Vegetable Gardening Is a Health Fix That Everyone Should Adopt

Written by Dwiti Kacharia
6 min read

Gardening – What Are the Benefits?

Here are 3 reasons why gardening is a health fix that everyone should adopt:

  1. Health benefits: growing your own food has multiple health benefits that are easy to incorporate into your lifestyle and easy to sustain.

    • It helps you eat more fresh fruits and vegetables – Growing your own food gives you healthier food options and helps avoid junk or processed foods. It’s also easier to eat healthy salads and fruits when it’s available right in your backyard without the hassle of having to shop or plan for these fresh ingredients.
    • You can choose to go organic and avoid unwanted pesticides or preservatives – When you work on your own garden and plant a variety of veggies, it gives you a farm to table experience like none other. You can easily avoid harmful pesticides and fertilizers, and choose how you want to grow your plants and hence what goes on your plate. 
    • Physical benefits – The physical activity involved in digging and weeding strengthens your arm muscles and your cardiovascular system while the exposure to the sun provides healthy vitamin D.
    • Mental benefits – Gardening has also proven to make you happier and reduce stress. Inhaling M. Vacae, a healthy bacteria found in soil, increases serotonin which helps reduce anxiety. This is one of the reasons why the smell of wet soil after the rains helps to elevate your mood. Moreover, the various activities and processes involved in gardening give the mind something to focus on while also reaping the actual benefits of your labour. This helps in reducing depression and anxiety while also uplifting self-esteem. In addition, engaging with gardening has increasingly been recognized as not only a cost-effective health intervention but also a treatment or occupational therapy for those with psychological health issues, also known as “horticultural therapy” 

  2. Saves you money: healthy, hormone-free and pesticide-free organic food is expensive and difficult to sustain on a daily basis. When you grow your own organic food, you can eat healthy without the additional damage to your pockets. 

  3. Better for the environment: gardening or growing your own food also has environmental benefits. Have you ever stopped to consider how your food gets to your table? Long-distance transportation not only produces carbon emissions into the atmosphere but also causes wastage of tons of food that goes bad or is discarded in transit. Additionally, the harmful effects of carcinogenic pesticides and fertilizers used in commercial farming not only hurts your body but also the environment. When you grow your own food, you know what to add and what to avoid. Similarly, when you learn more about gardening, you learn about many more environmental and weather-related concerns that can help make you more eco-conscious.

Gardening: Tips and Tricks

How and Where to Begin

If you are interested in gardening, it’s ideal to start by picking small and easy plants, vegetables, and herbs that you consume on a regular basis. There are many vegetables that are easy to grow and care for and take relatively little effort to maintain. Here are 10 quick tips that can help you to start gardening in your own backyard:

  1. Pick a spot with at least 6 hours of good daytime light and access to water.
  2. Use contaminant-free soil.
  3. Consider using a raised garden bed, which allows you to control the soil and nutrient blend.
  4. Talk to farmers or other backyard gardeners in your area to get a sense of what grows well in your region and when.
  5. Pick relatively simple and limited vegetables/herbs to grow. It is easy to get carried away and excited with the variety available but start slow.
  6. Create a plan to understand the space required for specific plants as they grow to their full length and decide on how to plant them based on how much sunlight each plant may need.
  7. Keep a notebook to write down ideas, watering requirements, and fertilizers to keep track of your plants and future plans.
  8. Set a calendar for general tasks based on specific seasons and time frames (e.g. time for fertilizing at the start of spring and how often, pruning after fall or cutting back on certain plants like roses during winter).
  9. Be consistent with your day to day efforts to water and maintain your garden. Timely watering, weeding, and pruning are some of the most important steps and hugely rewarding.
  10. Be patient—gardening is a process and impatience can be disastrous. 

