Getting Healthy Together
By Kathy Summers @ SavvyCities.com
[First published in Natural Health Magazine] Getting healthy together: we found three families who made lifestyle changes for the sake of one member and discovered that everyone in the house had a lot to gain
We’re connected to our families by more than just the genes we share. We breathe the same air, drink the same water, and eat the same meals. All that sharing means we can have enormous influence, for better or for worse, on each other’s health, especially when it comes to lifestyle-related illnesses like heart disease, diabetes, or arthritis.
You have a higher likelihood of getting hypertension or a peptic ulcer, for example, if your spouse has either condition, according to a large 11-year population study published in the Annals of Fatally Medicine in 2005. Even moods can spread like wildfire within families, says Nicholas Christakis, M.D., Ph.D., a Harvard Medical School internist who conducts research on social factors that affect health and longevity.
But if families can make each other sick, they can also help make each other well. We discovered three households that each worked as a team to transform illness into wellness.
Meet the Rings
BEFORE THEY HAD CHILDREN, the Rings followed what they call a “typical” American diet: prepackaged meals, fast food, white flours, and artificial sweeteners. Kelly was fond of sugary snacks, Mike was a bread-and-red-meat man, and they both loved milk. Their exercise habits were also fairly standard: Kelly tried to get to the gym, at least when her migraine headaches weren’t acting up. Mike wasn’t as disciplined, although at 230 pounds, he wanted to drop weight. Around the home, the Rings used conventional household products, such as ammonia-based cleansers, disinfectant sprays, and chlorine bleach.
The tipping point
A year after he was born, their first child, Noah, began having chronic skin irritations that routinely stumped dermatologists. The usual treatments, including steroid creams, proved ineffective. After Noah had lived with the rash and persistent tummy aches for several months, Kelly began to wonder if it was caused by something in the environment. She decided to research alternative health remedies and hired a holistic nutritionist, who suspected Noah might be allergic to dairy.
The Ring action plan
By Kathy Summers for Natural Health Magazine
on her research and consultations with the nutritionist, Kelly was inspired to make these changes in her family’s diet and environment.
1. Eliminate dairy, and replace packaged foods with fresh, whole organic foods.
2. Cut out sugar, white flour, and anything with additives.
3. Buy organic cotton bedding and clothing.
4. Replace chemical cleaners around the home with greener options. They now use white vinegar and water to clean windows and floors; thieves oil (a combo of organic essential oils that include cinnamon bark, clove, lemon, rosemary) and water for bathroom and kitchen surfaces, and baking soda with water as a scouring powder.
5. Eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains like millet, quinoa, and brown rice.
6. Take classes on nutrition (Kelly) and go for annual colon cleanses (Mike).
About two months after the Rings stopped giving Noah milk, the rash cleared up. His intestinal problems also went away. “When we thought about it, we realized the rash first occurred when we started giving Noah cow’s milk at age 1,” says Kelly.
Noah’s rash wasn’t the only health problem their “makeover” solved. One year into their new lifestyle, Kelly’s migraines went away and Mike lost 50 pounds (he’s now a svelte 180 pounds). “The healthier I got, the more I felt like exercising,” he says. The ultimate reward, however, has been the improvements they’ve seen in their children. “Their skin and eyes are clear, and they’re at a healthy weight. They rarely get sick, and when they do they get over it quickly,” says Mike.
The bonus outcome
As she sought to purge all synthetics, including clothing, from the household, Kelly started designing her own line of organic textiles, and has since launched an organic clothing boutique for babies and toddlers, called Awakening Organics (awakeningorganics.com).
Meet the Boutenkos
VICTORIA AND IGOR BOUTENKO and their two children Sergei and Valya moved from Russia to the United States in 1990 near the end of perestroika (economic restructuring in the Soviet Union) when food was scarce. Used to spare meals of vegetables, a small serving of chicken or fish, and cheese or a glass of milk, the Boutenkos discovered junk food and prepackaged dinners in the U.S.–and began to overeat, says Victoria, who gained 100 pounds within two years. Slowly, the family’s health went into decline.
The tipping point
By the time Victoria was 38, she had developed arrhythmia (irregular heart beat), prompting her doctor to suggest she slim down. At the same time, Igor learned he had severe hyperthyroidism. His doctor said if he didn’t have his thyroid removed he might not live more than two months. Lab tests also showed that his rheumatoid arthritis, which he had developed in his 20s, was progressing rapidly. Then, at age 7, their daughter Valya, who had been born with asthma and allergies, started coughing every night. One year later, Sergei, then 9, was diagnosed with diabetes and told he’d have to go on insulin.
Devastated by Sergei’s diagnosis, Victoria started researching diabetes and alternative treatments. Then one day, she struck up a conversation with a radiantly healthy looking woman at the bank, who credited her well-being (including recovery from colon cancer 15 years earlier) to a raw food diet. She convinced Victoria that a raw-only diet would work for her.
Igor, a meat-and-potatoes loving Russian, protested at first, but on January 21, 1994, the Boutenkos officially became a raw family. They cleaned out the kitchen, turned off the oven’s pilot light, and covered the stove with a big cutting board.
