Piña Colada Popsicles

O, summer!  How I love thee!

But… even if you don’t share my fondness of summer, I can pretty much guarantee you’ll find bliss in these popsicles.  They’re missing the rum, but feel free to add some if you like (though not for tots, obviously – you can make two sets… grown-up popsicles, and kiddo pops!)

The recipe could not be easier:

Coconut milk (full-fat, from a can)
Fresh pineapple

That’s it.  Put them in the blender, taste-test, adjust, pour into popsicle molds, freeze, and in a few hours, enjoy a bit of tropical bliss.  For proportions, experiment and see what you like best.  I use half a can of coconut milk and 1-2 cups of coconut chunks.  Use less pineapple if you want them to be creamier, and more pineapple if you want them to be sweeter.  You can add maple syrup for additional sweetness, but I’ve never wanted to, as pineapple is so sweet on its own.

I sometimes also add collagen protein powder (a couple heaped scoops) to bump up the protein (collagen is great for your skin) without altering the flavor or texture of the pops.

Note:  These are health food, but you don’t have to tell anyone that, and I assure you they won’t be able to tell from how they taste.

The links above are to the coconut milk and collagen protein I get from Thrive, a grocery delivery service.  I’ve been a loyal Thrive customer for nearly two years now – they offer lots of organic, healthy pantry staples at prices much lower than I can get at the grocery store, an easy-to-use app that makes ordering a snap, and they ship right to my house.  They also offer freebies almost every day with qualified orders, so when my box arrives, it often feels like I’m getting a present.  (Who doesn’t want presents?!)  If you’d like to try Thrive and get 25 percent off your first order,* click here.

* Full disclosure:  If you use that link and subscribe, I’ll receive $25 toward my own grocery habit.

 

Brain Gains: Boosting your gray matter, because it matters

Because we can’t see our brains, many of us take them for granted.  While we may fret about our abs or buy countless potions to firm and smooth our skin, many people assume that brain health isn’t really that important, or that it’s limited to concerns about Alzheimer’s.

SPOILER: It’s not.  Brain health matters.  A lot.  And small choices that we make every day make a world of difference in the function and health of our brains.

MYTH: Whether a person gets Alzheimer’s depends on whether the person carries the genetic markers for it.

Not true.

Think of it like this:  Having genes for something is like having a gun in your hand.  It’s unnerving, yes – you know it’s there, and you know the potential for harm.  But how you live your life determines whether the trigger is pulled.

That is, you can have “bad genes,” but having them doesn’t doom you.  In order for those genes to be turned on, you have to flip a number of switches.  Those switches are how you live: what you eat, the quality of your relationships, your physical movement (or lack thereof), your exposure to a clean (or toxic) environment, your sense of purpose or self-worth.

So, for today, let’s focus on five simple “switches” you can employ to help improve your brain (and overall) health.