How to Maximize Space

Depending on where you live and the space available to you, this will largely define your gardening method. There are multiple ways to plant your garden depending on the space available, experience level, and how willing you are to get your hands dirty. Here are a few:

  1. Container gardening: for apartments and smaller spaces.
  2. Traditional in-ground gardening: for backyards and bigger spaces but requires work. 
  3. Raised bed gardening: this requires outdoor space but relatively easy to maintain.
  4. Vertical gardening: for restrictive spaces but allows you to be innovative on where you want to set up your garden.
  5. Hydroponic or aquaponic gardening: these are more scientific and modern ways of gardening that require a proper set-up but they’re pretty interesting to learn.
  6. Square foot gardening: allows growing a variety of fruits and vegetables in a limited space. 
  7. Upside-down gardening: this kind of gardening is traditionally used for tomatoes but you can grow a variety of plants in the similar manner to make optimum use of space.
  8. Hanging gardens: these kinds of gardens are also fascinating ways to grow your food in the restrictive spaces. Many vegetables can be easily grown in hanging baskets just like you would plant and hang flowers.
  9. Edible landscaping: replacing traditional flower beds or shrubs in your front yard or backyard with fruit and vegetable bushes.

There are many other ways you can choose to grow your food. You can read more about the different kinds of gardening methods here. In addition to this, growing herbs is another option for indoor gardening as they require very little space. 

How to Be Innovative

Growing your own food can also be innovative and fun. Learning some fun hacks to grow your own food in smaller spaces and indoors can lead to interesting family experiments. Growing and cooking your own food as a family activity not only allows for quality family time but also teaches basic and necessary life-skills to children. Gardening is a project that can be an extremely fulfilling experience as the outcome of all your hard work is not only rewarding, but also satisfying for your tummy!

With the summer here, there is no better time to take up a new hobby that combines health, fitness and family time. Have any other gardening tips? Share them in the comments below.

Lifestyle Guide for Living Better with Thyroid Disorder

Written by Dwiti Kacharia

10 mins read

Thyroid conditions affect more people than you might think; it’s important to be educated about them in order to recognize the symptoms. In this article, we’ll cover what thyroid disease is, and how you can make basic lifestyle changes to help address it completely or at least minimize the symptoms.

To put the prevalence of this disorder into perspective: it is estimated that 200 million people in the world have some form of thyroid disease. In Canada, a staggering number of people are affected—recent studies indicate that 1 in 10 Canadians suffer from a thyroid condition of one type or another. Of those, as many as 50% are undiagnosed. Women are five to eight times more likely than men to have thyroid problems. One in eight women will develop a thyroid disorder during her lifetime.
Statistics source: Thyroid Foundation of Canada

Thyroid Disease

Thyroid disease is an underactive (hypothyroidism) or an overactive (hyperthyroidism) thyroid gland. The thyroid is a small, butterfly-shaped gland that drapes across the front of your windpipe. If you place your fingers on the sides of your Adam’s apple and swallow, you’ll feel your thyroid gland sliding under your fingers. It releases thyroid hormone, which controls the growth and metabolism of essentially every part of your body. At the most basic level, the thyroid hormone is responsible for coordinating energy, growth and metabolism in your body. Problems can occur when this hormone’s levels are too high or low.

Common Causes of Thyroid Disorders

Your thyroid gland produces two main hormones, thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3), which influence every cell in your body. They maintain the rate at which your body uses fats and carbohydrates, help control your body temperature, influence your heart rate, and help regulate the production of protein. Your thyroid also produces a hormone that helps regulate the amount of calcium in your blood (calcitonin). An inadequately performing thyroid gland leads to either hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism.

Hypothyroidism may be due to a number of factors, including: Autoimmune disease, over-response to hyperthyroidism treatment, thyroid surgery, radiation therapy and medications. In a few cases, hypothyroidism could also be a result of congenital disease, pituitary disorder, pregnancy and Iodine deficiency. For detailed information on these causes click here.

Likewise, Hyperthyroidism is largely caused by either Graves’ disease, hyperfunctioning thyroid nodules or thyroiditis. For detailed information on these causes click here.

