Thursday, April 28, 2016


In September of 2013 I gave up dairy products and suddenly it was like someone put a pin in my belly and deflated it--I began to lose weight quickly and easily. I was pretty impressed because most days the only dairy I had was the milk in my coffee. I thought the explanation was the insulinotrophic action of whey–a tripling of insulin output by the pancreas, a situation that stalls weight loss. But that was before I took a course on gut microbes from the University of Colorado. After that, I wondered if dairy consumption might significantly change my gut microbiome in a way that related to weight. So I decided to test that last August.

First I consumed about two servings of dairy products a day--milk, cheese, ice cream, and yogurt--for several weeks and sent my first sample into uBiome (cost: $89, method: simple, go to their site for more info). Then I quit dairy and retested six weeks later. The results were interesting though inconclusive since only I was doing the experiment, and it was by no means a controlled experiment either. That said, there certainly was a difference in my gut microbiome between the two analyses.

My first sample was in the 62nd percentile for diversity, and my second sample in the 88th, meaning it was more diverse than 88 percent of the samples in the uBiome database and quite a bit more diverse than my first sample. Could there be something in dairy that destroys diversity? That would be sad.

Two other big differences were in my amounts of bacteroidetes and firmicutes.

According to the uBiome site, bacteroidetes are the most prominent gut microbes in much of the world. They are thought to help protect against obesity because they do not digest fat well. After giving up dairy, my bacteroidete count went up by over two and a half times, whereas my firmicute count decreased by a quarter.

According to the uBiome site, firmicutes help us digest fat and are among the most common microbes in our gut. But an oversupply of firmicutes has been linked to a higher risk of obesity.

Could it be that dairy consumption promotes the growth of firmicutes and/or destroys bacteroidetes? Wouldn't that be interesting to know. I will have to try the experiment again. But even better would be for other people to try it because then we could see if there is a common pattern.

My first sample looked most similar to the omnivores in the uBiome database and my second sample--even though I was eating some meat and eggs--looked more like the vegans, although more diverse.

I think I owe the diversity to making half of what I eat each day vegetables. I've followed that rule for over five years. From what I've learned, plant foods feed good gut microbes, and good microbes equal good health. Regardless of what I weigh or how big my belly is, I feel quite healthy and all my vital statistics support that I am. Still, I'm always curious about the ways different foods affect me, and dairy and wheat so far have had the biggest effects. Now I want to know why. uBiome helps me with that quest.

One of the many charts and graphs that uBiome provides 

What I like about uBiome's product is that, besides being simple to use, once they've processed your sample they give you loads of information (which you access on-line) about the various microbial communities you host. Some of the information is over my head, but other info is quite accessible like how my microbiota compares with various groups like vegetarians, paleo dieters, omnivores, vegans, heavy drinkers, all women, all men, etc.

Two other things I like about uBiome: Once you're in their database, if you have questions, you can contact them easily and get quick answers (which I've done a number of times), and they send an e-newsletter out weekly to help you learn more about microbes in general.

Here are the three best books I've read that got me hooked on this subject:
AN EPIDEMIC OF ABSENCE by Moises Velasquez-Manoff
HONOR THY SYMBIONTS (A collection of essays) by Jeff Leach
MISSING MICROBES by Martin J. Blaser, MD

And here's the course I took offered by Coursera and the University of Colorado, Gut Check: Exploring Your Microbiome. It's taught by Rob Knight one of the world's foremost authorities in this area. The course is FREE on-line, and it's self-paced so you can start it any time.

A few weeks ago, uBiome sent me an email offering anyone I refer a 10% discount. So if you're interested in learning what microbes are in your gut, or doing your own microbiome experiments, here's the link to the discount code: (I'm not sure how long the offer lasts.)

Here's the blog post about when I gave up dairy: Milk: Lactose, Whey, Casein, Calories, It's Complicated!

Note: When I do the dairy experiment again--and I probably will this summer--first I'll do a baseline sample while on my regular diet which includes only occasional dairy and no milk. Once I get my results, I'll consume 8 oz. of regular, commercial milk a day for a week or two and retest to see if there's a significant change in my microbiome and a difference that's similar to my first experiment. (Since my first experiment, I've learned that microbial communities in our guts react to changes in our diets within days. So no need to wait six weeks to test.) I'll report the results. 

Thursday, February 25, 2016


Recently I read an article, by an emergency room doctor, a woman, who always wished she could lose weight. She avoided the bread aisle in the supermarket and tried to choose healthy snacks like grapes and sushi when her odd work schedule made her use the cafeteria. Then she participated in a study currently being conducted by the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel where she was paired with another woman her age and for two weeks they ate identical meals and performed the same activities all the while wearing glucose monitors.

What they found was that totally different foods made their glucose spike (and not the foods that the glycemic index predicted). It turned out this doctor could eat ice cream and regular soda without it affecting her blood glucose at all. (When blood glucose is too high, the glucose gets stored as fat). The Israeli researchers postulate that this partly has to do with her community of gut microbes which, as it happened, was not very diverse. But what?

Two years ago I went on the Blood Type diet for two weeks which meant I changed basically everything I regularly ate. I gave up: oranges, bananas, chiles, tomatoes, potatoes, and red meat  -- and replaced them with grapefruit, pineapple, broccoli, bread, and most days I didn't eat meat at all although I could have chicken or fish up to 4x's a week. I had been feeling very healthy before I started the diet, but I felt GREAT for the two weeks I went on it. It even meant I could drink red wine and coffee, whereas I'd been living without caffeine and alcohol. So, in other words, I completely changed my diet and felt improved. But was it really the specific foods I ate/didn't eat? I began to have my doubts after a few months, and eventually returned to eating many of the foods I'd been avoiding.

I'm a sixty-year-old woman, and I don't think I have a single female friend who isn't on some sort of diet, or avoiding certain foods, or doing a cleanse, or participating in a diet program like Weight Watchers. And I'm not being critical -- I've been doing diet experiments for the last six years. And I'd say I've been successful at finding what works for me: Everything!

MyPlate, no gluten, no dairy, vegetarianism, no sugar, paleo, Wellness Cleanse, Blood Type Diet -- with each of these, I've lost some inches, lost my cravings, had increased energy, good sleep, daily bowel movements, etc. Then, just when I think I've found the perfect way to eat and get used to preparing meals in certain ways, I develop cravings again and my clothes get tight or my joints begin to ache, and I decide to try some new set of food rules.

I must point out that no matter which diet I've tried, I've stuck to whole foods. I don't eat things that come in a box, bag, or can. Very occasionally I have a bag of potato chips. And sometimes I eat at a restaurant that may use processed foods, and I do eat at friends' houses who may serve something packaged. But if I'm cooking, and I usually am, it's whole foods all the way: vegetables, seeds, nuts, fruit, grains, beans, eggs, some meat, fish, and a little dairy. I had my gut microbiota analyzed in October by uBiome and it compared most directly with that of the vegans in their database. It also said my gut microbiota was in the 88th percentile for diversity. Sounds healthy, right? I think it is, basically, so why would I ever get a big belly or have cravings?

I think the answer is lack of diversity! Let's consider again what the emergency room doctor was doing. She was following a diet -- like so many of us do -- that she thought was healthy, but her gut microbial diversity was very low. My theory is she could eat ice cream and soda without it upsetting her blood glucose because it's not just our own digestive systems that convert and deliver energy to our bodies, specific microbes help make different foods available to the blood stream and perhaps the doctor had been successful, through her diet, in starving her ice-cream-and-soda-loving bacteria to a very small number.

Remember, I'm not a doctor or a scientist. I have a degree in English, not biology, so take my theory with a big grain of salt. But my guess is, when we eat the same foods regularly, day in, day out, the populations of microbes in our guts that correspond to those foods increase to the point that they "help us" digest those foods with increasing rapidity, sending the energy from the food into our bloodstreams too fast for our bodies to use, and therefore it gets converted to fat.

Furthermore, I think that as our microbial populations grow out of control, they send us chemical signals that make us crave the foods they want. I don't know about you, but when I eat a lot of bread, I crave more bread. When I eat a lot of sweets, I crave more sweets. But if I totally give up bread or sweets, after a few days I stop craving them. I think it's because I've knocked the bread-loving or sweets-loving microbial populations back to a reasonable level. They're still in there, but at reduced numbers.