  1.  EAT WHOLE FOODS.  Not the grocery store, because it would be super awkward to walk up to the building and start gnawing on bricks and mortar.  I mean actual food.  Mostly plants.  Especially leaves.  A bowl of spinach.  Some blueberries.  A carrot.  A bunch of grapes.  A chicken thigh (from a bird that lived a good life).  A handful of walnuts.  Hint:  If you’re not sure if something is actual food, it’s probably not real food.  A useful guideline that Michael Pollan gives for determining whether something is real food is to ask yourself:  “Would my great grandmother recognize this as food?”  (If you’re holding a plastic tube of artificially-colored, sugar-added “yogurt” in your hand when you ask this question, the answer is “NO.”)  Sugar is a known culprit in diminished brain health, and for many people, gluten and dairy have negative consequences, even if they’re not technically gluten or dairy intolerant.  Reducing sugar intake is a no-brainer (har, har) for everyone; and if you struggle with any sort of brain issues (brain fog, forgetfulness, depression, anxiety), it’s worth experimenting with cutting out gluten and dairy to see what happens.  (It doesn’t mean you have to give them up forever – but it’s worth knowing if they cause problems for you.)
  2. MOVE YOUR BODY.  I don’t mean exercise, at least not in the way most people think of exercise.  While I understand that some people actually enjoy going to the gym (this blows my mind), I don’t.  I’d rather get my “exercise” doing real things – gardening, hiking in the woods, picking up a toddler 400 times a day (TWO TICKETS TO THE GUN SHOW, BABY!), and grinding coffee beans using a hand-crank grinder (seriously!  I love this part of my morning!).  If you work at a desk for 40+ hours a week, you may object, claiming this is not possible for you to do.  Some people try to make up for all the sitting by working out at a gym for an hour after work, but… let’s be honest.  That’s not what our bodies were designed for.  So, desk workers, try this:  A few times an hour, stand up.  Sit down.  Stand up.  Sit down.  That’s it.  If you like, stretch your arms over your head, lean them from side to side.  Incorporate some stretches, or don’t.  But don’t stay seated (or standing, idle) for hours at a time.  Your body will thank you.
  3. AVOID TOXINS.  This one is difficult because there are toxins pretty much everywhere.  Did you know that there are tens of thousands of chemicals in household cleaning products that have not been tested for safety?  Or that a company can put a new chemical in a product and on the market without performing ANY safety testing whatsoever?  The only way a product or chemical gets pulled from the market is after it has caused serious harm to lots of people.  Don’t be a guinea pig:  Instead, surround yourself with things that are known to be non-toxic.  For starters:  ditch the smelly, harsh cleaners, and stick to castile soap, vinegar, and baking soda for your cleaning needs.  Or engage in scrupulous label-reading to make sure that your product choices are healthy.  Don’t trust claims on labels that say products are “healthy” or “natural” or that it “helps save wildlife.”  (Dawn dish soap, I’m looking at YOU!)  If you’re not sure what certain ingredients are, there are organizations like the Environmental Working Group that do a lot of the work for you – just scan a label using their app, and it will tell you about the product.  With regard to food, opt for organic when possible, and mind the “Dirty Dozen” recommendations published annually by EWG.  And regarding yard care, learn to love dandelions and nix the chemicals, many of which are known to be neurotoxic.  (Dandelions, on the other hand, are good for you!)  When you come inside, always take your shoes off and leave them at the door.
  4. GET MORE SLEEP.  Lack of restful sleep is a known risk factor for all brain issues.  In short:  our brains have an off switch, and we need to remember to use it.  If you’re one of the many people who think you’re “just fine” on 4-6 hours of sleep, you’re delusional from lack of sleep.  There are a lot of little changes you can try incorporating to get more restful sleep.  Plan for an earlier bedtime.  Even if you wake early, the rest you get in the hours before midnight tends to be the deepest and most rejuvenating sleep.  And the hardest (but most effective) trick for better sleep:  turn the screens off.  Give yourself an 8 p.m. technology bedtime, and put all the devices (including the television) to bed – tuck them in as far from the bedroom as you can.  If you insist you need your phone next to the bed because it’s your alarm clock, quit making excuses and get a real alarm clock.  If possible, put your WiFi router on a timer so that it automatically turns off at 8 p.m. and back on at 8 a.m.  So what to do between 8 and bedtime?  Read a book (not an e-book), play a game, have a conversation, meditate, paint, call someone you love, make love, practice yoga, take a bath, pack a nice lunch for tomorrow, sip chamomile tea.  Do anything… so long as it doesn’t involve staring at a screen!
  5. BE GRATEFUL.  This one is easy, but also easy to forget.  Try making it a part of your morning or bedtime ritual.  Write “What are you grateful for?” on a sticky note and put it on the bathroom mirror.  Then, while you’re brushing your teeth, think of three things.  To make it more of a challenge, think of three things you’re grateful for that you hadn’t thought of before.  And to make this practice even more powerful, write down the things you’re grateful for, or even post them to a social networking profile to share with others.

The encouraging news is that even as you age, your brain function can actually improve if you do the things that help your brain and avoid the things that harm your brain.

Have you tried any changes to help nurture your gray matter?  If so, how’d it go?

Solar baking: Almond Chocolate Chip Cookies

You know the old saying, “It’s so hot out you could fry an egg on the sidewalk”?  Well, even when it’s not that hot out… I learned that it’s still possible to cook on the sidewalk.  (Or on the lawn!)  Last summer, a random post about solar ovens on a permaculture site led to a months-long obsession with solar cooking.  I read a few books (including this one and this one), I built a solar oven (using cardboard boxes, a whole lot of aluminum foil, and a glass window), and I also requested and received a fantastic portable solar oven as a birthday present.

