Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Natural Menstrual Alternatives

Why avoid conventional tampons and pads?

Disposable tampons and pads can contain chemicals, such as dioxins and furans, that may lead to ill health.  According to Katie Singer's fabulous The Garden of Fertility book,
 Most tampons are made from rayon (for absorbency) and cotton; most are bleached.  Dioxin, a chemical produced in the bleaching process, can be toxic to the immune and reproductive systems.  Dioxin is potentially cancer-causing, and it's been linked to endometriosis... there is no acceptable level of exposure to dioxin, given that exposure to it is cumulative, and the chemical disintegrates slowly.  The real danger with dioxin comes from repeated contact.
In a lifetime, a woman may use 8,000 tampons. 
Because it's very absorbent, rayon contributes to the danger of a woman being exposed to dioxin through tampon use; when rayon fibers remain in the vagina after the menstrual period (as they commonly do), so, too, does dioxin.

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council,
Dioxins and furans are among the most hazardous chemicals known - extremely tiny doses have been shown to cause negative health effects. These chemicals are listed by several governmental agencies as known causes of cancer in humans. Indeed, studies have linked dioxins and furans to many types of cancer, as well as to reproductive problems, abnormalities in fetal development, immune alterations, and disruption of hormones. Because dioxins and furans are attracted to fat and are resistant to metabolism, they are notorious for accumulating in the animals humans eat, and by that route accumulating in humans. Within the human body, the highest levels of these chemicals are in fat and breast milk.

Pros and Cons of Natural Menstrual Options

In the 9 years since I learned about the dangers in conventional tampons and pads, I've tried out many natural menstrual alternatives.  They all have their advantages and disadvantages. Currently, I use sea sponges.   

Unbleached cotton tampons
My experience
I initially switched to using Natracare unbleached cotton tampons without applicators.  I used these for about 8 months with no problems, then became pregnant with my daughter. I tried using these again after my daughter was born, but didn't like them because I had some scar tissue from an internal tear that made insertion particularly uncomfortable.  I also used them for a few months after my son was born, when I started having problems with the Diva Cup. 

  • Unbleached cotton tampons don't contain dioxins or other undesirable chemicals.
  • They are very convenient to use, just like conventional tampons.
  • They are rather expensive, and since they are disposable, you'll keep paying the high price month after month.
  • There seems to be a little bit more "friction" during insertion with these tampons than conventional tampons.  So they don't insert quite as easily as conventional tampons, but they're still pretty easy to use. 
  • It seems like these tampons are probably more likely to leave some fibers behind.  But, these fibers would just be cotton, so it seems like they wouldn't be harmful anyhow.  I never noticed any fibers left behind, but these just aren't quite as smooth as conventional tampons. 
  • Just like conventional tampons, there is a risk of Toxic Shock Syndrome with cotton tampons.
Menstrual cups
My experience
I switched to the Diva Cup, which is a silicone menstrual cup, after my daughter was born when I was having problems with cotton tampons.  (There is also a natural rubber version of the menstrual cup, called The Keeper.)  I absolutely LOVED the Diva Cup, and used it for a year until I got pregnant with my son. After my son was born, I had problems with the Diva Cup not staying in quite the right place when I wore it. Apparently my son's quick arrival (just over two hours of labor) changed my internal landscape a bit.

  • The Diva Cup is made from health-grade silicone. The Keeper is made from natural rubber.
  • Menstrual cups are convenient to use.  When they get full, just dump the contents, rinse the cup, and re-insert.  (The rinsing can be skipped if necessary, such as in a public restroom.)
  • Menstrual cups can last for years and years, so they are very cost effective.
  • Menstrual cups can be worn for up to twelve hours.
  • There is a little bit of a learning process in learning how to properly insert a menstrual cup. (But, once you get the hang of it, it is really quite simple.) 
Cloth pads
My experience
I started using LunaPanties all-in-one underwear with menstrual protection as backup protection in combination with the Diva Cup.  Then, when I started having problems with the Diva Cup, I bought a kit of LunaPads liners and pads, and used these exclusively for a few months.  But, this mostly just reminded me of why I always preferred internal menstrual methods as I don't really like the messiness of using pads alone.  So now I only use cloth pads for very light days.  

