Paleo gingerbread

I ate off-plan a fair amount over the Thanksgiving weekend. Sugar, seed oils, and gluten-free products made a regular appearance on my plate. Normally I broaden my diet a bit when I travel, knowing and accepting that I will feel a bit less well for it, and making a conscious decision to indulge. This time, though, my bum shoulder, which has been bothering me since falling off my bike a few months ago, flared up to a whole new level. I’m not sure if the inflammatory foods were a contributing factor, but I can’t think of any other reason it would get so much worse. So I’m tightening up my usually relaxed 80-20 attitude and recommitting to a cleaner diet.

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That said, life happens. Yesterday was my husband’s birthday, and I wanted to make a gingerbread cake to celebrate. No need for any inflammatory grains or seed oils, however - almond flour, coconut flour, and butter are used as healthier alternatives. This gingerbread is sweetened with blackstrap molasses, which is packed with nutrients, containing impressive quantities of iron, magnesium, potassium, calcium, manganese, copper, and vitamin B6. However, molasses also contains a hefty amount of carbs; if you’re eating low-carb, this cake is not a great choice for you, since it contains about 24 net carbs per serving. And remember: paleo cake is still cake - it’s a treat and shouldn’t be a frequent part of anyone’s diet. As a treat, though, this gingerbread hits the spot! It’s moist, dark, and spicy. It can easily be made dairy-free by using almond milk and substituting coconut oil for the butter.

Ingredients

  • 2/3 cup molasses

  • 4 eggs

  • 1/4 cup milk

  • 1 tsp vanilla

  • 1/3 cup softened butter

  • 1/2 cup almond flour

  • 1/2 cup coconut flour

  • 1 tsp baking soda

  • 1 tsp cinnamon

  • 1 tsp ginger

  • 1 tsp nutmeg

Combine the wet ingredients on one bowl and the dry ingredients in a separate bowl, then mix together. Bake in a greased loaf pan at 350° for 45-55 minutes. Fabulous topped with whipped cream!

How to set up a home sauna for less than $100

Confession: I am a closet sauna user. Let me explain: I’m not ashamed of my sauna use. Nor do I try to keep it a secret. No, I mean it literally: I built a sauna IN A CLOSET. And it cost less than a hundred bucks!

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Saunas have been used throughout the world for hundreds of years and have been linked to a wide range of health benefits. Sauna’s effects on circulatory, cardiovascular, and immune functions reduce the risk of diseases such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, pulmonary diseases, and dementia. Sauna use has been shown to improve chronic pain and reduce cardiac and all-cause mortality.

Sauna use has also been associated with improved endurance, muscle mass, and neurogenesis (growth of new brain cells), as well as reduced inflammation. The heat stress of a sauna triggers many of the same physiologic responses that exercise does.

I’ve had lots of questions about how I created my home sauna. People often assume that an in-home sauna is an expensive extravagance - and it certainly can be. However, it can be done very well on the cheap, and requires no tools or handyman skills! 

I’ve written previously about the health benefits of red and near-infrared light. My setup has the benefits of red/NIR light plus the benefits of a sauna! I modeled it after the SaunaSpace portable sauna, which has gotten rave reviews and is used and lauded by health experts such as Chris Kresser and Dr. Terry Wahls. It’s made with lovely natural materials and is beautiful to look at, and, I assume (I haven’t tried it myself), a pleasure to use. Unfortunately, it costs about $3000.

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Let’s take a minute to reverse-engineer the SaunaSpace. It consists of

  • An enclosure

  • Four infrared heat lamps

That’s basically it! An enclosure can be created in a closet or bathroom (SaunaSpace even sells a kit for making a sauna in a bathtub). For my enclosure, I used a closet in the bedroom that was my daughter’s before she moved out.

 You may be able to guess that this was once a teenage girl’s closet!

You may be able to guess that this was once a teenage girl’s closet!

SaunaSpace uses 250 watt infrared heat lamps, which are available on Amazon and at most home improvement stores and hardware stores. They typically cost less than $10 each. 

SaunaSpace has a beautiful wood fixture for the bulbs; since I lack any construction or crafty skills, I opted for clamp lights. These lights are often used as worklights in shops, basements, or job sites, and are also available on Amazon or at any home improvement or hardware store for about $10. I’ve used the clamp light-infrared bulb setup in the past to raise baby chicks. Make sure you choose a clamp light rated for the wattage of the bulb you’re using!

