Friday, November 3, 2017

Layers of Pain

I picture them as cobwebs­ — layer upon layer of cobwebs — binding my muscles, tying them to my bones, pinching sensitive nerves, but unlike cobwebs they are not diaphanous and fragile. These are bands of scar tissue, solid and persistent flesh, and I have them all over my body, palpable reminders of all the times I have misused my muscles over the years: the too-heavy load of books or groceries I just had to carry, the meetings that caused my neck and shoulders to tense up for an hour or more, the overly ambitious stretch in yoga class. 

Up until last year I wasn’t particularly aware of scar tissue as a problem. About a year ago, I started getting pains in my upper arms while doing weight-lifting routines. For a while, I backed off on intensity, thinking that these were injuries that would heal by themselves. I tried heat and ice. Finally, after about six months of no improvement, my personal trainer suggested that I go to a chiropractor, a new experience for me.

The chiropractor turned out to be a man in his early thirties, a serious athlete, who has had more than his share of serious injuries. When he asked me to raise my straight arms from my sides to the highest point possible over my head, he was horrified at the condition of my shoulders. I couldn’t get to the top position and I couldn’t straighten my arms. (Years ago I had had a bad injury to my left shoulder, described in this post, and later to my right, the most overworked side because I am right-handed.) Over a number sessions, this movement improved until he was fairly satisfied with it. But I still had the pain in my arms and rotating my arms forward in a circular motion hurt my shoulders. By now the pain was bad enough that it was waking me up at night.

To treat the scar tissue in my shoulders, arms and legs, the chiropractor used two approaches: myofascial release therapy (MFR), where he presses firmly into tight areas, and active release technique (ART), where he presses into a tight area while I move my arm across a prescribed path. This process ranges from mildly uncomfortable to quite painful, but the benefits have been substantial. I can now sleep at night without pain, though my shoulders and arms are sometimes stiff when I first get up. I am starting to lift weights again. My range of motion is much better but still needs work, especially the right shoulder and arm.

All complex human relationships, especially marriages and doctor-patient interactions, require a constant readjusting of expectations. The chiropractor and I had both anticipated that my situation would be resolved in a matter of weeks, months at the most. It has now been over a year. During that time, symptoms have come and gone. For a while, I had trigger thumb in my right thumb; it lasted for a couple of months, then went away. At one point I mysteriously injured a nerve in my left leg and was hobbling around for a while. We worked on the left leg and that got better too.

Why is all of this happening to me right now? Age is probably a factor; I am 71 now. Another possibility is that in 2016 I stopped taking Premarin, an estrogen supplement I had been happily using for 36 years. Changes in hormones can affect muscles and nerves so this transition may have turned a tolerable situation into one requiring treatment. In any case, I am grateful that these therapies are available to me. Ironically, insurance won’t pay for interventions that are actually restoring me but it would pay for pain medication, which I certainly want to avoid!

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

How To Keep The Weight Off As You Get Older

One of the sad truths about aging is that you inevitably burn fewer calories than you did as a young person, even if you’re physically active, even if you eat a healthy diet. When you retire you may eat out more often and take more trips to foreign countries with delicious food, making the situation even worse.

At our house we have instituted a system of alternating big meals and small meals. A big meal is protein (often chicken or fish), vegetables, and maybe a starch plus a little fruit for dessert. A small meal is soup with a small piece of bread or a quarter of a frittata or a tuna melt, always accompanied by vegetable juice (bottled or homemade). We do three big and three small each week. On the remaining night we eat at a restaurant.

Lately we’ve been wanting to lose a few pounds so we’ve started a low food day every week or so, somewhat like the part-fasting diets that are popular now. Instead of fasting, we have the Mango Lassi with Anti-Cancer Spices for breakfast (plus coffee), the Pretty Good Almond BerryGreen Smoothie for lunch, and the usual kind of small meal for supper. After a few weeks we’ve lost a couple of pounds without too much pain.

