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Did you know that there is actually a very good chance that you could have a yeast or parasite infestation?
The human body is literally crawling with hundreds of strains of yeasts and bacteria. The digestive track alone holds more than three pounds of bacteria. In the right balance, these bacteria are necessary for proper digestion and nutrient absorption. Probiotics, the beneficial bacteria in the gut, are a form of bacteria, though they have a tremendous positive impact on our health.
When these beneficial bacteria in the digestive track get out of balance, problems begin. A large number of factors can facilitate the disruption of this balance of bacteria, including diet, certain medications, stress, contact with infected sources, and others.
The body is also host to yeast, which is naturally occurring and not specifically dangerous in proper amounts. Yeast overgrowth, on the other hand, which is rampant in today’s world, can have a tremendous negative impact on overall health and fertility. Many people are (unfortunately) familiar with vaginal yeast infections, but these infections are often symptomatic of a much larger body-wide infection.
The most disturbing invaders to our bodies, in my opinion, are parasites, though sadly, most people carry these guys around too. Studies have found that most people, especially those with chronic diseases and cancer, are host to at least one kind or parasite.
Parasites can range from tiny organisms, visible only by microscope to long tapeworms (several feet long). They can enter the body through food, drink, contact with animals or infected person, or even just skin contact, and parasite infections can last for years.
Yeast and parasites can enter the body a variety of ways, depending on the type. Candida Albicanis, the most common and difficult to remove type of yeast, occurs naturally in the body in small amounts.
When a person eats lots of glucose and fructose (remember the body turns all sugars, starches, grains, and even fruit into glucose for digestion), it feeds the normally occurring yeasts and parasites and allows them to multiply abundantly. Some pharmaceuticals, and especially hormonal birth control and antibiotics, can deplete the digestive track of the beneficial bacteria needed to keep yeast and parasites in check, and lead to an overgrowth or infestation.
Yeast especially, can multiply rapidly in the presence of any high carbon substances like sugar. Yeasts are also able to convert sugar into alcohol in the body, just as it does in the beer and wine fermentation process. This is one reason that people with severe yeast overgrowth experience symptoms like brain fog, lightheadedness, and nausea.
Treating yeasts, parasites, and other fungi in the body is a three step process. First, the invaders themselves must be killed, then they (and the toxins they created) must be flushed from the body, and finally, the body must be supported in healing and regenerating itself.
There are many symptoms directly or indirectly associated with yeast and parasite overgrowth. If you have several of these symptoms, there is a really good chance that you have an infestation or overgrowth.
Symptoms of Yeast and Parasite Overgrowth:
If left untreated, Candida, yeast, and parasite overgrowth have been linked to a plethora of chronic conditions. Yeast and Parasites are often found in people with the following conditions:
The good news is that there are some natural treatments that are effective at helping the body kill and remove yeast and parasites. If you suspect that you have an overgrowth, you might consider some of the treatments below:
Dietary Adjustments- If you do have yeast or parasites, any sugars at all can feed an infestation and make removal very uncomfortable. If you are embarking on a natural treatment for Candida, fungi or parasites, remove all sources of natural sugar from you diet, including sources like honey and fruits. Some Stevia is ok once in a while, but avoid anything that gives the body a sugar source and feeds yeast or parasites. Consider also avoiding dairy for 1-2 weeks to give you body a boost.
Sweat- As your body kills off parasites and yeast, their by-products must be removed from the body, along with the toxins that they might have bound to. Some of these are best removed through the sweat glands, so let your body sweat by exercising, taking cayenne supplements and getting in hot tubs or saunas during the healing process.
Diatomaceous Earth- This is a naturally occurring substance that has amazing ability to kill parasites, yeast and parasite eggs. It is naturally high in silica, which is necessary for hair, nail and skin growth, and has other trace minerals as well. It can also help restore body tissue and improve digestion. If you decide to take this supplementally, start with 1 tsp per day in 8 ounces of water and work up to 1-2 TBSP a day until yeast symptoms disappear. Read info below on Herxheimers reaction! Also, make sure to use food grade Diatomaceous earth! More info here.
