Welcome to Natural Health by Karen Vaughan, MSOM, Science writer, Licensed Acupuncturist, and Registered Herbalist (American Herbalists Guild) A photo of Acupuncturist Karen Vaughan

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What’s the Story About Vinegar and Probiotics?

Vinegar is commonly infused with spices or her...

Vinegar is commonly infused with spices or herbs—as here, with oregano (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was asked about whether vinegar is a good thing to consume because of its effects on probiotic bacteria.  The suggestion was based on the idea that the acidity of vinegar might kill off beneficial bacteria.  The questioner heard that lemon juice might be better.

Acidity is measured by a scale called the pH scale which goes from zero to 14.  Neutral is 7.0, acid is lower than 7 and alkaline is a number larger than 7.0.  Your blood must stay within a very narrow range on the most barely alkaline side of neutral and if it threatens to go outside the range, your body automatically adjusts your breathing or urinary output to bring it back.

First off, the pH of vinegar and lemon juice are about the same and  less acidic than a healthy stomach during digestion, which is between 1.5 and 2.5.  (Wikipedia gives a wider range, but averages are not the same as optimal.)  The pH of distilled vinegar is 2.4. When the pH gets low enough it triggers the esophageal sphincter to close, preventing acid reflux and after the food has been disinfected and broken down, it triggers the lower sphincter to open.  So if you have reflux it is because your stomach acidity is too low (numbers too high) to close the sphincter and consuming vinegar or bitters before meals may help.

The bacteria in the gut evolved to survive in an acid environment.  (Note the name in Lactobacillus acidophilious “Acid-loving”)  When the acidity is insufficient, the bacteria won’t be happy, but it doesn’t need to be as low a pH as in the stomach which has special mucosa to protect it and needs to disinfect and break down food.  Bile from the liver at a pH of 7.0-7.7 raises the pH of the food bolus after it leaves the stomach.  The pH of the gut is probably around 4, which is what is needed by healthy gut bacteria.  Fat breaks down in the gut along with the residual products that survived the stomach.

It would not be correct to say that because a high concentration of acetic acid is poisonous, that vinegar should be avoided.  The dose makes the poison and virtually everything we need to take in – oxygen, water, essential minerals like iron and magnesium, essential fatty acids- is poisonous in a large enough range.  Although pure acetic acid is classified as a weak acid, concentrated acetic acid is corrosive, and could attack the skin.  Vinegar on the other hand protects the acid mantle of the skin which is needed by our protective skin bacteria. Why take it? The acetic acid in vinegar which is about the same acidity as our gastric juices,  produces acetyls in the body which are fundamental to all forms of life. When bound to coenzyme A, acetic acid is central to the metabolism of carbohydrates and fats. This is why a spoonful of vinegar at meals is often suggested for dieters.

Note that while most table vinegars sold are 5% acetic acid (with a range of 4-8%), the base material may affect the pH of the vinegar itself.  Balsamic vinegar has two different origins:  true balsamic vinegar is made from a concentrated grape must, aged for years  in a variety of  different wooden casks.  The commercial balsamic sold in supermarkets is typically made with concentrated grape juice mixed with a strong vinegar, which is laced with caramel and sugar.

If you want to make a good balsamic vinegar without all the additives, take a jar and fill it with white pine, balsam fir or other conifer needles that aren’t too resinous.  Fill with apple cider vinegar and let soak, with needles covered, for 4 weeks.  It isn’t dark, but it is tasty.  My experiments with commercial wine vinegars have not been successful, but you would probably do well with a home made wine vinegar which tends to be stronger.

Distilled vinegar as shown below has no nutrient value, and I reserve it for cleaning because of its disinfectant value.

Nutritional Content  of Vinegars (per cup)

Balsamic Apple Cider Red Wine Distilled
Protein 1.2 0 0.1 0
Calories 224 50 45.4 0
Carbohydrates 43.4 2.2 0.6 0
Fiber* 0 0 0 0
Sugar 31.8 1 0 0.1
pH (most acidic reported)  2.4 3.1 3.2 2.4
Calcium 68.9 16.7 14.3 0
Magnesium 30.6 12 9.6 0
Iron 1.8 0.5 1.1 0
Sodium 58.7 12 19.1 0
Potassium 266 174 93.2 0
Zinc 0.2 0.1 0.1 0
Phosphorous 48.6 19.1 19.1 0
Manganese 0.3 0.6 0.1 0
Copper 0.1 0.2 0 0
Vitamin C 0 0 1.2 0
Vitamin A 0 0 0 0
Other Vitamins 0 0 0 0
Water (g) 195 224 226 226
Compiled from: Nutritiondata.self.com


Now vinegar itself may be probiotic, much like kombucha, which is basically a vinegar grown on a sugar sweetened tea base.  The mother of vinegar, also called Mycoderma aceti or scoby, is a biomass of mostly  Acetylobacter bacteria  which has been valued over history for producing vinegar, along with beneficial yeast.  If you leave apple or grape juice or  wine exposed to the air and protected from fruit flies, you may get wild acetylbacter and yeast, or more reliably you can inoculate it yourself to produce vinegar.  Bragg’s vinegar for instance is not completely filtered and you can see small amounts of the mother.  If you add it to a an acid juice and leave it in a warm place you will eventually see a round gelatinous mass floating near the surface or stringy pieces in earlier stages.  This is the mother of vinegar.

Mother of vinegar, from apple vinegar

Mother of vinegar, from apple vinegar (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


You can also purchase mothers of vinegar from Northampton Beer and Wine, Amazon, a local brew and wine shop or use a kombucha scoby.  (A mother of vinegar can also be used for kombucha- the bacterial masses are made up of a variety of organisms and they will each adapt differently to the base used.)  Kombucha mothers, for instance have a predominance of Gluconacetobacter which makes gluconic acid from the glucose in the sugar -the Acetobacter will flourish instead when grown in apple juice where fructose predominates.  Purists who grow kombucha (at least commercially where they can check it) may also have the probiotic yeast Sacchermyoces kombuchaensis.  However kombucha which is fermented too long becomes an acid vinegar.  All scobys and mothers of vinegar vary, especially since vinegar can be grown on wine, grape juice, apple cider, malted barley, rice, or a variety of other bases, provided they are sufficiently acid.  Don’t worry about it too much unless you don’t like the flavor.  If you are making your own and want to add herbs, do wait until you filter out your mother because I have killed mine by adding herbs during fermentation. (Makes sense- most culinary herbs help preserve foods from bacteria!)

I had an unexpected growth of a mother when I tried Paul Bergner’s recipe for colloidal magnesium: one part Philips Milk of Magnesium to five parts apple cider vinegar.  I left one capped, about 2/3 full on my top shelf.  When I returned eight months later there was a four inch thick mother.

Live vinegar then is quite good for your your probiotic organisms and  I recommend it for your health.  It helps break down food if you take it with meals, lowers blood sugar spikes, metabolize fat, makes magnesium available for cramps and can be a great live food.

Related articles


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Does it matter if I eat acid-forming foods? Not when you look at the research.

There is a widespread idea among health-seeking eaters that one ought to avoid meat, dairy and other “acid-forming foods” in favor of vegetables. The theory is that your body needs alkalizing foods or acid blood will leach minerals from your bones . Generally the effect is to get people to eat more vegetables, but after reading about this for 20 years I have to say that the evidence for the theory itself isn’t compelling.

First, what is an acid-forming food?  Lemon juice is acid but it stimulates the release of magnesium which alkalizes.  Vinegar (another acid) gets classified both ways, but it does function similarly to lemon juice.  The makers of alkaline water like Kangen believe that alkaline water makes the body alkaline.  Generally meat, dairy, sugars and some fruits are shown on the “acidifying” side while vegetables, good oils and most fruits (except blackberries) are shown as “alkalizing”.  Some of the foods on lists are backed by research from the 50s and 60s, while others are conjecture.  The problem is that the body has complicated feedback systems, food is eaten in groups and at different times of the day and constitutions differ.

A healthy stomach secretes gastric acid at a  pH of 1.5  to digest food, including meat, and that extreme acidity triggers the esophageal sphincter to shut.  The acid kills disease-bearing organisms and opens the sphincter at the bottom of the stomach to let the food get treated by bile, probiotic organisms and the intestines.  If you have reflux, you generally have too little acid, so the esophageal sphincter doesn’t close and the lesser acid bubbles up where it can cause harm. (Starting the meal with bitters can help your liver and stomach produce sufficient acid, but you may need to take betaine hydrochloride, especially if your gallbladder has been removed. )  So if your body is producing hydrochloric acid at an extremely low (acidic) pH of 1.5, how does eating beef with a less acidic pH of 5.5 hurt your body? And why would lemon juice with a pH of 2 be better than meat?

Diagram of alkaline Mucous layer in stomach wi...

