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!
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!
As promised, over the next few weeks, I'll share some thoughts about designing a detoxification plan (for real this time!). While you wait, here's a little quiz to see what kind of emphasis is right for you! Let me know what you came up with and I'll help you make a plan! Enjoy!
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!
Here's a recent publication (written with a student) on when to worry about your child's fever, and what to do to help them get better ... better!
As my daughter and I were walking the other day, she - somewhat randomly - inquired about how people become blind. I told her there were many ways, but there were a few that were most commonly responsible in Canada. She asked me if there was any way of preventing blindness, and I told her that yes, most cases of blindness in Canada are preventable (think diabetes, macular degeneration) or treatable (visit http://www.cnib.ca for more info). I told her that the best way of keeping her eyes as healthy as possible was to eat her fruits and vegetables and move her body lots. She gave a huge sigh and we both laughed, because that's what she always hears from me. Eat your fruits and veggies. Move your body. Get enough sleep.
She's kind of tired of hearing it, but I hope that with the regular prompts - and even more powerfully, modelling by the adults in her life - it will seep into her consciousness and her habits. Because it's not just her naturopath mom who thinks this is important. This article in the journal Cureus is an excellent overview of the importance of establishing these lifestyle behaviours in childhood. If we want our population to be healthy, if we want the adults of tomorrow to be capable of being productive members of society, then these are the foundational habits that are critical to foster in our young people today.
The recipe for a healthier kid, and the adult they will become? Independent of all other factors (with acknowledgement of the challenges inherent in achieving some of these habits influenced by the social determinants of health):
1. Lots of fruits and veggies (and other good nutritional practices that go along with this).
2. Lots of movement (also tied to awareness around time engaged in sedentary activities like media use).
3. Lots of sleep (acknowledging its impact on stress reduction, growth, and immune system function).
How is your kid doing? How are you doing?
So you've explored some strategies for reducing toxic burden in your household. Next up - revving up your detoxification and elimination capacity! Your body knows what to do. You are constantly processing chemicals - both those that your body produces all the time through everyday processes, and those that you take in from the outside world. Our goal this spring is to give your body a little extra support to do what it naturally does anyway. All of these suggestions can be safely incorporated into anyone's life - adults and kids alike!
If you took my quiz (here it is here!), you have an idea of which of these three components is best for you to focus on. Detox support can be highly individual, so if you're stumped on where to begin, come pay me a visit!
The first step? Always start with food:
Your liver, kidneys, lungs, lymphatic organs - those tissues that play such an important role in detoxification - require optimal amounts of essential nutrients. A "detox diet" requires a colourful, plant-based, whole-foods diet, free of artificial sweeteners, refined oils and any processed foods. The more colourful your diet is (think red peppers, purple beets, dark green kale, orange carrots, blueberries, white onions, etc.), the more diverse and abundant your intake of vitamins and bioflavonoids - chemicals found in plants that our bodies can use to optimize natural processes. A diet that is plant-based includes more of these nutrients AND more fibre - absolutely essential for binding and eliminating unwanted junk via our stool. A whole-foods diet avoids processed foods that gunk up the works and lets our elimination pathways focus on clearing anything that's already in our bodies without adding more to the burden.
What does this look like? Think homemade oatmeal with ground almonds and flax seeds for breakfast, with a green smoothie on the side. A leafy green salad for lunch with grated beets, carrots and apple, walnuts and some wild salmon. Homemade sushi wraps with cucumber, red pepper, avocado and organic tofu for dinner, with miso soup and seaweed on the side. Black bean dip with carrots for snacks. And lots of water - add some fresh lemon to it! Herbal tea can enhance the process when made from plants that support detoxification ... stay tuned for more on this!
Need more tips? Bring me your diet diary and we can plan it out together.
We tend to think of weak bones as being a problem of old age. However, building strong bones is a job for youth. Bone mass is laid down in childhood - we reach our peak bone mass by about the age of 20 - so helping our kids optimize bone health is critical to prevent osteoporosis years later. The stronger our bones become when we're young, the better off we'll be when we're older. Most families know this, and (like the Canada Food Guide advises) diligently ensure their children consume their milk and dairy products.
However, the British medical journal recently released a study showing that boosting calcium intake did nothing to prevent fractures. How can this be? Haven't we always been told that milk "does a body good"??
