Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Gluten-free isn't so bad

When I was diagnosed with a gluten sensitivity several years ago, I thought I might as well forget about enjoying food ever again. (I recognize that look of terror in many of my patient's eyes when they first find out the same thing.) It was a rocky start, I ate a lot of chips and salsa. But, now, thankfully, my diet is considerably more varied. I would love to share with you what I've learned so that you don't have to go through what I went through... which was a lot of Chinese take-out, hold the soy sauce.

Now let me tell you two things I've learned about food that changed my life:  First, eat more vegetables. Like, WAY more vegetables. Vegetables should constitute 40% to 50% of your diet. That means half your cart at the grocery store. Also, when you're choosing veggies, try to get all the colors in the rainbow. This will ensure that you are giving your body the full spectrum of nutrients. Example: Red tomatoes, orange carrots, yellow bell pepper, green broccoli, purple cabbage, white cauliflower.

Second, plan your meals. This will save you energy, time, and money in the long run. Once a week, jot down 5 or 6 dinner ideas (that incorporate plenty of veggies). Write down dinners on the left side, ingredients and other items on the right. (You know you're in a dinner-rut when you don't have to write down the ingredients anymore, like this note here. See my tip at the end of this post to remedy the dinner-rut situation.)

Monday night: Tortilla soup. This is one of my favorite recipes given to me years ago from one of my closest friends. (Thanks, Molly!) It's quick and easy to make, gluten-free, nutritious, and can be made vegetarian. Not to mention it's ridiculously yummy.

You will need:
1 carton organic chicken broth (or veggie broth)
2 heaping spoonfuls of your favorite salsa
1-2 tsp cumin
1 lime
2-3 cloves of garlic (Actually, I usually do 4 or 5 cloves, depending on the size. I love garlic.)
1/2 small white or yellow onion
splash of olive oil
1 fresh tomato
1 handful fresh chopped cilantro
1/2 can corn or hominy
1 ripe avocado
generous amount of feta cheese (I like to use goat feta)
tortilla chips
pinch of salt and pepper

Saute garlic and onion with olive oil in a sauce pan. Add broth, lime juice, cumin, salt, pepper, corn/hominy, and salsa. Let simmer 3-5 minutes. Serve in bowls with crumbled tortilla chips. Top with chopped fresh tomato, cilantro, avocado and feta cheese. You can also try adding other ingredients like radishes, peppers, tofu, black beans, or chicken. I like to add meat from a rotisserie chicken.

Tuesday night: Shrimp Tikka Masala. This one's a lot easier than it sounds. The trick is finding a good, pre-made Tikka Masala sauce like this one from Seeds of Change, which you can usually find in the "ethnic" food section at the health food store.

Saute your favorite veggies in a frying pan with a little olive oil. I like to use garlic, onion, mushroom, zucchini, green and red bell pepper. In a separate pan, cook the shrimp with olive oil until they go from grey translucent to opaque pink, which only takes a few minutes. Set the shrimp aside. (Unfortunately, shrimp are scarce in the supermarkets since the recent oil spill, so chicken, tofu or beef would be a good substitute.)

Don't overcook your veggies! When they are tender, but still vibrant in color, pour in the jar of Tikka Masala sauce. When it starts to simmer, throw in the shrimp for another minute or two just to warm them up. Serve over a bed of rice and add a dollop of plain goat yogurt.

Wednesday night: Pizza. What I love about pizza night is that it's quick, easy and fun, with infinite topping possibilities.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. When I'm cooking for two, I like to make all four of the Glutino personal sized pizzas (find them in the freezer section) and then save the rest for lunch leftovers. They heat up nicely in the toaster oven.

Spread tomato paste or pizza sauce generously on your pizza crusts. Grate a thin layer of goat mozzarella cheese. (Goat dairy is easier to digest than cow dairy, and it tastes fantastic. I pretty much only eat goat dairy.) Top with your favorite toppings. I like to use black olives, artichoke hearts, red onion, pepperoni, mushroom and green bell pepper. Then add another layer of grated mozzarella.

Place pizzas directly on the oven rack and bake for 7-10 minutes or until crust and cheese begin to turn golden brown. Serve with a simple salad tossed with vinaigrette. Bragg's is one of the few dressings I've found that uses olive oil instead of canola. (Canola oil is made from rapeseed, and is not meant for human consumption.)

Thursday night: Spaghetti and meatballs. Spaghetti has been my favorite meal since I was a kid, so you can imagine how thrilled I was to find Tinkyada gluten-free pasta that actually tastes like real pasta. After having lived in Italy for a year in my 20s, my "pasta palette" is not easily fooled.