Diagram of alkaline Mucous layer in stomach with mucosal defense mechanisms (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So is alkaline blood good for your health?  Well no.  First of all you need to keep your blood essentially neutral with the slightest alkalinity.  Second eating acid or alkaline food has very little effect on your blood pH because you automatically breathe deeper or pee more (but it does affect urinary pH).  And if it were an issue, why do alkaline conditions translate into disease? For instance, low-protein vegans with alkalizing diets tend to have alkaline UTIs.  Mercola believes that alkaline water is only safe for short term detoxification.  A study published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry found that alkalosis (rising cellular pH) causes alkaline-induced cell death as a result of altering mitochondrial function.  Mitochondria are the powerhouses of the cell and their dysfunction causes serious diseases like diabetes and Parkinson’s. Researcher Robert Gilles, who has studied tumor formation and acidity found that tumors make their own acidity even in an alkaline environment.  Scientists developing new anticancer agents that selectively kill tumor cells by interfering with the regulation of intracellular pH, have found that alkaline treatments do not have the desired effect – but strongly acidic treatments do. A  Swedish well water study found that drinking either significantly alkaline or acid water was undesirable, which suggests that drinking water with a pH between 6-8 is best.

Some old studies did show that eating a high meat diet could stimulate the release of calcium in the urine, but that effect stops after a few weeks (and the initial studies were only a week or two long.) Ten years ago a research group at Yale and the University of Connecticut under Dr. Karl Insogna began investigating the effect of dietary protein on bone health, believing that to be true.  Actually it proved that urinary calcium was not from bones, but caused by a more efficient calcium uptake in the gut from dietary protein.

The body has mechanisms to keep the pH (measure of acidity or alkalinity] within a very narrow neutral range of 7.38 and 7.42.  If your blood pH is 6 (slightly acid)  or 8 (slightly alkaline), you can sicken and die.  So your body has a variety of ways to buffer acidity or alkalinity.  The body regulates the acid/alkaline balance primarily through the amount of carbon dioxide ( CO2) exhaled in the lungs and the acidity of urine. If the blood pH drops too low and becomes acid, the body will compensate by increasing breathing, expelling CO2,  so fewer hydrogen ions are free and the pH will rise back to normal. For too much alkalinity the opposite occurs.   Any shifts in acid/alkaline balance in the blood are minor and transient.


As Wikipedia says:

The body’s acid–base balance is normally tightly regulated, keeping the arterial blood pH between 7.38 and 7.42.[1] Several buffering agents that reversibly bind hydrogen ions and impede any change in pH exist. Extracellular buffers include bicarbonate and ammonia, whereas proteins and phosphate act as intracellular buffers. The bicarbonate buffering system is especially key, as carbon dioxide (CO2) can be shifted through carbonic acid (H2CO3) to hydrogen ions and bicarbonate (HCO3) as shown below.[2]

rm H_2O+CO_2 leftrightarrow H_2CO_3 leftrightarrow H^++HCO_3^-

Acid–base imbalances that overcome the buffer system can be compensated in the short term by changing the rate of ventilation. This alters the concentration of carbon dioxide in the blood, shifting the above reaction according to Le Chatelier’s principle, which in turn alters the pH. For instance, if the blood pH drops too low (acidemia), the body will compensate by increasing breathing[3] thereby expelling CO2, and shifting the above reaction to the left such that less hydrogen ions are free; thus the pH will rise back to normal. For alkalemia, the opposite occurs.

The kidneys are slower to compensate, but renal physiology has several powerful mechanisms to control pH by the excretion of excess acid or base. In response to acidosis, tubular cells reabsorb more bicarbonate from the tubular fluid, collecting duct cells secrete more hydrogen and generate more bicarbonate, and ammoniagenesis leads to increased formation of the NH3 buffer. In responses to alkalosis, the kidney may excrete more bicarbonate by decreasing hydrogen ion secretion from the tubular epithelial cells, and lowering rates of glutamine metabolism and ammonium excretion.

So my conclusion is that moderation is key, where water should not be significantly far from neutral and food should have a balance of acidity and alkalinity.  Eat real food, organic pasture-raised meat, local fruits and vegetables and don’t sweat the pH.

I don’t endorse this chart, but it shows common beliefs about alkalizing foods.  It isn’t that simple:

See Also:


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H. Pylori Can Keep You Thin

This month’s Scientific American has an article on a subject close to my heart, “Your Inner Ecosystem.”  Only 10% of the DNA in our bodies is human.  In other articles I have advanced the idea that we are walking colonies of microbes, worms and fungi in a human superstructure, where ecological balance is the goal of health rather than purity.  That begs the question of which creatures might be pathogenic- I certainly don’t want ebola in my ecology. Not only doesn’t  it play well with my other creatures, but it is deadly.

Ebola is easy to classify.  However some organisms are difficult to classify.  Acidophilous is great in your gut, especially if you have difficulty assimilating nutrients but it can eat away at your teeth where you might prefer Streptococcus oralis.  There are benign E. coli strains, sold in Europe but not the USA as probiotics, which  tend to predominate in thin people while firmiciute bacteria like the Lactobaccili predominate in fat people and can make thin rats fat.  Even low level staph infections on the skin may crowd out nasty drug-resistant MRSA.

Heliobactor pylori is another example.  This bacteria increases acidity in the stomach, resulting in both the environment where it thrives and breakdown of food.  However in susceptible individuals, it causes ulcers.  When Dr. Martin Blaser, now professor of microbiology and internal medicine at NYU found H. pylori 25 years ago, he approached it as a simple pathogen causing ulcers- and with antibiotic treatment ulcer diagnoses have reduced by more than 50%.  But in 1998 he published research showing that in the vast majority of people H. pylori is beneficial, regulating the acidity of the stomach properly.  H. pylori was also linked to a reduction in adenocarcinomas.  In 2008 he found that H. pylori regulates ghrelin which tells your body to stop eating.  When ghrelin levels are high you become hungry.  After you eat -unless your H. pylori levels are low- ghrelin levels plummet.  In a study of 92 veterans treated with antibiotics to lower H. pylori for ulcers, gained weight in comparison to uninfected peers.  Lower H. pylori is also linked to higher diabetes rates.

Helicobacter Pylori, Stomach Biopsy, Giemsa Stain

Helicobacter Pylori, Stomach Biopsy, Giemsa Stain (Photo credit: euthman)

One of the curious things is that two or three generations ago something like 80% of children were hosts to H. pylori.  Now fewer than 6% of children have the appetite suppressing bacteria, perhaps because of broader-range antibiotics and the inclusion of antibiotics in meat production which could account for less exposure to seed the microbiota.  There is apparently preliminary information suggesting a second mechanism for this where antibiotics silence bacterial signalling for undifferentiated stem cells to make tissue other than fat.

The hygiene hypothesis also may affect the acquisition of H. pylori.  Water is cleaner.  Plant food trucked across the country may contain fewer live bacteria.  Increased C-section rates may prevent the transmission of a mother’s microbiota to the infant in the birth canal.  We have fewer commensal bacteria now altogether and H. pylori is a stunning example of the reduction of a bacteria that can help keep us thin.

However it appears that adding H. pylori may not be helpful once you are fat and possibly the age of acquisition is important.  In further experiments people who were obese and diabetic had higher levels of H. pylori.  Researchers think lowering H. pylori with antibiotics might help lower A1c levels in diabetics.   Is H. pylori exerting a U-shaped influence where too little and too much cause weight gain?  We don’t really know. In the human body with all its feedback loops, direct interventions work quite differently than in petri dishes.

Still, farmers have known for some time that adding antibiotics and increasing starchy feed is the best way to get animals fat for market.  When we do this to ourselves and our children, it should not surprise us if we get the same result.  While it is not a likely single cause of obesity and diabetes, its effect may be far from trivial.


Your Inner Ecosystem: Jennifer Ackerman  http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=ultimate-social-network-bacteria-protects-health

Endosymbiosis: Lynn Margulis http://evolution.berkeley.edu/evolibrary/article/_0/history_24

Ecological and Evolutionary Forces Shaping Microbial Diversity in the Human Intestine http://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S0092867406001929

Gut Reaction: Environmental Effects on the Human Microbiota http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/picrender.fcgi?artid=2685866&blobtype=pdf

Immune Gene Evolution May Be Driven By Parasites http://www.dana.org/news/features/detail.aspx?id=22816

The Body Politic http://seedmagazine.com/content/print/the_body_politic/ (picture from this article.)

Gut Bacteria Do More Than Digest Food http://www.hhmi.org/bulletin/aug2010/features/gut_bacteria5.html

Swapping Germs:  Should fecal transplants become routine for debilitating diarrhea? Maryn McKenna  http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=swapping-germs

See Also:

Our Symbionts, Ourselves

Chemicals and Obesity: What if if isn’t all your fault?

Why A Parasite Cleanse Can Make You Worse

Probiotics and Probiotic Foods

How to Make Miso

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Is Vitamin D Supplementation Useless?



Dr.  Stephanie Senef, a MIT research scientist recently spoke out against Vitamin D supplementation at a Weston A Price Wise Traditions conference, saying that supplements are “a waste of money.”  I believe she is wrong about supplementation although correct about the sun being a superior source for those lucky enough to live in the right conditions.

Senef believes that the beneficial products of sun exposure occur before you manufacture Vitamin D.  When you expose your skin to sunshine, your skin synthesizes vitamin D3 sulfate. This form of vitamin D is water soluble, unlike oral oil-form vitamin D3 supplements, which are unsulfated. The water soluble pre-vitamin can travel freely in your blood stream, whereas the unsulfated supplement needs LDL ( so-called “bad” cholesterol) as a vehicle of transport. Dr. Seneff says:


“The sulfated form of vitamin D does not work for calcium transport, which I find very intriguing. And in fact, I think it’s the sulfated form for vitamin D that offers the protection from cancer. It strengthens your immune system. It protects you from cardiovascular disease. It’s good for your brain. It helps depression. I think all of those effects of vitamin D are effects of vitamin D sulfate.”

