Author: Lauren Harvey
SLO Life Magazine: Body Armor
Originally published in the April/May 2022 issue of SLO Life Magazine.
How our skin barrier keeps us alive and how to care for it.
Our skin. We may not always think much of it. At most, we remember to lather on the thick white paste of sunscreen before stepping out to enjoy a sunny beach day. What we don’t always consider is things like, “without your skin barrier, the water inside your body would escape and evaporate, leaving you completely dehydrated,” Sara Perkins, MD reminds us. Therefore, we could say our skin barrier, simply, keeps us alive.
Kathi C. Madison, Researcher at the Department of Dermatology at the University of Iowa, puts it this way, “the primary function of the [skin] is to produce the protective semi-permeable stratum corneum (skin layer) that permits terrestrial life.” It’s an incredibly important job for a layer of skin we may not consider on a daily basis.
Amidst the sea of information available on the internet, and self-proclaimed skincare gurus on social media, it can be challenging to filter out what’s in fact beneficial to your skin and what is just clever marketing. Thankfully, dermatologists will always be here to steer is in the (scientifically) right direction. Today we’ll take a deeper look at how your skin barrier functions, how its damaged and what we can do to protect and repair it.
Most basically, how does the skin barrier function? Dr. Perkins explains, “the outermost layer, called the stratum corneum is often described as a brick wall. It consists of touch skin cells called corneocytes that are bound together by mortar-like lipids. This is your skin barrier.” This layer contains important elements like cholesterol, fatty acids and ceramides. “Inside the skin cells, or ‘bricks’ you’ll find keratin and natural moisturizers.”
As we learned earlier, our skin barrier is a vital component of our bodies hydration system. “Research over the years proves that the stratum corneum is a dynamic layer that is instrumental in maintaining skin health,” notes Tracey C. Vlahovic, DPM, FFPM RCPS, “[It’s] a dynamic layer that not only protects the body but maintains hydration at a constant pace.” Equal to hydration protection is the armored guard the skin barrier provides the body. “The skin barrier is the body’s first line of defense to external influences,” notes Vlahovic, “When it is disrupted, the skin barrier can become susceptible to allergens, irritants and infection.” This reinforced layer exists partly in thanks to the natural acidity of the skin barrier. Dr. Perkins notes, “This acidity helps to create a kind of buffer against the growth of harmful bacteria, viruses and fungi that could damage your skin and lead to infections and other skin conditions.”
Clearly, our skin is vital in more than just external appearance. It plays an important role in our overall health, keeping us hydrated and safe from outside irritants.
Unfortunately, there are a myriad of offenders that may cause damage to the skin barrier, from uncontrollable occurrences like a dry or humid environment, hot or cold weather, allergens, irritants and pollutants; to common culprits like smoking, overexposure in the sun, hot baths or showers, harsh soaps or detergents; to bad habits of which we are all inevitably guilty at times, like poor skin care, eating unhealthily, mental or physical stress and lack of sleep. Tracy C. Vlahovic, DPM, FFPM, RCPS explains these damaging conditions, “affect the delicate balance of the chemical reactions necessary to maintain the best moisture, lipid and pH levels,” in your skin.
The chemical reactions to which she refers include how the skin moves through in layers, and how moisture is trapped and released cyclically. This reaction is how we are constantly provided with new, fresh skin, how wounds heal, and how the biggest organ, the epidermis, keeps our insides safe and blocks outside toxins from infecting our delicate internal workings.
So how can we tell our skin is damaged? Any one or more of these symptoms can give us a hint: lack of skin elasticity; itchy, dry skin; wrinkles; discoloration; water loss; thinning of the epidermal layer; visible bacterial or viral infections.
While it may seem impossible to provide our skin with optimum conditions to prevent it from all harm, and in many ways, skin damage seems to just be ‘a part of life,’ there are equally as many ways to heal and protect the skin from harm. We cannot control the weather or the level of irritants or pollutants in the air, but we can do our best to wear sunscreen, hydrate, eat right and take as best care of our skin as we can.