Apple Cider Vinegar- Another easy and effective remedy for Candida and parasites. Apple Cider Vinegar is high in B-vitamins and very nourishing to the body. It help the body’s pH neutralize and improves digestion. It is well known for killing yeast and improving skin condition. Some people are leery of vinegar, as a fermented product, when they have a yeast infection. While some fermented products like beer and wine can feed yeast, Apple Cider Vinegar undergoes a much different fermentation process and produces a completely different reaction in the body. It tastes awful, but after taking it for a while, you will become more tolerant of the taste, and your body will start to crave it. Start with 1 tsp up to 3 times a day about 30 minutes before each meal (some people can’t handle it before breakfast!). If you handle this well, this dosage can be increased to a tablespoon.
Probiotics- Probiotics restore the helpful gut bacteria that is wiped out by yeast or parasites (or antibiotic or oral contraceptive use). Probiotics are necessary to restore proper intestinal flora, even after yeast and parasites have been removed. A high quality probiotic supplement should be included, taken according to product instruction. Do not take probiotics within an hour of Apple Cider Vinegar or Diatomaceous Earth! You might also consider drinks like Kombucha and Water Kefir to help build up probiotic levels, or whole plain full-fat yogurt.
Cinnamon- Cinnamon is a natural remedy for parasites and fungus. Take ½ tsp of a high quality cinnamon powder in water up to three times a day.
Vitamin C- Besides being an excellent antioxidant and immune support, Vitamin C is helpful in yeast/parasite removal. If you have symptoms of yeast and parasites, take 5,000 mg (5 grams) per day spread out in 2-3 doses. Do not take vitamin C at the same time as calcium/magnesium as they will neutralize each other. High consumption of Vitamin C may cause loose bowel movements, especially when yeast and parasites are being removed. This is not necessarily worrisome, but if it bothers you, adjust the dose down until symptoms go away.
Coconut Oil- Coconut Oil is naturally anti fungal and very nourishing to the body. Hopefully, you are using it in your cooking by now, but consider taking several tablespoons a day additional as an antifungal support. This will also help support the hormones and reproductive system. To make it easier to take, dissolve a couple tablespoons in a hot tea of choice and drink. The first couple sips will be coconut oil, and then you will just taste the tea.
Garlic- To help remove yeast and parasites, finely mince 1-2 cloves and drink in a cup of water before meals.
Olive Oil- Also an antifungal that supports removal of parasite and yeast waste. Add 1-2 TBSP or more to salads or veggies, or take supplementally.
Other Herbs known to help with yeast and parasites: Oregano Oil, Thyme, Peppermint, Rosemary, Olive Leaf Extract and Grapefruit Seed Extract. If you have a severe case of yeast or parasites, consider using on of these potent herbs, but do your research first!
I mentioned above that removal of yeast and parasites can be uncomfortable at times. This reaction, named after the German dermatologist who discovered it, is basically the discomfort caused by the die off of yeast and parasites and the body’s attempt to remove them. The faster you attempt to treat symptoms and the more potent remedies you take, the higher your chance of experiencing this reaction.
It is best to be on an anti yeast/parasite diet for several weeks before starting supplements to help minimize this reaction. Starting with small doses of Apple Cider Vinegar and Diatomaceous Earth and then working up will also help keep die off symptoms at bay.
You may even find that you “catch a cold” a week or so after starting to treat your yeast and parasite symptoms. This is actually a mild Herxheimer reaction, and backing down supplements and drinking more water should help it pass quickly.
Removing yeast and parasites is a difficult job for your body. During this process, it is highly important that you support your body as much as possible with regular exercise, good diet, adequate sleep, and limiting exposure to toxins.
Soaking in an Epsom salt bath (1/2 cup Epsom salts in hot bath water) will also help remove toxins through the skin. Drinking enough water will help flush die off toxins out faster, and adequate sleep will give the body enough time to regenerate.
During this time, it is also vitally important that you do not consume sugar or carbs, as this will make the process much slower and much more uncomfortable. Consuming enough raw vegetables during this time will also help keep your energy levels up and clean the body faster. If you can stomach it, this is a veggie smoothie I drink daily.
A grain-free and sugar-free diet is vital in removing yeast and parasites from the body.
Having a parasite can be a scary thought, but you’re not alone; parasites are far more common than you think. It’s a myth that parasites only exist in underdeveloped countries. In fact, the majority of the patients I see in my clinic have a parasite. As you will see, parasites can causing a myriad of symptoms, only a few of which are actually digestive in nature.
What is a parasite?
