Wednesday, September 30, 2015

deep dark "secret" chocolate breakfast bread (gluten-free, vegan, dairy-free, egg-free, nut-free, soy-free)

Shhhh...The "secret" bread will soon reveal itself. But first, I shall regale you with the tale of how the bread came to be!

Having been born and raised and lived the majority of my adult life in NYC, it became easy to convince myself that everything on earth is made of concrete and smells bad. So you can understand why - upon seeing the sheer beauty of the landscape during our long weekend outside of Bend, Oregon - I might have had a few moments involving the kind of tears normally seen in game show winners. Sobs of ecstasy at seeing something in its natural state might sound ridiculous but I will testify that it CAN happen to you. And when it does, you will suddenly feel bad for making fun of those folks who praise Jesus for helping them win that minivan. #blessed

I mean look at this and tell me your hands didn't suddenly start waving at heaven.

I call this one...Not the NYC Subway system

And despite seeing the supermoon that I won't see again until right around the time of my 60th(!!!) birthday, the iPhone photos - like everyone's iPhone photos of celestial events - are so incredibly bad that they have the unique whiff of old supermarket rag pics of Bigfoot. It could be the moon or it could be that I accidentally took a photo of absolutely nothing in the dark. I will spare you. You can thank me later.

We came home - still high on nature - and craving something warm and cozy delicious. Also, we had practically nothing in the fridge so since I couldn't blend up a salad from cupboard fixings, I cobbled together this incredibly moist, not too sweet, rich without being cloying quick bread. There are a multitude of unusual ingredients that - like nature itself - make for a surprisingly delicious combination. Baby food prune puree and sweet potato puree are excellent staples to keep on hand for making cakes, breads, and muffins lower in fat and sugar (since a thick puree replaces much of the fat and adds its own sweetness). And don't skip the tahini (sesame puree). It adds a depth and richness that other seed and nut butters can't without adding flavor.

I'm calling it a breakfast bread because I think it would be amazing with a good cup of creamy coffee, but it was also so good with a hot cup of tea.

Every bread should have a...secret (i.e. that this bread has baby food in it)

deep dark "secret" chocolate breakfast bread
2 1/2 cups gluten-free rolled oats (I use Bob's Red Mill)
1 tsp baking soda
3/4 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa or cacao powder
1 2/3 cups organic baby food (a combination of sweet potato and beet, or just baby food prunes - I use Earth's Best Organics baby food)
1/4 cup tahini (If you are allergic to sesame seeds, you may replace with almond butter. Or if allergic to nuts and seeds, replace with 1/4 cup olive oil or unrefined coconut oil)
1/4 cup coconut nectar (Or use maple syrup)
1 tbsp apple cider vinegar OR coconut vinegar
2 tsps vanilla extract
1/2 cup dark chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Using a food processor, blend oats until flour-like in consistency (but maintain some rough texture). Add remaining dry ingredients to food processor with ground oats and blend until combined. Add wet ingredients all at once and blend until combined.
Pour batter into a bowl and add chocolate chips.

Grease a 9x5 inch loaf pan or line with parchment paper. Add batter to pan and bake for 35 minutes. After 35 minutes, turn off oven and allow cake to remain in oven for additional 10 minutes with door closed.

Serve warm if possible. But if you are actually one of those people who can practice self-control, by all means go crazy on this bad boy the next day.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

end-of-summer peach & plum galette (vegan, gluten-free, soy-free, dairy-free, egg-free)

peace out summer

We might be Portland newbies, but the people and the food have already made this feel like our forever home.

Since arriving, we have been attending a weekly meditation group with our two PDX besties J. and S. For the past year the group has been meeting regularly to sit in support of their good friend and fellow meditator who has been fighting cancer. Despite the intensity of the past year and the closeness of the group, they welcomed us with open arms and this past Sunday we got to celebrate the year anniversary of the group with an incredible potluck dinner. And because I'm me, I made dessert. Summer and its fruits are finally at their end and so a simple tart highlighting the delicious ripeness of almost-past-their-prime peaches and plums seemed like the thing to do. And because of the un-fussiness of the company, an even simpler galette seemed the way to go. Easy, not too sweet, and so satisfying. Of course all I wanted to do was heave vanilla ice cream on to it, but we're going easy on the pro-inflammatory foods these days. Also, I forgot to buy some.

peach & plum galette
2 cups Bob's Red Mill all purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 cup Earth Balance vegan, soy free buttery sticks cut into chunks
6-8 tblsps cold water

3 large ripe peaches cut into slices, skin on
3-4 large plums cut into slices, skin on
1 tblsp lemon juice
2 tblsp coconut sugar

Preheat oven to 375 degrees

Combine first 5 ingredients in a  food processor until they form a ball. Remove and roll into a 12-14 inch circle on a piece of lightly floured parchment.

