Vitamin D…raw and uncut!

The D stands for "Don't test me fool!"

The D stands for “Don’t test me fool!”

If you’ve ever succumbed to the late night temptation of a pint of cookies n cream and thought “well at least I got my calcium today” then you are not alone my friend. However, have you ever wondered where that calcium goes and what’s the deal with vitamin D? Stay tuned for these and other mysteries.

Sometimes I’ll walk past a neighbor’s lawn or a big leafy plant in the window and think “man, plants sure have it easy.” All they do is lay out in the sun all day, not working, sponging off our tax dollars, and more importantly not having to worry about food. Plants can convert atmospheric carbon dioxide and water into sugars in the presence of sunlight…lazy good for nothings. What if we had the ability to produce something our body’s need just by laying out in the sun? Well guess what you freak, you can! That’s right, good ole vitamin D is produced in our skin when exposed to UV radiation. [Sorry for calling you a freak. I get carried away sometimes. Let’s be friends]

The Nuts and Bolts…

Vitamin D acts as a hormone to regulate calcium levels in our bodies. It is what allows the calcium we effortlessly soak up from foods like milk and cheese to be absorbed. This process is of course tightly monitored and controlled by parathyroid hormone as well as the level of calcium and phosphate circulating in our bloodstream. Calcium and phosphorous build bone. Calcium in it’s ionized form is involved in all manner of enzymatic mayhem (but in that fun way). In fact, aside from buiding bone, ionized calcium (Ca2+) facilitates electrical conduction in the heart, allows for nerve impulses, and aids in muscle contractions (remember that the heart is also a muscle). If the level of calcium in the blood is high and inhibits the action of parathyroid hormone then the cool kids (scientists) refer to this kind of inhibition as negative feedback.

America, let’s talk about the facts

There’s a little confusion these days about what foods actually provide solid sources of vitamin D. There are fewer foods than you may think, and if you were about to say the M word then allow me to hit you with some knowledge. Milk, as in cow’s milk, is actually fortified with vitamin D. In the states we have fortified a lot of our dairy products like milk, cheese, and yogurt with vitamin D. This makes a lot of sense since these foods are naturally rich in calcium. It all started as a public health campaign back in the late 1920’s/early 1930’s to combat a nasty vitamin D deficiency linked bone deformity in children called Rickets, or osteomalcia in adults. Yes, “Rickets” is a real word. In fact I’ve always found the word nostrils to be pretty funny too, but let’s stay focused. NOSTRILS.
Adding the vitamin D allows us to absorb the calcium we are getting from that mouth watering hunk of aged white cheddar or that cold, frothy glass of chocolate 2 percent perfection that is chocolate milk (guilty pleasure I admit).
If you are looking for foods that are naturally rich in the “D” may I suggest you look to the sea. Oily fish like maceral, tuna, and salmon all contain healthy doses of vitamin D. If you combine that with the sunlight you should already be exposing yourself to during the day, then you’ll be all set. Just to be clear, I advise that you expose yourself to sunlight and not that you expose yourself…um..in the sunlight. I don’t want to get calls later. Ok bye!

Mean Green

What are free radicals and why shouldn’t they be free? Why have green tea extracts suddenly hit the big screen, playing supporting roles in everything like some new whole food’s MSG? Stay tuned…

Ah..nothing like green tea for that earthy, clean Saturday morning taste of wet grass clippings.

Ah..nothing like green tea for that earthy, clean Saturday morning taste of wet grass clippings.

Antioxidants get more media play than any summer blockbuster celeb fresh out of rehab could ever hope to aspire to. You say you don’t like tea..no problem. These days herbal extracts are trigger-happily infused into everything from chewing gum to butter biscuits, and why is that? Antioxidants my friends. These potent biochemicals boast less filling, long lasting protection from the aging damage of free floating electrons (free radicals) aimed at ripping your cells apart one at a time. We’ll get to that.

