Mushrooms, Health and Self-Care

paul stamets with a giant mushroom

Before I dive too far into this post, I want to point out that plucking up random mushrooms from your backyard and eating them is a really dumb idea. There are a growing number of known health benefits associated with our fungal friends, but there are plenty of reasons to exercise caution, the most obvious of which being death.

This evening I attended a talk given by Paul Stamets, a world renowned mushroom expert (and famed astromycologist in the upcoming Star Trek movie), at the Moore Theater in Seattle. The program was entitled “Mushrooms and the Mycology of Consciousness,” and it did indeed blow my mind.

I’ve been fascinated recently by research pointing to mushrooms being a significant source of vitamin D. Like humans, mushrooms use sunlight to manufacture the fat-soluble vitamin, and since there are few natural food sources for this essential nutrient, it’s quite intriguing.

But while this particular talk didn’t cover that aspect of mushrooms, the fact that it didn’t simply points to the enormous impact fungi has on human health, and we’re only just beginning to understand its synergistic roles.

Before Paul took the stage wearing a hat made of Amadou mushroom fiber, it was hard not to notice the small table next to the podium, on top of which was a bulging mass hidden beneath a dark cloth.

We all knew what it was, though.

It was a giant Agarikon mushroom, a variety that has fascinated Stamets for decades, and one that he often poses with in photos.

“How can you not spend your entire life studying this?” he said of it as he held it high above his head.

But it isn’t the largest by a long shot.

To date, the biggest known mushroom spans roughly 2,200 acres atop the Blue Mountains in Oregon. The Honey mushroom’s expansive mycelial network lives mostly below ground (there’s approximately one mile of mycelium per cubic inch…say what?), and Paul hypothesizes that its role is one of a “meadow maker,” since the ground above the network contains almost no trees. To get an aerial photograph, Stamets chartered a plane, which had to climb to 14,000 feet (roughly the elevation of Mt. Rainier) in order to capture the entire site.

It’s jaw-dropping when you consider the fact that this is a single organism.

The amount of information that was covered in just a couple of hours could have easily consumed two full days, and I couldn’t help but feel a deep sense of gratitude for Stamets, who has devoted his entire life to this subject so that we may have a deeper understanding of the world around us.

So, what does a mushroom expert’s personal collection look like? His culture library includes no less than 700 strains. (I had no idea until today so many even existed.)

From eyebrow-raising topics such as LSD microdosing to stimulate creativity, to mushrooms playing a role in treating cancer, it was hard not to look at fungi in a new way. (And I certainly had no idea that mycelium could break down rocks!)

The real focus of the evenings’s discussion, though, was around the relationship between fungi and bees. And if you’re not concerned about the disturbing reality that we’re losing significant populations of bees (and, incidentally, the cause is pointing directly to our irresponsible use of pesticides), then you should be:

No bees = no food.

As it turns out, the powerful immune boosting properties of mushrooms play a significant role in bee health, and it’s clear we’ll be hearing a lot more about this as time goes on.

But I left the talk feeling a mixture of hope and concern–not just for the plight of the bees, but also for what will likely follow these new research findings: an upturn in the manufacture of single-substance products.

This ongoing obsession with the distillation of nature into single ingredients and compounds is alarming to me. It’s clear that our relationship with the natural world isn’t linear. There aren’t single cause-and-effect outcomes that can be fully understood, yet we continue to extract and distill and reduce our food into substances that later get itemized in food journals. We dissect food and then reassemble it into a nutrient slurry that we deem more suitable.

And we’ve been seeing more and more of this kind of thinking within the supplement industry, which, in my opinion, has become as problematic as big pharma…but that’s a topic for another time.

Our interconnectedness with nature is complex, to say the least. But what if we were meant to nourish our bodies with foods as they exist in the natural world? In all of its complexity? With its thousands of phytochemicals and nutrients (some known, some still unknown)? And with all of its synergistic properties?

Nature is our greatest teacher when it comes to self-care.

But as the clock ticks toward midnight, I’ll have to contemplate all of this later. For now, I think it’s time for a slightly different state of consciousness…sleep.

Stop Using Your Body As a Trash Can with Cynthia Lair

bright leafy greens

Cynthia Lair, nutrition and culinary arts professor at Bastyr University, and author of Feeding the Whole Family, reminds us just how important mindfulness is when it comes to nourishing our bodies. (After all, we’re not goats, people!)

