Where to Begin With Supplements
Taking supplements can be an overwhelming task to initiate. There are so many different varieties of vitamins & minerals, brands names of vitamins & minerals, and a lot of variation on mixed feelings about the successfulness of absorption rates. When I first decided to look more into proper supplementation, I must say I was slightly overwhelmed with the synergistic properties.
The fact that some supplements need to be paired with others in order to be fully absorbed was a concept that seemed beyond me, I wasn’t even sure which supplements to take that would work on their own. But! Alas, my wariness did not heed my eagerness to learn more, so I put my nose to the books and have come up with the ultimate basic list of supplements and what they can be used for. As always, I recommend getting your vitamins and minerals from the food you digest but I also understand that sometimes that is not possible in today’s crazy world. Enter the supplement.
Some of the supplement information I have provided below does not elaborate on the synergistic qualities of supplements. For instance, Vitamin D is excellent for the immune system but also can provide relief from anxiety and depression. If you are browsing through and are not seeing a supplement that you had expected under a particular category, try reading through the other recommendations to see if there are alternative vitamins and minerals that can work for multiple symptoms.
Calcium and Vitamin K2: If you are deficient in calcium and supplementing instead you may want to think twice, or do some research on your vitamin K levels. Vitamin K actually helps carry the Calcium into your bones, meaning if you are deficient in Vitamin K2 and supplementing with Calcium then you may not really be doing any good.
Take this if Your Immune System Needs Help or If You Are Feeling Fatigued
Taking D3 keeps me cold-free all year long (literally, I got terrible colds until I started taking it), and keeps me from being depressed and anxious in winter months. If you don’t take cod liver oil, and even if you do but need more D, this is the supplement to take. Vitamin D is associated with overall improved health, and can help with diseases as advanced as cancer.
Vitamin D is one of the most important vitamins, and one we are most likely to be deficient in as Americans. Some estimates say anywhere from 80-90% of the population may have sub optimal levels of Vitamin D in the blood.
This is worrying because Vitamin D plays such an important role in health. From reducing autoimmune issues and inflammation, to preventing disease, Vitamin D is a nutrient we shouldn’t neglect. Vitamin D has a protective effect on the immune system, helping T-cells and B-cells to to fight immune threats while also preventing autoimmune issues.
Several autoimmune diseases (including Lupus and MS) have a high range of deficiency and supplementation with Vitamin D has been shown to improve health in these individuals.
Having sufficient Vitamin D has been shown to reduce upper respiratory infections in both summer and winter. Those with deficiencies of Vitamin D are found to suffer from upper respiratory infections much more often, even accounting for the seasons.
Vitamin D, the sunshine vitamin, is primarily processed through the skin rather than through food. During the summer, we wear less and tend to spend more time outdoors, and this increases the amount we produce. In turn, we get sick less often and feel altogether happier. Vitamin D deficiencies are also associated with lower mood and decreased cognitive function.
However, Vitamin D needs range depending on specific conditions. Recommendations for average adults age 19-50 are about 600 i/u a day to prevent deficiency. This can come from sunlight, diet, or supplements, but it may take up to 1500 or 2000 i/u a day, depending on the individual, to keep blood levels about the recommended 30 ng/ml.
Vitamin D foods: Salmon, Mushrooms (cooked), egg yolk, canned tuna, sardines and cod liver oil.
This vitamin is crucial for immune system health, for the manufacture of neurotransmitters, and for adrenal (stress system) health.
Foods that contain Vitamin C: Leafy greens, other vegetables, and all fruits (yes, citrus, but others too!) all have high quantities of vitamin C. If you are a paleo dieter but don’t go heavy on the veggies you may want to consider upping your dose.
Vitamin C Supplement
Take this for Mood & Sleep Improvement
70% of Americans do not get the recommended daily dose of magnesium. And magnesium is crucial for more than 300 essential chemical reactions in the body. Without magnesium, these vital reactions simply don’t take place.
Without magnesium, systems malfunction all over the map, from bone growth to adrenal health to the ability to fall asleep at night. Magnesium is also, and perhaps most importantly, one of the primary nutrients involved in the regulation of cellular stress and activity. And when I say stress here, I do mean stress. Any sort of cellular activity is a stress of sorts, because it upregulates activity and requires energy and resources.
Magnesium’s role is simple: it opens channels on cell membranes. When a muscle fiber, for example, needs to tense up and become active, magnesium will open the membrane and help usher in calcium, which helps make it tense. Then, when the period of stress is over and the muscle can relax, magnesium opens up the cell membrane to usher the calcium out of the cell again. The problem for most people is that they have enough magnesium to usher calcium into the cell, but not enough to usher the calcium out.