A parasite is any organism that lives and feeds off of another organism. When I refer to intestinal parasites, I’m referring to tiny organisms, usually worms, that feed off of your nutrition.
Some examples of parasites include roundworms, tapeworms, pinworms, whipworms, hookworms, and more. Because parasites come in so many different shapes and sizes, they can cause a very wide range of problems. Some consume your food, leaving you hungry after every meal and unable to gain weight. Others feed off of your red blood cells, causing anemia. Some lay eggs that can cause itching, irritability, and even insomnia. If you have tried countless approaches to heal your gut and relieve your symptoms without any success, a parasite could be the underlying cause for many of your unexplained and unresolved symptoms.
How do you get parasites?
There are a number of ways to contract a parasite. First, parasites can enter your body through contaminated food and water. Undercooked meat is a common place for parasites to hide, as well as contaminated water from underdeveloped countries, lakes, ponds, or creeks. However, meat is the not the only culprit. Unclean or contaminated fruits and vegetables can also harbor parasites. Some parasites can even enter the body by traveling through the bottom of your foot.
Once a person is infected with a parasite, it’s very easy to pass it along. If you have a parasite and don’t wash your hands after using the restroom, you can easily pass microscopic parasite eggs onto anything you touch — the door handle, the salt shaker, your phone, or anyone you touch. It’s also very easy to contract a parasite when handling animals. Hand washing is a major opportunity to prevent parasite contamination and transmission. Traveling overseas is another way that foreign parasites can be introduced to your system. If you consumed any contaminated water during your travels, you may have acquired a parasite of some kind.
10 Signs You May Have a Parasite
The signs of a parasite can often appear unrelated and unexplained. As I mentioned previously, there are MANY different types of parasites that we are exposed to in our environments. I typically see parasites causing more constipation in patients than diarrhea, but some parasites are capable of changing the fluid balance in your gut and causing diarrhea. Trouble sleeping, skin irritations, mood changes, and muscle pain can all be caused by the toxins that parasites release into the bloodstream. These toxins often cause anxiety, which can manifest itself in different ways. For instance, waking up in the middle of the night or grinding your teeth in your sleep are signs that your body is experiencing anxiety while you rest. When these toxins interact with your neurotransmitters or blood cells, they can cause mood swings or skin irritation.
How to Test for Parasites
The best way to test for a parasite is to get a stool test. Most doctors will run a conventional stool test if they suspect a parasite, however these are not as accurate as the comprehensive stool tests that we use in functional medicine.
Conventional Ova and Parasite Stool Test
Conventional stool tests can identify parasites or parasite eggs in your stool, yet this test comes with many limitations. The problem with this test is that it is only conditionally successful. This test requires three separate stool samples that must be sent to the lab for a pathologist to view under a microscope. Parasites have a very unique life cycle that allows them to rotate between dormant and alive. In order to identify them in this conventional test, the stool sample must contain a live parasite, the parasite must remain alive as the sample ships to the lab, and the pathologist must be able to see the live parasite swimming across the slide. While these can certainly be useful tests for some people, they are unable to identify dormant parasites, and therefore I often see a high number of false negatives with this type of stool test.
Functional Medicine Comprehensive Stool Test
In my practice, I use a comprehensive stool test on all of my patients. The comprehensive test is much more sensitive than the conventional stool test because it uses Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) technology to amplify the DNA of the parasite if there is one. This means that the parasite can actually be dead or in its dormant phase and it will be detected on this test. Because this test utilizes PCR technology, it isn’t reliant on a pathologist seeing a live parasite swimming on the slide. I frequently diagnose parasites in my patients that were missed on conventional stool tests.
How to Treat Parasites
The comprehensive stool test is able to identify 17 different parasites, so when I know which parasite my patient has, I use prescription medications that target specific species of parasites. If, however, the parasite cannot be identified, I usually use a blend of herbs, including magnesium caprylate, berberine, and extracts from tribulus, sweet wormwood, grapefruit , barberry, bearberry, and black walnut. You can typically find an herbal combination at a compounding pharmacy or though my website. In general, these herbal formulas provide a broad spectrum of activity against the most common pathogens present in the human GI tract, while sparing the beneficial gut bacteria. Before starting an anti-parasite herbal supplement, I recommend you consult your physician and have your liver enzymes checked if you have a history of liver disease, heavy alcohol use or previous history of elevated liver enzymes.