Free Radicals..why so serious?

Why don’t we like free radicals? Short answer: people are terrified of growing old. More specifically, free radicals are molecules with unpaired electrons that are highly reactive. Since this molecule is missing electrons it tends to pull what it needs from another molecule which in turn curses that molecule to become a free radical too. Now you have a molecular zombie apocalypse on your hands.

Antioxidants have the charismatic ability to donate electrons without becoming unstable themselves. They effectively neutralize these potentially harmful chain reactions before critical damage to cellular structures, or more importantly, before damage to intracellular DNA can occur (which can lead to mutation and the potential proliferation of cancerous cells).

So how do we stock up on these taster’s choice, biochemical riot police? This is where vitamins come in handy. I can think of two that are perfectly suited for the job. Vitamin E and C are both all natural and metabolically bad to the bone.

I'm more than just a cunning visual metaphor..I'm a weapon against free radicals. Go Joe!

I’m more than just a cunning visual metaphor..I’m a weapon against free radicals. Go Joe!

I like to call them the dynamic duo (I’m weird that way). What is particularly interesting about these vitamins is that their chemical properties (water vs. fat solubility) influences what borders they protect. Not unlike G.I. Joe special forces troops, they are both adapted to different environments. Vitamin E is fat soluble and is well adapted for combating nasty oxidizing substances that build up in the tissues (like peroxides) as a result of metabolic processes. Vitamin C is water soluble and is perfectly suited for cruising through the fluids of cells, neutralizing drama caused by harmful toxins from the environment that slip into the bloodstream. What kind of environmental toxins you ask? Well let’s just say it’s no coincidence that prolonged cigarette smoke mimics the wrinkling effects of aging.

mmm..green tea, good to the last phenol

The reason why green tea gets so much Cosmo cover girl hype is due largely to the potent, plentiful compounds locked inside the leaves (Camellia sinensis) called polyphenols. Polyphenols are a great source of antioxidants and since all you have to due to reap the benefits of this biochemically active compound is brew a cup and drink the stuff I think the street credit is well deserved.

Well, ok just one thing…there are different classes of polyphenols, some of which aren’t so warm and fuzzy when it comes to nutrient availability. Green tea has a sleek, sexy user friendly form called epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) which has only been used in herbal medicine for a few thousand years or so (which is why I feel perfectly happy drinking the stuff). Red wine has resveratrol which is believed to help keep cholesterol levels in check (when consumed responsibly of course). It’s still a hotly debated topic in nutritional research. There are certainly benefits to imbibing beneficial “super fruit” juices and extracts but you may have to wait around for a while before a recommended dietary value is actually agreed upon. Sorry kids, but as soon as the scientific community figures it out I’ll be all over it like cheap wine on khaki slacks. In the meantime, stay classy and never stop learning.

Got Protein?

my oatmeal never makes me feel this centered :(

my oatmeal never makes me feel this centered 😦

Let’s say you cut back on red meat, pork, dairy, or whatever this month’s Vanity Fair, fad diet recommends you stay away from in order to slim down and center your chakras. You’ve decided to turn over a new leaf, literally. You become one with the salad greens, the baby spinach, the arugula and the dark green kale that melts in your mouth and not in your stock pot. Yet something is missing, “Well it can’t be protein.” You tell yourself. “I read the labels. The lentils had 6 grams. The almond butter had 8 grams and I just let all my facebook peeps know that it’s complicated with me and chickpeas.”

You’d be right to feel betrayed because while these nutritious foods bring plenty of protein to the table they do not provide, wait for it….a “complete” source of protein. Huh?!! What you talkin bout F.P.? (Forgotten Physiology)

7471098_f260Wait a minute, slow down…put down the Salisbury steak. I’m not saying that these incomplete sources of protein can’t be brought together in nutritional matrimony to compliment each other. We just need to be a bit more crafty about how we bring them together. It’s not the amount of protein in foods that I’m harping about. It’s a matter of how those proteins are constructed. That’s right, amino acids, those nifty chains of nucleic acids constructed by the ribosomes from mRNA instructions stored in our DNA. Oh yes my friends, high school biology just got practical.

