Overheard at Rainbow Foods

Overheard in the Healthfood Store

Two friends, Linda and Jenna, who work at Rainbow Foods in beautiful downtown Juneau, Alaska, agreed to pick out a few quirky popular requests from customers and pass them along to me. “It’s amazing how often people want to know about probiotics.  A lot of folks really don’t know what that means,” said Jenna.

Probiotics can sometimes be understood as the “opposite” of antibiotics, but really the term covers much more territory.  In the mucous-membrane covered tube that runs from your mouth to your rectum live a host of healthy bacteria which helps you to break down and assimilate your food.

The stomach, near the top of the tube, is designed to be very acidic, especially right after eating.  The pH (acidity) of the stomach should reach 1 or 2 (like vinegar) when filled with food for several reasons.  First, the acid helps to break down protein into amino acids, which are the building blocks of all bodily compounds (cells and tissues).  Second, the stomach acid helps sterilize food so pathogenic bugs don’t infect the gut or get into the bloodstream.  Third, without a nice acidic bolus of food passing into the upper small intestine, the pancreas is not adequately triggered to secrete pancreatic enzymes (amylase and lipase), nor the neutralizing bicarbonate of soda (the broken down food must be neutral in pH — around 7.4 — before it can be absorbed into the blood), nor does the pancreas secrete insulin properly without adequate stomach acid.

Acid-loving probiotics (such as the most famous of them, Lactobaccilus acidophilus) live up high in the gastro-intestinal (GI) tract.  Further down the GI, the pH becomes increasingly more basic.  By the time we get to the colon (also known as the large intestine, a 6 foot long upside down “U” shaped wide gauge hollow organ which resorbs water and compacts waste) the pH is about 9, and thus harbors a completely different species of probiotics: the bidifo bacterium.  Unfortunately many antibiotic treatments (given by prescription for bacterial infections) will kill not only the target “bad” bugs but also the “good” bugs that live in the GI.

Killing off the healthy probiotics not only compromises the ability to properly digest and absorb nutrients from your food, but also promotes the overgrowth of fungal species (such as Candida albicans) that lives in the GI.   A certain amount of Candida is normal in the gut; but it must be kept in balance with the probiotics.  Health is almost always about balance and moderation.

Look for complete probiotics (multiple species) containing billions of microorganisms per dose.  Many good probiotics also contain FOS (fructo-oligosaccharides) which “feed” the probiotics and help get them established in your gut, or my prefered pre-biotic, Lactoferrin, which is thought to not feed any lurking bad bugs.

Linda said, “Lots of people come in wanting to know more about “cleansing” and often I realize they are just embarrassed to admit they are constipated.”  There are many types of herbal laxative products, and they can be fairly harsh.  The active ingredient of bowel stimulants is often a phytochemical called anthraquinone, and is found in Cascara sagrada, Senna, Aloe and Rhubarb.

I am a big fan of regular bowel movements.   Ideally 2 or 3 daily, but at least one-a-day to prevent building up waste.   I will often teach patients the concept of “adult potty training” which means learning proper bowel habits all over again.  You must make time to defecate — even if the urge is not spontaneous and strong.  You simply must prioritize time in your life to “relax” into this important daily occurrence.  Squatting is a much more natural position for opening the bowels than sitting.   To simulate squatting, place your feet on a low stool (or “Welles” step) and lean forward onto your thighs.  Stay well hydrated.  Find time either after breakfast or after dinner every day and sit there, with reading material if necessary, for at least 20 minutes until your body “gets it.”

If no bowel movement is produced with adequate water intake (yes, 6-8 cups), relaxed time on the potty, some form of daily exercise and a high fiber diet, then it’s time to bring on the laxatives.   If you feel as though the bowel movement is stuck down low, a Fleet enema or glycerine suppository may be all that is required to help the BM slide out.

By the way, if it sinks right to the bottom of the toilet bowl, it has been in there too long.  The ideal stool is dark brown, half floating and half sinking, passes easily and doesn’t smell too bad.

If you feel constipated higher up, the laxative probably needs to come down from the top.  On any day not having a bowel movement consider taking some kind of laxative at bedtime to ensure a movement the next day.  Please do not go more than 2 days without pooping.   I prefer soaked prunes or figs (just soaked in plain water and kept, covered, in the fridge as a tasty dessert) to anthraquinone laxatives but some folks will prefer a capsule or to avoid the intense sweetness of the re-hydrated dried fruit.

Some seekers of “cleansing” are looking for a detox program — but that generally starts with bowel elimination since this is our major way to detoxify daily.  There are many excellent cleansing programs available in fine healthfood stores, and most will offer bowel as well as liver, lymph, lung, kidney and skin cleansing phases.

Your healthfood store employees, particularly those who have been working in the industry for at least a few years, will often have tried these products themselves, or work with local nutritionists or naturopaths to choose a range of high quality products — so they are good resources in providing guidance for your quest to better health.  Just one word of caution.  A healthfood store employee is definitely not trained to diagnose disease, and you should be cautious, and not make therapeutic decisions based on any such pronouncements.

Linda also said.  “We sell a range of Chinese herbs (at Rainbow Foods) and I hear two phrases from people who use acupuncturists.  They come in saying they need to “build their blood” or that they have “stagnation.”   I’m not exactly sure what these mean.  Can you translate?”

Blood building, in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) refers to reversing anemia.  Often a woman who menstruates heavily will become anemic.  Of course more serious causes of blood loss, such as internal hemorrhage, can quickly cause anemia and must be treated as an emergency.

Blood is created in the bone marrow, and requires optimal intake of iron-rich foods including meat, spinach, kale, sea vegetables, sardines, red grapes and the herb Yellow dock (Rumex crispus).  Plant tannins, found in high concentration in black tea, will bind iron and should be avoided if you are anemic and trying to build your blood.  Supplemental iron, about 25-50 mg daily, is also very helpful.  I prefer liquid forms of iron as they tend to constipate less than the drugstore ferrous sulfate variety.  If you are only mildly anemic, you can cook in cast iron cookware or take supplemental iron during your menses only.  Do not take iron unless you have a proven iron-deficiency because excess iron can promote viral infections.  People with HIV or Hep C should be cautious about supplementing with iron.

“Stagnation” is the principal pathology in TCM.  Health is “flow.”   Disease, or lack of health, is thought to be caused by stagnation.  In TCM, the stagnation is generally “Qi” stagnation, but you can think of this as impedance in the flow of blood, or nerve conductivity, or gastric juices, or just a broader concept of internal energy stagnation.  The main purpose of acupuncture needles is to re-stimulate the flow of Qi (pronounced “chee” and meaning Vital Force, or as naturopaths call it, the “Vis”, short for Vis Medicatrix Naturae — Latin for the healing power of Nature.)

I hang out at the healthfood store near my office on a regular basis.  Not only can I get all my vibrant organic produce, bulk staples and trans-fat and artificial-colorant free treats there, but I learn a lot about what folks are doing day to day to commit to improved health and wellness.  And this fills me with hope and affection for my fellow humans.