“Manifest plainness, embrace simplicity, reduce selfishness, have few desires.” — Lao Tzu
Who would’ve thunk it, right? Of all the items we use, surely the deodorant is resolutely single purpose? Well, if you purchase the standard commercial stuff sold in plastic tubes and holders, then yes, I’m afraid there’s only one use for it.
But there’s another way.
The item in question has many identities. Chemically, it’s made of potassium alum, which is derived from plants and minerals. Though it has many popular aliases: alum stone, crystal deodorant, Thai crystal and more.
I’ve been using it for years, initially purchasing the ones packaged in a plastic deodorant holder. But this became messy within a short time, as the crystal shrinks with usage, and would then slip out of its holder. And once it hits the floor, it smashes into pieces. Using smaller pieces doesn’t make it any less efficacious but it renders the holder useless. Also: pointless plastic waste.
In India it’s known as fitkari (and variations thereof – Bengalis call it fitkiri) and available for literally pennies from the most humble of local chemists, though snubbed by the more westernised ones, which only sell mass produced products from multinational conglomerates in shouty, gleaming packaging.
I don’t know why it took me years to switch from the versions in plastic holders (bought at Boots!) to the ones sold in Indian chemists, but I’m so glad I changed over. These work so much better as a deodorant, for one. They’re sold in either uneven chunks or moulded into neat little bars. I’ve used both and both work just as well, it’s just personal preference.
They are minimally packaged – the bars come in a disposable thin layer of polythene; the chunks are sold by weight and usually come in a large plastic resealable bag (I’ve asked my local zero waste shop to stock this, in which case it can be sold without packaging or wrapped in paper). In the bathroom I keep them in a small open dish. The dish collects little dried crystals, which isn’t amazing for my OCD but one quick wipe and they’re gone. While travelling, I use a tin or a travel soap case.
So far so easy.
Now, for its uses.
First, as a deodorant. You need to wet the bar or wet your armpit (or not dry it after a shower), and then rub the bar over the armpit. It should be done many times – this is not the single swipe you’d use for a commercial deodorant. I rub it back and forth a dozen times really quickly – it takes seconds – then rinse the bar, wipe it and put it away.
It’s a deodorant, not an antiperspirant, but I feel strongly that we really shouldn’t stop our sweat from coming out. I spent years being very nervous about my stink factor, partly because of social conditioning that says women shouldn’t sweat, and partly because I’d spent years on steroids and other potent medication that I think upset my internal flora and so I did believe I smelt a bit funny (whatever that meant).
Anyway, I tried every commercial product, it felt like. I tried the usual mainstream ones from CVS and Boots. I tried the expensive organic ones from Whole Foods and Planet Organic. I tried natural home remedies and handmade ones crafted in the right moon phase from farmers markets. And nothing, bar nothing, works as well as the crystal deodorant.
Note: different ones can be varyingly effective, so if the first one doesn’t do the whole business, perhaps see if another “brand” does. I buy the non-branded ones from local Indian chemists and they totally do the job. I still sweat, but I don’t stink, which is amazing considering I live in an intensely humid climate.
The reason it’s sold so cheaply and abundantly in India is because its primary use is actually not as a deodorant, but as an antiseptic for men after shaving. (You know how they say that if men got periods, then pads and tampons would be available widely and cheaply; I think this is kind of like that.)
Because shaving opens up the pores, rubbing the wet crystal over their face afterwards helps ensure the skin is protected while it stops minor cuts from getting infected.
I totally forgot about this until I kept getting cuts on my hands (I play with my building cats, and now I play with paper a lot). I was thinking that perhaps I’d have to buy some antiseptic ointment, which is one of those things I vaguely consider keeping around but then never do. Then I remembered my trusty crystal stone. I used that instead and it worked great.
But wait, there’s a third use of the alum stone. In India, people also use it as a face treatment to tighten their skin. Like the armpit, you wet the face and/or the stone, rub it all over and let it dry naturally. This refreshes the skin, protects it and – apparently – helps keep it firm.
I’m principally against anything “anti-ageing”, so I’m not compelled to use it for this purpose. Although I’ve inherited skin that looks pretty healthy, it is insanely dry and sensitive so I don’t tamper with it in any way except to feed it a lot of (rosehip seed) oil. But on the rare occasion I feel any compulsion to “do” something to my skin, this will be what I’ll reach for to see how it does.
The only drawback I can think of is that you need water to apply it, but as I use it after a shower, this has never been a problem. It may be a bit of a bother if you use it at the gym (remember those? Will anyone go back there again?). Also, I already mentioned that the crystal leaves a residue of fine crystal dust in its wake, so you’ll need to wipe its container periodically. But it doesn’t stain or anything.
Wikipedia lists dozens of uses for it if you’re curious, including water purification, brightening and fastening dyes on fabric, even as a flame retardant!
For travellers like me who roam with only carry-on luggage, this one item really pulls its weight. It’s dry and light. It lasts basically forever (I’d given my mother a bar in 2014 and it’s still going strong some 6.5 years later). It’s natural. It’s relatively low–waste, considering how long it lasts. It’s totally affordable – like four bars for a dollar, and four bars will cover a lifetime.
I just love the idea that this humble natural stone can do so much. It’s basically like Wonder Woman.