 There are several problems with this.  First, the research on Vitamin D status and cancer, cardiovascular disease, depression and other diseases was not performed only on people with sun-induced Vitamin D levels and it is likely that the relatively high levels of 25(OH)D in their blood would not come from sun alone unless they lived in climates south of the US  (and  most were done here.) For instance, in a recent study that I will describe below (video reference at end), pregnant women living in Charleston, SC where the sun shines strongly 325 days a year and the latitude favors the rays of sun that make Vitamin D, were overwhelmingly deficient or insufficient in their Vitamin D levels before supplementation.  Another study on lifeguards in Hawaii found that many had suboptimal blood levels. Between sunscreen or blocking mineral particles in  most skin products and cultural practices of showering frequently, we tend not to manufacture much Vitamin D.  So to get relatively high levels shown in the chart below and at this link,  It is likely that subjects used supplementation although only the resultant blood levels of 25(OH)D were canvassed.

vitamin D Deficiency Diseases by Blood Level

Note that only rickets is prevented with low blood levels of Vitamin D

(To enlarge, see  disease_incidence_prev_chart_101608)

In a recent study at the University of South Carolina medical school, expectant mothers, especially African American mothers, tested as insufficient to deficient in Vitamin D.  At the start of the study, deficient or insufficient levels of vitamin D were seen in 94% of the African-American women, 66% of Hispanic women, and 50% of white women who participated..  A select group was prescribed 4000 iu daily of Vitamin D3 in their second and third trimester and that group had 50% fewer adverse events such as to develop gestational diabetes, pregnancy-related high blood pressure, or preeclampsia than those taking 400 iu.  They also had fewer preterm births.  It benefited both the mother and baby and researcher Dr.  Carol Wagner felt that in the future higher amounts would test as even better, seeing no problem with 10,000 iu.  In a Norwegian study published in Epidemiology, pregnant women who took vitamin D supplements of 600-800 iu had 27 % lower rates of potentially fatal per-eclampsia.  Doesn’t sound like a waste of money to me!

Reinhold Veith studied research on Vitamin D from the sun and supplementation.  He  found that supplementation in adults below 10,000 iu daily had a pretty flat effect on 25HydroxyD (blood Vitamin D) levels but that higher levels brought D up to levels found by ultraviolet light from the sun or fixtures.  He did find that Vitamin D2 supplementation was less effective at raising blood levels of 25OHD than Vitamin D3, although some researchers dispute this.

I will be the first to say that supplementation alone is not the best way to get Vitamin D. According to researcher Michael Holick, this is difficult: to get it from the sun during late fall to early Spring, you must live south of Atlanta, go out without sunscreen between 11am and 1 pm and not wash it off for 3 days since bacteria on the surface of the skin synthesize it and can be washed off, even with plain water. If your skin is dark, you may need 6 times as much sunlight. How many people can do this?  Sunshine produces more than Vitamin D and Holick believes it is likely that breakdown products from UV and excess Vitamin D that are missing from supplements are useful to the body.  But that is a far cry from calling supplementation useless or a scam.

There are two forms of supplementation: oil and dry based Vitamin D3.  I prescribe dry Vitamin D to clients without gallbladders and the concentrated Biotech dry form to people who need to build up stores rapidly.  Neither form is sulfated, although we do not have evidence that they cannot become sulfated in the human body or in our flora.  Perhaps Dr. Senef’s theory indicates that dry Vitamin D supplements would be better than oil based forms.  However I see clinical results from oil based forms as well.  Cod Liver Oil, proposed by the Weston A. Price Foundation is an oil-based form of Vitamin D.

There is no good evidence that all of our vitamin D should come from Cod Liver oil, although I personally believe some of it should.  To get 10,000 iu via cod liver oil would incur toxic levels of Vitamin A.  Some Vitamin A is probably needed although there is conflicting research on it- given that research is unclear, I stand behind traditional practices.  Carlson’s cod liver oil is closest to the traditional A:D ratio in a commercial oil.   Fermented cod liver oil is possibly superior, but there is no real research and I was unable to get data from the manufacturer Blue Ice, even on the relative levels of Vitamins A and D.  I would have no hesitation to use it for my Omega 3 supplement, adding Vitamin D3 at levels of 10,000 iu, depending upon blood test results.

We have moved far from our equatorial origins and dress ourselves in clothing that usually covers all but 5% of our bodies. Most of us work indoors and are not suntanning at noon, and we shower frequently, washing away the skin bacteria that make the sulfated Vitamin D.  Most facial make-up and skin lotions provide a level of sun blockage even if direct sunscreens are not added.  While doctors used to think that such exposure was sufficient, that was based upon prevention of rickets, which as the chart show requires ridiculously little Vitamin D, and not the other conditions like cancer or heart disease that require higher blood levels.  We know that Vitamin D is a natural hormone necessary for  a broad variety of biological activities.  While getting what sun we can is important, we should not let the optimal be the enemy of the good.


Photograph of Cod Liver Oil capsules.

Photograph of Cod Liver Oil capsules. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


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Make your own authentic chai tea

Chai tea ingredients

I had a homemade chai this week that blew me away.  No cinnamon, no cloves, no allspice, although it could be modified if you prefer.  And this was made without foamy milk:

Grate a 1″ x 2″ piece of ginger into a stainless steel pot with 3 cups of water.  Simmer for 20 minutes, covered.

At the 10 minute mark add 8 crushed cardamon pods and 1/2 tsp freshly ground pepper.

When finished add 2 tsp. of black tea leaves and steep 5 minutes.  Strain and serve.  Makes about 2 cups.

Traditionally evaporated milk and Demerara (brown cane) sugar to taste are added.  The evaporated milk adds a unique richness, but I generally use milk from a grass-fed cows (and have never seen this in evaporated form,) but you could use an organic half and half.

The recipe as it is warms the spleen, enhances digestion, quickens the blood and awakens the senses.  It hydrates with about a loss of 5% from the caffeine.  If you want to eliminate the sugar, either leave it out, use stevia to taste or add 2 Tbsp licorice chips or one crushed lo han guo fruit with the ginger.

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Coconut Pumpkin Pudding with Blackberries

Coconut Pumpkin Pudding with Blackberries

This is an easy way to get your daily dose of carotenoids and coconut oil.


  • 1 package organic coconut cream
  • 1 can coconut milk
  • 2 cups or 1 can pumpkin puree (pumpkin pie mix can be used instead, but omit the cane sugar.)
  • 1/3 cup brown cane sugar
  • Stevia powder to taste (green is fine)
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp freshly grated ginger
  • 3 cardamon buds mashed
  • 1 tsp turmeric powder
  • 1/2 tsp mace or freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1/2 pint washed blackberries
  • Optional blackberry all fruit syrup

Put the coconut cream, coconut milk, pumpkin puree and sugar in a mixing bowl and whip at high speed, taking care to  scrape the heavier coconut cream off the sides of the bowel. Add stevia to taste.  (Some sugar is needed for texture, however xylitol can be substituted or you can add 2 tsp freezer pectin and use stevia alone.  You will need to let it stand longer before eating if you use the pectin.)  Add vanilla and spices.  You can either fold in the black berries or add them on top at the end.  Pour blackberry all fruit syrup over the top if desired.

Energetically this warms the Spleen and Kidneys while nourishing yin,  The carminative spices keep the dampness from being cloying.  Provides carotenoids in their natural full spectrum, and the  benefits of coconut oil.

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Making Your Own Tiger Balm

Salve ingredientsAs a little girl I loved it when my parents would rub Vick’s Vapor Rub into my chest.  Eventhough my father claimed it was just a placebo, I still insisted he rub it over my congested chest.  I knew it worked, long before the advent of nicotine patches which blasted away the idea that topical medications were ineffective.

Later I graduated to Tiger Balm, especially the red version, redolent of cinnamon and resinous infused oils.  This worked not only on my chest, but also soothed sore muscles.  I also played with the oil versions of Tiger Balm and Po Sum On oil.  And while I prefer the absorption of oils for most muscle pain, there is much to be said for a salve that continuously leaks essential  oils through the skin.  The salve is also less likely to spill and easier to travel with.

The commercial Tiger Balm is made with petroleum jelly and paraffin wax to which essential oils are added.  Different formulations of Tiger Balm have the following essential oils:

Red – Extra Strength

White – Regular Strength




18 gram glass jar
(in carton)


18 gram glass jar
(in carton)


28 mL glass bottle
(in carton)









Cajuput Oil








Clove Bud Oil




Mint Oil




Cassia Oil





I have formulated a salve that lacks the petroleum jelly of commercial salves and can be customized with essential oils for a variety of  uses.  I use coconut oil as a base for its many healing effects and pleasant odor, hardened with beeswax.

To make your salve you will need a stainless steel pan, a wooden spoon, and some containers.  I like to use 2 oz or 4 oz tins or old body butter containers.  Determine how many ounces your containers can take, and adjust the weight of the coconut oil and beeswax accordingly, preserving the proportions.  For instance for three 2 oz containers (6 ounces) you will use 4 ounces of coconut oil and 2 ounces of beeswax.