This is the situation…

There are 20 amino acids necessary to sustain human life. Our bodies make 11 of those which leave 9 crafty “essential” amino acids that we have to seek out in our diets. It can be a real nutritional scavenger hunt if you don’t know what you’re looking for. Sure there are a handful of oats, grains, and beans…”oh my” that come close. The reason meat contains all of your essential AA’s is because when that poor critter was alive it was stocking up on protein for itself. Dairy comes fully equipped because mammals like cows are delivering all the nutrients from their foraging to their offspring through the milk they produce. Most plants (soybeans are an exception) only contain a portion of those because that was their particular growth requirement…a little isoleucine here…a little phenylalanine there.

It said "bean bag chair" on the front of the box.

It said “bean bag chair” on the front of the box.

When you chomp down on a cheese steak it doesn’t get separated into perfect microscopic IKEA parts labeled “for the kidneys” or “for the triceps.” Those proteins are digested and the amino acids recycled in order to supply our body’s amino acid pool, that hard working transfer RNAs pull from when it comes time to make our own proteins (remember that’s called RNA translation). That kind of thing is going on right now inside our cells. What proteins we are able to make is dependent on what amino acids we have available. It’s the kind of “little thing” that only matters when you start to feel rundown because there’s not enough tryptophan around to make the proteins that keep your thyroid happy.

"We just love it when he talks whole grain"

“We just love it when he talks whole grain”

Now right about now you’re probably thinking. “I don’t have time to look up the amino acid content of everything I eat.” To that I say tough tabouli brah! That’s the cost of eating healthier. Don’t worry, I won’t leave you hanging, but ask anyone who has made a successful transition to vegetarianism and they will probably give you an earful about the websites and books they checked out. Besides, it’s fascinating stuff and chicks dig guys who know their quinoa 🙂

Here are just a few ideas to get you started and I’m leaving you some nutrition links at the end. I hope they’re helpful.

Non-meat protein sources aren’t nearly as dispersed as jigsaw puzzles. I think of them in terms of what they did for the plant they came from. Roots like carrots and parsnips stored energy for that plant. So it would make sense that these would be sweet, starchy, fibrous, and packed with minerals and carbohydrates, but relatively low on the protein scale. Now tubers like potatoes or yams, and legumes like lima beans or lentils are packed with carbohydrates and protein because their respective plants sprouted from them. They provided the fuel and the molecular raw materials for the growth of those plants. It is the same story for seeds. So for the times when I would go vegetarian (mainly to lose weight) it always made sense to me to essentially rebuild those plants in my diet…seeds and beans, roots, stems, and leaves. Now that’s not including dairy which I’ll get to…I NEEDS MY DAIRY!

What’s with this soy business?

Oh yeah, this bean get’s its own section. It truly is a wonder food, containing all of the essential amino acids. What’s really nice about the versatility of soy is that it can take many product forms (tofu, soy milk, soluble protein powder) which allow you to reasonably incorporate the stuff into even your most hectic daily routine. It is important to remember that while soy has all of the AA’s it is lower in some than others like methionine for example.

Dairy is your friend…

If you’re cutting out dairy for certain principles or to trim the fat I totally respect that. Just don’t be surprised if you find it harder to smile…that’s a Ben & Jerry’s deficiency.