Heal and Protect
In basic terms, the best way to protect your skin doesn’t require any fancy products or elaborate routines. Simply avoid too much sun, utilize SPF, moisturize daily, be gentle with your skin, eat a healthy diet, drink water, avoid smoking and manage stress as best you can. While that seems simple, we all know that in today’s environment avoiding stress and eating a healthy diet can sometimes feel next to impossible. And in an atmosphere that promotes elaborate skincare routines, it can feel counterintuitive to bring it back to basics.
The 10-step method of the Korean beauty routine is one such example. It consists of a double cleanser (steps 1 and 2), an exfoliant and toner (3 and 4), an essence, which is essentially a light moisturizer (step 5), serum, a sheet mask and eye cream (more moisturizers – steps 6, 7 and 8), then finally finishing with an actual moisturizer (step 9) and then a thicker night cream or an SPF if it’s day (step 10). Undoubtedly this is a hard routine to maintain, both financially and as a consistent habit.
Thankfully, Vlahovic emphasizes the importance of really only one aspect of this routine: moisturizer. “A moisturizer restores barrier function to the epidermis, creating a protective film, increasing hydration and improving the skin surface visually.” Dr. Kathi C Madison of the Department of Dermatology, University of Iowa explains further how moisturizers work to heal and protect our skin, “Topically applied moisturizers work by acting as humectants or by providing an artificial barrier to trans-epidermal water loss.”
Dr. Madison recommends utilizing a moisturizer and an SPF in the daily care of your skin. Some products combine the two into one convenient morning product to ensure skin maintenance is as easy as possible, and therefore most likely to be maintained.
Our skin barrier plays a vital role in keeping us hydrated and healthy. Environmental and personal health factors can damage our skin barrier, but utilizing a simple skincare routine and healthy personal habits can help repair and protect the skin. Consult with a dermatologist before trying a new skincare routine.
Note: This article was originally published in the April/May 2022 issue of SLO Life Magazine. It is transcribed verbatim here for the purposes of easy readability.
SLO Life Magazine: Attitude of Gratitude
Attitude of Gratitude
Originally published in the February/March 2022 issue of SLO Life Magazine.
All the ways the simple act of giving thanks can change your life.
While the concept of giving thanks may be most closely associated with Thanksgiving, the benefits of gratitude stretch beyond the holiday season. In theory, gratitude is a simple concept, most commonly defined as, “the quality of being thankful.” However, as we’ll examine today, the real positive work of gratitude begins a step further, as “readiness to show appreciation for and return kindness.” Furthermore, Dr. Robert Emmons, professor at UC Davis and leading researcher on gratitude, defines it as, “a felt sense of wonder, thankfulness and appreciation for life.” To reap the multitude of emotional, psychological, and perhaps even physical benefits of gratitude, one must take action, transforming gratitude from a state of mind to a state of being.
When gratitude becomes an action, even a lifestyle, it “can be an incredibly powerful and invigorating experience,” as researcher Jeff Huffman states. A 2021 Harvard Medical article further explains that gratitude forces us to acknowledge the goodness in our lives and, “in the process…recognize that the source of goodness lies at least partially outside [ourselves].” The result? Being grateful helps us “connect to something larger than [ourselves] as individuals–whether to other people, nature or a higher power.”
Hundreds of studies have confirmed the emotional and psychological benefits of a gratitude-infused lifestyle. Though one gray area remains–can gratitude be powerful enough to bestow upon us numerous physical benefits? Can an attitude of gratitude really be the impenetrable buffer between our mortal selves and heart disease, insomnia and the like? This is one aspect of what we’ll examine today–how impactful an attitude of gratitude can truly be in our lives and bodies, inside and out.
A Fortifying Force
Two leading gratitude researchers, Dr. Robert A. Emmons of UC Davis and Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami, conducted a study in which participants were asked to write a few sentences each week. One group wrote about things they were grateful for, where the other two groups did not. The results were clear, “after about 10 weeks, those who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives.” Keeping a gratitude journal may seem a small change, but also resulted in the participants “exercising more and having fewer visits to physicians.”