Start by putting water on to boil for the spaghetti. While you're waiting, start chopping veggies. I like to use garlic, onion, a quarter of an orange and yellow bell pepper, broccoli and mushrooms. Throw them all in a frying pan with a little olive oil and saute. Again, don't overcook. When veggies are tender and vibrant, pour in your favorite spaghetti sauce. Cover and let simmer on low heat.

If your water is boiling, add the noodles and follow directions on the package. I like to add a little sea salt and vegetable oil to the water to add a little flavor, and so they don't stick together as easily. Stir frequently. Taste until they are cooked al dente, about 10 to 12 minutes. Strain and spray with cold water.

While the spaghetti is cooking, start on the meatballs. In a bowl, using your hands, mash together 1 lb. of grass-fed beef or buffalo, one egg, and gluten-free bread crumbs. You can also add some chopped up garlic, onion, and salt and pepper. Form the mixture into 12 balls, and place them in a frying pan with a little vegetable oil. (Olive oil will get too hot and burn.)

When the meatballs are cooked through, add them to the simmering sauce and veggies. Serve over noodles and enjoy!

Mmmm. All this talk of food is making me hungry!

Friday night: Tacos. Next to spaghetti, tacos might be my second favorite meal of all time.

In the Mexican food section of the grocery store, find a packet of taco seasoning. Cook the meat according to the instructions on the package. I recommend using grass-fed beef, buffalo or elk.

While the meat is cooking grate some goat cheddar cheese, and chop up some lettuce and/or red cabbage, cilantro, avocado and onion. Warm some taco shells in the toaster oven for a minute or two. (Careful, they burn!) Fill the shells with the meat, toppings, and your favorite salsa. Easy-peasy!

Saturday night: Cashew carrot ginger soup w/ halibut. Pacific Natural Foods makes this soup, and it's easy to transform it into a full meal by adding your favorite ingredients. The cashew makes it creamy, but it's dairy-free as well as gluten-free. The flavor punch of this soup is off the charts. Seriously, get ready for a party in your mouth.

Saute some onion, garlic, mushroom, broccoli, and bell pepper in a sauce pan with a little olive oil. When the onions start to turn translucent, pour in the carton of soup. Let simmer as you cook the fish.

Halibut or cod are good flaky, white fish to add into the soup. (Check here for Dr. Andrew Weil's opinion on incorporating more fish into your diet.) In a separate pan, lightly cook the fish in a little butter or olive oil. It's easy to overcook fish, so be mindful. After a few minutes, when the fish is done, add into the soup and top with freshly chopped cilantro or red cabbage.

The dinner rut. When you find yourself in one of these, find a friend or two and ask to trade some recipes. Recently, a friend copied some recipes for me that she had downloaded, tried, and loved from epicurious.com. You can type in any ingredient and it will instantly sort through thousands of recipes for you. It's a great way to use up certain food items and expand your horizons. A similar website I've found is supercook.com.

Don't forget about dessert! On a side note, the best dairy-free ice cream I've found (and I've tried them all) is Turtle Mountain's Purely Decadent. They use coconut milk instead of soy as the base, which makes the texture unbelievably creamy. Instead of sugar they use low-glycemic agave, and they even make a gluten-free cookie dough ice cream! 

Keep an eye out for a future post on gluten-free breakfast ideas. And in the mean time, buon appetito!

Monday, March 29, 2010

Let's talk about stress

In my previous blog entry on painful periods, I suggested eliminating stress around the time of your period, or, for that matter, in your life. One of my readers brought up a good question about stress: 
"The sneaky thing about stress is that most of us have been so stressed for so long that we think it's a normal state of being (especially if we're surrounded by similar people). Some individuals, like you, are lucky enough to learn to slow down early on and others realize it late in life when their body "screams" with chronic illnesses. How would you advise people to reflect on and accurately assess the level of stress in their lives so that they can make necessary changes?"
Awareness is the first step. Pay attention to where you feel stress in your body. Do you tend to feel tension in your stomach, neck, shoulders, head, low back? What causes you to feel these areas tighten, ache, or burn during the day? Is it driving in traffic, fighting with a close family member or spouse, certain scenarios or people at work? Try to zero in on the specific events that cause your head to ache, nausea to rise, or adrenaline to surge, and ask yourself if there are any measures you can take to avoid or eliminate these triggers. For example, what about riding your bike to work instead of driving, or leaving slightly earlier or later to avoid rush hour? Often there are simple changes you can make to adjust stress levels, even slightly, that will make a big difference.

When I'm talking with patients, often they will consider unpleasant symptoms "normal." Some examples include:  gas and bloating after eating, frequent tension or sinus headaches, seasonal allergies, PMS symptoms, light-headedness when hungry, fatigue, insomnia, and so on. These are the whispers I was talking about. These are not normal symptoms to be experiencing on a regular basis. This is your body giving you its first warning. Listen! 