When we continuously change the foods we eat, our microbiome is more challenged, and so, I believe, it takes longer for our food to be broken down. Hence, the energy from the food becomes available more slowly. So a sensible eating strategy may be to constantly eat different foods (whole foods, of course) in order to stay satiated longer and for our community of gut microbes to stay as diverse as possible. When I think of my own behavior, and that of my women friends, we all get into ruts with the foods we prepare and eat, particularly if we live alone. And everyone complains about the foods they're "addicted to." So I'm now going to try and change that by not restricting a single thing (except commercially processed foods) from my diet -- not wheat, or dairy, or red meat, or nightshade plants, or occasional sugar-laden sweets. Half of everything I eat will still be vegetables, but otherwise no rules except VARIETY. I'll let you know how it goes.

Below are a few articles about microbes and appetite. I'll be adding more as I find them.

Diet Study Overturns All We Know About Healthy Eating, Israel21c
Why Do People Put On Differing Amounts of Weight, The BBC
Why French Fries May Be Better For You Than Salad,
Your Gut Bacteria May Be Controlling Your Appetite, The Smithsonian
How Gut Bacteria Make us Thin or Fat, Scientific American
Your Gut Bacteria Want You to Eat a Cupcake, The Atlantic
Do Gut Bacteria Rule Our Minds? UCSF
Low Fiber Diets Cause Waves of Extinction In The Gut, The Atlantic 

Friday, January 29, 2016


On melatonin, I actually thought of posting this
image on my Facebook page because I felt like hell.
Here's something I learned lately: Grief and depression are two different things. Losing someone you love is heartbreaking and the grieving process can be hard and painful. I know. My son died in an accident on Halloween night. My life will never feel the same. But my sadness is different from how I feel when I'm depressed. Fortunately, I've experienced depression, so I know what it's like. And I say fortunately, because I recently had an experience that I could have been mistaken for grief and bad things might have happened.

I just got through a fairly severe bout of depression brought on by taking melatonin.

Around Thanksgiving I developed severe pain in my left arm/shoulder (the doctor said it was tendonitis) and it would wake me several times each night. I don't really believe in taking sleeping pills, but immediately after my son died I took a narcotic one for about ten days. Then I quit. With the tendonitis, if I lost too much sleep I would take a Nytol to get one good night's rest -- about once every five days.

On Christmas I was out of Nytol, but I found some Melatonin in our medicine drawer. The bottle said: Melatonin works in harmony with your natural sleep cycle to give you the tranquil rest you deserve, so you can awaken feeling refreshed and revitalized. Melatonin may be appropriate for people experiencing occasional sleeplessness, those with jet lag, or anyone wanting to promote sound, quality sleep. I took the first 3 mg. tablet on Christmas night, and I slept so well I decided to take one nightly. Seemed safe since the bottle said: Limit use to two months with a break of one week.

A little background: For weeks after my son died, I cried several times a day. But by December I started pulling myself together and I was really looking forward to seeing family at Christmas and more family after New Years. However, starting December 30th, five days into my nightly melatonin habit, I began waking up in the middle of the night unable to fall back asleep and feeling very angry -- angrier than I've ever felt. On January 3rd, I woke up crying for so long and so hard that I got up and hid in the living room so no one would hear me. I was embarrassed because my depressed thoughts weren't just about my son's death. Suddenly, everything was wrong. I went back to sleep, but woke up crying a second time.

In the morning I decided I better find a different sleeping pill because the melatonin wasn't keeping me asleep. When the pharmacist offered me a 5 mg. melatonin, I thought, "Well, if that's the answer, I can just take more of what I already have." Then, walking home, I said to myself, "But before I take an additional dose, I should probably mention to my husband that I've been having suicidal thoughts just in case they're related to the melatonin...WHAT THE HECK????? Suicidal thoughts? I've never had suicidal thoughts in my life!"  I went home and googled melatonin and depression. And duh! The explanation was right there along with an illustration of a woman in her bathrobe sobbing on the floor (and looking just like me).

It turns out that there's actually a lot to know about taking melatonin and it's probably not the right choice for many people. For one thing, it's not really a sleeping pill. Here's a decent discussion about it: How to Use Melatonin Correctly. As for me, I won't be using it at all. I quickly got it out of my system by drinking a lot of water and sitting in the sun -- Vitamin D reverses the effect. It only took a day for the depression and anger to leave and for my grief to go back to something I could handle.

What I find interesting, if a little embarrassing, is how cautious I was about taking the narcotic sleeping pills after my son's death and how incautious I was about taking the melatonin because is was "natural" and a "supplement" instead of a "drug."

And even though the pain in my arm still wakes me up at night, I'm thinking twice about going back to Nytol. The active ingredient in it -- the same ingredient that's in Tylenol PM and a bunch of over-the-counter meds -- is strongly linked to dementia. So even though the study involved people who take these drugs frequently, I don't want to take any risks. Here's a discussion about the Nytol/dementia link: Media dementia scare over hay fever and sleep drugs.

Thursday, December 31, 2015


It's almost time to give up alcohol again! I've been looking forward to this for a month already. The death of someone close to me at the beginning of November started a sharp increase in alcohol consumption, not just for me, but for many of those nearest and dearest to me. Fortunately I have January 1st to help me clean up my act. I've done a "cleanse" to start the year for the last five different cleansesbut they always include quitting alcohol and now I'm wired for it.

(I want to clarify how much I've been drinking, because everyone has their own "a lot" when it comes to alcohol. My usual is two glasses of wine an evening. When I say a lot, it means I might drink a whole bottle on my own.)

What am I looking forward to? Going to bed later, getting up earlier (and easier) and better sleep in between. Plus more energy during the day, better brain function, AND being able to fasten my pants easier. As my liver recovers, I know I'll recover my waist which will make me a lot more comfortable. I'll still be grieving for a long time, but I'm ready to do it with a clear mind that isn't spending part of each day nagging me about drinking.

Yes, Dry January is a hard habit to begin, but it's amazing how functional it is for overall health. There are a million articles on it to get anyone motivated. But here's my tip for success: Pick a non-alcoholic drink that you'll look forward to having when you would usually have alcohol. For me it's limonada because I'm in Mexicothat's limeade made with either water or mineral water and a little sugarnot too much. Once that drink is in my hand, I forget that there's no alcohol in itseriously, I do.

The key is to be prepared. If I'm going to a party I pack a bottle of mineral water and some limes.

Do keep in mind that sugary beverages can be as hard on your liver, your weight and your waist as alcohol, so be careful about buying bottled sugary drinkscheck the label for sugar content. Better to mix your own drinks (and IMHO, a little real sugar is still better than artificial).

Here's to 2016. If we can't be happy, let's still be as healthy as possible. Our families and friends are depending on us.

February 1st update: DryJanuary went great for three weeks. I barely missed alcohol at all. On January 22nd though I had an emotionally challenging day and caved at dinner with friends -- drank two glasses of red wine. It helped. After that I didn't drink wine every night, but I didn't stay dry. Oh well, there's next January. Definitely not going to beat myself up... 

Monday, December 28, 2015


Here’s some advice: If you know someone whose parent just died or their brother or sister, even if you don’t know that someone well, the thing to do is to go up to them and say, “I’m really sorry to hear about your mom, (dad, sister, brother…. dog).” That’s all you have to say. Or you can just say, “Hey, I’m really sorry about your loss.” That works too.

Here’s what you don’t want to do: not say anything because you think the person doesn’t want to be reminded. Trust me, they’re reminded. Somewhere in their brain they’re reminded every second, because when someone in your family dies, it’s like part of you has disappeared, but also, they’re never really gone, because you always remember the stuff they said and little stuff they did. They’re more part of you than you think.