Common Symptoms of Thyroid Disorders

Hypothyroidism Symptoms

The pituitary, a tiny gland in the middle of your head, releases thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH). TSH is the signal to the thyroid gland to release thyroid hormone. Sometimes TSH levels increase, but the thyroid gland doesn’t release enough thyroid hormone in response. This is known as primary hypothyroidism, as the problem begins at the level of the thyroid gland.

Other times, TSH levels decrease, and the thyroid never receives the signal to increase thyroid hormone levels. This is called secondary hypothyroidism. Some common symptoms of hypothyroidism or ‘low thyroid’ levels are:

  • Feeling tired 
  • Gaining weight 
  • Feeling cold 
  • Weakness and aches in muscles and joints 
  • Hair loss 
  • Itchy and dry skin 
  • Feeling down or depressed 
  • Trouble concentrating or remembering
  • Constipation 
  • Heavy or irregular periods 

Hyperthyroidism Symptoms

High amounts of T4, T3, or both can cause the thyroid gland itself to swell into a goiter, which can be either symmetrical or one-sided. Your eyes may also appear to bulge, which is a sign of exophthalmos, a condition that’s related to Graves’ disease. Some other common symptoms are:

  • Tremors 
  • Nervousness 
  • Difficulty concentrating 
  • More frequent bowel movements 
  • Rapid heartbeat 
  • Difficulty sleeping 
  • Menstrual irregularity 
  • Difficulty conceiving 
  • Sensitivity to heat 
  • Muscle weakness

It is important to note though, that most of these symptoms are common and could apply to other conditions, or could be nothing serious when considered in isolation. However, if you notice more than a few of these symptoms together, visiting a doctor and talking to them about your concerns is advisable.

To learn more about symptoms or the different types of thyroid diseases, click here.

However, not all news is grim. Although most thyroid conditions require lifelong treatment, they’re largely treatable through simple and affordable daily medication. It’s possible to live a normal, healthy life through consistent yet simple lifestyle changes.

How Basic Lifestyle Changes Can Positively Impact Your Thyroid

While you can’t change genetic predisposition to conditions like thyroid disorders, sticking to healthy choices in life can do wonders to curb the effects of hyper or hypothyroidism. 

Dietary Considerations:

  1. Limit Dietary Stress

    Certain foods contain toxins or chemicals that cause inflammation, sensitivity, allergic reactions and rapid fluctuation in blood sugar level. This triggers an immune response leading to dietary stress. Some simple food intake restrictions can help with a healthy gut and promote healthy digestion:
  • Eliminate heavily processed foods
  • Skip table salt
  • Add good fats like olive oil, avocado, salmon and healthy nuts in your diet
  • Limit sweets
  • Reduce caffeine intake
  • Drink in moderation
  • Avoid eating too much in one sitting
  • Give your body a nightly food break of 10-12 hours at least
  • Eliminate toxins by consuming organic, hormone-free, antibiotic-free food
  1. Try a Thyroid Friendly Diet
  • Gluten-free diet:
    Celiac disease is three times more common in people with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis and Graves’ disease than in the general population. For those with celiac disease, going on a gluten-free diet may help reduce inflammation and lose weight.
    Read here for more information on  The Celiac and Autoimmune Thyroid Disease Connection

  • Low-glycemic diet:
    A low-glycemic diet is low in sugar and simple carbohydrates that are quickly absorbed, such as bread, rice, pasta, cereals, potatoes, and corn. The benefit of this diet is that it helps to balance blood sugar spikes, which cause dietary stress.

  • Low-carbohydrate diet:
    Cut down on “bad” fats and simple carbohydrates. Stick with complex carbohydrates found in whole-grain foods, fruits, and vegetables, and minimize soft drinks, potato chips, candy, crackers, and other junk foods that are high in calories and low in nutrients. These include monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats from vegetable oils, and omega-3 fats found in certain kinds of fish. Seeds, nuts, and legumes are also healthy choices. Getting enough protein should not be a problem. Most people in developed countries get plenty of protein in their diets. This helps to keep your blood sugar level balanced.