Listen to the podcast here:

Cynthia’s lighthearted thoughts on the benefits of developing a personal relationship with food is a breath of fresh air in a culture of convenience and special diets. And, as a woman who talks to chickens, I especially love that both of her sourdough starters have names: Dottie and Fizz.

I hope you find this podcast nurturing and fun!

Are you filling your body with nourishing foods, or are you using it as a landfill?

Maybe it’s time to add some new self-care practices.


Self-Care Challenge (Day 53): Grocery Shopping

bright leafy greens

Grocery shopping is a dreaded task for many people; I happen to be among the few that love it.

Something about the process of selecting beautiful, healthy ingredients just puts me in a good mood. I even look forward to chopping, slicing and putting groceries away in preparation for the upcoming week’s menu.

Grocery shopping is tool that supports the self-care practice of healthy eating. For me, the key to a successful (and efficient) supermarket experience is to have a well-planned shopping list (which, incidentally, also requires having a well-planned menu).

Avoiding high-traffic times like after work or on Sunday evenings, when everyone is scrambling to get ready for the return of the work-week, can make a big difference. I prefer to shop early on Saturday mornings because it allows me to enjoy more of my weekend – and it also makes Sunday evening less hectic.

Regardless of your method, having a routine that gets healthy food into your home is what’s most important.

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Self-Care Challenge (Day 48): Eating Colorfully

Brightly colored fruits and vegetables have more to offer than just good looks. Plants contain vitamins, minerals, and thousands of phytochemicals that have been linked to good health.

The red pigments found in tomatoes are rich in lycopene. Cherries, plums and strawberries contain anthocyanins. The white pigments found in cauliflower are high in indole-3-carbanols and garlic contains allicin.

But color isn’t always an exact indicator. For example, it’s well-known that berries and grape skins are rich in resveratrol, but peanuts are also a good source.

We still have much to learn about the health benefits of plants, which is an even greater reason to eat a wide variety of colorful fruits and vegetables.

Aiming for the recommended 5 to 9 servings a day isn’t as difficult as it sounds either. For example, most medium to large bananas are two servings, and I’ve rarely seen anyone eat just one cup of salad greens. Once you familiarize yourself with servings sizes, you might be surprised that you aren’t that far off the mark.

Eating a wide variety of foods is a basic tenet of self-care. Our bodies require a wealth of nutrients to function properly, and an even wider variety to function well. As you put together your next grocery list, review it for color and variety to maximize the nutrient content of your meals.

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Self-Care Challenge (Day 42): Eating Local

Buying and eating local is important to me.

Not only do I like to support local businesses and growers, I also like knowing where my food comes from. Like many other Americans, my decision to not grow all of my own food means that I have willingly entrusted others to do it for me. But I like to be involved in the process when I can, which is why I shop at local farmers’ markets in the summer and dine at locally owned restaurants as often as possible.

Another way that my husband and I eat local is by keeping our own chickens, which has been an unbelievably rewarding experience in so many ways.

Since we know what our chickens eat, we’re satisfied that the eggs are nutrient-rich and beneficial to our health. Likewise, because we also know how they are cared for, we’re satisfied that their impact on the environment is a positive, supportive one. The girls eat most of our kitchen scraps, which means we generate less waste to be hauled off to the landfill (and it also means our garbage bill is lower). In addition, we use their high nitrogen bedding to build compost for our garden, and we use their egg shells to ward off slugs that excitedly devour our garden each spring. There are many more benefits to raising chickens that farm fresh eggs.

The process of raising chickens has taught us so much about our relationship with other living things and how, together, we nourish one another. It also reminds us that buying and eating locally supports our community and its ecosystem.

Sometimes being a locavore also means that we have to be willing to get dirty – after all, cleaning out the coop is not pleasant, but it’s absolutely worth it!

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Self-Care Challenge (Day 27): Cooking with Garlic

bowl of garlic soup

Garlic has been used throughout history for both culinary and medicinal purposes.

Allium sativum, garlic’s botanical name, often attracts special attention due to its beneficial organosulfur compounds, alliin being just one of them. I must admit that I don’t love the term ”superfood,” as I tend to believe every real food deserves that designation. But nevertheless, garlic often makes its way onto those kinds of lists. Health claims range from reducing cancer risk to protecting against cardiovascular disease to reducing inflammation. But the research has been inconsistent at best.

