It’s not an easy question. Most of us know that there is a relationship between sun exposure and skin cancer. But how many know about the problems inherent in many of the lotions that are on the market – there to supposedly limit damage to our skin?
What if the products you were buying and lathering on your face and the skin of your family contained chemicals that when exposed to sunlight actually broke down into compounds that can cause cancer? What if they contained chemicals that could disrupt normal hormonal function? But the government is there to help keep us safe, isn’t it? Unfortunately, the FDA has not made a final ruling on standards for sunscreens for the past 32 years. Proposed standards would require manufacturers to provide proof of their safety, UVA and UVB protection, and waterproof stability if those claims were made.
Research found on the website of the Environmental Working Group shows that 60% of sunscreens in the US contain oxybenzone as the active ingredient, to prevent burning and sun damage to skin. What the purveyors of these products do not tell you is that oxybenzone, which may be easier to apply to the skin than mineral sunscreens – like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide – is absorbed into the skin in large amounts, potentially causing allergic reactions and hormone disruption. Researchers now recommend that oxybenzone not be used on children.
Vitamin A is a wonderful antioxidant and has been shown to beneficially reduce free radical damage when taken internally or applied to the skin in night creams. But using Vitamin A in sunscreen has potentially carcinogenic effects. So rather than preventing skin cancer, it actually may be contributing to it. Look for “retinol palmitate” as it is sometimes called on labels.
Much safer products are on the market now. But you have to be willing to do some research and read some labels. The biggest issue with the labels is that most of them have many ingredients. And most of the ingredients are unknown and unpronounceable by the general public.
But here is a good point. We know that our skin is a great delivery vehicle for medications, right? Why else would there be patches for quitting smoking, birth control and other medications? We do absorb substances readily through our skin. And yet we assume that the skin care industry, which is largely unregulated, has our best health at heart. I hate to be the one to break it to you, but it’s not true. We live in a great capitalistic society, and they want to make money. Many of the chemicals and fragrances that are added to make them appealing are very unhealthy.
I don’t expect you to go out and get a degree in chemistry to understand all of this. Here are a few hints to help:
- More is not better. Aim for labels with fewer ingredients – not so many that you are weary to read all of them.
- Familiar is good! If it sounds like a strange chemical that you can’t even pronounce, you might want to think twice about it.
- “Baby” in the name does NOT mean it is safe for kids!
- Don’t assumethat there is someone knowledgeable at your health food store who prevents the unhealthy ones from being put on the shelves.
- Mineral sunscreens – zinc oxide or titanium dioxide – provide physical barriers to the sun yet are not absorbed into the skin.
- Check www.ewg.org to see if your sunscreen is safe, or to find one that is (as well as read more in-depth research on sunscreen ingredients).
- Use other protective barriers against the sun, such as clothing, hats, and umbrellas. And avoid being in the noonday sun when the UV rays are potentially most damaging.
We all love this surge in warm weather and ability to spend some time outside. Spring and summer are a wonderful time for enjoying nature. Soak up your summer rays safely.
Sara Thyr, ND
Willowbend Natural Medicine
My husband and I, along with a group of 15 people from my practice, are on day 2 of our annual spring cleanse. It is an event that I always look forward to and relish when it comes – feeling the warmth of spring, new sprouts of life everywhere, and taking some time for our health.
This morning we are taking the time to be creative with the abundance of greens and root vegetables from our local farm box (CSA = community supported agriculture). Making a big batch of roasted vegetables and some brown rice will help sustain us. A smoothie of carrots, collards, beet greens, frozen mango and the detoxification powder supplement that we are using this year comprise our breakfast. We will be on this plan for 10 days, with the food choices becoming more restrictive as we go along. From the beginning we bid a fond farewell to caffeine, sugar, alcohol, refined carbohydrates, eggs, dairy products and flesh foods.