This leaves them in a chronically up-regulated state, leaving muscles tense, nerves firing, and neurons on high alert. This is why magnesium deficiency is associated with muscle tension, with headaches, with poor adrenal health, and with anxiety.
Without magnesium, the body simply cannot calm down.
Magnesium is very hard to get in a paleo diet (really only in grains) and is CRUCIAL for over 300 enzymatic reactions in the body. You need it to prevent headaches, relax your muscles, calm anxiety, prevent depression, and fall asleep at night, among so many other things. At one point it nearly saved my life.This is the form of magnesium that is easiest on the gut. Other forms in high doses can cause intestinal motility to speed up enough to cause diarrhea. This one is the best for avoiding that if you have a sensitive stomach.
High quality magnesium citrate supplement
As important as magnesium is, it unfortunately is no longer abundant in the human diet. Research estimates that at least 48% of Americans do not get nearly enough magnesium in their diets. This is in part because magnesium has been depleted from American soils.
Unfortunately for paleo dieters, the majority of foods high in magnesium are not on the typical paleo menu. High magnesium foods include mostly legumes, nuts and seeds: soybeans, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, quinoa, black beans, cashews, navy beans, sunflower seeds, almonds. Grains are also reasonably high in magnesium.
Fortunately for paleo dieters, kale, swiss chard, and beet greens are all great sources. Nevertheless, magnesium is probably one of the greatest “risk” minerals for paleo dieters, which is why I typically recommend supplementing.
Take this if You’re Breaking Out
Zinc is an essential mineral that is not only found in several enzymes–which makes it crucial to lots of bodily functions–but it also, notably, is critical for immune system function. It also plays a key role in the metabolism of RNA and DNA, and promotes plasticity (flexibility) in the brain. It is important for immune health, hormone health, insulin modulation, and brain health. Zinc also has anti-inflammatory properties that resist and combat bacteria, making it wonderful for helping acne relief.
The best sources of zinc are oysters (by almost a factor of ten), followed by liver, beef, and lamb. Turkey and shrimp also have good amounts of zinc. From plants, zinc can be obtained from lentils, quinoa, chick peas, and many kinds of seeds including pumpkin and sesame seeds.
High quality Zinc supplement
Take this if You’re Trying to Heal Your Gut
This vitamin is rare because even though you think you might be getting it every time you eat a carrot (the packaging always says “good source of vitamin A!”), you are unfortunately being misled. Carrots do not have vitamin A in them. Neither do any other plant foods. What these foods have in them instead is beta carotene.
Beta carotene can be converted into vitamin A in your intestines by gut flora (here’s a great probiotic and great probiotic foods that can help with that). If you do not have the right gut flora it just won’t happen. Unfortunately that’s the case for a lot of people today. Gut flora just aren’t as robust as they could be.
So many people are deficient in vitamin A. The only robust source of true vitamin A in the diet is organ meat, particularly liver. Most people cringe at the idea of eating liver. Yet ancestral human cultures prized the liver above almost all other parts of the animal. Presumably this is because they figured out how important it is for health. If you cannot stomach the idea of eating liver a couple of times a month (but you should because it’s delicious), you can try a desiccated liver supplement like this one, which is my favorite.
You can also obtain vitamin A from cod liver oil, which is actually a better supplement for absorbing vitamin A specifically because oil is the right form for a fat soluble vitamin. (Desiccated liver is the best for a lot of other nutrients, though, including the rare and important choline). Most people do well with 10-15,000 IU’s per day.
This is the healthiest, most nourishing cod liver oil supplement on the market today.
Take This if You Are Combating Brain Fog
Vitamin K is rare in the diet today for a few reasons. One is that people do not eat organ meats anymore, and organ meats are one of the only good sources of vitamin K2.
Another reason is that most animals today are raised on grain products and other random bits of food instead of grass. Yet grass is the natural diet for cows, bison, and other ruminants. The highest quality beef comes from cows that eat grass specifically because it enables them to make the right nutrients that they need.
Vitamin K2 can be found in grass-fed butter, but it cannot be found in grain-fed butter. So you can boost your vitamin K (K2, specifically) intake by getting some grass-fed butter in your diet. If you cannot do that, then you may definitely want to consider that cod liver oil supplement I mentioned earlier. Because not only does it have cod liver oil and vitamins A and D in it, but it also has high quality butter oil added, which is rich in vitamin K.
This is how fermented cod liver oil kills three birds with one stone. Most people will do well with 100 mcg/d.
Vitamin B2, also known as riboflavin, is necessary for energy production and normal cell function and growth.