“Free yourself from the complexities of your life! A life of simplicity and happiness awaits you.” — Steve Maraboli
“The simplification of life is one of the steps to inner peace.” — Mildred Norman
I’ve been using homemade skincare products for many years now. It wasn’t always so; I very much grew up purchasing brightly coloured products packaged in plastic from the supermarket and chemist. So much so, my initial reaction to even considering switching to homemade versions was, to be precise, “Ew”.
While I continue to experiment and discover new things (though haircare remains my tricky area), I’ve found genuine solace in these simple, eco-conscious, non-toxic and low-waste beauty and health products. In the gentle spirit of siblinghood, I shall periodically share my current favourites. Today: tooth powder.
On my first day in a new apartment when I moved to Bombay for work, I slipped on soapy water on a marble floor. I was carrying scissors at the time so I instinctively kept my hands away rather than use them to break my fall – so instead my face smashed into the floor. Blood poured from my forehead and my teeth broke.
The collision actually affected a whole load of my teeth and it took four months of extremely intensive (and expensive) dental work to fix everything. This was more than 10 years ago and I’m very loyal to this dentist, Dr Rohit Sharma, who put me back together. In fact, there were many times I planned to visit Bombay in subsequent years and noted that, ah yes, I could time it so I could get my routine cleaning done then too, such is my loyalty.
Anyway, he’s all high tech and gadgety (in fact, during this Covid pandemic, he is the rare dentist who didn’t have to upgrade his gear because he was already using the latest, cleanest, WHO–approved virus-wiping technology). And he rather despairs of my tree-hugging tendencies, as these have often resulted in terrible plaque.
He’d sternly prescribe toothpaste with triclosan and I would sneak off and use coconut oil instead. He’d recommend the latest wonders in electronic toothbrush technology and I stayed faithful to compostable bamboo toothbrushes from my local organic shop.
Anyway, all this to say that I did end up missing one of my six-monthly cleaning appointments (thanks, pandemic) so he saw me after a year. I worried about the state of my plaque. He said it wasn’t bad, in fact it was better than usual.
I felt victorious. I said, GUESS WHAT I’m using? (He said, “neem stick”, for such is his opinion of me.)
Nope, it’s baking soda and salt.
Now, it’s not the first time I tried using this. I tried variations by adding flavourings as well as clay. But clay makes the sink not-pretty and that stressed me out too much. I tried coconut oil but that was a slimy (and travel-tricky) experience, so I stopped that too. So for the past year and half or so, I’ve been using just baking soda and salt.
This formula is simple: two easily available ingredients are mixed together. They store well and last for ages. You likely already have them in your cupboard. And they are cheap.
This formula is eco-conscious: baking soda – also known as bicarbonate of soda – is a mineral that’s the darling of natural home cleaning remedies (I use it extensively for this too). Salt is also a chemical mineral, found in rocks or diluted by the sea. For this recipe, you want to avoid table salt, which is heavily processed and contains additives.
This formula is chic: it’s free of ugly splatter and slime. A small container of it goes a long way. Unlike paste, it’s never going to drop onto your collar and stain you on a rushed morning. It’s just all-round elegant. (Julia Roberts once credited her famously dazzling smile to following her grandfather’s advice of brushing with baking soda.)
Note: it’s important to use baking soda and salt that are very fine; the more powdery the better.
Here’s what I do:
For every 4 tablespoons of baking soda, add ½ to 1 teaspoon of salt.
It’s not precise, and the ratio can vary according to your own taste. You can even omit the salt if you like, as those with extra sensitive teeth may find it abrasive, and just use baking soda.
I add salt primarily for flavour. Stevia is another option, but I’m a salty kind of person rather than sweet; I also have salt at home, and don’t have stevia kicking around. Salt has the benefit of being a natural disinfectant.
I make a large batch in a bowl, mix it well, then store in a glass jar. I decant from this into a smaller container for daily use. You can use a spice dispenser. I recycled the plastic bottle from a commercial tooth powder I’d bought from the US (Eco-Dent Daily Care, anise flavour – not a bad way to introduce yourself to tooth powder if you need a tasty gateway).
Shake a little onto your palm and pick it up with a wet toothbrush. Brush as normal. I use the same quantity as I would have if it were paste: a small dollop.
It costs pennies, takes a minute to “make” and lasts more than a year. It’s also dry and light, which makes it excellent for travel. In fact, I started doing this when I was on the road and found it so wonderful, I now use it full time.
My mother, who buys commercial toothpaste, gets ones from major brands that excitedly proclaim it contains SALT or BAKING SODA. I prefer to cut out all the other ingredients (which are often extremely toxic chemicals that are poisonous if you swallow them – yet putting them in your mouth is a good idea?).
It is actually the mechanical process of brushing that cleans our teeth. The products we use is in aid of that, and are not meant to do the heavy lifting. I like to use an extra soft toothbrush and prefer a small head so I can reach the back of my mouth easily, so often children’s bamboo toothbrushes with super soft nylon heads are my best bet.
If you want to consider – as I always do – hey, is this a commercially–created product that artificially fabricates a “need” we actually don’t require to use in the first place? (I’m looking at you, anti-ageing products designed to propagate women’s insecurities.)
I think it is a good idea to clean our teeth (though I don’t believe our breath needs to smell of synthetic mint) because our diets now are so heavily processed. This includes the use of all kinds of flour – even if you’re grinding it yourself at home – let alone commercially packaged products with preservatives. And you don’t need me to tell you sugar is the very worst thing we can eat for our teeth (and our health).