Dr. Gail Saltz, psychoanalyst and assistant attending physician at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center notes that gratitude, “tends to result in increased self-esteem and confidence, which improves mood.” A 2014 study published in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, “found that gratitude increased athletes’ self-esteem, an essential component to optimal performance.”
Psychologically, gratitude can be a powerful tool in overcoming trauma, and “helps to diminish the likelihood of developing post-traumatic stress disorder after an upsetting experience,” says Dr. Saltz. Behavior Research and Therapy published a 2006 study that found, “Vietnam War veterans with higher levels of gratitude experienced lower rates of post-traumatic stress disorder.”
While it may seem unlikely, these studies and others suggest gratitude may have the power to “help people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships,” as a Harvard Medical article states. Dr. Saltz supports these ideas, that, “appreciating what you have can make you feel more optimistic and satisfied and experience less frustration, envy, and regret.” There is certainly mounting evidence that gratitude helps contribute to factors that make us happier, by decreasing stress and trauma and increasing self-esteem and overall life satisfaction.
To Better Health
While it’s clear that gratitude is linked to increased mental and emotional health, the question remains: Is gratitude powerful enough to positively impact our physical well-being? The answer depends on which area of health you’re examining.
When it comes to sleep, gratitude carries power greater than counting sheep. A 2009 study examined 401 people, 40% of whom had clinical sleep disorders. The study found, “more grateful people reported falling asleep more quickly, sleeping longer, having better sleep quality, and staying awake more easily during the day.” This and other studies, like a 2016 study whose outcomes saw women who kept a gratitude journal reporting better sleep quality to women who performed other tasks, show promising connections between gratitude practices and increased sleep quality.
In addition to sleep, an attitude of gratitude can be good for the heart. A 1995 study found that people who were appreciative had improved heart rate variability, “an indicator of good heart health.” These findings are supported by more recent studies, like one that found women who kept a gratitude journal over the course of a few weeks had lower blood pressure than those who wrote about daily events. Another study by Paul Mills, Laura Redwine et al, found, “patients [with established heart conditions] who did daily gratitude journaling for eight weeks showed decreased markers of inflammation at the end of the experiment.” These and other studies (like the Gratitude Research in Acute Coronary Events (GRACE) study) prove a positive connotation between improved heart health and the practice of gratitude, even for patients with established heart conditions.
In other realms of physical health, the findings are more mixed. While more research must be conducted for a definitive answer on whether gratitude can improve all aspects of our physical health, practicing gratitude regardless will clearly reap positive benefits in other areas of our lives.
Make a List
We’ve seen the numerous ways in which gratitude can increase self-esteem, help us catch some quality zzz’s, reduce stress and even blood pressure. So how does one go about incorporating more gratitude into their life? Pick one (or more) activities from this list, inspired by a Harvard Medical article, and see what gratitude can do for you.
- Make a gratitude list. Every day write down at least three things for which you are grateful. They can be as simple or detailed as you’d like.
- Write some thank you notes. Thank you notes need not come only after receiving physical gifts. Perhaps you’re feeling extra thankful to have a friend or loved one in your life. Sharing these feelings through a thank you note is a great way to express your gratitude and bring some joy to their life!
- Count your blessings. Similar to a gratitude list, counting your blessings involves writing about the things in your life for which you are grateful. This can also be a nice activity to do with family or friends around the dinner table to share and discuss. You may be surprised by the small things that others greatly appreciate.
- Pray. Also sometimes called “thanksgiving” (not the holiday), giving thanks to your higher power during religious prayer is a great way to cultivate gratitude.
- Meditate. Try a meditation exercise where you focus on things for which you are extra appreciative.
However you chose to practice gratitude on a daily basis, you’ll be sure to find some positive benefits, some of which you may never have expected.
Practicing gratitude is proven to improve emotional and psychological health. It also benefits sleep and heart health. Cultivate gratitude in your life by making a daily gratitude list, writing thank you notes or meditating.