Bone health relies on far more than just calcium. Although it's an important component of healthy bones, there are a range of other nutrients - including vitamin D - that affect the metabolism of bones, kind of like the mortar that holds a strong wall together. Fruit and vegetable consumption alone is an independent predictor of stronger bones. Weight-bearing physical activity puts muscular force onto bones that challenges them to become stronger. It's important to keep the activity to moderate levels during development - the stress of intense training can negatively impact bone development. Minimizing stress reduces cortisol, a hormone that weakens bones, among its other toxic effects.
Calcium is still an essential mineral, for bone health and other important bodily functions. However, while dairy is a great source of calcium, despite the best efforts of the Dairy Board to convince us otherwise, dairy need not be its own food group. The Mediterranean dietary guidelines minimize dairy as its own food group, as does the Harvard School of Public Health - note the conspicuous inclusion of healthy oils in both images as well - important for metabolic and immune system function.
Nuts and seeds are a great source of calcium; eaten whole, or in their "butter" form, they're a delicious way to boost intake. Try almond butter on your toast, or add tahini (sesame seed butter) to your dips, soups and sauces. Green leafy vegetables contain calcium, and provide additional benefits of fiber and vitamin K, both helpful to bone health. Tofu (made from organic, non-GMO soy) is an excellent source of calcium; the phytoestrogenic effect of the soy may also benefit bone health after menopause. Stir-fried kale and tofu with a tahini sauce gives a powerful hit of not only calcium, but many other nutrients necessary for bone health.
Although I'm not generally an advocate of canned foods, I do like canned wild salmon or other cold-water fish with bones as a source of both calcium and omega-3 fatty acids - use it to make delicious salmon burgers, or mix into a green salad. Strong bones require minimal inflammation, and the healthy fats from wild fish are a helpful way to reduce it in the body.
If you or your child do well with dairy (signs that you don't might include eczema, sinus congestion, frequent ear infections, digestive difficulties, or behaviour struggles - come see me to discuss if a trial elimination might be a good idea), it can definitely be included in a balanced diet. Goat and sheep products are often better tolerated than cow, and have a pleasant flavour. There are many delicious varieties of cheese from around the world to try. Our family loves fermented dairy in the form of yogurt as an excellent way to support healthy gut bacteria - it's super easy to make at home, and you'll get more bacteria bang for your buck! See below for instructions how!
So get out with your kids to jump on a trampoline, swing around the playground, skip rope or have a dance party! Adults can go for a run or hit the gym for the same physical benefits, but it's not always as fun for some folks. The activity loads your bones to make them stronger, and helps to reduce the negative impacts of stress. Being outside while you do it gives that extra vitamin D that is so important. Eating a Mediterranean-style diet (lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, plant-based proteins, healthy oils) will create the best possible nutritional environment for bones. It's so important to create an opportunity for kids' bones to develop properly, and for those of us who are past that prime time, we can keep our bones as strong as possible using the same principles. Have fun!
It's that time of year. It's dark; it's cold; the bills from December's indulgences are rolling in. It's a tough time of year to feel upbeat and energetic. I want to channel a little black bear and just curl up in my cave until the spring. I know I'm not alone. We just passed "Blue Monday", apparently the most depressing day of the year. Whether or not it's a PR stunt, a significant number of adults struggle in the winter with energy and mood that's lower than they want it to be. There are many things that can sap energy and depress mood, but after obvious disease processes are properly ruled out and managed, we're left with what we call a "functional" concern: there's nothing pathological, but the body just isn't functioning at its best.
In my experience - both clinically and personally - there are a few common contributors. The first is inadequate sleep. This might seem really obvious, but many folks simply don't get as much sleep as they need. Sleep is when we rest, heal, regenerate the wear and tear of our waking hours. Most people do not function well on six hours a night, and many people don't sleep well, even if they're in bed. Inadequate quantity or quality of sleep increases our body's stress response, a known contributor to low energy and low mood. The solution? It can be as simple as getting to bed at a reasonable hour, and there are many effective strategies we can explore if there are difficulties initiating or maintaining sleep.
The second issue is often a poor diet. The body needs foods rich in vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients - not from supplements, but from food. We need adequate proteins, complex carbohydrates and healthy oils to maintain blood sugar, and plenty of fibre to clear out waste products that can weigh us down and make us sluggish. Abundant fruits and vegetables help protect our bodies from oxidative stress and inflammation, both of which sap energy and drag down mood. It's tough to eat a good diet with a busy lifestyle. I can help with simple strategies for convenience, meal planning and improving what's going down the hatch.