A 2007 study at Stanford University took a closer look at the cardiovascular effects of garlic. They targeted subjects who had moderately elevated LDL levels, which meant they were not yet appropriate for treatment with medication. Ultimately, they found no reduction in LDL cholesterol in any of the four groups that consumed either raw garlic, an aged garlic supplement, a powdered garlic supplement or a placebo.

Researcher Christopher Gardner summed it up well: “There’s no shortcut. You achieve good health through eating healthy food. There isn’t a pill or an herb you can take to counteract an unhealthy diet.”

While it may not be an effective “treatment” for many health conditions, it does show promise from a disease prevention standpoint. Several studies have linked garlic to a reduction of risk for certain cancers.

For some people, large quantities of garlic can be dangerous (though it’s worth noting that most of the risks have been associated with highly concentrated supplements rather than raw cloves used for culinary purposes). For example, garlic can enhance the blood thinning actions of anticoagulants.

The jury is still out on how much garlic poses a problem, so it’s always best to discuss potential medication interactions with your doctor since medication dosages can often be adjusted to eating patterns.

Medicinal uses aside, the pleasing flavor of garlic is reason enough to periodically include it in your diet (unless you’re among the few who are allergic or simply dislike it). And that’s precisely one of the reasons I included it in my self-care challenge.

Yesterday, the aroma of roasted garlic wafted through my kitchen as I prepared the ingredients for a spicy garlic soup. I happen to love the flavor of garlic–and it helps when your significant other does too since, when consumed in large quantities, it can cause unpleasant breath and body odor. (It isn’t nicknamed “the stinking rose” for nothing.)

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Self-Care Challenge (Day 11): Using a Pressure Cooker

Before my beloved pressure cooker entered my life, I thought waiting 6 to 8 hours for slightly-tender BBQ ribs was unavoidable. But then I discovered I could get a much better result in just 30 minutes using a pressure cooker. (Sorry, crock pot. I think it’s time I moved on.)

If you’ve shied away from using a pressure cooker because you’ve heard legendary horror stories of kitchen explosions, you may want to reconsider. Modern safety features have all but eliminated the risks – with the exception of human ones, of course. (Read and follow the directions thoroughly, dear friends!)

Not only are pressure cookers faster than other cooking methods, but they also save energy. Under pressure, the boiling point of water is increased, allowing the food to reach higher temperatures before the liquid vaporizes into steam.

Some have claimed these high temperatures destroy more nutrients, but the evidence just isn’t there. In fact, pressure cooking fares better than some of the more popular cooking methods. Because it uses very little water, fewer nutrients are lost. Compare that with boiling, for example, where a large amount of nutrients are leached into the cooking water (the more water, the greater this effect).

The only drawback? It’s not exactly subtle. The forceful whistle of the jiggling regulator atop the steam vent can really put on a show, but I kind of like it. If the noise bothers you, and the Instant Pot (Amazon Associate Link) is another great option.

Planning ahead and using the right cooking equipment can make home-cooked meals much less labor-intensive (and that also means less dependence on take-out and convenience foods). From that perspective alone pressure cookers can have quite a positive impact on our health.

Need healthy food faster? Use a pressure cooker.

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Vegetable Fermentation with Elijah Santoyo

Making kimchi

When we think of sauerkraut, most of us think of Germany. The word itself, which means “sour cabbage” in German, often brings to mind its close companions: beer and Brätwurst. But some would argue that fermented cabbage actually originated in China, long before Germany staked a claim.

Regardless of origin, lactic acid fermentation is one of the most popular methods of food preservation in the world.

Professional Chef Elijah Santoyo, who also serves as Director at The Permaculture Academy in Los Angeles, teaches fermentation classes in the Southern California area. He was trained in Japanese Kaiseki cuisine and as a sake sommelier under Master Toshi Suigara. I recently asked him for some advice as I get started with fermentation, and he’s been gracious enough to share some of his wisdom here.

Q: What is the most difficult aspect of vegetable fermentation?

Elijah: Fermentation is very simple and elegant, the only practical problem sometimes is space.  Most of us don’t have root cellars or cave access anymore, so finding space for all your various jars and crocks can be an issue.  I used to have a separate refrigerator just for kimchi.