Note: This article was originally published in the February/March 2022 issue of SLO Life Magazine. It is transcribed verbatim here for the purposes of easy readability.
SLO Life Magazine: The Anti-Diet
Originally published in the December/January 2022 issue of SLO Life Magazine.
A new approach to eating and being healthy.
When presented with the question, “How can I eat better?” most doctors and nutritionists would repeat the same, unglamorous and time-tested answer: eat more whole foods, fruits and vegetables, drink more water, cut down on sugar and processed foods. Though it seems straightforward, many know it’s not always as easy as it sounds. Either these foods aren’t enticing enough to our palettes or perhaps we get caught up, overcomplicating uncomplicated advice–convinced it can’t be that simple.
In our quest for healthier selves some of us get lost in the latest trendy diet. Remember the egg and wine diet? Published in Vogue in the 1970’s the diet advocated, “the consumption of 3-5 eggs per day plus a 24-oz bottle of wine,” for quick weight loss. No matter how well-promoted these fad diets may be, time proves they aren’t as beneficial to us and our health as that accessible, attested advice.
There must be a better way to eat more healthfully. Not with the intent to starve ourselves, or force feed on the undesirable (cabbage soup, anyone?), but to simply give our body best what it needs for peak performance. While it may seem radical to diet culture, intuitive eating is rooted in a very uncomplicated, very holistic idea–that our bodies will tell us what they need, all we have to do is learn to listen. Intuitive eating is a framework for living that pushes back against popular notions about dieting and what foods we ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t’ eat. Today, we’ll learn the basics of intuitive eating, it’s history, and how it can become a revolutionary lifestyle change. As with any diet, consult your physician for what suits you best.
Intuitive eating as a specified practice began in 1995, when the book Intuitive Eating was published by dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. According to Tribole, “intuitive eating is a self-care eating framework rooted in science and informed by clinical experience.” After the publication of the book, the intuitive eating framework grew slowly in popularity. At it’s core, intuitive eating is built on the idea that diets don’t work, “and that lifestyle changes and personal care are more important for long-term health.”
While some diets consist of value-based lists of ‘good’ foods and ‘bad’ foods, intuitive eating has in place only 10 principles to guide daily eating. The principles can be divided into three categories: those that honor your body (Honor Your Hunger, Honor Your Feelings, Respect Your Body, Respect Your Fullness and Honor Your Health with Gentle Nutrition); those that push back against harmful diet culture beliefs (Reject the Diet Mentality, Make Peace with Food, Challenge the Food Police); and those that encourage us to notice the changes in our bodies (Discover the Satisfaction Factor, Movement–Feel the Difference).
The basics of intuitive eating are simple: eat what you crave, eat when you are hungry, stop when you are full. Intuitive eating is meant to challenge the constructs we have around being and eating healthy. Inherently, intuitive eating dictates that there are truly no rules at all about what we can and cannot eat and when we are allowed to consume it. By turning our attention inward, we can begin listening to our bodies and discover what truly makes us feel good, inside and out.
Proof of Empowerment
According to Tribole, nearly 120 studies to date show the benefits of intuitive eating. Out of those, the studies performed by Tracy Tylka, PhD are often cited as the first to scientifically explore the value of intuitive eating. In 2006, Tylka “validated the intuitive eating model in two seminal studies,” says Tribole.
The study was performed on 1260 college women who followed intuitive eating principles. The findings pointed to the success of intuitive eating beyond any diet, indicating intuitive eating to be, “negatively related to eating disorder symptomatology, body dissatisfaction, poor interoceptive awareness, pressure for thinness, internalization of the thin ideal and body mass,” and were, “positively related to several indexes of well-being.”
The second study performed by Tylka and team, in 2013, expanded on the first, including more factors and more participants–1,405 women and 1,195 men. The findings were similar to the first study, positively relating intuitive eating to, “body appreciation, self-esteem, and satisfaction with life,” while inversely relating to “eating disorder symptomatology…body surveillance, body shame… and internalization of media appearance ideals.”