Riboflavin deficiency is common in women of child-bearing age and of a low socioeconomic level. Using hormonal birth control exacerbates that problem. Studies have shown that vitamin supplements remediate riboflavin issues in women taking the pill.
Altogether, these findings suggest that vitamin B2 supplementation in women taking OCs may be important where vitamin nutrition is poor.
Greens, eggs, turkey, other sources of animal protein, and plant protein sources such as beans and legumes tend to be good sources of vitamin B2. With a diet rich in animal products, vegetables, and fruits, B2 should probably not be a problem to obtain enough of. Not many sources of B2 are excellent sources, but there is a wide variety of foods which contain a decent amount of it.
High quality B complex supplement
If Your Liver is Needing Assistance Detoxing
Vitamin B12 (also known as cobalamin) is an essential nutrient for many things, but perhaps most of all liver support and detox.
Vitamin B12 is fortunately very rich in pretty much all animal protein sources, especially liver. But beef, lamb, poultry, seafood, and eggs all have fairly abundant B12. Dairy also has a reasonable amount of B12 in it. If you are a vegetarian, and especially if you are a vegan, you will need to supplement with B12.
If you struggle already with a slugglish liver or have a condition like estrogen dominance or PCOS, the following supplements help support the liver through Phase I and Phase II detoxification and can be really helpful:
- Methylated forms of B12 (find it here), B6 (find it here), and Folic Acid (find it here): important for the passing of methyl groups which helps with the excretion of hormones like estrogen and is sometimes difficult in women with PCOS.
- DIM (I like this one): contains the strongest components of cruciferous vegetables known to help break down excess hormones.
- Calcium D Glucarate (I like this brand) supports the glucuronidation of the liver and prevents excess estrogen from being re-absorbed in the bowels.
- Glutathione (find it here): important for the detoxification of alcohol. Smoking, chronic stress, and infections or inflammatory disorders also deplete this important nutrient
So there you have it! Where will you be starting on your supplementing journey? Maybe you are sticking to food instead? Leave me a comment and let me know!
Post-Holiday Blues? After vacations and the generalized chaos of the holidays, it’s easy to feel a little down returning back to regularly scheduled life. Sometimes, these feelings last for periods after the holidays though, and can impact your life in more serious ways.
What is SAD?
Seasonal Affective Disorder is a clinical term used to delineate the negative effects that the winter months can have on our physical and mental wellbeing. According to PSYCOM.NET, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a category of depression that emerges in particular seasons of the year. Once thought to be an exaggerated claim of, basically, winter blues, SAD is now clinically recognized, with an ironic acronym to boot. SAD symptoms can be exhibited in the spring and summer months, but commonly are noticeable starting in the fall months, progressing in intensity by the time winter arrives.
Although we as humans continue to live our lives in winter as we had in the summer months due to all the technology we have, it is important to know that winter is still nature’s time to pause growth and prepare the world for rejuvenation and rebirth in the spring. While some animals hibernate to combat this, lots of animals put on a layer of fat and heavy fur to protect themselves. Humans crave carbohydrates and sleep even more during this period.
This is our natural instincts surfacing. Our bodies are trying to save and stock up on energy stores to prepare for the lack of vegetation and natural prey that would follow winters initiation.
There is a lot of speculation regarding the cause of SAD but commonly it can be traced back to one prominent theory. When the days get shorter, colder and gloomier, your body picks up these cues and produces more melatonin. Melatonin releases chemicals that aid in sleeping. The increase in melatonin also means a decrease in serotonin which is a chemical responsible for feelings of well-being and happiness.This, coupled with the lack of Vitamin D most of us receive due to the shorter days and less time spent outside, is thought to contribute to SAD.
How Common Is It?
Unfortunately, SAD is four times more likely in women than men, with an estimated 10 million Americans affected every year. SAD can be hard to distinguish if you are suffering depression year round, which is why taking account of seasonal patterns in your symptoms is important in diagnosing.
Symptoms are often an overlap of clinical depression symptoms. They include:
- Loss of joy or interest in things that once brought you joy or interest
- Physical pain in the joints, or other areas of the body
- Suicidal thoughts
- Difficulty concentrating
- Changes in appetite
Top Ways to Fight It
A combination of the following items can be used to combat SAD.
- Vitamin D – One of the speculated causes of SAD is the lack of sunshine our bodies are receiving as a result of shorter days, causing a Vitamin D deficiency. This can mess with our internal circadian rhythm and causing a shift in our hormone balances. Supplementing with Vitamin D can help. This is my favorite Vitamin D supplement, also containing Vitamins A and K.Looking for more reasons to supplement with this amazing vitamin? Check out my post, here.