  • Autoimmune protocol diet:
    The autoimmune protocol diet focuses on reducing inflammation and healing your immune system. It’s appropriate for any type of autoimmune disease and involves eliminating specific foods for six to eight weeks, then reintroducing them slowly.

  • Elimination diet:
    Food intolerances and allergens; dairy, soy, and nuts, for example—can cause inflammation and make it harder for you to maintain a healthy weight. It might be worth it to try an elimination diet and/or get allergy testing to determine if you have any food sensitivities or allergies.

    *Please consult your doctor to understand any particular health risks for your individual condition before following any of these dietary approaches. 
  1. Be Aware of Goitrogenic Foods

For people with thyroid problems, high intake of goitrogens can worsen thyroid function by:

  • Blocking iodine: Goitrogens may prevent iodine from entering the thyroid gland, which is needed to produce thyroid hormones.
  • Interfering with TPO: The thyroid peroxidase (TPO) enzyme attaches iodine to the amino acid tyrosine, which together form the basis of thyroid hormones.
  • Reducing TSH: Goitrogens may interfere with thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH), which helps the thyroid gland produce hormones.

    Some examples of the most goitrogen-rich foods include broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kale, strawberries, peaches, and peanuts. For more details on what foods contain Goitrogens and how it affects thyroid problems read here.
  1. Increase Dietary Fiber
    Dietary fiber helps improve digestion. Eating whole-grain foods and a variety of vegetables and fruits ensures that you have an ample supply of dietary fiber.

    Lifestyle Changes:
  • Manage stress: Chronic stress impairs thyroid function at many different levels. Practice regular meditation, yoga, breathing exercises or a downtime with some music to help reduce stress and anxiety.
  • Shape Up: Exercising helps boost your energy levels, assists in maintaining a healthy body weight and lowers stress levels. A regular exercise routine also helps to maintain sound body functions and complement your medication regime.
  • Get some sun: Sun exposure has been shown to be protective against autoimmune disease. 
  • Get adequate sleep: A sound sleep, assists in other bodily functions and is important to deal with any daytime fatigue. Avoid caffeinated drinks after 2pm to ensure you can hit the bed in time. 

Supplementation:

  • Iodine and selenium: most optimal to get from food, but in cases of significant deficiency, supplementation may be necessary—consult your doctor for appropriate dosage.
  • Vitamin D: supplementation is required when sun exposure is not sufficient to achieve adequate levels.

Neglecting a thyroid problem can lead to serious complications. But with proper treatment and a healthy lifestyle, thyroid disease is easily treatable. Moreover, most thyroid diseases are treatable, often resulting in normal thyroid function. Antithyroid medication, radioactive iodine, and surgery are examples of effective treatments that can help restore thyroid function to normal. Radioactive iodine and surgery also can “cure” the hyperthyroidism by removing the thyroid. Visit your doctor if you think you might have a thyroid condition.

It’s Time to Speak up about Men’s Mental Health

Written by Yuki Hayashi

3 min read

Men’s mental health issues are considered by experts, like the Canadian Mental Health Association, to be a “silent crisis” or “sleeper issue.” That’s because the extent of men’s mental health issues is bigger than previously thought, largely due to social barriers preventing awareness and access to care. 

Strong & Silent

Men face considerable social pressure to be strong, stoic and all-too-often silent when it comes to their health and wellbeing. Asking for help or admitting to feelings of helplessness, fear or sadness are often perceived as weaknesses. And that has had a devastating effect on men’s health.

Breaking the silence – as women have done for women’s health issues – is crucial in getting men the help they need. Let’s start by shattering five common myths and misperceptions around men’s health. 

Mental health myth #1: Depression is a “women’s illness”

REALITY CHECK: Anyone can suffer from depression. While women are diagnosed with depression in greater numbers than men, at least 10% of Canadian men will experience major depression at some point in their lives.  

Depression symptoms can vary, causing some people to overlook symptoms other than sadness, such as physical pain and irritability, which may be more common in men.  

