How to Sleep Like a Baby

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If you’re like me and the other one in three Americans who have trouble sleeping at night, then this post is for you. I’ve spent countless hours lying awake at night, seething with jealousy while my husband snoozes soundly beside me, having entered a deep sleep the minute his head hit the pillow.

For the first time in my life, however, I’m finally finding myself able to fall to sleep quickly and completely, staying asleep for up to six- and seven-hour stretches at a time. I’ve been so amazed by my turnaround that I wanted to share the lifestyle changes and healthcare practices I’ve implemented that I believe have made the difference.

Here are some of the adjustments I’ve made over the past few months that have contributed to my newfound ability to fall to sleep and stay asleep:

  • Eliminated technology (computers, cell phones, television) in the hour before bedtime and unplugged my router at night;
  • Dimmed the lights in the house in the hour before bedtime;
  • Eliminated meals and snacks in the two hours before bedtime;
  • Used magnesium lotion after showering;
  • Practiced oil pulling 3-4 mornings per week.

The way I spend my time and the atmosphere of my house in the hours before bedtime seems to make a huge difference in my ability to fall to sleep. I used to lie awake for an hour or more mulling over to-do lists and other concerns after lying down at night, but since implementing the first three changes above I’ve found it much easier to quiet my mind and drift off to sleep. I’ve also found that reading a book–even just a few pages–before bed helps to take my mind off of any personal concerns I may be pondering, thereby clearing space for sleep to take hold.

Since we don’t have dimmer switches on the lights in my house, after the sun goes down I only turn on lamps rather than overhead lights. I do this to mimic nature’s day/night cycle, which is intimately connected to our own circadian rhythms. Bright lights after dark can disrupt those rhythms and contribute to sleep problems. When I floss and brush my teeth before bed, I turn on a cheap, low-wattage reading lamp I’ve placed in the bathroom rather than the blinding vanity lights above the mirror.

For those of you who simply can’t give up your computer or cell phone during the final hour of the evening, there’s an app you can download that causes your screen to emit the wavelengths of light appropriate for the time of day that you’re using it (specifically, it eliminates the blue wavelengths in the later hours of the evening). You can download the app, called f.lux, here. Given the rising concerns about EMF radiation in our homes, unplugging your wifi router at night is a good idea as well. The more like nature you can make your sleeping environment, the better.

According to this article by Dr. Mercola, eliminating food during the hours before bed not only facilitates falling to sleep but also reduces the number of free radicals (damage-causing electrons) in your body. Mercola writes,

If you consume more calories than your body can immediately use, there will be an excess of free electrons, which back up inside your mitochondria … These excess electrons leak out and wind up prematurely killing the mitochondria, and then wreak further havoc by damaging your cell membranes and contributing to DNA mutations.

This information was compelling enough to convince me to finally quit snacking before bedtime, a bad habit I had maintained even though I knew it was likely making it more difficult for me to fall to sleep at night.

Magnesium supplementation has been another important piece to my sleep puzzle. I actually started applying magnesium gel to my legs during pregnancy, when I’d get restless leg syndrome. Magnesium has long been known to help sore muscles, but many don’t realize that it is also essential for restful sleep. According to Marek Doyle,

Magnesium is vital for the function of GABA receptors, which exist across all areas of the brain and nervous system. GABA is a calming neurotransmitter that the brain requires to switch off; without it, we remain tense, our thoughts race and we lie in bed staring at the ceiling.

Exactly what would happen with me! You can find magnesium sprays, gels, oils, and lotions at most health food stores as well as online. You can also take a warm bath in a cup or two of epsom salts (magnesium sulfate),which you can find pretty much anywhere, to increase your intake of magnesium. Oral supplements are also available, but the beauty of dermal applications is that your body will absorb only what it needs so you won’t need to worry about overdosing (not to mention the fact that numerous studies have shown multivitamins to be virtually ineffective). Since magnesium deficiency is fairly common across the board due to the ever-depleting soils of industrial agriculture (meaning it isn’t present in sufficient quantities in our food), I add epsom salts to my daughters’ bath once a week as well.

So what about oil pulling? What is it even? Oil pulling is an ancient Ayurvedic practice from India in which one swishes a teaspoonful of oil around in the mouth first thing in the morning (before any food is ingested but following a small glass of water) for 10-20 minutes. Virgin sesame, olive, or coconut oils can be used (I use coconut). The practice supposedly draws toxins out of the body and can also reduce plaque and gingivitis according to this article from the Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine. I started the practice after my mom reported that it did wonders for her ability to sleep at night. She does it every morning but with little kids that can be difficult, so I shoot for 3-4 mornings a week and I believe it does make a difference; if I forget to do it for too many days in a row, I’ll start waking more in the middle of the night and having trouble falling back to sleep.