The findings of these studies suggest that intuitive eating, when practiced, can improve not only our physical health, but our mental health as well. Practicing intuitive eating is related to increased body positivity, and essentially, helps us to become more comfortable in our own skin; a process through which we can learn to be in touch with our bodies again. Intuitive eating is not a diet – it’s a way of life that promotes trust within your own body, with an emphasis on respecting your body for what it is, as opposed to fighting with it to be something it’s not.
Making the Change
Intuitive eating’s inherent rejection of diet culture, unattainable body ideals and integration with total self-care makes it an attractive and popular framework. As Tylka says in her study published in the Journal of Counseling Psychology, “intuitive eating is characterized by eating based on physiological hunger and satiety cues rather than situational and emotional cues and is associated with psychological well-being.”
Tribole summarizes the two-pronged approach of intuitive eating as working in these two key ways, “1) Cultivating attunement to physical sensations that arise from within your body…and 2) Removing the obstacles and disruptors to attunement, which usually come from the mind in the form of rules, beliefs, and thoughts.” Intuitive eating delves deep beyond what’s on the plate to what’s in your mind and heart, encouraging it’s practitioners to cultivate emotional well-being that doesn’t rely on chocolate as emotional support. Controversial, indeed!
This may be its most attractive feature, and to many, also the most intimidating. So how do you begin? Kerri-Ann Jennings, MS, RD suggests, “start taking stock of your own eating behaviors and attitudes, without judgement.” This is how we learn, “if you’re experiencing physical or emotional hunger.” If it’s physical hunger you feel–eat! If it’s hunger as an emotional response, further inner work may need to be done, such as journaling, talking things out with a friend, or any other emotionally supportive activity.
Next, Jennings, MS, RD recommends tracking physical hunger and fullness level on a scale of 1-10, “from very hungry to stuffed. Aim to eat when you’re hungry but not starving and stop when you’re comfortably full – not stuffed.” Remember the 10 principles of intuitive eating and start incorporating some of them into your daily life. Such as, find movement that makes your body feel good, and eat when your hungry. Following intuitive eating can feel uncomfortable at first.
Katherine Kimber, RD, suggests, “allowing yourself unconditional permission to eat all foods, honoring your biological hunger, and finding movement that makes you feel good.” These are great ways to start cultivating the intuitive eating philosophy in your daily life. To be sure, for some the change may be drastic, but in the end worth it for the physical and emotional contentment often associated with this lifestyle.
Intuitive eating is not a diet, but a lifestyle that revolves around honoring your body’s hunger and fullness cues and practicing emotion regulation. Any change in diet should be done under the supervision of a medical professional.
Note: This article was originally published in the December/January 2022 issue of SLO Life Magazine. It is transcribed verbatim here for the purposes of easy readability.
SLO Life Magazine: Life is Better in Blue
Life is Better in Blue
Originally published in the October/November 2021 issue of SLO Life Magazine.
What the Blue Zones reveal about the keys to a long, healthy life.
There are plenty of fad diets out there that claim to help you lose weight or finally get that beach bod. But what about a diet, or moreover, a set of habits that naturally increase your life expectancy? And who holds this secret? Examining the daily routine of Blue Zone residents is the place to start.
Blue Zones are specific locations throughout the world scientifically proven to have a higher concentration of centenarians, that is, people that live over 100. First identified by Dan Buettner and his research team in 2004, a “Blue Zone is a non-scientific term given to geographic regions that are home to some of the world’s oldest people. The term refers to geographic areas in which people have low rates of chronic disease and live longer than anywhere else.” The first Blue Zone discovered was in Sardinia, where men over ninety walked miles a day tending sheep, drank red wine in the evenings, and ate plenty of cheese. Here, it seemed, with their tight knit, active community, the men of Sardinia thrived past 100, living relatively happy and healthy lives by simply carrying on like their ancestors had for hundreds of years.
While we aren’t recommending you go out and become a sheepherder just to live longer (though here on the Central Coast you very well could), there are some notable centenarian habits to incorporate into your daily routine. They may increase your lifespan, but more importantly, they can increase the quality of your life. Let’s dive in!