I use a good virgin coconut oil from the health food store and organic beeswax.  While the beeswax may come in bars, it is easier to melt a shaved  or pelleted version.


  • 2 parts coconut oil
  • 1 part beeswax
  • Essential oil of white camphor:  5 drops/ounce
  • Essential oil of peppermint: 5 drops/ounce
  • Essential oil of eucalyptus or lemon eucalyptus: 8 drops/ounce
  • Essential oil of cinnamon:  3 drops/ounce

Melt the beeswax and coconut oil over low heat in a stainless steel pan.  Do not burn the oil.  When melted, remove from heat, cool a bit and mix in the essential oils.  The essential oils are volatile and you don’t want to lose them.  Put the container in the refrigerator and it should harden in 15 minutes.  If too soft, remelt and add a little more beeswax.  If too hard (and keep in mind that coconut oil will liquify at 76 degrees) add a little more coconut oil.  If you remelt you may lose some of the punch of the essential oils, so you may need to add more.

Choose essential oils that are good for the condition you are treating.  For instance, if you have a child with asthma, you may elect to use an anti-inflammatory oil like German chamomile along with eucalyptus, clove, mint and camphor.  If you have arthritis that gets worse with cold, you may elect to warm it up with more cinnamon and frankincense.  If you have dry skin with an angry hot rash, you may want to add peppermint, German chamomile and calendula.  Other essential oils that can be useful include tea tree,  myrrh, rosemary and thyme.  You can also substitute infused oils like St. Johnswort, calendula, arnica or poplar bud for a third of the coconut oil.  Don’t be afraid to play with it to suit your family’s needs!


Tiger-balm-s (Photo credit: Wikipedia)



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Traveling with Allergy Cards

I was looking for some multi-lingual no-gluten cards to take with me on my trip to Israel, when my sister called me with a new life-threatening allergy of her own.  I wanted to find a card that was customizable and would work for  multiple allergies for her and something that I could find in Hebrew and Arabic as well as English for me.  I looked over a variety of cards and thought that some would be of interest to those of you with allergies.

Translation cards are essential to your travel whether you have ended up somewhere where English is not spoken or, say, the Olympia Holiday Inn where complex verbal planning negotiations may only cover two of your three days stay because the chef has a night off. (And the cards will help in the hospital too!) Even if you know the language it might be difficult to convey the detail required.  These are cards in many languages and they will alert your server about your dietary restrictions. They help you bridge the communication gap and speak openly about your dietary needs without feeling like the characters on Portlandia.. You might want more than one to get your point across when traveling since they don’t have every conceivable situation on a single card. In my experience, most restaurant staff are happy to comply.  There are free cards and pay cards and probably more if you do an allergy card search on Google.

Free Translation Cards

Special Gourmets Chef Cards
A list of cards prepared for food allergens in English, Spanish and Portuguese only.. The cards were made the size of a credit card to make it easier to carry them in a wallet. You can personalize your cards online (or after printing them if you prefer) by writing on the back of the card  any hidden sources which may contain the allergen. (For instance, red wine vinegar can affect people with serious egg allergies from the clarifying process.)  However it was difficult to format the fields and you only get one allergy at a time. They had a graphic which could be handy if the waiter or chef isn’t literate.  I liked their design and especially liked the notes to the chef to wash cutting boards and knives, but would have needed a couple of cards, which defeats the purpose.  Hint to provider:  allow the front to be modified too so extra allergens can be added.
Free in English, Spanish, and Portuguese

Gluten-Free Passport Dining Sheets
These were pdf sheets and I liked them quite a lot, but was totally frustrated because I couldn’t get the right combination.  The statement lists several forms of gluten as well as the various forms it might be found (like flour coating meat before frying.)  .The languages they have print out in English on one side and your choice of Arabic, Dutch, French, German, Greek, Italian, Latvian, Portuguese, Norwegian, Russian, Spanish and Swedish on the other.  I printed the Arabic, which is great.  But when I tried Hebrew using the flag pictures at the bottom, it sent me to a Hebrew web site that had no English (just the aforementioned languages).  There were tiny flag buttons on the bottom with a US flag that sent me to Google Translate where I could get a legible translation but couldn’t print it out.  More on Google later. Free in 12 languages

CeliacTravel.com Translation Sheets
The gluten free restaurant sheets from CeliacTravel.com are free but donations are suggested. They print out at 8 ½” x 11”, so I wouldn’t call them cards, but I did print out the sheets in Hebrew and Arabic.  One sheet per language, no translation to English, so I can’t tell you what they said. As of February 2012, these sheets are available in 51 languages.

CeliacTravel.com Translation Card iPhone App
Same as above, but for your iPhone.  Don’t have one so I didn’t try it.

Google Translater:

I tried using Google Translate to print out some multi lingual sheets of my own, using English, Arabic and Hebrew based on the Gluten Free Passport wording.  Got a lovely translation (for one who doesn’t read the languages- caveat that Google Translate can do some crazy things).  But you can’t print it out.  So I decided to copy it into Word.  But copying made the formatting and language separation disappear, so I ended up with interlinear Hebrew/Arabic all in one column.  I  changed the format to two columns and got the interlinear Hebrew/Arabic on one side and pasted English in the other column.  Not optimal, but it will have to do.

Avery Business Cards Templates

For my sister, I ended up downloading a business card template from Avery.  I used the Special Gourmet Chef Cards as a guide, with a statement about the allergy and washing cutting boards on the front and a list of hidden or trouble foods on the back, and a couple graphics for the foods involved.  I used the “strong wording” about requiring emergency medical care, and of course I was able to include all her food allergies.  The layout is two columns of five cards.  I printed one column with the front, one with the back and will glue or laminate them together.  (If you are good at psyching out your printer it you can probably do it two sided.)  Requires business card stationary to punch out.  A sheet of 10 makes 5 cards.

I did try to put the Hebrew on a card, but the formatting was over my head.  So I’m using large sheets of paper, but she gets the cards.  Maybe I’ll play with the translation program some more.

Paid Translation Cards

I ended up not using any of these either, although I did like SelectWisely almost enough to order it.

SelectWisely provides health and travel translation cards and services to people with food allergies and other medical conditions. I actually liked their designs best but ended up not ordering them.  Cards can be used in foreign or local restaurants. Special medical conditions, special diets, single allergies, select multiple allergies, Gluten-Free, Tree nuts, Gluten-Free Asia & Europe cards, and Gluten-Free & Milk Allergy card available as well as a strongly worded card (important because some servers don’t understand you can end up in the hospital if your allergy is severe.)  Not every language works with every card and I couldn’t find Hebrew for gluten. Thre are special orders available but I didn’t have time.  While they have some dual allergy cards, they didn’t have egg and milk, which is pretty common.
Price varies but they run about $7.50 for a laminated card sent out in 2 days. 

Allergy Translation
The allergy cards were pretty basic but allowed you to list as many foods as you want from the 175 they have listed.  They also have free chef sheets which educate about cross-contamination in a variety of middle European, Slavic and Chinese languages. AllergyTranslation.com provides online food allergy and special diet language translations into a credit card-sized dietary card to be used to alert staff in restaurants, hotels and catered events and as a reference tool at grocery stores.  They also cover vegan, kosher and 9 other special diets but I didn’t see those cards.  I didn’t like needing to sign in to see what they have but you can evade it by clicking on the products button. .
$8 allows you to print out unlimited copies. 

Triumph Dining Cards
Order gluten-free and safely in ten languages: English, Chinese, French, Greek, Indian, Italian, Japanese, Spanish (Mexican), Thai, and Vietnamese. Tailored to each cuisine. (Japanese card prohibits imitation crab, soy sauce, and tempura; Mexican card prohibits flour tortillas, etc.)
$18.95 for ten cards in ten languages

The DELICARDO foodcard is I believe a German card made for food allergy and intolerance sufferers, or people on restrictive diets, who want to hand a DELICARDO foodcard containing all dietary restrictions over to the service personnel.. DELICARDO offers both standard and personalized Foodcards but you can’t easily combine allergens on one card and I didn’t much like the design..
Price varies. 

Allergy Translator
iPhone app with 45 of the most common food allergies in 33 languages. Haven’t tried it.




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Bacteria and Sexual Desire

Drosophila melanogaster, mating couple. Male i...

Sex, fruit flies and their bacteria. We are affected too. Image via Wikipedia

Most of us know that we have lots of organisms in our guts to help us digest food (and if we forget it, Jaime Lee Curtis is willing to tell us in her Activia commercials!) The microorganisms are so important that termites cannot digest wood without their gut bacteria and we cannot break down all our food without the human kind.  What you might not know is that we have hundreds of trillions of organisms especially along our GI tract, respiratory system and skin.  And they do a lot more than digest.  They fight infections, create certain vitamins, form a living wallpaper on the intestinal wall to protect our bloodstreams from debris.  Some help make us fat or thin.  But did you know that our bacteria might affect our sex drive?  At least they do for white fruit flies, known as Drosophilia.  If you kill off their gut bacteria, they won’t mate the same way.

In the February 2011 issue of Surgery News, Lazar Greenfield wrote:

It has long been known that Drosophila raised on starch media are more likely to mate with other starch-raised flies, whereas those fed maltose have similar preferences. In a study published online in the November issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, investigators explored the mechanism for this preference by treating flies with antibiotics to sterilize the gut and saw the preferences disappear (Proc. Nad. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 2010 Nov. 1).