Mental health myth #2: Suicide is a risk for younger men only

REALITY CHECK: Middle-aged men in the prime of their lives are actually at the highest risk for suicide. Men in this age group can also experience a dip in their sense of wellbeing, and heightened risk for depression and alcoholism. Experts believe factors such as unemployment and a decline in traditionally male industries, divorce, and strong adherence to traditional gender roles (ie. a reluctance to get help), are all factors in why men in this age group are at higher risk.

Mental health myth #3: Only moms experience postpartum depression

REALITY CHECK: New dads get the baby blues, too. According to one study published in Pediatrics, 5 to 10% of fathers experienced paternal depression during their transition to parenthood. This story in Parents magazine puts the number as high as 26% in the tumultuous three-to-six-month period after a baby’s arrival.

Psychological, social and financial stressors are intense, and, like new moms, new dads can feel overwhelmed and ill-equipped to deal with the changes in their lives.

Mental health myth #4: Mood disorder symptoms are universal 

REALITY CHECK: Symptoms of mood disorders such an anxiety disorder can vary between individuals. And not all symptoms fit popular perceptions of these illnesses. Conventional symptoms include:

• Changes in mood, energy level and appetite

• Difficulty sleeping…or sleeping too much

• Increased worry or stress

• Sadness or hopelessness

• Suicidal thoughts

But they can also include lesser-known symptoms, like:

• Anger and aggression

• A need for alcohol or drugs

• Engaging in high-risk activities

• Feeling flat or not feeling positive emotions

• Headaches, digestive issues or pain

While these symptoms can affect both genders, some symptoms may skew more conventionally or stereotypically “male” (ie. anger or aggression) or “female” (ie. sadness, worry), whether due to biological or social factors. 

Mental health myth #5: Substance abuse is a choice 

REALITY CHECK: Experts agree that addiction to drugs or alcohol is a mental illness, not a personal choice or moral failing. In many cases, substance use disorder coexists with another mental illness; this makes both conditions harder to treat. According to the US National Institute for Mental Health, the majority of people with both a substance abuse problem and another mental illness are men. 

Some people turn to alcohol or drugs in an effort to “self-medicate” symptoms of anxiety disorder, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental illness. For some men who are less likely to speak out or seek help for their distress, self-medicating can turn into an addiction.

Speaking up for men’s health

It’s time to speak up about the silent crisis that is threatening men’s mental health. We can start by destigmatizing asking for help, and raising awareness about the resources that are out there. (TIP: you’ll find a lot of them in the hyperlinks in this article.)

Join the conversation:  Do you feel pressure to hide stress, sadness or other feelings that bother you?
Read on: Get more info on mental health (including crisis support) here.

Your Sizzling Summer Guide To Grilling

vincent-keiman-ul_m5dHThaM-unsplashWritten by Cara Rosenbloom

3 min read

Summertime means the official start of barbeque season. What’s better than a grilled dinner on a warm summer evening — we’re talking grilled vegetables, corn on the cob and farm-fresh strawberries. Yum!

Grilling is a convenient, quick, and relatively simple cooking method. It brings out a delicious smoky quality to foods, and makes fruit taste sublime. It also reduces fat – for two reasons. Fat is not added to a pan as it would be in a stovetop method, and fat drips off when you grill meat. (You still need fat! But instead of saturated fat from meat, it’s better to get fat from other places – like olive oil in salad dressing, guacamole as a dip, or a handful of almonds as an appetizer).

 When cooking meat 

If your summer is not complete without juicy burgers and chicken wings, you can grill these up in a healthier way. You see, grilling meat and poultry at high temperatures produces undesirable by-products called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). These carcinogens can cause changes in cells, which can lead to cancer. Here are a few steps you can take to reduce HCA and PAH build-up on meat:

  1. Add herbs: A sprinkle of herbs, spices, garlic or onion powder can drastically slash HCAs from forming on your meats. Try a rub of mixed herbs, especially rosemary, basil and oregano, which have high HCA-busting potential. Turmeric is a good choice too.
  2. Use a marinade: Sure, it will make your meat taste great, but your blend of oil, vinegar and citrus juice can reduce HCA and PAH formation. Teriyaki or barbeque sauce works too – try making your own or look for store-bought options with the lowest amount of added sugars and resist the temptation to overpour.
  3. Turn down the temperature: The hotter the temperature and the longer the cooking time, the more HCAs and PAHs get produced. So sear it, then reduce the heat. Or, cut your meat into smaller pieces to reduce cooking time.
  4. Don’t grill until charred and burnt: If you can see lots of black char, you’re seeing HCAs and PAHs. Grill until meat reaches a safe internal temperature, but not for longer.