I lead liver detoxification workshops twice/year, in the spring and fall, the most optimal times to cleanse. But spring is always my favorite. I’m a summertime gal, so spring is when I can let myself start to get excited about longer days, growing tomatoes and all of the fun that summer brings. That feeling of excitement and motion is why many people are moved to do spring cleaning – it is a natural shift from the hibernation of winter. Acknowledgment of the changing of seasons helps us to be more connected to nature, to eating more seasonally (which I appreciate is a little easier in a climate where we can grow food year round), and to shift our bodies and activities in concert with this.
So too it is the right time to think about cleaning out our bodies.
The eating plan on the detox is more restrictive that what I normally do. For some people making the changes is not that difficult. For many of us, it is. I encourage cleansers to pay attention to the luscious healthiness of what they are consuming (rather than focusing on what they cannot eat). Food on the cleanse is focused nutrient density…and paying close attention to what you are putting in your body. It feels so good to me to do this. We just don’t take the time in our normal daily routines, at least not to the extent that we do now. I love the permission on the detox of taking it easy, spending more time with food, focusing on greens, and feeling all of the cells of my body soak up the intensity of the nutrition.
We are exposed to toxins all the time. When I began leading detox workshops, I spent lots of time talking about all of the things in our environment that are bad for us, and ended up seeing many deer-in-the-headlights faces. I find that the people who want to come to the program realize there are some inherent toxins in their environment, so I don’t belabor the point quite so much. But education is one of my passions, so I always have to throw in a few little details about safe sunscreens and toothpaste. Some people are more exposed on the job. But everyone, even those who live clean lives, has some toxic load. Pollution, plastic bottles, pesticides on produce, medications, personal care products (like deodorant, lotions, cortisone cream, cosmetics, sun screen, shampoo) have chemicals that have been shown to cause harm. Categories of damage include endocrine disruption, carcinogenesis, neurotoxicity, reproductive toxicity, and allergies or immunotoxicity.
While finding the balance between awareness and panic, and making positive changes or falling into bottomless depression about how we’ve polluted our world, I now lean more towards a detox that is also good for your spirit. Find a place where you can make some positive shifts without feeling completely overwhelmed. Doing a detox requires spending more time preparing your food, rather than buying something quick. Relish in that. Give up some of the other tasks of the day to make chopping the carrots meditative. Rest and take care of yourself, so that putting together a delicious vegan dinner doesn’t feel like such a heavy load. Appreciate the new leaves on the Japanese maple, or the tulips or whatever is blooming in your yard. That is the beauty of spring. That is all part of the health of our natural world.
I can’t believe it is the middle of March! But here is sit with a table of vegetable sprouts, daylight that stretches well past winter’s 5 pm shut down, and 17 brave souls starting together the spring cleanse!
I am really excited about this cleanse. I always am. I love doing the twice/year detox classes. It’s fun to work with a group and commiserate together. And it is just time. I am ready for the straight and narrow path that doing a detox pushes me into.
I am happy for this blog to be a forum for anyone to comment if they want to share and stay connected during the process. Feel free to comment about how things are going, questions, concerns or general whining! And as much fecal discussion as you can handle.
I’m off to make my green smoothie to take for lunch, get a massage, and buy more paint. Maybe I’ll take a little more detox powder today! :’)
I recently read an article in the NY Times that said that many people who have been diagnosed with food allergies don’t actually have them. They felt that perhaps only 8% of children and less than 5% of adults actually have them.
I feel that quite the opposite is true. In my practice, I see many people who have undiagnosed food allergies. And they often don’t associate their symptoms with foods. But once they avoid the reactive foods, they find myriad of symptoms that they have struggled with, for either weeks or years, disappear. Symptoms affected by food allergies are wide ranging – from making seasonal allergies worse, to ear infections, fatigue, headaches, eczema, heartburn and other digestive disorders – even high blood pressure.