In cultures of untreated flies, the bacterium  L. plantarum was more common in those on starch, and sure enough, when L. plantarum was returned to the sterile groups, the mating preference returned. The best explanation for this is revealed in the significant differences in their sex pheromones. These experiments also support the hologenome theory of evolution wherein the unit of natural selection is the “holobiont,” or combination of organism and its microorganisms, that determines mating preferences.


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Red Clover

Red clover, Trifolium pratense is one of my favorite herbs for gynecology, treating cancer and detoxification.  The part used is the flowering top picked as soon as the dew has dried, with care not to bruise the flowers.  It grows in moderate climates.   Russians recommend the herb for bronchial asthma, and it is widely used for respiratory issues.  The Chinese use the tea for respiratory infections with dry cough.

Trifolium pratense English: Red clover 日本語: ムラ...

Image via Wikipedia

Energetically red clover blossoms are cool, sweet, with a mineral saltiness that makes them slightly moistening.  The flower is classified as an alterative which means it encourages nonspecific elimination of the organs. It is also a lymphatic tonic.  This makes it useful for detoxification and in cancer treatment.

It is slightly demulcent since its minerals attract moisture to the throat and bowels.  On the other hand it is slightly expectorant.

The flower goes to the female reproductive system, the liver, the lungs and mucous tissues, the immune system, skin and blood. James Duke of the USDA describes red clover uses as including “alterative, antiscrofulous, antispasmodic, aperient, athlete’s foot, bronchitis, burns, cancer, constipation, diuretic, expectorant, gall-bladder, gout, liver, pertussis, rheumatism, sedative, skin, sores, tonic, and ulcers. ”

Red clover is a source of many valuable nutrients including protein, calcium, chromium, magnesium, niacin, phosphorus, potassium, thiamine, and Vitamins A and C.  There are a number of isoflavones which can affect the hormones including daidzein, geneisiten, formononetin and biochanin A.  Flavonoids which are antioxidant include trifoliin and calycosin.  There are courmarins but this is not a concern for humans so long as the flower is not fermented:  in ruminant animals like cows however there may be blood thinning with excessive use.


Image by kahunapulej via Flickr

Red clover has a long history in Western herbalism.  It has been used in Europe, the Americas, Africa and parts of Asia.  It has been  used in a number of alterative formulas.  In the US, Parke Davis made Trifolium Compound which was used for cancer treatment, especially breast, lung and lymphatic cancers, malignant  tumors, as well as skin conditions and arthralgias. The Eclectic Doctor Harvey Felter said it did not “cure” cancer but patients who took it after cancer surgery had less frequent and aggressive recurrences.  Jason Winters tea, containing red clover and chaparral and some unidentified secret spice, sells at rather high prices as a “cancer cure.”  It is also found in the 8 herb version of Essiac tea for cancer, improving the original formula.  Far more effective is the Hoxsey Formula which is based upon the Trifolium Compound.

It is posited that the phytosterols in red clover may block estrogens by locking into the receptors. It is not exactly true to call the plant compounds phytoestrogens and expect that they will act like the stronger human hormones.  While you may find sites on the web that caution red clover can cause  proliferation of cancer cells, this theoretical concern ignores centuries of use against cancer.  The isoflavones in red clover may also counteract cancer recurrence.

A study of nearly a thousand women suggests that red clover may interfere with an enzyme known to promote the progression of endometrial cancer.  Similarly red clover may also block enzymes that contribute to prostate cancer in men. It has limiting effect in the development of benign prostate hyperplasia (BPH), a non-cancerous enlargement of the prostate gland.

The 19th Century popular herbalist Samuel Thompson used red clover topically as a poultice and salve for treating skin cancer, eczema and dermatitis.

David Winston uses red clover internally for ovarian cysts, fibroids, and mastitis with scrophularia, prunella, and fritillaria bulb.  It is a lymphatic tonic that can work on swollen lymph nodes and fibrocystic breasts.  Swellings due to mononucleosis or chronic fatigue may respond as well.

My favorite way to use red clover is in overnight infusions.  I take half ounce to an ounce of red clover and  pour a quart of boiling water over it, cover the pot and let steep overnight.  In the morning I squeeze out the tea, pour into a water bottle and drink over the day.  Overnight infusions give maximum mineral content, unlike tinctures so are more nourishing.

I have heard a group of women tell herbalist Susun Weed how she “knocked them up” by using overnight infusions to help their fertility.  Gail Faith Edwards mixes red clover, red raspberry, wild grape leaves and tendrils in a fertility tincture. My own clients find that their skin clears, they feel more alert and then they conceive.

English: Red Clover (Trifolium pratense) Русск...

Image via Wikipedia

Red clover is also useful for osteoporosis due to its mineral content and phytosterols.  It should be taken with Vitamin  D for this purpose.

Menopausal hot flashes may also respond to red clover, especially when mixed with yin tonics like shatavari and rhemannia.

James Duke recommends red clover as a food. He claims that the best  vegetable bouillon he ever made consisted of red clover and chicory flowers, boiled vigorously with wild onion and chives.  I like to make a soup using the overnight infusion with an organic soup bone, sauteed leeks and a handful of dried nettles.

Red clover is a food and a medicine.  However you take it, the herb is safe and nutritious.

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Eat Your Christmas Tree

Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) buds

Douglas Fir. Image via Wikipedia

What do you do with a Christmas tree after Christmas is over?  Have you considered eating it?  Well not the trunk (although the inner bark can be used medicinally), but the needles. Fir or spruce tips and pine needles can make a fine tea- infused a short period of time (don’t boil it.)  But there is a world of uses beyond teas.

Pine needles are high in Vitamin C, Vitamin A,  quercetin, flavonoids, anthocyanins, tannins, pine oils, resveratrol, pinosylvin, shikimic acid, and isocupressic acid.  Vitamin C levels may be as high as 5 times as that of lemons, depending on the species.  The flavonoids, Vitamin C and associated compounds, and proanthocyanin are considered protective against cancer and scurvy.  They are also are good for respiratory infections.  Russian studies show pine oils as useful for weight control, lowered cholesterol and lowering blood pressure while Chinese studies find them as  slowing the growth of liver cancer. Pinosylvin is antifungal and antimicrobial.  Proanthocyanin and resveratrol are potent antiaging compounds.

Isocupressic acid blocks  progesterone in ruminants like cows and is considered toxic and abortafacient to them after the fermentation in their second stomach.  This should not be a concern for humans due to our single stomach digestion, but of course has not been studied.  The less tasty, more resinous pines like Ponderosa or Lodgepole pine  have the highest levels.  I think that if you let your taste be your guide, you will not overdose- pregnant women are quick to feel nauseated by harmful foods.  Parsley can be abortafacient too, but pregnant women eat it in normal amounts without problem. But you are forewarned that it has not been tested as safe for pregnancy.


Image by jon.hayes via Flickr

The Vitamin C will extract into water but is not destroyed by boiling as is popularly believed.  Vitamin C boils at over 500 degrees centigrade (water boils at 100 degrees centigrade and you can’t get to 500c with a normal stove)  In most cases you are drinking the water.

Just be careful that trees are not sprayed with fire retardants or infused with coloring.  I don’t see it too much in my area, but I have been told it is more prevalent elsewhere.  A tree farm owner says it is probably on trees imported from Canada  but in New York is not required on local trees.  While the fire retardant is supposed to be safe to ingest, I wouldn’t.  If you have any doubts use young Spring tips of growing trees.

Dry Pine Needles

This is the easiest way to use your tree.  I always saved the needles that dropped off my tree especially after taking it outside.  You can dry the needles of most Christmas trees to use this way.  Just avoid trees that have been treated, flocked or sprayed.  Dry the needles to use like rosemary in cooking.  The flavor is resinous, lemony and good.  You can also rub the needles into chicken, game or fish or most anything else.  This is also good for tea- infuse a teaspoon or two of dry needles into a cup of boiling water.

Pine, Fir or Spruce Powder

Take a few cups of dried needles and powder in a blender.  This makes a light, somewhat lemony aromatic powder which is good on fish,  chicken, sweet desserts or muffins.

Fresh Frozen Spruce or Fir Tips

Cut the final tips off of a fresh tree into four inch sections (perhaps as you are pruning your tree into shape initially or if you can take the clippings from your tree vendor.) Freeze until you are ready to use so they do not dry out.  You can bake or steam fish or poultry over them, stick a sprig into boiling spinach during the last few minutes or drp into your butternut squash soup.

Tinctured Tips

Fill a jar with dried fir tips,  spruce tips or pine needles.  Pour in vodka or gin to the top and let infuse for a month, then strain and bottle.  I keep some of this by my stove and in my herbal apothecary for coughs and flu.  When cooking, I throw a little on meat or vegetables.  The alcohol burns off pretty instantly which helps the taste of the food all by itself, but it also leaves the taste of the evergreens.  People who are into cocktails use a more dilute form of this.  If you wish to pursue it, there are recipes in the linked articles below.

