!), but I held my tongue. If you're interested, here's a great film on that topic, which I think she forgot she's seen; these walks certainly aren't boring!:
We did discuss how lucky she was to live in a neighbourhood where she could safely make that walk. We talked about "only boring people getting bored" (my kids love that one!) ... and in fact, when she mentioned this morning that she needed to practice her times tables, I suggested she could do that while walking to school - she actually thought that was a good idea.
I think the biggest frustration to her was that most of her friends don't walk to or from school. Her school is 100% optional attendance, meaning that many of the kids live outside of the 1.6km radius that makes them eligible for bus transportation by the school board. However, many kids are dropped off and picked up by a parent in a car - including from our bus stop, which should be well-within walking distance from home.
My kids are accustomed to me pushing priorities that run counter to what they see around them. I'm annoyingly persistent on nutrition, screen use, social justice, bedtimes, and environmental consciousness. And though I know they love and respect me for my strong (and sometimes rigid) values, it can be hard doing things differently. Walking to school kind of falls into that category.
We know that kids are not active enough. Something like 9% of school-aged kids meet minimum requirements for physical activity. That's a shocking statistic to me. We also know that "active transportation" (ie. walking/biking/scootering to get around) is correlated with a healthy body composition, and getting enough exercise. It's unlikely that walking a kilometer each way to school each day is enough to meet minimum requirements, but it is likely a marker of a more broadly active lifestyle. Active transportation also reduces carbon emissions and road congestion, and gives kids the opportunity to develop street smarts, confidence and independence. Before my kids started walking (and biking) places on their own, we did trial runs, talked about how to handle a variety of situations, and started out with shorter independent trips into the world. However, in our society we tend to fret a bit too much (in my opinion) about kids being ready to handle this responsibility. I had to write a letter of permission to my daughter's school and bus company because their minimum age for walking alone is 10. In a similar way, I had to advocate for her when our local library initially objected to her going in on her own to borrow and return books when she was 8. I am bummed that my daughter doesn't go to the playground unless I go with her because she has no one else to go with who is allowed to be there without a parent.
So after my chat with my daughter, I was a bit surprised to hear that walking to school was the topic of the day on the CBC show "Ontario Today". My self-righteousness was piqued, and I immediately called in to state my case. However, while I waited in the queue listening to other callers, the complexity of the situation became apparent. Sadly, I learned the reason for the topic of discussion: a five-year-old girl had died after being pinned between two cars in the parking lot of her school during after-school pick up. And other callers shared reflections of being dual-income families, needing to get to work on time - putting their child on a schoolbus, or dropping them off in the car was the only way they could manage it. Especially for those with really young children, it's tough to ponder sending them out the door on their own with no one remaining at home to help if something were to go sideways.
I hung up the phone, realizing that it was a trickier situation than just encouraging kids to get more exercise. We live in a city which is often unaffordable for families; people are doing the best they can to keep their kids healthy and safe. I still think that we could reconsider the validity of our fears ... most kids, given appropriate support and practice, would thrive with a little more independence. And I still think our kids need to be more active (perhaps parents could do a better job of reconsidering how they get places when they have the time and the distance is manageable). But the challenges are complicated, and the solutions are complex.
What about you? How do you get around?
A recent publication in the journal of the Ontario Association of Naturopathic Doctors; a meander through the evolution of my understanding of cultural sensitivity.
While paddling out of Algonquin Park today (what a blessing that beautiful territory is), I was thinking about the value of preventative care. This is definitely not a novel analogy, and please forgive me if you've heard it before, but I thought it worthy of reconsideration, particularly as we spy fall on the horizon (sorry!).
We take our cars and bikes in for preventative care. Even if it's a simple oil change or chain cleaning, it's an opportunity for the mechanic to give it a good once over ... making sure the brakes are working, advising us on routine maintenance, etc. Certainly if we hear a funny noise, we'll take it in to get it checked out - sometimes choosing to live with the problem if it's not severe, other times investing in doing something to make the vehicle run better. And sometimes the mechanic might have some advice on how to avoid that problem in the future.
Many of us use our dentists in a similar way ... the semi-annual cleaning and check-up keeps us accountable (do you notice an increased frequency of flossing immediately before and after dentist appointments? I do!), and catches problems before they become bigger. Perhaps we need to adjust our brushing technique, or maybe a different toothpaste would work better. Or perhaps a little filling is called for instead of a huge root canal if we let it go.