  • Cloth pads are much more breathable than conventional pads. Breathability is great for overall vaginal health.
  • Because they are breathable, I found that wearing cloth pads ensures that I never develop those unpleasant odors that can sometimes arise with conventional pads.
  • Cloth pads are quite pricey initially; however, since they will last for years they are really economical in the long run. 
  • Cloth pads are very absorbent, and I've had any problems with them leaking.
  • Because they hold onto fluids so well, it can take quite awhile to fully rinse the blood out of cloth pads.  The best method I found was to put them into the bathtub while I showered and periodically step on them to squish the liquid out.
  • Cloth pads don't stay in place quite as well as conventional pads (this is one reason that I prefer the Lunapanties that have built-in protection).  I have found that the cloth pads often require a bit of adjustment after going to the bathroom, but then they stay in place just fine once they are positioned where you want them.
  • If you need to change your pad while out-and-about, you'll need to have some way of transporting your soiled pads back home.
Sea sponge tampons
As recommended by a friend, I started using Jade and Pearl sea sponge tampons over 3 years ago.  I really like these, and plan to use them for the foreseeable future.  I bought a multipack with three different sizes, and I use only the small and medium sizes.

  • Sea sponge tampons are made of natural materials.
  • It is very easy to wash sea sponge tampons in the sink.  They are much easier to clean than cloth pads.
  • Sea sponge tampons are very absorbent.
  • Sea sponge tampons are easy to insert and can be trimmed to fit if desired (although I haven't had to trim mine at all).
  • Sea sponge tampons can be left in during intercourse.
  • Sea sponge tampons can be sterilized using apple cider vinegar, hydrogen peroxide, sea salt, or tea tree oil.
  • Just like normal tampons, sea sponge tampons can require some re-adjustment after you use the restroom. 
  • I have installed a Biffy bidet attachment on my toilets to spray clean after I use the bathroom.  I find it best to remove my sea sponge tampons each time I use the restroom if I plan to use the Biffy; otherwise, they soak up too much water.
  • Sea sponge tampons should ideally be sanitized once or twice a day (using one of the methods described above).
  •  If I haven't sanitized the sea sponges often enough, they tend to develop a bit of unpleasant ocean-like smell.  This is only noticeable if you actually sniff the sea sponge itself, though, and can be easily remedied by a quick soak in one of the sanitizing solutions.

Have you tried any natural menstrual alternatives? What natural menstrual solutions do you recommend?

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Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Can a Perfect Diet Lead to Perfect Health?

GAPS, Paleo, Primal Blueprint, Perfect Health Diet, Weston Price: There are so many different diets that are touted as being "the" answer to the question of finding health.  Does following these diets lead to perfect health?

My Family's Experience With Finding Health Through Diet

Nearly 10 years ago, my husband and I embarked on our journey of finding health through diet.  Prior to that time, we were following a typical Standard American Diet, with lots of processed foods, low-fat foods, and restaurant foods.  While neither of us suffered from any very serious health issues, we did have some health issues since we both had cavities, we had both been prescribed inhalers for asthma, I had acne rosacea, irritable bowel syndrome, and carpal tunnel syndrome, and my husband had long-standing issues with eczema, insomnia, and sinus problems (which had not been improved even with two sinus surgeries).

I learned about Weston Price's groundbreaking research into traditional diets and jumped right in to changing our diets.  We were looking forward to having children soon, and I wanted to make sure we were both very healthy before conception. We started consuming plenty of grassfed beef, pastured chicken and eggs, butter, raw milk and cheese, fish eggs, homemade chicken stock, sprouted and/or soaked whole grains, fermented foods, fruits and vegetables, and a daily dose of cod liver oil.

My husband and I both saw health improvements from these dietary changes.  The frequency of illnesses decreased and we both saw some improvements in our chronic health issues. For instance, my acne rosacea and irritable bowel syndrome disappeared, and my husband had less frequent sinus flareups. We kept on following the Weston Price-based diet and making it a normal part of our lives.

Fast forward 5 years through the birth of two children and things weren't looking so rosy. Despite having consumed an excellent Weston Price-based diet her whole life, our 3-year-old daughter had poor weight gain and a pattern of recurrent illnesses. She would get sick roughly 8-10 times per year, each time running a high fever for several days, and often she had a lingering cough for 2-3 weeks after each illness. When other kids had a minor "tummy bug", she had an extreme version with vomiting for 48 hours and losing over 10% of her body weight.

My exclusively-breastfed infant son slept horribly, waking frequently every night; he had eczema and was constipated, and he cried inconsolably for 30-45 minutes several times every day. During my recent pregnancy, I had developed three new health issues that did not subside after the birth - insomnia (awake for 2-3 hours in the middle of the night every night), joint pain (that made normal activities such as holding the baby very difficult), and irritability (losing my temper and being impatient with my daughter, which had never been an issue previously). My husband's sinus problems flared up and he had a sinus infection for over 6 months. My husband and I were getting sick more frequently as well. 

