Beyond Yogurt: Other Fermented Foods for Health & Delight

First, you have to get over the idea that “bacteria” is a dirty word. Yes, there are “bad” bacteria that can make you sick or kill you. Anthrax and bubonic plague come to mind. But there are also healthy, symbiotic bacteria that live naturally and helpfully in our guts, on our skin, in our mucous membranes (sinus, vaginal tract, etc.) And they play crucial roles in our health. Depending on the bacteria, they can: 

  • maintain an active and balanced immune system 
  • support detoxification in the liver 
  • crowd out bad bacteria and yeasts 
  • help us maintain a healthy weight & healthy mood 
  • reduce risk of heart disease, dementia, and cancer 
  • help us digest food more comfortably, and keep us regular 
  • control body odor 
  • reduce inflammation 

That’s a long list of benefits. I certainly wouldn’t expect all of them, from all fermented foods; certainly none of them overnight. But if you add traditionally fermented probiotic foods to your diet, you should expect to feel some benefits. 

Here are three superstar fermented foods, beyond yogurt. 

Kefir is often described as “drinkable yogurt.” But that name doesn’t do it justice. Yogurt is made from milk fermented with two or more strains of bacteria. Kefir is made from milk, fermented with a much more complex stew of bacteria and yeasts. The resulting product is more flavorful and biologically active than simple yogurt.   

Versus kefir, yogurt bacteria may have an edge around what we sometimes call “women’s health” (i.e. yeast infections and UTIs), and regularity. But Kefir can claim the anticancer and antiviral properties. I want to be clear, I’m not saying kefir is going to “kick COVID” or “cure cancer.” What I am saying is adding to the diet regularly will do some interesting things to increase our immunity and resistance. Plus, it’s basically drinkable yogurt.  

Sauerkraut and other Fermented Veggies. Pickling in vinegar is a modern, industrial process. The traditional method to preserve vegetables was to let them ferment, so that bacteria would in a sense “produce their own vinegar,” all the while adding live cultures and biologically active metabolites to the mix. Traditionally fermented veggies are a treat. All the flavor of a really good pickle or sauerkraut, plus all the benefits of a living food.   

Beyond sauerkraut, you can pickle almost anything from the garden. Favorites include: 

  • Kimchee is basically a Korean-spiced sauerkraut. Available spicy or not-so-spicy; vegan or with fish sauce. 
  • Curtido is a Salvadoran-flavored cabbage-and-carrot slaw. Great on taco night! I want to run a Curtido-based recipe in next month’s newsletter. 
  • Cucumber Pickles can also be fermented.   
  • Fermented Ginger Carrots are an old favorite of many of our customers. They’re especially nice with greens or grains, and a ginger-miso dressings. 
  • Fermented Beets are vibrant, tart, and refreshing. They make a great dip with sour cream or cashew cheese. 
  • Fermented hot sauces are a thing. Personally, I love the ones from Poor Devil Pepper Co.  

Finally, Natto is a unique Japanese fermented food created by incubating soybeans with the bacterium Bacillus natto. This bacterium isn’t normally considered probiotic, in the sense it doesn’t live in us. But during fermentation, it produces two compounds of profound value: the clot-busting enzyme nattokinase, and a form of vitamin K2 called menatetrenone (a.k.a. MK-4), which helps the bones incorporate calcium.  It’s not surprising that good epidemiologic data connects regular natto consumption with both lower rates of death from heart disease, and lower rates of fracture – associations not seen with other soy products.  Let’s talk about nattokinase and MK-4 for a moment.   

Nattokinase isn’t anti-clotting, in the sense it does not prevent clots from forming. What it does do is helps break down clots faster, and prevent them from snowballing to the point of danger.  So far, research indicates that nattokinase is quite safe, even in conjunction with blood thinners. And it’s consumed as a food regularly and without issue. But you should probably use caution around bleeding disorders.   

Menatetrenone is to my mind our most important vitamin for healthy bones. I’ve written about it in this newsletter so many times, I’m not going to write about it again. Let me just say: our most important nutrient for healthy bones. There. 

Traditionally, natto is served as a topping on rice or salads, or as a filling in sushis. It has a texture texture that is either delightfully smooth and unctuous, or unpleasantly slippery and slimy, depending on your take. I think a good rule is: if you don’t like the texture and mouth feel of okra, you won’t like the texture and mouth feel of natto.    

Smoothies 101 (2023 edition)

Throughout my life, smoothies have been a staple, a balm, a lifesaver.  The idea is simple, and the execution is simpler.  You dump a bunch of things in the blender; 30 second later, you have breakfast.  Done right, it’s that old cliché – delicious AND nutritious.  And reasonably inexpensive. And very little to clean up (especially if you drink from the blender!) 

Smoothies are great for the whole family, too.  Adults and teenagers, older folks who might otherwise drink Ensure™, little children and even infants.  My daughter was less than a year old when we started giving her sips.  By two, it was the daily breakfast.  She’s five now, and they’re still breakfast most weekdays.  I feel great about doing it, and you should do.  Especially when you’re trying to round out a diet that gravitates to the beige.  They’re a fantastic vehicle for all sorts of nutrition.  I mean, you don’t want to try and put all your herbal supplements in the blender.  Not all of them taste good…  But fish oil, vitamin D, probiotics, fiber supplements, Lion’s Mane mushroom for brain support, even a little immune-strengthening astragalus root – no problem!  

Supplements notwitstanding, our smoothies are still mostly what you’d call “culinary,” i.e. made from real food ingredients that taste great.  So let’s start there.   

SMOOTHIE RULES 

1. There are no rules.  However, there are guidelines… 

2. A smoothie needs weight and heft.  And by that I mean protein and fat (and ideally fiber).  I can not stress this enough.  Just plain blenderized fruit may taste sweet, but it will not satisfy.  Even a single spoonful of cashew butter, or a half-cup of full-fat yogurt, and your erstwhile slushy will transform into a deeply satisfying meal.  Add a big scoop of high quality protein powder, and it will keep you running through lunch. 

What else adds weight and heft? 

  • Full-fat yogurt has protein, fat, and probiotics.  
  • Any kind of nuts and seeds 
  • Raw cacao powder is a surprisingly fiber-rich food, with a decent amount of fat to boot. 
  • Half a block of tofu, or some boiled eggs go right in the blender, no problem.\ 
  • Avocado is a smoothie superstar 
  • Don’t underestimate ricotta cheese.  It’s a lean, mean, protein machine! 

I try to follow the “three-egg rule.”  In other words, I shoot for the amount of fat and protein I’d get in 3 hard-boiled eggs at least.   

3. You don’t always need a great blender, but…  it sometimes helps!  I like the flexibility of putting whole nuts in my blender, not just nut butters.  I like adding flax seeds sometimes.  I’ve even made a “carrot cake smoothie” with raw carrot, dates, and cardamom.  For that kind of roughage, a Vitamix-level machine is necessary.   

4. Use something frozen.  You just get a nicer texture when you do.  Frozen fruit is great.  I always have one or two kinds in the freezer.  And if you have fresh fruit, freeze it!  (Obviously, peel the banana or section the apple first).  This is a great way to salvage fruit that’s past its prime.  I’m no longer afraid to buy bananas!  

If you don’t have frozen fruit, drop in a handful of ice cubes.   

5. Be ready to spend money on ingredients – to start.  Smoothies are not expensive on a per diem basis. But your startup costs – when you buy a 2-pound sack of protein powder, 5 pounds of frozen fruit, chia seed, probiotics, nuts, oils, etc. all at once — will be significant.  Just try and remember, you’re buying 2 weeks’ worth of breakfast.  

6. Embrace creativity!  More than any other “genre” of food, smoothies are about improvisation and using what you’ve got. Take these recipes as suggestions only. Follow the format of: some sweet, some fat, some protein, some fiber, and whatever comes out will be good. 