Naturopathic care can serve the same purpose. Although most of my clients come to see me when there's a problem - and I'm always happy to support people's pursuit of healing from a concern, whether acute, recurring or chronic - preventative maintenance helps to keep concerns from emerging or exploding. Like seeing the dentist, or taking your car or bike in for a tune-up, investing in a seasonal or semi-annual hour with a naturopathic doctor can keep good habits on track. By reviewing the "pillars of health" - diet, exercise and sleep habits, and sources of stress (and strategies of managing it effectively) - and setting individualized goals, you are more able to commit to maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Going through a "review of systems" - a head-to-toe overview of your body's functions ... much like a mechanic's once over of your car or bicycle - can bring attention to niggling little things that may be more easily addressed when not full-blown. An adjustment of supplements or herbs based on shifting seasons and individual susceptibility keeps you from rotely taking the same thing for months and months - never a good idea.
My job is not only to keep you from being sick, but to help you to optimize your health so you can live as full and rich a life as possible. Preventative visits allow me the opportunity to support you in this goal ... one of my favourite aspects of my work! Seasonal transitions are a great time for these ... I look forward to seeing you and your family in the clinic!
lYesterday was the first really summer-like day of the year ... and while my family and I reveled in the warmth and the sun, it prompted discussions of sunscreens. My kids were asking questions about the chemicals in the sunscreens, exploring the risks of the gunk vs. the risks of sun damage - they are the children of a naturopathic doctor afterall ... they know to inquire about such things! So here are some thoughts and resources:
Sun exposure is clearly linked to the risk of skin cancer, which is the most common type of cancer in Canada. While all types of skin cancer are treatable, they can also be aggressive and deadly. Malignant melanoma is one of the most aggressive types of cancer. Here is more info on melanoma; bottom line: talk to your doctor if you have any new skin spots. The earlier skin cancer is identified, the better the prognosis.
Sun exposure is also beneficial for a couple of reasons. Vitamin D is made in the body in response to sun exposure. Canadians are notoriously deficient in vitamin D due to lack of sun exposure during long stretches of shorter, colder days. This is possibly complicated by active efforts to reduce sun exposure, since efforts to reduce UV exposure may contribute to vitamin D deficiencies (though this is controversial); however, some studies have demonstrated that Canadians are spending more time in the sun, not less, and not necessarily with a corresponding increase in sunscreen use. Ironically, vitamin D deficiency itself is a risk factor for malignant melanoma; it has thus been suggested that inadequate exposure to the sun may also be a risk factor for skin cancer. It's hard to elucidate exactly what the ideal amount of exposure might be, since individuals have unique susceptibilities to both sun damage and vitamin D deficiency based on pigmentation, age, latitude and genetic variations. Vitamin D needs can also be met through food and supplementation.
Sunlight is also important for regulation of both mood and circadian rhythms. This may not require direct exposure of the skin to UV radiation, although some studies have acknowledged the presence of a circadian clock in the skin, a fascinating mechanism by which organisms (including humans) may regulate behaviour and immune function. This neat study convincingly shows that an indoor lifestyle disrupts our natural circadian pathways, with implications on cognitive function and mental health; more exposure to natural (vs. artificial) light may be a more appropriate approach to circadian regulation.
Acknowledging that some sun exposure has benefit, the connection of excessive exposure - particularly the kind that results in burns - with skin cancer should prompt caution. Kids are particularly vulnerable, so caregivers should both be vigilant about protecting them AND setting a good example of safe sun practices themselves (not cool to wrestle sunscreen on your child if you're not wearing it too!). There are a variety of excellent ways to minimize the risk of skin damage from UV radiation, including avoiding midday sun, covering up with long sleeves, hats, sunglasses and umbrellas, and wearing sunscreen!
But what about those chemicals?? The Canadian Cancer Society argues that chemicals in sunscreens are safe, and they very well may be. But perhaps there are some options that are better than others? A quick guide of things to consider:
- Oxybenzone: this is a common active ingredient in sunscreens; the concern with this one is allergy or immunosensitivity; best to avoid if an alternative is available
- Octinoxate: another common UV-filter with concern of toxicity; this one more concerning for its potential hormone disruption
- Fragrance: while not specific to sunscreens, fragrance is a catch-all term for any artificial scent added to personal care products; because there is no requirement to be more precise in labeling, a consumer has no way of knowing if the chemicals used are safe or not; best to always avoid
Mineral sunscreens work differently than chemical ones. Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide sit on the surface of the skin and reflect radiation off, rather than being absorbed the way chemical filters are. It means that sunscreens containing these ingredients are thick and white, and not always appreciated by the wearer, to which my kids can attest! One option is to look for sunscreens that contain a blend of chemical and mineral ingredients, and that do not use oxybenzone or octinoxate. The Environmental Working Group has a very comprehensive review of options if you're looking for more guidance!
