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!
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!