The advantage of our system is that it is sustainable. With diets, you eventually go off the diet and the weight often comes right back. Our program incorporates enough foods we enjoy, including an occasional sweet dessert at a restaurant, so that we don’t feel deprived.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The New Cats

When our old cat Sadie Pearl died last year at almost 18 years of age, our 10-year-old, Rowan, was lonely and bored. My husband wanted to get another lady cat so we asked our handyman to be on the lookout for likely candidates at his farm, where most of our cats were born. Sometime in May, he started describing a litter of three kittens that were living there with their mother. Even though they were very young, he urged us to take one right away because he was afraid they might be killed by a predator. (Our cat Rowan was orphaned when his family disappeared under mysterious circumstances and he was adopted by the kind people at the farm – and later by us.)

We arrived at the vet with a beautiful little tiger and white kitten and the vet’s assistant, a cat expert, said, “It’s a boy.” However, she just happened to have a female kitten, a feral cat one week older than ours, that might be a suitable friend for him. So we ended up with Max and Bella. The picture of the cats when they were small illustrates their personalities: Max looks straight at you, ready to take on any challenge; Bella tilts her chin up dreamily, like a medieval saint awaiting guidance from Heaven.

During the first few days, I wasn’t sure that we should keep Bella. She seemed slow, almost lethargic, and her hygiene left something to be desired; her little face was often smudged with food. The vet’s assistant then explained that she was a litter of one (very rare) and had been living alone with her mother in a garage, essentially a sensory deprivation capsule. Max was born into the rich environment of a farm with other cats, horses, and cows, along with plants and farm buildings to explore. 

Max is not only masculine but a super-male: full of muscle and bravado. Smart and athletic, he is constantly seeking out new challenges for himself. All of our kittens have had to learn about gravity the hard way, by venturing under the railing around the second floor stairwell and falling to the landing about 10 feet below. For the others, once was enough, but Max has repeated the experience because he wanted to learn how to walk along the railing, a skill that none of our other cats ever mastered. 

For the first months of her life, Bella remained a kind of slow, dreamy moonchild of a cat but sometime after she was spayed she seemed to become more energetic and more focused. She and Max have always play-wrestled but now she sometimes chased him. Sometimes she tries to get Rowan to play with her, by rolling on her back in front of him and making little chirping noises. Usually, he considers this beneath him and walks away, though he sometimes play-wrestles with Max.

When the kittens first came, Rowan was horrified. He seemed to feel that these were not cats but alien beings introduced into his home. Over the next weeks, though, he came to enjoy watching their antics and gradually to interact with them directly. Sadie Pearl, his previous companion, had not been much of a role model in this respect. Like many lady cats, she was rather a diva. The new cats, though, are both friendly, playful, and easy-going, a welcome diversion for an older gentleman cat.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

How I’ve Saved the Health Care System Thousands of Dollars

  • Orthotics for problem feet, starting in my 40s, allowed me to do strenuous workouts and possibly to avoid later ankle, hip, and lower back surgery.
  • Opted for acupuncture instead of surgery for rotator cuff injuries.
  • In my 50s, used diet and exercise to lose weight instead of taking statins to lower cholesterol.
  • Started taking protein supplements and proteolytic enzymes to retain and build strong muscles. Enzymes also help to heal injuries.
  • Discovered that probiotics could alleviate long-term digestive problems, improve overall health. Drinking homemade vegetable and fruit juices may have helped too.
  • Treated my psoriasis with biotin (Vitamin B7), not prescription drugs.
  • In my 70s, began impact exercise (jumping) instead of bisphosphonates to improve bone strength.
  • Currently receiving chiropractic treatment (myofascial release therapy and active release technique) for scar tissue in my shoulders and arms instead of taking pain meds or trying surgery.
Of these, only the orthotics are covered by insurance and even those have been said to be ineffective in some studies.Yet athletes use them all the time.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

“Sorry, WebMD, Weight-Bearing Exercise Didn’t Help My Bone Density, Jumping Did.”

Bad news from last year’s DXA scan. My readings, which had floated around in osteopenia territory for years, had dropped. My right femur was down 5.2% compared with the previous reading and my spine was now osteoporotic, suggesting an increased risk of fracturing a vertebra.