The Blue Zones
The Blue Zone experiment did not begin as an anthropomorphic project. Instead, Buettner and team aimed to study men carrying the M26 gene marker. As Buettner explains, “The M26 marker is linked to exceptional longevity, and due to geographic isolation, the genes of the residents in this area of Sardinia have remained mostly undiluted. This results in nearly 10 times more centenarians per capita than the US.” Although, “genetics probably only account for 20-30% of longevity,” making “environmental influences, including diet and lifestyle, play a huge role in determining your lifespan,” notes Ruairi Robertson, PhD.
This made the centenarians of Sardinia even more fascinating––though many of them carried the gene, it seemed the gene was not the sole motivating factor in their longevity. Studying lifestyle similarities between Sardinians proved useful in determining further Blue Zones and providing a blueprint for how to live a long, healthy life.
Today, the research has expanded to include five Blue Zones: Sardinia, Italy; the islands of Okinawa, Japan; a group of Seventh-day Adventists in Loma Linda, California; the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica; and the small island of Ikaria, Greece.
Each of the Blue Zones possesses its unique characteristics. In Okinawa, home to some of the world’s oldest women, soy-based foods are a dietary staple and residents practice tai chi daily. In Costa Rica, people regularly perform physical jobs well into old age, while feasting on beans and tortillas. A strict vegetarian diet and involved spiritual life is common among the Loma Linda Blue Zone residents. Though we only know of five Blue Zones at the moment, there may be more communities of centenarians across the world, waiting to be discovered.
The Bigger Picture
Despite their geographic and cultural differences, Blue Zones contain similarities that may help point us in the direction of becoming centenarians ourselves. Fundamentally, Blue Zones, “produce a high rate of centenarians,” says Buettner, “They suffer a fraction of the diseases that commonly kill people in other parts of the developed world, and enjoy more years of good health.” Some of these similarities seem obvious, like exercise and sleeping well. But what’s most interesting, and perhaps most vital, is how effortlessly these healthy habits are built into the lives of Blue Zone residents.
For example, the sheepherding men of Sardinia don’t wake up at 5 am to hit the gym––their exercise is built into their daily lives, “through gardening, walking, cooking, and other daily chores… including walking longer distances to work,” explains Dr. Robertson. In Okinawa, gardening is an essential aspect of daily life, and Nicoyan Peninsula centenarians perform physical jobs well into old age. The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans suggest 150 moderate-intensity minutes or 75 vigorous-intensity minutes of aerobic activity per week. Building activity into daily life like the centenarians do, encourages you to exercise more regularly.
Another commonality between Blue Zones is sufficient sleep and daytime naps. Specifically in Mediterranean regions like Sardinia and Ikaria, daytime naps are common. Dr. Robertson confirms, “napping has no negative effect on the risk of heart disease and death and may even reduce these risks.” According to recent study analysis, “seven hours is the optimal sleep duration [at night]… and naps of no more than 30 minutes during the day,” proved most effective.
While exercising and sleeping well may seem evident, other traits associated with longevity may be less obvious. Residents of Blue Zones proved to be active socially and spiritually, involved with their communities, families and faith groups. These regular, meaningful interactions promoted high quality of life and longevity. Surely, the spiritual component of the Blue Zones contributes to another similarity between them––residents have a life purpose. In Okinawa, this life purpose is known as “ikigai” and in Costa Rica, “plan de vida.” Perhaps this proves moreover that psychological, social, and emotional well-being can impact the length and quality of our lives just as much as eating right and staying in shape.
The Usual Suspects
While the social and psychological aspects of centenarian life are both important and interesting, the burning question remains––what do centenarians eat? Perhaps one of the most hotly contested subjects of our time, the diet of the centenarian challenges the boundaries of popular diet culture. Yes, it’s true––centenarians love carbs.