So there you have it: a handful of helpful practices to make your nights more restful so that you, too, can enjoy the peaceful sort of deep sleep we associate with “sleeping like a baby” (the mangy munchkin models this greatly, doesn’t she?). Sweet dreams, everyone…

Slow-Cooker Chicken and Broth

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If ever there was a busy mom’s meal, this is it! I am forever indebted to my friend Talitha for turning me on to the fact that whole chickens can be cooked in a crock pot rather than the oven because it makes at least one meal each week a cinch.

My kids love chicken, but baking it without a slew of sauce leaves it dry and tasteless–especially when using the boneless, skinless breasts most commonly sold in supermarkets. A whole chicken baked in a slow cooker, on the other hand, turns out tender, moist, and full of flavor. It also makes purchasing organic chicken affordable since whole chickens are much cheaper per pound than individual cuts.

Slow-cooker chicken can be as simple as placing a whole chicken in your crock pot in the morning, setting it on low for 6 hours, then enjoying it for dinner. But the real beauty in this method is the fact that it can become a whole meal–not just the meat–by simply adding your favorite flavorings and veggies to the pot along with the chicken.

Here’s what I do:

  • Place a 3.5-4.5 pound bird in my 6-quart crock pot;
  • Pour 1-2 tablespoons of cooking sherry over the chicken;
  • Sprinkle with salt, pepper, and some chopped garlic and/or onions;
  • Stuff my favorite veggies down alongside the chicken in the bottom of the pot;
  • Place the lid on top and turn the pot on low for 6 hours to perform its magic!

I’ve used chopped carrots (baby carrots would also work well), beets, beet greens, rutabagas, kale, chard, sweet potatoes, and half a dozen other veggies in various combinations to create my meals. If you’re a working mom with little time to spare in the morning, you could cube a few veggies the night before so they’re ready to dump in your slow cooker in the morning. This will be a quick process because the cubes can be large, up to several inches wide, since they will have all day to cook. Greens are best tucked way down towards the bottom of the pot so that they simmer in the chicken’s juices; if they’re placed in the crock last and set on top of the bird, they will end up crispy and dried out.

Another great thing about this meal is that it is very forgiving. A chicken is done when its internal temperature reaches 165 degrees Fahrenheit, but I’ve let my birds reach up to 185 degrees Fahrenheit when I’ve lost track of time (my cooker doesn’t have a timer) and they’ve still turned out tender and juicy. The chicken can also be cooked on high for 4 hours if you forget to prepare it in the morning as I often do.

Now here’s for the bonus broth:

Once you’ve cooked and consumed your chicken, you can place the bones and any remaining skin, meat, and fat back into your crock pot along with a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar, any veggie scraps you have lying around (beet tails, celery leaves, etc.), plus about a teaspoon each of salt, pepper, and any other spices you like (I often add coriander). Fill the pot up with water to about an inch from your lid and turn it back on low for 8-24 hours to make your own chicken broth. When you can dedicate about 15 minutes, turn off the pot, pour the liquid/bones/veggies/etcetera through a colander to separate out the broth, then pour it into glass jars for future use (a canning funnel is extremely helpful during this step).

Whenever a recipe calls for a cup or two of chicken broth, pull it out of the fridge (it will last about a week here) or freezer (it will last up to a year here) rather than using the nasty, preservative- and sodium-laden stuff they sell at the supermarket. I also use mine in place of plain water whenever I boil rice, lentils, or beans; the grains and legumes will absorb the nutrients from the broth as they simmer, enriching your meals with extra vitamins and minerals. When someone is sick, heat up some broth for a soothing, nutrient-filled drink or simmer some chicken and noodles in it for homemade chicken-noodle soup.

A note about storage: I’ve tried to store my bone broth in mason jars but the glass has sometimes cracked while thawing after I pull it out of the freezer. I’ve found that using the glass jars from other items I’ve used up such as coconut oil, peanut butter, jelly, etcetera, works better (for some reason, these jars don’t crack). It also helps to first place the broth-filled jars in the fridge for several hours before freezing so that the initial temperature change is more gradual.

So there you have it! A super easy chicken dinner that will feed the whole family with just a few minutes of prep, plus leave you with yummy homemade broth for recipes down the road. The only downside I’ve yet discovered with slow-cooker chicken is that the skin doesn’t get crispy, but with so many “upsides,” I’ve been more than willing to learn to love moist chicken skin as much as the crispy kind. Okay, maybe not as much as the crispy kind–but it no longer bothers me at all, and if it bothers you, simply pull it off and save it for your broth 🙂

How Federal Food Policy Fails Us All

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Above is a photo of the mangy munchkin playing dead in a sandbox full of corn at the county fair this past August. At two years old, she couldn’t see the irony in her drama, but it didn’t escape me. Corn, as I see it, is at the root of America’s rising death rates from obesity and chronic disease. Let me share with you just a little bit of the story told by Michael Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma along with some of my own research into the practices of the FDA, the federal Food and Drug Administration.

