For the Love of Bacon

bacon

Stepping out the back door of my cousin’s house to shake out a rug, I heard what sounded like a high-pitched scream.   The sound penetrated me to my core, and was immediately disturbing.  I looked over my right shoulder, in the direction from which the sound was coming, and have never since forgotten what I saw.

The sound was coming from a large, barn-like building to my right, whose door was open to vent the heat.   Through that door, I could see several large hogs, strung up by their front hooves, wriggling and screaming.  They were about to die.  It was then I understood:  the sounds were coming from a slaughterhouse.

Fear, sadness, and guilt are some of the emotions that swirled through my chest that day, and my relationship with meat has only grown more complicated since then. Growing up on a dairy farm, I’ve always been in close contact with domesticated animals,  and watched as they were loaded onto trucks and carted off to be killed.  Unwisely, I even considered some of these animals to be “friends”, which is really not something you should do in that sort of situation.

You would think then, judging from these misgivings about institutionalized slaughter, that I would be a vegetarian.  But I’m not.  Regular struggles with anemia and fatigue have always made that seem a bad decision, at least for me.   I know that your body can still get all the nutrients it needs from a plant-based diet, with the exception of vitamin B12.  However, supplementing an essentially plant-based diet with small amounts of animal protein, as most Asian diets do, is the safest way to ensure that any nutritional gaps are filled.  This can be particularly important for people who are ill, have weak digestion, or have certain health problems, like anemia.

I suppose that’s why I have mixed feelings about the record-breaking consumption of pork in recent years.  I’m not of the opinion that pork, as a meat source, should be avoided completely.  I believe a moderate diet containing a wide variety of foods is best.  But it now appears that, as a society, we’ve been eating so much bacon that US bacon reserves have hit a 50 year low.   We haven’t consumed this much bacon since 1957! Pig farmers keep increasing production, but can still barely keep up with demand.   For the first time in history, pork has equaled, and sometimes even surpassed, beef production.

All this may be very good for pig farmers, but is not very good news for our health.  As a cured meat, bacon is known to be high in three very bad things:  nitrates, saturated fat, and sodium.

In 2015, the World Health Organization listed bacon and other cured and preserved meats as group-1 carcinogens, on the same level with cigarettes, asbestos, and uranium.  While you may roll your eyes over that declaration, the group-1 classification is pretty damning.  It means there’s no question that cured meats cause cancer.

But before you get panicked or upset, remember that when it comes to cancer, it’s always about accumulated exposure.  Smoking is still more deadly than eating bacon because smokers ingest more carcinogenic particles per day.  You would have to eat a whole lot of cured meat, pretty much every day, for years and years, before your risk of colorectal cancer equalled the risk of cigarettes, simply because most smokers smoke multiple cigarettes per day, easily surpassing the safe limits of exposure.

Those of you who are concerned about your health, but still love the taste of bacon, will try to side-step concerns about nitrate exposure by choosing “natural”, preservative-free bacon.  However, even “natural” bacon is usually made with celery juice or celery powder, both of which contain naturally-occurring nitrates.  Naturally occurring nitrates, are still nitrates.  Once inside your body, they operate the same way.

Unfortunately for bacon-lovers, bacon is also high in saturated fat.  Fully 68% of its calories come from fat, and half of that fat is the unhealthy, saturated kind.   In recent years, many news outlets virtually squealed with delight when researchers found that diets high in sugar are actually worse for heart health than diets high in saturated fat.  However, just because sugar is also bad, doesn’t mean saturated fat has been exonerated.  Saturated fat still increases levels of LDL cholesterol in your bloodstream, and as such, will still increase your risk of heart disease and stroke.  If you want to choose a protein source to maintain muscle mass and elevate iron levels, you could certainly make a healthier choice than bacon.

Finally, cured meats like bacon are also very high in sodium, which is known to raise blood pressure.  According to the UK group Consensus Action on Salt and Health (CASH), bacon contains “huge and unnecessarily high amounts of salt”, and as bacon consumption has risen, it has become the second-biggest source of salt in the UK diet, after bread.

