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I find the interconnectedness among all of the creatures on our planet to be one of the most awe-inspiring and sacred components of our human existence. I am fascinated and humbled every time I learn more about the ways the many beings on our wondrous Earth work together in intricate harmonies.

Take, for example, forests, where vast networks of fungal threads act as communication and nutrient pipelines for trees. I enjoy listening to podcasts, and one of my favorite episodes of the podcast Radiolab (“From Tree to Shining Tree”) focuses on the amazing connectivity of the species in the forest. Here, ancient fungi (found even on the very earliest tree fossils known to man) attach to tree roots and form a symbiotic relationship. The fungi literally mine for nutrients in the soil and feed the nutrients to the trees, which could grow no taller than a tulip without the aid of these tiny friends. In return, the trees provide the fungi with the sugars they need to thrive — researchers across the globe have found that forest trees give an astonishing 20 to 80 percent of the sugars they make to feed their fungal friends. The trees may also use their association with fungi to communicate warnings and messages with one another; to share nutrients with other trees, thereby protecting the health of the entire forest; and even to store nutrients, with the fungal network acting as the trees’ nutrient savings account.

Of course, it’s no secret that humans also depend entirely on other creatures for survival — the earth provides the unbelievably vast array of plants we use for food, supporting the existence of all life on the planet. What’s more, scientists today confirm again and again that plants are our most important health ally, protecting us from disease, supporting all of our bodily systems, and even protecting us against what may be uniquely human ailments: stress, obesity, anxiety and more. Many of our most important medicines come from other creatures, too, whether plants, animals or bacteria; and more and more, modern research supports the sometimes thousands-of-years-old uses of medicinal herbs to fight an array of ailments, from minor everyday complaints to serious chronic diseases.

During this time of year, many of us are enjoying the delicious and nourishing fruits of our labors in the garden — harvest time must surely be one of every food enthusiast’s favorite times of year. I think gardening and growing our own food is one of the most profound ways we interact with our planet and the other creatures that live here. It’s not just us and the tomato plant that have created that beautiful fruit — every crop we pick is the result of thousands of organisms working in concert to create our soil, our plants, our very bodies. So as you bite into that perfectly ripe heirloom plum or enjoy the earthy flavor of an oven-roasted beet, maybe take just a moment to meditate on the intricate, beautiful and unfathomably complex system that led to this exact moment. And say thanks.

Plug in to Our Podcasts!
If you’d like to listen in on some fun and informative conversations about urban homesteading, natural remedies and sustainable living — especially on your commute or while you’re working in the garden — check out the Mother Earth News and Friends Podcast. Episode topics include Favorite Medicinal Plants, Keeping Urban Chickens, and Profit as a Homesteader. The podcasts feature several Ogden Publications editors, including Mother Earth Living editor Jessica Kellner. Find them at MOTHER EARTH NEWS and Friends Podcast

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Photo by GettyImages/Yuri_Arcurs

Three things I love this issue.

Information and recipes to pack more nutrition into every meal.

A look at declining nutrient levels in our food
A worldwide tour of the planet’s healthiest diets.
An in-depth investigation of hunger and satiety.

Aging Happily

It’s a pet peeve of mine to hear young people complain about being “old”— especially when the person in question is the ripe old age of, say, 28. I wonder to myself: So, if you live until you are 90, are you planning to spend the next 62-odd years complaining about being old? And, do you know how silly your 90-year-old self will find this youthful you’s complaints?

The fact that some of us will refer to anything over age 21 as “old” highlights a few of our problematic cultural values, which tend to celebrate youth, beauty and naivety above all else, especially in women. I find the wisdom, self-assurance and, hopefully, healthier lifestyles we gain as we age to be much more important than the perceived values of youth. And I think it would do us all a lot of good if we were to revere experience, skill and talent more than smooth skin and flat stomachs.

