Thursday, October 27, 2011

This is what happens...

...when I am your professor.

On tap for next semester's Biochemistry II lab (primed for record enrollment!):

Extracting and measuring the cholesterol and fat profiles in traditional v. grass fed eggs.

Measuring blood glucose using chemistry. Measuring cholesterol in HDL and LDL.

Using tagged sugar to track how yeast breaks it down and uses it to build itself.

Using tagged glucose and tagged fructose to understand how yeast breaks down these two sugars differently.

Measuring the antioxidant potential of whole fruit and fruit juice.

Building the ultimate antioxidant drink from fruits and vegetables.

And finally - designing their own laboratory procedures and having the other lab sections test them (suckers!).

...but first they all need to pass this semester's class. Time to grade a quiz!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Today was a good day

1) I am now a funded primary investigator. I got my first grant! For small stuff - curriculum upgrades to my biochemistry courses, but it will help my research too. Baby steps. Plus, I'm hot shit because I got a grant and no one in my dept has gotten one in years...

2) I was also contacted by administration to be in a photo shoot for promotional materials for the university. I am a MODEL. That's right! I set up our biochemistry lab to do the 'prettiest' science - we did a flame test, used various methods for moving around colored water, and looked at some proteins stained on a little glass plate. It was awesome! Many, many pictures later, they told me we were awesome!

3) How do you fix vegan cornbread? Add butter.

I made this recipe sans egg: Healthier Honey Corn Muffins.

I wanted egg in it, but I didn't have any and was starving. I used chia seeds instead, and it was close to the real thing. A little crumbly, but DELICIOUS. With salmon and a salad, it was a great end to a great day!

Do you have good news? Share it!

Monday, October 17, 2011


Hi friends!

I have a fun activity to post later this week - I think it'll be really illuminating and we'll all learn a lot about fats and oils!

In the meantime, I'm asking for help...

Do you know any interesting metabolic or genetic disorders that I could use for my biochemistry case studies? I want to teach my students to think independently and come up with crazy ideas. My goal is to set-up online discussion boards that facillitate student discussion, crazy ideas, and problem solving. The students will them write up a document that explains the basis of the disorder. I want to use some fun, obscure disorders that they can't just find on the internet.

Some that I am currently planning on using:

1) Vitamin A deficiency and curable blindness

2) Methanol poisoning

3) Maple syrup disorder (great idea from Romila!).

Now what interesting diseases/disorders have you heard of? You don't need to know how they work...I can usually find that out...but if you know of anything super cool, it'd be awesome to hear your ideas!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Survival (a food post!)

The one thing grad school taught me how to do really well is to survive. When things are crazy, I learned how to keep myself healthy and happy by scheduling mini-workouts, eating healthily, and planning everything down to the minute!

I am settling into my new job. Some things about it are awesome - complete autonomy, the ability to say 'no' to things, a nice office, no bosses hounding you left and right...

Others are less fun. Sometimes students are whiney. I should say a certain subset of students are often whiney. I hate being a disciplinarian, but some students need to be told to get their sh*t together, and if they are going to graduate next semester, then they need to be told NOW. Also, I still work 60-70 hours/week (and I'm not even doing any research yet...still waiting for my supplies to show up!), but at least I'm fully in control and I know my colleagues work less so I can scale down with minimal consequences

...anyway, survival. I eat a lot of beans&rice with salad. I don't cook much anymore. I have perfected my salmon cooking technique to make salmon salad. I sometimes eat cheese + bread for dinner. Last week I ate lentil loaf for a week straight.This weekend I had a little time to myself and did some cooking.

So, key to survival is planning your meals ahead or, at least, having stuff on hand that makes satisfying meals. In my humble opinion, dessert makes a satisfying meal, so this week instead of eating hershey's kisses melted with some peanut butter, I made a cake.

An Apple-Walnut Cake. And boy, it's gooooooooood.

It's also really easy. Mix the ingredients together, put it in a pan, and bake.

Apple-Walnut Cake
3/4 c sugar
1/4 c butter
1/2 tbsp cinnamon
1/2 tbsp vanilla extract
1 egg
3/4 c flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 c walnuts, crushed
1 apple, peeled and diced

Cream butter, sugar, cinnamon, and vanilla. Add egg. Mix in flour and baking powder. Stir in walnuts and apples. 

Pour into greased pan and bake at 350 for 25 minutes. 

 So, while that was cooking, I prepped a few other things. I baked some chicken:
Plop in ovenproof dish, Season. Saute until brown on each side, bake for 20 minutes. Done.

