Improve Your Digestion Today with 7 Simple Tips

veggies

“All disease begins in the gut.” This oft-cited quote from Hippocrates still holds quite true, especially in modern times when so many factors are impacting our microbiome, our digestion, and our overall gut health.

Improving and maintaining strong digestion is essential for robust health. Healthy digestion is responsible for optimal nutrient absorption, proper energy production and metabolism, and elimination of toxins and other waste products. A diverse microbiome protects us from infection and supports a healthy mind and mood, among many other things.

Employ the following tips to optimize your gut health and improve digestion immediately.

relax digestion

Relax

Healthy digestion begins in the mind, before food even enters the mouth. Sit down to eat. Take a few deep breaths to relax and feel gratitude for your meal. The sight and smell of food allow the salivary glands to begin to produce the enzymes necessary to initiate the breakdown of food. Eliminate distractions, such as watching television or reading, so you can actually taste your food and sense when you’re full. Slow down and eat mindfully. This allows the nervous system to shift into parasympathetic, aka ‘rest and digest’, mode.

Chew More

The teeth break down food into smaller pieces which make it easier for the digestive system to process. Proper chewing also produces more saliva which contains enzymes that further break down food for increased nutrient absorption.

sauerkraut digestion

Feed the Gut

Creating a healthy microbiome involves nurturing a wide variety of microbes and feeding those microbes what they need to thrive. Inoculate the gut with probiotics through fermented foods, such as sauerkraut and kimchi, and consider high quality supplements with a variety of strains. Nurture healthy gut microbes by eating a diverse range of foods, focusing on whole unprocessed foods, and consuming a lot of fiber. Legumes, whole grains, fruit, and vegetables are all great choices.

For a list of foods I enjoy on trail to maintain a healthy microbiome, download a copy of my healthy hiker grocery guide for FREE here.

Hydrate

Maintaining a steady intake of non-caffeinated beverages throughout the day is important to ensure healthy elimination and avoid constipation. Water is the ideal choice. There are many opinions on how much, but the old 8×8 rule, or eight eight-ounce glasses, is a good place to start. Increase this amount in hot climates or with heavy exercise.

Drop Unhealthy Habits

Eliminate the following activities which have been shown to disrupt digestion and a healthy microbiome: consuming artificial sweeteners and other food additives, drinking alcohol, smoking, over-consuming caffeine, being overly stressed, late night eating, and taking unnecessary pharmaceuticals.

exercise digestion

Exercise

Movement helps food pass through the digestive system. Even a short 15-20 minute walk can improve digestion. Gastrointestinal motility is important not only for physical comfort, but because it helps maintain a healthy bacterial population in the small intestine.

Consume Herbs to Enhance Digestion

Incorporate the following herbs to support liver and gallbladder health, stimulate digestion, and repair the digestive tract: Ginger root, Dandelion root, Peppermint leaf, Milk Thistle seed, and Slippery Elm bark. Use an infusion or decoction to prepare these herbs, depending on the part of the plant with which you’re working.

Incorporate any or all of the above tips to ensure robust digestion and all the benefits that go along with that!

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How to Create a Resilient Immune System

immune strength

Your immune system is the quiet hero, operating in the background to deal with threats of all magnitude, from cuts and scrapes to increased toxin exposure and chronic stress. Building and maintaining a strong immune system is critical to functioning optimally. Implement the following lifestyle and diet tips to increase immunity.

stress relief

Stress Less

The stress hormone cortisol decreases the production of white blood cells, decreasing the ability of the immune system to fight off antigens. Maintain a strong immune system by keeping stress in check. Daily practices such as meditation, yoga, moderate exercise, journaling, and time outdoors can all help with this.

sleep

Get Enough Sleep

Research suggests that normal sleep cycles and circadian rhythm exhibit a strong regulatory effect on immune function, including the redistribution of helper T-cells to lymph nodes. To enhance sleep, create an evening routine. Avoid stimulants after noon and stop eating a couple hours before bedtime. Stay off screens (computer, phone, TV) at least an hour before you want to be asleep. Avoid bright lighting. Engage in relaxing activities, such as light reading or taking a bath.

immune

Take Adaptogen Herbs

This class of herbs is a key tool to enhancing immunity. Research indicates that adaptogens exhibit an immune-modulating effect by supporting the endocrine system and regulating homeostasis. They act on the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis, affecting key regulators of the stress response. Reishi mushroom, Ashwagandha, and Asian Ginseng are particularly helpful for boosting immunity. Though not an adaptogen, Astragalus also supports immune function.