If you think you might have a parasite, I encourage you find a functional medicine physician in your area so that they can order a comprehensive stool test for you. My motto is, It all starts in your gut and your gut is the gateway to health. A healthy gut makes a healthy person.
Here are the signs and symptoms of four common parasitic infections:
Trichinella: Infection with the microscopic parasite Trichinella leads to trichinellosis, also known as trichinosis. People contract the parasite by eating raw or undercooked meat from infected animals. Initial signs and symptoms include diarrhea and abdominal cramping. As the infection progresses over the course of about a week, symptoms may become more severe and include high fever, muscle pain and tenderness, swelling of the eyelids or face, weakness, headache, light sensitivity and pink eye (conjunctivitis).
Hookworm: Hookworm infects an estimated 576 to 740 million people worldwide and was once a common infection in the U.S., particularly in the southeast. Fortunately, the number of infections has dropped thanks to improved living conditions. Hookworms are a type of helminth, or parasitic worm, that you can get by walking barefoot on contaminated soil. Most people with a hookworm infection have no symptoms, but because the worm’s larvae can penetrate skin, an early sign of infection could be an itchy rash at the site of exposure. Digestive complaints may follow, with nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal pain that is worse after eating and increased flatulence. If infection persists, anemia and nutrient deficiencies may result.
Dientamoeba Fragilis: This parasite is one of the smaller parasites that can live in the large intestine. How it spreads is unclear, but is likely related to oral contact with infected fecal material (yet another reason to wash your hands before eating). In the acute infection, diarrhea and abdominal pain are the most common symptoms, with diarrhea being more predominant, lasting for one to two weeks. Stools tend to be greenish brown and watery or sticky. In chronic infection, abdominal pain is usually the dominant symptom, but people may also have loss of appetite, weight, nausea, vomiting, bloating or flatulence.
Pinworm: Pinworms are small, thin, white worms that most commonly infect children but are also contagious and may affect adults. The worm’s eggs may be carried to surfaces including hands, toys, bedding, clothing and toilet seats and must be ingested to cause infection. After an incubation period of at least one to two months, the main symptom is itching around the anus, which may be particularly bad at night. Disturbed sleep or abdominal pain may also result.
There are some natural remedies that may help you kick out the invaders as well. Keep reading to see if they could be right for you.
Garlic: Garlic has been shown to have antiparasitic and antihelminthic activity against a variety of different infections. In studies, garlic oil and garlic extract promoted immune defenses against parasites, and also helped to inhibit parasite function. Some experts suggest that two cloves of fresh garlic a day may help you fight off parasites, especially if you are traveling to countries where parasites are common. Anyone with a garlic allergy should not take garlic.
Wormwood tea: Studies suggest wormwood tea may also be effective against certain parasites, possibly by paralyzing or killing them. Some experts suggest that drinking wormwood tea three times a day for no more than 10 days may help with a parasitic infection. However, because wormwood is related to absinthe, make sure it is labeled “thujone-free” and be careful not to overuse it. It should also be used with caution in people with certain medical conditions. People with an allergy to wormwood, or women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should not take wormwood. Always consult your doctor before beginning use.
Black walnut: Black walnut extract may contain pigments that are toxic to parasites, and it may also soothe diarrhea and constipation. Some experts suggest that 1000 mg of black walnut extract taken three times a day with water for no longer than six weeks may help people suffering from parasites. However, those who are allergic and pregnant and breastfeeding women should not take it. People with certain medical conditions, including kidney or liver disease, should use it cautiously, and long term use may be unsafe. Always talk to your doctor before beginning use of a new supplement or alternative treatment.
Meet Richa: I was born and brought up in India and am now settled in Seattle. I like the time in my kitchen when I can vegan-ize something or figure out a gluten-free alternative. I like challenges and also like to create easy options for meals, snacks, desserts and everything else. Join me on this journey full of flavors and compassion.
Meet Em: You can call me Em. I eat raw plants because I love my body, the planet, and all beings. We are all equal and all-one! When I eat food, I want it to be beautiful, but not just in taste. I want it to nourish my body and soul, work in harmony with the earth, and allow other earthlings their right for freedom. I find that raw, organic plants fit the bill pretty well.
Meet Jordan: Hi all! I’m Jordan. I was once vegan, and now I’m all about balance. Just a healthy gal tryin’ to share some photos, recipes, and stories & hopefully inspire a little bit along the way.