In Sardinia, carbs make up around 47% of daily diet, which consists mainly of whole grains, specifically barley. According to Buettner, “The classic Sardinian diet consists of whole grain bread, beans, garden vegetables, fruits, and in some parts of the island, mastic oil.” In a culture that has consistently vilified carbohydrates, particularly in bread form, it’s comforting to hear the happy centenarians of pastoral Sardinia enjoy their carbs freely.
The diet of Sardinians is comparable to the diets throughout the other Blue Zones. Residents mainly eat vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. According to Dr. Robertson, “those who live [in Blue Zones] primarily eat a 95% plant-based diet.” In most cases, meat was eaten only on weekends, or for special occasions. Dr. Robertson goes on to clarify, “Although most groups are not strict vegetarians, they only tend to eat meat around five times per month.” Of all the meat, it seems fish and seafood remain the most popular choice among Blue Zones, which ensures a consistent source of omega-3s, important for brain and heart health.
Overall, the centenarian diet includes whole, plant-based foods with the occasional serving of meat. So too, alcohol is enjoyed in moderation. It seems the centenarians know not only how to prolong their life, but how to live it well and enjoy every moment, even with the hard work it often entails.
Blue Zones consist of geographic locations where people consistently live to be over 100 years of age. Blue Zone residents engage in an active social life, exercise daily, maintain a spiritual connection and life purpose, and eat mostly plant-based.
Note: This article was originally published in the October/November 2021 issue of SLO Life Magazine. It is transcribed verbatim here for the purposes of easy readability.
SLO Life Magazine: Chicory Root
Originally published in the August/September 2021 issue of SLO Life Magazine.
A classic coffee replacement makes a comeback as a healthy powerhouse.
Chicory root coffee may now seem like a specialty, unique to the gastronomy of New Orleans, but this plant has a much more pervasive history. From France to ancient Egypt to Africa, it seems chicory has an international culinary and cultural influence unexpected from a plant with bright blue flowers related to the dandelion.
More recently, chicory has been flaunted as an inconspicuous herb packed with powerful health benefits. With claims of being heart-friendly to those as drastic as having the power to reduce the risk of diabetes, this humble plant has a big reputation to live up to. So what is it exactly about a common perennial that gives it these beneficial characteristics? Today we’ll find out the science behind these claims and where to get your own taste of chicory right here on the Central Coast.
Chicory is making a comeback. While it may have faded from popularity, only to surge on the health scene in recent years, chicory has a rich, intercontinental history where it was popularly used as an herbal medicine throughout Asia and Europe. “Historically, chicory was grown by the ancient Egyptians as a medicinal plant, coffee substitute, vegetable crop, and occasionally used for animal forage,” notes a 2013 scientific review led by Renée Street. This hardy plant became a staple around the globe, from South Africa, where the roots are “made into a tea for jaundice and used as a tonic for infants,” to Turkey, where “an ointment is made from the leaves for wound healing.”
In France, chicory became a commercial crop after Bonaparte encouraged citizens to drink local chicory root coffee instead of imported colonial coffee. As citizens embraced this local coffee alternative, demand skyrocketed. In his book Coffee and Chicory, 19th century author Peter Simmonds, “estimated demand for chicory to be a whopping 16 million pounds around 1860 in France.”
In Louisiana, New Orleans embraced chicory as a coffee replacement when “their port was blockaded during the Civil War,” notes a 2020 publication by Marie Viljoen. “The Great Depression and two world wars propelled chicory into the 20th century, where it came to represent deprivation for many.” Others embraced chicory so greatly it became preferable to its bitter, caffeinated counterpart.
Now, it seems chicory has come full circle, with recent accolades as a healthful addition to everyday life. With roots as an herbal medicine, and more people growing increasingly wary of the disadvantages of caffeine present in traditional coffee, chicory seems to easily fill a void between the two. Though the science behind the claims is relatively slim, early findings are promising.
Science of Chicory
Preliminary studies on chicory revealed it to be a “multipurpose plant that contains high amounts of proteins, carbohydrates and mineral elements,” notes Street. However, it appeared chicory contained a secret ingredient, inulin. “Inulin is a type of fiber…a carbohydrate made from a short chain of fructose molecules that your body doesn’t digest,” explains Lizzie Streit, MS, RDN, LD.