Two factors, I think, accounted for this startling and unwelcome change. First, I think my dosage of Synthroid, which I need for my hypothyroidism, had been kept too high for too long. My doctor didn’t want to lower the dosage because my TSH was within the normal range, though just barely under hyperthyroid, for several years. It turns out that too much Synthroid can cause bone loss. Secondly, when the media came out with scare stories about how taking too much calcium supplement can contribute to heart disease (and where’s the evidence for that?), I foolishly cut back on the amount I was taking. The body is a proficient scavenger; if you don’t give it what it needs, it uses up what it has, in this case calcium in the bones.
Clearly, this trend needed to be reversed as soon as possible. The standard treatment for osteoporosis is one of the bisphosphonates, such as Fosamax or Boniva but, according to ConsumerReports, these are only modestly effective and can have dangerous side effects. A friend of mine took one of these drugs and experienced osteonecrosis of the jaw, in which the jawbone disintegrates and the teeth fall out. Not for me!

Fortunately I discovered some articles about the research of Dr. Larry Tucker of Brigham Young University and others, which involved jumping to increase bone strength in the hips. (See earlier post, “Maintaining an Imperfect Body: the Mini-Workout") The jumping routine is supposed to work for hips but the researchers say it doesn’t do anything for the spine; I decided it was an ideal opportunity to test the notion that weight-bearing exercise can help bone density. For the six months from 9/15 to 3/16, I did the jumping routine for 20 minutes, twice a day. During the same period, I did weight-bearing exercises for the back at a fairly intense level: 50 pushups, low rows with up to 80 pounds of weight, back extensions holding up to 30 pounds of weight. I also went back to a higher dosage of the calcium supplement.

When I had another DXA in March of 2016, the hip readings had stabilized but the readings for the spine had gone down 4%. If I had waited two years to do another DXA, the usual recommendation, I could have lost 16% from the bone density in my spine! Clearly, the heavy-duty weight exercises either hadn’t done anything or hadn’t done nearly enough for my spine.

What to do? Impact exercises had worked for the hips so perhaps I needed an impact move that would help the spine. In March I came up with a new exercise to target the spine and started using it for 15 minutes, twice a day. The results so far are promising but I’m not going to put it online until I’m sure it works. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Food Synergy Pesto with Almonds and Anti-Cancer Greens

Garlic, along with leeks, onions, and other members of the alium family are among the top anti-cancer foods. Most people find it inconvenient to consume raw garlic but this recipe tones it down with parsley, lemon juice, and other flavors. Besides the garlic, the anti-cancer foods are parsley, arugula, and avocado.

For this quantity of pesto, I use a mini-blender. The full sized blender tends to slide over the tops of the ingredients in Step 2.

¼ cup sliced almonds
2 T avocado or olive oil
2 T water
1 teaspoon lemon juice
¼ ripe avocado, skin removed
1 clove garlic coarsely chopped
1 small handful of parsley
1 cup arugula, packed
¼ tsp. of salt, or to taste

1.  Lightly toast the almonds over medium heat, stirring a few times. They should be fragrant and slightly crisp, not brown. Pour onto a plate to cool.

2.  In the bowl of a small blender combine the oil, water, lemon juice, avocado, and garlic. Puree until it forms a smooth mixture.

3.  Add the parsley and puree until smooth.

4.  Add the arugula and puree to whatever consistency you prefer.

5.  Add the salt and the toasted almonds and pulse a few times. Repeat until the almonds are coarsely or finely ground, depending on your taste. I like mine slightly grainy, as you can see from the photo.

6.  You can serve this with pasta, as a garnish for soup, or in a sandwich. I like to spread it on whole wheat bread with slices of cooked chicken. Sometimes I top the pesto with a slice of cheese and broil at around 425 degrees until the cheese melts.

Other Food Synergy Recipes:

The Mango Lassi With Anti-Cancer Spices 

The Pretty Good Almond Berry Green Smoothie

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

More Food Synergy – and Evidence That It’s Doing Something

Once I had created the Mango Lassi with Anti-Cancer Spices, I wanted to make another drink that would feature anti-cancer vegetables and fruit. Green drinks run the gamut from bitter or sulfury at one end to super-sweet with sugar or fruit juice at the other. I haven’t been a fan of most of the ones I’ve tried.

After months of experimenting, I’ve come up with this combo, where the rich flavor of almond and grapeseed oil tames the strong flavors of the greens. The raspberries, lemon, and stevia add just enough sweetness. One of the advantages of the blending process is that you can use the fibrous parts of the vegetables that normally get thrown away, like the stems of the broccoli and parsley. The anti-cancer foods in this drink are the two cruciferous vegetables, the parsley, and the raspberries. 