Anyway, just remember, you don’t need to tell the person any of your thoughts about what it must feel like, or how you’d feel if you were them, or how things will get better. That might be interesting, it might even be true, but it’s not the time. You can’t fix it for them, even a little bit. So just say you’re sorry and let them talk to you if they want. They may not want to talk about it just then, or you may not be the person they want to talk to. But maybe you are. Then the thing to do is just listen.
Anna Marie Hernandez


January, 1973

I had cramps all night. Even in my dreams I had cramps. If I ever have a baby, it's going to be a piece of cake because I've had enough cramps to have about thirty babies by now. Sometimes I wonder if it’s even normal to have so much pain with your period, but I missed out when they explained all that back in sixth grade. The special evening when they showed the sex ed film about menstrual cycles and stuff, my mother wouldn’t let me go. She just said, “I don’t see why that’s necessary.” I told her our gym teacher said it was really important. But my mom’s never cared much about what gym teachers say.

The same thing happened when it was Meri’s turn to see that film. Did my mom think if we didn’t hear about stuff, it wouldn’t happen? Maybe.

When I did get my period, she sighed, “What a shame,” and handed me a box of Kotex. “Read the directions,” she added.

That was the beginning and end of sex ed in our house.

And if we complain about cramps to my mom, we don’t get any sympathy. She’s more concerned with our sheets than she is about us. She just says, "The Excedrin is in the medicine cabinet, the heating pad is in the linen closet. You're not the first girl to get her period you know, and remember, only use cold water on blood stains or they’ll set."

She doesn’t have to remind me of that, thank you very much, it’s Meri who just throws her stained stuff in the laundry, and God does my mother have a fit then—especially when it affects the good sheets. My mom’s a lunatic when it comes to linens.

Once she bought a “very expensive” shower curtain with a matching towel set in this flower pattern she loved—orange lilies with different shades of green foliage. And we were forbidden to use the towels because she never wanted to wash them or they’d fade. We only put them out when guests came, and the trick was to also give guests their own towels, and to put little paper hand towels on the counter. When the guests left, we’d refold the flowered towels and put them away. This worked for a couple of years actually, and the towels looked as new as ever until this last Christmas when my brother came home with a friend.

Hank was supposed to fly home from college on December twenty-third, but at the last minute he said he had a ride. Then he and this girl Daisy drove twenty hours straight in her Mustang and got to our house at about 9:00 at night.

They rang the doorbell when they arrived, so we had no idea it was them—no one in our family comes through the front door—we’re always supposed to enter through the garage and leave our shoes out there.

I was the one who answered, assuming it must be friends of mine looking to play ping-pong or pool in our basement. So I was surprised to see two strangers standing on the stoop—a hairy guy and an extremely beautiful girl. She looked older than me, with a brown felt hat that came down over her eyebrows and a sheepskin coat—the kind with long, curly wool at the cuffs and collar. I’d kill for a coat like that. I was just about to ask, "May I help you?" when my brother said, "Hey Sis!"

God! I almost didn't recognize my own brother. He looked totally different from when he’d left in August. He had a full beard and his hair was to his shoulders.

Just so you know, my brother and I got the short end of the stick when it comes to hair in our family. Our hair is dirty blonde while my dad and my sister—and also my mom, although she cheats—are what you call platinum blondes. Their hair is so blonde, it’s almost white. But at least my hair isn't falling out. Hank has a very receding hairline.

Anyway, on that night, he had really long hair, and he was wearing a Russian military coat that hung almost to the ground, and he had a big grin on his face like maybe he was stoned.

"Who is it?" my mother called from the family room.

"It's Hank! And he has a friend."

There was shuffling around as my parents and sister got up and I just knew my mother was folding her pink, purple, and black afghan and stashing it under a cushion— God forbid anyone see those colors in this house. Then they came into the foyer while I was taking Daisy's coat and hoping my brother would get his coat off too before my mother saw it. But no such luck.

My mother is great at acting like nothing is wrong when guests come. She kissed Hank as though he looked like one of the Hardy Boys, and Hank shook hands with my dad. But everyone's attention was really on Daisy. First of all, let me just say that Hank never mentioned his ride was with a girl. And even if he had, and he’d said she was beautiful, no one would’ve been prepared for how she actually looked. She was small—or petite, as my mom would say—and she had wavy black hair that went down past her butt—way past it. Her eyes were sapphire blue—you think I’m exaggerating, but I’m not. And she had perfect skin, quite fair.

Elizabeth Taylor

All my life my mother has told me that the most beautiful hair-eyes combination in the world is black hair with blue eyes, a fact driven home to her when she saw Elizabeth Taylor in the movie National Velvet in 1944. And now I had to admit she was right.

While we all watched, mesmerized, Daisy combed through her hair with her fingers, twisted it, and used a small pointed stick to pin it up off her neck, smiling at us nonchalantly the whole time. She had on an embroidered peasant blouse and old baggy jeans. When she lifted her arms, the two pieces of clothes parted and exposed her belly button.

Hank said, "Mom and Dad, this is my friend Daisy. She's pre-med. Listen, she’s gotta get to Wisconsin, but since we drove straight through, she's way too tired. I told her she can crash in the spare bed in my room."

Of course she can Hank, I thought, because Mom and Dad just had dual lobotomies, and now we have sleepovers with people of the opposite sex all the time...

"Is that okay, Mrs. Hoffman?” asked Daisy with a tiny voice and a hint of Texas drawl.

“Of course you’re welcome to stay, Daisy,” said my mother without looking at Hank. Then she added, “Vanessa, go up and change the sheets on your bed for Hank, and you and Daisy can share the guest room.”

I love my brother, but changing my sheets for him seemed really dumb. He’s a total slob and I knew he wouldn’t shower before going to bed. “I just changed my sheets two days ago,” I reminded her. “Hank doesn’t mind, do you Hank?”

“Really, Mom,” said Hank, “Daisy and I are fine in the same room.”

“Drop it, Hank,” said my dad in that tone that means drop it Hank.

“Vanessa, you heard me,” said my mother. “And don’t forget the towels,” she added in her sing-song, there's-nothing-wrong-with-this-picture voice.

While I went upstairs to do maid service, my father went to buy beer at 7-Eleven and my mom made sandwiches. I wouldn’t say she was exactly slamming cabinets, but I could definitely hear them shutting all the way up in my room. Here’s what my mother doesn’t love: unexpected guests, shabby clothes, long hair on my brother, and beards on anyone.

I made my bed perfectly—short sheeting it of course—and grabbed a nightgown and some clean clothes so I wouldn't have to return. I hung the flowered towels in the bathroom and took a set of pink towels—bath, hand, and wash cloth—and laid them folded on the end of one of the beds in the guest room a.k.a. Hank’s room. Then I went back downstairs.

My brother was just handing Daisy a beer and began opening his own. My dad was pouring himself a scotch. “Mr. Hoffman,” Daisy said, “If you wouldn’t mind, I’d rather have a scotch myself, I really don’t care for beer.” She lit a Marlboro and tipped the box toward me. I just smiled and shook my head . I asked her if she was from Texas or Wisconsin. “Austin,” she said, “but my mother’s new husband has a home on some lake near Milwaukee, so we’re having Christmas in the snow. I really do appreciate you letting me stay, Mrs. Hoffman, I’m just no good at driving on ice. Hank’s great at it though.”

“Isn’t he wonderful,” said my mother with zero enthusiasm. “Better call your family, Daisy, and let them know where you are before it gets too late.”

“Oh they don’t care,” she said waving her cigarette. “They never worry about me.”

“I’m sure that’s not true,” said my mother.

“Oh, it’s true. For all they know, I’m still in Texas,” she drawled.

“I wish my parents were like that,” sighed Meri, which was just what I was thinking.

“Be careful what you wish for,” said my mother with a tight little smile.

“What happened to your mom’s old husband?” asked Meri.

“Oh, he left us when I was pretty little. Try not to get married when you’re eighteen, it usually ends badly.” She gave Meri a wink.

“Do you like her new husband?” Meri continued—I guess she thought she was working for the National Enquirer.

“Well,” said Daisy, “he bought me a Mustang for a Christmas present. Can’t hold that against him.” She took a big sip of her scotch which even I could see was quite weak from all the water my dad put in it—he’s not that into girls drinking hard stuff. Daisy got up and poured another splash into her glass and sat back down.

“Why don’t you kids take Fritz for his walk now,” said my mother. I knew she meant me and Meri, but my brother jumped up and put his hand on the back of Daisy's chair saying, “Yeah, let’s stretch our legs a little, Dais.”