Scotch Pine Sorbet

Simmer a 6″sprig of Scotch or White pine or fir in a cup of water for 10 minutes. Strain out and cool. Add 1 cup honey and a teaspoon of brandy.  Put into an ice cream  and freeze and crank according to the directions for your ice cream maker.  Alternatively  you can freeze into an ice cube tray and then pulse in a strong blender or Vitamix until smooth.

Spuce Butter

Melt a pound of butter in a double boiler.  Add 1/4 cup of spruce or fir tips or white pine cut into pieces.  Infuse for a quarter hour, then strain and let solidify in a serving state.

Infused Oil

Fill a jar of needles about a quarter full, then pour in olive oil or coconut oil. Put the jar in a double boiler or over a source of low heat.  I have used a flat baking pan with water over a warming buffet on low.  Let infuse for 3 days, then strain.  You can use this in cooking, rub it on sore limbs or drizzle on salads.  I tried this with juniper including the berries from my Christmas wreath, but the pectin in the berries added a gelatinous texture- it is still good though.

Balsamic  Vinegar

Fill a jar with white pine needles (Douglas fir, balsam pine or spruce will work too.)  Fill with apple cider vinegar.  Let infuse one month in a dark place.  Strain and decant.  This works better with apple cider vinegar than red wine vinegar.

Pine Needle Syrup

Fill a jar with a finely cut up organic lemon with peel and pine needles.  Pour a thin honey up to the top.  Cover and steep for 3 weeks.  Strain and decant.  This is a delicious syrup which can be used as a beverage, poured over ice cream or used as a cough syrup high in Vitamin C.

Fir tea. Image from http://www.celsias.com/article/recipe-saving-western-pine-forests-got-herbs/

If you don’t want to go to the trouble, for medicinal use ask your pharmacist to get you USP Compound White Pine Syrup.  It is made of the inner bark rather than the needles, but both work.

See also:

Pine Needle Uses and Health Benefits elperfecto.com

Evergreen, Ever  Delicious newyorktimes.com

Alpine Martini foodnetwork.com

Eat Your Christmas Tree  thecrunchychicken.com


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Alternatives to Milk You Can Make Yourself

English: Glass of soy milk and soy beans.

Soymilk with soybeans. Image via Wikipedia

My sister has an outright milk allergy but I can tolerate it so long as I  don’t go crazy on the fresh ricotta. That means I’m not without some sensitivity to milk, and pretty much only use it for coffee.  So we have always had some milk alternatives in our house.  In fact now you can find all kinds of milk alternatives in the refrigerator aisle, from soy to coconut milk.  But the prices are high and I was pleased to see that you can make milk substitutes from soy to chickpea to oat milk.  If you are allergic, vegan, frugal, keep kosher or just like the taste of different milks, here are some recipes.  Note that these may lack the nutritional qualities of dairy milk and that the freshness of the beans or nuts will affect the flavor.  Use these in baking if you don’t like the flavor.  You can adjust saltiness, sweetness or add vanilla or other flavor if desired.  And you can dilute milks that seem too thick with water.  Best yet, you usually have some residue that can be used in soups and sauces.

 Oatmeal Milk

This is perhaps the easiest milk to make since it requires no cooking.  Take one cup of oatmeal and put into a blender. Add a quart of filtered water, cap and blend for a minute.  Strain through a fine sieve.  Season as you wish (vanilla is nice) and serve or use for baking.

Herbalist’s gloss: I always have oatstraw (the green stalks and immature seeds) in the house for overnight infusions which are rich in minerals and help my nerves.  So I will bring a cup of oatstraw in a quart of water to a boil, simmer for 20 minutes and strain out.  Top up to a quart and use in place of plain water for a more nutritious oat milk.

Garbanzo Bean (Chickpea) Milk

This can be used for chickpeas, soybeans, chana dahl, or other white beans.  Because beans contain antinutrients that can inhibit the thyroid, they require cooking.

Close-up picture of white and green chick peas.

Chick peas- white ones are better for milk. Image via Wikipedia

Soak 2-3 cups of beans in water overnight, in a large container with enough water to expand the volume by 2-3 times.  If you are using a whole bean you can start two days earlier and let the beans start to sprout by draining and rinsing several times a day, but this is not necessary.  At least make sure the beans are soft enough bite.  Place in a blender and grind into a paste, adding water as needed to make sure there are no chunks left.

Half fill a large pot with water and bring to a boil.  The bean milk will tend  to boil over so leave room.  (If it does, it is pretty easy to clean up.)  Add the bean paste, stir well, let simmer just below boiling for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Let cool and strain through a fine mesh strainer or squeeze through cheesecloth.  Chickpea milk is thicker than soy milk, so depending on your bean, you may need to adjust the cloth and squeeze or put a weight on top (say a plastic container full of water.)  You can save the bean residue for falafel or hamburger filler.

Bean texture is an individual thing so I often dilute this down by as much as a third, adding a couple teaspoons of Himalayan salt and sugar or herbal substitute for this quantity.  Use your taste as a guide, going slowly.

Fructus Momordicae, a kind of Chinese herb for...

Lo han guo fruit sweetens without calories. Image via Wikipedia

Herbalist’s gloss:  Before blending I crush half of a lo han guo fruit into the blender.  This adds a  non caloric sweet taste (but it also sweetens the residue.)  Lo han guo, Siraitia (formerly Mormordica) grosvenorii, is sold in Chinese herb shops or grocery stores. I find that using stevia causes easy over-sweetening and I’m less fond of the taste,

Almond  Milk

This recipe can also be used for cashews, Brazil nuts, hazelnuts and other kinds of tree nuts. Note that California almonds are no longer really raw even if labeled as such, but they work anyway. You can also use the white meat from coconuts. It is more expensive than the bean or oat milks but has important fats and minerals.  Fresh nuts are key as fats can get rancid tastes as they age.

Soak 2 cups raw nuts overnight in plenty of water.  Drain and add a quart of water.  Blend in the blender until milky- if you don’t have a Vitamix or other high power blender, do it in batches then pour back into the blender.  Add a little cinnamon, nutmeg and sweetener if desired.  Blend again and strain out, wringing through cheesecloth or a cotton towel.  The nut residue works well in baking or in a smoothie. This makes a richer milk than the bean or oat milks.

Herbalist’s gloss: I like to mix a handful of cashews into the almonds, and use cinnamon and nutmeg.  Honey adds an eggnog flavor.

Your home made milks will last 3-5 days in the refrigerator and probably won’t freeze well, but they can be used in baking when slightly past prime.  Since you make them yourself, you can control the amount of water for thickness or taste, as well as added salt, sweetener or spices.  Experiment in how you use them, introduce new flavors gradually and don’t be afraid to mix.  While I think that chickpea milk tastes like soymilk, and I like different flavors in cereal, hot chocolate or baking, I am not happy with any substitute in coffee.

English: Shelled almonds (Prunus dulcis) Itali...

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Let Your Digestion Enjoy Your Feast Too.


Feast photo credit: http://tinyurl.com/6p92sw2

The Winter holidays seem a time to indulge:  Christmas cookies, Hanukkah latkes, spiked eggnog, chocolate everything, groaning sideboards with heavy food.  While  we can manage some festive indulgence provided we don’t eat that way all the time, there are things we can do to protect our digestion.

  • Begin your meal with gratitude.  Grace, brachot, an introspective moment to take in all of the plenitude, will prime your body to make good use of good food.  Feel gratitude to the Creator, the farmer, the animal or plant who provided the food, those who picked and transported the food, those who stock the stores, the cook, those who inspired him or her, and family and friends who are joining you.  (There, doesn’t your stomach feel better already?)
  • Start your meal with something bitter, be it bitter greens like arugula or radicchio, a shot of Fernet Branca or a bite of citrus peel.  Bitters cue our gallbladders to secrete bile and out stomachs to produce digestive juices.  (Herbalists may wish to concoct dandelion leaf, artichoke leaf, orange peel, angelic. gentian and ginger bitters.)
  • Also take something sour to help your liver and to reduce blood sugar spikes.  Lemon in seltzer, vinaigrette on a salad, balsamic vinegar in water, sauerkraut, pickled vegetables or lime juice all work.

    See title

    Fernet Branca is a good commerical bitters formula. Image via Wikipedia

  • Choose foods with carminative spices like cinnamon, pepper, ginger, cardamon, nutmeg, cloves, allspice, Italian herbs, star anise, fennel and cumin.  These will warm the stomach and enhance digestion.  Taste isn’t just aesthetic, it is functional.
  • Chutneys, horseradish, mustard, fish sauces and hoi sin sauce have similar effects.  So do fresh fennel, cilantro, parsley and scallions.
  • Eat slowly, enjoying your food in all of its full flavor.  Mindful eating enhances your appreciation of the interplay between your food and your body and helps you choose well.
  • Eat something fermented: sauerkraut, yogurt, pickled vegetables, olives, or wine in moderation.  The organisms will help you digest (or recombine with your own biota to digest.)  They also tend to lower blood sugar spikes.
    English: Pickled Vegetables. Photo taken in a ...