Be careful too of SPF claims - regardless of how high your SPF is, if you're using sunscreen, apply a lot and apply often ... there is some suggestion that folks who wear sunscreen may actually be at a higher risk of skin cancer ... not because the sunscreen causes cancer, but because it is applied incorrectly and causes a false sense of security (resulting in more time spent in the sun inadequately protected).
One more thing to ponder ... UV exposure causes skin cancer by damaging the genetic material of skin cells. This occurs in part due to the generation of free radicals and reactive oxygen species. Our cells have mechanisms to neutralize these free radicals before they cause irreparable damage, particularly when we provide the right ingredients for these mechanisms in the form of nutritional antioxidants! A diet rich in antioxidants, including brightly coloured fruits and veggies, abundant herbs and spices, and flavonoid-rich green tea - even dark chocolate! - may protect our skin from damage due to UV radiation (along with other lifestyle-induced cancer promoters). So in addition to moderate sun exposure and thoughtful selection and use of sunscreens, here is even more rationale for eating a great diet!
Have fun in the sun!
When building a spring detox support program, it's important to start by reducing sources of chemicals, and optimizing your diet. Layering in herbs that are supportive of detoxification can take your plan to the next level.
While it's not helpful to think of our bodies as unclean, many traditions have honoured the value of "blood-cleansing" herbs for routine health maintenance, as well as treatment of conditions associated with "toxicity" (think skin conditions like eczema, or inflammatory conditions like rheumatoid arthritis). Whether from Ayurvedic, Chinese, or Western botanical tradition, these medicines tend to be bitter or pungent in flavour, cooling and invigorating in nature. Pharmacologically they support the actions of the liver, kidneys, colon and lymphatic tissues, precisely the organs primarily responsible for the critical functions of detoxification and elimination.
Three of my favourite blood-cleansing herbs are burdock, dandelion and stinging nettles. Let me tell you why!
Arctium lappa (burdock) - this is the giant thistle plant with the beautiful purple flowers which become the stubborn burrs that are so fun to pull off of kids' sweaters and dogs' coats; the root of this plant supports lymphatic circulation, and is a gentle diuretic (encourages filtration of blood by the kidneys).
Arctium lappa (burdock, thistle)
Taraxacum officinale (dandelion) - this is such an incredibly useful (and happy!) plant; the root of the common dandelion encourages optimal liver function, while the leaves support the kidneys; other parts of the dandelion are useful as well, including for both wine and wish-making ... and how smart they are to stay closed when it's cloudy and open in the sunlight! Malign no more!
Taraxacum officinale (common dandelion)
Urtica dioca (stinging nettles) - among other redeeming qualities, stinging nettle leaves are mineral-rich and diuretic, gently supporting kidney function and tonifying the body overall; nettle leaf tea is anti-histaminic, and exceptionally helpful to reduce symptoms of spring allergies. Just be careful harvesting them!
Urtica dioca (stinging nettles)
Notice a theme? These are all local North American plants that are typically seen as troublesome weeds. Amazing how our perspective shifts when we consider their value! They were all used by First Nations people, whose practices greatly influenced the evolution of herbal medicine in colonial North America. The preparation of herbs for medicinal use requires some practice and awareness of sustainability principles, but harvesting your own burdock, dandelion and nettles is certainly a viable option, and a good reason to not spray them! In the meantime, preparations of these plants are available at most herbal dispensaries and natural health product stores.
A combination of these three herbs is very supportive of a routine spring detox plan. Make a strong tea with equal parts of each plant, aiming for 3 cups per day (warm or cold) for the duration of the plan, and beyond if you like! Roots are best prepared as a decoction, while aerial portions of plants are best made as infusions, so getting the most from this formula requires a two step process:
1. Place 1 Tbsp each of prepared dried burdock and dandelion root in a pot with 1 litre of water. Bring to a boil; reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes.
2. Bring mixture to a boil again and pour the entire contents into a glass pitcher containing 1 Tbsp each of prepared dried nettles and dandelion leaf. Let steep until the tea is at your desired temperature. (I prefer my teas cold, so I let this steep until cool, then poor the tea through a mesh strainer into my water bottle and drink over the course of a day.)
In addition to teas, herbs can be delivered as capsules or tablets (often combined with nutrients that are also supportive of detoxification processes), or as alcohol-based extractions (tinctures or solid extracts). All three of these herbs can even be eaten as food! There are pros and cons to each method, related to price, convenience, tolerance to flavour, and the method that is best at getting the most value from the plant. I can help you navigate what form/brand/method might be best suited to your goals, and advise whether there are other plants that might be a better fit for you! Let's chat!