Multiple studies have consistently found that reducing sodium intake is the first, best way to quickly bring down high blood pressure for the majority of people.  Yet, on an individual level, things can get messier.  Those with weakened adrenal functioning may actually require more salt, so a reduced salt diet would not be helpful for them.  In this case, the weakened adrenal glands produce smaller amounts of aldosterone, the hormone which regulates sodium, potassium, and magnesium levels in the body.   When aldosterone production becomes too low, too much salt can be lost through the increased flow of urine, causing a sodium deficiency.

Even scientific researchers have noted that poor diet, increased weight, and alcohol intake may have a stronger effect on blood pressure than salt.  But because each of these negative health measures tend to occur in tandem, it’s difficult to tease out which one has the strongest effect.

To sum up, there are several, substantial negative health effects that come from eating a lot of bacon, which makes our increased consumption of bacon a concern.  Bacon is even becoming difficult to avoid, as more and more restaurants add it to their menu options to increase the taste value of their food.   Yet, concerns about screaming pigs aside, there is no real harm in eating bacon on an occasional basis, as long as the rest of your diet is sensible and healthy.

 

 

 



About the author: Rebecca Wong has been working in the herbal business since 2000.  She has received her training in acupuncture and herbalism from respected authorities Paul Des Rosiers and Vu Le at the Ontario College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Toronto, and Michael Tierra at the East West Herb School in California.

An Epidemic of Loneliness

loneliness

These days, no one likes to admit they’re lonely.   The world has become hyper-connected, over-stimulated, and increasingly extroverted.  If you still feel lonely in a busy environment like this, there must be something wrong with you, or so the thinking goes.  But don’t give in to that thought.

Part of the problem with loneliness is that it not only feels awful, but also carries a strong social stigma.   It’s assumed that if you feel lonely, you must lack the necessary social skills to make friends. Yet, studies show this isn’t the case.

According to John Cacioppo, director of the University of Chicago’s Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience, loneliness is part of being human.   Everyone feels lonely from time to time – even people with strong social skills.  Like hunger or thirst, it’s merely a signal that alerts us to our need for companionship.  If you feel lonely, it doesn’t mean you’re a failure.  It only means that you need to take some steps to alleviate that feeling.

Addressing your feelings of loneliness would not only be good for your emotional well-being, but may also essential for your physical well-being too.  A recent study done by the AARP concluded that feelings of social isolation and loneliness carry an identical health risk to smoking 15 cigarettes per day.   Researchers suspect this is because loneliness increases stress, and increased stress causes inflammation.  Chronic inflammation is a big problem, known to contribute to a host of different health conditions, including heart disease, diabetes and cancer.

Yet, this is not the only reason why loneliness might increase your chance of dying.  People who are lonely also tend not to take as good care of themselves.  When you know that someone cares about you, you tend to eat better, exercise more regularly, and see a doctor when unusual symptoms start to appear.  Lonely people lose these advantages.

Despite our unwillingness to admit to it, feelings of loneliness have doubled over the last thirty years.  Researchers blame, in part, an increasingly disconnected world, where families move from place to place, rather than staying in the same town or village throughout their lives.  Additionally, the rise of social media has caused today’s youth to have higher levels of loneliness and anxiety than ever before.  Elderly people also endure increased feelings of isolation and loneliness due to reduced mobility from illness, or the loss of friends and family through death.

So, what can you do if you’re feeling lonely?  Activity of any sort is good because it increases levels of dopamine in your body, the feel-good hormone.  Even a brisk walk can make a significant difference, if only because it takes you outdoors, where you are more likely to make contact with other people.

Also, get to know your neighbours.  Invite them over for tea.  One study found that living in a neighbourhood with strong social cohesion lowered the risk of heart attack in and of itself.  And while the use of social media can be helpful for some,  only face-to-face contact can create the deep and lasting feelings of love and value that we most crave.  If you’re still physically able, volunteer for a worthy cause.  Better yet, make that worthy cause the drawing out of shut-ins in your own neighbourhood.  Visit them regularly, talk to them.  In doing so, you’ll not only be curing your own loneliness, but that of another as well.