If you’ve ever driven across the midwest, you have a sense of the vast amounts of corn produced in the United States. Mile after mile of cornfields line the highways and county roads, stretching as far as the eyes can see. But where does all that corn go? Americans, after all, aren’t known for our corn consumption. We eat corn on the cob in the fall and make the occasional batch of cornbread to go along with our chili, but we certainly don’t eat enough corn to justify it occupying more land than any other crop in the country.

Or do we? Pollan shares how scientists have compared the carbon isotypes in the skin and hair of North Americans from the United States and from Mexico–where corn is a staple of the daily diet–and have found that residents of the United States comprise far more corn than Mexicans. We are what we eat, and apparently we eat a lot of corn.

If you’ve ever read the ingredients list on a packaged food product, this fact shouldn’t surprise you. Corn oil, citric and lactic acid, glucose, fructose, high fructose corn syrup, maltodextrin, ethanol, sorbitol, mannitol, xanthum gum, modified and unmodified food starches, and monosodium glutamate (MSG) are just a few of the processed ingredients extracted out of a kernel of corn to make that kernel profitable. Oh, and those “natural” flavorings in your foods? They most likely come from corn, too, whether the food itself has anything to do with corn; “natural” just means it isn’t synthetic, but it can still be highly processed. Also, when you eat meat, unless you take care to purchase it from grass-fed animals, you are also eating corn since a significant portion of the corn grown on American soil goes to feed cattle, pigs, and chickens. Animals fed a high-corn diet have a different, and unhealthy, ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids, which researchers are now associating with high levels of chronic disease.

Why and how is corn so ubiquitous in our food chain? It turns out that corn is a particularly productive crop to grow in terms of extracting the largest number of calories per acre; it was also one of the first patented hybridized crops developed to produce uniform yields, making it an excellent candidate for industrialization. Over the years, the food industry has colluded with the federal government to keep the price of corn low by pushing legislation that provides subsidies to corn farmers in the form of direct payments to make up the difference between an established target price for corn and the actual market price. Such policy encourages farmers to flood the market with corn because they know the government will make up the difference between the lower market price caused by a surplus and the established target price. Consequently, market prices stay low since supply is so high, meaning major food companies can purchase corn on the cheap to turn into the multifaceted ingredients you read on food labels.

And what of the health and safety of the corn derivatives and other “Generally Recognized as Safe” (GRAS) additives that appear in nearly every food in our supermarkets and restaurants? Take a look at this response to a question on the FDA’s “Guidance for Industry” web page:

If I submit a GRAS notice about a food substance, must I wait until I receive a response from FDA before I market that substance?

No. If one is correct in determining that the intended use of an ingredient is GRAS, use of the ingredient is not subject to any legal requirement for FDA review and approval. Your decision to submit a GRAS notice is voluntary, and FDA’s response to a GRAS notice is not an approval. You may market a substance that you determine to be GRAS for a particular use without informing FDA or, if FDA is so informed, while FDA is reviewing that information (62 Fed. Reg. 18951; April 17, 1997).

In other words, a company can determine via its own study that an ingredient is safe to use in foods marketed and sold in the United States. It’s a matter of innocent until proven guilty: a substance is allowed in our foods until somewhere down the line either the FDA or independent researchers determine that it is indeed harmful and should be removed from the shelves. This is what happened with the now-infamous trans fatty acids that replaced butter and palm oil (saturated fats) for so many decades. Researchers eventually realized that hydrogenated vegetable oils (which are typically corn oils) behave in harmful ways in the human body and now recommend against ingesting any trans fats at all. Can’t believe it’s not butter? Can’t believe it was never even studied before being marketed to millions of Americans as a healthy alternative to what turns out to be a perfectly healthy food (real butter)!

These are all reasons why I only purchase whole, unadulterated foods to feed my family. Fruits, vegetables, beans, lentils, rice, and pasture-raised meat and eggs are staples on our household. And we eat lots of butter–the real stuff. I simply don’t trust the food industry to make decisions about the healthfulness of what goes into our bodies so I don’t buy foods produced by it. I don’t like to live in the kitchen, either, so I look for foods that are easy to cook in large quantities, and that are just plain easy to cook! With time, I’ll populate my recipes category with meals and snacks that are easy for even the working parent to enjoy so that more Americans can move away from their corn-based processed food diets to more traditional, wholesome diets based on a variety of age-old alternatives.