THE “UNICORN PRINCESS”  

I make this all the time, but I just named it today.  Because it needs a name.  And it’s pink.  And rosy.  I use more fruit and less water in this one, since watermelon is already pretty watery. 

  • 2 C cubed watermelon 
  • 1 big splash rose water 
  • 1 Tbsp raw honey 
  • 2 Tbsp macadamia or cashew butter, or coconut manna 
  • A little bit of water 
  • 1 scoop-and-a-half of sweetened vanilla protein powder 

THE “PEAR HALVAH”  

Sort of a Persian / Middle Eastern flavors, I think.  Sesame is one of the world’s healthiest foods! 

  • 1 ripe bosc pear, cored leave the peel on 
  • 3 Tbsp sesame tahini 
  • 1 fat pinch cardamom 
  • 3-6 pitted dates pitted Medjool dates 
  • A good amount of water 
  • 1 scoop sweetened protein powder 

THE “FUDGIE NORTHWEST”  

All the dark colors and strong flavors make this an antioxidant powerhouse.  This one, you want a strong blender for, and you’ll want to run it a long time to puree the hazelnuts.   

  • 5 oz frozen dark cherries 
  • ½ C toasted hazelnuts 
  • ¼ C raw cacao powder 
  • A good amount of water 
  • A small glug dark amber maple syrup 
  • 1 scoop sweetened protein powder 

But isn’t it BAD for me?!

Image courtesy James Palinsad via CC BY-SA 2.0 license. Image was cropped.

(4 theoretically “bad-for-you” foods that that are much better for you than you might have heard…)

Whenever your fearless editor is too lazy, uninspired, or too behind-schedule to write an actual article, he writes a list 

1.Nuts?

So often, we get caught up in what a food “has” vs. what a food “does.” Yes, nuts have a decent collection of nutrients. Magnesium, manganese, vitamin E complex, fiber, protein, lignans, prebiotics, healthy fats, etc. But what nuts do transcends what we understand about their nutrient content. Here, we focus primarily on heart disease, weight loss, and all-cause mortality (i.e. death).  

All-Cause Mortality is a term used in medical and public health research to refer to dying of any cause during the study. It’s often the best way to capture population-wide effects of a food, a drug, or an exposure. According to a number of large, high-quality reviews, people who consume an ounce of more of nuts a day die on average 19% less (during the study periods). Most, but not all, of the benefit can be attributed to reduction in cardiometabolic disease – stroke, heart attack, and how the body processes blood sugar. These results exceed other superstar foods and diets – vegetables, fish, and even the vaunted Mediterranean Diet. 

According to a number of high-quality studies, nuts support weight loss. Epidemiology shows that people who eat nuts tend to be fitter. Clinical trials show people have better success losing weight when they substitute nuts for other foods, even healthy foods. Nuts make it easier to stick to a diet, and make the diet more effective. PLUS – nuts mitigate the ill effects of overeating. They blunt spikes in blood sugar. They lower bad cholesterol, and raise good cholesterol.   

So, are all nuts created equal? Of course not! Unfortunately, it’s hard to really pin down the pros and cons. The research is almost always Nut vs. Placebo, or Nut vs. Other Kind of Food – never Nut vs. Nut. I tend to prefer walnuts, hazelnuts, pecans and pistachios for the heart disease and metabolic benefits. Brazil nuts are great, but probably too rich in selenium to eat lots of all the time. Cashews are probably a second-tier nut, so to speak.   

If you have a hard time digesting, soaked/sprouted nuts will help. They taste better too. 
And then pine nuts! Well, there are Siberian pine nuts, Korean pine nuts, and Mediterranean pine nuts. There are dozens of species. Some people react poorly to Chinese pine nuts. They experience a metallic taste for days after eating them. Generally speaking, pine nuts may be extra special for their ability to reduce reflux and heartburn. 

2.Pesto?

Another fatty, yummy food, so of course we’re trained to think of it as bad for us. It certainly doesn’t help perception that we associate it with pasta, pizza, and other indulgences.  But – good pesto is a health superstar.

   
What is pesto? Literally, the word is Italian for “paste.” Technically it can apply to all manner of coarsely or smoothly ground sauces and spreads, generally made from some combination of fresh herbs, nuts, oil, garlic, and hard cheese.     The most familiar to many of us pesto alla Genovese: basil, pine nuts, olive oil, garlic, and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. And why is this a health food?  Look at what’s in it!  First, we start with basil.  Culinary herbs – especially leafy aromatic herbs from the Mediterranean – are some of our most powerful, most protective antioxidants, packed with phytonutrients that could put blueberries to shame.  And then nuts.  We already covered nuts.  If you do it right, you buy pesto (or make pesto) with pine nuts, or some other kind of “nice” nut.  Extra virgin olive oil is of course a winner.  Garlic is a winner. And a little high-quality grass-fed hard cheese just seals the deal. Pesto is remarkably nutrient-dense. 


I’ve made all kinds of pesto. I’ve made pesto with pistachios – with purple basil and curry leaves. I’ve used made a vegan pesto with basil, parsley, hemp seeds, and brewer’s yeast. 
You can find some old pesto recipes from our newsletter herehere, and here.

3.Mustard Seed Oil?

If you’ve ever tasted food in Northern India or Nepal, and it has a certain subtle, pungent je ne sais quoi you can’t get at home, chances are it’s the mustard seed oil. It’s got a horseradish-y bite, without being overtly spicy. One journalist called it “untamed.” It’s got a high smoke point, so it’s great to cook with. It’s also rich in healthy, isothiocyanates, which promote detoxification on the cellular level. Dozens of published studies connect isothiocyanates with lower cancer risk.


So it’s delicious, it’s good for you… AND – in United States, it’s illegal because, apparently, it’s hazardous to your health. To be specific, it’s illegal to sell mustard oil for use in cooking (yes, a loophole suggests itself; read on!) Meanwhile, it’s still legal elsewhere, and sometimes even recommended as a healthy choice by the local authorities.  

The controversy centers around erucic acid, a naturally occurring fat that accounts for ~25% of the mustard oil by weight. Going back to the 1970s, series of lab reports showed that erucic acid caused rats to develop dangerous fatty deposits around their hearts. So in 1976, the FDA banned it. (Technically, the agency banned any oils with 5% or more erucic acid). The thing is, rats metabolize erucic acid differently than people. Differently than most animals. It turns out erucic acid isn’t toxic to pigs. Or dogs. And it appears to not be toxic to humans (although to be fair large-scale, long-term 100% conclusive clinical trials have not yet been conducted).   

So now you can buy mustard-flavored oil.  (The word “flavor” is usually in small print).

Or you can buy low-erucic acid mustard seed oil specially bred to meet FDA criteria by keeping the EA under 5%, all while tasting as neutral as possible.  You’ve seen this before; they call it “Canola oil.” Nothing wrong with a good, fresh, organic canola oil. But it’s not the same.

OR — you can buy the real thing – organic, cold-pressed, and packed in amber glass to maintain its freshness – but legally it’s gotta say it’s a “massage oil.”   

Personally, I feel good cooking with mustard oil.  I use it in a Nepali-inspired (“Sekuwa”-style) marinade for grilled chicken or tofu. (Per 1 pound protein, try ½ C Greek yogurt, ¼ C mustard oil, 1 tsp each garam masala, turmeric, cumin, garlic paste, ginger paste, and salt).  Or in coconut mustard fish curry.  It makes the best palak paneer, and even better  saag paneer). 

OR — you can buy the real thing – organic, cold-pressed, and packed in amber glass to maintain its freshness – but legally it’s gotta say it’s a “massage oil.”   