 



About the author: Rebecca Wong has been working in the herbal business since 2000.  She has received her training in acupuncture and herbalism from respected authorities Paul Des Rosiers and Vu Le at the Ontario College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Toronto, and Michael Tierra at the East West Herb School in California.

An Alarming Drop in Sperm Counts

sperm

I remember reading Margaret Atwood’s book A Handmaid’s Tale back in high school, and for whatever reason, it just didn’t resonate with me.  Maybe it was because our class had recently read other dystopian books like 1984 and Brave New World and I was tired of looking at the future through such a negative lens.  Or, maybe I just didn’t buy the premise that fertility and childbirth could one day become so precious and rare.   Whatever the reason, the plot of the book failed to move me.

Fast forward to the present, and Margaret Atwood’s vision has begun to seem prescient.  Just like in A Handmaid’s Tale, the western world is currently experiencing a decreased fertility rate.  And just like in A Handmaid’s Tale, this is largely blamed on women.  While it is true that many women are now delaying motherhood until their career is more established, and this makes it more difficult for them to successfully conceive, studies show that 40% of the time, the fertility problem lies with the male, not the female.

The news for men has recently gotten even worse.  A recent meta-analysis published last year in the journal Human Reproduction Update found that total sperm count among men is declining.  In the last 40 years, the sperm count in North America, Europe, and Australia has more than halved, and the rate of decline appears to be increasing.  Sperm counts among men in South America, Africa and Asia are more stable, but since less data has been collected in these countries, this cannot be confirmed with confidence.

Genetics alone cannot explain such a rapid drop in sperm production.  And because the decline is starker in western countries, it suggests a link to our more toxic, chemical-laden environment.  Pesticide use, hormone-disrupting chemicals, poor diet, stress, smoking, and obesity may all be involved.  Until further studies are done, it is difficult to determine which may be the most likely culprit.

In the meantime, there are steps we can all take to minimize these effects.  To prevent potential hormonal disruption from pesticides and plastics, both men and women should be sure to wash their fruits and vegetables in a 1:1 mixture of vinegar and water before eating.  The acetic acid in vinegar helps to dissolve hormone-disrupting pesticides from the skin or fruits and vegetables better than soap and water.  Also, food should never be cooked or heated in plastic containers.  To avoid contamination with phthalates and other chemicals, always microwave food in glass bowls instead.

Ideally, we would also stop smoking, and follow a diet rich in vegetables and whole grains.  Regular exercise will not only help to keep weight down, but will also better regulate hormone production.   Additionally, some regular liver and gallbladder cleansing would also be performed.  Because the liver is the organ which breaks down and removes excess hormones from the body, by keeping it in good health, we can prevent hormone from becoming dysregulated and imbalanced, which is the most common cause of infertility.   The men we have treated have seen their sperm count increase when they do regular liver and gallbladder cleansing.

According to Hagai Levine, public health researcher at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem, “sperm count is the canary in the coal mine”.   When men see their sperm count decline, it doesn’t just mean they have reduced fertility.  It means that men, in general, are not doing well.  A 2015 study published in the journal  Fertility and Sterility not only found that infertile men have a higher risk of developing diabetes and heart disease, they also had a higher rate of mortality, in general.  As a species, our fertility problems may not yet be as great as those in A Handmaid’s Tale, but they are very troubling.  If we want to live in a cleaner, safer world, we may one day have to make some big changes.

 

 



About the author: Rebecca Wong has been working in the herbal business since 2000.  She has received her training in acupuncture and herbalism from respected authorities Paul Des Rosiers and Vu Le at the Ontario College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Toronto, and Michael Tierra at the East West Herb School in California.