9 times out of 10, if your body is still at the whisper stage, and hasn't started screaming yet, reducing stress will help diminish your symptoms significantly. Here are some great ways to de-stress: 

  • Lavender: Get a little vial of lavender essential oil from the health food store and always keep it with you. Dab a drop under your nose with a cotton ball or tissue. Or sprinkle a couple drops on your pillow at night before you go to sleep. Lavender instantly relieves anxiety and promotes a feeling of calmness and relaxation. Plus, it smells good! (Above is a photo I took of a field of lavender in Northern California. I took all these photos of Hearst Castle, Sonoma, Occidental.)
  • Foot bath: In the evening, an hour or two before bedtime, fill a large pot with hot water and soak your feet for 15 to 30 minutes. In Chinese medicine, your Spleen, Liver, and Kidney meridians begin at your feet. Warming these channels will help you feel more relaxed and sleep more soundly. 
  • Dr. Bach flower remedies: Find these flower essences at any health food store. Spend a few minutes reading through the descriptions on each bottle, and find the flower essence that is right for you. Put a few drops in your water bottle for the day, or simply put a couple drops beneath your tongue. The formulas are clear, odorless and tasteless and they are known to improve your emotional state of being. Rescue Remedy is their most popular formula and is wonderful for anxiety in adults, children, and even pets. 
  • Think happy thoughts: Most of us have gotten WAY too tolerant of negative thoughts making themselves at home in our heads. Practice prevention and think of things that make you happy. Think of a time in your life, or a person, or a thing--anything--that brings a smile to your face. Focus on that feeling, and try to make it grow. See just how good you can feel. Feel it in your arms and hands, chest and stomach, legs and feet. Do this exercise as often as you can. You will create an energetic environment in your body and mind that will not be able to host negative thoughts (or disease). 
  • Write it down: If there's something stressful you simply can't stop thinking about, write it down. Get a spiral notebook and start journaling. You'll be surprised how satisfying it will feel to "get it all out" and you may come to some enlightening conclusions in the process. If you're afraid of someone seeing what you've written, find a safe place to keep your journal, or dispose of the pages after you've written them. 
  • Schedule time for yourself: "Free time" doesn't mean "available time." If you're anything like me, you fill your schedule to the gills. Before saying "yes" to everything that comes your way, take a minute and evaluate your free time for the week. Block out some time that's just for you. During this time, make sure to do something that makes you happy: take a walk, listen to a favorite album, watch an old favorite movie, give yourself a facial or pedicure. Do something that feels nurturing and relaxing. 
  • Eat mindfully: Make eating a healthy ritual. It is important not to eat and feel stressed at the same time. This is how food allergies get started! Avoid stressful discussions or thoughts during mealtime. Put on pleasant music, light a candle, or cut some fresh flowers. Get out the matching salt and pepper shakers, the cloth napkins, the nice dishes--whatever makes you happy. Eat slowly, and focus on the feeling of eating good food that is nourishing your body. 
  • Acupuncture: Getting an acupuncture treatment puts your body in a deep state of relaxation and is known to significantly reduce stress and anxiety. Regular acupuncture treatments can help your overall feeling of well-being. 

Advanced stress-awareness tip: Look for the literal, underlying message, too. For example, if you are having digestive issues, ask yourself, what am I having trouble "digesting" in my life? Or, how am I nourishing or not nourishing myself mentally, emotionally, spiritually? Write about the symptoms you are experiencing, and then see if the description reminds you of something else going on in your life. 

Above all, be kind to yourself. You deserve to feel happy and relaxed all the time. 

Friday, March 19, 2010

Tips for painful periods

When I was a kid, my mom always stressed the importance of listening to my body:  "Obey the whispers, or you will hear the screams."

So true, Mom.

This may sound ridiculous, but recently I realized how stressed out I am. Well, actually, my period told me. (Sorry, guys.) Honestly, my period has never been a walk in the park, but it was starting to feel more like a walk down a dark alley with a gun pointed to my head.

So, I began to investigate. I had no other choice--the scream was deafening. "Okay, Body, I hear you. What is it you want to tell me?" (I promise, I'm almost done with this metaphor.)

I'll save you the long, drawn-out gab fest my body and I had, and I'll summarize. Basically, it told me to SLOW the heck down.

In Chinese medicine (there it is!), stress causes your qi to stagnate. Qi stagnation, particularly Liver qi stagnation, is one of the main causes of painful periods in women.

