Search This Blog


Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Have You Taken Your Cod Liver Oil Today?

I don’t take vitamins. I make every effort to meet my nutritional needs through eating a wide variety of whole foods. I do my best to make sure those foods are organic or biodynamic and grown in a way that maximizes their nutrient content (25-50% more than conventional foods in many cases). Recently I did an analysis of my diet with a nutrition software program and I found out I am doing pretty well on my quest. There was one glaring vitamin deficiency in my diet analysis: vitamin D. It happened to be a day when I didn’t take my cod liver oil. I ate some butter, and some cream in my decaf, and I got 2.6% of my RDA for vitamin D. Say what? Remember the RDA is the minimum intake to prevent disease, in this case rickets. Recall that vitamin D is essential for the body’s absorption and utilization of calcium. Research keeps turning up demonstrating its importance to every organ system in the body, playing a role in immune enhancement, cancer protection, protection against heart disease, diabetes, obesity, depression and more.

A really cool thing about vitamin D is that you can make it yourself, out of the cholesterol in your skin when it is exposed to sunlight. Most researchers think that you can make enough just from exposing your hands, arms and face or your back to the sun for 10-15 minutes a day 2-7x a week, without sunscreen. I thought I was doing myself a favor a while back by putting on sunscreen every day….Digging around in the scientific literature, I was surprised to find that there is by no means a consensus on sun exposure as the primary cause of skin cancer! North of San Luis Obispo or so, however, you can’t make vitamin D in your skin in the winter months. It’s so important that your body can store it for winter use, if you have enough.

Low vitamin D status is widespread. I’ve had two vegetarian and vegan friends break bones in the past couple of years, and, when their healing went slowly, they were tested and found out they had low vitamin D. Commercial milk is fortified with vitamin D, and so are other processed foods like breakfast cereal and breakfast bars, not generally foods I recommend. I don’t drink fortified milk, I drink raw milk, which still contains natural vitamin D but not a lot. Vitamin D is not well supplied in most diets. It is found in oily fish like sardines, salmon, mackerel, herring and tuna, shellfish, liver and other organ meats, butter, eggs, cheese, raw milk and fortified foods. While I try to include sustainable sources of these foods in my diet frequently, it is hard to meet even the RDA with food alone. Vitamin D2 is found in some mushrooms and small amounts in dark leafy greens, but this form is not easily used by the body.

Many of the vitamin D-rich foods also have cholesterol which has been demonized for so long that a lot of folks habitually avoid them. As I have stated elsewhere at length, cholesterol is not bad, fat is not bad, and indeed, for most people, dietary cholesterol has little effect on blood cholesterol, which is a poor indicator of heart disease risk anyway. The vitamin D foods have been considered sacred foods in many cultures around the world. In many places, landlocked peoples have traditionally gone to great lengths to obtain foods from the sea, rich in nutrients and rich in vitamin D.

For disease prevention and general health, the only supplement I take is high vitamin cod liver oil. I mail order it from a very conscientious company. Cod fisheries, as far as I have been able to find out, are abundant and well managed. From a Chinese medicine perspective, cod liver oil is a powerful kidney and liver yin tonic. It also contains those wonderful omega 3 fatty acids. Watch out, there is a lot of lesser quality cod and fish liver oil on the market, for example, the stuff sold at your average drug store. Look for a good balance of vitamins A and D, which work synergistically, while each protects against the toxicity of the other. Most important, I give it to my 5 year old. There is good reason why this is a traditional supplement for kids. A 2004 study found that daily cod liver oil and a multivitamin significantly reduced upper respiratory-related doctor’s office visits by urban kids. Read the abstract here:

You can supplement with vitamin D in other ways, as well. D3 always comes from animal sources, but there are supplements made from lanolin, which might be OK with vegetarians. D2 can come from non-animal sources, but you’ll need to take 3 times as much. The RDA for D is just 400 IU for adults, but many scientists believe that is far too low. In 2008, a group of prominent researchers on vitamin D founded a grassroots campaign to improve vitamin D status nationwide and thereby decrease rates of cancer and other diseases associated with low vitamin D. They recommend universal intake for adults of 2000 IU/day. You can join the campaign and enroll in a 5 year study on vitamin D and test your vitamin D status at home with their test kits. Visit for all the details. You can also ask your doctor to test your vitamin D levels. Meanwhile, I’ll be taking my cod liver oil.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Bad Air Blues

My world is abuzz with news of a new report condemning the air quality in West Berkeley. It seems that Pacific Steel, one of several polluters in my neighborhood, is increasingly releasing lead, manganese, nickel and other contaminants at a rate significant enough to affect the health of all of Berkeley. Check out the USA Today (who knew they could be so relevant?) study on toxic air in schools, with a searchable national database, here: This is an excellent article by a researcher at UC Berkeley discussing the problem including the public health consequences of the polluted air: He makes the disturbing point that, for many reasons, children are especially vulnerable to the effects of chronic toxin exposure. While manganese and nickel are considered essential nutrients, the amounts needed by the body are very small, and their airborne forms are carcinogenic. Excess manganese is linked to neurological disorders and learning disabilities, and airborne manganese is more likely to be taken up by the brain. Check out this article on MMT, an additive in gasoline that is a source of airborne manganese:

And I thought that all those previous generations of activists in my town had already taken care of these things! I declare 2009 the year of community organizing, inspired by Obama, but by no means depending on him to fix the problems we face. While we are organizing, what can we do to protect ourselves and our children from some of the most polluted air in the Bay Area?