Thinking that we would be able to fix these problems through an even stricter diet, my family started the GAPS Diet in the late summer of 2010. The GAPS Diet is similar to Paleo and Primal Diets, except that it has a specific emphasis on curing health conditions through healing the gut. The GAPS Diet is based on healthy fats (such as butter and coconut oil), meats, fruits, veggies, broth, and fermented foods. The GAPS Diet does not allow any grains or starches, and allows no sweeteners except honey.

We followed the GAPS Diet strictly for over 16 months, and completed two rounds of the Intro Diet. Initially, we had amazing results: our daughter got sick less frequently and she started gaining weight, my joint pain was gone, and my husband's 6-month-long sinus infection finally abated. We thought we had finally found the answer to our health problems.

Even though we were still strictly following GAPS, some of our old health problems started to come back. My husband's sinuses started to flare up again, and his eczema flared up and became worse than ever.  I developed adrenal issues including spells of extreme low energy, and yet if I went off GAPS my joint pain came back again. Our (already low-weight) daughter stopped gaining weight and even started losing weight.  A full rundown on the positive results and set-backs for each of us on GAPS can be seen in this post.

The positive benefits of GAPS had waned and we had developed new problems while on the diet. We stopped strictly following GAPS and found that we now had food sensitivities that we had not observed prior to following the GAPS Diet. And many of our previous health concerns were once again in effect.

At this point I finally realized that diet alone was not sufficient to heal our chronic health issues. While different dietary strategies were able to give us temporary improvements, over time our old issues always came back, no matter how strictly we followed the diets.

Why Didn't Diet Heal Our Health Issues?

In the intervening three years since we stopped the GAPS Diet, I have learned a great deal about health and healing chronic health issues.Through constitutional homeopathic treatment, my family is finding health in ways that diet could never even come close to. Through my intensive search for answers, I have come to understand health in a whole new way.

Using diet to heal chronic health issues is somewhat like putting a band-aid on a cut: diet can aid in the process of healing, but it can't actually cause the healing process to occur. Just as a band-aid alone cannot heal an infected wound, diet alone cannot heal chronic health issues. Diet can certainly lead to temporary improvements, but unless the underlying imbalance is healed, the chronic issues will keep coming back again despite any dietary measures. Homeopathy works differently than dietary measures because it seeks to correct the fundamental imbalance that is leading to the symptoms in the first place.

What Is the Root Cause of Chronic Health Problems?

From a homeopathic perspective, chronic health issues are an indication of an underlying imbalance, often as a result of genetic predispositions (which are referred to as miasms in homeopathic literature).  Samuel Hahnemann, the founder of homeopathy, was well ahead of his time in that he developed an understanding of genetic influences on the health of subsequent generations nearly 200 years ago. Constitutional homeopathy works differently than diet (and many other healing modalities, including herbalism and conventional medicine) in that it seeks to uproot those underlying miasms and thereby remove the fundamental cause for the illness rather than just addressing the outward symptoms. 

Our Successful Path to Health 

Over the last 3 years, we have been finding answers to our health problems with homeopathy. In fact, our results have been so astonishing to me that I became a homeopath to share this healing modality with more people. A brief rundown of the benefits we have seen through homeopathy are:
  • We all get sick much less frequently now, and when we do get sick the intensity is much less than previously.
  • Our low-weight, poor appetite daughter now consistently gains weight and eats well. Her previously-poor immune system has been boosted so much that she has averaged only 1-2 minor illnesses per year over the last 2 years (as compared to her previous average of 8-10 more serious illnesses per year). Her homeopathic treatment has evened out her emotions so that she no longer cries at the drop of a hat, and also improved her focus and uncoordination (clumsiness).
  • Our son, whose sleep had degenerated over time to where he was waking every hour every night by the age of 2 years old, now sleeps 8-9 hours straight consistently. His intense temper tantrums were greatly improved and eventually stopped altogether through his homeopathic treatment. He has become much more cooperative and easy-going as well, and the correlation between these changes and his doses of homeopathic remedies is very obvious. He is the member of our family who is nearest to completing his homeopathic treatment, as evidenced by the fact that these improvements remain even while he is taking less remedy, less often.
  • My joint pain is gone, no matter whether or not I eat grains. I now very rarely have problems with low energy, and my irritability/mood is so much better! My insomnia is not completely resolved, but has improved from waking every single night for 2-3 hours to now waking about 10-15% of the time. My menstrual cycles have also normalized through my homeopathic treatment.
  • My husband, who has the most chronic health problems in our family, has seen steady improvements in his chronic health issues over the last few years on homeopathic treatment. His homeopathic treatment is turning back the clock on many of his health complaints, so that they are now better than they have been in over 12 years. His eczema is minimal, he is sleeping longer stretches of time at night (whereas previously he would wake every 1-2 hours), his weight is steady, and his sinus issues have much diminished over time.