Combine fruit, lemon juice, and 1 tblsp sugar in a mixing bowl. Pour onto rolled out crust leaving a 2 inch section free. Fold section up. Most of the fruit should remain exposed. Melt remaining approximately 1 tbsp of Earth Balance and brush on exposed crust. Sprinkle sugar. Move parchment carefully on to baking sheet.

Bake for 35-45 minutes depending on oven.

manifesto-ing destiny: making the move from NYC to PDX (finally)

More sky, less traffic.

Guess what? We live in Portland now! Just like that. Blink and you can live in a completely different state. Like magic!

Magic means thinking really, really hard about something, planning, saving up the dough, and finally doing it even when it means leaving everything you knew behind, right?

For more than a year we agonized, about the need for "improved quality of life." As two folks who live with, um, tricky immune systems we discovered - in my case after almost a lifetime lived in NYC (the literal city of my birth) - that we were not getting any healthier (surprise!). As people who love to walk, our "urban hikes" had become something of a joke: arriving back from 2-3 hour walks through the parks and streets covered in dirt, soot, and droplets of The Stew of Humanity and Accompanying Menagerie (I shall leave this very real phenomenon up to you to decipher). Going to bed with the glare of street lights, traffic noise, shouting, barking, singing, hollering, etc. became - how do you say? - not fun. Every morning I would wake up wondering why my face looked so puffy and red and then J. would dust the window-sills (every day) and scoop up black dust as though we had actually taken up residence in Victorian England. Anti-histamines and stomach acid blockers were popped to assist our respective commutes which in my case became something akin to The Inferno.

Anywhere and everywhere there was a crush of people, things, noise, smells. The omnipresent "New Constructions" piled up to accommodate more and more people and overwhelm a transit system built more than a hundred years ago, signaling a sickening kind of gentrification. $15.00 for a salad and $4.00 for a bottle of water. Extreme wealth, extreme poverty, and a so-called "middle class" on a continuum so vast as to render the term nonsensical. And all of us shoving through the ludicrous "Greenways" just angling for a little tiny scrap of personal space. By the end I pictured myself as the love child of Raskolnikov, Samsa, and Bartleby: Blowing around town, pushing through the madding crowds, feeling sick, and preferring not to.

I grew up in New York City in the 1970s and 1980s. My father was a prosecutor in the Bronx during a time when violence - particularly against women, minorities, and children - was rampant. My mother was a middle and high school teacher; a woman whose academic pursuits included biology, law, and computer science (She also got one of the first Master's Degrees in the subject offered by City College in 1977). My sisters and I grew up surrounded by smart, interesting, talented, diverse, artistic people. We didn't have much money, but we had a life that was full of intellectual and creative stimulation in a city that was broken, but didn't put on airs. It was home. Until it wasn't.

A trip to Portland (where J. had briefly lived in 2003) to visit some of our very best friends solidified the decision that, truth be told, we had been considering for a few years but felt too terrified to do anything about. We are planners and worriers. We like to feel safe and aren't big on leaping without the proverbial net. But the stress of life in NYC had become untenable and so we researched apartments and the job markets. We reached out to the connections provided to us and found new leads. We empowered ourselves with information and suddenly...Well, almost suddenly, the net began to appear. Job opportunities arose (thanks in large part to those same friends). Coincidentally, my family decided to sell the Harlem apartment which we had been renting. The stars began to align. We said goodbye to our beloveds. J. finished her last project and I left my hospital job in the Bronx working with crime victims and transitioned my private practice. None of this was easy. Saying goodbye is always hard, but thanks to the miracles of social media it hardly feels like we've left. So we get to keep the good that we loved (friends and family), while trying out greener, less concrete pastures.