What does this mean for our digestive system? Inulin is a prebiotic, an essential counterpart to probiotics. This means inulin, Streit clarifies, “feeds the beneficial bacteria in your gut that play key roles in reducing inflammation, fighting harmful bacteria and improving mineral absorption.”
However, chicory may provide a plethora of health benefits beyond prebiotics. One study, published in Phytotherapy Research, “offered an encouraging starting point to describe the antithrombotic and anti-inflammatory effects of phenolic compounds found in chicory coffee.” Antithrombotic properties mean chicory could possibly reduce the formation of blood clots, pointing to its potential heart-healthy benefits.
The anti-inflammatory aspect can be beneficial to those experiencing pain associated with arthritis. This claim was supported by a study published in 2010, that “suggested that a proprietary bioactive extract of chicory root has a potential role in the management of osteoarthritis.” Managing arthritis pain with something as mild and natural as chicory root is incredibly promising. However, both studies conducted were pilot studies, “and therefore, considered to be insufficient so support a well-established use indication for chicory root,” notes Street.
However, with relatively mild side effects, chicory root may become an attractive option to try. Chicory can trigger reactions “in people who are allergic to ragweed pollen or sensitive to related plants, including chrysanthemums, marigolds, daises and other members of the same plant family,” says Andrew Weil, M.D., in a 2016 article. Additionally, “consuming [chicory] could theoretically be a problem for people with gallstones, but these are unlikely possibilities.” As with any supplement, consult with your doctor before incorporating chicory into your health and wellness plan.
Chicory Coffee and Beyond
So how does the prebiotic, antithrombotic chicory root become chicory coffee? The secret again, lies with inulin. “During the roasting process inulin in the root is converted to [an organic compound] which has a coffee-like aroma,” says Viljoen. Roasted and brewed, chicory root looks like coffee, smells like coffee, but does it taste like coffee? “In terms of taste, chicory is unique: strong, toasty, and nutty, with suggestions of burned-sugar,” noted Viljoen.
Chicory root coffee offers that strong, warm, slightly bitter drink in the morning, with additional benefits. Being naturally caffeine-free, chicory root coffee is an attractive option for those seeking a morning beverage without the rush. “When ground and brewed, [chicory] looks and tastes something like coffee, but is caffeine-free, less expensive and doesn’t contain the volatile oils,” says Dr. Weil.
In addition to a coffee replacement, chicory can be enjoyed in other ways. “The leaves of the flowering herb are sometimes sprinkled in salads to add a touch of bitterness,” notes Dr. Weil, “but they should not be confused with the Belgian endive or radicchio, which are types of salad chicory within the same family.” If you can find it in a specialty shop or grocery store, the whole chicory root, can be “boiled and eaten as a vegetable,” says Streit. It’s also common to see chicory used as a food additive. “Chicory root [is] processed for its inulin, which is used to increase fiber content or serve as a sugar or fat substitute due to its gelling properties and slightly sweet flavor, respectively,” notes Streit.
Locally, you grab a cup of New Orleans Chicory Coffee at Bon Temps Creole Café in San Luis Obispo. Situated near the train station on the outskirts of downtown SLO, Bon Temps serves New Orleans style breakfast and lunch. To savor a cup at home, try the Chicory Mocha mix from Solvang Spice Merchant. This mix features carob and vanilla to create a creamy mocha taste without the caffeine. Whichever way you choose to enjoy chicory, it’s sure to be a tasty, healthful addition to your day.
Chicory root was traditionally used in herbal medicinal remedies, and is making a comeback as a prebiotic and heart-healthy food. Chicory coffee is how it’s most commonly enjoyed and is available locally in the SLO county area. Ask your doctor before adding chicory to your wellness routine if you have ragweed or pollen allergies.
Note: This article was originally published in the August/September 2021 issue of SLO Life Magazine. It is transcribed verbatim here for the purposes of easy readability.