5 Things to Understand About Good Digestion

One of root causes of so many common ailments and diseases is poor digestive health. Different people suffer from poor gut health for different reasons, but there are some explanations that are quite common and in some cases, preventable. In my work with clients, I always ask some preliminary questions – and the answers often reveal some basic and important things that these clients never even noticed about themselves.  Some clients realize for the first time that they are dehydrated.  Others realize that eating on the go is making them sick.  These preliminary questions help so many people feel much better very quickly.  Along those lines, I will dive into the basics of good digestion for the first few posts and then get more nuanced as the weeks progress.  No matter where you fall on the continuum, I hope you learn just one new thing about your digestive health.  As always, please feel free to comment or ask questions.


Eat with intention:  Good Digestion starts in the brain

One of my favorite things about Winter is walking into the house and delighting in the deep aromas of thyme and rosemary, perhaps a savory broth or something charred and flavorful; I know there is a delicious (and usually nutritious) meal waiting for me.  I am lucky, my husband, like me, loves to cook and enjoys creating in the kitchen.  I take a wiff and ingest the steam and smoke that escapes the pot in preparation for what I know will be a scrumptious meal.

At this point, my body is already preparing for dinner.  Each smell sends a signal to my brain that I am going to eat- very soon.  This message gets relayed to my salivary glands, food is coming!  I then sit down, take a deep breath, look at the gorgeous table in gratitude, and on some occasions, I even bless my food. These rituals, passed down through generations dating back to old sages, religious figures, tribal leaders and the like, can be very spiritual.  For some folks, they are based in religious observance.  For others, it is an exercise in mindfulness. But no matter the origin of what inspired you to pause, these actions actually help the body begin the digestion process.  When I eventually take my fork to my mouth and take my first bite, everything is online.  I begin to chew and bam, out comes the requisite saliva necessary for the proper breakdown of food- that food and saliva have now combined into ­­­­a bolus.  That bolus eventually goes into the stomach where acid breaks it down so that the nutrients in our food can be absorbed in our small intestines.  This critical step is the basis for good digestion and good health- if our food doesn’t break down in the stomach none of the other important steps of digestion and elimination will work.

So, how do we prevent poor digestion if we don’t cook or have someone to cook homemade meals for us? We are busy, we eat on the go – in the car, while we walk, at our desks.  We often eat for sustenance, when we realize we are hungry.  Or the opposite, when we are bored and are emotionally eating.  In both of those circumstances, we are less likely to be mindful about what we are doing.  We lack ritual and forgo the smelling, the looking, the salivating- we dive right in before our brain has activated the digestion process.  When this happens, our enzymes do not release, we don’t properly break down our food and myriad problems may arise.  So how do people on the go let their bodies fully prepare for digestion?

The old sages were onto something.  Indeed, nearly every religion has some sort of grace or blessing prior to eating.  Perhaps it is because we eat at least three times daily and it is a constant way to connect to the divine.  Maybe it gives us pause for gratitude that we live with abundance and can afford to eat.  Perhaps it serves as a way to get us ready for the spiritual practice of eating – especially if it is something grown from the earth. All of these things might be true.  But it definitely is true that eating with intention and readying the body to eat serves the practical and physiological purpose of triggering digestion before we even bring food to our lips.

So next time, think twice before you shove something into your mouth while you’re looking at your computer, driving your car or walking to your next meeting. Give yourself just a few moments of readiness before you eat and see if you can feel the difference.

Homemade Almond Milk


The new alternative milk craze (almond/cashew/hemp/coconut and good ‘ol rice or soy) is in full gear. These products take up nearly an entire aisle of Whole Foods (or your local equivalent)! This is a good thing for those of us who don’t do well with dairy - it allows us to try different varieties of nut milks and have some non dairy milk on hand in case of a culinary emergency. However, the commercial brands, even the best of them, contain some or many undesirable preservatives (think carageegan) to keep them fresh for a longer shelf life. It really is incredibly easy to whip up some homemade almond milk if you have a good recipe and a high-powered blender. And trust me, once you go homemade, you will never want to go back to commercial.




1 cup raw almonds, soaked in water

3.5 cups filtered water

1-2 pitted Medjool dates

1 whole vanilla bean chopped (or 1/2-1 tsp vanilla extract)

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

small pinch of fine grain sea salt, to enhance flavor


Place almonds in a bowl and cover with filtered water. It’s preferred to soak them overnight (for 8-12 hours) in the water, but you can get away with soaking for 1-2 hours.

Rinse and drain the almonds and place into a blender along with 4 cups filtered water, pitted dates, and chopped vanilla bean.

Blend on highest speed for 1 minute or so.

Place a nut milk bag over a large bowl and slowly pour the almond milk mixture into the bag. Gently squeeze the bottom of the bag to release the milk. This is a tad labor intensive and messy, but trust me, it is worth it.