If you want to go a step further in natural and biodegradable dental care and with only one product, you can indeed, despite my dentist’s derision, use neem sticks (also known as miswak). These are twigs from the neem tree that you use to clean your teeth with, as you would a brush, with no paste/powder required. You then trim off the used part which you can compost.
The US federal National Institutes of Health did a randomised clinical trial of neem sticks and standard toothbrushes. The neem sticks won. “[T]these sticks contain natural ingredients, which are beneficial for oral health. It has been reviewed that it contains ascorbic acid, tri-methylamine, chloride, fluoride, silica, resins, and salvadorine, which have proved potency to heal the inflamed and bleeding gums, produce stimulatory effect on gingiva, remove tartar, and other stains from the teeth, re-mineralize dental hard tissue, whitens teeth, provide enamel barrier, and increase salivary flow, respectively. In addition, chewing sticks also contains volatile oils, tannic acid, sulphur and sterols which attribute to anti-septic, astringent and bactericidal properties that help reduces plaque formation, provides anti-carious effects, eliminates bad odor, improves the sense of taste, and cure many systemic diseases.”
Wowza. I haven’t tried them yet so can’t yet say how awesome they are, but this is what we have historically used for centuries, so there you go. They would be especially ideal for when you don’t have access to water, such as camping (or – if I think of long–haul flights of my past – travelling as well).
One thing we could reconsider using is the toothbrush. Hear me out. Many cultures, if using a cleansing substance, often use their finger to “brush”. In my mother’s village, they used to chew on a small chunk of charcoal, then use their fingers to massage it well over their teeth and gums before rinsing it out. This was used alternately with neem sticks.
Using fingers has several benefits: one is the proper massaging of gums. It also naturally has an effect of keeping teeth growing straighter (this is anecdotally evident when later generations switched to toothbrushes). We also get direct feedback on the state of our mouth and teeth from our fingertip in a way we simply can’t with a toothbrush.
Also, it connects us to ourselves, much like eating meals with our hands instead of using cold metal cutlery. We become one with ourselves. Food for thought!
“Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.” — Aristotle
“The body is your temple. Keep it pure and clean for the soul to reside in.” — BKS Iyengar
Hi my lovelies!
I hope you’re safe, I hope you’re staying indoors, I hope you and your loved ones are well and healthy.
I’ve kicked and screamed my way through kitchens for much of my life. I always felt so bored, so inept, and so frustrated. I preferred to eat out or order in, way more than was necessary or healthy.
I’ve written earlier about eating raw vegan for a spell. I haven’t been fully raw for many years, and after numerous attempts of trying (and failing to maintain it), I now call myself veganish (no meat, dairy or eggs, though I still have honey). Rather, I’m “plant-based” (these names!) because vegan is a more political position to do with animal rights and, for now, I still wear/use wool, silk and leather.
Then an immunologist diagnosed me with histamine intolerance and I had to change my diet. Like, the day before we went into lockdown. Yikes. (More on histamine intolerance below.)
The only reason I’m doing this diet plan is because I did it under my doctor’s supervision for a week and felt noticeably better. I’ve had “sticky” eyes for 7-8 years, so I couldn’t open them in the morning without first using eye drops. Two days in, I was able to open my eyes without using anything, and it’s been that way since. Also: better sleep and better digestion.
A low histamine diet is an anti-inflammatory diet so it potentially benefits everyone, though of course, if there’s no need to omit various foods from your diet, then please don’t, as it’s best to eat as widely as possible.
All I can say is thank heavens I had transitioned over the past few years to a whole-food diet, because if I had to now make a dramatic switch in one go, I don’t know if I could have done it. At the same time, there’s something about being anyway kind of weirded out while in indefinite lockdown that somehow makes it easier to do something as insane as upending the way I eat.
I was aghast when my doctor first shared the list of restricted items, so brace yourself. It feels like when I learnt French in school and was given a list of masculine nouns and feminine nouns to memorise – there seems to be no rhyme or reason to this list; it’s one to simply become familiar with.
So, under the low histamine diet, I can no longer eat anything fermented (sauerkraut, kimchi, pickles, vinegars, alcohol). Also out is anything processed or with preservatives, so anything that comes in a box, packet, can/tin or jar, except – bizarrely – capers in salt; however, dried spices, whole grains and pulses are mostly fine, though dried fruits is out. Also omitted are: bananas, citrus fruits, strawberries, papaya, pineapple, avocados, spinach, yeast, soy, sea vegetables, most nuts, nightshades (tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, eggplant, chillies), black/green tea, and – boo hoo! – chocolate (cocoa in all forms).
Meat (or fish or seafood) has to be frozen (or cooked) immediately after being killed, as the bacteria that immediately begins to grow on it is supremely high in histamine. Seafood and pork are high histamine, regardless of precautions taken. Egg whites are problematic. And cheese, especially aged ones, is terrible for histamine sufferers.
Oh, and leftovers.
I haven’t managed that one yet because it’s really hard to cook teeny amounts, and many years of detesting cooking has programmed me to cook once and eat three times. But I’m trying. (The best thing to do is to freeze portions, and thaw quickly before reheating to prevent bacterial/histamine overgrowth.)
There’s always so much I want to say about food. Like how emotional eating can be for me (a topic which definitely needs its own post). Also: living with severe allergies all my life, and always being the person who couldn’t eat what other people took for granted, and dealing with food pushers (it’s a real thing, and it never stops being intensely annoying). Food has always been a minefield.
