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 Integrative Medicine: Foods to Eat for Good Health 
 
An optimum diet containing an abundance of high-nutrient, low stress foods is the basis for good health, energy, and a sense of well-being. During nearly two decades of working with thousands of women patients, I have been continually impressed by the health benefits that good nutritional habits provide. As a result, I spend a great deal of time counseling my patients nutritionally. It is important to me that women have the knowledge and information that they need to effectively plan and prepare their own meals.

Chapter 1 discusses the foods that we need to eat to assure good health: whole grains, legumes, raw seeds and nuts, fish, poultry, fruits, vegetables, sweeteners, herbs and spices, and water. This chapter covers not only the nutrient benefits of these foods and how best to include them, but also their role in relieving and preventing a variety of female health problems and other health issues. Be sure to incorporate these foods abundantly in your daily diet while enjoying their good flavors and textures.

Whole Grains
Whole grains are the seeds of various grasses and are often referred to as "cereals." They have been the mainstay of the human diet for thousands of years, as our body's main source of fuel and energy. While the grains consumed in different societies vary greatly wheat in the United States, rice in the Orient they provide the backbone for all diets. In fact, a meal without grain often feels incomplete and somehow lacking.

Whole grains are almost complete meals within themselves, containing fiber, protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins such as B and E complexes, and many minerals like calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron, copper, and manganese. There are three main parts to each kernel of grain: the endosperm, or central core, which is about 80 percent of the entire kernel; the germ, which comprises about 3 percent; and the bran, which encompasses 15 percent of the kernel. Whole grain products contain all three parts of the grain and have a high concentration of nutrients. However, when grain is refined in milling to produce white flour products, the germ and bran are removed, leaving only the endosperm. As a result, most of the essential nutrients of the grain are removed, leaving a devitalized product.

The nutrients of whole grains help promote good overall health. They also have a tremendous effect on relieving the symptoms and reducing the risk of a wide variety of female related health problems. Whole grains have a very potent effect on regulating estrogen levels in the body, through their high levels of phytoestrogens (natural plant estrogens), their fiber content, and their high levels of vitamin B complex and vitamin E.

Many whole grains are excellent sources of phytoestrogens. Whole grains contain lignans, cellulose like materials that provide structure to plants. Lignans have been found to be weakly estrogenic and can bind to the estrogen receptors of cells. As a result, they can provide additional nutritional support to menopausal women deficient in this hormone. In addition, certain plants like buckwheat are excellent sources of the bioflavonoid rutin. Like lignans, many bioflavonoids are estrogenic and can help to regulate the effects of our own body's estrogen on sensitive target tissue like the breast and uterus. Rutin is particularly helpful in its ability to strengthen capillaries and reduce heavy menstrual bleeding in transitioning menopausal women. Studies attest to this. Bioflavonoids have been used, along with vitamin C, to reduce heavy bleeding in transitioning menopausal women and women with bleeding due to fibroid tumors and spontaneous abortions. In fact, an early study done at the University of Tennessee Medical School in 1956 found that the bioflavonoid vitamin C combination allowed 78 percent of high risk women to carry their pregnancies to full term.

The high fiber content of whole grains benefits women during their active reproductive years as well as menopausal women. Fiber binds to estrogen in the intestinal tract and removes it from the body through the bowel movements, thus helping to regulate estrogen levels. This process, called the enterohepatic circulation of estrogen, occurs as follows: estrogen circulates in the blood throughout the body and passes through the liver; the liver then metabolizes it from its more potent forms, estradiol and estrone, to a more chemically inactive and weaker form, estriol. When the liver is healthy this occurs efficiently.. The estrogen metabolites are then secreted into the bile and from there, into the digestive tract.

With a high fat, low fiber diet, the bacteria in the intestinal tract act on these estrogen products, allowing reabsorption of the estrogen back into the body. This increases the blood levels of estrone, the primary type of estrogen produced by the body after menopause, and estradiol, the type of estrogen produced by the ovaries during the active reproductive years. As a result, the levels of these two estrogens rise higher than estriol, their primary breakdown product. When this occurs, the patient is said to have an "unhealthy estrogen profile." Research has shown that estradiol and estrone, as more chemically active and potent forms of estrogen, may predispose women towards developing heavy menstrual bleeding, fibroid tumors, PMS, and even breast cancer while estriol, a much weaker form of estrogen, may reduce the risk and severity of these problems. Thus, a high-fiber, low-fat diet may help regulate not only the estrogen levels but also the types of estrogen circulating throughout a woman's body. In fact, other studies from Tufts University Medical School have shown that vegetarian women excrete two to three times more estrogen in their bowel movements than do women eating the typical high fat, low fiber diet.

Whole grains also regulate hormonal levels due to their high levels of vitamin B and vitamin E, which have a beneficial effect on both the liver and the ovaries. In 1942, a researcher named Biskind found that B vitamin deficiency hindered the liver's ability to metabolize estrogen levels in both animal and human test subjects. The addition of B vitamin supplementation to the diet of women suffering from PMS, heavy menstrual bleeding, and fibrocystic breast disease helped to decrease the severity of their symptoms. Studies conducted at UCLA Medical School during the 1980s found that taking a specific B vitamin, pyridoxine B6, helped to relieve symptoms of menstrual cramps and PMS.