Rinse out blender and pour the milk back in. Add the cinnamon and pinch of sea salt and blend on low to combine.

Pour into a glass jar to store in the fridge for up to 3-5 days. Shake jar very well before using, as the mixture separates when sitting. Enjoy!

Bonus: The leftover almond meal is great for gluten free baking recipes- I also use it as a filler for homemade veggie burgers and salmon patties.

Breathe Into Your Digestion

I sat on my meditation cushion and could not stop thinking:  What am I going to eat for lunch today?  What do I need to buy at the grocery store?  Oh no, I forgot to call back the school.  I never did pick up that dry cleaning. Meditation can not possibly be a beneficial exercise, I am not getting anything out of this.

I always thought it was a positive trait to be a thinker, but now I’m beginning to doubt it – I can’t turn it off.

I told my yoga teacher about my inability to stop thinking.  This is not working for me- surely there is something else I can do to get the same benefits one gets when meditating.

Just come back to the breath, she told me.

Everyone has thoughts, even the most committed practitioners.  Do not judge yourself or think that you are “bad” at meditating because your mind wanders and you begin to think about things – random things – things that might even make you anxious.

The key in that moment is to notice the thought, see it float by, then return to focus on the breath.

When you concentrate on the breath, and return to focus on it once your thoughts are adrift, you are training your brain to focus on one thing.  You are channeling your mind to go inward even during moments of distraction from the outside world.  This takes much practice.   Monks have been at it for centuries.  Even the most committed yogis practice returning to the breath.  We all have thoughts.  We all wander.

When we live in our mind, in the past or the future, we might hold onto pain or regret.  We might live in fear – which inevitably affects our physical body.  Focusing on the breath and living in the moment is how we begin to let go – let go of our tension and let go of whatever negativity might be occupying our thoughts.  This is how we truly release the stress that can affect our physical body.  When our body is stressed, our digestion suffers.  We suffer.

By focusing on the breath we can learn to return to the most basic moments in everyday life.  The next time you are in a stressful situation or you feel discomfort in your body, take a moment to sit.  In your home, in your car, in a café.  Stop and inhale deeply, expanding first in your belly, then the ribs and then the chest.  Then on an exhale in the opposite direction.  If you do this for several breaths and focus on what you are doing, a calm will return to you.  Breathe into your digestive system and notice how it feels.  Just as in meditation, it might feel odd at first.  You might not see any immediate changes.  But keep trying, a little every day.  You will eventually feel a shift.  You will feel more connected to your body and you will have the skill to calm your body and your mind in any given moment. You will be alive in the present moment – not living in your mind – able to help your body get the calm that it needs.

The Truth About Tea

Seth Goldman knows a lot about tea.  I had the good fortune of hearing the TeaEO of Honest Tea  speak at an event at The Aspen Institute in Washington last week. I drink about five to eight cups of tea each day and am conscientious about eating organic foods whenever possible, and I was shocked when he explained why we should only drink organic tea.  In his experience of visiting the tea gardens and understanding the tea trade, he learned that if pesticides or other chemicals are used or sprayed on tealeaves, those chemicals are never washed off at any point in the picking, exporting, inspection or importing process.  The pesticides generally stay on the tealeaves until we pour hot water on them to makes ourselves a pot to drink.  Come to think of it, as shocking as this was, I’m even more shocked that something so basic was never on my radar to begin with.

When choosing loose leaf or wrapped tea, always choose organic.  This is one case where rinsing or washing off toxins won't be possible.

On Meditation, Loneliness and Inflammation

Talk amongst yourselves . . .

A recent study confirmed the long held belief in yoga and in healing circles that meditation decreases illness, inflammation and depression.  One thing however that this new study suggests is that people who meditate are also less lonely- further decreasing inflammation and depression, leaving practitioners of meditation in overall better health.

Loneliness is one of those human emotions that all people experience but few discuss.  Talking about it can make us seem needy or depressed, and could possibly make us more lonely by alienating us from other people.  That said, we all have moments when we feel alone, unheard or situated in a place where we cannot relate to anyone else.

For many years I struggled with colitis in silence- I never shared any real details of the disease with anyone for I feared others wouldn’t understand my plight or would find it boring.  Sometimes, I just didn’t want to bring myself down by talking about it.  Now, I realize that my avoidance may have been one of the things that kept me sick for so long.

Many people are finally speaking out about Colitis and Crohns Disease and those suffering are finding community through the internet and other channels.  Hopefully this will eradicate the notion that people suffering from Colitis or Crohns have to go it alone.  Because now we know, this could be one of the important factors preventing us from healing ourselves.