play outside

Play Outside

Scheduling time to play in nature each day increases immunity by reducing stress and triggering the endorphins and beneficial hormones associated with exercise. Time spent in the sun will also enhance immune-boosting Vitamin D prodcution. Finally, exposure to the wide variety of microbes in the natural environment creates a balanced, resilient immune system.

salad

Eat a Nutrient-Dense Whole Foods Diet

Your diet can enhance or suppress immunity. Food is our primary source for the vitamins and minerals needed for our immune system to function optimally. Focusing on whole foods, especially organically grown fruits and vegetables, helps build a healthy immune system. Additionally, eating a whole food diet rich in fiber will support a healthy gut microbiome. It’s believed that 70-80% of our immune tissue resides in the gut, so good gut health is key to a strong immune system!

supplement

Supplement with Vitamin D, Vitamin C, & Zinc

Striving to get most of your nutrition from your diet is ideal, but sometimes we need an extra boost. This is particularly true during times of increased stress when our bodies are more susceptible to illness. During this time, consider supplementing your diet with key immune-boosting vitamins and minerals. Vitamin D, Vitamin C, and Zinc are essential to optimal immune function.

By using these strategies to build healthy habits, you’ll keep your immune system strong all year long. You’ll avoid catching the cold when everyone at your office comes down with it, and if any serious threats come up, your body will be better equipped to keep you strong and healthy!

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How to Improve Focus & Attention

attention focus

Increasingly digitized lifestyles have led to our attention spans being a mere 8 seconds, according to a recent study by Canadian researchers. However, the importance of developing focus is key to not only doing substantive creative work, but also for being present with those we care about. Use the following tools, tips, and habits to increase your attention span and ability to focus.

meditate

Meditation

Regular meditation can alter brain patterns, improving mental focus and improving cognitive function, according to research reviewed by Psychology Today. Compared to non-meditators, meditators had increased stability in their ventral posteromedial cortex, a brain region linked to spontaneous thoughts and mind-wandering. To get started, try an app, such as Headspace or Calm. Start with 10 minutes per day and build up from there.

exercise

Exercise

Evidence based on neuroimaging has shown cognitive improvements from aerobic exercise, across the human lifespan. Exercisers experienced increased processing speed and an improved capacity to allocate greater attention resources toward the environment. There’s a range of how much is ideal, but recent research suggests that the effect is cumulative and participants who exercised 52 hours over 6 months showed the greatest cognitive enhancements.

attention focus

Cognitive Enhancing Herbs

In conjunction with these other strategies, several herbs can support increased attention and focus. Ginkgo biloba improves circulation, acts as an antioxidant, and has a long history of use for brain health. Other herbs to consider for increased attention include Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), Bacopa monnieri, Rhodiola rosea, and Gotu kola.

clean diet

Eat to Support Brain Health

Consuming a nutrient-dense diet enhances cognitive function, supporting an increased attention span and the ability to focus. To maximize antioxidant intake and protect the brain from free radical damage, eat several servings daily of a variety of fruits and vegetables. Additionally, consuming omega-3 fatty acids upregulates genes that are important for maintaining synaptic function and plasticity. Include a variety of other healthy fats as well, such as olive oil and nuts. Caffeine, in small amounts, can also improve focus and productivity.

productivity

Use Productivity Techniques

Try methods such as batching tasks, single-tasking, and the Pomodoro Method to increase attention span and focus. Group similar tasks into batches and schedule blocks of time to prevent the disruption and distraction that results from jumping from one project to the next. For example, rather than checking email throughout the day, check it only twice daily. Forget multitasking, and focus on one thing at a time. When you sit down to work, close browser tabs and turn your phone on airplane mode. Try the Pomodoro Method to stay hyper-focused on your most important task. The method traditionally involves setting a timer for 25-minute intervals of focused work, with short breaks in between.

By taking care of key aspects of our health and adopting a few new work habits, we can set up our lives and environments to support increased attention and focus. This allows us to do the work that matters most to us, to escape overwhelm, and to be more present in each moment.

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Five Natural Sunburn Remedies

sunburn

Ahh, summertime–cookouts, swimming, long days spent outside, and as is often the case, sunburn.

As much as we try to avoid it, most of us are familiar with the red, painful skin of a sunburn. Use the following natural remedies for quick relief!

A limited amount of time in the sun supports vitamin D production and regulates our circadian rhythm. However, too much exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays damages the skin, creating a painful sunburn.