I recently held a workshop at my clinic and my local library to chat about the top habits that can promote good health (and thanks to all of you who responded to my survey!). None of this is rocket science, but these behaviours go a really long way to keeping everyone in your family at their best. It can be tricky sometimes to stay on top of making good lifestyle choices; for each of these habits, I encourage you to consider if you're doing well, or if you could use some work. Consider how motivated you are to make a change - even a small one. What's in your way? How could you overcome whatever obstacles are preventing you from being at your best? Start small - make one small, tangible and measurable change for the better and see how it feels! Enjoy!
1. Eat more fruits and veggies
Increasing fruits, vegetables and other plant-based foods increases fiber (critical for good digestive function), improves satiety (helpful for moderate caloric intake), increases anti-oxidants (necessary to reduce cell damage and aging), and offsets the consumption of less healthy options. Aim for at least 7 servings of brightly-coloured fruits and veggies daily!
2. Drink more water (or herbal tea)
Minor dehydration leads to sluggishness, brain fog, constipation and irritability. Drinking more water (coffee, juice, pop and alcohol don’t count) boosts cognitive and physical performance, clears the mind, elevates energy, promotes detoxification and helps maintain a healthy weight. Try keeping a refillable water bottle with you that you aim to drain at least twice per day. Check out my recent post on the subject for more inspiration!
3. Get outside
Time spent outside reduces stress, increases physical activity, and nourishes environmental stewardship. It may also support our natural symbiosis with microorganisms, which is good for our immune systems - especially the kids’. Aim for at least 30 minutes outside daily. Check out David Suzuki's 30x30 Challenge!
4. Go to bed
We all have different needs for sleep, but getting what our bodies need is important for stress management, immune system function, healthy body composition, mood and mental health. Try to have a consistent bed- and wake-time, create an optimal sleep environment (dark, comfortable, quiet), and keep screens out of the bedroom! Take a look at the recommendations from the National Sleep Foundation for your sweet spot!
5. Move your body
Nothing is more critical to good health than physical activity. From promoting healthy body composition, to encouraging detoxification and elimination, to improving cognitive function, it’s tough to do too much. Aim for 30-60 min of moderate to vigorous physical activity (get your heartrate up, break a sweat) every day, and increase from there. Check out the Canadian guidelines - how are you doing??
6. Detoxify your stuff
We are swimming in sea of over 80,000 industry-made chemicals, many of which are known to be harmful to our bodies, and many more which have not even been tested for safety. Children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of environmental toxins. Choosing alternatives to plastics (think food packaging and toys), fragranced personal-care items (visit www.ewg.org/skindeep/ for more), and industrial-strength cleaning products (vinegar and baking soda work miracles!), you’ll be giving your body an enormous break! Once again, Suzuki for the win!
7. Create space for mindfulness
In a world bombarded by social media, sensationalized news reports and high-paced schedules, a little bit of mindfulness goes a long way. Purposefully paying attention to the present experience has myriad benefits to all facets of health. Practice moving/eating/sitting/breathing mindfully every day until it becomes a more natural and automatic part of daily being. Kids respond really well to this - try youtubing “mindfulness”, with or without “kids” and see what pops up!
8. Touch someone
We all need physical contact. We take it for granted in infants and children, but our need for touch doesn’t decrease as we get older. Touch impacts our hormones and immune systems in important ways that are necessary for good health. Hold hands. Hug someone. Caress a shoulder. Go for a massage.
9. Have a sense of purpose
Purpose is one of the most important aspects of psychological well-being. Stress is more tolerable when we feel there is a point to the task. Feeling appreciated and like we are making a difference in the world actually bolsters the immune system and positively impacts mood. Caring for children, volunteering, contributing to your community, and engaging in fulfilling paid work can all satisfy the need for purpose. If you are lacking a sense of purpose, consider engaging in inventory of your values and attributes, and brainstorm how you are or could be sharing them with others.
10. Be grateful
Gratitude is one of the most impactful practices on happiness, stress management and well-being. Overwhelmed with the pressures of work? Be grateful you have a job that pays the bills. Tired of the cold winter? Be grateful you live in a country that is (generally) safe, democratic and … cold. Seek opportunities to be (genuinely) thankful to shift your outlook and increase happiness and health.
And a bonus ... Be moderate
It’s possible to go to extremes on either end of the healthy behaviour spectrum. Certainly there are some things that are just never a good idea, but some less-than-healthy behaviours are often balanced by the pleasure they bring. On the flip side, exercise, extreme diets and environmentalism can be taken too far. Unless there are unique concerns, enjoy a glass of wine or a piece of cake mindfully and intentionally - savour the pleasure of the experience. Creating space for some flexibility and compassion for yourself is important for a balanced existence.
Let me know how you're doing!