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You might ask:  WHY?  Or, as my son’s father once asked, “Why don’t you like anything normal?”

Ha!

(It’s a fair question.  He asked it while I was grinning and happily plucking worms out of a pile of worm compost, savoring the fruits of my vermiculture project.)

Anyway… back to the Why.  I love solar cooking because it’s fun to make something delicious using only the sun’s rays and a bit of creativity.  I love baking, and I love summer, but I don’t love reaching into a hot oven on a hot summer day, nor do I like how the stove heats up my house.  (At present, I live in a tiny home – around 400 square feet – so the oven’s effect is a bit like that of a furnace going full-blast.)  Even when I was living in a normal-size home, I still loved the feeling of cooking something great without using a single kilowatt of energy.  (More later on my obsession with my twig-fired stove…)

But, even if your interests do not extend to “weird” solar cooking techniques, rest assured:  it’s entirely possible to make these cookies using your regular oven, and they’ll taste just as good.

With no further ado:

Almond Flour Chocolate Chip Cookies (gluten free)

1/4 cup (56 grams*) butter, softened
1/4 cup (80 grams) maple syrup
1 3/4 cups (168 grams) almond flour
1/4 teaspoon unrefined sea salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup mini chocolate chips

I like to put the butter in the bowl, cover the bowl, and set it outside in the sunshine to soften the butter.  When it’s soft, add the maple syrup, almond flour, sea salt, baking soda, and vanilla, and stir well.  Mix in the chocolate chips.  Taste test, because… well, just trust me.  You’ll want to taste test.

You can refrigerate the dough for 20 minutes or up to two weeks, or you can bake them right away.  When you are ready to bake, get your solar oven out and pointed to the sun, or set your indoor oven to 350 degrees.  Line your baking sheet with parchment paper, and form cookies using your hands.  I use about a tablespoon of dough per cookie, flattening the dough into little discs, leaving two inches of space between each cookie.  (The cookies will flatten some during baking, but not much – so if you start out with spherical pieces of cookie dough, you’ll end up with mostly spherical cookies.)

In the solar oven, bake for an hour or two, checking after the first hour.  (To check, eat a cookie.  Use oven mitts to handle them… just because the solar oven looks like a toy doesn’t mean it can’t burn you!)

In a regular oven, bake for 6-10 minutes, just until the bottom is slightly golden.  The tops should not brown… if they do, you’ve baked them a bit too long.  Cool for five minutes on the cookie sheet, and store any leftovers in a mason jar in the fridge for up to a week.

When I bake these with my toddler, we prepare the dough and cookies and put them in the solar oven right before he goes down for a nap.  Then when he wakes, we retrieve them and have a fun snack.

* I offer most larger measurements in metric because I love my kitchen scale – it makes it so much easier to measure everything into a single bowl and not dirty a bunch of measuring cups and spoons.  Fewer dishes = happier baker.

My path to health, wellness, and a happy vagina

When I meet fellow health explorers – the people who don’t think it’s weird that I make my own skin care products, or brew kombucha, or abhor lawn chemicals – I often ask them, “So what made you this way? Were your parents hippies? Did you have some kind of transformative experience that led you down this veritable rabbit hole of health and wellness?”

(It’s not actually a hole – it’s a magical tunnel, a passageway to an alternate, technicolored reality.)

The answers I get vary. One friend was, in fact, raised by hippies, homeschooled in the middle of nowhere, denied all the usual perks of childhood – he enjoyed no soda, no candy, no tv, little or no technology. (He turned out great.) Another friend said that it was a game of adult hide-and-seek and his inability to run as fast as he thought he should be able to. Yet another, a conservative rancher in the midwest, said it had a lot to do with his quest to have sex with hippie chicks.

I appreciate honesty. Also, the wish to bed hippie chicks seems like a laudable goal for a rancher.