Sunburn symptoms may not appear until up to 24 hours after you’ve been in the sun, so you don’t always know when a burn is happening. While it’s wise to keep the following remedies on hand, it’s even more important to avoid burns in the first place. Sunburns not only lead to pain, inflammation, peeling, and blisters, but they also increase the risk of skin cancer.

To avoid the sun’s harshest, most intense rays, avoid direct exposure between 10am and 4pm. When you are in the sun, cover your skin with light, breathable clothing, and wear a wide-brimmed hat. Consider using a sun umbrella, and apply sunscreen to exposed areas.

When you do your best to avoid a burn, but the sun gets the best of you anyway, use the following remedies for fast relief.

essential oil

Apple Cider Vinegar

ACV soothes burns and speeds healing. The acetic acid in ACV eases itching and inflammation. Add 1-2 cups to tepid bath water and soak for 30 minutes. Alternatively, combine 1 part ACV to 7 parts water and use this mixture for a compress. Apply to burns several times daily. To speed recovery, infuse the vinegar with one of the soothing herbs listed below.

aloe vera

Aloe Vera

The gel of this plant soothes, moisturizes, and heals burned skin. Harvest your own aloe gel from a plant at home or find commercial aloe at any drugstore. Look for one that has only the gel and no additives. Apply several times daily to unbroken skin, allowing it to air dry.

peppermint

Essential Oils

Peppermint essential oil is cooling and analgesic, making it a great choice for painful, burned skin. Lavender essential oil is anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial, and can speed healing. Consider other anti-inflammatory oils such as rose geranium, helichrysum, and chamomile.

Dilute oils prior to application. Consider using aloe gel or creating a spritz by combining 20-40 drops of essential oil with 1 tablespoon ACV and 5 ounces of water in a spray bottle.

bees

Herbs

Soothe sunburn with herbs that are anti-inflammatory, high in tannins, and promote wound healing. Consider green and black tea, plantain, comfrey, calendula, St. John’s wort, witch hazel, chamomile, and lavender. Use these herbs in compresses, sprays, salves, and infused in vinegar.

baths

Baths

Baths with common household ingredients can also alleviate redness and burning. Try an oatmeal bath by placing 1-2 cups finely ground oatmeal into an old sock, tying it off, and soaking with it in tepid bath water for 15-30 minutes. Baking soda is another option. Pour 1-2 cups baking soda into a tepid bath and soak for 30 minutes.

These methods work well alone and in combination. Cold compresses and baths are helpful in the early stages for immediate relief. Once the burn has cooled, salves and lotions can be great for healing skin.

To support healing from the inside out, ease the stress of the burn with adaptogen herbs, such as eleuthero root. Eat plenty of foods high in the antioxidant Vitamin C, such as fruits and veggies, to combat free radical damage. Finally, stay hydrated to replenish lost moisture and support recovery.

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Natural Remedies for Bug Bites & Stings

mosquito

Summer is just around the corner, which for many of us means more time spent outside. As any gardener or outdoor enthusiast knows, it’s likely just a matter of time until you have an unpleasant encounter with an  insect that bites or stings. The effect can range from slight annoyance to infections and even disease. Some of the most common biting or stinging bugs are mosquitoes, ticks, fleas, bees, chiggers, black flies, horse flies, and deer flies.

bees

Natural remedies can be a great alternative to bug sprays which contain chemicals such as DEET (N, N-Diethyl-meta-toluamide) and permethrin. DEET has been linked to many harmful effects, including impaired cell function in the brain, memory loss, tremors, shortness of breath, headache, and joint pain. Excessive exposure to permethrin can cause nausea, headache, muscle weakness, excessive salivation, shortness of breath, and seizures.

‘An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure’ as the saying goes, and when it comes to bug bites, this is no less true. Several plant essential oils are useful for their insect-repellent properties. A few of the most common ones include pennyroyal, cedarwood, citronella, eucalyptus, cinnamon leaf oil, and catnip oil. These can be added to water to create a bug spray. Note, pennyroyal should be avoided by pregnant women. Alternatively, citronella candles are commonly available. When purchasing essential oils, look for high quality therapeutic grade oils. Here’s where I get mine.

If you do your best to keep bugs at bay, but still end up with a bite or sting, the primary goals become soothing inflammation, reducing pain, and healing the skin in order to prevent infection. The following herbs can be helpful in this instance.

mint

Peppermint (Mentha piperita)

Peppermint oil or crushed leaves are cooling and can provide temporary relief from itchy or inflamed bites.