ROASTED CHICKPEA AND BROCCOLI BURRITOS
This is a fan favorite that had to appear in the book, says Davis. “It’s a weeknight staple and one bad burrito you deserve to have in your life. Listen to the fans. They know what’s up.”
Makes 4 to 6 burritos
1 large yellow onion
1 red bell pepper
1 large crown of broccoli
3 cups cooked chickpeas*
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 to 2 tablespoons soy sauce, tamari, or Bragg’s**
2 teaspoons chili powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander***
Cayenne pepper, to taste
4 cloves garlic, minced
4 to 6 flour tortillas
Burrito trimmings such as spinach, avocado, cilantro, and Fire-Roasted Salsa (page 124)
1. Crank your oven to 425F. Grab a large rimmed baking sheet.
2. Chop up the onion, bell pepper, and broccoli ’til they’re the size of a chickpea. Place all the chopped up veggies in a large bowl with the cooked chickpeas. Pour in the oil and soy sauce, stir, and then throw all the spices in there. Mix until all the vegetables and shit are covered. Put all of that on the baking sheet and bake for 20 minutes.
3. Take it out of the oven—don’t f*cking burn yourself—then add the garlic and stir it around. Bake for another 15 minutes. The broccoli might look a little burnt at this point but that is the plan, so chill the f*ck out and take it out of the oven. Squeeze the lime juice over the pan and stir the roasted chickpeas and veggies all around. Taste and see if it needs more spices or anything.
4. Now make a motherf*cking burrito. We like ours with spinach, avocado, cilantro, and some fire-roasted salsa, but do your thing.
* Or two 15-ounce cans
** WTF? See page 10.
*** Or more cumin if you don’t want to go to the store.
Amazing bacon and lentil soup I found!
Unlike wheat, corn, and sugar, legumes aren’t generally associated with “junk food” or processed food products. It’s easy to conjure up hyperbolic images of Twinkies and Wonderbread to demonize wheat, but lentil soup and hummus just don’t have the same effect. Some legumes, like soy, are even widely considered to be health foods, and marketed as nutritionally superior alternatives to animal products. But that doesn’t make them optimal foods for human beings – just because you can’t find them at McDonald’s doesn’t make them healthy.
Like grains and pseudograins, legumes contain phytic acid. Phytic acid binds to nutrients in the food, preventing you from absorbing them. It doesn’t steal any nutrients that are already in your body, but it does make that bowl of lentils a lot less nutrient-dense than the Nutrition Facts panel would have you believe. For this reason, it’s usually cited as a major downside of these foods, but the truth is clearly little more complicated, because some Paleo-acceptable foods like nuts also contain relatively high amounts of it. Per unit of mass, most nuts actually have a little more phytic acid than most grains and beans. So why are nuts fine to eat, but lentils are problematic?
Rather than labeling any amount of phytates as harmful, it’s more precise to say that the effects on the body depend on how much you eat. In fact, phytic acid may even have some health benefits in small amounts, so it’s not accurate to dismiss it as nothing but a toxin to avoid. The key is in how much you eat: this is why nuts are fine in moderation, while legumes and beans are discouraged. The difference is that nuts and kale aren’t staple foods in most people’s diets – if you were relying on almonds as a chief source of nutrition, which hopefully you aren’t, you’d suffer from the same problems.
Beans and legumes, unlike nuts and vegetables, are the primary source of calories for many people around the world, and eating foods so rich in phytic acid as nutritional staples is quite unhealthy. If you replace meat and animal fat with soy and lentils, you’re drastically decreasing your nutrient intake – these plant proteins are less nutrient-dense in the first place, the phytic acid prevents your body from getting even the nutrients they do contain, and unless you eat them with another source of fat, the lack of dietary fat will also stop your body from absorbing and using them. Thus, basing your diet on these foods can lead to severe nutritional deficiencies. In terms of phytic acid content, eating a handful of lentils as a snack every now and again probably wouldn’t be any more problematic than eating a handful of cashews, but that’s just not the way people eat lentils.
In addition to their phytic acid content, legumes are also FODMAPS, meaning that they contain a type of carbohydrate called galaco-ligosaccharides that can cause unpleasant digestive problems for some people, especially people who already have IBS or similar digestive problems. This isn’t necessarily a reason for anyone else to avoid them (any more than you would avoid other FODMAPS foods like onions or mushrooms if you aren’t sensitive to them), but it’s definitely a concern for anyone with pre-existing digestive troubles.