Personally, I feel good cooking with mustard oil.  I use it in a Nepali-inspired (“Sekuwa”-style) marinade for grilled chicken or tofu. (Per 1 pound protein, try ½ C Greek yogurt, ¼ C mustard oil, 1 tsp each garam masala, turmeric, cumin, garlic paste, ginger paste, and salt).  Or in coconut mustard fish curry.  It makes the best palak paneer saag paneer).   

4.Coffee?

When Debra’s first opened in 1989, we didn’t sell coffee. Coffee was “bad for you” – according to many health food gurus of the day.

Well…. they were wrong.   In addition to all the obvious benefits (i.e. how we actually feel on a nice cuppa), we now see good evidence that regular moderate/reasonable coffee consumption is linked with a lower risk for:  

  • Type II diabetes 
  • Stroke 
  • Coronary artery disease
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Cirrhosis, and other kinds of liver disease 
  • Alzheimer’s  
  • Kidney disease 
  • Colon and liver cancers 
  • Depression, up to and including attempted suicide
  • Premature mortality in general

Now to be clear, it’s hard to tease correlation from causation in some of this research. In other words, we can’t always discern if coffee is itself protective, or if it’s simply a marker for other positive traits and behaviors, i.e. having sense of purpose, and a reason to get up in the morning. I’d argue it’s probably a combination of both. But – mostly the coffee. And what about coffee is responsible for these miracles? Is it the caffeine?  Well… maybe. To a certain degree. But coffee is also rich in phenolic compounds like chlorogenic acid, which multiple documented, protective benefits. The bitterness of coffee is a stimulant to liver, gallbladder and pancreatic function.  (Don’t underestimate the importance of bitterness and sourness, especially in the context of a fatty and heavy modernized diet). Whatever role caffeine plays, it’s certainly not the only player in the beverage.   

(and if the acidity of regular coffee bothers you, consider alkaline BioCoffee — our #1-selling grocery item in the entire store!)Can we drink too much coffee?  Well, of course.  And how much is too much? The answer may surprise you.  Three to five 8-oz cups is considered “moderate.” And moderate is what we’re aiming for.  Long story short, if the amount you’re consuming feels good — doesn’t leave you jittery or anxious or sleepless – it’s probably a right amount for you.     

Cordyceps Revisited: “For more than just the Zombie Apocalypse”

the Medicinal Mushroom for Energy, Vitality, Immunity, Jet Lag, and More

I first wrote about Cordyceps in our October 2002 newsletter.  I feel it’s important to point that out, since Cordyceps is now trending on social media as the newest, hottest thing .  What I’m trying to say is, I’m not jumping on any bandwagon!.  I’ve been firmly ensconced on the bandwagon for more than two decades.

Why the surge in interest?  Well… there’s a new TV show called “The Last of Us,” and millions of viewers are tuning in to watch as mutant cordyceps fungus infects a large portion of humanity and turns them into aggressive zombie-like killers.  Plus, there’s character development, politics, family, suspense, and redemption.  Good writing and good acting.  But basically: Cordyceps takes over your brain.  Carnage ensues.  It’s spooky.

As we’ll see, there’s a sliver of truth in that backstory.  Cordyceps does in fact infect living beings (insects).  It can take over their brains (sort of). 

BUT – this isn’t that.  This is an article about how Cordyceps is a wonderful herb for energy and vitality.  AND – remember! — the cordyceps we sell is dead and sterilized.  And grown on plants. So it’s not going to infect anything.

In 1993, the Chinese women’s track team shocked the world when its runners set 5 new world records at the Olympic Games in Beijing. The team tested clean for performance-enhancing drugs, but the coach later disclosed that he had given his athletes at least one (entirely legal) performance-enhancing substance: the medicinal mushroom, Cordyceps.  In 1999, I tried it for the first time, when a friend gave me a couple of droppersful of the tincture on a steep hike.  I hiked the mountain like it was a gentle hill!

WHAT IS CORDYCEPS? 

Image from of “A text-book of mycology and plant pathology” (1917)

Cordyceps is a family of over 600 fungi, some of which are used as tonics in Chinese and Tibetan medicine.  In particular, C. sinensis and C. militaris.  Both thrive at high altitudes.  Both are among the most bizarre entries in the Materia Medica.  In the wild, Cordyceps spores float, dormant, until one lands on an ant or caterpillar. The spore infiltrates and parasitizes the insect, transforming the host tissue to fungal tissue, and eventually killing it.  (In the process, Cordyceps also compels certain insects to climb – to the top of a blade of grass, for example – from where they can better spread the fungal spores.  Hence, the idea of “mind control.”)  Eventually the fruiting body (the “above-ground” part of the mushroom) will sprout out of the insects head like antlers. Hence the names “Caterpillar Fungus” and “Summer Plant, Winter Worm.”

Cordyceps doesn’t find hosts often, so the mushrooms are extremely rare in the wild.  So rare in fact, that for a while, in China, it was a crime for anyone outside the Emperor’s palace to use it.  In the last few decades, however, people have figured out how to cultivate Cordyceps. Today, we can leave the insects out of the equation, and grow Cordyceps on sawdust, rice bran, soybeans, etc. It’s gotten a lot cheaper, too.  Not cheap-cheap, perhaps, but a lot cheaper than the $3,000-$15,000 per pound you’d pay for the wild stuff.

Today, we can leave the insects out of the equation, and grow Cordyceps on sawdust, rice bran, soybeans, etc.

CORDYCEPS FOR PHYSICAL ENERGY:

Cordyceps is first and foremost an energizer and invigorator.  It really works, and you can really feel it!  (Or, at least I can…)  How does it work?  Within 30 minutes on an empty stomach, Cordyceps begins to work on the lungs, increasing gas exchange.  More oxygen into the blood, more carbon dioxide out. 

Oxygen is the breath of life, as they say.   Just think what feeling short of breath does to us.  With a surplus of oxygen, we produce ATP more efficiently, we can go longer, climb higher, run farther, stay awake later.  There’s no caffeine jolt, no caffeine buzzzzzzzzzz – just pure calm energy. You don’t feel different, you just feel… awake? Alive? Better? It’s hard to put into words.

Cordyceps really helps when you’re pushing yourself – running, biking, hiking – anything that might leave you short of breath.  I recommend it to competitive athletes and weekend warriors alike.  It can also help with everyday mild fatigue.  More on how to dose for these different situations below.

When I wrote my first article on Cordyceps 21 years ago, I of course said how great is was, but also noted there was almost no research on the subject.  Since then, there’s been a fair amount published.  Long story short: we see that cordyceps (along, or combined with adaptogenic herbs) increases stamina, aerobic potential, and athletic performance. 

CORDYCEPS FOR WAKEFULNESS & BRAIN ENERGY: 

There’s more to energy than just athletics.  There’s also brain energy: wakefulness and cognitive stamina.  Burning the midnight lamp?  Try Cordyceps.  Bear in mind it won’t stimulate you, like caffeine.  You can even sleep through it, usually.  In fact, one of my favorite ways of using cordyceps is to take it, right when you’re going to bed, if you’re only going to be able to sleep a few hours.  You’ll sleep just fine (it doesn’t keep you up), but you’ll often wake up feeling more rested than you have a right to. 

Older folks who just need that afternoon nap… need it less with Cordyceps. 

Me, I got into cordyceps when I was in school.  I finished college full-time nights while working full-time days at the store.  I’d get up for work at 6 am, and finish my last class at 9:30 or 10 at night.  Cordyceps was an absolute lifesaver. It gave me the energy I needed, but still let me get to sleep afterwards. And it didn’t leave me drained the next day like coffee could. (Please note: I am not disrespecting coffee.  I love coffee!)  Cordyceps also helped me climb a few (small- to medium-sized) mountains, and stay on the basketball court with teenagers when I was in my 30s.