- Light Therapy – By mimicking the sun through awesome little boxes of sunshine, like this one, you can create the same affects in your body by sitting near one for 30-60 minutes a day. Make sure that if you are going to invest in a light box, do not purchase one that has UV rays. Blue, Green & White lights are best for those with SAD, not to be confused with my most recent red light obsession for improving skin quality.
- Keep Moving – If your climate is anything like mine, it is COLD OUTSIDE. Did I say cold?! I MEANT FRIGID. Which honestly really sucks because one of my favorite ways to exercise is taking long walks outside. Because of the weather, I have resigned myself to more indoor activities when I need a good workout, or I bundle up for a good walk on the days I can get outside while it’s still sunny out. One of my fave new exercises is an aerial ribbon class. It takes a whole new level to what I consider dancing, literally. Not only is it a great exercise, but I look INSANELY majestic twirling around in the air in satin ribbons.
- Meetup Or Talk It Out – The wintery weather can leave us wanting to hibernate inside, but one of the best things to aid SAD symptoms is human interaction. Schedule time for tea, dinner, or just a phone call. Sometimes I avoid calling because texting is so easy these days, but I always feel better after talking to a loved one on the phone.
- Focus On a Healing Diet – There is science documenting the ways that processed, chemical saturated meals can slow us down physically and mentally. You probably have experienced this if you have had brain fog from a gluten detox. Foods that are nourishing and nutrient dense make us feel better. These foods can supplement crucial nutrients, like Vitamin D, in our body that may be depleted as a result of the darker, colder months.
Sometimes being nocturnal, like myself, can come in handy in these colder months because I have trained myself to wake up during times of peak sunlight. But sometimes I miss that time frame completely. And it can feel really weird not to see any sunlight all day. I definitely will be grabbing one of these lightboxes to supplement until I can get back onto a more normalized circadian rhythm.
What are your thoughts on SAD?
Have you had luck with any other ways to combat the side effects of the winter blues?
Let me know!
Okay, okay… I know it’s not paleo per se…
To talk about making your bed…
But actually I think it is!
Nowadays, we have beds.
BUT WE DIDN’T USED TO.
Beds aren’t paleo!
I mean, obviously beds are fine. But since beds have only existed for a few thousand years and people have existed for millions of years, beds are pretty new things.
And so with beds, comes problems for our evolved bodies.
Here is one of the problems:
Allergies and bugs.
Specifically, allergies and dust mites.
Dust mites are incredibly common in beds. In fact, it is nearly impossible for a bed to exist without them. On average, it appears as though a single bed contains between 1 and 2 million dust mites.
Dust mites are microscopic, so even while they are gross to think about, they don’t normally impact your life. The exception is that when dust mites poop, humans often react to them as allergens.
For this reason, dust mite poop has been hypothesized by many researchers to be a factor in causing asthma (though of course there are many).
How do you minimize the amount of dust mites in your bed?
You might think that you should wash your sheets every day, but the answer is in fact far simpler:
Don’t make your bed.
If you don’t make your bed, and you leave your top blankets all crumpled up or off to the side or what-have-you, then you will air out your sheets. Dust mites thrive off of skin cells in warm, damp environments. They actually die if their environment becomes too dry. If you don’t make your bed, you dry out the dust mites and they die.
If, however, you make your bed after getting out of it, you trap warmth and moisture in the sheets, which creates a veritable breeding ground for these asthma- and allergy- causing dust mites.
So be paleo!
Don’t make your bed!
Your sinuses may thank you.
(Or I guess the real paleo thing to do would be to sleep in a tree or a cave… whatever.)
What do you think? What are your bedding preferences? Do you think about paleo and how it might impact your life in areas more than just food? I’d love to know!
Of all the things in the body that hormones affect, sleep is one of the most important.
Without quality sleep, it is difficult to regulate appetite, to burn fat, to feel good, and to be happy and calm. Poor sleep can cause inflammation, poor blood sugar control, depression, anxiety, and a whole host of other issues.
Women suffer from insomnia at nearly twice the rate of men. This may in part be due to social and psychological factors, but it is also no doubt also due to the physiology of female hormones.
Fortunately, even though it’s nearly impossible to find great information about female hormones and insomnia on the web, the basics of are actually quite simple. Here is what you need to know about female hormones and insomnia.
Female hormones and insomnia: low estrogen levels cause insomnia
Low estrogen levels cause insomnia. Why? Because estrogen helps move magnesium into tissues. Magnesium is crucial for catalyzing more than 300 reactions in the body, the synthesis of important sleep neurotransmitters and the sleep hormone melatonin included.