If you are experiencing painful cramps or irritability before your period, here are some quick tips to help smooth out your Liver qi:
  • The week before your period, only consume moderate amounts or completely avoid red meat, dairy, salt, sugar, alcohol and caffeine. These foods lead to constraint of Liver qi which will make your PMS symptoms worse. 
  • Get moving! The Liver is responsible for the smooth flow of qi throughout the body. We can help the Liver do its job by participating in mild, consistent exercise. Walking briskly five times a week, for 30 to 40 minutes, yoga (not hot yoga, it will drain your yin too much), and tai chi are great examples. 
  • Drink a mug of warm water with fresh squeezed lemon juice every morning. The sour quality of lemon is known in Chinese medicine to address and relieve the Liver.  
  • Stress is the number one cause of Liver qi stagnation. This may sound obvious and impossible, but I'll say it anyway, try to eliminate stress as much as you can around the time of your period -- and, for that matter, in your life. 
  • And, of course, make sure to get regular acupuncture treatments and a Chinese herbal prescription from your acupuncturist that will specifically address your symptoms. Acupuncture is known to help regulate women's cycles and diminish PMS symptoms significantly. This I can tell you not only as an acupuncturist, but from personal experience. 
Coincidentally, Liver is related to the element Wood, which corresponds to the season of Spring! And here we are on the cusp of this beautiful season, full of new energy poking up through the ground.

I took these photos last summer in the Redwood Forest, while studying the powerful presence and nature of Wood with my Five Element class.

Welcome Spring, keep your Liver happy, and listen to the whispers.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Happy Chinese New Year!

In peaceful tranquility quiet your mind, then empty and erase your mind of thoughts.
Written by the grand master and doctor Mu Wee Dang at the age of 91. 

For some sound Chinese medical advice from Gwyneth Paltrow's acupuncturist, check out her weekly newsletter:  Goop

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Humble pie

Had me a slice of it recently. After my visit with Dr. Cao over the holidays, my stubborn symptoms persisted. In the middle of a sleepless, fevered night, sitting up on the couch, coughing so hard I was seeing spots, I knew something was seriously wrong. I made the decision to call a doctor first thing in the morning.

This was a big step for me. I normally don't go to the doctor. Ever. I grew up with my mom who is an alternative healer, and now she is also an acupuncturist. My whole life, I took herbs and hot baths instead of antibiotics.

I remember when I was about 13 years old, my gym teacher suggested I get tested for exercise-induced asthma. My mom took me to the doctor, and the poor thing tried to give me a steroid inhaler. My mom refused, saying steroids would do more harm than good, and then whispered to me that we would try some herbs instead. The doctor actually cried. I think she thought I was being raised by wolves.

My mom was always adamant that we have health insurance. Just in case. But, for everyday maladies--physical, emotional, and spiritual--we had much more effective tools at our disposal.

On New Year's Eve morning, as I frantically googled doctors and clinics in the neighborhood, I couldn't help but feel a little defeated. Why didn't Chinese medicine take care of it? Why couldn't I heal myself without western medicine? I'm an acupuncturist for Pete's sake! I have all the tools at my disposal. Darn it.

The PA listened to my lungs and told me I had pneumonia. Two thoughts went through my mind: "Pneumonia!? Really!?" And, "At least it's a dragon that out-smarted my Chinese medical sword, and not some rookie beast." Okay, not in those words exactly.

I took everything she gave me -- the inhaler, the hard-core antibiotics, even the prescription strength cough syrup with codeine so I could finally get some rest. Nothing holistic about it, I was desperate to feel better and to stop rescheduling my patients. It's funny, I think most people come to alternative medicine as a last resort, after they've exhausted all western medical options. I'm the complete opposite.

But I did start to feel better. Within 8 hours. After being sick for two weeks, this seemed like nothing short of a miracle. I have never been so grateful for western medicine in my life.

As a former pre-med student / medicine woman's daughter / acupuncturist, I am reminded how important it is to combine healing modalities to achieve optimum health. I have always believed this to be true, but never more so than I do now.

Now that I am completely recovered, thanks to western medicine and Chinese herbs, I am insanely grateful for my health, and my sense of compassion is renewed for people who are sick.

This has been one of the coldest winters we've had in Colorado. An ounce of prevention is truly worth a pound of cure. Take it from me.

1) Wear a scarf! In Chinese medicine, Wind enters the body through the nape of the neck and the lower back, which then turns into Wind Cold and Wind Heat, otherwise known as the common cold or flu. Keep these areas covered during the winter.

2) Don't over-extend yourself. Conserve your energy. In Chinese medicine, your qi (or energy) sinks inward and downward during the winter. Get in touch with your inner bear and enjoy hibernation mode.

3) Eat right. Sugar is scientifically known to compromise or temporarily shut down your immune system. Do your body a favor and minimize your sugar intake during winter months.  

5) Stay warm. In Chinese medicine, it is true that you actually get a cold from being out in the cold. Those old wives knew what they were talking about.