Research also conducted during the 1980s at Johns Hopkins University Medical Center similarly found, in several placebo controlled studies, that vitamin E is useful in reducing many PMS symptoms, as well as fibrocystic breast discomfort. Other studies have found that vitamin E supplementation reduced menopause related hot flashes, fatigue, and mood swings in 66 to 85 percent of the women tested, depending on the study. One additional study noted a decrease in the symptoms of vaginal atrophy in 50 percent of the postmenopausal women volunteers.

Besides regulating estrogen levels, the high-fiber content of whole grains binds to cholesterol, aiding its excretion from the body through the digestive tract. This helps lower blood cholesterol levels, reducing the risk of heart attacks in postmenopausal women. The fiber in grain is very helpful in relieving constipation, as well as in preventing other diseases of the digestive tract such as diverticulitis and hiatal hernia. It may also have a protective effect against colon cancer, another disease found commonly in those who eat a high fat, low fiber diet.

Whole grains are excellent sources of carbohydrates, which are capable of stabilizing blood sugar and helping to eliminate sugar cravings. They help prevent or control diabetes mellitus, a dangerous disease that predisposes people toward heart disease, blood vessel problems, infections, and blindness. Fifty percent of our population above the age of sixty have blood sugar abnormalities, due in great part to the tremendous amount of highly sugared foods and sweets Americans eat. Whole grains, with their natural sweetness, can satisfy much of this craving in a healthful way.

In addition, whole grains are an excellent source of complete protein when combined in a meal with legumes. Grains are low in the essential amino acid lysine, while legumes are low in methionine. When eaten in combination, they create a high quality, complete protein. Good examples of grain/legume meals include whole grain bread with a bowl of bean soup, or pasta salad with kidney beans or garbanzos.

Whole grains also contain many vital nutrients for menopausal women. Grains are excellent sources of magnesium and calcium. Both of these minerals are necessary for maintaining healthy bones and relaxing muscle tension. Grains are also high in potassium. Potassium has a diuretic effect on the body's tissues and helps reduce bloating, which can be a problem for premenstrual and postmenopausal women.

While consuming whole grains has many health benefits, some women may find that they are allergic to or intolerant of wheat. Most women are surprised by this discovery, since wheat is one of the staples of our culture and is eaten by most people at almost every meal. However, wheat contains a protein called gluten, which is highly allergenic and difficult for the body to break down, absorb, and assimilate. Women with wheat intolerance are prone to fatigue, depression, bloating, intestinal gas, and bowel changes.

In my clinical experience, when women are nutritionally sensitive, wheat consumption can often worsen emotional symptoms and lower energy levels. I have observed how wheat (along with other foods) can trigger emotional symptoms and fatigue in PMS patients, especially during the week or two before the onset of menses. Many menopausal women tolerate wheat poorly because their digestive tracts are beginning to show the wear and tear of aging and don't produce enough enzymes to break down wheat easily.

Women with allergies often find that wheat intensifies nasal and sinus congestion, as well as fatigue. I also find that women with poor resistance and a tendency toward infections may need to eliminate wheat from their diets to boost their immune systems. Since wheat is leavened with yeast, it should also be avoided by women with candida.

If you suffer from any of these conditions, you should probably eliminate wheat from your diet for at least one to three months. Oats and rye, which also contain gluten, should be eliminated initially along with wheat if your symptoms are severe. Many highly allergic or severely upset and fatigued women don't even handle corn or rice well. Although corn and rice do not contain gluten, most women eat them so frequently that they build up an intolerance to them during times of fatigue.

I have found over the years that the least stressful grain for women with severe allergies, PMS symptoms, and poor digestive function is buckwheat. This is probably because it is not commonly eaten in our culture, so most women never develop an intolerance to it. Also, it is not in the same plant family as wheat and other grains. (Buckwheat is actually the fruitlike structure of the plant rather than a grass.) Other infrequently used grains such as wild rice, quinoa, and amaranth should be tried as well. These are available in health food stores in pastas and cereals. As women with gluten intolerance (and even grain intolerance) start to regain their health, they can slowly increase their grain intake, adding other grains. Wheat intake, however, should still be limited to small quantities, with other alternative grains emphasized instead. In addition, rotating a variety of nongluten grains in the diet can be very helpful. Corn and rice can replace wheat. Often you can find pasta and noodles, as well as flour for baking, made from these grains. Use corn tortillas instead of wheat.

Whole grass and whole grain flours can be prepared in a variety of ways, including whole grain cereals, breads, crackers, pancakes, waffles, and pastas. They can also be sprouted and eaten raw. A wide variety of these grains and products are available both in supermarkets and natural food stores.

Hot Cereals
.Local health food stores sell a wide range of excellent grain cereals. If you prefer hot cereals, look for cream of rye, cream of buckwheat, whole grain oatmeal, and seven or four grain cereals (without wheat). Choose brands with no added sugar. If there is no health food store near you, most supermarkets will have adequate products and are even beginning to carry bulk cereals in bins. I highly recommend Quaker whole oatmeal (not the quick-cooking refined product). Many of the "natural cereals" from the large companies are highly refined or highly sugared, so read labels carefully.

(Excerpted from The Women's Health Companion ISBN: 0890877335)
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 About The Author
Susan Lark MDDr. Susan M. Lark is one of the foremost authorities on women's health issues and is the author of nine books. She has served on the faculty of Stanford University Medical School...more
 
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