CORDYCEPS FOR TRAVEL – ALTITUDE SICKNESS & JET LAG:

I recommend straight Cordyceps if you’re going to be at altitude for just a day or two, too short a time to truly acclimate.  Or with herbs that speed acclimation, if it’ll be longer.  I especially like Rhodiola and Eleuthero roots for this.  I mention a product below, under “Formulas” that combines all three.

For jet lag, ditto.  I suggest starting the formula when you get on the plane, and continuing for 2-4 days.  It helps you survive sleep deprivation better, and helps you get over the jet lag faster. 

HEART HEALTH:

Any time we increase the energy-generating potential in muscle cells, we give the heart a leg up (so to speak).  Beyond that, there is some evidence that Cordyceps may reduce blood pressure by helping dilate blood vessels, and may also reduce cholesterol.  Cordyceps isn’t my first choice for either, if that’s all I were trying to do.  Still, it’s nice to know it might help.

KIDNEY DISEASE:

Just like the heart, the kidneys are organs that need to constantly generate and use energy.  Again, Cordyceps may be useful in cases of kidney impairment. 

IMMUNE FUNCTION & INFLAMMATION:

There’s been a lot of research on cordyceps vs. immune function.  Suffice it to say, cordyceps improves cell-mediated immunity (the kind of immunity most relevant to viruses and cancer).  I’m not sure if cordyceps is really special in this regard vs. any other good medicinal mushroom.  But it’s nice to know it helps. 

As for inflammation, there’s also a lot of research here.  Cordyceps is not a traditional anti-inflammatory.  It doesn’t block or suppress inflammation in a direct way.  However, it can modulate inflammation by reducing excessive immune responses, perhaps in autoimmunity.  It’s a little early for me to say exactly how and when to use it. But, nice to know there may be some potential.

DOSING:

I use Cordyceps differently than I usually see recommended on the back of most bottles. Mostly, what the companies selling it recommend is to use a low-to-moderate dose regularly , 2-3 times a day, every day.  That’s one way to do it, and it certainly works, if you’ve got a mild-to-moderate everyday issue – low energy, chronic lung issues, etc. 

My approach is to save it for when I really need it, then I use a hefty dose – two droppersful, maybe three, of the tincture.  Or 5-6 capsules.  Depending on brand, of course…  As something that works within an hour, you’ll feel it, and figure out dosing that works for you.

SAFETY/SIDE EFFECTS:

There are exceptions to every rule.  But the rule is: Cordyceps is safe.  Having said that, we should probably use some caution with off-the-beaten-track immune abnormalities.  Beyond that, the major side effect is… increased libido.  Now, whether or not that’s a positive or a negative side effect is entirely a personal choice, and frankly none of my business.  Either way, it doesn’t effect everyone.  It’s more likely to effect males.

COMBINATIONS:

  • Cordyceps combines well with adaptogenic herbs like Ginseng, Rhodiola, Ashwagandha and Eleuthero for chronic low energy, adaptation to stress, and what we tend to call “adrenal fatigue.”   For example, consider the Pine Mountain Cordyceps Tablets, with Eleuthero and Rhodiola.  Or some of the coffee substitutes from Rasa Tonics
  • It also works well with Reishi mushroom for chronic lung weakness.  For example, consider the Host Defense “Breathe” formula.    
  • More complex formulas may be used.  The “Cordyceps 9” formula from the Seven Forests company can be useful in situations where lung weakness/asthma is exacerbated by chronic fatigue and low blood pressure, or a reliance on antiinflammatory steroid medications. 

QUALITY:

There are those who insist that the wild stuff sprouting out of a wasp head from some remote Himalayan peak is really worth the $10,000 a pound you’d pay for it.  Maybe they’re right. Certainly, the ancient Chinese and Tibetan medical texts talk about Cordyceps doing things that sound almost magical, beyond what the stuff cultivated on rice and soy and sawdust will do.

I don’t have personal experience with wild Cordyceps. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were better. No matter how much the parasitic fungus transforms its original host, there are still going to be insect compounds left. In Traditional Chinese medicine, some insects are used as medicines, and are considered profoundly strengthening… ants, male silk moths… Once again, I have no experience here.  And if you want to buy the wild insect-grown stuff, I can’t direct you. 

When it comes to the cultivated stuff, I have been a fan of the extracts produced by Paul Stamets’ Fungi Perfecti company, since I first took them in 1999.   They’re phenomenonal.  They sell it under the brand name Host Defense now.  Of course this isn’t to say other brands can’t be good, too. But after more than two decades, I’m loyal.

Why Amy LOVES Queen of the Thrones Castor Oil Packs

Better sleep? Better digestion? Reduced pain and inflammation? Amy says “yes,” and more.  

It is rare for me to find a product that is “life-changing,” but I found one quite by accident last year when I used a Queen of the Thrones Castor Oil Pack for the first time. I learned about the brand from an interview with the inventor Dr. Marisol Teijeiro, a naturopathic doctor practicing in Canada.  I’ve tried to use castor oil packs in the past, but always gave up because they were messy and uncomfortable: scratchy from the flannel, drippy from the oil, and itchy from the saran wrap that you use to hold it on.  Queen of the Thrones solves all these problems. I was impressed with how soft and comfortable the pack is – the inner layer is made from organic cotton sherpa and the outer layer of non-toxic, solvent-free polyurethane. The elastic nylon strap ties on, and stays on, even when you are moving.   

That first night, I poured 2 Tbsp of castor oil onto the pack, blotting to keep the oil in the center. I tied it below my rib cage on my right (over the liver), tucked my pajama top into my pajama bottom over the pack, to ensure it stayed in place, and went to bed.  Incredibly, I slept through the night for the FIRST time in YEARS! I felt like a NEW woman with tons of energy!  

I was hooked.  And it prompted me to do a little research. According to Dr. Marisol, “the Pack engages your body’s natural restorative mechanisms and helps shift you from a stressed state to the ‘rest and digest’ state so you can promote liver detox, lymphatic drainage and colon cleansing.”  No wonder I was sleeping so soundly!  

I have since shared this product with a few hundred people. Does everyone have the same sleeping-through-the-night experience?  No, of course not.  But it is the #1 thing people report to me.  Even I don’t have that experience every night, BUT even when I don’t, I easily fall back to sleep and wake feeling rested.  It has become part of my bedtime routine, like my non-negotiable cup of herbal tea and brushing my teeth. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, our bodies natural cleansing cycle begins at 11pm and this is why it is so beneficial to wear the pack overnight.  

However, there are many benefits beyond a longer, deeper sleep. Bottom line, castor oil packs promote healing in the body. They reduce inflammation and promote lymphatic drainage in an area, resulting in detoxification. I often supercharge the pack with a drop of lemon essential oil, and then and add a hot water bottle over the pack.  The combination of the oils and heat drive the oils deeper into the body to perform their therapeutic magic. Adding heat is not necessary with this product, however, because the pack naturally holds in your body’s own heat.   (Editor’s note: castor oil drops are central to Debra’s legendary Dry Eye Protocol.  We always have copies of her info sheet, and it has helped hundreds of people so far).  

Not everyone wants to wear the pack to sleep, and that’s ok, but I love the efficiency of this practice and I visualize my liver detoxing while I sleep. Dr. Marisol recommends wearing it for 45-60 minutes over the liver daily to experience a benefit, and ideally to relax while you do it.   

The other experience that hooked me on castor oil packs was resolution of a painful Baker’s cyst. A Baker’s cyst is a fluid-filled growth behind the knee. It’s non-cancerous and not life-threatening.  But it hurt, and more, it was really interfering with my life.  I knew that castor oil packs reduced inflammation, and figured I would try. The pain was persistent, so if nothing else, I welcomed an opportunity to sit down for 45-60 minutes with my leg up, castor oil pack wrapped around the area, perched on a hot water bottle. I felt a reduction in the pain after that first pack!  I did it 4-5 nights per week for a few weeks and the Baker’s cyst resolved itself. I now recommend castor oil for any type of injury with inflammation. It can be used over joints and injuries, bone spurs, and cysts. The best thing about these packs is that they can be used on pretty much any problem area including shoulders, breast, low back, hip and abdomen. They can safely combined with any medication or supplement.