For me, my health journey began in starts and fits. I wasn’t raised by hippies. Nay, I was raised by parents who’d never heard of the idea that sugar might not be the best thing to eat. (In their defense, it was a time when all the health gurus were busy excoriating fat, not sugar.) I was not what you’d call a healthy child. I had strange food tastes, including a sugar addiction, an obsession with butter (which remains to this day) and a peculiar interest in eating dessicated instant coffee granules. I was sick many times a year, catching every cold that went around, suffering through weeks-long sinus infections, and enduring all kinds of stomach upset.

So what happened, then?

First, as I was embarking on my legal career, working too many hours, drinking too much, not sleeping enough, and generally living a non-virtuous life, I had a wake-up call. My boyfriend at the time was 26, three years younger than me, and he was battling stomach cancer. And I thought: Life is short. Sometimes, it’s REALLY short. Why am I living my life in such a way that I hate waking up in the morning?

The next morning, I woke up, went to work, and wrote my letter of resignation. I gave it to my secretary, who hugged me and cried – tears of joy, delight that I was going to get out while I was still alive, still (relatively) healthy and happy.

I got a second wake-up call a year or so later, when I found myself beset with terrible pain – in my vagina, of all places. I went to the doctor, and she ran a slew of tests, all of which came back negative. I was fine – other than the awful pain. So she examined me again, and then announced gravely that she had to go do some research. She left for a very long time, and I sat in the examination room, worrying. When she finally returned, she held a large stack of paper, computer printouts. She announced in a serious tone: “You have lichen sclerosis.”

I thought lichen was a type of moss. Surely, there was no moss growing in my vagina. So I asked her what that was, and she explained that it’s a flesh eating disorder and that if I didn’t treat it, I would end up with no labia whatsoever.

FLESH EATING WHAT???????

The doctor gave me the stack of printouts, so I could take them home and read all about my new friend, the vulva-eater, and she also prescribed a steroid cream that was supposedly going to save my labia from extinction. I left, feeling not at all at ease.

I tried the cream, and the pain it caused was worse than the original pain.

So I quit the cream. And I made another appointment with a different doctor who examined me, and, quickly dropping the sheet, gave me a sympathetic look.

“You don’t have lichen sclerosis.”

PHEW!!!

He went on. “This is going to sound weird…” (Trust me, doc, after someone tells you that your vulva is being eaten to extinction, nothing sounds that weird.) “…but your vagina is just really irritated. It’s angry. Stop shaving, stop using any bubble baths or scented soaps, and change your laundry detergent.” He explained that recent regulatory changes had banned a particular chemical from laundry soaps, and that the new formulations were causing a lot of similar irritation in other women.

That all made great sense. It also didn’t seem weird, in the least.

So, I went home and followed his prescription, started reading labels, started seeking out non-toxic care products with only gentle, safe ingredients. Within a day or two, all the pain was gone. It never returned. I shredded the lichen sclerosis literature and used it as bedding in the chicken coop.

The memory of that experience, though, has stayed with me, and just the thought of the pain I experienced has made me never, ever want to have scented or chemical-laden personal care or cleaning products around me. I cringe at the acrid floral stench of Tide laundry detergent. I unplug any “air fresheners” I encounter. I buy goat milk soap from a hippie homeschooling family. I make my own laundry soap. I make herb-infused oils and from them craft decadent lotions and balms. I use vinegar, baking soda, castile soap, and essential oils to clean my home. I even make my own toothpaste.

My skin is happy, my house is clean, and perhaps most importantly, my vagina exists in a state of perpetual bliss.

Moreover, living this way hasn’t been a hardship in any way – it has only made my life richer and better. And so I wonder – why do so many people use so many toxic products? And perhaps more importantly, why do so many people consume things that contain artificial flavors, colors, and preservatives, and all that crap? For many people, I think it’s that they haven’t made the connection between eating those crap-filled foods (or using those crap-filled products) and feeling like crap. So I guess, here I am, encouraging you to recognize this, if you haven’t already done so.

Just try it for a month: cut out the crap, and replace it with healthier options. Shop at the farmers’ market. Eat fresh, local food, and see how you feel. You don’t have to go out and buy a bunch of new products. But as you run out of things, be mindful, read labels, and seek out healthier versions.  Lots of small, gradual changes add up to big transformation.

So, cheers, friends! To health and wellness and happy vaginas.

Have you had a health transformation? If so, do share!