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!
One of the simplest things many of us can do to improve our health is drink more water. It need not be from a bottle (though it's a great idea to carry a re-fillable glass or stainless steel one!). It need not have gone through reverse osmosis. We are blessed in this part of the world to have cold, clean water that comes out of a tap - inexpensive, life-giving, miraculous. And yet many of us don't drink enough. The consequences? We are sluggish (water is necessary to deliver nutrients to our cells and tissues); our brains are foggy (our brain cells depend on water to bring them essential oxygen and glucose); our bodies ache (water helps to clear away waste from our natural metabolic reactions); we are constipated (water bulks up our stool, making it easier to eliminate); we are DRY (cracked lips and knuckles, anyone??). Drinking more water might even help maintain a healthy weight! Kids in particular are vulnerable to dehydration, and may not recognize when they are thirsty.
I'm not talking coffee. I'm not talking juice. I'm not talking pop - diet or otherwise. I'm talking the real deal. BUT there is no magic volume - that "eight cups a day" rule doesn't hold much ... water. How much we need depends on how much physical activity we're getting, how dry/hot the environment is, whether we're struggling with an illness, and how big our bodies are. It also depends on how much moisture there is in our diets. A person who eats a diet rich in fresh fruits, veggies and water-based foods (think soups, stews, porridges) needs less water straight-up. Being mindful of our thirst and taking a quick peek at our urine after going (kids love this) should give us a clue ... healthy urine should be see-through and pale yellow ... not perfectly clear, and not as dark as apple juice. Unless you are really going overboard, particularly if you're an endurance athlete, there's rarely harm in working in more water. Ready for some tips?
1. Just drink it! Cold or warm, flat or fizzy (just watch the sodium content) ... find what turns you on. Savour it!
2. If plain water bores you, jazz it up with some added fruits or veggies! Sliced cucumber or lemon, or a handful of berries look lovely in a pitcher of agua and add a touch of flavour. When that beautiful pitcher is at the front of the fridge, or in a prominent place on the counter, who can resist??
3. Teas (the non-caffeinated version*) count! The bonus is that they can be individualized to your health needs. That's an entirely other blog post (stay tuned!), but start with these suggestions: chamomile when someone needs to chill; peppermint for an after-meal digestif; ginger with lemon for a refreshing pick-me-up; or nettles for an extra hit of iron. I suggest making a big vat of your family's favourite and drink it room-temperature or cold.
4. If your kids are used to drinking something else (milk, juice ... or even pop), and refuse to drink the plain stuff, slowly dilute what they will drink (with or without their cooperation) over time until it is mostly or completely unadulterated water. Then work on the other strategies mentioned above!
* black and especially green teas are full of amazing antioxidants and can definitely be enjoyed; however, the caffeine can be a bit dehydrating if that's all that's being consumed, and may be too stimulating for some
"Detox" is a word that gets thrown around these days with abandon. We are swimming in an environment laden with tens of thousands of untested and - in many cases - unregulated chemicals. And while your body has some really amazing mechanisms to process and eliminate the stuff that could harm you, in many cases, not only are we exposed to more chemicals than we evolved to deal with, we also tend to live lifestyles that impair our natural mechanisms to clear them. "Toxic burden" can result in conditions and symptoms ranging from eczema to headaches to chronic fatigue to behavioural or developmental concerns in kids. Children in particular are vulnerable to the impacts of toxin exposure due to their unique and immature biology and behaviour.
So what does "detox" mean? My goal with a detox is to minimize sources of chemicals in order to reduce what you're asking of your body, and to support the processes that it already has in place. Ideally, these strategies should be ongoing, and not necessarily only during an occasional "detox". Everyone in the family can participate in a gentle plan to promote detoxification and elimination, and spring is a great time to start! A comprehensive detox strategy includes four parts: reduction, diet, herbs and lifestyle. Let's start with the first part!
Imagine trying to clean out your garage while someone was dumping more clutter in through the back. It's not helpful to be putting more junk in while you're trying to clear it out! A household and lifestyle audit can help identify sources of chemicals.
1. Food: The Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean Fifteen” are excellent resources to support you in choosing what produce to buy organic. Ideally animal products should be organic, since many harmful chemicals bioaccumulate in higher amounts in animals than in produce. Eating more of a plant-based diet is also helpful for detox (more to come) and cheaper, making the more expensive organic selections easier to buy! Frequently eaten foods - especially for picky kids - should be prioritized as well. And make sure you check your local fish advisories!
2. Personal care products: Many products such as lotions, creams and soaps contain chemicals which are known to be problematic in humans. The EWG Skin Deep Cosmetic Database offers an accessible and user-friendly resource (mobile-friendly!) to rate your favourite products and select healthier options. The easiest offending ingredient to spot? Fragrance!
3. Cleaning: Household cleaning should be done with homemade cleaners or products identified as being of low toxic load. Dust should be removed via vacuum or wet-mop, and hands washed frequently (especially children’s) with soap and water (no "anti-microbial" products required!). Shoes should be removed when entering the home, and any solvents or chemicals used for occupation or hobbies (and clothes worn while using them) should be kept out of the home.
4. Household objects: Plastic toys and other items should be avoided, since plastics are a significant source of concerning chemicals - for us, and the rest of the planet! A simple strategy is to slowly start replacing all your plastic food containers and bottles with glass, Pyrex or stainless steel (done all at once, this can be pricey, but slowly over time, plastic can be squeezed out). Indoor spaces should be ventilated adequately and frequently (aka open up the windows and let the sunshine in!). Clothing (especially children’s) can be purchased second-hand to reduce exposure to flame-retardants - there are many terrific second-hand stores with a great selection at very affordable prices!
5. Transit and chores: Families can be encouraged to use cars less, and instead walk, bicycle or use public transit. This not only encourages physical activity (which promotes detoxification and elimination), but reduces emissions. Elbow grease should be encouraged, reducing the use of motor-powered mowers and blowers. On days identified as hiving high levels of particulate matter, it is advised to reduce outdoor activity during peak traffic hours.
Over the next few weeks, we'll explore the other elements of promoting optimal detoxification ... and if you just can't wait to learn more, pop by and see me or drop me a line!
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.
Potential patients frequently inquire as to whether I can treat condition x, y or z. This question originates in the biomedical model that has been created by western medicine. Have psoriasis? See a dermatologist. Have abdominal pain? See a gastroenterologist. The difficulty with this approach is that it’s unusual for a dermatologist to know much about how your gut works, or for the gastroenterologist to know much about your skin. And less likely again for either of them to even consider how the two might be connected, and how they both may be symptoms of a broader imbalance in health.
This is why a foundational principle of naturopathic medicine is to treat the whole person – to consider how all symptoms may be connected, and to perceive the way in which these symptoms reflect what needs to be treated on a deeper level. The solution is rarely to apply a medicine or remedy to a symptom - whether natural or pharmaceutical. While this approach may be valuable in the short term to increase comfort, or slow the progress of the condition, it is unlikely to offer a permanent, curative solution to the source of the problem. What will make the most lasting difference is to take the time to explore and address the “determinants of health” – those factors in a person’s life that contribute to or take away from their ability to maintain a healthy balance. Diet. Stress. Sleep. Relationships. Physical activity. Time in nature. Cognitive outlook. Genetic vulnerability. Exposure to environmental toxins. And how previous health concerns have been addressed, or in many cases, suppressed.
Admittedly, this exploration, and the work to optimize these factors, is not quick or easy. It requires a commitment on the part of the naturopath and the individual to work together to shift how the person is caring for themselves, and towards a deeper and more permanent solution to their health concerns. Are you ready?