It also comes in handy if I have a late night or a heavy meal; the pack helps with digestion and promotes relaxation. It’s not a laxative, like taking castor oil orally, but it may relieve constipation and encourage regular bowel movements. Over the past year or so it has become a useful tool in my Wellness Toolbox to not only assist with cleansing and detoxification, but so much more, and I honestly cannot imagine living without it.   

What is castor oil?  Castor oil is derived from the seeds of the castor bean.  Castor Oil is extremely rich in anti-inflammatory ricinoleic acid, which easily permeates through the first layer of the skin and into the dermis where the blood and lymphatic vessels live. We recommend organic, hexane-free oil, and sell it in amber glass, which is preferable.   

In summary, castor oil packs have been around for centuries, but Dr. Marisol invented this one because she was tired of traditional messy packs that were discouraging for her patients to use. She has used and recommended it in clinical practice since 2007. Although this pack is not ‘mess-free,’ if you keep the oil in the center of the pack, it is most definitely less messy!   

How to make your Castor Oil pack last?  The Packs do have a lifespan of 2-3 months if you are using them nightly.  They recommend washing by hand, but I wash mine every 2-3 weeks in the top rack of the dishwasher to extend the life to about 3 months. If you use the Pack for 2 months, the cost is .75 per night.  You are worth it!  

I honestly could go and on about how wonderful castor oil packs are, I am only scratching the surface here. Queen of the Thrones has an awesome website, tons of You Tube videos, and an active Instagram page with lots of tips and tricks! I highly recommend checking out these resources.  Please note, castor oil packs can be worn by most everyone including children.  Except for pregnant women because castor oil may induce labor when taken in high doses by mouth, and even though it’s highly unlikely to do that when applied to the skin, we just like being safe! 

Help for IBS

Irritable Bowel Syndrome is tricky. Basically, you show up at the doctor’s office with lower GI symptoms – alternating constipation and/or diarrhea, gas and bloating perhaps, maybe bowel pain and cramping that goes away when you have a bowel movement – and when the doctor can’t diagnose anything else wrong with you, it gets called IBS.

IBS is a not a structural disorder, but a functional one. Nothing needs to be physically wrong with your colon – nothing eroded or inflamed – it’s just acting wrong. All of which makes IBS hard, not just to diagnose, but to treat, since there’s nothing to actually heal. IBS is hard to treat, too, because the symptoms can be erratic. There’s IBS-D (diarrheapredominant), IBS-C (constipation-predominant), and IBS-M (mixed). But the lines are blurry, and most people will experience some back-and-forth.

AND – having said all that, there are ways to manage IBS (a few follow).

Comorbidities is a medical term which means “other conditions or diseases you have at the same time.” Watch for comorbidities, and try and address them. For example, IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) and IBD (inflammatory bowel disease) are entirely different. But… one may be exacerbating the other. Ditto for reflux and other stomach acid issues. Ditto for food allergies and lactose intolerance. Ditto even for anxiety and depression. Read on!

Diet: Some people find it helps to avoid foods which make them gassy. Others find they need to stay off dairy, or wheat. Still others find that small meals are key. Some people find raw vegetables are a real killer. And of course there are people for whom food choice doesn’t seem to make a difference at all. Remember, just experiment.

Stress reduction: One theory says that IBS isn’t really a problem with the gut at all, but a problem with the brain. The gut is simply responding to stress, depression, and anxiety that originate elsewhere. (This wouldn’t make it “all in your head,” of course, any more than high blood pressure caused or exacerbated by stress is “all in your head.”)

It’s still controversial whether mood actually causes IBS, or just makes it worse. What isn’t controversial, however, is that stress reduction makes it better. There’s been a fair amount of research here, and it’s been largely consistent: find a way to handle stress better, and your IBS gets better. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking yoga, meditation, mindfulness training, even hypnosis, or cognitive-behavioral therapy delivered over the internet (all of which have been researched in solid clinical trials). I’ll repeat: find a way to handle stress, and your IBS gets better.

Peppermint Oil relaxes spasming smooth muscle on contact, including muscles spasming along the gut. It’s really as simple as that. The peppermint oil touches your gut muscles, and they calm down. It’s that simple. To be clear, you’re not trying to absorb the peppermint into your system, or metabolize it. You just want it to touch your gut walls.

The problem is, peppermint oil doesn’t discriminate. It touches a smooth muscle, that muscle gets relaxed. Guess what else is a muscle? The lower esophageal sphincter is. You know, the valve at the top of the stomach that holds the acid in. So… a lot of peppermint can make reflux worse. You can get around that by using peppermint oil capsules that are enteric-coated, i.e. set up to dissolve in the intestines, not in the stomach. That’s what we suggest, and what we sell here. The standard dose is 0.2-1 ml daily, in divided doses. Give it a day or two.

Red (Hot) Pepper: In one very small trial, taking hot red pepper regularly greatly reduced gut pain in IBS – if not necessarily other symptoms. It’s spicy (obviously), so use with caution.

Probiotic Bacteria. There are bacteria inside all of us. Each of us hosts an average 100,000,000,000,000 (pronounced “one hundred quintillion”) live bacteria, the vast majority in the gut. Considering that each of us is composed of roughly just 10,000,000,000,000 human cells, you could say bacteria outnumber us 10 to 1 – in our own bodies!

A healthy gut, with an intact gut lining, maintains conditions which promote the growth of “friendly” commensal bacteria. These friendly bacteria in turn help stabilize the gut. It’s very much a symbiotic relationship. (And it extends far past the gut: friendly bacteria regulate our immune systems. They help digest food, and assist in detoxification. They displace other, less “friendly” species. They likely reduce the risk of cancer and liver disease).

Microbial populations in the gut are constantly shifting. Eat lots of dairy? Dairy-digesting bacteria thrive. Eat lots of fiber? Bacteria that process fiber rise. Eat lots of sugar, and yeast species like candida get a leg up. Take antibiotics that decimate bacterial flora, and the yeasts have nothing to hold them back. Let inflammation take hold, and the ensuing erosion of the gut makes it harder for healthy bacteria to hold on. These shifts don’t happen overnight. Corrections won’t happen overnight, either

Which brings us to the research… There’s been an awful lot of it. Much of it has been quite positive. But it’s hard to generalize. since most research focuses on a single probiotic strain. It appears that yeast probiotics, in particular Saccharomyces boulardii, may have the most to offer in IBS-D. IBS-C may respond best to bifidobacteria probiotics. Which makes sense: bifidobacteria tend to colonize the large intestine. Some of the best research on IBS-M has focused on Bacillus coagulans.

AND – having said all that, I’m going to suggest a different path. Don’t just try and pick the “best” strain. Get your hands on broad-spectrum probiotic, with diverse strains of Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria. Shoot for a dose of 30 billion live cells, minimum (up to 200 billion), daily. A broadspectrum probiotic can colonize all the ecologic niches in the gut, so we’re talking side benefits beyond IBS: immune health, detoxification, digestion, etc. Try it, and see what happens. People often see benefits in a week for diarrhea. It may take two months for the benefits to show in constipation. AND – if doesn’t work, then look for a specialized product.

Fiber has a normalizing effect on bowel movements, since it can firm up loose stools, and help ease stubborn ones along. That being said, some sources of fiber (insoluble fiber) can be rough and abrasive (sort of “scratchy”) to a sensitive gut. These include wheat bran, psyllium, and raw vegetables. On the other hand, soluble fibers (the kind that fully dissolve in water) are usually a safe bet. So think gums and pectins, most fruit, oatmeal, and chia seeds.