He followed me into the foyer to get the coats and asked me if Meri was cool.

“Definitely not,” I said.

Back in the kitchen he said, “Meri, you don’t want to go with us, do you? It’s freezing out there.” Meri always does everything Hank wants, plus he appealed to her lazy side, so she went into the family room and plopped in front of the TV. It being Christmas vacation, she didn’t have a bedtime.

As soon as we were outside my brother started to light up a joint. One thing about Hank, he’s not careful—we weren’t even at the end of the driveway.

“Come on Hank, let’s get down the street first. What if Mom looks out?” I felt a little whiny, but honestly, I didn’t want Christmas ruined. If our mom thought we used drugs, she’d be in bed for a week.

“Yeah, your mom’s kind of a trip, isn’t she? Kind of old fashioned,” said Daisy.

It was a perfectly astute observation, but it’s one thing if I complain about my mom, or my brother or Meri does, but I really don’t need to hear about her from some chick who just dropped out of nowhere, so I just asked, “Can we change the subject? How was the drive?”

“Totally cool," said Hank. "New car, good tapes, and we picked up some hitchhikers with this really great weed. They came with us as far as Chicago.” We were now three houses away from ours and he lit the joint and took a long hit and held it in. “So how’ve you been, Sis?” he asked as he exhaled and tried to pass me the number.

I held my hand up. “I’ll pass," I said. "I already smoked today.” That was a lie, but if the Murphys looked out, I really didn’t want them to see me passing a joint under their street light. “Guess what! I got my driver’s license." I said, heading toward the darkest part of the street and hoping they'd follow.

“Cool!! Hey listen, Daisy and I are gonna shack up tonight, so you have to switch rooms with me later, okay?”

“No, not okay. You will definitely get caught and I will definitely get in trouble, so figure something out that does not involve me. Like I said, I just got my driver’s license, I don’t plan on being grounded over Christmas vacation—but thanks for the offer.”

We walked all around the subdivision letting Fritz lift his leg on every mailbox. A lot of the houses were dark, but quite a few had their Christmas lights left on. There was some snow around and the clouds were moving fast, revealing stars and half a moon. They finished the joint and we all lit up cigarettes. I have Hank to thank for teaching me to smoke. It's really pretty handy having a big brother. He's seven years older than I am and growing up he taught me a lot of cool stuff like how to wrestle, play poker, shoot a rifle, throw a football, that sort of thing. For a while he was in military school and he taught me and Meri a bunch of self-defense moves and some drill songs. One went:

Little Audrey, mean as heck,

broke her little brother’s neck.

Mama said, ‘now that’s not nice.’

Audrey stabbed her with a knife.

But now he’s a pacifist so we don’t sing drill songs anymore.

As we walked, Hank and Daisy sort of fell behind without me noticing. When I turned around to see where they went they were making out in the middle of the street. Their mouths were open real far and Hank had to lean over quite a bit because, like I said, Daisy was pretty short. She was holding her hat on her head with one hand. Who names their kid Daisy, I wondered. Her parents never heard of Daisy Duck? Not to mention that daisies smell gross. Smell one, if you don’t believe me.

I was about a block ahead by the time they caught up with me.

I guess we were gone pretty long because my parents were in bed by the time we got back—or maybe they’d already burned out on my brother for one night—that happens to them a lot. Meri was still up though. She joined us in the kitchen when she heard us rustling around for food. Of course Hank and Daisy had the munchies. Hank went for a jar of pickled herring in cream sauce, and we all had some eggnog. Daisy poured a little scotch into hers, and then she joined Meri in polishing off a bag of Fig Newtons. “I wish my hair would grow as long as yours,” said Meri.

“And I wish my hair was the color of yours,” said Daisy.

Oh God, nothing I love more than a meeting of the Perfect Hair Club.

When we went to bed, Hank went in my room and Daisy and I went in the guest room. She asked to sleep in the bed closest to the door. I didn’t care, I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.

Here’s something I hate: getting up right after I fall into a deep sleep. Meri had to shake me quite a bit, and at first I couldn’t figure out where I was. “Get up, Ness! Daisy is throwing up all over the bathroom. And she’s using the flowered towels!”

“Shhhh, shhhh!” I said, “Where’s Hank?”

“I can’t wake him up!”

“Okay, okay,” I said and followed her out of the room. The bathroom door was open, and the light was pouring into the hallway. So was the sound and smell of puking. Meri marched right past and into her room shutting her door. I stepped onto the cold white tile floor, opened the window, and closed myself in with the mess.

Daisy was on her knees with her head in the toilet bowl. She held her hair back with her left hand. There were tiny curls on her neck and she had little gold rings in her ears. She was wearing my brother’s gray t-shirt and a pair of his dirty socks—gross! Under her knees was one of the flowered towels and she was using another one to wipe her chin. A third towel had already been used to mop up what must’ve missed the toilet.

There wasn’t much to do but sit on the edge of the tub and wait, and that’s where I was when my mom opened the door. She just shook her head and said, “Oh for God’s sake.” Then she pulled a stack of old towels from the linen closet, put them on the counter, and went back to bed. Obviously, this wasn’t the time for a lecture—we could look forward to that tomorrow.

The puking and dry heaving seemed to go on forever, but finally Daisy stood up and dried her face. She seemed surprised to see me. “You’re Hank’s little sister,” she whispered—like I needed to be reminded. Then she stumbled out and found her way back to the guest room.

I held my breath while I gathered up the used towels and dumped them in the bathtub. Then I sprayed the toilet all over with Dow Bathroom Cleaner, washed my hands like crazy, and went back to bed leaving the bathroom window open and the door shut.

The next morning I pretended to be asleep when my mother came into the guest room. She had the hall light on, but otherwise it was still really dark. “Daisy,” she whispered, “Daisy? Daisy! How are you feeling? You were pretty sick last night. You kids should be a little more careful with alcohol.”

I could tell Daisy had her face in her pillow by the muffled way she answered. I think she said, “Go away, please.”

My mother persisted, “Daisy, I want you to get up and get dressed, dear, and get on the road. It’s best you’re not here when my girls wake up. How you students behave at school is one thing, but I’m not going to have them exposed to a lot of careless behavior in their own house. And let me tell you something, a beautiful girl like you should be a lot more careful with her looks. Alcohol and smoking are terrible for your skin. And what man really wants a girl who drinks so much? Honestly, you wouldn’t be welcome in this family with habits like that. One drink or two at the most is plenty—and not every evening either. And honestly, what kind of girl goes traipsing around between rooms at all hours of the night looking for some boy she barely knows? A floozy, that’s who. Is that the reputation you want, Daisy? I don’t think so.”

A floozy Mom? Seriously?

I could hear Daisy whimper a little. I think she whispered she was sorry.

“No need to cry. We all make mistakes. But today is a new day. The sun is coming up, and the sky is clear. Get in your car and drive to Wisconsin and think about what I said.”

“Hank is going to wonder where I went...” Daisy protested weakly.

“Hank will sleep in and I’ll tell him you wanted to get an early start. If you’re driving back to Texas together make a plan by phone, but you’re not to come back to this house unless you’re going to act appropriately. Girls are easily influenced at this age. You throwing up like that—I just hope it was a good education for them. But we have things to do today, Christmasy things, and I’m sure your family has the same. Each to their own, as the saying goes. Get up now, I’ll make you some toast to take in the car. I already carried the towels you ruined down to the laundry.”

“Yes Ma’am,” is all Daisy said.

I kept my eyes shut, and I guess I did fall back asleep because she was gone when I woke up at eight-thirty.

When Mom woke Hank up at ten he wanted to know what Daisy was doing. I was dressed and ready to finish my Christmas shopping, but I lingered in the bathroom so I could eavesdrop. It wasn’t hard, even with the door shut. When he heard Daisy had left, my brother slapped the headboard so hard it bounced against the wall. “What? Why didn’t somebody wake me up?”

“We thought you wanted to sleep,” my mother said matter-of-factly. “She said she had to get home and to wish you a Merry Christmas. Seriously, did you expect a pretty girl like that to hang around for someone who looks as straggly as you with that beard? For God’s sake if you’re going to keep that thing, at least trim it, would you? And same with that hair—it’s not very flattering you know. You just don’t have the kind of hair that looks good long. And that coat! What were you thinking? That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen. Do you ever look at yourself? I don’t want to see it again. Your nice corduroy jacket is hanging in the closet. Just wear that and some sweaters if you’re cold. Can I tell you something? You smell disgusting. Please shower and let’s have a nice Christmas, shall we?”