I was mixing the second of five concoctions that I would ingest that day.  This cleanse was serious; five drinks and one colonic each day for five days.  No solid food.  Just water. As I stood at the kitchen counter, intently mixing bentonite clay, psyllium seed husks, apple pectin and peppermint leaf, I turned to see my husband staring at me with amazement.  “Do you think I’ve gone over the edge?” I asked.  “Well,” he began, “I just feel like you should be wearing a sari, not an outfit from the Barney’s sample sale.”

I saw his point.  I had changed significantly since embarking on a journey that began in 2009 when, in an effort to stand in solidarity with my son as we dealt with his apparent GI disorders, I took dairy out of my diet.  It was so radically beneficial for me, I went further.  I helped myself by changing my diet in other ways, deepening my yoga practice and finding and releasing the great stressors in my life.  Over the course of four years, I went from buying food only sold at my neighborhood co-op, to reading the labels at the co-op, to making many of my own ingredients in order to cut out additives and chemicals - even those generally deemed harmless. I also went weekly to a craniosacral therapist, participated in a yoga teacher training program, and started writing as a way to deal with the difficulties in my life.  I came up with the idea for this blog in an effort to share the nuggets of knowledge I managed to pick up along the way with a community of like-minded people.

As most readers of this blog probably know, there are many of us out there; individuals with autoimmune disorders seeking answers and advice as to how best to cure, or at least minimize, our afflictions.  We look for community to connect, share ideas and commiserate.

Meghan O’Rourke is one of those people, as she explains in her beautifully written piece that appeared in the August 26, 2013 New Yorker magazine, entitled “What’s Wrong With Me.”  O’Rourke’s essay chronicles her struggles with autoimmune disease and the mysteries surrounding her illness.  She is always aching, fatigued, in pain and confused about her ailments.  She is unsure what is going on with her body and wonders how she can get the energy and strength she needs to get through the day.  But she goes on to talk about a deep emotional side-effect of her journey – a fear that her efforts to heal and understand her body were altering her identity from person (perhaps with some mysterious ailments) to patient.  She engages with other sufferers online.  She completely changes her diet by eliminating many foods and she turns to a varierty of supplements, vitamins and minerals.  She engrosses herself in the Specific Carbohydrate Diet for a month.  She makes her own almond milk (no easy task), brushes her body to help stimulate her lymphatic system and rid herself of toxins.  She swallows pills and liquids that can make one gag.  It is very compelling and extremely familiar.  And although it’s working – she is healing herself somewhat – she questions whether the incremental medical gains are worth the nagging feeling of obsession and seeming loss of self.  Her excellent piece challenges us to look in the mirror and ask the questions she asked:  have I gone over the edge?  Am I letting all of this define me?

Those of us with disease do have choices.  We can immerse ourselves in the world of the healing.  We can read everything, connect to others with similar struggles, change our diets, our habits, our environments and open our minds to new therapies and answers so that we can change our bodies and live a healthier life.  But along with that comes the risk of becoming obsessive about these ideas and driving ourselves and our loved ones nuts.

Of course, we also have the choice to do nothing, avoid change and carry the risks that go along with just living (in some cases for many years) with disease.  In our efforts not to get sucked into the fanatical world, we can go on living a “normal” life and hope for the best.

We also have the choice to find balance.

O’Rourke chose to eat well (but not always following everything to the letter) while living her life and accepting her disease.  I chose to immerse myself completely.  I allowed my journey to unfold before me, taking me on retreats to learn about proper digestion , working with different healers and eating many different foods.  All of this has worked wonders for me on a physical and psychological level.  But when I asked my husband if I had gone over the edge, what I was really doing was asking myself.  I realized that I might have been farther gone than I was emotionally healthy.  For years, I had followed a strict diet and created many wonderful new recipes which I loved.  But once I moved to Vermont and had more time on my hands, I went many levels deeper.  Defeating illness became my life.  That moment in the kitchen gave me pause; it alerted me that my ability to dive so deeply, while incredibly helpful and useful, could also be causing me to lose myself in a never ending quest.

The yogis say that just by noticing and acknowledging one’s behaviors, we can create the change we need.  By acknowledging, out loud, that I was close to fanaticism I was able to see things more clearly as how to approach my illness.  Yes, I continue to educate myself and encourage my family to try certain foods.  I still watch what I eat and try new things.  In fact, this week my son and I are eating soup, trying out the GAPS diet (so we can both possibly eat dairy again one day). But by taking a moment to pause, I was able to see this all in perspective.  What came out of this for me was the importance of living mindfully and with intention to feel good both physically and emotionally.   For me the key is focusing on family, friends, work, interests and hobbies - so that this disease is a part of my life, but isn’t it entirely.