Grill everything! 

When you’re ready to spark up the ‘que, meat is only one option. Think beyond steaks and burgers, and discover the joys of grilling fish, vegetables, tofu, fruit, and even pizza (try a flatbread with tomato bruschetta on top of your other favourite toppings)! Bonus — HCAs and PAHs don’t form on vegetables, fruit or tofu.

Vegetables work best when they are brushed with oil first, which prevents them from sticking to the grill. You can also use a grilling basket so small veggies don’t fall through the grates of the barbeque. The best vegetables to grill are:

  • Eggplant
  • Peppers
  • Cherry tomatoes
  • Zucchini
  • Onion
  • Corn on the cob
  • Potatoes
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Asparagus
  • Mushrooms

You can make amazing grilled salads too – try grilled Caesar. Grill halved or quartered romaine lettuce over medium heat for about five minutes, then top with your favourite healthy Caesar dressing and some Parmesan.

Something magical happens when juicy fruit meets heat and the sugar caramelizes! Try peaches, pineapple, banana, watermelon, pears or cantaloupe on the grill. The perfect sweet ending to any meal!

What’s your favourite food to grill?

Looking for more barbeque inspiration? Check out these creative ideas.

A Guide to Budgeting

Man using calculator and calculate bills in home office.Written by Optimity Team

2 min read

For over 4 years, Optimity has been learning from our community. From physical activity, to mental wellness and financial literacy, we’ve learned about the challenges you’ve overcome, the milestones you’ve achieved, and the questions you still have. 

One challenge that almost half of our community is facing is that they don’t keep a monthly budget, and the number one reason was not knowing where to start. The benefits of budgeting can include increased financial stability and awareness along with less stress and better mental health (just to name a few!). With that in mind, we’ve created a simple three-step guide to creating a budget so you have the information you need to start your own.

1 – Set your goals

Whether your goal is paying down debt, creating an emergency fund, or having enough money to go out to eat once a week, it’s important to have goals in mind before you create your budget. Your goal can be a stand-alone or one of many, short-term or long-term. It does not have to be something as daunting as saving for a house or a car. It can be as simple as saving for a date night out every month or for a special trip. The important thing is that your goals are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely. Yup, you know where we’re going: SMART goals. Keep your goals in mind, and adapt them as needed, as you continue to create your budget. 

2 – Track and categorize your expenses

A key to making an accurate budget is understanding how much money you’re earning, and how you are currently spending that money. There are several apps that can help you with this process. But, if you prefer a more hands-on approach, track your monthly spending – yes, everything – and use that as your sample. 

Once you’ve chosen how you’re going to track your spending, you can start to categorize your expenditures. Break them down into Fixed (rent, food) and Variable, or get even more specific with categories like Utilities, Grocery, Travel, etc.  Next, subtract all your monthly expenses from your income. This way, you will see how much is left over for your future goals, and the areas you may need to cut back on.

3 – Match your goals, income, and expenditure

Once you’ve got all the information you need, the final step of creating a budget is to actually create one. This is when being realistic is key. If you go out to 15 restaurants a month, but want to bring that number down, budgeting enough for only two dinners out every month is unrealistic. Dropping that number down to 10 might be a better starting point. Creating a budget doesn’t mean that you can’t spend money or that you must feel bad about spending money on non-essential purchases. There is nothing wrong with treating yourself. The goal of creating a budget is taking your goals, income, and spending, and finding a point where they can all connect. Tracking your spending will enable you to achieve your goals and feel more confident in your financial situation.