Some fibers are also classifiable as “prebiotics,” which is to say they feed the probiotic bacteria in our gut. Of these, Acacia fiber from the Acacia tree stands out as a great supplement for IBS. It’s soluble, prebiotic, relatively inexpensive, and easy to take. It makes a difference for people.

Melatonin: this natural sleep hormone is just about the cheapest thing in the health food store, and it does so much! Yes, it can help you sleep. But it also nudges your body into a rest-and-repair state. We see some real benefits with immunity when people take it. We see some real benefits to the digestive system as well. For example, improvements to reflux, and to IBS. Try taking 2-3 mg at night for a few weeks, and see what happens.

General Digestive Tonics are often helpful. Herbs like ginger and chamomile (which soothe digestion). Herbs like fennel, caraway, and cumin (which dispel gas). We’ve got a few products worth looking at. In particular, the Intestinal Calmpound from Herbalist & Alchemist combines some of these, plus some mild antispasmodics. 

Picking a Multi, Part 2

(See part 1 here)

Multivitamin technologies fall into four basic categories. I have my favorite! And I’ll tell you what it is — eventually. In the meantime, as I go through the four options, bear in mind two things. First, not everyone uses these terms the same way I do. You need to get past the marketing lingo to get to the actual truth…

And secondly, don’t be fooled by word “food.” People use the word “food” a lot when they talk about vitamins. It means a lot of different things, as we’ll see.

1: USP Vitamins & Minerals are pure chemical nutrients.

(USP stands for “United States Phamacopeia,” a basic standard of identity). Bear in mind, “chemical” is not necessarily a dirty word… The majority, if not the vast majority, of vitamins out there are USP.

So, let’s say you want vitamin C. How you get it is, you harvest corn or cassava (neither of which contain any appreciable amount of vitamin C), then extract the starch, send it to a lab, perform a simple chemical reaction, and it becomes pure ascorbic acid, a.k.a. vitamin C. Chemically
identical to the vitamin C in oranges.

The advantages of USP are: it’s cheap, efficient, and in a certain sense limitless. Also, hypoallergenic. It’s also consistent. None of that pesky natural variability… When you’re dealing with something chemically pure, one pill should be exactly the same as another.

The disadvantages: for some people, “chemical” and “lab” still have negative connotations. More importantly, a pure vitamin untethered from the support nutrients found alongside it in nature is often less effective, more prone to overdose or other issues; less likely to promote balance, and
more likely to induce imbalance.

For example, pure ascorbic acid spikes blood levels faster than an equivalent amount of vitamin C in food – and the levels drop faster as well. A high intake of USP is more likely to cause loose stools than the same amount from food. Those support nutrients, usually compounds called
bioflavonoids, reinforce the activity of the vitamin C. Without them, it simply doesn’t work as well. Other vitamins (notably vitamin E), may actually be counterproductive in higher doses, in pure form.

To be clear, the USP vitamins in pills are chemically identical to the naturally occurring vitamins in foods. It’s all the other compounds alongside it that make the difference.

I’m not putting down USP. It has its place. I use USP on occasion. It’s just important to understand what it is.

2: Food-Based Vitamins & Minerals are USP vitamins and minerals in a base of food.

For example, pure USP ascorbic acid in a pill with orange juice concentrate. Or pure alpha-tocopherol vitamin E in pill with concentrated sesame oil or red palm oil.

The advantages are, your USP vitamin now has some synergistic compounds alongside it, to help it work, and to mitigate potential imbalances. And it’s still reasonably inexpensive and efficient.

Obviously, there can be varying levels of food alongside the USP nutrients. It’s worth looking at milligrams. Bear in mind, every 100 mg is 1/280th of an ounce. Those 100 mg go further, of course, if they are from a nutrient-dense food to begin with. And if they’re concentrated.

3: “Food-Grown” Nutrients refers to the broad category of “food” vitamins made by companies…

…like New Chapter (which pioneered the concept) and Garden of Life’s “Raw” line. They don’t start with food. Instead, they start with pure USP nutrients. Then they dump the nutrients into a giant vat full of live yeast. This yeast floats around in the nutrient broth, divides and multiplies, and absorb the nutrients. Then you kill the yeast, and put it in a pill. And then you call it “food.”

It sounds a little Frankenstein, but it’s actually clever and elegant, as far as I’m concerned. Advantages are, first of all, food-grown nutrients are easier on the stomach. If you have a digestive problem with vitamins, food-grown is likely your solution. Beyond that, you really do get the benefits of food. Sort of. Up to a point. See below.

There are two drawbacks. The first is cost. Pill for pill, food-grown multis are towards the higher end of the price range. When you take into account the lower doses per pill, food-grown ends up substantially much more expensive than USP.

Proponents argue we more than make up for that with greater bioavailability and utility… I’m I’m not so sure. Company reps will occasionally wave around ostensibly scientific research papers
demonstrating that food-grown nutrients are demonstrably, quantifiably better than their USP counterparts. But every time I’ve seen this “proof,” it hasn’t held up to scrutiny. Usually, it’s demonstrating superior antioxidant activity. Fair enough. That’s something. But I’ve never seen it demonstrate superior metabolic activity. Which is the whole reason we take vitamins! It’s what makes a vitamin a vitamin. Saying your vitamin C is “15 times stronger” because it’s 15 times more potent as an antioxidant is sort of like saying your car is “3 times better” because its stereo plays 3 times
louder.

None of this is meant to imply food-grown nutrients aren’t great – I believe they are! – just maybe not quite as great as people make them out to be. And they may not always be worth the cost.

4. and then there is… actual food!

Very few companies try to make vitamins from actual food. It’s hard! Your nutrient levels are going to be all over the place, crop to crop. As soon as you label for let’s say 100 mg of vitamin C, you need to make that claim. It’s hard to do.

Most companies that have tried to do this have failed. Some simply use food concentrates, and don’t make quantifiable claims for nutrient levels. Others use food concentrates, and make claims, but reserve the right to “top off” with USP nutrients.

…and my favorite is:

personally, it’s #2. It’s simply the most efficient way to get the nutrients you
want. USP is fine, if that’s what you can get. Food-grown and actual food feel more like boutique products. At least that’s my take on it. I’ve worked with very smart, very thoughtful and well-educated people who will disagree!

So… what to get? First of all, ask us! We can usually match a product to a person, if you tell us what you’re looking for.

  • Want a simple, basic multi (that still gives you a decent amount of nutrients) at a very good price? Look at the Debra’ Brand Basic Multi. Or for a heftier 2-a-day, try Life Extension 2-a-day.
  • Do you want easy-to-swallow (capsule) one-a-day? Look at Emerald Labs.
  • Do you want fully built-out, food-based with tons of protective nutrients? Look at Source Naturals Life Force, or Life Force Green with extra salad nutrients, or Life Force Healthy Aging with extra protective nutrients. I take the Healthy Aging, when it’s available.
  • Want Food-Grown but reasonably affordable? Consider True Grace.
  • Want Food-Grown, plus meaningful levels of Ginseng and energy herbs? Consider Pure Essence Labs.
  • Want actual food (or, mostly…)? Consider Garden of Life MyKind.
  • Want a chewable multi for your kids? The Debra’s brand is probably the best compromise between taste, nutrition, and price.

How to Pick a Multivitamin, Part 1

So… do we really need a multivitamin?

Well, “need” is a strong word…

Okay, should we take a multivitamin?

Some of us definitely should!

You definitely want to consider a multi if you don’t eat a balanced diet. Or you’ve got some malabsorption issue – think celiac, inflammatory bowel disease, etc. Or you’re on severe caloric restriction. A nutritional safety net is a good idea when you’re pregnant, and when you’re limited to repetitive, unimaginative cafeteria food.

(Individual vitamins and minerals, of course, can and should be deployed situationally where appropriate. Sometimes instead of a multi, sometimes in addition to one).