Your Childhood Shapes Your Response to Stress

teenagers

At the end of my first year of university, my room-mate organized a sky-diving expedition.  She and a few of her friends had decided to celebrate the successful completion of their courses by jumping out of an airplane, just for the fun of it.  She wondered if I’d like to join in.  I didn’t even have to think about it.  My answer was a resounding “NO!”, which only made her smile.  Clearly, my room-mate and I had very different levels of tolerance for stress.

Recent studies have shown that our tolerance for stress is shaped, at least in part, by how well we were parented as children.  In a recent paper published in the journal Developmental Science, Elizabeth Shirtcliff and her colleagues showed that teenagers who experienced “positive parenting” were more resilient, and had better cognitive, behavioural, and psychological development as adults than those whose upbringing was more negative.

The stress level of study participants was measured by recording the amount of cortisol in their saliva during each visit.  Often called “the stress hormone”, cortisol is secreted by your adrenal glands in quantity whenever you are under stress, so a high level of cortisol would seem to be bad.  However,  the positively-parented adeolscents from this study had higher cortisol levels than the others.

This runs contrary to what we’ve long been taught about stress and cortisol production – which is to keep both as low as possible!  However, it doesn’t run contrary to what Hans Selye wrote in his classic book, “The Stress of Life” back in the 1950’s.   In this book, Selye describes two kinds of stress:  eustress and distress.  Distress, of course, is the more negative kind of stress that results from fear, anxiety, or difficult circumstances, and from which can come a host of chronic health conditions, particularly if the stress if prolonged.

By contrast, eustress is the more beneficial kind of stress that we experience when enjoying a roller coaster ride, starting a new job, buying a home, or pushing ourselves to keep a deadline.  One easy way to differentiate between distress and eustress is in the attitude it provokes.  Eustress is stress that challenges us, but doesn’t overwhelm us, while distress can crush us, devastate our mood, and crumble our self-esteem.  The teenagers in Dr. Shirtcliff’s study may have had higher levels of cortisol, but it increased their ability to successfully manage life, rather than sabotaging it.

The good news is, if the major difference between distress and eustress is merely one of attitude, then approaching our daily stresses from a different angle could change it from life-destroying, to life-affirming.   In the December issue of Prevention magazine, psychologist Alia Crum has provided some suggestions for turning a negative stress into something more positive.

One method is to verbally acknowledge why you’re stressed.   For example, if you’re stressed from overwork, then rather than dive for the chocolate ice cream as soon as you get home, you should name your stress.  Naming the stress switches it from an emotion-driven response in the amygdala of your brain to the planning centre in  your frontal cortex, allowing you to feel more control over the situation, so you can plan how to overcome it.

You can also try re-framing your stress.  If you have the jitters because of an upcoming social function, try labelling it as excitement, rather than as stress.   Excitement also increases cortisol production, but in a more positive way.  This can give you more confidence and increase your preformance during the event.  Thirdly, you can use your stress to promote action, rather than worry.  If you weren’t invited to a party, you can plan your own social event instead, even if it’s just tea with a neighbour.

Of course, daily meditation is one of the best ways to counteract the effects of stress.  It not only activates your parasympathetic nervous system, helping to calm you down, but with time, it can also subtly begin to re-wire your brain.   After meditating daily for just six weeks, participants in a recent study had greater density of grey matter in their brains, along with improved attention, cognitive performance, and better emotional regulation.

Your cortisol level, and your subsequent ability to handle stress, may have become set according to your childhood environment, but this new research provides hope.  Stress may be unavoidable, but if we can approach it with a different attitude,  its impact on our health can be managed.  Our brains and our bodies are not set.  They’re constantly in flux, with a strong ability to change and grow, even in adulthood.   Like me, you may not ever develop a desire to jump out of an airplane, but by managing our stress a bit better, we can still dial up the level of adventure in our lives and experience more joy.

 



About the author: Rebecca Wong has been working in the herbal business since 2000.  She has received her training in acupuncture and herbalism from respected authorities Paul Des Rosiers and Vu Le at the Ontario College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Toronto, and Michael Tierra at the East West Herb School in California.