Drive to an average shopping mall and your senses will be hyper-stimulated. As you enter, you’ll encounter the sights of cars backing out, flashing lights, and warning signs. If you visit a home improvement store, you’ll hear sirens, forklifts, saws racing across boards, overhead announcements and hundreds of conversations. Take a stroll on a city street and become inundated with the smells of car exhaust and perfumed strangers.

All-in-all we are living in an amazingly complex time for the senses, and inside our brains, we are desperately searching for solutions to weed out potentially dangerous events from desirable stimuli. Our senses are constantly stimulated and distracted.  Internally, chemicals are released to pump out hormones to increase our awareness, to focus our attention. With prolonged occurrences the very stimuli that are meant to protect us can begin to cause us harm.

One way in which many of us begin to note harm is in our patterns of sleeping and waking. Insomnia and the racing mind are signs that we may need to take a step back and let our minds relax more. Sleeplessness over time can lead to a lack of cellular rejuvenation, and can lead to dangerous accidents when our brains can no longer focus.

As humans overwhelmed by life buzzing around us, we are becoming increasingly dependent on substances to cope. There are stimulants like caffeine for those who are just trying to keep up, and there are depressants like alcohol for those that just want to mellow out. Sugar and refined carbohydrates are sometimes used for a quick dopamine rush.  When trying to heal an already taxed nervous system, I advise people to withdraw from these substances with the knowledge that they will require a few days to weeks to recover during the withdrawal phase. It may take a while to feel “normal” upon stopping.

5 steps for success in hectic times:

  1. Buy less – Shopping malls, department stores, entertainment stores. They are all ways to try to get us to buy more, but the truth is we are often already overwhelmed with the stuff we have. We have stuff to clean, put away, give away, haul away, and we keep buying more stuff. Before buying more, ask yourself if you would benefit in any way doing without. Would you save more money, accrue less debt, have more space, help the environment.
  2. Spend more time in natural environments – The mind becomes calm when surrounded by the sights and sounds of nature. Running water, the smell of a fresh breeze, the sites of clouds floating by overhead….these are things to make us thankful. In natural environments, our bodies begin to unwind.
  3. Keep your body clean – Eating more vegetables and fruits grown naturally keeps our digestive system healthy. Healthy digestion is equal to better cardiovascular health and better blood sugar regulation. When our blood sugar is stable, our minds are able to function more clearly. To deal with all the chronic stresses of the world, we must keep our brains healthy to assimilate and process it all.
  4. Have a good team – Even doctors go to doctors, and massage therapists can benefit from a massage. Surround yourself with a good set of professionals with skills that benefit your relaxation and health care. Try something new like massage therapy, counseling or acupuncture to calm an already stressed nervous system. Even a trip to a spa or salon can be beneficial for relaxation.
  5. Laugh about your mistakes – In a modern world so full of complexity, sometimes we just need to laugh at our faults. We are humans under extraordinary pressure and we are flawed, all of us. Not one person within our world is the perfect human. Therefore, we must accept our mistakes and forgive ourselves and others. Forgive where you can, and forget where you can’t forgive. Try to move on with dignity and joy. Then you have one less thing to worry about.



The Power of Homemade Soup

One of the most common dietary recommendations that I make to patients is to eat more homemade soup. Soup is economical, simple to prepare, and can be made in large volumes that are easily stored or frozen. This is the perfect combination for busy people looking for healthy low-cost meals. In addition, homemade soup is typically prepared with a lot of vegetables, and I find that even those that have a less-than-friendly relationship with their veggies are somewhat soothed by their presence in a well-spiced broth.

There is also a more complex medicinal reason that I love recommending soups. Homemade soups seem to have less of the most common dietary allergens and irritants than other meals. For instance, it is easy to convince someone who is gluten-sensitive or allergic to dairy to switch their lunchtime meal from a turkey and cheese sandwich to a fulfilling bowl of homemade chili. With this one change, we are removing ingredients that rob the body of its energy and vitality and replacing it with a power-packed replenishing and fulfilling meal.