More with the chicken later. I knew I wanted stir fry with my bounty of fresh veggies, so I prepped the rice, the veggies, and pressed the tofu:

(Yes, it's a high tech tofu press. My mother had one just like it when I was little! And yes, my mother did feed us tofu and we liked it. )

Then I stored it in the fridge for a weeknight dinner.

Ok, back to the chicken. After my cake was done, I took a little nap, woke up, and prepped some Waldorf Chicken Salad for a couple lunches this week.

I would give you the recipe, but I found it in this month's Self Magazine and I can't find it on their website. So, this is the front of the magazine...maybe you can find the recipe yourself!

The basic premise is this:

Chicken + Celery + Onion + Apple + Grapes in a creamy dressing (they cheated with greek yogurt). Put it on salad.

So, I made too much chicken and ended up with a double batch:
Creamy mix.

Add all the good stuff.
Mix and transfer half to another container.

Prep salad: Spinach + Romaine mix
 Their recipe calls for pecans, but I don't like those. I had some sunflower seeds, so I put them in a baggie to retain their crunch.
Then I place a papertowel in the lettuce container to soak up any excess moisture. Works like a charm. Also makes a nice "wipe the face" napkin.

I'm still too embarrassed to take my camera to work, so I will just tell you how it works. Open the lettuce container, remove the sunflower seeds and napkin. Dump in the chicken salad. Top with seeds. Eat.

I was really surprised at how good this recipe was. I was doubtful and dreading eating it for lunch today, but it was tasty and super filling. Lots of protein, low fat, high fiber. I followed the recipe exactly except for the mayo - I used light mayo - and the sunflower seeds. I also used Fage greek yogurt, which is creamier and milder, in my humble opinion.

Ok, so I have some stir fry + salad to get me going. That pretty pumpkin pictured with the cake...He's going to get stewed on Thursday when I have chili-making night with a friend. Have you ever tried chili with stewed squash? So good!

Finally, every day I walk/bike by a kitten adoption center. They keep them in cubicles, but they let each group of cats/kittens out to play in the room once everyday. Here are some funny kitty shots to brighten up your day! 

What is your favorite make-ahead recipe? 

Saturday, October 8, 2011

My Journey with Insomnia

I have chronic insomnia. I am an insomniac. There, I said it.

Right. So, I've alluded to my trouble sleeping on the blog before. It's a major part of my life. It's part of the reason I don't schedule my workouts in the morning anymore. It's part of the reason I can't go out for drinks during the week. It's part of the reason that I can't drink coffee or caffeinated soda after noon or exercise right before bed. Every day is a practiced orchestration of what I can and cannot do so that I can get some restful sleep.

 Insomnia is defined as the repeated ability to go to sleep or stay asleep. It is really broken down into two disorders: primary insomnia and secondary insomnia. Primary insomnia is failure to sleep or stay asleep in the absence of any other medical cause. Secondary insomnia is failure to sleep related to another medical or psychological disorder. I have diagnosed chronic primary insomnia. I'm not sick, I'm not depressed. I'm generally an anxious person, but I don't have any anxiety disorders. I just don't go to sleep.

Interestingly, insomnia was not considered a primary disorder until relatively recently. It wasn't until 2005 that insomnia was recognized as a disorder that can occur separately from other psychological and physical disorders. The most common pairing was depression, in which insomnia was often caused by the primary condition but also acted to make the depression worse. For some more interesting medical information on insomnia go here: WebMD Insomnia FactSheet

Statistically, westerners suffer from Insomnia at a higher rate than the rest of the world, with recent polls estimating that 23% of the American workforce suffers from Insomnia (2008-09 Harvard Medical School study containing about 7500 workers...sorry I can't find a direct link!), and around 40% of the Canadian workforce.

Since 30somethingnothing recently did a post on the benefits of sleep, and why getting enough good sleep is important, I won't  go into that. How about I tell you what you can do if you aren't sleeping well? I have, let's say, a little bit of expertise in that.'re not sleeping well:

(I chose this picture because I feel this is exactly what I look like when I'm not sleeping...probably with more tears...nothing is more frustrating that failing to sleep)

Can you isolate something that is making it hard to sleep?
Examples: noise, late-night excitement, excess energy, anticipation of being woken up, caffeine or drug-related jitters, alcohol consumption, stress or anxiety, fear or apprehension, depression, temperature, external stimuli (lights, sounds, breezes, people touching you). 

So, let's say these break up into two groups: emotional/psychological stimuli and physical stimuli. I think the physical stimuli are easier to treat initially, so let's remove them.