Later, when I strip the sheets off my bed, I keep my eyes shut. Some things you just don’t want to know about.

Monday, May 25, 2015


Me and one of the best reasons I have to stay healthy
This blog was a way for me to keep track of my food experiments and a way to share what I was learning about food and health. It's been an interesting five years and I'm a healthier person for it. Here are the most important things I learned:
  • Adding a lot of vegetables to one's diet is the best way I know to improve health. Starting back in the summer of 2010 I made the rule that all my meals had to be half fruits and non-starchy vegetables. That was my springboard to good health and I've never looked back. 
  • Sugar sucks. It's really bad for us and makes us fat. I found that my weight and particularly belly fat was caused by sugar. And I don't respect the idea of replacing sugar with sugar substitutes – that's just trying to trick the brain. Bad idea. Whenever I'm off sugar I feel and look the best.
  • Fructose is particularly fattening. Fructose is the sugar that is in fruit. When you eat fruit your body can process the fructose pretty well because it's bound up with fiber. But as soon as the fructose is separated from its source – for example, when the juice is squeezed out of fruit or corn is made into HFCS (high fructose corn syrup) – the body stores it as fat (unless you're doing some pretty incredible exercising).
  • Calories aren't as important as the types of food you eat. The whole idea of calories in/calories out is now proven to be baloney. 100 calories of candy no way equals 100 calories of salad. This is because the body processes them differently. Sugar gets stored as fat (unless you're doing some pretty incredible exercising). Salad does not.
  • Processed food is terrible. Our bodies – not machines – are supposed to process our food. Our bodies burn calories processing food and it needs to process food in order to stay healthy, because...
  • There are little dudes called microbes living in our guts that depend on helping us process our food, and they actually help us get more nutrients out of the foods we eat. That information only started getting media attention while I was writing this blog. I took the Coursera gut microbiome course taught by Rob Knight, one of the leading scientists doing research on gut microbes. In that class I learned it's vital to good health to keep the good microbes in the body stoked with the food good microbes like to eat – which, according to  the latest research, appears to be plant fiber. Bad microbes thrive on sugar. I also learned that probiotics and prebiotics are worth adding to our diets. 
  • Gluten free is not a fad. Everyone, IMHO, should do the experiment – give up gluten for a month (or at least a few days) and see if you feel better or different. I certainly felt better and I certainly didn't expect to (I thought I felt fine). Anyone who poo-poos giving up gluten/wheat but hasn't tried it himself is an idiot. Giving it up might profoundly improve your mental and/or physical health, so it's worth trying.
  • Ditto for dairy. And, seriously, dairy can do all kinds of things to you. I eat dairy but I also know it makes me fat! Here's why:
  • I love potatoes, corn, and beans. (Did you know beans are part of the diet of every Blue Zone community that's been studied?) I just don't count them as vegetables – neither does the National Diabetes Association.
  • One has to exercise. There's no way to be healthy without it, plus it's very good for improving your brain function. But it's impossible to start out doing a lot of strenuous exercise and maintain it – strenuous exercise, if you're not used to it, just makes you tired and hungry. One should start slowly and build.
  • Sticking to a diet that's dramatically different from your standard one is virtually impossible. My theory is that this has to do with the body's symbiotic relationship with its gut microbes. Different microbes depend on different foods and when you cut off their food supply they get pissed and make you miserable. But if you start adding plant foods first, you build an army of healthy gut microbes and they make it easier for you to make other diet improvements like giving up sugar or alcohol or gluten.  
  • Losing weight is a stupid goal. Feeling happy, getting healthy, having more energy – those are goals that make sense. Food helps with all those things. Eat healthy and exercise moderately and your weight will straighten itself out. 
  • While a little coffee and a little alcohol aren't bad IMHO, they're definitely habits that have to be balanced with exercise and plenty of vegetables. They can make you feel terrible and they're hard to give up, so they may not be worth messing with at all.
  • Meat. I eat it, but it's no longer the centerpiece of my meals. Vegetables are.
So here ends this blog. It's been an interesting five years. I can't claim I never got sick during them, but overall I've felt the best I've ever felt, and I've recovered faster from illnesses than I did in the past. Having a baseline of good health is very helpful when you get something like Lyme disease or the flu.

I've just finished my first novel, and for the foreseeable future I'm going to concentrate on writing fiction. So goodbye for now blog, you were a big help.

Monday, January 5, 2015


Scrambled potatoes with onion, spinach, and tomatoes
Back in the early 60s, when I was a kid, my mother often served us a baked potato and chopped spinach on the same plate. Then she would come around behind me, cut open my potato, pile the spinach on it with a pat of butter and mash it all together with my fork. I can visualize her doing this and it's actually a very fond memory -- having her so close to me, the way she smelled, what her sleeve looked like that day, the rings she wore, etc. So I grew up eating potato mashed with spinach and I still love it. When I was told I could eat the skin of the potato too I was really pumped! I didn't know any other kids who did that, and it made me feel very cool.

I love potatoes. Who doesn't love potatoes? And I often use them as an inducement to get my family to eat other healthy foods. For example, putting potatoes in soup will make it popular even if there's little or no meat in it. And who doesn't love potatoes at breakfast? Often I stretch scrambled eggs by adding some potato. I can add a lot of other vegetables that way too: onions, peppers, tomatoes, some chopped spinach -- if potato is in there, it gets eaten.

You can make any number of lovely scrambles by adding pre-cooked potatoes to other ingredients like the ones I mentioned above. It's the word scramble that makes it a breakfast food.

The key is making the potatoes separately first. You can use last night's leftover mashed potatoes -- but who ever has leftover mashed potatoes, right? So here's how to quick-cook some potatoes:

Cut the potatoes into small thin pieces or small chunks. Small pieces cook fast in boiling water and are perfect for scrambling into any sauteed vegetables you like.

Yesterday I made scrambled potatoes with onions, mushrooms, and swiss chard. Or a really simple one is potatoes, swiss chard/spinach/kale, and garlic. Delish!

Saturday, January 3, 2015


It's 7:30 pm of the third day that I've given up coffee and alcohol. My head is pounding and I'm feeling a little grouchy and also tired.

I had the headache last night too and I woke up with it this morning, but by 10 am it was gone and I thought I was out of the woods. I went for a mile run and felt pretty great. But by afternoon the headache returned and here I am. I think I'll go to bed early and hope that tomorrow my caffeine withdrawal is over.

Note: I'm definitely blaming the headache on the caffeine withdrawal. Giving up alcohol separately has never given me any negative side effects.

This isn't the first time I've given up coffee. In the last five years I've probably gone to the trouble seven or eight times. After a few days I'll be feeling great, not missing it. Then after a few weeks or months I'll have a cup at a restaurant, then I'll start with one cup a morning at home, and eventually I'll be back to three cups a morning and I won't particularly notice the effects. Until one day I do. I start to feel agitated, light headed, my heart rythym gets wonky, and I realize that I've had too much coffee to drink, and it takes hours for the effect to wear off. The next morning I'll try to drink less, but it's hard.  In fact after I'm at the three cup a morning point, it's basically impossible for me to back down to two cups even though I really don't like the way three cups makes me feel.

And then there's my relationship to alcohol by which I mean white wine, or lately, tequila. It's so similar to my relationship with coffee. I can give it up totally, and I'll feel great. In 2013 I gave it up for 100 days and thought I might never go back to it. But slowly, one occassional drink at a time turned into two or three drinks a night. The pattern is so similar to the one with coffee that I decided to do a little research and it appears both alcohol and coffee affect how the body's natural adenosine works.

What is adenosine? "Adenosine is a central nervous system neuromodulator that has specific receptors. When adenosine binds to its receptors, neural activity slows down, and you feel sleepy. Adenosine thus facilitates sleep and dilates the blood vessels, probably to ensure good oxygenation during sleep."(Adenosine is also a pharmaceutical drug, so if you look it up, beware which one you're reading about.)