Their distinction of food allergies versus food intolerance did make sense. A food allergy is actually activating the immune system. This involves antibodies. Conventional allergists often test for food allergies using the skin prick test, where a small amount of a serum with the food is injected under the skin to see if a reaction forms around the area on the skin. The antibody that is active in this type of testing is called IgE (which stands for immune globulin E). Some practitioners do a blood test, which often looks at another immune globulin called IgG (as above, immune globulin G). IgG is better at finding the undetected food allergies are found, as it is more prevalent in delayed hypersensitivity reactions. IgE is the mediating immune globulin for more immediate sensitivities, like those that cause inhaled allergies – like when you get itchy eyes from petting a cat; or the more serious anaphylactic reaction from eating a peanut.
A food intolerance is more common. Many people are lactose intolerant – they cannot digest the sugar in milk, and find themselves with symptoms such as upset stomach and loose stools. Reacting to sulfites in red wine is also an intolerance, rather than a food allergy.
For many people, the distinction is immaterial. They feel better if they avoid the food. So avoid the food.
One reason I like to make the distinction is that most people with food allergies are likely to also have intestinal permeability (also known as “leaky gut”). With this in mind, there are a number of therapies that can help to heal the digestive tract. Along with food allergy avoidance, healing the digestive tract can improve health, including eliminating symptoms caused by the food allergies, as well as mitigating reactions when they have any of their allergenic foods.
Whether you think you have food allergies or just an intolerance, it is wise to see a naturopathic doctor – a specialist in finding a treating the cause, as well as treating illness with the most nutritive elements nature has to offer.
I have long felt a connection between the earth and naturopathic medicine. So it wasn’t much of a stretch for me to want to investigate how permaculture principles might influence the practice of naturopathic medicine. I took a year-long course recently at the Regenerative Design Institute (RDI) in Bolinas, California, one of the premier permaculture centers in the US. This missive includes my thoughts on how the fields of permaculture and naturopathic medicine work similarly.
Global warming shows us that we have a detachment from what we do/put onto and into the earth. We have a similar detachment from our bodies and our healthcare. Many times, people relinquish their power in their own health to their primary care provider. They hand over their wellness whole cloth, to a medical profession that is largely untrained in looking at nourishment of the body, as well as in finding the underlying causes of illness, as naturopathic doctors are.
Most of the world’s problems can be solved in a garden. In the garden we work with water, waste and nourishment – many of the same things that our patients struggle with. Permaculture is a design science rooted in the observation of natural systems. The goal is to design human settlements that have the stability and resiliency of a natural ecosystem. Similarly, two main principles of naturopathic medicine “first, do no harm,” and “find and treat underlying cause of illness or disease” work to produce sustainable health for the people it touches.
Reductionist science sees each component separately. Permaculture recognizes the interconnectedness of humans and nature and all of the aspects that nourish and harm both. Naturopathic physicians recognize the interconnectedness of all of the body’s systems, bringing to light the principle to “treat the whole person.”
One thing that is noted immediately upon arrival at the Regenerative Design Institute is the incredible diversity of bird species. This diversity is indicative of the ability of the ecosystem there to handle stressors. In naturopathic medicine, we welcome diversity in the profession. It serves to make us all stronger, and increases our ability to morph, support and deal with change – to deal with stress on the system (the entire profession of naturopathic medicine.) In order to support this diversity, you may give up one thing in order to have another. But what you get in return will outweigh this sacrifice.
The first principle of permaculture is observation. It is through careful observation that we can truly see what the ecosystem needs. It is similar in human health. It is important for me to spend a lot of time with my patients, to get a very good idea of all of the aspects of their health. If someone comes in with migraines, it is important to not focus only on the head, but also assess digestion, hormones, hydration, nourishment, absorption, etc. In the garden, you can’t jump in with plow and pesticides until you see how it is all working together. Each part of the system affects the other. How can we create balance? First you must observe the whole being in order to become familiar with all of the players in the illness.