The Pretty Good Almond Berry Green Smoothie

Time: 15 minutes including cleanup
Servings: 1 large drink

½ cup sugar-free almond milk
1-2 tablespoons water
½ cup ice
2 teaspoons grapeseed or peanut oil
1 cup of light, leafy cruciferous vegetable, such as kale or arugula, firmly packed
1/3 cup of dense cruciferous vegetable, such as broccoli, cabbage, or cauliflower coarsely chopped
1 small handful of parsley or ½ celery stalk
¼ lemon, peel removed
2/3 cup raspberries or blueberries
1-2 packets stevia

Add almond milk, water, and ice to the container of a blender.
Add the remaining ingredients in the order given.
Pulse 20 times to chop the solids, then puree for a slow count of 30 or until mixture is smooth.
If the mixture is too thick, add a little more water. If you taste too much of the cruciferous vegetables, add another teaspoon of oil. If you want a sweeter drink, add more stevia.

I drink this smoothie every day at lunchtime and sometimes follow it with a half ounce of dark chocolate, another anti-cancer food.
Almond milk only lasts about a week after opening and I’ve only been able to get it in half-gallon containers, way too much for my needs. Kitchen stores sell little trays for extra large ice cubes, almost 4 oz. (1/2 cup). I freeze portions of almond milk and take them out one at a time. When you do this, you will add water rather than ice to the one-cup measure and you will have to puree about 2-3 times as long because of the extra frozen liquids.

I've read that cruciferous vegetables contain small amounts of various toxins. In order to limit exposure to any one toxin, it is recommended that you vary the ingredients of the smoothie on a regular basis.

Tip for Storing Vegetables: Many vegetables will keep longer if they are wrapped in a paper towel inside of the usual plastic bag. If the paper towel gets wet, it should be replaced with a dry one. For greens that come in a plastic clamshell, open the container immediately after you get it home, before storing it in the refrigerator. Put a paper towel on top, shake the container a couple of times, and re-close the lid. Store upside down (paper towel down) in the refrigerator. Each time you reopen it, remove any leaves that are starting to yellow, replace the paper towel if it is wet or stained, and shake the container before putting it away. This helps to keep the leaves from packing down, getting too wet, and spoiling.

One Way to Re-Use Plastic Clamshells: I give relatively clean and undamaged clamshells to a guy at my gym. He passes them along to Amish farmers who use them when they make butter and cheese.

Help for Prostate Cancer? Some studies have indicated that lycopene, which is found in tomatoes, may help against prostate cancer. To get a worthwhile amount of lycopene you need to use processed tomato products, such as tomato juice and tomato paste, not fresh tomatoes. You can add a tablespoon of tomato paste to this drink, which doesn't affect the flavor much. With this, use a bit more water and less ice. I like the Italian tomato pastes that come in a tube. Some of them are double concentrated, which presumably means twice as much lycopene. My favorite brand is Mutti, but there are others. American brands in cans work just fine too.

Other ideas for prostate cancer: quit eating red meat and processed meats like bacon and sausage; if you're overweight, lose a few pounds (see the new post How To Keep The Weight Off As You Get Older); if you're sedentary, get up and move around.

The Evidence That It’s Doing Something
I’ve complained about my digestive malfunctions elsewhere in this blog (Trouble Down Below, Last year I started drinking the mango lassi ( and the Pretty Good Green Smoothie. Over the next couple of months I noticed that my fingernails were stronger and my skin looked better. 

This week I was doing my usual pedicure routine: remove old polish, file nails and calluses, wash and push back cuticles, and apply new polish. After the old polish was gone I noticed that there was a distinct difference in color between the upper and lower parts of the nail; the lower part was a nice, healthy-looking pink, while the upper part was yellowish. The dividing line comes 1/3 to halfway up the nail. 

Toenails take 12-18 months to grow out so this change represents a process that started 6-9 months ago. Mid-December, six months ago, is when I started with the drinks. Nothing was different about my foot care routine so this seems to represent a metabolic change of some kind. What sort of change is it and what are the implications for my health? I have no idea but I wish someone would check it out.

Update: Here are my feet six weeks later, seven and a half months after I started with the drinks: