Former Associate editor Margret Aldrich on the hunt for happiness, community, and how humans thrive
3/9/2012 4:29:37 PM
There’s something new on tap, though it’s been around for two thousand years. Kombucha, a fizzy, fermented tea drink purported to have healing properties, is steadily rising in mainstream popularity, finding success with commercial kombucha brewers, home brewers, and bartenders alike.
Made by fermenting tea and sugar with a culture of bacteria and yeast, kombucha is effervescent and potent, its deep, almost musty flavor lightened by a rush of friendly little bubbles. First-time drinkers soon become kombucha groupies.
Once associated with only the dippiest of hippies, kombucha and other fermented foods have earned the respect of the health-conscious community. Kombucha is thought to detoxify the body, improving digestive and immune systems, and Psychology Todayreported that fermented foods may even be the next Prozac, easing stress and depression.
Although such positive claims lack solid scientific proof, kombucha devotees stand behind it as a miracle cure. Jeff Weaber, founder of Vermont kombucha brewery Aqua Vitea with his wife, Katina Martin (a naturopathic physician), shared this anecdote in an email: “During an in-store demo, a person returned after 15 minuets of trying our ginger kombucha for the first time to report that a stomachache she had been dealing with for three days was now gone.”
Aqua Vitea is spreading the kombucha love. The brewery bottles single-serving containers, “but more of it travels in the kegs to stores, where it’s sold fresh on tap—a niche Aqua Vitea pioneered,” writes Sylvia Fagin in Vermont’s Local Banquet. “Empty bottles and growlers are sold near the taps for customers to fill and refill, saving money and resources.”
Other kombucha microbreweries around the country are thriving, as well. In addition to its tasty finished product, craft brewer Kombucha Brooklyn sells 100-200 kombucha homebrew kits a month and curates an online Brewers Forum where devotees can swap stories and recipes. “One of our main goals for having the forum was to connect ’buch brewers and to have them share their successes and failures,” says founder Eric Childs.
Now kombucha is hitting the bar scene. Sumathi Reddy, reporting for the Wall Street Journal, sees alcoholic kombucha drinks gaining trend status in the New York metro area. Get a jasmine margarita made with kombucha at Taproom No. 307 in Manhattan, a “beer bucha” (50 percent kombucha, 50 percent light beer) at Urban Rustic in Brooklyn, or try a new high-alcohol version of kombucha called “Mava Roka” at Queens Kickshaw in Astoria.
Beware of too much of a good thing, though (even if it’s nonalcoholic), or you'll risk stomach pain, headaches, or other symptoms as your body adjusts to the detoxification process. Weaber warns, “After making kombucha for eight years, I started getting the sense that it’s powerful stuff, and you should probably be drinking only about four ounces of kombucha a day. But, being gluttonous Americans, everybody’s drinking 16–32 ounces of kombucha a day.” In other words, get out the shot glass, not the pint.
Sources: Psychology Today, Vermont’s Local Banquet, Wall Street Journal
Image by Eric Bryan, licensed under Creative Commons.
Margret Aldrich is an associate editor at Utne Reader. Follow her on Twitter at @mmaldrich.
2/16/2012 3:59:44 PM
By studying the human brain—not via an MRI or CT scan, but through the hands-on examination of a brain extracted from a recently deceased body—medical researchers can make stunning headway in discovering treatments or cures for diseases like autism, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s. In theory, most people want to help advance this research; in reality, the idea of donating your brain to science is knottier.
Olivia Solon, writing for Wired.co.uk, explains the importance of brain donation but also recognizes its complexities: “The researchers trying to develop treatments for these devastating diseases are unable to carry out their studies at the rate they might like to because of a lack of donated brain tissue. This is partly due to a lack of awareness, but partly due to squeamishness and a belief that brain tissue is somehow more special or sacred than other organs. That strange gelatinous mass is inextricably linked to our personalities and, for some faiths, the soul.”
Many brain banks sympathize with the existential questions that surround brain donation, specifically whether it is compatible with one’s religious beliefs. The Autism Research Foundation offers snapshots of different faiths’ philosophies about postmortem brain tissue donation in an effort to make potential donors’ decisions easier:
Buddhism: The Buddhists believe that the decision to donate organs and tissue is a matter of conscience. While there is no written resolution on the issue, Reverend Gyomay Masao, president and founder of the Buddhist Temple of Chicago, says “We honor those people who donate their bodies and organs to the advancement of medical science and to saving lives.”
Catholicism: The Catholic Church has long supported organ and tissue donation. The consent to donate is seen as an act of charity, fraternal love, and self sacrifice. On the other hand, organ and tissue donation is not considered to be an obligation. For this reason, the free and informed consent of the donor of donor’s family is imperative....
Hinduism: Hindus are not prohibited by religious law from donating their organs according to the Hindu Temple Society of North America. This act is an individual decision.
Judaism: Judaism teaches that all humans are created in the image of God and that every dignity must be extended to the human body in death as in life. Consequently, Jewish law sanctions the performance of autopsies only in certain, very limited circumstances…. A more liberal precedent, followed by many of today’s Jewish leaders, was set during the last century by Rabbi Jacob Ettlinger.... He ruled that an autopsy may be performed if the deceased had willed his or her body for that purpose while still alive. In fact, once of the major provisions of the Israeli legislature’s Anatomy and Physiology Act contends that if a person specifies in writing that his or her body should be used for science, it is permissible to donate that body for medical instruction and research.
Islamic Society: The Moslem Religious Council initially rejected organ donation by followers of Islam in 1983, but has since reversed its position provided that donors consent in writing in advance.
Protestantism: While no one can speak for Protestant Christianity, because of the diversity of traditions and the lack of a single teaching authority, most denominations both endorse and encourage organ and tissue donations. At the same time they stress respect for the individual conscience and a person’s right to make decisions regarding his or her own body.
If you’re able to get over the spiritual ramifications (and the ick factor) of brain donation but think your average, standard-issue brain isn’t of use, researchers want you to know that brains do not need to be diseased to be scientifically useful. In fact, healthy brains are vital for medical research, and they are in short supply. In the UK Brain Bank’s Parkinson’s study, for example, currently only 117 of the 1,110 brains are normal specimens, Solon says.
Beyond studying what can go wrong in the brain, healthy brains enable scientists to see what can go right. In the SuperAging study conducted at Northwestern University, the cognitively sharp participants—all of whom are over the age of 80 and have maintained superior memory and IQ—are asked to contemplate brain donation, reports Kara Spak in the Chicago Sun-Times. “They commit to brain donation so at the time of death we can see if [their brains are] resistant to age-related pathology,” says assistant research professor Emily Rogalski.
For individuals who want to donate their brains for medical research, special steps must be taken. Even if you’re an organ donor, your brain will not be utilized for research that could potentially affect thousands of lives; only transplantable organs, tissue, and blood are covered by checking the “organ donor” box on your driver’s license application.
Ready to consider donating your brain for the greater good? Visit the International Brain Banking Network, the Harvard Brain Bank, the Alzheimer’s Disease Center, the Stanford Center for Narcolepsy, the New York Brain Bank, or other online resources to get started with questionnaires and consent forms. I just took the first step to donate my unremarkable brain (I’ll never know if they reject it), and I encourage you to do the same.
Sources: Wired.co.uk, Chicago Sun-Times
Image by Spec-ta-cles, licensed under Creative Commons.
Margret Aldrich is an associate editor at Utne Reader. Follow her on Twitter at @mmaldrich.
1/20/2012 4:26:01 PM
How many times have you ordered an entrée at a restaurant only to leave a pile of food on your plate, dump the remains into a doggie bag, or stagger out the door with your pants unbuttoned? The new program Halfsies hopes to cut portion sizes for a good cause.
Halfsies identifies three food-focused problems in the United States. 1) Oversized servings. Most restaurant portions here are 2-4 times the recommended serving sizes, which contributes to our epidemic of overweight Americans. And portion size is a problem that keeps growing: 20 years ago, two slices of pizza added up to 500 calories; today, two slices weigh in at 850 calories. 2)Excessive food waste. Nearly half of the food produced in the United States is thrown in the trash. It’s commonly cited that every day we waste enough food to fill the Rose Bowl. 3)Hunger. More than 50 million Americans—and 1 billion people worldwide—are affected by food insecurity.
Combine these challenges, and “you have a dysfunctional feedback loop of waste, hunger and obesity,” says Beth Hoffman of Food + Tech Connect.
Halfsies wants to break this toxic pattern with a wonderfully simple initiative. When at a participating restaurant, choose a menu item with the Halfsies icon next to it and receive a half-portion. You’ll combat food waste as well as eat a healthier amount. You’ll also fight hunger: You pay full price for the plate, and the resulting proceeds are distributed to local nonprofit partners (60 percent), global hunger organizations (30 percent), and back into the Halfsies budget (10 percent).
Pilot programs will be launched in New York City and Austin, Texas, this spring. To learn more and help bring Halfsies to other parts of the country, view their beautifully commonsensical video here:
Sources: Food + Tech Connect, Halfsies
Image via Halfsies.
1/6/2012 3:45:50 PM
Doctors have the very best medical care at their fingertips. They read journals that publish the latest medical findings; they know the most up-to-date treatments for various ailments and diseases; they might even play golf with a top surgeon or two. And yet, when faced with death, many physicians forgo intensive medical treatment.
Doctors “don’t die like the rest of us,” writes Ken Murray for Zócalo Public Square, primarily because “they know enough about modern medicine to know its limits.” Most medical professionals regularly see futile care in action—ineffective CPR attempts, unnecessary surgeries, and expensive drug treatments; patients hooked up to hospital IVs and machines for weeks or months before passing.
“I cannot count the number of times fellow physicians have told me, in words that vary only slightly, ‘Promise me if you find me like this that you’ll kill me’” says Murray, a clinical assistant professor of family medicine at USC. “They mean it. Some medical personnel wear medallions stamped ‘NO CODE’ to tell physicians not to perform CPR on them. I have even seen it as a tattoo.”
Our medical system certainly encourages doctors and staff to take exhaustive measures when a patient is dying. The fee-for-service model puts money in the pockets of medical professionals, and desperate relatives often push for recovery by any means necessary. But many doctors recognize there are more important things than the number of days we breathe on this earth. Murray offers one example:
Years ago, Charlie, a highly respected orthopedist and a mentor of mine, found a lump in his stomach. He had a surgeon explore the area, and the diagnosis was pancreatic cancer. This surgeon was one of the best in the country. He had even invented a new procedure for this exact cancer that could triple a patient’s five-year-survival odds—from 5 percent to 15 percent—albeit with a poor quality of life. Charlie was uninterested. He went home the next day, closed his practice, and never set foot in a hospital again. He focused on spending time with family and feeling as good as possible. Several months later, he died at home. He got no chemotherapy, radiation, or surgical treatment.
At-home care can be an attractive, viable option, according to Murray:
Almost anyone can find a way to die in peace at home, and pain can be managed better than ever. Hospice care, which focuses on providing terminally ill patients with comfort and dignity rather than on futile cures, provides most people with much better final days. Amazingly, studies have found that people placed in hospice care often live longer than people with the same disease who are seeking active cures.
That doctors opt out of traditional end-of-life care might make us reconsider the measures we would take for our loved ones or ourselves. Read the moving story “When the Last Guest Leaves,” featured in our current issue, to see how one woman—with the help of her son—chooses a dignified death outside hospital walls.
Source: Zócalo Public Square
Image by Truthout.org, licensed under Creative Commons.
12/16/2011 4:55:51 PM
Imagine that you are nine months pregnant and have to drive seven hours to reach the nearest hospital. You have never seen an obstetrician or midwife for prenatal care and emergency health services are miles out of reach. This is the situation in parts of Afghanistan, where the maternal mortality rate is the highest in the world.
As of 2008, it was estimated that 1 in 11 Afghan women die in childbirth. (In Greece, the country with the lowest maternal mortality rate, the statistic is 1 in 31,800.) With a fertility rate of 6.62 children per mother, the life expectancy for women in Afghanistan—recently ranked “the most dangerous country for women” by the Thomson Reuters Foundation—is less than 48 years.
Now, a national midwifery program is one of several initiatives to drastically improve women’s maternal safety, report Isobel Coleman and Gayle Tzemach Lemmon in Ms. Magazine. Funded by organizations like the U.S. Agency for International Development, the United Nations, and the European Union, the program has trained more than 2,500 midwives. Coleman and Lemmon write:
For women in the country’s most remote provinces, who face the greatest challenge accessing health care in this overwhelmingly rural country, the midwives serve as a lifeline. Of the approximately 500 birth complications that occur daily in Afghanistan, 320 happen in those rural areas. Midwives are also active in cities, making home visits to women too poor or limited in mobility to seek help at clinics or hospitals.
The midwives can affect more than just the maternal mortality rate, they continue:
Along with saving mothers’ lives, the midwives serve as homegrown role models whose economic strength and earning power are changing their families’—and their communities’—views on women’s roles. Midwives can earn around $350 each month, a substantial salary in one of the world’s poorest countries and where per capita GDP is less than $500 per year. The money matters and is playing a role in shifting male attitudes toward women’s work outside the home…. When women begin contributing economically to the family, they also have a greater say in what happens to them and to their children.
“Most people have a lot of respect for midwives because they need health care,” says Fatima, [a] student in the program. “Midwives save mothers’ lives and women’s lives.”
Source: Ms. Magazine (excerpt only available online)
Image by isafmedia, licensed under Creative Commons.
11/17/2011 3:37:46 PM
I’m sure my stomach knows best. Give me a bad day, and my gut tells me to griddle up a grilled cheese sandwich made with whatever is in the fridge: cheddar, provolone, mozzarella—I’ll even take American singles, as long as they’re melted between slices of thick-cut buttered bread. The more the cheese oozes, the better I feel.
Now, in an emerging field dubbed neurogastroenterology, scientists are finding that the stomach knows more than we give it credit for. “The gut can work independently of any control by the brain in your head—it’s functioning as a second brain,” Michael Gershon, professor of pathology and cell biology at Columbia University tells Dan Hurley in Psychology Today. The brain in your gut, called the enteric nervous system (ENS), is made up of 100 million neurons and can work on its own, without any direction from the brain. And it does more than control itself; it can control your mood, Hurley reports.
It relies on, and in many cases manufactures, more than 30 neurotransmitters, including serotonin, that are identical to those in the brain. What’s more, tinkering with the second brain in our gut has lately been shown to be a potent tool for achieving relief from major depression. Even autism, studies suggest, may be wrapped up in the neurobiology of the brain down under.
Certain foods can have a particularly strong effect on emotions, according to researchers in Belgium. So what comfort food works best to bolster our moods? Mashed potatoes? Macaroni and cheese? Mainlined ice cream sundaes? Any of these can work, as long as they contain one key ingredient: fat.
After participants in the Belgian study were fed either a saline solution or an infusion of fatty acids and then listened to neutral or melancholy music, they were interviewed and given MRI scans. Researchers found that the fatty acids activated the brain regions that regulate emotions and reduced feelings of sadness by about half.
“It’s an important demonstration that in a nonconscious way, without knowing whether you are getting the fat or the salt-water, something you put in your stomach can change your mood,” Giovanni Cizza of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases tells Hurley.
So go on and take a little solace in comfort food. As it turns out, those cravings aren’t all in your head.
Source: Psychology Today
Image by Chefdruck, licensed under Creative Commons.
11/1/2011 2:35:19 PM
What would a month of meditation do for you? In the portrait series “Before and After,” Peter Seidler photographs participants on their first and last days of dathun, a 30-day group meditation retreat. He tells the Shambhala Times:
I set up the “Before and After” project to explore the observable effects on practitioners after long periods of intense meditation practice. The question is: what are the observable changes after a period of intense practice?
Each participant in the project was asked to simply sit for a portrait on first day of dathun.... I photographed them against a consistent background. Prior to the photograph, I asked each person to consider what they were looking for in the practice period ahead. This was on day number one. Then, at the end of the program, after approximately thirty days of retreat, I asked each participant in the project to sit in front of the same background and asked each to consider what the experience of mediation retreat had been for them.... It’s clear from the results that the person in every one of the portraits has undergone an important transformative experience. I leave it to the viewer to draw their own conclusion.
Some people who view Seidler’s images perceive increased contentment and happiness in the meditators’ eyes; others struggle to discern a change. What do you see?
Source: Shambhala Times
Images courtesy of Peter Seidler (email@example.com).
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