I recently purchased a new worm bin (my new favorite topic if anyone has questions or comments!!) and decided to put it closer to the house so that we could put our food scraps in the bin more quickly and easily. My husband was worried about it getting too much sun exposure (bad for a worm bin). I was happy to report to him that I had been watching what happened with the sun on our back deck for the past year. I had also been watching the moonlight, as the full moon will reflect the sun path 6 months hence. So our worm bin will be safe in the corner by our hedge. But I could only come to this by careful observation over a long period of time.
People with illnesses often come to us wanting a quick fix. That can happen occasionally, but the observation of that human system takes time. Similarly, real and true healing (and guidance in that healing) takes time.
Another permaculture principle that I love for its relationship to naturopathic medicine is stacking functions. The goal is to get at least three functions out of any one project. In the case of my worm bin, we are reducing the amount of waste that goes to the landfill, decreasing the number of trash pick-ups we need, and producing some of the finest compost money can buy. All from our food scraps.
In naturopathic medicine, I am always working to stack functions, even before I was aware that it had a groovy name. Women who seek my care for hormonal issues and who also happen to have digestive issues will benefit from a good source of fiber. The fiber prevents re-absorption of the hormones in the GI tract, and also gently corrects digestive function.
Every time we utilize another piece of permaculture in our lives, we are healed too. We connect to as much life force as possible. Work in the garden is so appealing because it is so close to the life force. Helping our patients into the garden will connect them to it as well.
James Stark at RDI speaks about the homeopathic intervention – something that gently and slightly makes a motion that creates a profound effect as it ripples outward. Moving in harmony with natural systems, you can create more food, more water, more beauty, and more health. The homeopathy that I use on my patients helps them heal gently from the inside out. Yet quite profoundly, once the appropriate intervention is chosen.
Lastly, a word of caution on getting rid of weeds. Different types of weeds are clear indicators of what your soil is lacking. Similarly, in our relations with colleagues, patients, friends and even adversaries, the “weeds” can show us what we need to do to improve our own “soil.” So welcome the weeds to help you see what is missing in your own ecosystem.
The healing of ourselves and the healing of the earth is all the same journey.
A study was released this week that shows that many of the popular brands of fish oils have high amounts of polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) compounds. PCB’s, once widely used in the electricity industry, are very toxic and have been banned from use since 1979. But because they do not break down easily, they persist in our environment. They have been shown to cause cancer and reproductive toxicity.
I have long been educating my patients about fish oils – both the benefits of them as well as the risks of not buying good quality.
Some of the health benefits include helping hormonal issues, heart protection, improving blood pressure, skin problems, arthritis, ADD, depression, and Alzheimer’s. Omega-3 fatty acids, which are very high in fish oils, are a very good anti-inflammatory. It’s one of my favorite supplements, for treating specific conditions, as well as prevention. As a midwife, all of my clients were taking fish oils throughout their pregnancy for the health benefits to the baby, particularly in neurological development.
But I always caution people. There are some supplements that you can get the cheapest thing you can find and it doesn’t matter. Fish oil is not one of them. I have worked closely with several companies so that I can be assured that they are doing all they can to make sure people are not getting harmful substances, such as PCBs, along with their beneficial omega-3 fatty acids.
Since the fish in our oceans are heavily contaminated with mercury, it is also important to make sure that you are taking a fish oil that doesn’t have that as well. And since omega-3 fatty acids are very fragile, and degrade quickly when exposed to heat or light, it is critical that they not have any products of rancidity. Taking a rancid fish oil would do more harm to the body than any positive health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids.
So how could you possibly know if your fish oil is safe? The results of the ten brands that were checked for PCBs can be found at www.fishoilsafety.com. But there are hundreds of brands of fish oils. And none of the ones that I most commonly recommend were in the study. But you can still arm yourself with information to make sure that you are not putting yourself at risk. The very best companies send their product to an outside lab for confirmation of its potency and purity. What they get back from this lab is called a “certificate of analysis.” Not all companies will provide this, and none of them actually have to. But the ones who have been conscious from the beginning about selling a high quality product have had it done all along. It is obviously more costly to have this level of testing in place. So you might pay more for their product. But it is absolutely worth it.