Caffeine blocks the effect of adenosine, which is why it wakes you up. Alcohol has a completely different effect on adenosine receptors. At certain doses, its effect is similar to adenosine in that it also slows you down and makes you sleepy. Adenosine also affects heart rhythm.

No wonder giving up alcohol and caffeine at the same time takes some adjusting to. It just makes sense to me that by constantly getting in the way of what my body wants to do naturally, I screw it up. But I know it can recover. In past years on this cleanse I've found that my sleep becomes deep and profound after a few days. Even last night, the second night of this 21 day cleanse, though I did lie awake some of the time, I fell asleep at 10:00pm and got up at 9:00am -- a big improvement on night one when I couldn't fall asleep for several hours. Usually after a few nights of staying off both "drugs", I start waking up naturally before 7am feeling rested and falling asleep around 11pm. Why would I ever want to mess with that? Maybe this will be the year that I don't.

Below are a few good sites with information about adenosine and how it relates to caffeine and alcohol. One of the readings is about how mixing caffeine and alcohol at the same time (as in mixing an energy drink with your martini or beer -- OMG! who does that?) can get you into serious trouble. I would never drink them together, but it was still interesting to read about how it affects the signaling to the central nervous system. This link is to a study that found severity of alcoholism was tied to various measures of tobacco and caffeinated beverage usage and surmised alcohol and caffeine should be considered jointly in the treatment of alcoholics.

I'm hoping that some of the controversy about energy drinks will help bring the negative attributes of caffeine to the public's attention before coffee becomes the first non-nutrient to be added to the federal government's Dietary Guidelines for Americans. This while the Center for Disease Control calls insufficient sleep a public health epidemic.

Support Cells, Not Neurons, Lull the Brain to Sleep
An Essential Role for Adenosine Signaling in Alcohol Abuse
How Drugs (Caffeine) Affect Neurotransmitters
Alcohol and Caffeine, The Perfect Storm
The Role of Adenosine in the Regulation of Sleep
Brain Basics: Understanding Sleep
Should I Be Concerned About Drinking Coffee?
Sleep and Caffeine
Patterns of alcohol, cigarette, and caffeine and other drug use in two drug abusing populations.

and then there's this:
Caffeine for Sale: The Hidden World of the World's Favorite Stimulant

Wednesday, December 31, 2014


It's not coffee, but it's closer than you might think
For the last five years I've given up coffee  (all caffeine) as part of my New Year's cleanse. Years ago alcohol would have been the hardest for me to give up, but now it's coffee. And I don't even drink that much coffee -- I try to keep it to two cups a morning.  Lately I've been drinking three.

Like millions of other coffee drinking adults, I make coffee as soon as I get up. I really look forward to it, and I don't even drink "great" coffee. I drink Nescafe instant. This is Mexico. A lot of coffee is grown here, and these day Starbucks is making inroads, but Nescafé Clásico instant coffee is still a very popular drink. When I'm in the US, I brew coffee. All that is besides the point though. I get addicted to my morning coffee, regardless the type, and I have to wean myself off over a few days or a I get a wicked headache that lasts all day, maybe longer.

So for the last few days I've been drinking a cup of hot water with lime first thing. Then I have my coffee. Today I had one cup. Tomorrow, I might take a few sips of my husband's coffee, but that will be the end of coffee drinking for at least the next three weeks.

Why give up coffee? I hate being addicted to things. It's that simple. And, contrary to what the 30-billion dollar coffee industry says, I don't believe caffeine is harmless/good for you even at low levels. Why would it be so hard to get out of your system if it was?

One trick that helps me give up coffee is having a warm cup in my hand of some other liquid. Hot water plain, or hot water with lemon or lime squeezed in, or herbal tea works.  Honestly, it's the hot cup as much as the flavor.

The same goes for alcohol, by the way. If you're having trouble imagining giving up alcohol, think of a non-alcoholic drink you like, and have that in the same glass instead. I like lemonade in a wine glass. It's not the total answer if you're a habitual drinker, but it helps more than you might think. I call this the mechanical component of addiction and this is how I know about it:

My father, a life-long smoker, got Alzheimers in his late seventies and lived the last few years of his life in an assisted living facility. Of course they didn't let him smoke there. But even after years of not smoking and after he lost his ability to speak coherently, he'd get a lovely smile on his face and a faraway look in his eye and you could tell he was about to tell a story or joke the way he always used to. But before he started to babble, his right hand would float up to an invisible pocket on his left shirt front, and he'd gracefully pull out an invisible cigarette the way he had his entire adult life. It was a gesture I'd seen a million times growing up. This taught me not to underestimate the mechanical components of addiction.

So that's what I employ when I give up coffee. Once I've got that hot mug to carry around with me through my morning routine and to sit next to my laptop, I forget there's not coffee in there. Really. It's true.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014


No idea how to make the label un-reverse
I really like tequila. So shoot me. It's replaced white wine as my drink of choice. Being a white wine drinker is probably more common among women. In fact, among my friends, it's very common. Too common? Probably. Anyway, it's that time of year to put all alcohol behind me for awhile. It's two days from my New Year's cleanse and I'm mentally preparing. I'm also cutting back on my coffee to avoid the headache giving up caffeine entails. For me, coffee is what I'll miss most, but I really don't think it's that good for me -- I don't care what a zillion articles about the benefits of caffeine say.

I'm giving up: alcohol, caffeine, dairy, wheat, and sugar starting January 1st. Lie. I'm going to a New Year's Day party on January 1st and I'll eat the good food offered there, some of which will include wheat and dairy, so that part of the cleanse will start January 2nd. But mostly I don't eat dairy or wheat anyway, so they aren't much of a challenge. Sugar isn't really a challenge either any more. But the first time I gave up sugar, it was a bitch. Same with wheat. Now I avoid sugar and wheat pretty easily, although if I do eat them, I'll crave them the whole rest of the day. Best for me to stay away from my danger foods.

I used to worry incessantly about my food addictions. I probably went years thinking I was an alcoholic; I couldn't imagine giving up drinking for even a day. But all that's behind me. I give it up every year. Last year I quit for over one hundred days. I then had to make a decision about whether to ever drink again, and slowly, drinking has crept back into my life where it's become an every evening thing again. However, I don't worry about it any more. I don't feel hungover in the mornings and in general I feel healthy. Plus I look forward to my New Year's cleanse when I give up alcohol. And sincerely, I do look forward to it. Here are the things the cleanse gives me:

More energy
Weight loss
Flatter belly
Good sleep
Clearer sinuses
Clearer mind
More hours in the day (I go to bed later, get up earlier)
Pain-free joints

So whatever your demons are, I suggest getting into the habit of a cleanse at the New Year. Design your own. Sugar is a great one to give up, particularly if you're not an alcohol abuser or maybe you should put the pot away for awhile.

Twenty-one days is a good amount of time, in my humble opinion. And my best advice is, eat a lot of vegetables. Three days of changing your eating habits will change the composition of your gut microbes. Good microbes feed on plant material. Give those good guys something to work with and they'll be your best friends.

Saturday, December 27, 2014


Surfers at Manzanillo Bay passing by a tide pool. 
The guests at the little Tronco Bay Inn where we stayed last week were particularly friendly, and a woman from Montreal, a lovely grandmother type, walked up to me and told me to check out a tide pool down the beach. She raved about all the different types of little fish in it. So I went, and found a world in just about a foot of water. I went back again with my daughter's goggles, got down on my belly, and put my face in over and over between breaths.

There were little blue neon fish, a combo purple/orange fish, pearly white ones, transparent ones, and striped ones of both vertical and horizontal varieties. There were also bright orange hermit crabs, starting at the size of an apple seed up to the size of a dime, living in twenty different styles of shells. All this in a space as small as a bathroom.

Not my tidal pool, but similar in size and
unremarkable surface appearance 
Studying the tide pool I was reminded of the Coursera course I'd just completed from the University of Colorado about the gut microbiome, a subject I've been fascinated by for a year now. I've begun to think of the microbes on and in my body as being as beautiful and diverse as the creatures in that tide pool.