Poached Eggs with Spinach and Onions

It’s so easy to overdo it during the holiday season. To become derailed. Bumped off the healthy wagon. But when you make the decision to start your day off with something delicious and nutritious, it can really put you in the right mindset for the rest of the day. Check out this wonderful breakfast dish that is filling, very easy to make and full of vitamins and nutrients - it’s inspired by a breakfast that I had recently at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health. You will want: 1 small onion (yellow, sweet or white) 4 cups spinach or baby spinach 1 small shallot 1-2 tsp freshly grated ginger (or substitute with the same amount of powdered ginger) 2 large or jumbo, organic, free-range eggs (preferably local) Extra Virgin Olive oil Sea salt and pepper to taste.

Chop the onion and shallot into bite-sized pieces and sautee in olive oil. After onions soften and start to become translucent, add in ginger, a pinch of sea salt and pepper. Add spinach and more olive oil, sauteeing all ingredients so it covers the pan. Lower heat and carve two depressions into the mixture - do not dig so deep that you can see the bottom of the pan - this is where you will poach the eggs. Crack one egg into a small bowl, checking for shells. Then pour the egg into one of the depressions. Repeat with the other egg. Cover the pan for 1-3 minutes until the egg whites become opaque and the yolk is covered. Use a spatula to carefully take mixture out of the pan and serve.

*I recommend making this dish in a cast iron skillet or ceramic pan if you have.

Transition To A Healthy Lifestyle

I was not born this way. I was not born into a family of hippies, vegetarians or yogis. I was not born watching what I ate, supplementing with vitamins or meditating.

I grew up in a suburban Philadelphia community where my friends and I went to TGI Fridays after the movies, ate cheesesteaks and soft pretzels and drank plenty of alcohol once we got to high school and college. We really didn’t think much about our health, the food we ate, where it came from or why the produce looked so shiny in the supermarket.

Like most people, my friends, family and I did talk about losing or gaining weight. That was the one subject that to us, marked how healthy we were.

The house where I grew up was stocked with cans of diet soda, boxes of Sweet N’ Low, frozen Weight Watchers desserts and diet salad dressing. My parents have been on one diet or another since the Carter administration.

One day back in 1999, my cousin told me that her New Years resolution was to cut out all artificial sweeteners. I didn’t understand why she would do this or how she could! How can one drink coffee without lots of cream and Sweet N’Low? But she shed light on how these chemicals could really harm us and that it would be a noble effort to rid them from her diet. It made sense to me, so I did it.

First, I switched from Diet Coke to Coke. Coke was so sticky sweet I could taste the syrup. I somehow got used to regular Coke but eventually grew sick of it.

I gave up cola, then soda, entirely. I couldn’t drink coffee black or coffee without sweetener (sugar never quite made it there for me), so I switched to tea.

I educated myself on the benefits of organic produce and began to buy organic from a neighborhood delivery service in New York City.

When I moved to Brooklyn, I joined the local food coop and worked several different jobs as required by the coop. I spoke with the educated cashiers, read the coop newsletter and website and listened to others around me while I shopped. I learned an enormous amount in a very short period of time.

Then when my son got sick and we went to a developmental pediatrician who suggested we take dairy and gluten (and eventually soy) out of his diet, my learning curve went through the roof. The internet can be an amazing resource for learning about food and how you can make little steps toward a healthy lifestyle.

I eventually gave up dairy, started taking omega 3s and probiotics and began to heal myself.

I encouraged my mom to join my shift to a healthier, more-chemical-free, diet. My mother had watched me evolve over the past decade yet, when she saw my daily regimen, she was like a deer in headlights - unable to move and protect herself from a dangerous appetite for industrial food.

But like me, she too has evolved; she must, if she wants to prevent disease and live longer than her parents. For many years, my mother looked at me and thought that she could never do what it took to change her lifestyle - she thought she was too old to change. But she is getting there, at her own pace. She now drinks green tea, no longer has diet soda, buys organic food and takes probiotics.

I imagine that for my mom, it was inspiring to see her daughter cure herself of ulcerative colitis. There it was, proof that changing diet and lifestyle could have a profound impact.

Will she take up yoga anytime soon? I don’t think so. But I guess one never knows how people evolve. I never would have thought I’d adopt my current diet - I had no idea how much I didn’t know when I gave up artificial sweeteners so many years ago.

So if the idea of change and learning all that there is about diet and supplements seems overwhelming, the best advice I can give is to focus on one goal. For me it was taking one ingredient at a time out of my diet – and it had a domino effect. Once you start to feel good (and successful!) with one change, you’re more likely to get excited and energized to do more - if more is something you need.

Pick one thing for yourself and take small steps - the first step is always the most difficult. With a little help from yoga, meditation or some other tool you might use to remain mindful of your body and your goals for good health, the rest will probably flow naturally. It did for me and for my mother - two very different women, on two different paths who each found what they needed, in due time.