 Blackout curtains
Remove electronics from the bedroom/turn them around
Get a soundmachine or run a fan for white noise
Turn on your A/C or get a super-quiet portable unit that can cool just your room to about 65 F, which is a great temperature for sleep
Regulate your sleep/wake cycle: Even if it's painful, try getting up and going to bed within 30 minutes of the same time every day for 3-4 days. 
Sleep somewhere new: try to go to sleep in a new location or position. I know it sounds funny, but sometimes the key to sleep for me is to move 180 degrees on the bed and 'sleep upside down'
Move your exercise routine to the morning, mid-day, or early afternoon. However, keep exercising, as it regulates your hormone levels, which can effect sleep. 

The emotional aspects are harder to isolate and treat. Often, insomnia presents as a symptom of another disorder, whether its a chemical imbalance or a reaction to external stimuli. Sometimes insomnia occurs free of other disorders, but extended insomnia can lead to disorders like depression and anxiety.

Assess your drug (Rx and non-Rx) and alcohol habits: Could one of these be causing your insomnia? Try dropping out one at a time for several days at a time. It may take up to 5 days for some drugs to clear your system, so be patient. 

Is something in your life causing stress and/or anxiety. Is it long-term, or just a transient aspect of your life? If it's long-term and will have long-term effects on your sleep, you may want to look at making some life changes to avoid this stimuli. 

Level with yourself: Do you have an untreated physical or chemical disorder. Could seeking medical attention or therapy help your sleep disorder? 

Finally, it might not be any of these items, or it may be something completely unavoidable. If you believe the sleep disorder is sudden-onset for no reason, then there are a variety of Rx and Non-Rx medical treatments available.

A quick overview of the major ones:

Non-Rx 'herbal': These are often mixtures or preparations of melatonin and/or valerian root. These are not regulated by the FDA, so different preparations can be prepared differently. Melatonin is a natural signalling molecule that your body uses to signal sleepiness. Valerian root is a slightly halucinogenic herb, but it does promote relaxation through an unknown mechanism. These two preparations have been used by folk-medicine for centuries, but it's important to note where you're getting your pills. If you find one that works for you, go for it, but recognize that different suppliers are more/less reliable than others.

Over-the-counter sleep aids: The non-herbal sleep aids tend to be antihistamines that act much like benadryl. These drugs usually use some kind of form of doxylamine, and they will work the first time, but your body rapidly adjusts to the medicine and you will have to up the dose to retain the effect (not safe!).

Rx Sleep Aids: These insomnia-specific drugs are relatively new drugs (within the last 10 years), and they are all in the same family. Brand names are Lunesta, Ambien, and Sonata. These are FDA approved for use on sleep, but they can be habit forming. Also, common side effects include somatic activities (sleepwalking and other activities), which the companies that make these drugs denied for many years before they were forced to include them on the warning label. These side-effects are especially prominent in women for unknown reasons.

Rx 'off-label' sleep aids: Before the advent of the Z-drugs, prescribing drugs for the 'off-label' (i.e. unapproved) treatment of insomnia was common. These drugs were commonly antidepressants, which were believed to treat the 'underlying' cause of insomnia. Unfortunately, many of these pharmaceuticals have extreme, sudden-onset side effects, such as suicidal thoughts and actions. If you're on these drugs and they help you sleep, it's important to monitor yourself for such thoughts.

Before you go to the doctor: 

If you decide to seek medical intervention for your insomnia, your doctor will have you do a sleep survey before he/she will prescribe any pharmaceutical aid or refer you to another sleep professional. In a world where 'lack of sleep' isn't considered a serious ailment, this means most of us will wait at least a week for the doctor's appt, then be sent home for a week to do the survey, before finally getting the treatment we need. My friend's dad is a doctor (Hi Bob!) and he was nice enough to tell me what I needed to demonstrate in order to get further care.

1) Track bedtimes and waketimes, and approximate sleeptimes for 3+ days. 
2) Track diet, including beverages, for the same time period.
3) Move exercise/physical fitness activities out of your evenings for the same time period. 
4) Make a list of possible/impossible effectors that are making your sleep difficult to achieve.
5) When you go to bed, go to bed without any external stimuli, including books, TV, computers, etc. Do this at least for the 3+ day period. 

Your doctor might recommend a sleep study. This is the only thing on this post that I haven't tried. The fiance did a sleep study for his sleep apnea, and $400.00 later (that was the COPAY), he felt he had been ripped off because he went to the clinic and didn't sleep, didn't snore, and was told there was nothing wrong with him. I don't want to go to a sleep study to pay someone to watch me not sleep. In her book Wide Awake, Patricia Morrisroe had a similar experience with sleep doctors and sleep studies.