But being in lockdown has meant living without the option of eating out or ordering in – or even navigating the often socially awkward business of eating with others. I’ve had to adjust to cooking and eating only home-cooked whole-food meals, and it’s actually been… good.
The only junk-ish food I have access to is popcorn, and there was one day when that’s all I ate (like six bowls of it…). I had a work deadline and told myself it was the easiest way to get through it. Which was nonsense, of course, because the nutrients from vegetables and fruit would have helped me a lot more. But, anyway. I used this recipe for “perfect popcorn” by Elise Bauer on Simply Recipes. It was indeed perfect (all six bowls of it…).
The most tedious part of cooking for me is definitely the food prep. I don’t have access to organic produce in the lockdown, so I have to be extra diligent with washing and soaking the produce (sometimes in salt, and I’m told possibly also with a pinch of turmeric). Then washing again with drinking water (because tap water here is not potable). Then the peeling, de-seeding, chopping and storing.
It’s not a meditative practice for me, but once I stopped resisting it, it definitely felt easier. I listen to podcasts and do it over one-two days each week (because I’m slow and methodical).
The goal is to have all fruits and vegetables ready to eat or cook, so everything is chopped (including onions, ginger and garlic) and stored in glass containers in the fridge. Lettuce gets wrapped, while still a bit damp post washing, in cotton towels which I roll and stack. Curry leaves are best taken off the stem, washed, dried and stored sealed in the freezer. This is the only way I can make the cooking part bearable.
For decades, I subsisted on what can generously be called “meal assembly”. In college I’d stuff two turkey slices and one cheese into a pita pocket and be ready in seconds. I lived on pasta, bread and tomatoes for at least 10 years. I’d take a spoon to a can of sweetcorn and call it dinner. The most adventurous and laborious it got was layering hummus on sliced brown bread, and sprinkling chilli flakes over it.
I finally learnt to properly cook cook only about three years ago from reading Amelia Freer’s books. (I think Freer is to me is what Julia Child was to a generation of Americans, who felt they at last got a key to grown-up-ness.) Freer – coming at food as a nutritionist rather than a trained chef – made cooking appealing with her relaxed approach. I followed her third book, Nourish and Glow, which outlined a ten-day meal plan (I wrote about it here). Though it required a great deal more time than I’d ever spent in a kitchen, I was amazed – first of all – that I actually did it; but also that everything tasted incredible, that it was a lot of food, yet I felt fantastic, and my skin/energy/sleep/weight improved.
It’s thanks to Freer that I have anything vaguely resembling confidence in the kitchen. I also obsessively make her spiced seed mix all the time and have it with practically every meal, especially now that nuts are off my menu.
My low histamine version of Amelia Freer’s spice seed mix
• 80g (3/4 cup) shelled pumpkin seeds
• 20g (2 tbs) hemp seeds
• 20g (2 tbs) flaxseeds
• 20g (2 tbs + ½ tsp) white sesame seeds
• 10g (1½ tbs) chia seeds
• 10g (1 tbs) black sesame seeds
• 10g (1 tbs) fennel seeds
• 10g (1 tbs) cumin seeds
Total: about 180g (makes about a mug’s worth)
I mix up whatever is available, but have tended to settle on these ratios when I can.
Sunflower seeds are high histamine and the only ones I avoid.
For flavour, add half a teaspoon each of coriander powder and amchoor (dried mango powder – it gives it a mildly tart taste) – more options below.*
And a teaspoon of olive oil to make it all stick together.
Spread out in a baking dish and pop in the oven at 160°C/340°F for about 20 minutes, stirring once halfway if you remember, and checking the last few minutes in case they start to burn.
Cool down and store in a glass container in fridge.
Use about a tablespoon on salads, though I also eat a few spoonfuls as a snack. I add it to really everything – steamed/roasted vegetables, lentils, rice, and it’s delicious on soups.
If you don’t have an oven, Freer also has a version of the recipe in one of her books to do it on the stove (it involves dry frying them but I think in stages, as some seeds can burn).
*If you don’t have histamine issues, you can add chilli powder, which goes especially well. I change the spices around every time – curry powder (homemade mix, without chilli), or dried herbs, or za’atar. You can even keep them plain with just salt and oil. I’ve actually roasted it without salt or oil, and it still works. So it’s really a magical recipe.
I impressed myself by having the foresight the day before lockdown began to buy celery (unavailable since), and made vegetable stock in the slow cooker for the first time. I added a bunch of celery stalks (without leaves), 5-6 carrots (peeled if not organic), an onion chopped in half (with skin), a head of garlic chopped in half (with skin), and a few peppercorns and two bay leaves. Plus enough water to reach the top (mine made about 3 litres/5 pints). I cooked it on low for 10 hours. Then I strained and stored it in the fridge for a week (it can also be frozen, and if so, best stored in separate portions).
This allowed me to make a lot of easy soup. I roasted beetroot, then peeled and cubed it to store it in the fridge. I’d take about ⅓ to ½ of a medium size beetroot (cubed), add a cup of the stock, and blend them together. Then I’d sauté some minced garlic in a saucepan until the aroma released (my favourite smell in the world), then add the blended soup to heat it up.
When the vegetable stock finished, I made soup in the slow cooker with carrots, onions, garlic, ginger, salt, pepper and plain water. I blended it after it was done and cooled slightly, and it actually came out delicious. All this without adding coconut cream or even stock.