When this happens, it is both harder to fall asleep as well as harder to stay asleep throughout the night.
Female hormones and insomnia: when estrogen levels get low
Estrogen levels can fall for a number of reasons. Here are the most common:
Female hormones and insomnia: psychological stress
High amounts of psychological stress can cause the female body to shut down reproductive function. This happens because the body would prefer to wait until less stressful time before becoming pregnant. It is much easier to become ill or die while pregnant if you are in a stressful environment.
You can read more about psychology and how it can affect sex hormone function in this post: psychological stress and hypothalamic amenorrhea.
Female hormones and insomnia: metabolic stress
High amounts of physical stress like under-eating, over-exercising, low fat or low carb diets, intermittent fasting, dramatic weight loss or low body fat percentage can all cause estrogen levels to drop precipitously.
It is super important for the female body to feel relaxed and fed. If it does not feel fed, it will think that it is starving. And if it thinks that it is starving, it will stop producing reproductive hormones, so as to stop you from becoming pregnant at a time in which it may be dangerous.
All sorts of activities that involve undereating of some sort – whether from calorie counting or chornic dieting – thus become a threat to your ability to sleep, especially if they are a chronic problem.
You can read more about the threat of starvation to female sex hormones in this post: metabolic stress and hypothalamic amenorrhea.
Female hormones and insomnia: fluctations with the menstrual cycle
Women of reproductive age often experience fluctations in their ability to sleep on a monthly basis. I know that I certainly do.
Most women report most difficulty sleeping in the day or two before menstruation, and during the first days of menstruation.
This is because these are the days in which estrogen levels are the lowest.
On day 1, the day of bleeding, all sex hormone levels are very low. Over the course of the next two weeks, before ovulation, estrogen levels rise. After ovulation, estrogen and progesterone levels fluctuate. Sometimes during this phase, progesterone levels may be elevated enough in order to off set any benefits from the estrogen, but usually the estrogen is strong enough to enable you to sleep.
At the end of the cycle leading up to the days of bleeding, however, most hormone levels are back down very low, including estrogen, making sleep difficult during these days and in the days that follow.
Female hormones and insomnia: menopause
Menopause is infamous for causing insomnia. Hot flashes often play a role in this, but even without hot flashes many women and toss and turn for years.
Menopause causes insomnia because the ovaries stop producing estrogen and progesterone at this time. Very often, after menopause the body readjusts to low estrogen levels and more easily picks up on a light estrogen signal. But it can take a significant amount of time for that to happen, which can be super problematic if you enjoy sleeping.
One solution to this problem is to try hormone replacement therapy. I am not an expert in pharmaceutical solutions to menopause, however – so I cannot in good conscience recommend particular brands or dosages. I will say that I think a low dose for a short period of time is probably okay and will not cause any problems, though HRT can cause symptoms such as breakthrough bleeding and is also under investigation for being linked to incidences of female cancers such as breast cancer.
One more natural solution is to experiment with phytoestrogens like legumes (chick peas, black beans), nuts (macademia nuts, cashews), small amounts of soy or flax in your diet, or even moderate alcohol consumption. These foods act like estrogen in the body and may be able to help give your sleep the estrogenic edge you need. Each woman’s body is different so you won’t know how these affect you until you give them a shot.
I recommend starting with one bowl of chickpeas a day if you are coming from a ‘clean’ paleo diet, and with something a bit more robust, like a tablespoon of flax, a day if you are coming from a Standard American Diet. The reason there is a difference in those recommendations is that women who have been ‘clean paleo’ will be more sensitive to phytoestrogens than ones who regularly consume them as a part of the SAD.
You will also want to make sure you are eating at least 40 grams of fat a day so your body has all the fat it needs to make estrogen, as well as at least 50 grams of carbohydrate (100 for women who are still of reproductive age), to keep your metabolism, thyroid, and reproductive hormones burning strong.
For more on some recommendations I make for menopause, check out this post on menopause and hot flashes.
Other hormones, systems, and insomnia
Of course, there are other hormone problems that can cause insomnia. Disorders of testosterone production, growth hormone production, and thyroid hormone – especially if hyperthyroid – can all have a negative effect on your ability to sleep.
Plus of course there are many other causes of insomnia beyond hormones. Neurotransmitter imbalances, electrolyte imbalances, stimulating substances like caffeine or MSG, blood sugar spikes, stress, anxiety, and dysregulated circadian rhythms can all be significant problems. I have suffered from each of these in my own journey with insomnia.