But should the “average” among us take an “A to Z” multivitamin as a matter of course?

I’m going to say yes. But I want to start by acknowledging some of the reasons people say no.

A number of studies have examined multivitamin use relative to disease risk, in particular cancer, heart disease, and dementia. For the most part, multis have not demonstrated benefit around heart disease and cancer. For the most part… They have, however, demonstrated benefit around dementia risk. Again, for the most part.

And then it gets confusing.

Remember how multis generally don’t reduce heart disease? Well, one study tracked more than 18,000 doctors for 12 years, and indeed found no association between multivitamin use and any cardiovascular endpoint. However, doctors that were already taking a multi 20 years before the study did have significantly less major heart disease. What does that tell us? That multis don’t work? Or that they do work – but only if you take them for 30+ years? Or there’s a 30-year lag between taking a multi and seeing the benefit? Or there’s a crucial window in age where they’ll work?

Or – does it tell us that the type of person who took multis back in the 1980s was generally more health-conscious – that taking a multi was a marker for healthy habits, vs. a healthy habit in its own right?

Like I said, it’s confusing.  None of the science is crystal clear. (It rarely ever is!)

Is that the only way the science is unclear?

No! The biggest uncertainty by far surrounds the word “multivitamin” itself.

When journalists, doctors, scientists, and the rest of us talk as if a single study can speak for all multis, we assume that all multis are the same. Yet the term “multivitamin” encompasses a widely diverse category of supplements – everything from a Flintstones(tm) brand chewy vite that’s basically candy, up through a Life Extension(tm) brand 18-pill-a-day megadose. It conflates a carefully crafted bouquet of organically grown fruits and vegetables, with something created entirely in a lab; straight-up vitamins and minerals, with formulas that include a cornucopia of protective nutrients like green tea, grapeseed extract, turmeric, CoQ10, etc. Not to mention that some multis are made with artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives.

So, even if a study were able to prove conclusively that a particular multi did (or did not) do something, it would have very little bearing on any other formulation.

So… assuming we’re going to take a multivitamin, what should we look for?

This is going to sound weird, but… less vitamins!  Or to put it another way: more other stuff.

Let me explain.

The world of food is full of things that are generally good for you. For example, oranges have something called ascorbic acid. Pomegranates have something called ellagic acid. Green tea has a compound with so many syllables we just called it “EGCG.”

All three are good for you. Only one is a vitamin.

That one is ascorbic acid. Most of us recognize it by its common name, “vitamin C.” Why is ascorbic acid a vitamin, and ellagic acid isn’t?

Well, to qualify as a vitamin, a nutrient has to meet three criteria. Among them, it has to be:

  1. necessary to life, i.e. without it you die (or at least can’t reproduce).
  2. unable to be synthesized by the body, i.e. you have to get it through the diet.

So, vitamins are defined by their deficiency diseases. The government has established recommended daily values, which prevent those diseases. The vitamin C deficiency disease is called scurvy, and the daily value was just raised to 90 mg. Meanwhile, there is no deficiency disease linked to EGCG. It doesn’t kill you not to get it. So, it’s not a vitamin.

In this sense, vitamin C is “more important” than ellagic acid, or EGCG, or curcumin, or CoQ10, etc. BUT – just because something is important enough you can die without it, it doesn’t mean it’s something we want more, and more, and more of.  Yes, we want the baseline level that prevents scurvy. And yes, we want a little bit more. Some of us even want a lot more. But if you’re looking for general protection, if you’re looking to optimize health and minimize the risk of disease, I’d argue that, past a certain point, EGCG and the other compounds from green tea are “better for you” than vitamin C is.

It’s in the complex stew of diverse protective nutrients that you start to see the real proactive benefits you’re looking for in a high-end multivitamin. Not going “A, B, C, D…” More on the topic next month…

Herbs for Long COVID

We’ve all heard of “Long COVID” — persistent symptoms like fatigue, muscle aches, chronic cough, mental fog, insomnia, etc. that persist for weeks, months and even years after acute COVID has passed. Long COVID is often presented as a novel challenge for modern medicine. It is certainly a a challenge, but it’s not entirely novel. A subset of people have always suffered from diverse, chronic symptoms following viral infections — although they haven’t always been taken seriously. Long COVID may be worse, or more prevalent. But it’s not unprecedented. The only novel thing is, we are finally starting to take it seriously.  

So what do we do? I’ll also be honest: a lot of what I’m about to write is conjecture. I don’t want to overstate my claims, or my confidence. I haven’t dealt with a lot of long COVID. The long COVID I’ve dealt with hasn’t always improved. (Some has). Mostly, I’m sharing because this is on people’s minds. And I believe it’s better to share theory vs. not share at all. 

So, here goes. 

What causes long COVID? Is there one common denominator to all long COVID?  

No. Often, long COVID is caused by an immune system that remains on high alert after the virus has passed. Sometimes, the immune system stands down, but the damage has already been done. Occasionally, there is lingering virus that continues to trigger an immune response. Shortness of breath may relate to tiny blood clots in the lungs. Fatigue may relate to impaired lung function, or ongoing subclinical flu-like symptoms, or impaired mitochondrial function. Cognitive and emotional symptoms may be traced to neurologic damage that blocks sense of smell, or compromised integrity of the blood brain barrier. And that is not a complete list.

In short, it’s complicated. You can (and should) try to address underlying pathology – or what you think it might be – and/or you can go straight for the symptoms. Trial and error is part of the process.   

What if I think I have lingering virus? 

You probably don’t. But… consider directly antiviral herbs like isatis, lomatium, elderberry, and olive leaf; and formulas based around them. I’m an especial fan of the Isatis-6 formula from the Seven Forests company, and VX Compound from Herbalist & Alchemist.   

What about vaccines? 

A fraction of the time, people with long COVID will improve following vaccination, as the immune system is sort of “re-booted.”   

Physical Fatigue 

For years, one of my favorite go-to formulas has been “Astragalus 10+” from the wonderful Seven Forests company. It’s a complex and nuanced formula. But you could think of it as a mixture that support energy, vitality, and immunity — without overstimulating an immune response. It’s the first thing I reach for anytime there’s an intersection between fatigue and an immune challenge: either you’re run down, so you’re getting sick; or you’ve been sick, so you feel run down. It’s an absolute game-changer when people are recovering from mono. 

You may also want to explore mitochondrial energy optimizers. Mitochondria are the energy-generating “engines” of the cells.  There are a few primary nutrients that, directly and indirectly, facilitate these reactions. Rather than get into a whole discussion of it, let me just say, there are companies that sell combination formulas, and it may be worth giving one of them a look. We sell one from the Natural Factors company that has some good feedback. 

We’ll talk about chronic cough in a bit, but if impaired lung function is part of the picture for fatigue specifically, consider Cordyceps mushroom, which can increase oxygen uptake through the lungs, and often gives a feeling of energy.

Brain Fog and Insomnia 

For insomnia and sleeplessness, generally speaking, your best bet is to address the issue as a sleep issue, vs. a COVID issue. Some ideas here.

For brain fog, if it were me, I’d look first at an herb called Bacopa. Bacopa is one of the few brain herbs that has been shown to improve memory, focus, and cognition in normal healthy people without diagnosed problems. It can help recall, focus, and rate of cognitive processing.  It also can reduce neuroinflammation. Some herbalists use it following brain injury. 

I might also explore herbs and supplements that improve neuroplasticity, i.e. help the brain evolve and make new connections. In particular, I’d look at Magnesium Threonate and Lion’s Mane mushroom. If neurologic symptoms extend past the central nervous system to the peripheral nervous system, I’d definitely prioritize Lion’s Mane. I use Lion’s Mane for that severe tingling pain people sometimes experience after shingles. I normally suggest 3-4 capsules twice a day. 