One of the most important elements of fully enjoying life is the capacity to embrace change — after all, if there’s one thing we can be certain of, it’s that life is full of transitions. And I think that joie de vivre includes embracing the changes we experience in ourselves over time, as well. In healthy relationships, we encourage one another to grow, to learn and change as we meet and face life’s challenges. We should encourage our own transformations, as well, even if our new self includes gray hair or a slower running pace. Of course, embracing change doesn’t mean giving over all control of our destiny. As we age, it’s more important than ever to take care of our bodies, by working to maintain physical fitness and flexibility, eating well, and choosing habits and hobbies that benefit our mental and emotional well-being.

My birthday is in midsummer. Every year I make it my personal goal to tell society’s superficial obsession with youth to shove off, and instead focus on the incredible joy it is to have lived another year in this life, with family I love, friends I enjoy, and work I find fulfilling. I think when we view the evolution of our lives with a broad perspective, we can more easily revel in the self-confidence, sophistication and serenity we gain as we age, and care less about the peak physical condition and boundless energy we may leave behind. In a world where we’re bombarded with marketing messages, it’s easy to fall into cultural traps that tell us we should continually strive to look and act younger. Thwarting those ubiquitous messages can take self-awareness and a bit of self-discipline. So next time you’re tempted to utter a casual complaint about getting older, or an offhand reference to the glories of youth, try pausing. Instead, take a moment to recognize and appreciate the beautiful gift that is each day of life — gray hair and wrinkles included. 

Plug into our Podcasts!

If you’d like to listen in on some fun and informative conversations about urban homesteading, natural remedies and sustainable living — especially on your commute or while you’re working in the garden — check out the Mother Earth News and Friends Podcast. Episode topics include Favorite Medicinal Plants, Keeping Urban Chickens, and Profit as a Homesteader. The podcasts feature several Ogden Publications editors, including Mother Earth Living editors Jessica Kellner and Abby Olcese. Find them at MOTHER EARTH NEWS and Friends Podcast

Things I love this issue

Simple ideas to take care of yourself, mind, body and soul.

1. Our top six essential oils for your medicine chest

2. Freezer-ready soups to hold on to the harvest 

3. Delicious foods that promote good health

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Talk Yourself Up

When we talk about making healthier homes, we may consider reducing household chemicals, using sunlight to our advantage, or choosing better foods to stock the pantry. But we all have one place we live that’s even more intimate than our physical spaces — our own minds. Our minds are our most fundamental homes, and our lives are shaped by the environments we create through our thoughts and perspectives. While there are certainly benefits to clearing physical clutter, clearing clutter from our mental/emotional environments is even more critical to our health.

Although mental health issues affect people of all genders, studies find that women suffer disproportionately to men in many measures of mental health. According to Psychology Today, 10 percent of women suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, as compared with 4 percent of men, often related to physical or sexual assault or abuse. Women suffer more from anxiety (31 percent compared with 19 percent of men) and depression (12 percent versus 6 percent), as well. And, because our bodies and minds are parts of an interconnected system, stress, anxiety and depression are also linked with physical health. Chronic stress can suppress the immune, digestive, sleep and reproductive systems. It also harms our families. In polls compiled by the American Psychological Association, 69 percent of parents say their stress has only a slight or no impact on their children, while only 14 percent of youths say their parents’ stress doesn’t bother them.

Of course, we regularly cover ways to manage mental health in this magazine: Getting daily physical exercise, practicing yoga or tai chi, meditation, gratitude journals and spending time in nature are all scientifically proven to reduce stress, anxiety and depression levels. It’s also important to consider the kind of environment we create for ourselves within our minds. “Self-talk” is the term psychologists use to describe the messages we tell ourselves with our minds. Negative messages may include criticizing ourselves for our appearance, blaming ourselves when bad things happen, or not believing in our own abilities. Other negative self-talk habits include polarization, meaning we see situations as successes or failures, with no in between; or believing others are judging us and our activities much more or more harshly than they really are.