The Boutenko action plan
After researching the benefits of living foods, Victoria designed a raw-food diet plus this plan for her family.
1. Limit meals to raw-only foods. “In the beginning, we thought we’d be eating salads for the rest of our lives,” says Victoria. Now they prepare and eat raw soups, cakes, bread, and even cereals, such as “buckwheaties”: sprouted and dehydrated buckwheat kernels, served with almond or sesame milk.
2. Learn how to eat a raw food diet properly. The Boutenkos consulted raw food pioneers such as Gabriel Cousens, M.D., at the Tree of Life Rejuvenation Center in Patagonia, Ariz.
3. Sample food combinations to find out what works best (green foods–like spinach, kale, and chard–gave them the most energy).
4. Plan regular family sporting events. After three and a half months as a raw family, the Boutenkos ran their first 10K race.
The Boutenkos experienced a rapid improvement in their health and energy. “We had more vitality and felt in control of our health,” says Victoria, adding that Sergei never had to take insulin, leaving doctors questioning whether he ever actually had diabetes. “My husband’s symptoms of hyperthyroidism were reversed, and my daughter never had another asthma attack.” Victoria herself lost 120 pounds.
The bonus outcome
The Boutenkos have turned their passion for raw food into a vocation (see rawfamily.com). Victoria now gives talks about the benefits of eating fresh, raw greens, and recently authored 12 Steps to Raw Foods (North Atlantic Books, 2007). Sergei founded Harmony Hikes (harmonyhikes.com), an adventure company that incorporates lessons about wild edibles. Valya creates raw food documentaries, and with her brother Sergei, wrote Fresh: The Ultimate Live-Food Cookbook (North Atlantic Books, 2008.) Igor remains a therapist and physical trainer and contributes to his family’s book and film projects.
Meet the Cains
ALMOST A DECADE AGO, Tom Cain was feeling exhausted all the time, despite being a dedicated vegetarian and runner. He didn’t sleep well most nights, and constantly fought intestinal distress. Both he and his wife Nancy, who is also a runner, developed osteopenia (low bone density) and joint pain. And when their first son, Alex, was a baby he was diagnosed with a life-threatening seizure disorder. As their younger son, Marry, entered his early teens, they noticed that he appeared far too small for his age.
The tipping point
In 2000, Tom learned he had celiac disease, an inherited, autoimmune disease that damages the lining of the small intestine in response to eating gluten in wheat, barley, rye, and possibly oats. The discovery explained his digestion complaints and the joint pain, which is common in people with gluten sensitivities. Then, in 2004, the Cains learned that Marty had inherited his father’s celiac disease, which had caused severe malnutrition and slowed his growth. At age 13, he was 4′11″ and weighed only 70 pounds. Since Marty and Tom had to quit foods with gluten, the whole family decided to go on a gluten-free diet, says Nancy. “We were concerned about cross-contamination.”
The Cain action plan
Although their doctor only advised them to follow a strict gluten-free diet, the Cains came up with a more comprehensive overhaul of their habits.
1. Eliminate breads, pastries, and breakfast cereals made with wheat, rye, oats, or barley. Begin baking gluten-free foods from scratch.
2. Cut out many processed foods, wheat pasta, and soy-based products like veggie burgers and meat-free “chicken” nuggets.
3. Toss out products that contain hidden sources of gluten, such as canned vegetables and sauces, products prepared with breadcrumbs or batter, thickened soups, frozen meals, cheese spreads, ice cream, and condiments such as malt vinegar, many mustards, relishes, pickles, salad dressings, sauces, gravy–and beer.
4. Plant a vegetable garden to grow broccoli, tomatoes, eggplant, lettuces, and other greens.
In the four years that the Cain family has followed a gluten-free diet, they’ve seen gradual but significant improvements in the health of every member. Tom’s gastrointestinal problems have disappeared, his joints have stopped aching, he has more energy, and he sleeps better. Surprisingly, Nancy’s joint pain also has gone away. And Marty’s improvement has been “meteoric,” says Nancy. “He’s now 5′9″ and the tallest in the family. He used to have nightmares, but they’re gone. And he’s not as hyper as he used to be.” But what surprised the Cains most was that three years into their gluten-free diet, Alex stopped having seizures. “Our neurologist was amazed. He says the change is significant, so we should keep doing what we’re doing,” says Nancy.
The bonus outcome
When Nancy first tried baking gluten-free foods from scratch, she found the process time-consuming and unrewarding. “The dough doesn’t rise well, so it’s like baking bricks,” she says. But one day, when she was baking a pizza for Alex’s 14th birthday, she discovered a way to make dough that wouldn’t be dull or dry. She was soon baking batches of bread that tasted even better than her old wheat-based loafs. “I decided that if I was going to bake 30 to 40 rolls a week for the family, why not just bake three or four thousand and sell them,” Nancy recalls. In the summer of 2005, the Cains did just that, founding Against the Grain Gourmet (againstthegraingourmet.com), a wholesale manufacturing company that produces 100 percent gluten-free bread. The products are made from simple, fresh ingredients. Nancy swears her baked goods have the “look, taste, and crumb” of artisan breads. And her sons can’t get enough of them.