Soups also have a special place in Chinese medical philosophy. East Asian Medical Practitioners often recommend soups to those with weak digestive energy, and in my experience it is a rare Westerner over the age of 30 who has absolutely no problems with digestion from time to time. As one of the foundations of our health, the digestive system is where we derive our ‘qi’ and ‘blood’. In Western terms we can think of this as energy to do work and maintain appropriate mental function.

It is important to note that while homemade soup is healthful, canned soup is not recommended at this time. A recent study showed a 1,200% spike in the chemical BPA found in urine following five days of eating canned soup. BPA is used in the lining of most canned goods and has proved to be a disrupter of the endocrine system. In other words, instead of being part of a healthy diet, eating canned soup could lead to hormonal imbalance and other chronic diseases. So stick with whole food recipes prepared in your own kitchen to ensure that you’re deriving the most benefit.



A Recent Study

A few weeks ago I was asked by one of the local hospitals to give a lecture on supplements and choosing the right one for particular conditions. I was already considering the difficulties in providing such a talk to a broad audience, as supplements are quite specific and have diverse considerations for prescribing. To top things off, the news had just come out that a recent study in the Archives of Internal Medicine had found an association between “several commonly used dietary vitamin and mineral supplements” and “increased total mortality risk”1.  In other words, the study suggested that perhaps certain supplements weren’t helping people, but actually harming them.

The media went wild and made their own interpretation of the study results, suggesting a much broader conclusion regarding a wider range of supplements being bad for our health. There was little to no mention about certain unknowns surrounding the study, such as supplement quality, quantity, or the possibility that those with poor health may be more likely to seek supplements in order to improve their conditions. In other words, some media sources jumped to conclusions that the study did not suggest.

However, in my lecture I chose to take the topic head on, as I understand that it can be frustrating for patients to comprehend fully what is helpful for their health vs. what can cause harm. It’s especially confusing when one source may be overstating health claims and another source is overstating potential harm. As a Naturopathic Physician, I feel that the truth lies somewhere in the middle.


Evaluating Quality

The first thing that I teach people when considering whether to take a new supplement is how to evaluate its quality. For example, if I am going to be taking a new turmeric supplement to reduce inflammation, there are some very basic things I’d want to consider, such as what steps the manufacturer takes in product testing, what is the absorbability of the product, and what else is in the product besides the active ingredient that I am seeking. While I understand that cost is a consideration for many of us when deciding what supplement to take, I remind people that if they have to chose between taking a poorly manufactured and questionable product that may have harmful ingredients vs. no supplementation at all, I would recommend that they don’t take the supplement and instead chose a different route of approaching their health problem.

Supplements have become a big business and just like any other industry there are those who are reputable and want to provide their customers with the highest quality product, and there are those who just want to make a quick buck. Some advice I was given by a dispensary manager one time that has stuck with me is that while you can never be 100% sure that a more expensive product has done the quality testing that they claim or are providing the exact ingredients that they claim, you can be almost positive that the cheapest supplement within the range has done little to no quality testing on their product. In other words, quality testing on supplements is an expensive process, one that very cheap products may not be able to perform and still remain as a viable company. Before taking a new supplement you should be able to find out through the company’s website or by contacting the company to find out exactly where they are getting their ingredients and what processes they are going through to test the quality of their product. Alternatively, you can contact someone trained in supplement prescribing and discuss with them the potential risks and benefits associated with particular brands.



Next, we should evaluate the absorbability of the product before taking it. After all, if the product passes right through us without being absorbed, we are simply wasting money and not deriving any benefit. Quality supplement companies will actually measure the breakdown of tablets frequently to ensure appropriate disintegration as the product passes through the digestive system. Certain ingredients may be added that have been shown to increase uptake of particular vitamins or nutrients. For example vitamin D is often combined with calcium, as it promotes its absorption. The same is true for vitamin C and non-heme (vegetarian) sources of iron. Therefore, it is important not only to evaluate the main ingredient within the supplement, but all associated ingredients.