In the course of your interweb browsing and research it will inevitably become apparent to you just how many of the AA’s are covered by dairy products. Low fat sources like yogurt, feta, cottage cheeses are CRAZY loaded with good stuff. Remember, cheeses were an ancient energy food. I will say that for my lactose intolerant friends out there (which make up a large percentage of the population) you probably want to stick to traditionally made yogurts and harder cheeses which have had most of their lactose sugars converted by active lactose fermenting bacterial cultures or separated out from the milk solids. Hey, don’t feel bad that stuff is good too and usually of higher quality. It’s going to have a little more fat but give yourself a break…you’re living off tree bark and rabbit food for crying out loud (that was mean..didn’t mean that)

Stay curious. Stay classy and never stop learning 🙂

Secret Life of Vitamins

Why can't I get my tap water to do this?

Why can’t I get my tap water to do this?

That’s right, vitamins are more than just a passing fad like skinny jeans or ten minute workout DVD’s. Let’s strip away the pop star facade and go behind the music with these unsung heroes in this segment of “Forgotten Physiology”

Oh come on, you know you’re just a little curious about this topic. I’m willing to bet that you can’t go a day without hearing mention of vitamin C, vitamin D or both of these front page, poster child nutrients. Catchy, sexy phrases like fortified, enriched, and essential, tantalize us into reaching for 4 dollar cereal or that sleek, flashy carton of fresh squeezed, ruby red, cranberry, pomegranate plus tax super juice that moments after consumption leaves you just a little curious to know if “it’s” working. What does getting 120% of your total daily vitamin C at one time feel like Mr. Acai berry, however the hell you pronounce your fancy name? What’s the deal with vitamin D? How do our bodies manufacture it and does America’s mild addiction to Ben & Jerry’s help fill that insatiable calcium void? Let’s probe these and other vitamin mysteries shall we.

That’s C for can’t stop the groove…

Vitamin C is water soluble which basically means that the compound dissolves in water. This is also the reason why we have to replenish Vitamin C so often with our diet since whatever doesn’t get used by our bodys right then and there simply gets passed out through the urine. No, sadly it does not turn our pee the many colors of the rainbow like mystery flavor Koolaid (previously investigated in the name of science). The small amount of vitamin C that is utilized by our bodies certainly makes it count. Vitamin C is just another one of those fun essential components our bodies need that we don’t quite understand until we don’t have enough of it. Through various mystical biochemical pathways our body (as in our cells) utilize vitamin C, A.K.A ascorbic acid to synthesize a protein called collagen, a building block of connective tissue that basically holds us together…no literally. Collagen is in our skin, tendons, and even blood vessels – kind of a big deal

because when you say scurvy I think Johnny Depp

because when you say scurvy I think Johnny Depp

What happens if we don’t get enough vitamin C? The answer is Scurvy, my friends. That’s right, it’s more than just a fun word to say in a pirate’s voice. Scurvy, a severe form of vitamin C deficiency can lead to pale, spotty skin, fatigue, depression, and bleeding gums. It is essentially the breakdown of your connective tissue. Another common feature (as if that wasn’t sexy enough) are the presentation of wounds that are slow to heal. This could be largely connected with vitamin C’s role in immunity and as an antioxidant which protects the membranes of cells from oxidative stress. Oxidative stress occurs naturally in our bodies from the accumulation of free radicals, another name for stray electrons with no molecules to call home. It’s kind of the price we pay for having to breath oxygen. Eventually electrons from oxygen molecules stray from the herd and raise a little hell binding to molecules on the surfaces of our cell membranes and stripping them away. No worries though, the cool kids (scientists) just refer to this as “aging.” Yes, even you will age someday no matter how youthful and upbeat your facebook profile makes you look (making fun of myself there).

Vitamin C is also an important component of the immune system and is intimately tied to normal white cell function and proliferation…uh…somehow. It’s still a topic of current research so “da facts” are a little vague, sorry guys. Studies have shown that beefing up on vitamin C can promote a speedy recovery from colds.

Now a lot of animals can produce their own vitamin C. Sadly, we are not one of those animals, but hey, we are also the only mammals with grocery stores so….take that Mother Nature!

Oh yeah…and stay tuned for the follow up article about vitamin D..should be a good time.

stay classy my friends and never stop learning 🙂