My insomnia and how I control it: 

I have had trouble sleeping since I was a child. I would undergo periods where I had trouble going to sleep, alternating with periods where I would sleep all the time. I also sleepwalk and sleeptalk regularly. I have fallen down the stairs in my parent's house and hurt myself. Interestingly, one of my brothers also manifests the same symptoms as a teenager. The other one sleeps like a rock. Lucky snot.

My insomnia was always transient and controllable until just before my undergraduate graduation. My boyfriend and I, who lived together, broke up. I was traumatized. I failed to sleep for a week. I then failed to sleep for more than a few hours for an entire summer. I then failed to sleep, even after we had moved to separate apartments, into the fall at the start of grad school. I took the antihistamine drugs, but I kept having to increase the dose. The doctor later explained to me that was very normal. I felt awful and groggy in the morning. I couldn't sleep, even to nap, and I was losing control. I cleaned up my diet, my habits, and my lifestyle, and I still couldn't sleep. I went to the doctor and was prescribed a month of Ambien. I took the Ambien every day for 3-4 days in order to sleep soundly for the first time in months. As a scientist, I had looked up the side effects of Ambien and understood that it was habit forming. I then worked my way from 1 per night to 1/2 per night and finally one every other night. I then stopped taking the Ambien and was sleeping well, except for the occasional bout of insomnia. I was back to my 'normal'.

Ambien was great for me, but it did have side effects. As someone who already sleep walked/talked, those activites were enhanced. I don't want to get into details, but you can look up other women's stories about what they did while they were asleep. I didn't eat, I didn't drive, but I did do just about everything else. And my fiance attests that you can't tell the difference between me being awake and being asleep on Ambien. That makes it very dangerous in my eyes.

My insomnia was controllable via behavioral methods for over 2 years, but it came back full-strength just after graduation. I was then living with the fiance and we had already given up so much because of my sleep disorder. We couldn't have a TV in the bedroom. I had to go to bed hours before him to be fully asleep when he came to bed. Even the cats know to wait until I'm asleep to come to bed, otherwise they find themselves launched from the bed. I wore earplugs to bed and ran a fan. I found some solace with melatonin, first as a 1 mg/mL capsule and then all the way up to 5 mg/mL. That worked for over a year, but one day, I must have just acquired tolerance over time. It didn't work anymore. And I couldn't sleep at all.

We decided not to share a bed, because the fiance snores. Even after a sound machine, earplugs, and a fan, I would be woken up by his snoring. Finally, I wasn't sleeping at all again. I would lay in bed for 8 hours, not asleep, and then trudge off to work at 7:30am. I was effectively a zombie. I went back to the doctor, who prescribed 2 weeks of Ambien and a month of Trazodone. The trazodone is an antidepressant. It is considered safer for long-term use than the Ambien. Unfortunately, it did nothing for me except give me a nasty bout of dry mouth. I instead used the Ambien and went back to sleeping intermittantly, then back to my 'normal'.

I don't take the Ambien long term, though I know some people do. For me, it leads to nocturnal activities that I'm uncomfortable with (though the fiance finds me amusing), and memory loss. Since much of my success in life hinges on my ability to remember a large variety of scientific facts and figures, the memory loss was a real problem. Also, to some extent I wish to not have to medicate myself in order to do something my body is supposed to do naturally. 

A year later, I can now use melatonin again for occasional trouble sleeping. I prefer that because it has the least side effects for me. I still have to monitor my behavior in order to sleep reliably. Right now this includes:

1) A strict 10pm bedtime
2) No fighting or stressful discussion before bed
3) No computer work after 9pm
4) A strict noon cutoff for coffee consumption
5) No caffeinated soda after noon. No energy drinks (period).
6) No morning exercise (the early wakeup makes me anxious), but exercise must be completed by 8:30pm. Preferrably earlier.
7) I must be done eating dinner by 8pm. Most days this is not a problem (c'mon, I live in the midwest. Dinnertime is 5pm, especially in the winter), but sometimes when it goes late, my stomach is too full to sleep well.
8) The fiance and I still only share beds when we're traveling. This makes me very sad, but it seems unavoidable at this state of our lives.

I hope this helps you if you are also one of the insomniatic people in the world and don't know what to do or what your options are. If you know someone else who suffers from insomnia, my main advice would be not to judge them or tell them how to fix it. Insomnia is incredibly complicated and emotional. I feel as though my loved ones are annoyed by me and my hyper-tense attitude towards sleep. I hope they know that I do everything I can to control it, and I wish it would go away too. Unfortunately, I have been symptomatic my whole life and suffering for 8 years. The prognosis isn't good at this point, so I have to learn to deal with it. And so do your loved ones who suffer, so be sympathetic and supportive, not judgemental.

Any other non-sleepers out there?