Nevertheless, the menstrual cycle, menopause, and the sensitivity of the female body to stress are all very common reasons that women lose sleep. And it all boils down to one thing: estrogen.
Estrogen, estrogen, estrogen.
Working on correcting or taking care of the estrogen-lowering issues discussed above can and will go a long way towards soothing your insomnia needs.
And, as ever, I am super curious as to what you think! Do you have experience with female hormones and insomnia? What things have worked for your insomnia?
I spend a disproportionate amount of my time telling women to eat carbohydrates.
In the paleosphere, it is incredibly common to eat a low carbohydrate diet. Plenty of people use low carbohydrate diets to lose weight, to sharpen insulin sensitivity, and to reduce appetite in the short term.
A low carbohydrate diet can also be therapeutic for people with cancer, migraines,and chronic infections or psychological disorders.
On the other hand, low carbohydrate diets can be a significant tax on people, women especially.
Because low carbohydrate diets are so popular for weight loss, it is common for women trying to lose weight and to “look good” to exercise often, eat very few carbohydrates, fast, and restrict food intake. The more of these restrictions a woman undertakes at once, the more and more her body reads this as living in a starved, stressed state.
The effects of this are significant: adrenal glands work overtime, livers get tired from performing so much gluconeogenesis, insulin sensitivity drops, body fat levels fluctuate, sleep quality decreases, and libido and fertility decrease.
The problems that come from a low-carbohydrate diet of course don’t affect every woman. Each of us is different. But women who experience stalled weight loss, low-thyroid symptoms, menstrual dysregulation, sleep and or mood and mental health related issues may find significant relief from adding carbohydrates back into their diets.
If you are trying to lose weight, take a look at my program, Weight Loss Unlocked, which will help you lose weight in a healthy, safe, and balanced way. Check it out here.
Also, this is my favorite paleo cookbook with plentiful carbs in it. It’s by Russ Crandall, and he’s an amazing chef, as well as one of my favorite people of all time.
Carbohydrates are beneficial for fertility and health because…
-Glucose is necessary for the conversion of T4 to T3 in the liver.
Without adequate glucose, the liver struggles to make enough T3, which is the form of thyroid hormone critical for healthy thyroid function.
Without sufficient T3, hypothyroidism results. Hypothyroidism is implicated in mood disorders, reproductive irregularities such as PCOS and amenorrhea, in skin conditions, and in weight gain, among other things. (For more on how to figure out your particular type of PCOS and how hypothyroidism may be at play, see my program PCOS Unlocked or read my post on the causes of PCOS)
Many women, contrary to popular paleo belief, in fact lose weight once they add carbohydrates back into their diets. This is because the carbs help the body produce more T3.
(Now, low carb dieters might be quick to point out that the liver can manufacture its own glucose. Certainly, the liver is capable of producing its own glucose with gluconeogenesis, but that process can become taxed over time, particularly if the liver is already taxed from poor eating habits in the past, mineral deficiencies, stress, or calorie restriction.)
-Glucose elicits an insulin response, which in turn spikes leptin levels in the blood.
This is a short-term spike, so eating carbohydrates should not be used as a replacement for body fat, which is the primary long-term secretor of leptin.
However, moderate, regular consumption of carbohydrate spikes leptin frequently enough to help signal to the hypothalamus that the body is being fed. Leptin is absolutely crucial for reproductive function. Without leptin, the hypothalamus does not tell the pituitary to produce sex hormones, so it doesn’t.
–Insulin is also an important signaler of the “fed” state.
In addition to leptin, the hypothalamus also responds to insulin. These two hormones are largely responsible for the female body determining whether it is in a “fed” state.
Being in a fed state is critical for convincing the body it is in a healthy enough environment to reproduce, have a libido, and also lose weight.
–Moderate carbohydrate intake is associated with better mood, stress-reduction, and sleep quality.
I see this in my work and in anecdotes, as well as in many controlled studies.
Carbohydrate intake boosts tryptophan levels in the brain, and tryptophan is the protein precursor to serotonin. Getting at least some carbohydrate in the diet helps with the vast array of issues associated with serotonin deficiency which include moodiness, stress, and insomnia. People have been shown to sleep better if their dinner includes carbohydrates in it.
This is especially true for women.
For a look at the details and complexities of the issue, see Emily Deans writing here and here. The primary takeaway of this point being that while the exact mechanism of carbohydrates boosting mood and sleep quality is unknown, carbohydrates still appear to be a healthy, and in many cases necessary, macronutrient.