Plantain (Plantago Major)

Fresh plantain leaf can be used to provide immediate pain relief for insect bites and stings. To make a poultice, fresh plantain leaf can be mixed with bentonite clay and water to form a paste. Alternatively, a leaf can be chewed and placed directly over the inflamed area.

calendula

Calendula (Calendula officinalis)

Calendula oil or fresh leaves can soothe irritated, itchy skin, and can aid in healing bites and stings. A simple salve can be created with calendula, beeswax, and antiseptic essential oils, such as tea tree, rosemary, and lavender.

salve

Comfrey (Symphytum officinale)

Comfrey infused oil or fresh juice from leaves can be used topically to treat many skin conditions, including rashes, scrapes, and wounds. For bites and stings, it can reduce inflammation and relieve itching.

tincture

Witch Hazel (Hamamelis)

Witch hazel distillate is commonly available at pharmacies and is approved by the FDA as an over-the-counter remedy for relieving minor skin irritations. Create an itch-relieving poultice by mixing 3 parts baking soda with 1.5 parts witch hazel.

These remedies are made with easily found herbs and ingredients. It’s wise to keep a few (or all) on hand, especially in the summer months, when those bites, stings, scrapes, and scratches inevitably occur.

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Coconut Maca Energy Bites

maca bites

I recently prepared an unusual resupply box for a friend who is currently thru-hiking. This was not your average resupply box full of ramen, snickers, and pop-tarts though. This box focused on performance-enhancing ingredients. He’s nearing the end of a 2200-ish mile route, so his body is getting tired. His primary concerns are enhancing recovery and optimizing sleep. These maca coconut energy bites were a key component of the goodies I sent him.

Food is always the first line when it comes to optimizing performance. However, during a demanding endeavor, such as a thru-hike, supplementation can certainly support the mind and body in performing better.

There are many supplements that came to mind when I began brainstorming around endurance, recovery, and sleep. Note: Since I am not a doctor, I don’t prescribe, treat, or diagnose. However, I do know what I’ve seen work for myself and others in the past.

I included several items in the box, but an area I focused on in particular was a class of herbs called adaptogens. Adaptogens have become one of those buzz words in the holistic health space as of late, but they’ve been studied since the 1960s and herbalists have used them for decades. Simply put, adaptogens aid the body in adapting to stress. From the journal Pharmaceuticals, “studies on animals and isolated neuronal cells have revealed that adaptogens exhibit neuroprotective, anti-fatigue, antidepressive, anxiolytic, nootropic and CNS stimulating activity.”

In addition to an adaptogen tincture I included in his box, I was also interested in including Maca root (Lepidium Peruvianum Chacon). While more clinical trials are needed, Maca has a long history of traditional use. It’s a Peruvian staple food grown in the harsh, high plateaus of the Andes. It’s been used to improve stamina and endurance, balance hormones, and improve immunity. It’s also believed to be an aphrodisiac and improve libido. Due to these properties, many consider Maca to be an adaptogen.

Maca can be purchased in powder form and lends itself easily to including into foods. It has a pleasing nutty flavor, and it’s packed with vitamins and minerals, so it boosts the nutrition of any food to which it’s added.

These bites were designed to be energy-dense and durable. They are a convenient and tasty way to get in nutrient-packed maca, as well as healthy fats from the hemp hearts, coconut oil, and walnuts. The dates provide sweetness and quick energy. Due to the fats, protein, and fiber, they’ll boost your energy without the sugar crash afterwards.

Maca Coconut Energy Bites

Makes 11x30g bites

  • 1 cup pitted medjool dates
  • 1/2 cup walnuts
  • 1/2 cup hemp hearts
  • 1/2 cup dried unsweetened coconut
  • 2 tbsp organic maca powder
  • 1 Tbl coconut oil
  • 1/4 tsp sea salt
  • 1 Tbl cacao powder
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract

Blend all ingredients in a food processor until mixture is well blended and creates a soft dough. If dough is not coming together, add a bit more oil or a tiny bit of water.

maca bites

Roll dough into 30 gram balls (a hefty tablespoon), roll them in coconut and put into an air tight container. Store in the freezer until you’re ready to eat.

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maca bites

Herbs & Lifestyle Strategies for Managing Stress

stress relief

Nearly everyone I know faces unprecedented demands on their time. We all have several roles we play, each with a different set of expectations, whether that’s at work, with our families, in our social lives, or elsewhere. It can be all too easy to over-commit, and when that happens, stress can quietly (or not so quietly) sneak up on us. However, keeping stress at bay is essential to be our most productive, creative selves and perform at our highest level.