Cannon Beach. Much less concrete. 

And what have we found now that we've gone through the looking-glass and come through to the other side? Everything we hoped for and more. Clean air, walkable streets (we don't own a car or bikes and don't plan to any time soon), fresh food (you haven't lived until you've had a piece of fish or an apple that hasn't traveled 3000 miles to land on your plate), kind folks. As a therapist who works with people who have experienced the traumas of interpersonal violence, or that of living with chronic, acute and terminal illness, I am aware of how "the body keeps the score" as Bessel van der Kolk, one of the founding fathers of trauma studies, has said. My body felt like a raw nerve before we left and is just now starting to stop buzzing. The simple things that I teach my clients - get enough sleep, eat simply and well (good food doesn't have to be expensive), love and be loved, move more, laugh, experience some quiet and solitude - I am finally able to practice more myself. Life experience up to this point has taught me that there is something so incredibly healing about having a little space of one's own without the garish bloat of an unwieldy environment. It doesn't have to be huge and expensive. It doesn't even have to be an actual place. Remember in Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree when that crappy kid prays on a martyr of a tree who gives everything she's got until she's nothing but an old stump and even then the thankless kid comes back as an old guy and sits on her? Yeah, well he's looking for a quiet place to sit and rest and isn't that we're all looking for except not at the expense of others. And with that, I give you a gentle reminder from one of Portland's great wonder's in Washington Park:

Always stop and smell the roses

Monday, October 13, 2014

When Nuts Attack!: A Paleo Diversion (and pumpkin + chocolate recipe)


Monday of a three day weekend. Autumn chill and a light rain. Perfect time to bake.

Baking? But what about that paleo diet and no grains and, and.... Yeah, well.

As you might have guessed by the headline "gluten free and vegan pumpkin bread" some new health-related things have transpired since my last post about the virtues of a paleo diet. All I can say is autoimmune disorders are a b*tch (I'm sure all of my homies with rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, Sjogren's, and those living without a firm diagnosis will agree). Before getting to the deliciousness of this pumpkin delight, allow me to ascend my soapbox for one hot minute...

There are many theories as to what causes autoimmunity, and one of those has to do with having had a serious illness and a history of long-course treatment with antibiotics. Basically, the thought is that illnesses such as Epstein-Barr (aka "mono") and Lyme Disease strongly activate the immune system and (and this is a wild oversimplification) never really leave even after symptoms resolve. So the viruses and bacteria that caused the original sickness continue to float around wreaking havoc. Many doctors disregard this theory and say that once the illness has been "successfully" treated - usually with high-powered antibiotics or anti-virals when possible - the disease is gone. Others in the medical community and certainly some patients disagree with this. As one who suffered a severe case of mono at the age of 18 following years of chronic strep throat (from ages 12-17) and practically monthly courses of antibiotics, I can say that I never physically felt the same. My stomach - which had always been iron-strong - turned on me. I remember being 16 years old and filling a prescription for Zantac. This was not at all common in those days. In fact my pediatrician said it was the first time he had ever written a prescription for a medication of that type for anyone so young. My stomach continued to bother me on and off for years. I developed chronic nausea in my 20s amongst other things labeled IBS (irritable bowel syndrome). Also in my 20s, I saw a doctor who believed that the best way to combat the occasional urinary tract infection was to take Cipro (the potent antibiotic best known as the first defense against anthrax) every time one had sex. Without divulging too much other than that I was a young and healthy 20-something in a string of monogamous relationships, this was a lot of Cipro. I quit that when I realized that I had probably killed anything good going on in my body. But I was all set if anthrax happened to show up in my mail.

Fast forward to my birthday weekend. We were away visiting friends in the Pacific Northwest where I was also attending a conference. I had a beef burger in keeping with my paleo regimen and was sick for four days (The burger itself was delicious). I got home and tried to return to my usual regimen which included fish for protein, veggies, fruit, and lots of seeds and nuts. I noticed one day that the nuts started to feel like they were getting stuck in my throat. I didn't think much of it. And then this started to happen a lot. Oddly, peanut butter (Not paleo, I know I know) seemed to be ok, but raw almonds, walnuts, brazil nuts, cashews; pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, sunflower butter, almond butter all seemed to be a problem. One day, I started to feel like I couldn't breathe. I ended up back at the gastroenterologist who told me to stop eating nuts immediately and scheduled me for an upper endoscopy. I'm still awaiting the biopsy report but the doctor's thought is that I have eosinophilic esophogitis (EoE) which is an autoimmune response within the esophagus, usually triggered by food. In my case, my beloved, beloved nuts. Forgive me but I can't f**king believe it. She recommended that I give my esophagus a rest and have soft food that would include some grains. I told her about my paleo diet. She looked at me. Asked me if I was a caveman. And then said "Balance." Wise words.