I think it is very interesting that Dr. Natasha Campbell McBride, the author of the GAPS book, recommends combining homeopathic treatment with the GAPS Diet.  Through my post-GAPS experiences, I wonder how many people who were "cured" by GAPS were actually healed through homeopathic treatment. Several of my homeopathic patients had previously tried the GAPS Diet, but are now seeing better results through homeopathic treatment than they experienced with the GAPS Diet.

Where Does Diet Fit In To Overall Health?

People are often very surprised to find out that I have serious reservations about recommending the GAPS Diet. For my family, the GAPS Diet ended up being an empty promise. Given the extreme amount of time and effort involved in following the GAPS Diet (I spent an average of 6 hours per day in the kitchen), that empty promise is not something I would recommend to others. In the end, it was not able to solve our chronic health problems, and it actually ended up creating more problems.

However, I do believe that diet is an important part of maintaining overall health. Providing the body with an abundance of nutrients, through eating nutrient-dense foods, gives the body resources to use in healing. The body does need those nutrients, just as it needs adequate sleep and physical activity. But those nutrients alone are not enough to heal underlying imbalances that lead to chronic health issues. Good nutrition is important, but it is not the solution to healing chronic health problems.  

What is your experience with healing chronic conditions through diet? Have you had any increased food sensitivities after grain-free dieting?

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Thursday, March 12, 2015

Lemon Raspberry Muffins

Those of you who've been following my blog for awhile have probably figured out by now that I like a lot of variety in my diet. While I would enjoy the simplicity of a regular meal rotation, I just couldn't bear to eat the same things over and over again.  I also delight in developing new recipes. I love to unleash my creativity through experimenting with new flavors, and sometimes it feels like magic when a new recipe comes together just right.

My latest new recipe is Lemon Raspberry Muffins.  These are based on my current favorite flour combination: coconut flour, ground crispy nuts, and Einkorn (an ancient variety of wheat that is naturally lower in gluten and higher in protein than modern wheat). I like to make these muffins using a combination of sucanat and sugar for the sweetener; the lighter taste of sugar allows the bright flavor of lemon to really "pop" in this recipe. However, sucanat can be used exclusively if you prefer to stick with only unrefined sweeteners.

Lemon Raspberry Muffins
Makes 12 muffins
  1. Line a muffin tin with paper cups.  (I prefer If You Care Unbleached Baking Cups because the muffins do not stick to the sides of the cups.) 
  2. Zest the lemon using a microplane rasp or other zester. Then use a lemon reamer to juice the lemon. If your lemon has a very thick rind, you may need to juice more than one lemon to get 3 Tb of fresh lemon juice.
  3. Combine the Einkorn, coconut flour, ground nuts, salt, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, and lemon zest in a medium bowl. Whisk it all together to break up any lumps.  
  4. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
  5. Combine the butter, sucanat and sugar in a large bowl (a Kitchen-Aid stand mixer works great for this recipe). Cream together for a couple minutes until the mixture turns slightly lighter in color.
  6. In the meantime, combine the eggs, vanilla, and almond extract in a small bowl. (I find that a Pyrex glass measuring cup works great for this because the pour spout makes it easy to add these ingredients to the mixer while it is running.) Do NOT mix up the eggs at this point.
  7. Once the butter and sucanat/sugar have become well-mixed, mix in the eggs one-at-a-time.  With my stand-mixer, I can just pour in each egg while the mixer is still running.  Make sure to scrape down the sides of the bowl once or twice to get everything incorporated well. (It is okay if the mixture looks a bit curdled during this step.)
  8. Add the sour cream and lemon juice to the wet mixture and mix it all well.
  9. Add the dry ingredients a bit at a time.  Because the Einkorn flour does contain gluten, make sure not to overmix or the muffins will be tough.  The batter will become rather thick, but don't worry about it.
  10. Stir or mix in the raspberries.
  11. Use a 3-Tb scoop or large spoon to scoop the batter into the muffin cups.
  12. Bake the muffins at 350 degrees F for 27-32 minutes, until a they are golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the middle of a muffin comes out dry. (The baking time will be less if fresh berries are used instead of frozen berries.)
  13. Remove from the oven and allow to cool a bit before serving.
*Except during our local berry season, I find that frozen raspberries have far superior flavor to the fresh ones sold in grocery stores.