Most of us remember the “Saturday Night Live” character Stuart Smalley’s “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough and, doggone it, people like me” self-affirmations, but self-talk isn’t a joke: Some neuroscientists believe we can use self-talk as a tool to rewire our internal environments. While the study of how self-talk influences our lived realities is still in its infancy, scientists are starting to discover the ways we can quite literally reshape our experience of the world using our thoughts. In a few studies, for example, researchers have found that, put into a stressful situation, people are more likely to give themselves words of encouragement if they speak to themselves in the third person (“You can do it, Jessica!”) than using the term “I” (“There’s no way I can do this.”). The hypothesis is that it’s easier to be kind to others than to be kind to ourselves, and speaking in the third person creates a kind of distance between ourselves and our thoughts.

So remember, we don’t just create the homes we want by decluttering and decorating. We shape the world in which we live each day by the ways we think about and speak to ourselves. It’s worth it to make sure the most intimate spaces we design for ourselves — our minds — are the kind of safe, positive and healthy homes we deserve.

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Photo by Adobe Stock/esolla

Three things I love in the May/June issue:

Natural ways to make our lives cleaner, safer and more delicious.

1. A Clean, Healthy Home for Free
A list of low-cost ways to improve your home’s safety.

2. When the Cleaning Gets Tough
Expert-recommended techniques for tough cleaning jobs.

3. Edible Flowers and Herbs for Digestion
Simple plants to grow to reduce digestive complaints.

Growing Connections

Gardening
Photo by Fotolia/nkarol

I will never forget the day a few years ago when I visited the Seed Savers Exchange farm in Decorah, Iowa. It was November, so the farm’s expansive gardens weren’t in bloom, but still I left the place in total awe. I was most struck by the meeting of past and present — the farm houses thousands of seeds that have been saved and handed down from gardener to gardener, many for hundreds of years, yet it’s also home to sophisticated labs where white-coated technicians tend seedlings growing in test tubes in climate-controlled incubators. 

Combining the technological and communications capabilities of today with the wisdom of the past to improve our world always makes me feel a little giddy. I love honoring our generations of collective human wisdom and experience while also utilizing the marvels of modern technology.

We can connect the past with the future in this way in our own gardens by growing heirloom crops, many of which have been passed down for generations. When we do, we preserve a piece of the past, honoring our ancestors by growing, preparing and eating the very same plants they grew in their gardens and served on their tables. And with the same action we help safeguard the future by contributing to the preservation of our planet’s agrobiodiversity. We build upon the work of our predecessors to help shape the future we want for our posterity. 

For many of us, the present feels like a momentous time in history. Some long for a past that seemed simpler and easier, while others are eager to move toward a more progressive future. Whatever mix of these feelings lies within you, the garden may help ground you. Physically connecting with the earth can offer comfort, providing a link to our human history, our place in the world, and hark back to the past. Growing food for ourselves and our communities can also feel revolutionary: After all, by tending and sharing crops, we circumvent the industrial food system, and reach across tribal divides toward a shared prosperity. Gardening is also scientifically proven to calm us, reduce anger and stress, and soothe the senses — which is why it’s used therapeutically for everyone from elementary school students to soldiers suffering PTSD and prison populations. Plus, it yields nutritious food we can gather together to prepare and share, one of humanity’s most deep-seated cultural touchstones.  

This season, whether you’re motivated to plant a garden for the flavor of homegrown tomatoes; to physically connect with memories of the past; or to take a small step toward a sustainable future, working in the garden is certain to offer good medicine indeed. 

Three things I love in the March/April issue

Ideas for a happy spring season, a bountiful garden and a healthy future.

1. 8 Habits of Healthy People

Eight simple lifestyle habits we can incorporate to increase every day happiness.

2. The Slow Loss of Endangered Foods

An examination of our planet's shrinking agrobiodiversity and what we can do about it. 

3. Plant a Patchwork Garden

A clever gardening method to make the harvest more practical and productive.

New You in the New Year?