Next, you need something to clamp the lights on. I first tried a shelf we had inherited from a friend which hadn’t yet been assigned a place in our home. It worked okay, but it was difficult to aim the lights precisely.

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I was complaining about the shelf when my husband and I were returning from a walk one day; there was a hand truck in our driveway, and at the same time we said “how about that?” I transferred all the clamp lights to the hand truck, and it worked much better than the shelf.

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I also experimented with a wooden laundry rack, which worked quite well - but, we need it for laundry. My point is: you probably already have an object in your home which could be used for the lights. No need to buy something new!

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One thing you need to know about the clamp lights: they are awful. I can’t understand how something in such widespread use hasn’t evolved to a better design. The clamp is held together by a nut, which I find difficult to tighten. When the heavy bulbs are installed in the lights, the weight makes the lights droop; keeping them aimed in the direction you want can be a continual source of frustration. I’ve tried to secure the lights with various clamps, but it remains a bit of a struggle.

The big question: does it work? I’m happy to report that YES, it works and is wonderful! It’s tricky to report how hot it gets, because the temperature varies so widely inside the space. Far from the bulbs it might not get above 90º Fahrenheit, but if when I put the thermometer at the distance my body is from the lights, it hits about 115º. That’s not nearly as hot as traditional saunas, which commonly exceed temperatures of 160º. However, a traditional sauna uses heat to warm the air, which in turn warms your body, while infrared sauna heats your body directly without warming the air around you. This means an infrared sauna is able to produce the benefits of heat stress at much lower temperatures than a traditional sauna. Bonus: the lower temperatures of an infrared sauna are more comfortable and safer than the higher heat of a traditional sauna (although probably still not safe for pregnancy).

In any case, after 15 minutes or so in the sauna, I am dripping with sweat. It feels fantastic. My body temperature increases by about 2 degrees after being in the sauna for 30 minutes. And afterwards, I feel SO relaxed. What a pleasurable way to ramp up your parasympathetic nervous system!

Feels great, science says it is great for you, and can be done at home on the cheap? Yes please!

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How to make yogurt in a crock-pot 

I’m a yogurt fan. Not the little yogurt cups that come in fun colors with cookie crumbs or sugar-sweetened fruit goo, though - I prefer the full-fat, plain variety. I’m lucky to live in Vermont, where I can get fabulous grass-fed yogurt. Unfortunately for some, yogurt has a fair amount of lactose, which can give a lot of folks unhappy tummies. However, yogurt can be long-fermented for 24 hours (instead of the usual 4 or 6 hours), which enables the yogurt bacteria to eat up nearly all the lactose.

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As far as I know, you can’t buy long-fermented yogurt. Luckily, there are some great tutorials on yogurt-making. I was reluctant to spend any money on a unitasking gadget like a yogurt maker, so I experimented with various ways of keeping warm water at a steady temperature of 100° to 110°. I settled on a brilliant hack I found in the SCD Wiki: I used my crock-pot with a dimmer switch to reduce the temperature below the “keep warm” setting. Okay, this did require buying a unitasking gadget, but it was only ten bucks and fits easily in a drawer, unlike a yogurt maker. I’m very happy with my method! Here’s how I did it:

I got some fresh raw Jersey milk from a farm down the road from me.

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I heated 4 pints of milk in a pot of water until the milk reached 180°. I used a cheap kitchen thermometer to keep track of the temperature. I put a spoon in the water too, to sterilize it for mixing later on.

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I took the jars out, taking care not to burn myself, and let them sit on the counter to cool.

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Once the milk had cooled to 110°-120°, I mixed a tablespoon of yogurt from my previous batch into each jar, and gently stirred it in, using my sterilized spoon.

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I warmed up my crock-pot insert, then filled it with 105° water and placed the jars in the water bath. I set the crock-pot to “keep warm”, and set the dimmer switch at about half-way.

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The dimmer switch (on the left) is pretty precise. It took a bit of fiddling to keep the temperature steady, but the second time I made yogurt I already had it down pat.

24 hours later, I took the jars out, cooled them on the counter briefly, then put them in the fridge. IMPORTANT: do not get over-excited and mess with your yogurt at this stage! It needs time to sit undisturbed in the fridge to thicken properly.

After a couple of hours I took the yogurt out. TA-DA! Nice and thick, and since the milk wasn’t homogenized, it had that awesome creamy top layer. So yummy!

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Since I wrote this original post, I have become the proud owner of an Instant Pot, which makes the process of yogurt-making SO much easier. In fact, the yogurt feature was the thing that tipped me over into buying an Instant Pot! Stay tuned for an Instant Pot yogurt tutorial in the near future!

The surprising science-backed benefits of red and near-infrared light therapy

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It was my 21-year-old daughter who got me to explore red light therapy. She has some significant chronic health issues, and is an amateur biohacker and a diligent and thoughtful researcher. She was excited about the potential of red light therapy and sent me a bunch of studies.

I had heard of red light therapy, but had never thought to take a serious look at it. There are so many health modalities out there, and it’s impossible to research all of them. Some are grounded in solid science, while many others have anecdotal evidence behind them, but lack scientific data. I assumed that red light therapy was in the latter category. After all, it’s just light. How wrong I was!

What is red light therapy? First of all, let’s take a look at the light spectrum. Visible light is only a tiny portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, which ranges from the short-wavelength (0.0001 nanometer) gamma rays on one extreme to the long-wavelength (100 meter) radio waves on the other. Humans can see only a small part of the spectrum, from about 390 to 700 nm. Below 390 is ultraviolet light; above 700 is near-infrared (NIR) light.

I’ve previously written about blue light and how it can be detrimental to our sleep when we are exposed to it too close to bedtime. In addition to affecting our circadian rhythms, light can have an enormous impact on health in many other ways. Red and near-infrared light in particular has been shown to be therapeutic for a wide range of conditions.

Red light therapy, also know as photobiomodulation or low level laser (light) therapy (LLLT), has been studied extensively for decades. This page meticulously details the photobiomodulation research and cites over 3000 studies, including over 900 animal studies and 140 randomized clinical trials in humans. Positive results have been found in a truly remarkable range of conditions. The ones which caught my eye included:

  • Alzheimer’s disease

  • Parkinson’s disease

  • Depression

  • Traumatic brain injury

  • Lymphedema

  • Periodontitis

  • Exercise performance/recovery

  • Tendonitis

  • Osteoarthritis

  • Rheumatoid arthritis

  • Hypothyroidism

  • Wound and fracture healing



The list goes on and on and on! I’m particularly interested in the positive effects on joint and muscle pain, since this seems to be my Achilles heel (ha!) - I have had tendonitis in my knee, shoulder, and both wrists, and I frequently have lower back or neck pain.

How can simply shining light on the body result in such dramatic and diverse health effects?  Every cell in our bodies, with the exception of red blood cells, contain mitochondria, commonly referred to as the energy powerhouses of the cell. Mitochondria keep very busy manufacturing adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the energy currency of the body. All activity within the cell is fueled by ATP; without it, the cell would quickly die. Mitochondria contain tiny light-sensitive receptors called chromophores. Red and near-infrared (NIR) light can penetrate deep into the body, when it is absorbed by chromophores within all kinds of tissues: muscle, bone, skin, and organs. When red light and NIR light reach the mitochondria, the photons are absorbed by a light receptor enzyme called cytochrome-c oxidase, which stimulates the production of ATP in the cell. The take-away: red and near-infrared light act to increase production of ATP, which increases the energy with which the body performs all its essential functions!

The vast majority of the photobiomodulation studies have been conducted using light from lasers. However, it’s the wavelength of the light which matters, not the delivery system. One of the leading experts on light therapy, Dr. Michael Hamblin, who has published hundreds of papers on the subject, had this to say:

Most of the early work in this field was carried out with various kinds of lasers, and it was thought that laser light had some special characteristics not possessed by light from other light sources such as sunlight, fluorescent or incandescent lamps and now LEDs. However all the studies that have been done comparing lasers to equivalent light sources with similar wavelength and power density of their emission, have found essentially no difference between them.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5523874/

Wavelengths of red light (600-700 nm) and near-infrared light (NIR, 770-1200 nm) have shown positive results in hundreds of studies.

There are many companies making products for red light therapy, but two in particular are making a big splash in the ancestral health community: Joovv and SaunaSpace. Both make highly-regarded light therapy devices for use in the home, with one big difference: Joovv uses LED lights, while SaunaSpace uses incandescent heat lamps.

The Joovv consists of one or more panels with many LED lights. It emits red light at 660 nm and near infrared light at 850 nm; all the energy output is concentrated at these therapeutic wavelengths.

Incandescent bulbs put out a lot of heat, and SaunaSpace, as you might have guessed from the name, doubles as a sauna. The bulbs emit full-spectrum light, with the majority of the light in the 600-1400 nm range. As illustrated in the image below, 14% of the power is in the therapeutic range, with a much larger part producing heat.

Joovv and SaunaSpace both make compelling arguments asserting theirs is the superior product. Users seem to love both products. Both are highly recommended by experts I trust; Chris Kresser and Terry Wahls use the SaunaSpace, while Robb Wolf  and Sarah Ballantyne use the Joovv.

After doing her research, my daughter decided she wanted to give the Joovv a try. She has used it for three weeks now, and remains cautiously optimistic. It hasn’t been the life-changing device she was hoping for, but she can feel a difference, especially immediately after using it. Joovv states that it could take 8-12 weeks of consistent use to see significant results, so the jury is still out.

The SaunaSpace and the incandescent heat lamps appealed to me over the Joovv for a couple of reasons. I really dislike LED lights; I’m very light-sensitive, and bright lights, especially LEDs, can be a migraine trigger for me. The full-spectrum, “natural” light of the incandescent bulb appeals to my hippie instincts. Plus, with the SaunaSpace, you get a two-fer: red/NIR light therapy, plus the heat of a sauna, which comes with a wide range of additional benefits

My daughter’s health is one thing; for myself, I was not willing to invest a lot of money on a light therapy device. Even the smallest and most basic versions of both the Joovv and the SaunaSpace cost hundreds of dollars (and go up to several thousand dollars for the bigger versions). However, the same exact bulb used in the SaunaSpace is available for less than ten bucks! That sounded like an investment I was willing to make.

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I bought a Philips infrared bulb and set it up with a workshop clamp light we had in our basement (incidentally, this is the exact same setup we used years ago for raising chicks). I clamped it to a chair and aimed it at my cranky lower back. Ta-da! Instant red/NIR light therapy setup for less than the cost of going out to lunch. I’ve been using the light on my back when I meditate each morning. It feels great, but I can’t say that it’s actually made a difference in my back pain - but, it’s only been a couple of weeks. Of course, one light does not a sauna make, but stay tuned.... my next post will be about creating my own DIY SaunaSpace knock-off! (Spoiler alert - it’s awesome!)

Dim light, sleep tight: How to use light and darkness to optimize sleep

Feeling sleepy? You’re not alone. More than a third of Americans aren’t getting the recommended minimum of seven hours of sleep per night, and on average we get a full hour less sleep than we did 60 years ago. This has far greater implications than simply feeling tired and cranky or needing that extra cup of coffee to keep yourself going. Inadequate sleep has been linked to obesity, heart disease, diabetes, impaired cognitive function, depression, and many other health problems. 

Golden paste: a powerful anti-inflammatory food

Have you heard of golden paste or golden milk? Golden milk is an ancient drink from Ayurvedic medicine featuring the bright orange spice turmeric. The many benefits of curcumin, the active compound in turmeric, are borne out by both tradition and science. It’s a potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, is fantastic for joint pain, and has potential for reducing risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, depression, and dementia.

Springtime: time for ramps!

I LOVE the month of May. After a long, cold, Vermont winter and a raw, chilly mud season, it's glorious when the green starts to return to the landscape. I savor the progress each day brings: first the crocuses, then the daffodils, then the peepers, then the newly born leaves. One of the perks of spring is free food in the form of ramps - wild leeks. Ramps have a small bulb and wide green leaves, both of which are edible and have a delicious oniony flavor.

The ultimate paleo dessert: Paleo mud mug cake

Let’s face it, cavemen didn’t bake with almond flour, didn’t use stevia, and wouldn’t know what to do with a microwave. The multitudes of “paleo” baked goods are temptations leading the faithful away from the path of paleo righteousness. They are usually high-carb concoctions which spike your blood sugar and insulin levels. That said, what’s a cavegirl to do when she craves some dessert? Answer: Paleo Mud Mug Cake.