What is your favorite muffin flavor for Spring?

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Friday, March 6, 2015

Planting Fruit Trees

Fruit trees are one of the easiest ways to grow our own food. Few foods can rival fruit that is fresh-picked from a tree.With very little maintenance, fruit trees will grow and thrive, producing more and more food each year. 

We moved to a larger property about a year ago. Bees buzzing around fruit blossoms have become a herald of Spring for me, so it was bittersweet leaving behind the apple, plum, and apricot trees at our old home. They were just finally starting to produce a good amount of fruit, and we missed being able to pick fruit in our own yard last year. So it's time to plant some new fruit trees!

The Right Time for Planting Trees

Here in the desert Southwest, Spring, Winter, and Fall are the best times to plant fruit trees. The intense summer heat and lack of rain can be too much for newly-planted trees, so it is best to give them some time to get established before summer arrives. We planted four apple trees last autumn, and today my children helped me plant two more apple trees plus two peach trees. 

Inspired by his sister's chicken egg business, my 5-year-old son has been planning to have an apple business.  He has been saving money for trees little by little, but given that it will take several years for any substantial apple harvest, my husband and I decided to go ahead and get some trees in the ground for him last Fall.  With the help of a recent birthday gift from grandma, my son now has one more apple tree for his business. He is very proud of his three apple trees, and asks many people if they would like to be his apple customers.

Tips for Planting Fruit Trees

Whenever I have gardening questions, I always rely somewhat on my mother to point me in the right direction.  She has a truly stunning backyard and much experience with gardening here. I also found many helpful pointers in my Extreme Gardening: How to Grow Organic in the Hostile Deserts and Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond, Volume 2 books. Here are some tips we implemented in planting our new fruit trees:

  • I used my Sunset Western Garden book to select varieties of apple and peach trees that are suited for our climate zone.
  • Because apple and peach trees need a certain amount of winter chill in order to produce a good amount of fruit, our trees are planted in the coolest part of our yard.
  • The planting holes were dug to about the same depth as the roots of the trees, but several times larger around.
  • The soil that was used to backfill the planting holes was not amended; this way, the trees will adapt right away to our sandy soil. 
  • Each tree was planted slightly below the level of the surrounding ground, so that water will pool around the trees.
  • I created a half-circle rain-harvesting berm around each tree to capture rain water. These are oriented so that the water flowing over the slightly-sloped ground during our July-August rainy season will naturally collect around the fruit trees.   
  • There is a ~3-inch layer of composted manure around the base of each tree, to increase water retention and provide nutrients throughout the coming months.  I made sure the compost is not in direct contact with the tree trunks.
  • Each tree was planted with the graft (where the rootstock and fruit tree are joined) facing East, to protect it from the wind. 
  • Because we have high winds in the Spring, I placed some heavy rocks at the base of the trees to prevent them lifting up from the ground when the high winds hit.
  • Regular water will be provided to the trees because it does not rain here very often at this time of the year. Over time, I will move the watering source away from the trees to encourage the roots to spread out further and further.

Companion Planting with Fruit Trees

One of my favorite things about the Extreme Gardening book is that is provides companion planting suggestions for each type of plant.  For instance, it lists the following as good companion plants that can be planted "thickly around the tree(s)" that we planted:
  • Apple companion plants:
    • Artemisia
    • Chives
    • Garlic Chives
    • Marigolds
    • Nasturtiums
    • Onions
  • Peach companion plants:
    • Basil
    • Chives
    • Garlic Chives
    • Nasturtiums
    • Onions
    • Strawberries
    • Tansy
Because our fruit trees are planted outside of our fenced yard, I will only be planting companion plants that rabbits don't prefer to eat.  So we will plant marigolds and green onions around the apple trees, and we will plant basil and green onions around the peach trees.

Looking Ahead

We are planning to plant many more fruit trees on our property over the coming years. Pears, plums, and apricots for sure, and maybe some pecans, pistachios, and almonds. I love the idea of having a food forest, and am very interested to see how the rainwater harvesting techniques pan out.

What homesteading tasks are you working on this Spring?