Most supplements contain other active and / or inert ingredients to either help in the product absorption into the body, support other pathways in the body, or just are useful in the manufacturing process to ensure that mass production is possible. When I sit down with patients to evaluate their supplements, they are often surprised to find that they may be getting double, triple or even higher doses of certain nutrients, as they are often repeated in many of their formulas. Some supplements such as vitamin C can simply lead to loose stool if taken in excess. Others, such as vitamin B6 or potassium can have much more dangerous side effects if taken in too high quantities.


Inactive Ingredients

Excipients are the inactive substances in supplements which should also be evaluated when considering what product to choose. These ingredients are defined into subcategories such as ‘binders, fillers, and glues’. They also may provide bulk to the product, flavor, or coloring. While some ingredients are hypoallergenic and well tolerated by most individuals, some are irritating and potentially toxic to others. For example, some companies include lactose in their products to ensure smooth flow of vitamin powders through machines. Therefore those with allergies may have reason to be careful and do a great deal of label reading before purchasing a product. I advise my patients to know what each ingredient within their supplement does and why it was added. I remind them that if you are ingesting something for the purpose of your health, then you should be fairly certain that the ingredients won’t potentially cause further harm to your system.


Knowing What’s Right

            Patients often comment to me that when they visit their local health food or supplement store, they are unable to determine which of the supplements to choose from because they all are claiming to help their particular condition. Let’s take for example cardiovascular health. A typical supplement store may have a huge supply of products stating claims of reducing blood pressure and helping control cholesterol, but which one should you choose?

The most important advice that I can give patients on this part of the process is to ensure that your supplement does not have any contraindications with your current medication. Do not leave this up to the person working at the store to decide for you. While some stores will do a cursory review of the interactions, others may state that the supplement is “safe” without fully understanding the mechanisms of either the supplement or the medication. Medications such as Warfarin, a common blood thinner, have a long list of proposed interactions with other medications and supplements. Something as seemingly innocuous as fish oil may combine with such medications to create potentially dangerous side effects. When it comes to combining supplements with medications, the safest route is to sit down one-on-one with a qualified health care professional that can help you to research and confirm the product’s safety.

Following this critical step, it is then important to become educated on the variety of products available in the market to treat a particular condition. For example in the case of blood pressure control, you might be trying to decide between adding a bulking fiber to your diet, taking garlic capsules, adding the herbal medication Hawthorn, fish oils, or other alternatives to diuretics and beta-blockers. Some important questions that I consider before deciding on the best alternative therapy are:

  1. How advanced is the patient’s condition? Would the supplement that I am prescribing treat the patient’s primary concern to the level that is necessary to maintain health? (For example: Garlic pills may be completely appropriate in mild hypertension, but an insufficient primary solution for those in Stage II hypertension)
  2. Are there any other health conditions that I need to take into consideration, such as kidney or liver disease, diabetes, heart disease, etc? Some supplements can increase demand on already weakened systems or alter blood sugar and / or blood pressure.
  3. 3.     How many times per day will the patient have to take this supplement and for how long? Some people are looking for or requiring a quick fix and do not wish to wait 4-6 months in order to see results. In this case, we would want to either choose a supplement or a complex that can provide rapid results, or there are times where I advise patients that pharmaceutical medications may be their best option to achieve the results that they need in the time frame that they require.

Making the Right Choice Now

            As you may be able to gather from reading the above information, I don’t take the topic of supplementation lightly; and with the recent news regarding the potential negative effects of some supplements on your health, I hope that you also feel that this is an important decision as well. It’s not uncommon for a patient to bring in bags of supplements costing hundreds of dollars to ask my advice on finding a few quality supplements to help their health condition.

One of my goals is to help each of my patients find the best supplements from the very start. While these supplements sometimes cost a little more initially, it is my belief that the person saves money in the long run. By methodically addressing their health concerns, it is my hope that they can save an exponential amount in the long run, as they begin to feel better, require less medications overall, and can spend more time and money on the things that are important and enjoyable for them in other areas of life.

Mursu, J., Robien, K., Harnack LJ., Park K., & Jacobs DR. (2011). Dietary supplements and mortality rate in older women: the Iowa Women’s Health Study. Archives of Internal Medicine. 171(18): 1625-33.