Carbohydrates for fertility and health
The main point here is that carbohydrates are not just okay but important. For women who have appetite control problems, sugar addictions, and a lot of weight to lose, absolutely I believe a low-carbohydrate diet can do them wonders. For women who struggle with menstruation, fertility, stress, exercise performance, or any other hormonal oddities, carbohydrates help assure the woman’s body that she is healthy and fed. This is crucial for reproductive health.
In all cases, diet is a matter of personal physiology and experimentation. If a woman’s body works better on carbs, she should eat them, and delight in those joys rather than worry needlessly. At the very least, they are not harmful, and at their best, they are life saving.
This concept is central to my program Weight Loss Unlocked. If you are interested, it will help you figure out which path to weight loss is best for your unique body and metabolism.
Carbohydrates to eat:
-Starchy tubers such as sweet potatoes, batata, jerusalem artichoke, cassava, tarot, and bamboo. Regular potatoes are fine, too, but they contain fewer vitamins than their sweet counterparts. Of the sweet potatoes, Japanese sweet potatoes are the most delicious, in my opinion, followed by white sweet potatoes and then yams and regular orange sweet potatoes.
These starches are composed primarily of glucose.
–Fruits. All fruits! Berries and cherries tend to have more glucose than fructose, other fruits tend to have more fructose than glucose. This is not a huge point of difference but I have noticed that some women tend to do better on glucose-heavy or fructose-heavy carbs. I personally have an easier time with weight maintenance with fruits than with starches. I talk about this idea more in depth in that Weight Loss program for women I use with my clients.
-Rice Both white and brown rice are fine, but are fairly nutrient-poor.
Brown rice contains anti-nutrients in it’s shell, so white rice is more innocuous in terms of nutrient absorption. Wild rice is another option that I like. Pink rice is something that my friend Noelle from Coconuts and Kettlebells really loves and is a unique way to incorporate rice into the diet! (By the way, if you haven’t listened to The Paleo Women Podcast featuring myself and Noelle, you need to! We are the BEST and we will explain to you ALL THE THINGS. Find us here!)
-Vegetables of course are great, but they do not count for carbohydrate consumption. I know that most of the carbs in vegetables are glucose, but much of it them are also tied up in fiber, which is broken down and turned into short-chain fatty acids by gut bacteria. For this reason, vegetables alone cannot make up a woman’s carbohydrate consumption. Instead, starchy tubers and fruits work the best.
How much carbohydrate to eat for women:
For a woman recovering from stress, metabolic distress, and hypothalamic amenorrhea, I recommend eating between 100-200 g/day. That goes for athletes as well. And for pregnant women. At least 100 g/day.
I typically recommend that women start with 100 grams of dense carbohydrate like starches and fruits and experiment from there. You can definitely eat more than that – I know that I do. But you could also eat a bit less, especially if you prefer a lower carbohydrate appraoch to health.
Remember, you do not necessarily need to eat high carbohydrate. You can, but you don’t have to. It is only that a diet with at least some carbohydrates can really help with fertility, hormone balance, thyroid, and weight loss problems.
Carbohydrates elsewhere in the paleo blogosphere:
Chris Kresser and Chris Masterjohn: Cholesterol, mostly, also: Telltale signs you need more carbs
Jimmy Moore: Is there any such thing as a safe starch?
Jamie Scott: A Week of It
Paul Jaminet: Higher Carb Dieting Pros and Cons (includes a discussion of the “longevity trade-off”)
Cheeseslave: Why I ditched low carb
Beth Mazur: Why I don’t eat low carb
Julianne Taylor: Okay, People, Carb’s Don’t Kill
Melissa McEwen: What the bleep do we know about carbs
While you’re at it, go read Melissa’s post on Why Women Need Fat.
Don’t forget this is my favorite paleo cookbook full of good carbs.
And especially don’t forget to check out Weight Loss Unlocked if weight loss is one of your main goals right now, The Paleo Women Podcast, which is just so much fun, and my best-selling book Sexy By Nature, all great resources for all things women’s health, happiness, and fertility!
Neurotransmitters: Exciting and Inhibiting
Gamma-Amino-Butyric-Acid, or GABA, is the chief inhibitory neurotransmitter in the human brain. Along with serotonin, dopamine, glutamate, glycine, histamine, and norepinephrine, among dozens of other neurotransmitters, GABA regulates brain function.
Different neurotransmitters are in relationship with different types of receptors, and these receptors signal excitation or inhibition. For this reason, neurotransmitters are commonly classified by their excitatory or inhibitory activity. Some neurotransmitters signal to both kinds of receptors and play both excitatory and inhibitory roles. Others are just one or the other. GABA is one of these. It is powerfully inhibitory.