So...Here I am. Making a perhaps short-lived (maybe longer) return to the Land O Grains. Truth be told, in the week or so since I re-introduced the very occasional grain (quinoa, teff, sorghum, millet) my stomach feels calmer but the rest of me feels more tired. We'll see how this little experiment goes. Striving for balance in all things.

Off the soapbox and on to the recipe which happens to be brilliantly moist, rich, cakey, not too sweet, and decadently chocolatey thanks to the sprinkling of dark chocolate chips studding this autumn jewel. Let me know if you try it and what you think.

Pumpkin & Chocolate Bread-Cake (gluten/soy/nut-free and vegan)
1 cup gluten free flour blend (I used 1/3 cup teff flour, 1/3 cup sorghum flour, 1/3 cup quinoa flour)
1 tsp baking soda
1-2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp allspice
1 cup organic pumpkin puree (not pie mix)
1/4 cup organic unrefined coconut oil
1/4 cup raw coconut nectar (or 1/4 cup maple syrup)
1 tblsp apple cider vinegar
1/2 cup soy free dark chocolate chips (I use Enjoy Life brand)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

Combine dry ingredients in bowl. Combine wet ingredients in separate bowl. Add dry ingredients to wet and stir to combine. Add chocolate chips and mix until incorporated. Pour batter into parchment lined loaf pan and bake for 1 hour. Allow to cool completely before slicing. Between servings wrap in fresh parchment and aluminum foil and refrigerate to maintain moistness.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Vegan No More: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Burger

In the Beginning

Yes Virginia, that is a bison burger on my plate. My plate. The one that hasn't seen meat on it in 26 years. 26 YEARS. The amount of time that it takes some folks to go from birth to being ensconced in professional life. In 26 years, one can become a professional (you choose!), have a couple of kids, assume lots of debt. There's time in 26 years for many loves, plenty of regret, and enormous quantities of food. Food. I've had a lot of food. I've even written about some of it. But none of the food I've consumed since I was 16 has possessed anything that many wordsmith vegetarians and vegans with a penchant for truth-in-melodrama would refer to as "a mom."

So what happened?

I'll tell you.

But first I'll tell you how much I loved being vegetarian and sometime vegan: I. LOVED. IT. Everything about it. And I wasn't one of those veggies who liked the processed food that resembled "real food." Nope. I love vegetables and fruits - all of them. Never met a legume with which I wasn't enamored. A handful of raw nuts sprinkled with nutritional yeast, yes please. Kale smoothies, fermented soy, kelp. Right here. I stopped drinking milk at age 2 (I remember getting wildly sick from it and that was the end) and eggs grossed me out. Meat and chicken and pork - staples in my childhood home - just never appealed to me. Growing up, my family wasn't appalled, but they were incredibly confused. Both of my parents and my sisters are dyed in the wool (so to speak) carnivores. And I was the opposite. Just by nature it seemed. I wasn't trying to take a stand, I was trying not to gag. Literally. I remember arguing with my dad one night as I tried to sneakily cut the meat off - let's face it - the meat. He observed my handiwork and said "You're killing it. Again." Funny guy. Look, it sounds annoying even to me. "Oh wow, she couldn't choke down that incredible piece of steak." But I truly couldn't. When I said at the age of 15 that I was craving a bowl of broccoli, tofu, and sesame sauce, I REALLY meant it. My mom - a lady of good Irish Catholic meat and potato stock - must have thought she was witnessing some kind of demonic possession. But eventually, everyone got used to me and my diet. And when my father (and later, my sister) were diagnosed with celiac disease (the real deal, not the faddish desire to eliminate gluten because Gwyneth Paltrow said so), cooking multiple dishes for multiple people with high-maintenance needs just became part of the norm. I also noticed that, even though I loved the taste of a good cheese and, god only knows, great ice cream, I'd feel so nauseated for 24 hours afterwards, it became easier and easier to just say no.