Another drawback of these foods is their lectin content. Lectins are proteins found in almost all kinds of foods, but not all lectins are problematic. Different people react to different lectins, which is why, for example, some people are fine with eating members of the nightshade family, and other people react to them. Potentially toxic lectins are highest in grains, legumes, and dairy. In the body, lectins damage the intestinal wall, contributing to leaky gut, with all its associated digestive and autoimmune problems. While many lectins can be destroyed by proper preparation methods (more on this below), most people find these cooking methods irritatingly laborious, and it’s almost certain that any beans or legumes you buy in a restaurant won’t be cooked this way. Thus, making beans and legumes a regular feature in your diet can significantly contribute to gut irritation and permeability.
Anyone trying a lower-carbohydrate version of Paleo should also beware the carb content of many beans and legumes: vegetarians might tout them as a “protein source,” but this is only really true relative to foods like bread and vegetables, which have no protein at all. One cup of black beans, for example, has approximately 230 calories, with around 170 of those being from carbs. Only around 53 of the calories in this “protein source” are actually from protein. While there isn’t anything wrong with the inclusion of safe starches in the diet, eating beans as a staple source of calories will quickly deliver many more carbohydrates than your body needs. In the long term, this can contribute to weight gain and metabolic problems like insulin resistance.
Beans and legumes also don’t have much to make up for this: they can’t match the micronutrient content of animal foods, so there isn’t any compelling reason why we should eat them. If chickpeas or kidney beans were extremely high in some vital and rare nutrient, they might be worth eating once in a while as a kind of supplement food, but the reality is that they don’t have anything you can’t get in a more potent and healthier way from animals or vegetables. Vegetarians love them for the protein, but on a Paleo diet, you have plenty of better protein options: you don’t need to rely on rice and beans.
Peanuts are probably the sneakiest type of legumes, if only because of their name. Like other legumes, peanuts are problematic because they contain lectins and phytic acid, but peanuts also bring a new guest to the party: aflatoxins. Aflatoxins aren’t actually part of the peanut itself; they’re produced by a mold that tends to grow on peanuts (as well as other non-Paleo crops like corn). This mold thrives on crops stored in warm, humid places, and it’s so difficult to eliminate that the FDA has declared it an “unavoidable contaminant.” Organic or all-natural brands of peanuts and peanut butter aren’t any better, since the peanuts still have to be stored and transported. Unless you’re picking your peanuts directly from the farm, you’re probably getting some aflatoxins with them, and they’re not something you want: some research has linked long-term consumption to aflatoxins with risk for diseases like cancer and hepatitis B, especially in countries where peanuts are a staple food. Especially in people with mold sensitivities, peanuts are a particularly concerning type of legume.
Unlike many other types of lectins, peanut lectins are also very difficult to destroy by cooking. As discussed further below, proper cooking methods can destroy many of these sneaky gut irritants, but peanut lectins are very heat resistant, so roasting or otherwise cooking the nuts doesn’t help.
Another type of legume that deserves special mention is soy. Some vegans seem to subsist entirely on soy products – soy milk with their cereal in the morning, edamame salad for lunch, and tofu stir-fry for dinner. Soy is beloved by the modern diet industry because it’s cheap to grow and incredibly easy to flavor and process into almost anything. But in the long run such a “cheap” crop comes at a steep price: the health of the soil it grows in. And the “convenient” additive suddenly starts looking a lot less appetizing when you understand the health costs of eating it.
As well as the same lectins and phytic acid as other legumes, soy has one particular nasty downside: phytoestrogens. Like environmental estrogens, these chemicals mimic the action of estrogen in the body. The problem with this is that their imitation of estrogen only goes far enough to trick your body into thinking that’s what they are. They don’t actually perform any of the vital functions that real estrogen does. The exact mechanisms by which they do this are very complex, but the upshot is that they tend to produce hormonal problems because they tell your body it has enough estrogen, even though it actually doesn’t.