As we ring in the new year, many of us take some time to reflect and consider changes we want to make in the coming year. We also start getting bombarded with nonstop weight-loss messages: diet pill commercials, gym membership deals, makeover contests, and on and on and on. 

The diet industry can be infuriating. I recently saw a package of “weight-loss shakes” at the store, and out of curiosity checked the ingredients. Its first four were fat-free milk, water, canola oil and fructose. As you may know, canola oil in North America is often derived from genetically modified plants, which means it’s likely heavily treated with pesticides, and studies have found that its production process forms trans fats, the worst form of fat that is directly linked with weight gain. And fructose is the type of sugar most directly linked with weight gain. Continue down the list of ingredients and you find a slew of synthetic chemicals, artificial sweeteners and other garbage—all of it more likely to increase, not reduce, weight and body fat in its unwitting consumers. 

The topic of body weight pervades every part of our culture, and it’s an incredibly complex topic. On the one hand, obesity is a growing epidemic, associated with a range of other health problems including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some cancers. Obesity costs hundreds of billions of dollars in health-care expenses each year. On the other hand, our culture often promotes unhealthy and unrealistic beauty standards, with models and actresses airbrushed and Photoshopped to inhuman perfection. One study found that 80 percent of 10-year-old American girls report having been on a diet. 

There is a middle ground between the dangers of obesity and unhealthy attitudes about weight and beauty. For me, it lies in adopting habits that align with my beliefs about living well. Let’s take, for example, eating organic whole foods. I choose these foods because I believe organic agriculture is much better than industrial farming for the health of every creature on our planet. An added bonus is that avoiding processed foods means I don’t consume chemical emulsifiers (ubiquitous in packaged foods), which researchers have discovered alter gut bacteria in mice, making them rapidly develop inflammation and metabolic syndrome. And, I won’t be consuming glyphosate residues which, though the topic hasn’t been studied in humans, have been shown to harm beneficial bacteria in the guts of both chickens and cattle. Or consider meditation: Meditation is proven to benefit our brains in so many ways, it’s almost unbelievable. It makes us calmer, more empathetic, less reactionary—and reduces stress. That makes meditation our ally in weight management, too, as the stress hormone cortisol is a direct cause of fat gain. 

At the end of the holiday season, many of us find ourselves hoping to clean up our diets and maybe lose a few pounds. It’s a worthwhile goal (experts say losing even a few excess pounds can have measurable impacts on our health), but don’t turn to weight-loss gimmicks. The keys to healthy weight maintenance are the same as the tenets of overall healthy living: eat well, sleep well, manage stress, exercise and spend time outdoors. Whether your aim is to live a well-balanced life, maintain a healthy weight, lose a few pounds or start a long-term weight-loss journey, those are your best bets for success. 


Our Communities, Ourselves

In my job, I spend a lot of time researching ways to benefit our health and mental well-being. I’m fascinated by the vast amount of research that confirms the benefits of enhancing our connection with nature. Eating seasonal whole foods, gardening and tending plants, spending time in nature — all of these activities are scientifically proven to benefit our mental and physical health. 

There’s also plenty of research that shows how deeply our connections with one another affect our health. As Psychology Today summarizes: “Dozens of studies have shown that people who have satisfying relationships with family, friends and their community are happier, have fewer health problems and live longer. Conversely, a relative lack of social ties is associated with depression and later-life cognitive decline, as well as with increased mortality. One study, which examined data from more than 309,000 people, found that lack of strong relationships increased the risk of premature death from all causes by 50 percent — an effect on mortality risk roughly comparable to smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day, and greater than obesity and physical inactivity.”   

The holiday season usually provides extra opportunities to spend time with family, friends and coworkers, creating new memories and strengthening our bonds. Another excellent way we can connect with those in our communities is through volunteering. In fact, it’s hard to say whether volunteer experiences do more good for others or for ourselves — studies have found volunteering capable of everything from helping adolescents lose weight and improve cholesterol profiles to yielding improved stamina, memory and flexibility in older adults.