I'll tell you.

It started with this (you asked for it):

2006 sleep study: Robo-Jen
Way back at the end of 2005, after working as a television producer for nearly a decade and then running the NYC Marathon, my body crapped out on me. I was told I had Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, but it was noted that I had an incredibly strange thing going on in my blood work: Monoclonal Gammopathy of Undetermined Significance (MGUS). Something most often seen in middle-aged African American men. Sometimes MGUS is an early indicator of lymphoma or multiple myeloma, two very unpleasant cancers, so there was cause for concern. Doctors took all of this very seriously and sent me down the rabbit hole of medical testing. The veins in my arms have scars like a heroin addict. I've been scanned, poked, prodded, examined inside and out. I've had to collect my own urine (and other things) for 24 hours, travel with my own waste to a facility. and then DISCUSS it with medical techs first thing in the morning as they are just trying to have breakfast. Bless.

I got familiar with the not-so-modern expressions shared with me by supposedly modern medical doctors: "watchful waiting" and the especially medieval "tincture of time." These were to alert me to the fact that I needed to be followed and re-tested every few months for the many, many, many scary medical problems that COULD arise. Basically, every time anything happened internally I started to worry that this could be IT. Whatever IT was. IT was probably not going to be good. So I felt nervous for a good long while and talked endlessly about my problems and shared every burp and pain with friends, family, and my beautiful partner. And then I decided to try to empower myself and do the best with what I had. I changed careers, completed graduate school, became a clinical social worker working with survivors of violent crime, started my own private psychotherapy and wellness coaching practice. Always very active, I ran, walked long distances, lifted weights, even completed that ludicrous "Insanity" regimen. I ate well (Vegetarian with some fish thrown in for good measure - fish had never fully exited my diet). I got mostly used to "watchful waiting" and didn't let it affect my life. I did my research (I'm a certified holistic health coach) and added in high-quality supplements targeted to control inflammation: turmeric, Zyflamend (by New Chapter), probiotics, b-complex, fish oil, vitamin d. I had it all figured out. I thought. (Here begin the real life lesson).

And then in 2013, I came down with what seemed like a 9 month stomach virus. I lost a ton of weight for no reason and had stomach pain all the time. The naturopath I was seeing told me I looked like I had "wasting syndrome" (normally applied to AIDS patients and others with terminal illness). I had another endoscopy and colonoscopy and it turned out I had erosive gastritis (bleeding in the stomach, not from an ulcer). But they didn't know why. More tests. A blood test revealed a slightly elevated Alpha-Fetoprotein (AFP). Normally elevated in people with liver cancer, cirrhosis, horrible things, you get the idea. Ultrasound of my liver revealed a few tiny cysts and a "lesion." Possibly a benign hemangioma (a small collection of blood vessels that many have). Or something horrible. Was this IT? I got sent for a CT. Lots of radiation. The CT scan showed nothing. The doctors said "We don't know right now. We'll just have to wait and see." In other words, more tincture of time.

I began following a vegan diet because it was what appealed to me. I had gone on and off of vegan diets over the years, but this time I was strict about it. No animal products of any kind. Wheat and gluten had also been in and out of my life. They went out. I kept up with my supplements. My stomach improved and healed, but I wasn't feeling stronger and my weight was still low. My digestion remained erratic. My left leg started swelling randomly. The rheumatologist sent me for neurological tests. In case you were wondering, much of medicine retains that Middle Ages flava that I recall from my days as a nerdy Medieval History major in college. So these neurological "tests" more closely resembled something you'd expect to see on Game of Thrones. After being made to lie on a table for 2 hours, breathe in such a way as to induce hyperventilation, and then tilted up on the table - Frankenstein style - to force the blood to rush from my brain to my feet and induce at best panic, and at worst fainting, I realized we have much to learn. These tests revealed that I have something unsexy called POTS (Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia). This basically means my blood pressure and heart rate do their own thang especially if I stand up too suddenly. For some, this can be really debilitating, but I never gave it too much thought having never really been affected by it in my every day life (That is, off the Frankenstein table). The treatment for POTS is lots of water, extra sodium in the diet, and exercise even when it feels difficult to keep blood circulating. I generally did all of these things so, again, I wasn't too worried.

It had also been noted on a previous scan that I had a large fibroid outside of my uterus in the muscle of my abdomen. Could this be the cause of so many of my problems? Abdominal surgery was scheduled for February.

And then in January 2014, during the iciest, snowiest winter in memory, this happened:

Fractured wrist. On the hand with which I write. In the dead of winter.

On my way with J. to a local bar to have a Friday eve drink, I slipped and fell on the ice and fractured my wrist. It hurt like hell and was a bitch to maneuver in the frigid cold and on icy streets, on and off a bus, getting in and out of a heavy winter coat, no glove, working in a public hospital where hand sanitization IS A MUST. But I did it. And I never missed a day of work. I healed much faster than the orthopedist expected and was out of the cast and into a brace within a month.  I felt like a bad-ass.

Surgery for the fibroid was rescheduled for April to give me time to heal and get my bearings back, especially since the surgeon decided she wanted to perform a full myomectomy (open abdominal surgery versus laproscopy). I went to see a colleague who is an acupuncturist and she strongly encouraged me to be evaluated by a cardiologist. "Your pulse is erratic," she said. So off I went to a cardiologist in anticipation of surgery and he noted how low my blood pressure and pulse rate were and attributed it to being in good cardiovascular condition.  He did think that I needed to be especially well hydrated during surgery because of the POTS. I had a consultation with an entire team of anesthesiologists who came up with a plan to keep my heart from stopping during surgery (Apparently this can happen with POTS). Again, I felt pretty confident.

And then I woke up after surgery and everything was different.

First of all, I was WIDE awake. Not groggy. Not sleepy. Completely and totally awake. As if I had never been unconscious, intubated, operated on. I felt as though I had merely blinked. I was definitely nauseous, which had never happened to me before after any procedure. But I was able to ask for nausea meds and engage fully in conversation. My entire body felt electrified, as though all of the nerves had been stimulated. I actually asked the nurse for a Xanax (probably a first in the surgical recovery room) which they gave me intravenously. And I realized that I was - no joke - in the midst of what I can only describe as an existential crisis.  24 hours overnight in the hospital was excruciating. I didn't sleep. I couldn't relax. I was never in pain and actually refused all pain meds because I didn't need them (which the nurses and doctors found unusual). I was discharged to home at my lowest weight since childhood. My father looked at me and his eyes widened. I saw myself in the mirror and couldn't process what I was seeing. I made it my mission to heal quickly and regain my strength.

I returned home to my healthy vegan diet and supplement regimen. I started having bouts of flushing and fever (This had happened before surgery as well). I was given an antibiotic in case of infection that turned my skin yellow and gave me migraines. It turned out I didn't have an infection and the antibiotic was discontinued after two days. My incision was healing beautifully. No complications and practically no pain at all. But I looked awful and couldn't shake the "electrified" feeling I had since surgery.

And then, out of nowhere, I developed tachycardia. One morning after eating breakfast, my heart started to race. I counted it at 130. My heart rate is normally 60 and, often, way below. Then my blood pressure went up. As someone whose blood pressure normally remained at or slightly below 100/60 (I told you I have low blood pressure), it was suddenly in the 140/90 range. I was having trouble breathing and frequently getting dizzy. I went to the cardiologist who was stunned and in coordination with the rheumatologist and my primary care doctor, sent me for, you got it, more tests. Scary potential diagnoses of "carcinoid tumor" (an adrenal tumor that impacts the body's ability to regulate blood pressure, heart rate, temperature) were discussed. I was sent to another neurologist. This one, a specialist at Cornell, took one look at me and responded, when I said I must be having a panic attack: "This isn't anxiety, this is something physiological." So that felt vindicating since I was starting to wonder if I was going crazy. Literally. I told him about my experience after surgery and he nodded. "That sometimes happens" he answered. I would have felt relieved if my heart was racing so badly. He drew blood and we waited (but not for long) for the results.

So here's where it starts to get interesting. Where the life lesson comes in. A life lesson that I really hope to spread to others, especially those who think of themselves as healthy eaters and who take every supplement recommended in a magazine or on Dr. Oz or in the back of US Magazine.

But first, full disclosure: I am a nerd. I love the art and science of medicine. I should have become a doctor but I convinced myself long ago that I wasn't smart enough to do this. That was dumb. I'm still thinking of following this dream. I am particularly fascinated by "food as medicine" and know that the root of all healing lies in how we manage our stress, the environment in which we live, and the food we ingest. We live in a highly toxic world. Enough has been incredibly well-written on that topic, so I will move along with my own personal revelation...

The blood tests came back and revealed that, while I did not appear to have a carcinoid tumor, I had toxic levels of B6 in my blood. Also, that my carnitine levels were low. You read that first part right: TOXIC levels of B6. B6 is, obviously, a vitamin. It serves many important functions in the body, but can be toxic to the nervous system when levels are too high. The funny thing about the nervous system is that when nerves are damaged, they don't just heal. They can be permanently damaged. Our entire body is comprised of nerves and we rely on these nerves for actions we don't ever think about. Take the autonomic nervous system for example. Autonomic means, essentially, functioning independently of consciousness. Blood pressure, heart rate, digestion, breathing, are all controlled by the autonomic nervous system. When the nerves that impact the autonomic nervous system are damaged, this can lead to what's called "autonomic neuropathy." POTS is a form of autonomic instability. Autonomic neuropathy requires damage to the nerves and that damage is essentially irreparable.

The doctor told me that what was likely going on for me was that I had autonomic neuropathy, possibly due to B6 toxicity and further exacerbated by recent surgery (which assaults the nervous system). He told me to discontinue B complex supplement immediately and begin to supplement my low carnitine with Acetyl L-Carnitine. Carnitine is found in the highest concentrations in red meat and dairy. He also told me to begin supplementing with Alpha Lipoic Acid (ALA) which has been found, in some studies, to be effective in slowing the progression of neuropathy.

Note, the conventional wisdom is that vegans are deficient in B vitamins (normally found in organ meats and other animal products) and require supplementation. I was candid with the neurologist about my diet and my supplements and he said "Maybe a vegan diet isn't for you." When I asked him about B-complex he said that the dose of B6 in the supplement could be toxic for those who are compromised and certainly for those who get enough B6 in their diet. Also "Every person responds to supplements differently. There is no one-size-fits-all."

Every person responds to diet and supplements differently. There is no one size fits all.

Bio-individuality is an important and often overlooked concept in our world of health and wellness. Social media, huge pharmaceutical companies, and the constant drive to be bigger, better, faster, stronger mean that we often don't think about ourselves as independent of the masses, of our own unique DNA and medical conditions. We are not all the same. We do not have the exact same biology. Supplements or medications created by pharma companies who are using 170 pound Caucasian men as test subjects, are labeling products being used by bigger and smaller men and women of many different backgrounds with many different pre-existing health conditions. Take it from me, that innocent looking vitamin supplement on your shelf might be really, really hurting you. As it turns out, the erosive gastritis (bleeding in my stomach) may have been CAUSED by turmeric which I was taking - as recommended EVERYWHERE - to help reduce chronic joint pain and inflammation. I have since discussed this with my doctor and noted that the bleeding in my stomach stopped when I discontinued that supplement over a year ago. Interesting.

And about the Paleo Diet which I started talking about paragraphs and paragraphs ago. I started researching and read Sarah Ballantyne PhD's excellent book The Paleo Approach. Ballantyne is a medical researcher and someone who suffers (and has family who suffers) from numerous autoimmune diseases. Strong links between autoimmune illness and diet have already been confirmed. But Ballantyne breaks down the science and explains why and how a strict autoimmune protocol (AIP) Paleo Diet that - along with the typical exclusion of sugar, dairy, grains, legumes, industrial vegetable oils - also does NOT include eggs, nuts, seeds, nightshades, coffee, cacao and severely limits other immune system triggering foods, can aid healing.

I considered what she and others had to say. I knew that MY body needs carnitine (found in animal meat). I noticed body pain, wasting, brain fog, increased dizziness, blood pressure/heart rate fluctuations, digestion were worse with my balanced vegan diet. After discontinuing B-complex, my blood pressure soon returned to its ultra low state. This isn't normal either but its a little less terrifying than high blood pressure and constant tachycardia. Additions of carnitine and ALA have made a noticeable difference in my weight, skin, and hair quality. And then came diet. I knew I couldn't just abandon all of my faves (nuts, seeds, coffee, 90% dark chocolate) in favor of bone broth soup and organ meat (recommended by Ballantyne). But I decided to see how I felt with an increase in my consumption of fish (sardines, salmon), removing ALL grains and legumes, significantly increasing vegetable intake, adding in fermented foods (i.e. raw fermented sauerkraut, etc), and the addition of best quality, grass fed, humanely raised meat.

The Burger: One small step for mankind, one giant leap for Jen Warner
So I did it. I didn't gag once. In fact, it went down so smoothly that it was almost scary. I felt something in my body wake up. I felt energized in a deeper, more primal (sigh) way. I still feel symptomatic, don't get me wrong. And I've already been told that my neurological issues may not get better and may actually get worse. I still have to be re-tested and "watchfully wait" to see if there are new or worsening developments. I have had to dramatically change my overall approach to my life: adding in more gentle exercise (yoga a few times a week), limiting weight training to times when I feel strong enough, not running (though I hope to get back to this at some point), being mindful of how I feel and adjusting my behavior to those feelings, staying hydrated, sitting down when I feel light-headed or dizzy. Being mindful of my feelings. And compassionate towards myself. As someone who prided themselves on "going hard" all the damn time, I realized the only person I was fighting - and destroying - was myself. As they say on the airplane, "Put your own mask on before helping anyone else." This slow change in all areas of my life  I hope will allow me to live longer but live better and more compassionately towards myself and others. I'm not looking ahead to the finish line, but enjoying where I am right now because, let's face it, that's all anyone has.

I'm not advocating a particular diet or exercise or supplement for anyone. This is just my story but I hope it will inspire you to listen to YOU. Don't try to be anyone else or take a vitamin meant for a 170 pound Caucasian man (unless you are one in which case go for it if that's your thing). You have a body and a brain that want you to pay attention to them, so listen. Treat them as you would a small child. Don't yell or berate or deprive or force feed. Keep yourself clean, drink enough water, eat when you're hungry, get some fresh air, laugh, play, love, sleep. And another thing, don't ever, ever take your nervous system for granted. 

Friday, March 14, 2014

3 minutes to pain relief

Maybe you've had a really long and stressful work week and your neck, back, and shoulders are feeling it. Or the constant weather changes are flaring up pre-existing joint and muscle pain. Anyone living with chronic autoimmune conditions such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia; or old injuries to the neck, back, and spine knows this deep, unrelenting ache. Being the tough guys we are, we push through pain; often with the aid of over the counter and prescription pain meds. But these take a toll too. Stomach bleeding is one side effect of medications such as Aleve and Advil. Liver damage is a very real possibility from Tylenol and has led to a recent FDA crackdown. And of course, we won't even talk about the addictive possibilities of drugs like Percocet, Oxycodone, etc.

No matter the root cause of your pain, ultimately your body is screaming out for a little gentleness and balance. Think of pain and its location as being a physical manifestation of other conflicts in your life (Literally, are things a pain in your neck). Qigong (pronounced chi-gong) can be helpful. If nothing else, it gives you a (likely) much-needed time out from the constant racing of your brain. Never mind the fact that Dr. Oz introduces this clip. The exercises are led by Kung-Fu master Karl Romain are simple and gentle and shockingly effective. 3 minutes. Less time than it takes you to pop open that bottle of aspirin and limp over to get a glass of water. Try it and see.

Qigong exercises to relieve pain

Thursday, March 13, 2014

what those food cravings actually mean

Food cravings can send us all down a wicked path of self-destruction. Here's a helpful guide for understanding what your body may ACTUALLY be craving. A chocolate craving (during PMS or when you're super-stressed or experiencing muscle cramping and soreness) may mean you really need magnesium - a mineral that helps regulate many biochemical reactions in the body including muscle and nerve function, blood glucose control, blood pressure regulation, and protein synthesis. Chocolate with a high cacao content (more than 70%) contains magnesium. But so do raw nuts and seeds, legumes (beans, peanuts), and some fruits. 
Try switching out some of your craved foods for the healthier alternatives and see how you feel. Send me your feedback!