As the weeks have passed under lockdown, I’ve found the most valuable fresh produce to keep are root vegetables, which stay hardy the longest, as well as a steady supply of onions and garlic (both are good prebiotics), and whatever fruit I can get that’s low histamine (apples contain quercetin – especially beneficial for histamine and inflammation). Also leafy greens, with romaine being the most robust and tasty (grown hydroponically at a nearby farm, which is not as nutritious as soil-grown, but the reliable accessibility has kept me eating greens far more regularly than I ever have before, and I now can’t live without it).
I used to get annoyed with having so many unused spices at home (often purchased because of one odd recipe – and before you know it, there’s a whole cupboard of the damn stuff). But now I’m very grateful, I have to say. It’s been the most handy for changing up the flavours when I have roasted pumpkin for the nth time. I make up small batches of spice mixes.
The most tasty has been a 5-spice mix (called paach phorong in Bengali):
• 1 tbs each of cumin seeds, fennel seeds, brown mustard seeds, and nigella sativa seeds (also called black cumin seeds, or kalonji)
• ½ tsp fenugreek seeds.
This mix will keep in a sealed container for a month at least.
Cumin is flagged for its high histamine (as are a few others), but my doctor says the portions of spices eaten are so miniscule, it won’t have any terrible affect.
A teaspoon of the spice mix can be added into the actual cooking, but I often temper about a teaspoon of it in a teaspoon of oil. After it starts to crackle and releases its aroma, pour the whole thing over a salad or cooked vegetable dish just before serving.
I wasn’t able to eat any pulses – lentils, chickpeas, beans – for a long time because I’d get terrible bloating and abdominal pain. My new doctor gave me a de-worming treatment (as in, to get worms out of the digestive tract! I know! I’d never done it before, but apparently helpful if you live somewhere tropical). He said to try lentils after that, which I did, and now I can finally eat them without bloating or pain – hurrah!
Just to be safe, though, I wash the lentils in (at least) three changes of water, then soak them overnight, and then wash them with water again before cooking to reduce the gassy element as much as possible. I have tried only split mung (yellow) beans so far, which are considered the most tolerated and least gassy. I haven’t yet attempted other beans (some of which I know I’m allergic to) but this feels like a gift.
The last recipe I’ll share here has been the most comforting one to me, especially as it comes from my mother. This is for a dish called kitchuri, which is famous all over South Asia (also called kitchari or kichdi). There are endless variations of it. Ayurveda even includes it in their fasting protocol as it’s nourishing and healing, while giving your digestive system a break. It’s quick to cook too, especially if you’ve soaked the lentils for a few hours, or overnight as I do.
My mother also finds lentils tricky to digest, so her ratio of lentils to rice reflects that (it’s traditionally 1:1). Though brown rice is often considered healthier, my doctor said for me to only have white rice as it’s better for my sensitive digestive tract, and this is something Ayurveda promotes too. White Basmati rice was the only thing I could find the day before the lockdown, so that’s what I’m using. Different rice may need different water ratios. Different (or a mix of) lentils can also be used.
This portion will make 4-6 portions. I usually halve this recipe and it lasts me for three meals. I like to have this on its own (with the spiced seed mix…) but of course you can add other vegetables as side dishes, or an omelette if you eat eggs.
My mother's kitchuri recipe
• 1 cup white Basmati rice, washed/stirred several times until the water stops being cloudy, then drained
• ½ cup split yellow mung lentils, washed several times and ideally soaked for a few hours or overnight, then drained
• 2 tsp chopped onions
• 1 tsp minced garlic
• ¼ tsp cumin seeds (I sometimes also add ¼ tsp mustard seeds and a few curry leaves)
• ¼ tsp ground turmeric
• ¼ tsp salt (Himalayan or sea preferable)
• 1 tbs oil (I use olive oil as I do for everything, but coconut, mustard or sesame are also good)
• (If histamine not an issue: add 1 green chilli sliced lengthwise and de-seeded)
Mix all the ingredients really well together. Then add 3 cups of water.
Put the whole thing into a pan on the stove over medium heat, with lid partially covered.
Once it reaches a boil (in about 5 minutes), turn the flame to low, cover fully with the lid, and cook until the rice is cooked and soft (about another 5-10 minutes). Watch out that it doesn’t get too dry and sticky to the pot.
Once cooked, you can keep it standing in the pot for a few more minutes with the flame off. I tend to serve it immediately.
One last note: my food consumption has often been mindless. Decades of eating out means I also normalised giant restaurant portions. Even though I’ve never considered myself a foodie (still don’t), I thought it my right to celebrate food by equalling it with rich, opulent meals like, all the time.
So it’s been very sobering that since the lockdown began, my mother and I are constantly checking on each other’s access to groceries, because that’s become precarious for both of us. And this feels utterly surreal. Food had always been abundantly available to me. But not so any more.
Being able to eat healthily under these conditions feels triumphant. I have a newfound and deep respect for real food. As nourishment. And – with an understanding of histamine – how it can help heal me or, indeed, cause me grief.
As for portion sizes – I read somewhere that we should eat not until we are full, but until we are no longer hungry. This happens quite easily (our stomach is actually only the size of our fist).
I’ve had to confront the effort it takes to get food to my plate in the first place. Not just on my end to prepare it, but also the huge effort on part of farmers to grow it, as well as the whole supply chain that enables me to purchase it.