GABA: Calm, Resilience, and Sleep
The GABA neurotransmitter tells the brain to be quiet. The vast majority of inhibitory synapses in the brain employ GABA. For people who are depressed and fatigued, therefore, GABA might seem like a problematic molecule. But that ends up not being the case. GABA malfunctioning has been shown to play a role in almost all mood disorders, including depression.
GABA is strongly associated with well-being, calmness, proper memory function, proper circadian rhythms, and good sleep. GABA inhibits amygdala activity, too, so it has also been shown to inhibit pain and fear. For this reason, people have talked about GABA as being a molecule that promotes resilience and personal strength.
GABA is well known to be a prominent factor in mental well-being and feelings of calm. Officially it results in “sedative, hypnotic (sleep-inducing), anxiolytic (anxiety reducing!), anticonvulsant, muscle relaxant and amnesic” effects. For this reason, a whole host of drugs that mimic GABA, called benzodiazepines, have been designed and proscribed prolifically. Valium is one of them.
The long-term effects of these drugs are unpleasant, as they almost always result in withdrawal. The symptoms of benzodiazepine withdrawal parallel GABA deficiency. These iclude anxiety, tension, high blood pressure, insomnia, agitation, seizures, muscle spasms, and panic disorders. For example, GABA-inhibited mice tested for anxiety demonstrate “a model of anxiety characterized by harm avoidance behavior and an explicit memory bias for threat cues, resulting in heightened sensitivity to negative associations.”
GABA is also one of the prominent molecules involved in sleep. During sleep, many parts of the brain need to be quieted, and they need to do it all at once. This is, in part, GABA’s job. Without GABA, excitatory neurotransmitters continually keep different parts of the brain and the body firing, such that it can never shut down fully enough for deep sleep.
Valerian root, a natural herb and supplement, “encourages” the production of GABA. It’s one of the most successful sleep aids one can use. Melatonin is also powerful and is bio-identical, but it’s effects wane more markedly over time as the body becomes more and more used to higher levels of melatonin. Over-the-counter and prescription drugs, while knocking people out, also inhibit the deep restfulness of REM sleep. Valerian does not replace, but instead stimulates GABA production. This is why it is so naturally (and without causing addiction) effective in promoting deep sleep.
GABA and The Pituitary
GABA, even while it inhibits frenetic activity in the brain, also stimulates activity in the anterior pituitary. The anterior pituitary is where most of an individual’s hormone production takes place. GABA, therefore, is crucial for people who would like to boost hormone production. ACTH, TSH, FSH, LH, prolactin, and Human Growth Hormone are all secreted from the anterior pituitary.
Low TSH is profoundly implicated in hypothyroidism; having low FSH, LH, and prolactin levels is the root biological cause of hypothalamic amenorrhea; and growth hormone is one of the primary molecules responsible for healthy metabolism. It’s activities include up-regulating fat utilization, protein sparing, and glucose-insulin sensitivity. One study at the University of Milan found that 90 minutes after 5 grams of GABA supplementation, HGH levels increased 5-fold.
Increasing GABA with diet
-GABA itself is not present in foods, but one of its key constituents — glutamic acid/glutamate — is available in a wide array of readily available foods. Glutamate-containing foods are plants and vegetables. Examples include: broccoli, spinach, lentils, walnuts, citrus, tomatoes, cheese, corn, and mushrooms. There are other foods in this category, such as wheat, wheat bran, soy, and cottonseed flour, and peanuts, but I do not recommend eating them (find out why in my book). High glutamic acid containg foods are generally animal products. They include eggs, particularly the whites, many varieties of cheese, cod, gelatin, whitefish, and chicken, beef, and scallops.
–L-theanine also increases GABA activity. This amino acid is found in high doses in green tea.
-Foods rich in B-complex vitamins, particularly inositol, also prompt GABA production. In fact, B-vitamins are necessary for the functioning of nearly all brain processes and chemicals. Foods containing B-vitamins comprise a rich and varied list. They include: fruits such as bananas, figs, cantaloupe oranges and figs, and vegetables, particularly cruciferous vegetables, such as beets, broccoli, kale, and spinach, and nuts, and seafood, and beef and beef liver, chicken liver, all organ meats, and all game/ruminant meats.
-A lower protein diet in general is associated with increased GABA activity.
-Finally, exercise and meditation can enhance GABA activity. GABA is a lot like other body systems and muscles in that it has positive feedback effects. The calmer someone is, the more likely it is that he will be able to produce proper amounts of GABA. Some physical activities allow the mind and body to enter into calmed and relaxed state. For this reason, many natural health practitioners recommend yoga as a means of increasing GABA. Meditation and light forms of exercise such as walking also fit into that recommendation.