I’d also look at saffron. Saffron reduces neuroinflammation, and is also a surprisingly effective antidepressant if you give it a week.  A standard dose is 2-3 cups a day of the tea, each cup made from 10 threads of the herb.   

Joint Pain, Muscle Pain 

For joint pain, your garden-variety anti-inflammatory joint herbs ought to help here. Concentrated turmeric and concentrated boswellia are both good starts for reducing inflammation on an as-needed basis – and even better, get them combined in a formula.  Cherry concentrates may be better for muscle pain specifically. CBD (both topically and orally) reduce pain directly. Magnesium Glycinate may reduce muscle tension. A standard dose is 400-800 mg of magnesium a day.   

Lingering Cough 

Here, I would do my best to treat the specific cough I was suffering from. Is it a dry cough? A wet cough? A spasmodic cough? Talk to us, a qualified herbalist, or naturopathic doctor.  

To reduce the likelihood of lasting damage in the first place, I’d consider a regimen of reishi mushroom and black seed oil if I was coughing for more than a few days. Reishi is known to improve the antioxidant status of the lungs, and reduces lung damage in rat models; black seed oil reduces lung inflammation. Both can reduce airway hyperreactivity. 

Two herbs that are good general lung tonics (in different ways) are osha and cordyceps mushroom. Osha may help clear mucous (slightly), and reduces the likelihood of something becoming asthmatic. Cordyceps helps increase oxygen uptake from the lungs. Consider cordyceps when you’re not just having a hard time breathing, but also tired, short of breath, and sleepy.   

Balance Issues / Lightheadedness 

I can not speak from experience here. BUT – if I were throwing something at the wall to see if it would stick, I’d start with Lion’s Mane mushroom, as directed under the Brain Fog heading. Finally, consider working with a skilled acupuncturist.   

Loss of Sense of Smell: 

A moderate dose of zinc may or may not speed recovery here. I’d shoot for 30 mg a day. It may also be worth trying 2-3 drops of castor oil in each nostril, 2-3 times a day. Castor oil can reduce inflammation in mucous membranes. Get it right up in there! Often, loss of sense of smell can relate to neurologic damage. So… refer to previous paragraph on Lion’s Mane. 

Noni Juice: I hate recommending this stuff, because there are so many crackpots on the internet who recommend it to cure Everything That Ails You, and there’s no good science to support it. BUT – when you’re dealing with multiple symptoms, most of them traceable to chronic self-reinforcing immune dysfunction, let me just say: try noni juice. 2 Tbsp first thing in the morning, on an empty stomach, and another 2 Tbsp a half-hour before dinner. It can have the effect of “re-centering” the immune system if it gets stuck in a rut. To put it more scientifically, it can break Th1 or Th2 dominance.  

Good luck, everyone, and keep us posted on what’s working and what isn’t. 

Picking the Perfect Protein

In the fall of 2000, I wrote my first article ever for the Debra’s newsletter, an ode to and an appreciation for whey protein. Obviously, it was a favorite! 20 years later, and I still like whey. But some things have changed. So let’s talk about protein again. 

For recipe ideas, check out our article here:

Why do I want protein at all?  Protein is great! It “sticks to the ribs,” as they say – it keeps you satisfied in a way that fruits, vegetables, and starches don’t. It supports muscle growth when you’re exercising, and weight loss when you’re dieting. It helps us grow when we’re young, and maintains fitness as we age. It gives a steady release of energy to smooth over blood sugar fluctuations, so you don’t have that “crash” (emotionally, physically, cognitively) you can get after starchy, sugary foods. 

But do I need a protein powder? Can’t I just eat food? Protein powder is food! Not to say you can’t get your protein from lentils, fish, eggs, tofu, seeds, etc. But protein powder is easy, durable, efficient, and ready to go at a moment’s notice.

Okay, so what kind of protein powder should I use? The first question to ask yourself is: how am I going to use this? Am I going to use it at home, in a blender? If so, you may opt for a simple protein powder – unflavored, unsweetened – a blank canvas for whatever flavors and ingredients you want that day. If, on the other hand, you want something you mix with plain water at the gym, you might opt for something already flavored and sweetened, with built-in thickener. 

Everyone is talking about “plant protein” – should I get a plant protein? Not necessarily. I’m not aware of any inherent advantages to plant protein vs. dairy, and at least one disadvantage. Protein is composed of amino acids. You want these amino acids in a certain ratio, so the body can use them. Too much of some, and not enough of others, and you have an incomplete protein that the body uses inefficiently.  Animal proteins tend to be complete. Plant proteins, less so. There is a way around this, though. Grains and beans are incomplete in complementary ways. In other words, grains have what beans are missing, and vice versa. So you can choose a plant protein that is a blend, or simply one that complements the rest of your diet. 

Types of Protein (in alphabetical order):

Casein Protein is a dairy protein, much less well-known than its dairy cousin, whey protein. That’s because whey absorbs faster. And it absorbs better. Whey absorbs so quickly, it can really push muscle growth following a workout. Meanwhile, casein absorbs slower than any other protein on this list. And that is exactly what makes it special! By absorbing very slowly, it provides a slow, steady release of amino acids to the bloodstream that keeps you feeling fuller, longer. This is great for kids, adults on the run, and dieters. Bodybuilders use it, too. They use whey right after a workout, and casein right before bed, to carry them through the night. 

Collagen Protein: Collage protein is made from animals – bones, hide, fish scales, etc. Different kinds of collagen are different, but the take-home message is they are all high quality, mostly complete proteins. They are usually odorless and flavorless.

Collagen proteins come with a raft of side benefits, by supporting healthy and strong collagen throughout the body. Consistent, long-term use of collagen supplements has been show to promote healthy and strong hair and nails, and increase skin hydration, which can in turn lead to reduction in wrinkles. Collagen can also improve degenerative arthritis and help heal a leaky inflamed gut.  

Hemp Protein: respectfully, this one is gritty and has no discernible advantages. Okay, I take that back. It does have fiber, and hemp is a wonderful plant, ecologically speaking. But I’ve never enjoyed a smoothie made from it. 

Pea Protein: is my favorite among the plant proteins. Peas are easy to grow without a lot of inputs. They are also easy to extract the protein from (technologically speaking, i.e you don’t need chemical solvents). Pea protein is probably the most environmentally-friendly protein (except for maybe a truly grass-fed and pastured whey). Pea protein is also a good plant protein choice to complement or counterbalance a standard American diet – high in grains, low in legumes like peas and beans. 

Rice Protein: a nice “light”-feeling protein that mixes easy. It tastes mildly rice-y, which is to say it takes on the flavor of whatever you mix it with. Nothing special.  

Soy Protein: Not bad, but no special properties unless you’re one of the few that sees a reduction in menopause symptoms. Harder to digest than some. You can do better. 

Whey Protein is the dairy fraction that absorbs quickly and efficiently. It’s ideal for a quick boost, and perfect for right after a workout. It tastes pleasantly of milk. 

Store manager Grady B has been going back to the gym, and is a fan of whey. “I find it’s the best for my morning workout, or if I just miss breakfast. It’s great for replenishing my protein needs when I work out hard. It also just tastes the best. Other proteins don’t make me feel as full, or they leave me filling a little bloated. That’s the worst: you’ve worked out all morning, you feel all accomplished, then you drink something that makes you feel weighed down again. I normally mix it with oatmilk, a Tbsp of local honey, and a little bit of cinnamon, to add a nice little flavor, and post-workout the cinnamon may reduce inflammation just a little bit.”  

Whey protein comes in different forms. A whey protein isolate is the most concentrated. A whey protein concentrate, less so. The difference won’t matter to most of us, but an isolate may feel lighter to some.  It is also worth looking at a grass-fed, low temperature-processed whey, which maintains more of its side benefits. These benefits are slight, but not entirely insignificant. Immune strengthening, blood pressure, and liver health. 

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