I observed the many ways the sea creatures moved about, fed, and interacted. I learned in microbiome class that microbes have similar, diverse habits. There were the perfectly synchronized little schooling fish going this way and that. Timid fish and aggressive ones. Ones that hung together but were spaced quite a ways apart. Ones who darted up and poked others of their own kind and some that poked me. Some fed at the rocks and stayed near the bottom, while others stayed near the surface, feeding on something I couldn't see.

New water constantly washed in and out, and sometimes things got a little turbulent, but the little creatures didn't seem to mind.

Watching them, I thought of the different ecosystems of my body. My lower legs, which have always been dry and scaly and now have much sparser hair than they did when I was young, are my desserts. I don't know what microbes live there, but they must be different from what's on the rest of my body, because mostly I don't have dry skin. I don't use moisturizer, except a little on my face, and I don't use sun screen. I'd rather expose my skin directly to the sun and after a while cover up with clothes and wear a hat -- I believe in getting my vitamin D, and I think sunscreen smothers my microbes! No one else in my family feels that way though. Everyone is always putting on tons of sunscreen. Everyone showers a lot more than me too. I hate washing my microbes down the drain. Seriously! I think they help me stay healthy.

This may seem nuts, but in the middle of the first night of our trip, the air conditioner in the room died and we had to leave the windows and door open to get some air. I hadn't brought bug repellent, and I was being eaten alive not by mosquitoes which I would have feared because of dengue (and now zika) but by little bugs I couldn't see. I felt helpless until I remembered what I read in Moises Velasquez-Manoff's book, An Epidemic of Absence -- that the immune system can be triggered by things like bites. I comforted myself by thinking that my body would cure the bug bites and while it was at it, it might cure other issues I was unaware of. I fell asleep in peace and woke up in the morning with loads of little red dots on my arms and legs. But they eventually healed, and I helped the process along, or so I felt, by bathing in the salt water and sitting in the sun, two things that, I was taught by my mother, cure everything.

It's funny how we get beliefs about germs from our families. My mother had many opinions about microbes, though she didn't call germs that, and she knew by intuition that different parts of the body had different ones (something the American Gut Project  has verified for thousands of volunteers). "Feet," she told me, "are disgusting. Never put on someone else's shoes... And don't kiss people on the lips." (I didn't heed this advice.) But she always kissed our cuts and scrapes -- doesn't every mother?

She did not approve of being licked by dogs, particularly on the face. She did approve of digging in the backyard and playing in dirt and sand. She did not approve of touching surfaces in bathrooms, and when we were young she laid toilet paper on public toilet seats before we sat down. When we were older she told us to squat over those toilets (impossible I always found). We flushed the big, industrial handles, with our feet.

My mother also taught me never to wear underwear to bed because "crotches need to breathe at night." Faces, on the other hand, evidently didn't need to breathe, in her opinion, because she taught me to apply moisturizer at night after washing my face and to wash it off in the morning and reapply. She didn't believe in foundation makeup and neither do I because "pores need to breathe." I wouldn't even wear moisturizer except that after forty-plus years, I'm sure the microbes on my face expect it and may even thrive on it. I don't wash my face as much as my mother taught me though, and when I do I just use a clean, rough cloth to remove the dirt. I don't trust soap.

Many scientists who study the microbiome change their ideas about cleanliness. These days vaginas are being swabbed for good microbes which are then rubbed on babies born by c-section. In fact, vaginas are supposed to be full of beneficial microbes. Makes me wonder if oral sex isn't an adaptive strategy to gain good germs. I wonder the same thing about French kissing.

Today sick people are doing their own fecal transplants, asking their families and healthy neighbors to be donors. This turn of events shows the correct appreciation for the little creatures living in and on us. It's an acknowledgement that we are collections of little worlds like the tide pools on the beach -- beautiful little worlds that we fail to respect at our own peril.

Aside: I don't have an underwater camera, but here's a cool video, not of the tide pool, but of another underwater community:

Thursday, December 4, 2014


Guanabana, aka soursop (Annona muricata)

This morning we ate a guanabana, aka soursop. It's in the same family as cherimoya, which is what my fruit man called it, but looking at photos, I think most people would call it guanabana (Annona muricata). It has seeds throughout so I ate it by the slice and spit out the seeds. Thank you fruit man for cutting one open for me and letting me taste it yesterday. I'm glad I bought one! I also just watched a video about how to make a drink out of it... may try that with the next one. There are lots of health claims with this fruit (google guanabana). But I'm happy just to eat it for the flavor!

Then at night we went out for a drink and I had a really good fish taco -- nice piece of white fish with a carrot slaw served in the taco -- who knew that carrot slaw is the secret to an excellent fish taco.

Good read today at . If you're keeping up with all the research (and hype) about the microbiome, I recommend this article -- three scientists in the field give their appraisal of where the science world is with the research and how/whether we should be acting on the info we have: Spoiler alert. It's too early for us to act on anything regarding our microbiomes. But that said, I think mine really enjoyed the guanabana and fish taco.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014


These days I'm writing a novel. A professor friend from Holland suggested I write a book about the things I've discovered about food and health. I thought about that for a while and began writing a food/health memoir. I even joined a writer's group with three published authors. They were very supportive, but they were all novelists. After a couple of meetings, I decided my book should be a novel too. It's become quite fictional and a lot more fun to write. It does center around food and eating habits and illness but also allows me to take up some other issues I'm interested in like art and violence against women.

Meanwhile, I've regretted abandoning this blog. Since I wrote last I've had a number of issues worth writing about -- I got Lyme disease and did a lot of research on that; I had a granddaughter and did a lot of thinking about birthing and nursing; and I completed a Coursera course on the gut microbiome, a topic I'm wildly fascinated by. But I just can't steel myself to write about any of these things right now.

In an attempt to keep my blog alive, I'm going to keep a food/exercise diary here, at least for a while. My Eating for My Type A Blood in Mexico post got a lot of views. It's basically a food diary that I wrote every day for two weeks, so maybe people like reading that sort of thing. I know I enjoyed reading the food diaries of students in my microbiome class.

Note: I don't follow the Blood Type Diet anymore. Although I did feel great on it, I just can't live without potatoes and salsa so I decided not to believe in it.

After four plus years of experimenting, I know that the best diet for me is one that is mostly vegetables with a little meat, some fruit and some nuts.  I was interested to find out yesterday that this is also the diet Dr. Mark Hyman eats. I also enjoy a couple of cups of black coffee in the mornings, and some alcohol most evenings, and I eat an occasional dessert (like on a birthday or at the holidays) which may be wheat based, but otherwise I don't eat wheat, or sugar, and I also avoid dairy. I don't eat anything processed (lie! I occasionally eat chips). But, THE MOST IMPORTANT PART IS THE VEGETABLES.

Be they fermented, steamed, raw, or roasted, I love vegetables in all forms. They are the foundation of my diet and, I believe, of my health.  I'd say I'm healthy. I can go out and run a mile on a whim, or go on a day hike in the mountains without a problem, I sleep well, and most of the time I'm calm, collected, and happy. I have no idea what I weigh (somewhere between 135 and 150) -- it varies, and I could care less. My definition of healthy is that I feel well. When I feel well, I look just fine whether I'm thin or a bit chunky.

                                     DAILY FOOD LOG (most recent day on top)

Thursday, June 26, 2014


Roasted brussel sprouts and yams
If you told me I could take a cruise to anywhere in the world and consume all the food, desserts, and alcohol I wanted free of charge, but no vegetables, I wouldn't go. I crave veggies the way I used to crave candy or pizza or white wine. I still like those other things, but I can take them or leave them. Vegetables I can't live without. And I know everyone who is reading this would become vegetable addicts too if they started eating vegetables regularly.

I believe the reason we crave sweets and pizza is because our bodies are starved for vegetables. We just haven't been exposed to vegetables enough to know that's what we're craving.

Vegetables -- greens and root crops -- are what people have been eating since the dawn of man. Yes we ate meat too. Yes we ate fruit too, and legumes and grains for that matter, but we've been eating leafy greens, tubers, and other roots the longest because they are the most readily available and the easiest to gather and prepare. Many of them can be eaten raw.

I suspect that a lot of today's chronic health issues, mental health issues, and cancers are due to a lack of vegetables in our diets. Our guts evolved digesting a wide variety of these foods and inside our guts, helping to digest them were thousands of different types of microorganisms.