It turns out that nutritional status is a major factor affecting the absorption of toxins. Sufficient macro-and micronutrient intake can protect us from absorbing environmental toxins, and can assist the immune system in recognizing and removing them from our bodies. When the body is depleted of minerals, for example, toxic metals are more likely to be taken up and incorporated into cells. Low calcium intake has been shown to correlate with increased magnesium uptake in lab animals. Nutrients that have been shown to reduce the absorption of potentially toxic metals include calcium, vitamins A and D, iron and magnesium. C, E and B vitamins assist in toxic metal elimination.
Of course, many of us, especially anyone on the SAD (Standard American Diet), are deficient in vitamins and minerals. Industrial agriculture depletes the soils and has resulted in lower nutritional value of most crops over the last 50 years. Refined sugar, flour and oils, caffeine, nicotine, alcohol and drugs and food additives of all types act to deplete the body’s vitamin and mineral stores and overburden our natural detoxification systems. While we work to reduce environmental contamination, it makes sense to choose to avoid substances like these which are known nutrient depleters. Unfortunately, so much typical “kid food” falls in the category of nutrient-depleting foods. It takes a sincere and steady effort to keep our children (and ourselves) on a diet of whole foods.

While West Berkeley houses some major toxin emitters, we also host a hotbed of detoxification every Tuesday: the farmer’s market. Our market is abundant in foods which can assist in detoxification, like organic apples, great sources of pectin which binds heavy metals, and wildcrafted seaweed, both super-high in minerals and source of algin which helps us eliminate metals. The small farmers who sell at the market work to replenish soil nutrients, producing food that is superior in nutritional value to anything you can find at the supermarket . Multiple studies have shown that organic food contains higher amounts of vitamins and minerals than conventionally grown food.

Our market has avocado, walnuts, grapefruits, spinach and tomatoes which are just a few of the many whole foods sources of glutathione, used to convert fat-soluable toxins into water-soluable compounds for excretion. Glutathione requires sufficient B6, riboflavin and selenium to be effective. One of the major detoxification systems used by the liver requires sulfur, abundant in beans, eggs, cabbage family vegetables and meat. Selenium is an immune-stimulating mineral and blood and tissue levels are strongly inversely correlated with cancer rates. It is found in many whole foods, especially those grown in selenium rich soils. Good sources include whole wheat, liver, butter, lamb, nuts, and brown rice, all for sale at our market now. Ellagic acid, related to flavinoids, blocks the cancer-causing actions of many airborne pollutants, and is destroyed by heat. It is abundant in raspberries and blackberries and also found in other berries, most fruit and nuts such as walnuts and pecans. Fiber is found in most whole foods and helps to eliminate metals as well, although excess fiber, as from fiber supplements, can block mineral absorption. Keeping our diets focused on whole foods from quality sources like the farmer’s market will go a long way to protecting us from toxicity while we fight its causes.

See my previous post “Fight Cancer in Your Kitchen” for more on detoxifying foods, and look for future posts on detoxification, especially of airborne pollutants.

Carob-Almond-Molasses Milk Shake
My son and I enjoy this delicious smoothie which is high in detoxifying B vitamins, calcium, magnesium and trace minerals.

1 handful raw almonds (Riverdog farm has great ones)
1 ½ cups filtered water
1 T carob powder
1 T blackstrap molasses (this contains all the nutrients processed out of refined sugar)
1T nutritional yeast
Pinch unrefined sea salt

Soak the almonds in filtered water for at least 7 hours or overnight. Puree in a blender or with an immersion blender until smooth, then add the rest of the ingredients and blend. Enjoy! You can add raw egg yolk, coconut butter, bee pollen, etc. for even more health benefits.

UPCOMING: Winter Workshops at the CoG, 1450 67th St, Emeryville (corner of Hollis) FREE to all members and prospective members. $5 suggested donation to cover food costs. Bring a chair!

Saturday, Jan 24th 2 – 4 pm Fermentation with Vanessa Barrington & Susan Fleming
Hands-on Class--You bring the vegetables you want to ferment, and we’ll bring recipes for a simple kraut and a kimchi, along with the salt and aromatics needed. You can do free-form if you want or follow the recipes. If you want to make kimchi according to the recipe, bring a head of Napa Cabbage. For basic sauerkraut, bring a head of green cabbage. But you’re welcome to ferment anything you want from kale, to carrots, to cauliflower. Please also bring a glass jar to take home your ferment and your own knife and cutting board.For prospective new members we’ll be playing a Price is Right game so you can see how joining The Cog can help you save money on groceries.

Saturday, Feb 7th 2-4 pm Beans with Vanessa Barrington
Demonstration Class—Vanessa will show you easy ways to include more healthful, ecological, and delicious dried beans in your diet and help you fit bean cooking into your lifestyle. She’ll bring cooked beans and show you how to use them as a base to create quick meals. Class includes tastes of two different dishes from recipes in her book, Heirloom Beans, that she coauthored with Steve Sando of Rancho Gordo. Simple bean recipes also included. Keep it green. Bring a small plate and eating utensil for tasting the dishes. We’d like to avoid using disposables.

Saturday, Feb 21 2-4pm Sea Vegetables with Nishanga Bliss
Demonstration class--Sea veggies are nutritional powerhouses, delicious and easy to cook. Learn how to incorporate them into your life, and sample some tasty dishes. Bring a small plate and eating utensil for tasting.

Saturday, Feb 28 2-4pm Healthy Food for Kids with Nishanga Bliss
Discussion--Too much mac and cheese? Tired of cooking separate meals for kids and adults? Learn and share strategies for why and how to feed kids healthfully. Bring favorite cookbooks, recipes or resources for show and tell.