    Pickled vegetables help digestion

    •  Avoid foods that give you problems, whether allergens, foods to which you have sensitivities or just carbs or fats that upset you.  Milk products, breads, gluten, soy and sugar are common culprits.  Know yourself. Really, isn’t there plenty of other food around?
  • Fill up on the vegetables, not the heavier food.
  • Stop when you are full.  That gives you time to enjoy the company and the conversation.
  • Finish your meal with gratitude.
  • There are vitamins that can help.  One friend swears by Vitamin C, B complex and E taken before dinner.  B complex vitamins can help prevent hangovers.  But so can taking a walk after indulging.
  • Walk home, or walk around the block before bed.  Burn off some of that food and drink.
  • Chinese herbal preparations for overindulgence include Po Chai pills, Curing pills and Bao He Wan.  I prefer the latter as it has Chinese hawthorn which is good for food stagnation and the heart (although less so than European hawthorn.)

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Curried, Gluten-free Sweet Potato Beet Latkes

Photo credit: Chow.com

A slightly healthier version of Chanukkah latkes uses beets and sweet potatoes which are lower in glycemic load, higher in flavonoids and simply taste better. I cook them with coconut oil which does not oxidize when heated and is thus healthier than a peanut or canola oil.  I like to serve them with a chunky applesauce mixed with garam masala (1/2 tsp per cup.)  If you don’t have garam masala, use a mixture of pepper, cumin, cloves, nutmeg and star anise.

Grate 1 medium sweet potato and 1 beet of a similar size and place in a mixing bowl.

Add a small minced yellow onion

Add 1/2 cup oat flou1

1 Tbs brown sugar

1 tsp curry powder

1/2 tsp baking powder

1/4 cup coconut milk

2 beaten large eggs

Mix well.    Heat up a platter in the oven at 300 degrees , covered with paper towel to drain the laltkes.  Heat a cast iron skillet with enough coconut oil to come half way up the latkes.  When a bit of the mixture sizzles when dropped into the oil, you can cook the latkes. Form into cakes about the size of a hamburger and fry until done.  Keep in the oven until finished

Serve with Greek yogurt or sour cream, spiced applesauce and a light salad.   I suggest starting with a salad of romaine lettuce, radicchio, pomegranate seeds, mandarin orange and balsamic vinaigrette dressing.  The bitter greens and sour vinegar will prepare your digestion for the rich latkes.


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Delicious Anti-inflammatory, Antioxidant, Probiotic, Pain-relieving Dessert

Pumpkins, photographed in Canada.

Image via Wikipedia

I put together a dessert using pureed pumpkin or butternut squash, spiced up in a way that moves the blood and is actually good for you.  It is brim full of antioxidants and flavonoids.  Plus it is delicious.  You can switch a good yellow squash for the pumpkin and canned puree works well, but make sure it is puree and not pumpkin pie mix.  I prefer the canned coconut milk to that found in the refrigerated milk section because it has more of those good fats. You can sweeten with stevia, agave, maple syrup or cane sugar, but the agave, maple syrup and sugar have a lot of fructose which is hard on the liver which you will want to avoid if you are in pain.  Honey doesn’t blend in all that well in my opinion, but your taste may differ.  I recommend adding stevia to taste (but go slow, a very little at a time!).  The black pepper makes the effect of the spices more bioavailable- in Ayurveda it takes the herbs into the tissues.

I eat this like pudding or top my coffee with it to make pumpkin latte, perhaps with a dash of rum.  This makes a great winter dessert.

Put in a mixer on low:

coconut milk

3 cups pumpkin puree

A 13.5 oz. can of coconut milk

An 8 oz. container of plain, full-fat yogurt, preferably Greek style

1 can tomato paste


2 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp turmeric powder

1/2 tsp ginger

1/4 tsp nutmeg or mace

English: Spices at a market in Marrakech, Morrocco

Image via Wikipedia

dash of cloves or cardamon

dash black pepper

1tsp vanilla extract.

Blend well then add:

Stevia or other sweetener to taste.  Stevia is very concentrated so add it slowly.  The spices cover up any bitterness from the leaf.

Credit: http://www.verybestbaking.com/recipes/28454/Quick-Pumpkin-Pudding/detail.aspx

Serve over chopped walnuts and top with whipped cream.

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Avoiding Materialism For the Winter Holidays

Advent Wreath

One of the main themes that I have been hearing from both Christian and Jewish friends is that they don’t like materialism driving out the true meaning of Hanukkah and Christmas and also don’t like the effect that materialism has on their children.  I’m sure my pagan friends have similar issues around Yule.  Stores ramp up shopping right after Thanksgiving- and even on Thanksgiving itself.  The infamous pepper spray shopping incident illustrated how out of balance things have gotten.

To be fair, stores get their best merchandise in stock before the winter holidays, and most people like a meaningful present.  But there is no reason to fill up the tree with too much junk or to give eight meaningless presents instead of one or two that people really want.  On the other hand I know families that were so anti-materialism that they didn’t give any gifts at all and their children felt slighted and ashamed in front of their friends.  Instead there are other strategies.

  • Don’t assume that your children want tons of stuff.  I remember, at 5,  my family told me that  money was tight and there wouldn’t be much under the tree.  All I asked Santa for was some scotch tape, a magical substance which had recently caught my eye, and I meant it. Plus I felt good about helping my parents. There  is no shame in letting children know that times are tough- and even if your family is doing well, this can be a time for giving to others instead of receiving. Times are tough.
  • Discuss materialism with your children and cultivate a discerning view of commercials and store pressure.  They are not too young to learn your values and how television and commercials manipulate them.  Deconstruct it.
  • Consider a cost limit per person, either for requested or donated gifts, within which one can be creative.
  • If your children are at the Santa Clause stage, don’t make it seem as if Santa is the source of endless materialism. I told my children about the historical St. Nicholas of Smyrna who helped poor girls get a dowry when they started asking about Santa.    And when they compared their gifts to those of more affluent friends, I indicated that parents had a financial arrangement with Santa that wasn’t always the same.  Distract them with activities instead.

    A Christmas tradition in New York City is WPIX...

    Yule log

  • The winter solstice holidays seem to emphasize light for good reason.  Decorate your home with strands of lights, Advent wreaths, multiple menorahs in your windows, Yule logs.  Emphasize a celebratory atmosphere rather than gifts.
  • Similarly let your home be a place of music.  We no longer have my aunt around to play the piano while we sing, but the kids can put together a playlist on our iPad or computer to celebrate the holiday, sing with and play during dinner.  If someone plays an instrument, so much the better.
  • Remain in touch with the religious roots of the holiday, even if you tend to be secular and consider them legends .  Tell the stories, remember the history, share in the deep meanings.  It will add a sense of mindfulness and gratitude to your celebrations.
  • Limit commercial television which runs nonstop commercials for toys and clothing you don’t need. A few good DVDs, PBS or a Hallmark special can set the mood with minimal commercials.
  • Involve the family in preparing food- making cookies, shopping, bringing part of the food if they live out of the home.  Don’t let all the work fall on one person, and enjoy the time together rather than just the product of the work.

    Menorahs can be provided for each family member

  • Consider new herbal directions for favorite foods, especially if you find traditional foods stale:  turkey with tandoori spices, curried sweet potato latkes, pine needle spiced ham, bergamot seasoned lasagna.  Add color with new vegetables.  Go for flavor over quantity.
  • Invite people who are single or without family to join your celebrations, even if you don’t know them well.  Holidays can be times of despair for those who don’t have family or friends around. Share.
  • Get your shopping done before Thanksgiving when there is less pressure and emptier stores.  Patronize local stores and small craftspeople where possible.  Then spend December enjoying time with family.
  • Watch your own tendencies to purchase too much and to focus on gifts.  Instead schedule time for activities or spiritual growth.
  • If a family member has a specific gift in mind it is a good idea to discuss it to avoid crushed expectations.  Perhaps it is simply too expensive or inappropriate.  Maybe people can go together on it, make a donation or combine gifts for a birthday and holiday.  Better to hear a clear “no” or “that isn’t how we celebrate” than to hope and be disappointed.  (But don’t abuse this in the service of fetishizing surprise.)
  • Make at least some presents and most decor as a family project:  herbal salsa, hawthorn elixir, rosemary and shallot vinegar, bath salts with essential oils, candles, oil menorahs, ornaments.  Cranberry or popcorn garlands can be put out for the birds later.  Fir needles can be dried into spice blends or stuffed into pillows. Oven fired or salt clay can be used to make Nativity scenes.
  • Give presents that are donations.  For several years I have given cow shares or chickens or reforestation certificates through the Heifer Project.  Donations to the Hunger Siteor its rainforest, child health, literacy, autism, breast cancer  or animal welfare affiliates allow you to fund and get printable certificates to give for such things as a health garden in Rwanda ($15), a year of school lunches for an AIDS orphan ($18), high efficiency stoves in Dafur ($15), feed a US senior in need ($25), rescue an animal (from $1.00). or rescue a girl from indentured servitude ($50) .