So while the lockdown has been a trial in many ways, it’s also been humbling. Every time I’m able to buy groceries, even with many items not available, I feel as if I’ve won the lottery. The fact that I then get to (not have to) prepare it and eat its wholehearted goodness is hugely rewarding. It feels really, really good to value food for the treasure it is.
If it's financially feasible, there are many charities set up for feeding the hungry. I also like to distribute groceries to the staff in my building who work long hours to keep us safe and clean.
Over at nupupress.com this week: More and Less – what the lockdown is teaching me I want more and less of.
“Happiness is the joy we feel striving for our potential.” — Shawn Achor
Histamine Intolerance: The Cause of Unexplained Health Symptoms?
Sorry, this is already a super long post, but I did want to write a bit more about histamine intolerance (HIT). This is also similar to MCAD (Mast Cell Activation Disorder), sometimes also called MCAS (Mast Cell Activation Syndrome).
Our bodies naturally produce the neurotransmitter histamine, which is essential for our body’s functioning in correct doses. If we imbibe too much histamine from our foods, or if our body doesn’t have enough enzymes (including one called DAO) to manage the histamine, or a few other reasons, histamine can overwhelm our system. And the resulting symptoms can be stunning in their range and effect.
Various things that had both baffled me as well as overwhelmed me throughout my life were probably caused by excess histamine. I had severe depression and anxiety, along with terrible insomnia and excruciating headaches. I had multiple gynaecological issues, excruciating period pain as well as a mysterious abdominal pain that resulted in surgery after surgery after surgery. I once even had an anaphylactic shock, though I couldn’t pin it to a specific food I’d eaten just before it (which is what would have happened if it had been an allergy). I’ve had super severe eczema. Oh, and sticky eyes (plus various recurring eye trouble). Not to mention all my allergies, which are a related but separate issue from histamine.
Other symptoms can include fatigue, nasal and congestion issues, hives, psoriasis, gastrointestinal problems, low blood pressure, panic attacks, tissue swelling, and more (possibly also including diabetes, heart disease, Parkinson’s and even cancer). It really reaches to every part of our bodies and, depending on where our particular weaknesses are, it’s likely to show up there.
It affects 1% of the population, though I’ve also heard it’s chronically under-diagnosed and more likely to affect nine to 17% of the population.
HIT is not something to self-diagnose, so it’s important to work with a doctor. There aren’t any medical tests for it, and some doctors don’t even believe in it. The only “treatment” is really eliminating high-histamine foods for at least a month and seeing if the symptoms improve. If they do, then it means you have histamine issues.
The general protocol is to then slowly add back restricted items one at a time and monitor the body’s reaction. (My doctor is also healing my gut in the mean time.) Imagine a bucket inside us; too much histamine will make it overflow, but once it’s cleared, smaller quantities may not cause problems. So while a food allergy means never, ever being able to have the item, histamine means “maybe”, depending on the circumstances. So it’s not a life sentence.
Because I’m a mad researcher (which can be dangerous when it’s just me left alone with Doctor Google), I’ve been digging deep (but also checking with my doctor). The people I found on the net are those who’ve often suffered from this themselves and, outraged by the lack of information, some have even left their previous careers to dedicate themselves to spreading the word. (Honestly, if my doctor didn’t tell me about it, I still wouldn’t believe it.)
I’m part of the group that was told by doctors at some point that we must be imagining this, and referred for psychiatric help. So I’m really grateful to know that I’m not crazy, and that there’s a reason for these unexplained (and seemingly unrelated) symptoms, and – most of all – that I can do something about it.
The foods I’m eating are: fresh produce (whatever is seasonal and available, barring the restricted items), grains except wheat, lentils (see above), spices, seeds. I eat a lot of fruit, which makes up for the fact I can’t eat chocolate. Fibre (found in all fruits and vegetables, plus grains and pulses) is my best friend. I have nettle tea (which is meant to help clear out excess histamine) and chamomile tea daily.
The most thorough list of histamine-containing foods is provided by the Swiss Interest Group Histamine Intolerance (SIGHI). The English version of the list is here.
Yasmina Ykelenstam had 56 symptoms and consulted endless doctors until she understood what the issue really was. Formerly a journalist and producer for CNN and BBC, she left her career to become the Low Histamine Chef. She wrote multiple digital books to help others, before tragically dying young of cancer. Her work carries on, though, on the website Healing Histamine.
“You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes a day. Unless you’re too busy, then you should sit for an hour.” — Zen proverb
I’m so thrilled to share my exchange with Toby Maguire, a health and wellness consultant. His simple techniques have had a significant effect on my wellbeing in a short period of time. Here, he discusses his tips and tools for healthy living. The connection between our breathing and immunity has been especially valuable to understand.
Toby’s work on managing stress has been featured in the Sunday Times, Forbes magazine and Huffington Post, among other publications. He’s worked at wellness resorts around the world, and his clients include Olympic athletes, Premier League football players, as well as British and Hollywood actors.
He was born and raised in Windsor, in the United Kingdom. He has an MA in Holistic Wellness, as well as Diplomas in Hypnotherapy, Auricular Acupuncture, Thai Massage, Chi Nei Tsang Therapy, Meditation and Qi Gong.
He is the CEO and founder of Living in Balance Ltd, which runs workshops on stress management for company executives and upper management. He has been practising Eastern healing therapies for almost 20 years.