Q: What have you found to be the most effective way to “bruise” vegetables to release their juice in preparation for fermentation? For example, is there a specific tool that is more effective than simply squeezing them in your hands?

Elijah: The salt granules and along with osmosis do plenty, and the more carefully you massage the ingredients the better.  Time is really on your side, and is an important ingredient to any pickle recipe.  You have to remember that anything you do to the organic matter in the beginning will be magnified twelve-fold by the end.  So be gentle and kind.  We used to call it “respectful” in the professional kitchen.

Q: Of the many fermentation vessel options to choose from, what are your favorites?

Elijah: I love urns of any type, the breathable clay korean onggi (Amazon Associate Link), in particular.  And the japanese cypress tubs.  The other great design is a chinese pickle crock (Amazon Associate Link), where a lipped opening filled with a moat of water creates a gas siphon.

Q: What are some common mistakes that beginner fermenters make?

Elijah: Usually the balance of salt and flavourings is the first trip up, a lot of people love to make substitutions and improvise in recipes, but they are chemistry and they should be followed closely.  As my sensei used to beat into me, if you don’t know, imitate.

Q: What is the most interesting thing you’ve ever fermented?

Elijah: A type of thai sausage called naem, or sour pork.  It’s raw pork mixed with garlic and started with sticky rice (which you’ve chewed and spat out to create a bacterial inoculant using your saliva) and left at room temperature for a week to sour and then is eaten raw with crudites.  Aroi mak mak, if you know what I mean.

I’m so glad I asked that last question! I’m astounded by how much there is to learn about this topic, and I’m glad there are folks out there who are willing to share their knowledge. As we become increasingly reliant on large corporate entities for our food supply, we would be wise to maintain at least a basic understanding of food preservation methods. If we don’t, the wisdom may be lost altogether.

For more information about The Permaculture Academy’s upcoming classes, visit their website or event schedule.


Self-Care Challenge (Day 5): Baking Whole Grain Bread


It’s hard not to melt into a smile with the aroma of freshly baking bread in the air.

Bread has been a food staple for cultures around the globe throughout history, and tradition of breaking bread is a symbol of sharing and connecting. But in our increasingly busy culture, few of us take the time to bake bread from scratch anymore. It’s much easier to pick up a loaf just about anywhere.

Over the years bread and other “carbs” have gotten a lot of bad press, partly because so many of today’s options are laden with sugar and refined flours. But whole grains provide a significant source of fiber, trace minerals, and B vitamins, the latter being involved in a number of complex enzymatic and metabolic pathways.

Whole grain kernels have three primary components:

Bran: The outer coating, which is high in fiber and B vitamins.

Endosperm: The middle layer, which contains carbohydrate, a small amount of protein, and a few trace minerals. (This is also the primary component of white flour.)

Germ: The center layer, which is high in Vitamin E, minerals and other phytochemicals.

The refining process typically removes the bran and germ, the components that have a tendency to go rancid more quickly. This extends their shelf-life (and profit margins), but it also removes many key nutrients, requiring them to be added back, a process called enrichment. Sometimes manufacturers add nutrients that were never there to begin with; that process is called fortification.

My self-care endeavor for the day was not only to bake a loaf of homemade, whole grain bread, but also to grind my own grain. Doing so just before use retains a higher portion of nutrients, compared to a bag of flour, which loses nutrients over time as it sits on the shelf.

Grain mills can be expensive and difficult to maintain – that’s why I fell in love with my Vitamix (Amazon Associate Link). While it’s not exactly a cheap option either, it has more than paid for itself in the first year of ownership. I’m not the only one who feels that way either. Prior to my purchase, I heard similar sentiments from folks who have owned one for 20 or 30 years. I’ve used traditional hand-cranked grain mills too, but they take a LOT of time and elbow grease. My Vitamix can process whole wheat berries into a fine flour in just one minute.

For the same reason, I’m a big fan of bread machines. Not only do they save me time, but cleanup is negligible. You mix a couple of things together, toss them into the machine, push a couple of buttons, and in about 3 hours you have a loaf of bread.

I love to try new recipes, so I tested out a new one for this experiment. As much as I wish I could say that the finished product was amazing, it was anything but. In fact, what’s the exact opposite of delicious? Yeah, it was that.