As we navigate a world of ever-increasing demands, it’s essential to build a personal toolbox of strategies which support us in reliably managing stress. You may already have a toolbox without consciously knowing it. Test out the following ideas, see what works for you, and build a set of practices you can utilize anytime you feel stress creeping in.

herbs

Take Adaptogens

Adaptogens are a class of herbs which help the body adapt to stress and promote homeostasis, or stability, within the body. Some common examples include Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus),  Schizandra (Schisandra chinensis), Licorice (Glycrrhiza glabra), and Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea). Adaptogens can be taken as a tincture, capsule, tea, or powder added to foods. Use the single herbs or take an adaptogen formula with several different herbs. Adaptogens are a key resource in your toolbox which can be used daily to keep your mind and body resilient.

 

exercise

Exercise

Incorporating movement into your day is crucial to keeping stress at bay. Exercise reduces stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, while also boosting endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers. Whether you choose cardio or weight lifting or something else, find an activity you enjoy and create an exercise habit if you don’t already have one.

 

nature time

Spend Time in Nature

Studies have shown that wilderness-based stress management tools, such as time in nature and gardening are effective at reducing burnout and other stress-related symptoms. Whether it’s a walk in the park, a weekend backpacking trip, or an afternoon in the garden, make space for more time in nature.

 

time

Learn to Say No

Perhaps more important than any strategy to mitigate stress is learning to avoid it in the first place. A key tool to prevent stress is to steer clear of taking on too many commitments in the first place. Most of us like to say yes when something is asked of us, but learning to discern the important few from the trivial many is crucial for stress management. For more ideas, check out books like Essentialism, and The One Thing.

 

toolbox

Other Tools

A few other stress management strategies to consider include: social time with friends and family, journaling, meditation, taking a hot bath, dancing to music you love, cuddling a pet, making art, and doing something kind for another person.

Test different strategies, find what works for you, and build a toolbox to alleviate stress when it comes creeping in, as it inevitably will.

How to Use Herbs to Enhance Athletic Performance

trail

The days are growing longer and if you haven’t already started getting back outside and getting after it again, it’s time.

It’s easy to understand how what you eat and drink can impact your body’s performance, but did you know that you can optimize your active lifestyle with certain herbs as well?

Herbs can aid in reducing inflammation, improving stamina, and increasing speed of recovery, among other benefits. Include the following herbs in your daily routine to help your body perform better, whether your preferred style of movement is running, biking, backpacking, yoga, or a stroll in the park.

runner

Adaptogens are a class of herbs which promote homeostasis and increase a person’s resistance to stress. Some key adaptogens to consider for an active lifestyle include Rhodiola, Eleuthero, and Ashwagandha.

Rhodiola (Rhodiola Rosea)

In regards to athletic performance, Rhodiola has been shown to reduce both lactate levels and parameters of skeletal muscle damage after an exhaustive exercise session.

Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus)

Eleuthero, also called Siberian Ginseng, has long been used by athletes to improve endurance. This study showed that 8 weeks of supplementation (800 mg daily) “enhances endurance capacity, elevates cardiovascular functions and alters the metabolism for sparing glycogen”.

Ashwagandha (Ashwagandha Somnifera)

Ashwagandha is another herb that has been shown to improve aerobic capacity. Eight weeks of supplementation (500 mg twice daily) significantly improved VO2 max and time to exhaustion.

Turmeric (Curcuma Longa)

Turmeric is well-known for its anti-inflammatory effects. Studies indicate that the anti-inflammatory properties of curcumin, the active component in turmeric, may offset some of the performance deficits associated with eccentric exercise-induced muscle damage.

Cordyceps (Cordyceps sinensis) & Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum)

This 2014 study indicated that athletes supplementing with Cordyceps and Reishi mushrooms showed an increased capacity to quench free radicals, thereby protecting them from oxidative stress and over-training symptoms.

Maca (Lepidium meyenii)

In addition to its hormone-balancing effects, research suggests that Maca root, taken daily for as little as 14 days, has the ability to improve endurance in athletes.

stretching

In addition to considering these herbs to facilitate an active lifestyle, support a healthy, balanced body by including a mix of strength training, aerobic training, and stretching into your physical routine.

With a little planning, supplementing with high-quality herbs can enhance and optimize your active, healthy lifestyle!