The early years
How did you become interested in Asian philosophy and healing?
I moved for work to Thailand in 1998. While there, I went for a Thai massage and was so impressed by the various techniques the therapist was using, and how I felt afterwards, that I decided to study it. After learning how it helped the body to heal, I wanted to learn more so went on to study Chi Nei Tsang (abdominal massage) and acupuncture.
As I learned how our mind affects what happens in our body, it led me to study meditation, hypnotherapy and Asian philosophy on how to live a happy and peaceful life.
What specifically interested you in meditation?
I suffered from depression and anxiety when I was in my late teens. One day I happened to pick up a book called How To Meditate [author forgotten] in a bookshop. It promised peace of mind, confidence, reduced anxiety and everything that I was trying to experience in my life at the time. So, I promised myself I would practise whatever was taught in the book until I could get over this dark period of my life.
Within three months of learning to meditate, the anxiety and depression completely disappeared. It also gave me a clear understanding of why I had had it in the first place – how I was the one who had created it and what I had to do to eradicate it permanently. I have never had anxiety or depression since.
What did it take for you to make the switch from your day job to doing this full-time?
It took some soul searching to figure out exactly what I wanted to do with my life. My first career move was to leave my career as a stage manager in the theatre in 1998 to follow my heart and go to Thailand. I took a great risk by buying a one-way ticket with a four-week Teaching English certificate and about $1,000 in my back pocket. But everything worked out 10 times better than I could have expected.
After about eight years, I realised exactly what I wanted to do: help heal people. To change from my career as an English teacher to a holistic therapist took about two more years of part-time study until I was confident enough to take up a full-time position at Chiva-Som International Health Resort in Thailand.
There are so many interesting facets to your teachings. I’d like to start with the breath. Could you please explain why it’s so important, and the benefits of proper breathing?
The breath has a huge impact on what is called the sympathetic (fight or flight) and parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system.
The breath changes when we experience stress or anxiety. We breathe more shallowly from the upper chest, the heart rate increases, while our muscles around the abdomen tense up to protect our internal organs. Blood and oxygen are drawn away from the digestive tract to supply energy to the arms and legs so we can run away faster.
As a result, long-term stress and anxiety can cause digestive disorders, an imbalance in the hormonal system and the internal organs, as the functioning of major internal organs becomes impaired, which results in a weaker immune system.
In contrast, when we breathe deeply and slowly into the abdomen, we restore blood and oxygen to the internal organs. Our heart rate slows down, reducing blood pressure. And stability is restored to the hormonal system – this is not only responsible for all the communication in the body but also for our emotions.
Therefore, deep abdominal breathing not only improves our physical health and boosts our immune system, but it also brings our moods and emotions back into balance.
Amazing. Do you have any tips for what someone can do when s/he is stressed – at a work meeting, say, or feeling helpless like so many of us are now?
There are a couple of techniques that you can implement at any time to calm the mind and improve your focus and mental clarity. As mentioned, deep abdominal breathing will calm the mind by breathing in and out as deeply as possible into the abdomen at six breaths per minute. This means five seconds inhale and five seconds exhale. This will also keep what we call the internal chatter in the back of the mind occupied, so you can listen and think more clearly.
I loved this. I hadn’t realised something so simple could have such a speedy and profound effect.
Taking deep breaths can help focus your body into relaxing. As you relax the body, then your mind switches from what is known as the animalistic, emotional brain over to the frontal lobe where logical and rational thinking takes place. This helps give you better perspective on the situation at hand.
Meditation can feel really daunting though. How do you like to introduce people to it?
The biggest obstacle people have with meditation is that they completely misunderstand what it is, and so they think they can’t do it.
The first point to establish is that meditation is not about trying to stop your thoughts. Any attempt to stop yourself thinking will just lead to frustration as the nature of the mind is to think.
The aim of meditation is to be aware of your thoughts, which is completely different; to be able to almost stand back and observe what you are thinking – without jumping into the story and letting your thoughts take over your mind.
When people understand this, they realise that they can meditate and it isn’t so difficult at all. It is also important to explain to people the benefits of meditation and how it improves productivity. When they understand a regular meditation practice will save them time and help them to work more efficiently, they are more likely to continue practising it.
What would be a good meditation habit for us to adopt?
Most people tell me that they don’t have time to meditate. In this case, I would encourage them to start with 10 minutes per day, but to make sure they practise every day. This way, it becomes a simple habit very quickly. Once a meditation habit is established, then the benefits become obvious. It’s then easier to lengthen the amount of practice time.
What is your view of the human body through Chinese medicine?
The major difference between the Western and Chinese approach to medicine is the meridian – or energy – lines that flow throughout the body. These meridian lines are connected to the internal organs, so, for example, you have your heart line that flows down both arms, and your kidney line that flows down both legs. The organs and meridians must work in synchronicity with one another to experience optimum health and wellbeing. But often due to injury, poor diet, lack of exercise or excessive emotional states, the organs and energy lines can become unbalanced, which can lead to long term pain, illness and disease.
Could you give an example of the interconnectedness of our bodies with a patient case study?
I had a client who was a nurse who suffered from something called Stapedius Myoclonus Tinnitus, a frustrating tapping sound that would occur in her ear and often prevent her from sleeping.
Her husband was a medical GP and, for the previous three years, she had been through every test and treatment available on the National Health Service to resolve the issue, but without success. She was very sceptical about Chinese medicine but came to me as a last resort.