Are you aware that human beings have the greatest diversity of gut microbes of any animal on earth, and that we share the same types of microbes with more other species than any other animal? We have gut microbes in common with gorillas, chimpanzees, pigs, cows, dogs, cats, rats, birds, Neandertals, the list goes on and on. Because we've shared habitats and/or eaten those animals over thousands of years, we've picked up their microbes and they've colonized us, and we have passed the microbes on to our children and that's a wonderful thing. Our gut microbes, which if you put them all together weigh about the same as our brains, make up the majority of our immune systems. The more diverse our microbial gut communities, the more able we are to fight off diseases.

A lot has been written lately about how we've harmed our gut microbes and, hence, our immune systems, by overuse of broad spectrum antibiotics during the last seventy five years or so. But what hasn't been written about enough is how we're not feeding the beneficial gut microbes we do have. What do beneficial gut microbes thrive on? PLANTS! Plants like whole vegetables, the closer to their natural state the better.

Vegetable juices don't really do the trick, by the way. Although juices can provide nutrients, your microbes really feed on fiber. Vegetables are made up of soluble and insoluble fiber. These work together to coat our digestive tracts and allow nutrients to travel through the entire system being absorbed along the way. Then the microbes break the fiber down and release even more nutrients into the body.

Here's what beneficial gut microbes don't consume: processed carbohydrates like flour. There is little to no fiber in flour. Beneficial gut microbes thrive on breaking food down the way they've been breaking it down for thousands of years. But modern people in developed countries are now eating mostly processed foods so their best microbes are unemployed and they've started to make trouble. They've started to attack the bodies that host them, causing inflammation in  different areas: the joints, the organs, the brain. But when we start building up the plant part of our diet -- feeding the unemployed microbes -- we begin to see many of these inflammations disappear. In other words, when our gut gets happy, our whole body starts to feel better, and our brains start to function better too.

If you're not a vegetable eater, start by adding one fruit or vegetable to each meal and then work up to making half of each meal fruits and vegetables. But don't go overboard on the fruit! Fruit contains a LOT of sugar. Remember, before canning and refrigeration, humans only ate fruit when it was ripe and before it rotted which was for a short period each year. We would do our bodies a big favor if we went back to eating sweet foods only occasionally.

Once you start eating whole plants (as opposed to refined/processed plants) on a regular basis, don't be surprised to find yourself craving them over other foods. REALLY! I'll never forget the first time I cooked chard. There it was all soggy, limp, and dark green in the iron skillet. I took a small bite to see if it was cooked enough. I got one taste of it and proceeded to eat the whole bunch directly from the pan -- no seasonings, no anything.  It was just SO DELICIOUS, I can't describe it. Even writing about it makes my mouth water. The same goes for most vegetables I try. One bite and I'm a goner! I'm sure that's the way nature intended it.

So why doesn't everyone feel this way about vegetables? The main answer is money. There's no money in selling plain vegetables. Even frozen and canned vegetables aren't big money makers relative to junk foods and processed sauces and soups. So we're inundated with food advertisements that feature packaged foods and we begin to forget that vegetables even exist, or worse, we're  told that they don't taste good or that we won't like them. Who's behind that message? I wonder...
An Epidemic of Absence, Moises Velasquez-Manoff
Missing Microbes, Martin J. Blaser, MD
You Are What Your Bacteria Eat - The Importance of Feeding Your Microbiome with Jeff Leach (radio podcast)
Oldest Neanderthal Poop Ever Found Reveals Dietary Preferences, Paul Hamaker, Paleontology Examiner

If you're having trouble visualizing how microbes digest food, watch this 4 minute video:

Monday, June 9, 2014


I just learned something that's going to make me a more relaxed and patient person! I'm reading The Reason I Jump, by Naoki Higashida, a Japanese boy with autism.  Naoki explains what it's like to have autism by answering a series of questions.  

Question 3: Why do you ask the same questions over and over? 

Before I share his answer, I just want to admit that my teenager says I ask "Do you have homework?"  as many as four times in one afternoon. She says my memory is going and that I don't listen. Maybe. But maybe it's something much less negative...

Recently I spent a couple of days with my father-in-law who asked me every time I entered the room,  "When is Geoffrey (his son) returning from Mexico?" 

I kept changing my answer: "In about three weeks"; "June 25th"; "when he finishes teaching his class"; "pretty soon"; "before the 4th of July"; "before you know it." But no answer made him stop asking and I became somewhat exasperated. He's not the first elderly person who has asked me the same question over and over of course. It's a common phenomenon with the aging brain. But Naoki's answer is helping me see it in a new light. 

Q. Why do you ask the same questions over and over?

Naoki's answer:  It lets us play with words. We (people with autism) aren't good at conversation, and however hard we try, we'll never speak as effortlessly as you do. The big exception, however, is words or phrases we're very familiar with. Repeating these is great fun. It's like a game of catch with a ball.

Yes! Conversation can be so much like a game of catch! And I love to play catch! When I read that answer, I thought of the loveliest game of catch I ever played... 

When we first started living in Mexico, my daughter was very young and in the evening she would play in the street with the children from the house opposite. Their mother and I would stand outside and watch for cars while the children rode on bikes and scooters and played "soccer". My Spanish was awful, and so Rosey and I didn't get very far communicating with words. 

She was a pretty woman with gorgeous white teeth -- in her house was a picture of her as a beauty pageant winner.  Her husband was a hilarious, good-natured guy who was wild about her. They loved spending time with their children, but it looked to me like she really had wanted to stop after having two, and when she was pregnant with the third she had seemed embarrassed and unhappy. But the third child turned out to be a totally charming little character, and after he was born the couple went back to laughing a lot. 

Their house was very modest, a tiny facade with a door and one window, attached on both sides to similar houses, and yet the husband loved it because that's where he had been born and raised. When his siblings bought him out and they had to move away, he asked me to make them a painting of the house. I painted it with their children sitting on the curb in front, and that painting became one of their cherished possessions. 

As you can tell, I knew quite a bit about these people and their lives, but really we had very little verbal communication because of my weak Spanish skills and I felt bad because there was a lot I wished I could say. (If you're wondering why I didn't work harder to learn Spanish, my defense is that I was working very hard to become a painter. I had limited time each year in Mexico, and it was my time to devote to learning my art.)

Then one day our two families went to a water park. The fathers took the kids to one pool and Rose and I were alone together in the "adult" pool. Spontaneously we began to play catch with a red ball with white polka-dots, about 10 inches in diameter. We threw that ball back and forth for …. forever…. we just kept it going until our arms ached. I remember us both grinning the whole time. My face hurt from smiling. It was such a relief to have this method of connecting. It was definitely communicating. It was communicating joy and happiness about being together and admiration for each other. There was the happiness of being freed up from the kids a little and gratefulness for our husbands and their friendship with each other. There was relief in being able to show how much we liked each other by simply continuing to send that ball back and forth until we were sunburned and exhausted. 

Thinking about that game of catch and what Naoki said, I'm now reinterpreting my father-in-law's persistent questions as his way of wanting to engage me but not having enough mental capacity/energy to always start a "real" conversation. I now believe my answers weren't important. Sending words back and forth was the important thing, not finding an answer that would satisfy him and stop him from asking. With that in mind, I'm looking forward to visiting him again. 

There is a lot we can learn about human behavior from people whose brains are wired differently from our own. Over the last year I've read a number of books by authors with brain challenges:  Born on a Blue Day, by  Daniel Tammet, a man with Savant Syndrome, a form of Asperger's; The Center Cannot Hold, by Elyn R. Saks, a professor of Law, Psychology, and Psychiatry with schizophrenia; The World's Strongest Librarian, by Josh Hanagarne, a librarian with Tourette's syndrome; and  Brain on Fire, by Susannah Cahalan, a reporter who developed a brain disease which severely altered her behavior for a period of time.

Through these books, I've become accepting and less afraid of people whose behaviors used to make me uncomfortable.  What a relief it is to find out over and over again that people want to be friendly and to feel that they belong, they just can't always express it the way we might expect. I want to be friendly! So I'm happy to be reminded it doesn't have to be hard. Sometimes it can be as easy as playing catch.