Top producers of fish oil capsules also do their own in-house testing of the crude product. A few years ago I had a conversation with one of the quality manufacturers about this, and he mentioned that they have refused large quantities before. He is certain that the fish oil that they refused didn’t just get thrown away. It was sold to a company with lower standards, who likely sells their product for less.
The two brands I trust the most are Nordic Naturals and Vital Nutrients, a professional supplement line. Due to California’s Proposition 65, it sounds like the testing for toxins in products will continue to expand, and I hope that we can all be assured that as we try to improve our health, we are not exposed to further environmental toxins.
I feel that there are a few disorders that are nagging. And a few that make us absolutely miserable. Then there are things like diabetes and heart disease, which while causing great health problems and costing our country billions, don’t usually present with physical symptoms.
The more miserable, the more likely people are to make prescribed changes.
This is why I love helping people who suffer from digestive disorders. I find that people who have discomfort on a daily basis will often head my advice.
Digestive problems are also a good thing for naturopathic medicine, as many of the therapies work better and are safer than what we see offered in conventional medicine. One of the governing philosophies of naturopathic medicine is to find and treat the underlying cause of illness. Leaning heavily on this ideal, I find that patients tend to improve quickly once we do a little deeper investigation. Naturopathic doctors also have a large range of treatment options, that can be used to facilitate cure or just act as a bandaid while we search for the true cause of illness. From diet changes and stress management, to nutrional supplements, to botanical medicine and homeopathy, the treatment options are nourishing and beneficial.
Starting at the top of “the tube” we can look at problems in the mouth as harbingers of health throughout the body. There is an association in people with gum disease to heart disease. This may be general inflammation or possibly nutrient deficiency. Cold sores are a virus and are often eliminated with natural antivirals, while also fortifying the immune system of the individual.
Moving on down, even when a patient does not complain of sore throat, I always like to take a look at the posterior pharynx. Swelling of the tonsils in the absence of any frank infection, is a sign that the immune system is keyed up and fighting something – usually chronic. (Often food allergies.). These people may have post nasal drip, a tickling cough, or sleep disruption from snoring.
One of the most common digestive complaints in the US is GERD (gastro esophageal reflux disease). Now being diagnosed even in infants, and being treated with a variety of prescriptions which may have long-term consequences. One study showed that people who enter the hospital on these medications are more likely to get pneumonia while they are in the hospital. This is likely because the drug eliminates the natural stomach acid, and this is one of our first lines of defense against pathogens. If that were the only way to deal with the intense discomfort of reflux, I could be more accepting of the treatment. Therapies I find successful include finding underlying food allergies and improving overall digestion. This may include prescribing digestive enzymes or helping people with nutrition choices. An effective and safe “bandaid treatment” is chewable deglycyrrhinated licorice.
Nausea has to be one of the most uncomfortable and debilitating of digestive issues. It is critical to find and treat underlying causes, such as identifying ulcers, pregnancy, lactose intolerance, medication reactions or food allergies. Once we have properly diagnosed “gastritis” down to the actual cause, we can find many natural and effective treatments. Even nausea and vomiting of pregnancy can be greatly improved with safe natural therapies.
Lower gastrointestinal problems may include diarrhea, constipation, gas, bloating, diverticulitis, and IBS (irritable bowel syndrome). Similar strategies as above apply in terms of digging deeper to find and treat underlying cause of symptoms. Testing may include looking for overgrowth of bacteria, fungi, and parasites, as well as ruling out food allergies and digestive enzyme insufficiency.
If you are not already eating a whole foods diet, free of coffee and excess sugar and refined carbohydrates, that is a good place to begin.
Regardless of the problem, there are many effective naturopathic strategies for improving digestive function, eliminating pain and discomfort, and finding true health.