I used a Korean form of acupuncture called Sujok which involved using the acupuncture points in her foot. This made her even more sceptical, but after just two sessions, the treatment resolved the issue and it never returned.
Is it a constant process to bring the body into balance, or can we actually stay there if we’re diligent and dedicated?
With the correct knowledge, diet and exercise, the body is far more likely to remain in balance. However, few people have the willpower to exercise regularly and eat well; as a result, they are likely to require treatments in the forms of massage and acupuncture.
Even the healthiest of people may need to be treated sometimes, especially as they get older, as the overall energy starts to deplete, which weakens the immune system.
What do each of our organs signify?
Each of our organs can become excessive or deficient in energy, which then affects our emotions. The negative emotions affected with each of the organs are:
kidneys and bladder: fear
digestive organs: anxiety
lungs and large intestine: grief and sadness
liver and gall bladder: anger
heart and small intestine: excessive joy, and lack of empathy
Could you talk a little about using sound as therapy? I found that fascinating!
Each of our organs can be strengthened by cultivating positive emotions, visualising specific colours, and also through specific sounds.
Sound is a vibration, and different sounds generate different vibrational frequencies. Each organ has a different density and vibration, so by using a specific sound that resonates with that organ will cause it to vibrate, stimulating the cells within it. This is a key aspect of Qi Gong.
I feel we have become so disconnected from nature that we have overridden our body’s innate wisdom with processed food, chronic stress or insufficient rest. But this has sadly become the norm. What do you say to patients who find it tough to change their ways?
Don’t try and change all of your habits overnight; be realistic about what you can achieve. For example, if you never exercise and are overweight, start with a 15-minute walk every day. If you are stressed, spend 10 to15 minutes a day meditating.
If you and your partner drink a bottle of wine every evening, then try to drink just a glass a day or every other day, and a bottle only at the weekend. If you set yourself simple goals to achieve that you really think are achievable, you are more likely to succeed in making those lifestyle changes. But if you try to do too much, you may have one bad day, then think you can’t achieve your goals and give up.
Because you have so many methods to treat a patient – acupuncture, nutrition, hypnotherapy, and more – how do you choose the right one?
It depends on the client and the reason they have come to see me. If they are in some sort of physical pain, I usually use a combination of massage and acupuncture, and perhaps some Qi Gong exercises for rehabilitation.
If they want to lose weight, I would use either hypnotherapy or acupuncture, or both. Also, depending on their knowledge about nutrition, I may offer them some dietary advice too. For something like stress, I would usually treat them with hypnotherapy, and teach them some meditation and breathing techniques to help them cope with stressful situations in the future.
But I also base my treatments on what I feel is right for the client. For example, there is no use doing hypnotherapy for a client if we’re not fluent in each other’s languages.
Any resources you recommend?
I like earthclinic.com. If you go to the menu, click on “Old Version”. This the best website for natural cures for almost any symptom or illness.
There’s also an app called Insight Timer. It’s free and there are thousands of meditations on it.
Living your life
You live the way I lived for so long: out of a suitcase and roaming the world! What is it about living this way that appeals to you?
I love the feeling that every day is a new adventure, every day is different, and that every day I get to meet and work with people from many different cultures and backgrounds. As a result, I am always learning new things.
I also love that exciting feeling of being in a new place and experiencing new sights, sounds, smells and feelings I have never experienced before. And I have learnt that no matter what country or culture I experience, they always respond positively to the same thing: kindness.
What does a good day look like to you? Which daily practices do you ensure you do for your own health and wellbeing?
A good day is waking up in a nice hotel room, practising Qi Gong for an hour and maybe 30 minutes of meditation. This is followed by a nice breakfast in the hotel restaurant and seeing about four clients throughout the day. Finishing work around 6pm and having time to go for a swim in the sea as the sun sets. A light dinner followed by a bit of reading or listening to a podcast on spirituality or Traditional Chinese Medicine. It may sound strange, but my work is my passion and I love learning new things to improve myself and the treatments that I provide for others.
What has been your toughest lesson?
The realisation that everything comes to an end, and to accept it when it does. This has given me the ability to appreciate what I have today and to let go of things when their time has come. Nothing is permanent; it all appears from nothing, reaches its peak, then declines and disappears to the same place. It is the nature of the universe, and everything follows this same path.
When were you most happy?
I can quite honestly put my hand on my heart and say I have been very happy for the last 21 years since the day I abandoned my former career, and started to follow my heart to live life as an adventure.
But there are two situations when I am the happiest. The first is when I am on a sailing yacht in the middle of the ocean; there’s something magical about this. The second is having Sunday dinner with my mum at the family home. She is 72 and won’t be around forever, and knowing this makes these moments very special to me.
Toby’s favourite motto: “Be kind, to everyone, all of the time.”
The film, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Ben Stiller (also the director) plays Walter Mitty, an office worker who constantly daydreams about living his life as an adventure, and eventually, he does. So inspiring! The Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu. I read this book in my early 20s and didn’t understand a word of it. But in my 30s and 40s, it became my bible, so full of wisdom. How To Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie is the best book I ever read. When you learn how people think, you can gain their trust, confidence and deepen your relationships with everyone.
Thank you so very much, Toby!
You can find out more about Toby Maguire and Living in Balance Ltd at zenmindcoach.com.
All images (except for the top) are copyrighted and courtesy of Zen Mind Coach.