In men, this hormonal imbalance can cause the development of typically “feminine” traits like breasts and fat deposits on the hips; in women, it can impair fertility and lead to all kinds of menstrual and other reproductive problems. Most alarmingly, phytoestrogens have been linked to breast cancer and disruption of normal thyroid function. It’s not necessary to be alarmist (eating soy products alone is unlikely to cause extreme problems), but in the context of a world full of other environmental estrogens and hormone-disrupting chemicals, soy adds one more straw to the camel’s back – and unlike many environmental pollutants, it’s a straw that’s completely avoidable
As well as hormones, soy also contains trypsin inhibitors, which interfere with protein digestion, and it increases the body’s needs for several important micronutrients, including Vitamin B12 and Vitamin D. Soy protein powder is even worse: this is a completely processed, artificial non-food that shouldn’t be part of anybody’s diet. Skip the post-workout shake and boil yourself up a few eggs or grab a can of sardines instead: there’s no reason why anyone needs to gulp down a massive dose of processed soy product every day, and there are plenty of reasons not to.
Of course, any argument that soy is unhealthy tends to raise the “Asian objection:” if people in Asia are so much healthier and longer-lived than Americans, and they eat a lot of soy, how could it be so bad? One difference is that traditional Asian cuisine relies much more on fermented foods: as described below, it’s possible to make legumes much more digestible and less harmful by fermenting them. Also, the soy products eaten as part of traditional meals were not industrially processed, and were served in addition to a very nutrient-rich diet that also includes lots of organ meats, bone broth, and vegetables. There is a world of difference between a small amount of fermented tofu in a big bowl of broth and a huge scoop of soy protein isolate in a protein shake full of food coloring and sugar.
Tofu and soy milk are easy enough to avoid (who wants to eat tofu when they could eat real meat instead?), but one soy product poses a particular challenge on the Paleo diet: soy lecithin. This particular form of soy is an ingredient in most brands of dark chocolate, a common Paleo indulgence. Soy lecithin is actually a byproduct of the production of soy oil, and it’s not any better than any other kind of soy. In a moderate serving of chocolate, the dose of soy lecithin is small enough that some people might not have any problems tolerating it, but it isn’t doing anyone any favors, and it’s not difficult to find a brand of chocolate without it.
One way that many people ingest beans and legumes (sometimes without even being aware of what they’re eating) is through oils. Peanut oil (a staple in many Asian restaurants), soybean oil, and other similar vegetable oils are very common cooking ingredients, on the mistaken belief that since they don’t contain animal fat, they must somehow be “heart-healthy.” But these seed oils might be even worse for you than the plants they come from. Even naturally produced seed oils contain high levels of PUFAs and Omega-6 fatty acids, both of which are inflammatory. Since PUFAs are very unstable fats, these oils can easily oxidize, a process that produces harmful molecules called free radicals. When you cook with the oil, this process accelerates, producing even more. These free radicals are a major driver in inflammation and oxidative stress, the main culprit behind aging and many chronic degenerative diseases.
Even if you don’t buy or cook with vegetable oil, you can still get it if you buy peanut butter. If you’ve ever brought home a jar of all-natural PB, you’ve probably noticed how the oil floats to the top of the jar, requiring you to stir it before you dig in. When you stir that oil back into the peanut butter, you’re loading down your afternoon snack with an extra dose of rancid oxidized fats. This is actually why some people prefer to also pour the oil off the top of jars of almond butter: to get a creamier texture, they just add in healthier saturated fats like coconut oil. In general, nut butters aren’t an ideal food because they make it very easy to overindulge, but if you enjoy them, swapping out the PUFAs for saturated fats is always a more nutritious choice.
Peanut oil is bad enough even though it’s the product of a fairly simple procedure. Soybean oilis even more concerning because of the way it’s processed. From start to finish, soybean oil is a product of modern monoculture farming. Socrates and Plato could sit down to olive oil at dinner time, but soy oil would have been a completely foreign concept to them because the technology for making it simply didn’t exist. To produce this particular food product, the oil company first extracts the oil from the beans using a chemical called hexane, a byproduct of the process that refines crude oil into gasoline. If that isn’t unappetizing enough, the beans are then washed and purified with various other chemical solutions, heated to very high temperatures in the process, and then bleached to remove unwanted color and smells.