Volunteering seems especially well-suited to address some of the prevalent public-health concerns of our time. For example, volunteering is proven to improve compassion and empathy (empathy levels in college students have dropped 30 percent since 1980, with an especially steep drop in the past decade). Volunteering also lessens feelings of anxiety and depression (more than 18 percent of adults suffer anxiety, and the World Health Organization reports that depression will be the second most prevalent medical condition in the world by 2020.) 

We can even reap health benefits just by being kind to each other. The Random Acts of Kindness Foundation is dedicated to sharing stories and ideas of people being kind to one another. It reports studies finding that simply performing kind acts for others has been shown to increase happiness and well-being, and reduce depression and anxiety. Random acts of kindness can include anything from paying for a stranger’s coffee to delivering bagels to nurses at a pediatric hospital to knitting a pair of mittens for a homeless person. 

So this holiday season, rather than stressing about throwing the ideal party or buying perfect gifts, I urge you to think about the ways you can connect with others—family, friends, neighbors and strangers alike. For this is the season of giving, and I think that should refer to much more than boxes wrapped in pretty paper.

Common Baby Skin Products with Harmful Chemicals Part 3

It's disturbing enough to look at the ingredients in personal-care products and cosmetics for adults--with zero government regulation, these products are frequently filled with chemicals that are, no exaggeration, proven carcinogens. Take, for example, formaldehyde, categorized as a human carcinogen by both the U.S. government and the World Health Organization. This ingredient is the base of keratin treatments used for straightening hair. It's also frequently used as a preservative in lotions and other products.

But it's even more disturbing to discover the harmful ingredients present in popular products for babies. Parents of infants--likely too overwhelmed to research every ingredient on every product they buy--purchase these items in good faith, hoping to help their babies. Unfortunately, despite marketing to make these items seem healthful, some common baby products contain chemicals proven to be harmful.

So for this blog series, I researched some of the top-selling baby products in the U.S., and hope to share their harmful ingredients for all the parents of little ones who are a little too busy to spend time researching product ingredients. Here's to naturally healthy little ones. 

#3: Aveeno Baby Continuous Protection Sunscreen Lotion

This product gets an overall score of 7 out of 10 on the Environmental Working Group's (EWG) Skin Deep database--a moderately high risk. Oftentimes long-lasting sunscreen products contain questionable ingredients designed to make them absorb more deeply into the skin. Of course we want to protect babies' delicate skin from sun damage, but we are better off buying a sunscreen with only titanium dioxide and reapplying as needed.

Ingredients of concern:

Oxybenzone: Rated an 8 out of 10 on the EWG hazard scale, this ingredient is designed to enhance skin absorption, but it carries a high level of concern because it can cause biochemical or cellular level changes. It's also an endocrine disruptor that may be bioaccumulative (builds up in the body over time). It has been shown in human studies to cause photoallergic reactions, an allergic response that causes redness and inflammation when skin is exposed to the sun.

Propylparaben: This commonly used paraben is ranked a 7 by the EWG for the strong evidence of its endocrine-disrupting actions. The endocrine system controls our hormones, and endocrine-disrupting chemicals are common in personal-care products.

BHT: BHT is a toluene-based ingredient used as a preservative. It's ranked a 6 by the EWG because of its likelihood to irritate the skin, eyes or lungs, and potential toxicity to organ systems. It's described as a "known human immune toxicant or allergen" with strong evidence by the European Food Safety Authority, and is "classified as expected to be toxic or harmful" on the Environment Canada Domestic Substance List.

This product also contains nine chemicals that rank a 3 or 4 (moderate risk) by the EWG. The 4 rankings include: homosalate, which poses contamination concerns ("sunlight breaks down the chemical into harmful byproducts," the EWG says) and organ toxicity concerns; ethylparaben and methylparaben, two parabens considered endocrine disruptors and potentially immunotoxic; octisalate, another product used to enhance skin absorption; and phenoxyethanol, a preservative that can cause irritation of the skin, eyes or lungs.