Even though it didn’t turn out as well as I’d hoped, I’ll continue to try new recipes until I find one that I like. Life is like that sometimes. We don’t always get the results we were looking for on the first try. We have to continue to explore new ways of doing things, and sometimes we have to fail to learn.

Instead of wallowing in my disappointment, I decided to apply the lemonade principle: What do you do when life hands you flavorless bread? You make seasoned croutons.

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What is Real Food?

bright leafy greens

Let’s be honest. Shifting to a real food eating style is like trying to spread cold butter on toast. It’s tricky until you warm up to it.

While we inherently know that real food is better for us, we’ve become increasingly disconnected from the sources of our food and more reliant on convenience foods. With so many fad diets and marketing campaigns to sift through, it’s hard to even identify real food.

After studying nutrition for more than two decades, I’ve come to the conclusion that eating is personal, and that there are many approaches to eating well. We all have different philosophies and opinions when it comes to food. That’s because our food choices are driven by many factors including our religious beliefs, social views, cultural influences, regional availability of food and flavor preferences. Some people enjoy broccoli; some don’t. Some believe eggs are healthy; some don’t. Some choose to eat meat; some don’t. My family raised and butchered hogs so eating pork seems normal to me, but I know that it’s not something everyone chooses to eat. Likewise, I grew up with Jif peanut butter and I still eat it today. I’m well aware that it contains hydrogenated oils and emulsifiers, but I like it. Being a real food supporter is not about eating perfectly, it’s about understanding and owning your choices and giving thought to what you eat.

Imagine for a moment that there was a real food revival in this country. As Americans, we begin choosing real food over convenience foods more often, we prepare more meals at home, and maybe we even grow some of our own food. It’s exciting to consider how empowering it would feel to take ownership of our food again. I really don’t think I’m being overly optimistic here either. Starting a real food movement will require challenging some deeply entrenched norms for sure, but Americans are smart and fully capable of rising to meaningful challenges.

Are you still with me? Okay then, let’s define real food!

Words like clean, whole, unprocessed, organic, local, natural, unrefined, raw and fresh are often used to describe real food, but some real foods just don’t fit neatly within those narrow categories. Grandma’s home-canned green beans, for example, are technically considered processed. Likewise, homemade applesauce isn’t raw after it’s heated. And garlic isn’t exactly whole after you chop it. Then what exactly is real food? Here are a few guidelines to consider:

Real foods are ingredients. Think of real foods as individual ingredients. As a general rule, if you can visualize each of the ingredients listed on a food label, it’s probably real. And if it doesn’t require a label, that’s even better!

Real food is beautiful. Real food doesn’t need artificial coloring to make it pretty; it’s comfortable in its own imperfect skin.

Real food is authentic. Real food doesn’t need to look like something it isn’t, which means it doesn’t have a label displaying a nonsensical list of preservatives and additives. It speaks for itself. What you see is what you get.

Real food teaches us gratitude. It takes time to prepare food. Planning a menu, shopping, cooking and cleaning up all require careful attention and organization. Sharing a meal that was prepared with love is hard to replicate in a commercial setting. Giving thanks for our meals – both for the food itself and to the person that prepared it – teaches us how to express gratitude and connect with others.

Real food is compostable. Real food has the ability to break down and feed other living things. That’s the circle of life at its best. As living things return to the earth, they replenish the fragile soil with nutrients that are vital for plants that will eventually become food as well. Choosing real food keeps landfills from growing because we let the earth recycle our leftovers rather than tossing them in the garbage.

Real food is nutritious. No matter where you stand on this issue, I think we can all agree that real food is full of powerful nutrients and phytochemicals – many of which we still don’t fully understand. These mysterious synergies cannot be replicated, synthesized or manufactured in a laboratory.

My quick definition of real food is this: Nourishing plant and animal ingredients as close to their natural form as possible. 

I know what you’re probably thinking. A few guidelines are nice, but not all that practical. I agree. Try out the Menu Upp! Meal Planning Toolkit that I developed to plan my own weekly menus. This keeps me focused on the foods I want to include rather than those I wish to avoid. (The latter just feels like a time drain to me.) Make a list of your favorite healthy foods and the process will be even easier. The important thing is that you feel inspired to eat real food!

Are you a real food supporter? What does your real food eating style look like?