    You can give geese through Heifer.org

  • My children presented me one year with $50 of certificates to fund loans through Kiva.org.  I was able to choose 4 recipients of microloans, and revisit the gift as the loans were repaid to lend again.  Those four certificates have turned into 41 loans which transform the lives of recipients around the world.  This would be a great family project where each Christmas you add to the family portfolio.  Children can learn about the areas where your recipients live, you can discuss the nature of the projects you wish to fund and how secure they seem, and you can know you are contributing to the dignity of the borrowers as they form new businesses or otherwise expand their skills.
  • Consider spearheading funding for a project you care about.  My son Nick raised over $5000 for Tibet for his 21st birthday using a Facebook application.  Of course this works best if you have lots of friends who care about the same project you are raising funds for. But you can join with your community at putting together a skills bank which could do everything from helping seniors with home repair to helping young couples learn how to budget. Or raise funds for the local food bank (but remember them after the holidays are past!)
  • If you can serve food at a local soup kitchen this may be a good celebration.  They usually need more help after the holidays, but now  may be a good time to get introduced.
  • Focus on what you are grateful for rather than what you might get.  Do this before the gift giving as well as after.
  • Don’t overdo.  This leads to burnout, disappointment and discontent, not to mention high bills in January.
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A Calorie Is Not A Calorie: Why All Calories Are Not The Same

A diet rich in soy and whey protein, found in ...
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When I was in the second grade and was told to cut calories, I wanted to know why if the calories were the same, I couldn’t just cut out the squash and beans at dinner for the equivalent caloric amount of ice cream.  “Vitamins” were too abstract for me and besides I took a vitamin pill.  It wasn’t until low carbohydrate diets became popular that I started learning about different metabolic actions of different types of food, and later about different nutrients, the need for one nutrient to absorb another and biological responses to ingested foods that affect what is used.

The first law of thermodynamics indicates that energy is conserved and thus that a calorie might be a calorie if you equalize calories in and calories out, plus fat storage.  However the second law says that no machine is completely efficient. Some of the available energy is lost as heat and in the internal chemical changes and in entropy.  In the human body this means that hormones, enzymes(1) , allergic processes, constraints from lack of essential minerals and cofactors all have an impact on the food retained.

  • It takes more energy to break down some foods than others. For protein to break down to energy it is transformed into glucose.  That step takes ATP (energy) and thus a calorie of sugar transforms into energy (or stored fat) more efficiently than protein.  100 calories of sugar will make you fatter than 100 calories of boiled egg. And people on low carbohydrate diets lose more weight, lose it faster and keep it off longer than people on low calorie diets.
  • The amount of calories lost as heat is approximately 2–3 % for fats, 6–8 % for carbohydrates, and 25–30% for proteins.  You would typically lose 140 calories as extra heat on the early phase of an Atkins, South Beach or Protein Power diet just based on the metabolic effects.(1)
  • The form of food counts:  fruit juice is worse than fruit if you want to lose weight.  The fructose is unbound and can inactivate the appestat that prevents us from overeating. (2) The glycemic index of flour is higher than that of pasta.  Generally the more processed (ground, liquefied) forms of the same food raise your blood sugar faster.(3)
  • Sugars differ.  Fructose doesn’t suppress the hunger hormone, grehlin like glucose.  Fructose makes you lay down more fat.  80% of glucose is absorbed immediately sending only 20% to the liver vs. 100% of fructose. That causes the liver to store it as new fat.  This also creates VLDL cholesterol (the worst kind.)  Glucose makes 1% as VLDL and Fructose has 3 times as much, with the additional waste product uric acid which causes gout and hypertension. 30% of fructose becomes fat compared to 1% of glucose.  Table sugar is 50% glucose and 50% fructose, so is poison. Yes, poison.  (2)
  • Fiber protects food from being completely broken down.  Our digestive system is not a bomb calorimeter (the tool used to determine how much energy food releases in kilocalories) where everything is burned completely.  Fiber sweeps undigested food through the colon and probably is intended to clean it out.  So whole grains per ounce tend to give fewer calories than refined grains.  (This effect is often negated by, say, slightly heavier slices of whole grain bread.)
  • Fiber does not raise blood sugar or blood insulin as high because it takes more time in the stomach to release glucose from foods.(2,3)
  • Fiber sweeps food through the colon, decreasing intestinal transit time so the small intestine has less time to absorb nutrients. Also it specifically reduces the absorption of carbohydrates in the intestines (2)
  • Fat is not all burned, In fact it often lubricates the colon, decreasing intestinal transit time and lowering the amount of nutrients absorbed.  This is especially true when there is insufficient bile produced.
  • Micronutrients differ.  100 calories of cooked kale has a lot more micronutrients than 100 calories of iceberg lettuce.  Minerals are higher in darker greens.  There are more flavonoids in blueberries than strawberries.  Trace minerals are often part of enzymes necessary to break down or to absorb food..
  • Some nutrients need cofactors: mineral rich greens are better absorbed with some fat..(4)
  • Some foods are allergenic or irritating.  Wheat contains gluten which has several degrees if irritation: celiac disease, atopic allergy, gluten sensitivity and normal irritation in the colon because it is hard to digest.  Depending on the degree of sensitivity, the gluten protein can cause severe diarrhea and weight loss or retention of fluids and weight gain.(5)
  • Different gut flora dispose us to gain or lose weight.  Thin people have more of the bacteria that will give us diarrhea in excess.  Fat people have more of the gut flora that break down food- the same flora found in yogurt.(6)

See Also:

 Chemicals and Obesity: What if it Isn’t All Your Fault?  Acupuncturebrooklyn.com

Two Year Low Cal/Low Carb Study Misleading. Acupuncturebrooklyn.com


  1. Nutrition Journal.  “A Calorie is a Calorie Violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics.” http://www.nutritionj.com/content/3/1/9
  2. Robert Lustig UCSF lecture on sugar:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dBnniua6-oM
  3. David Mendosa.  “The Glycemic Index” http://www.mendosa.com/gi.htm
  4. Weston Price Principles http://www.nutrition-healing.com/westonprice.html
  5. Clin Allergy. “Sub-class of IgG in allergic disease. I. IgG sub-class antibodies in immediate and non-immediate food allergy.” http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed?term=%20varied%20reactions%20to%20gluten
  6. J Clin Gastroenterol. “Obesity and the gut flora.” http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21992951

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How to Prevent Drug Side Effects

Adverse Drug ReactionAdverse drug reaction

Image by Benicio Murray | www.benicio.com.au via Flickr

When my children were young, a their doctor, who was describing side effects turned to me to confirm his statement that all drugs have side effects.  I didn’t.  Coming from a Chinese Medicine tradition where we individualize herbal formulas and dosages to an individual’s constitution, symptoms and underlying conditions, I see “side effects” as the result of sloppy prescribing and one size fits all dosage.

What is a “side effect”?  A side effect is one or more of the effects of a drug that does not have to do with a current (arguably restricted) treatment goal.  It is not incidental, it is the property of a drug.  Drugs are widely assumed to be designed to target a specific organ or medical issue, but they rarely do. They have effects on multiple organs and interact in complex feedback loops. Side effects are just drug effects interacting with a specific individual.

Suppose two young women come to a medical doctor with the same bacterial respiratory infection.  “A” is quite thin, pale, vegan, of southern European ancestry and wears heavy sweaters in moderate weather because she always feels cold. Perhaps she also suffers from Renaud’s with cold hands.  “B” is robust, omnivorous, has a reddish complexion, drinks alcohol, is perhaps of Nordic extraction and wears sandals and short sleeves well into winter.  The doctor could give them the same antibiotic for the infection and it would probably work in the short term, but the longer term consequences would be different:  patient “A” might recover initially, but the treatment would tax her immune system and set off  a new round of diseases while “B” might do quite well.

Most antibiotics are energetically cold, which makes sense since feverishness is usually present in acute bacterial illnesses.  Cold: like mint, yogurt, cucumbers, beans, winter weather, light clothing, insulin and steroids.  Thin people tend to run colder than well-insulated fatter people.  The elderly tend to be colder than the young.  There are certain epigenetic differences in people who originate from different climates.  And while the individual’s presentation is more important than any given factor, the energetics of the drug (hot/cold, dry/damp, anabolic/catabolic and suppressive/expressive) should match the needs of a patient. Continue reading…

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Musings on the 10th Anniversary of 9-11

September 11, 2001 attacks in New York City: V...

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Ten years ago my youngest son pulled me up to the roof  where we could see the smoke from the destruction of the first World Trade Center tower.  We watched in horror as smoke billowed, soon to be followed by windrifts of shredded paper and air full of a peculiar dust smelling of construction debris and dead bodies which lasted for weeks.  Subways and roads had been closed so I couldn’t grab my EMT bag to help the survivors, and word soon came that there was no need for additional EMTs with so few injured survivors.  People apparently either got out or they were pulverized.

At that time I was at Old First Church, serving as the top layperson in a church without permanent clergy.  I decided we should open the church since people would be worried and the walkers escaping Manhattan would need somewhere to sit down on their way towards home.  Soon a crowd formed, exchanging information, needing to share fears.  Someone brought a radio since cell phones were out.  Others brought flowers. The front steps of Old First became a nerve center for the community, for people regardless of affiliation. Continue reading…

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Simple Health Practices that Help with Pain

Back pains....

Image by JD'na via Flickr

Pain is complex and there are many facets to it.  Here are a few things that may help.  But do what you need to in order to minimize pain rather than toughing it out because pain isn’t good for you. 

  • Pain may be fixed and stabbing (usually nerve pain) or throbbing and movable.  Try to figure out the nature of your pain, what makes it better or worse, how many inches into your body it is found and how broad the area is and whether it radiates.  Is it better or worse with heat?  In Chinese medicine we do not use ice, which we believe only suppresses the pain but we do use cooling medicinal herbs that help release the pain at the skin level. Continue reading…
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