For products like margarine, which need to be solid rather than liquid, the soy is then hydrogenated. Hydrogenation solidifies the oil by pushing bubbles of hydrogen through it. This changes the oil from a liquid to a solid by changing the fats from naturally occurring PUFA to something even worse: artificial trans fats. These industrial trans fats should not be confused with the trans fats that are naturally found in animal products: nobody is putting trans fat in beef by forcing hydrogen bubbles through a cow! While naturally occurring trans fats are perfectly healthy, the industrial Frankenstein foods are not. The body can’t make heads or tails of these artificial fats, so they’re highly inflammatory, and contribute to all kinds of problems as diverse as weight gain, atherosclerosis, and infertility.
As with pseudograins, you may be able to make beans and legumes much more digestible by preparing them in various traditional ways. This is one reason why Asian cultures see fewer ill-effects from eating traditional foods like natto: proper preparation (as opposed to industrial processing) can make these foods much less problematic. This obviously depends on your level of tolerance for them – and peanuts and soy should still be avoided no matter what cooking method you use – but it’s useful to understand how you can at least minimize the danger from these foods.
Many traditional cooking methods go quite a long way in reducing phytic acid content, for example. Soaking is a good first step – it can help reduce some of the phytic acid but doesn’t completely eliminate it. Sprouting is the most effective method for legumes, reducing phytic acid by 25 to 75 percent. The process of sprouting a batch of beans or legumes is actually fairly easy: all you really need to do is keep them moist and give them access to the air. Fermentation also greatly reduces the phytic acid of many different types of food – and it gives your gut floraa boost as a bonus. Note that the phytic acid in soy is particularly hard to reduce: this is another reason to avoid it if at all possible.
After any soaking or fermentation, you still have to cook your legumes before you can eat them – this adds another layer of protection because heating most beans and legumes (with the exception of peanuts, which have lectins that survive the cooking process) will destroy most of the lectins in them. Since nobody eats raw beans or legumes, this significantly reduces the concern about their lectin content.
These traditional methods of cooking won’t turn lentils or beans into a magical health food. But if you do need to eat them for some reason, they can help reduce their more dangerous aspects. Paleo isn’t about perfection, so if you have to stretch $20 into grocery money for the week, a few bags of lentils or black beans, properly prepared, will do a lot less damage than ramen and peanut butter.
…it might not be one! In the same way that peanuts aren’t actually nuts, coffee beans, cocoa beans, and vanilla beans aren’t actually beans. Coffee can be problematic for some people for other reasons, but it’s actually a seed, not a bean. Vanilla and vanilla bean extract are also fine, as are cocoa products. Of course, if you react poorly to these foods for other reasons, there’s no reason to include them in your diet, but there’s also no reason to deprive yourself of them because you’re worried about the dangers of legumes.
Green beans are also somewhat of a special case. When we eat green beans and similar vegetables like snow peas, we eat the pod with the seeds – the seed contains the vast majority of the problematic elements, so a serving of green beans already has much less phytic acid than a serving of soybeans. Also, like nuts, most people don’t eat green beans as a staple food – most of us might have a serving once a week or so, but we don’t rely on them as a major source of energy. Since they contain comparatively fewer problematic elements, and since they aren’t a major component of anyone’s diet, green beans are often regarded as an acceptable Paleo side dish, just like nuts. If you’re very sensitive, you might need to eliminate them, but most people can eat them once in a while without worrying about it.
In conclusion, the main problem with most beans and legumes might be negative, rather than positive: when eaten as a staple food, they simply crowd out more nutritious foods like animal products. Combined with the phytic acid and lack of fats in the legumes themselves, this can lead to a perfect storm of nutritional deficiency. Peanuts (which contain aflatoxins and heat-resistant lectins) and soy (which contains phytoestrogens) are particularly problematic; these are definitely foods to avoid strictly. Other legumes might not cause such serious problems, but that doesn’t make them good staple foods for a healthy lifestyle: a diet based on high-quality animal foods is much more nutritious without requiring all the annoying and time-consuming preparation of soaking, sprouting, and fermenting – and it tastes better.
If you were used to eating a fairly healthy diet before they switched to Paleo, you might occasionally miss your lentil soup or hummus. After properly preparing the lentils or chickpeas, a small amount of these foods probably won’t do a lot of damage, but think of it as an occasional indulgence rather than a dietary staple. Alternatively, you could try more Paleo-friendly recipes like baba ghanoush or a thick, hearty “lentil” soup (this recipe uses cauliflower and plenty of spices to get the same texture). Experimenting with these new recipes is a great way to brush up on your cooking skills and enjoy making something tasty without the digestive stress of eating unhealthy foods.