The third issue is physical activity. It's not very often that the problem is too much exercise, although over-training can be an issue for some. Most people tend to not do enough. The minimum recommended for basic healthy functioning is 150 minutes per week of moderate to vigorous activity - that's 30 minutes, five times a week, of something that gets your heart going. It could be skating, swimming, playing at the playground, shooting hoops, or dancing - ideally, it would be something you actually enjoy! It's a particularly interesting one, because low energy and low mood are things that stops many folks from exercising. However, energy and mood both tend to increase as activity levels do. Exercise also improves the ability to think clearly, sleep quality, bowel movements ... all of which has the effect of improving energy. Think of it as an investment. Despite the cold weather, exercising outside might increase the benefits even more!
There are certainly other factors that can drag down energy ... stress, physical illness, pain, worry ... everyone has a different story. Beyond the basics, there are a range of herbs and supplements that can address your unique needs. Come on in and we can figure out what will work for you!
Defining naturopathic medicine can sometimes be challenging. Ask five naturopathic doctors what defines them, and you may get five different responses. I consider naturopathic medicine to be defined by its principles; any therapeutic approach which fulfills these principles can be considered naturopathic.
An additional model has helped guide my clinical thinking. The therapeutic order puts the principles into an applicable hierarchy that can provide structure for making clinical decisions. Referring to this order reminds me to uphold the values that led me to this profession.
Some criticize the order for being just that. They argue that it's not always appropriate to start at one end and move progressively toward the other. I would tend to agree; an urgent scenario may require pharmaceutical or surgical intervention. And not every situation requires something like structural adjustment. However, the individual who has suffered an acute heart attack, for example, would see the greatest health improvements by changing his lifestyle and tonifying his weakened cardiovascular system in addition to any medications deemed necessary. I have found consistently in practice that while pharmaceuticals and even natural health products can be very helpful, it is rare that they are transformative without also operating at the more foundational level of the therapeutic order.
Truly, the most important level of healing is the first one - establishing the best possible conditions for health. Into this category fall things like good nutrition, adequate physical activity, effective stress management, sufficient quantity and quality of sleep, and avoidance of environmental contaminants (chemicals, noise, light, stress) that disrupt our homeostasis. Our bodies are exceptionally capable at reestablishing good health if we can clear the way and give them the building blocks. Time and again I see folks in my practice that are suffering in large part due to their inability to establish healthy lifestyle practices. When they're able to adjust their "determinants of health", it's amazing how well the body can bring them back to a state of well-being.
Here's a little exercise to help you do this; I encourage you to use it as a seasonal check-in:
Take a blank piece of paper. Write on it a list (8-10) of the most important lifestyle factors affecting your health and well-being right now. What are you doing that is supporting your health? What would you like to be doing, and are having a hard time implementing? What is happening in your life that is impeding your health? Some ideas to consider ... your diet; your work; your level of physical activity; your relationships; your time engaging in your hobbies; your financial well-being ...
Draw a good-sized circle on your paper. Divide your circle into segments that represent the time/energy/weight you give each item on your list. How you define this is up to you. Take your time. Some items may not have any weight right now, although you would like them to. Perhaps represent them as a line in your circle. Other elements may feel like they're taking over your life, even if they don't consume that much time ... perhaps make them a significant chunk of the pie.
Now draw another circle. This time, divide your circle into segments that represent how you would like these elements to be weighted. In a perfect world ... what would this look like? What kind of balance would allow you to move closer to the state of health you would like?
Last step. Select one (or two) elements ... no more than that ... to work on adjusting right now. When you've identified what they are, and what exactly you would like to work towards, design a goal to help you get there. We know that the more specific and manageable the goal, the more likely we are to achieve it.
So ... for example ... if I wanted to work on eating better, I might choose to consume five servings of vegetables (let's make sure I define a serving - half a cup!) three days out of the next five. It's specific, it's relevant to my priority, it's manageable, it's measureable, and it's time-bound ... all components of a well-articulated goal. If five days go by and I was successful, then hooray! Then I would set a new, slightly more challenging goal. If I was unsuccessful, then it would be a good idea to reflect on what got in my way, and perhaps set a smaller, more manageable goal.
Remember that you might need to do some planning in order to increase the chances of success ... if I want to eat more vegetables, I'll need to make sure I buy them and plan out my menu a bit. If I want to do more exercise, I might need to get up a bit earlier in the morning to fit it in. If I want to communicate better with my loved ones, I might need to let them know that's the intention!
Goals are often easier to achieve when you've let someone else know about them. I encourage you to work through this exercise with a friend and share your goals with one another. Check in to see how it's going and offer support.
I'd love to hear how this goes for you! Send me a line or tweet me a pic of your circles!