In our house, 1998 has a pet name
year from hell. Everyone has them
those years that
you literally count the days until they end
living a macrobiotic lifestyle does not guarantee immunity
to such years. We may like to think that it does, that
living natural, whole lives makes us somehow magically
immune to disease and other natural disasters. Well,
maybe not everyone thinks this, but I surely did. I
thought that having had
and survived cancer through
macrobiotics (trial by fire, in my case) ensured that
the rest of my life would sail smoothly along. I was
'all in' in the tragedy department.
It was April. I was working a million
hours a week, if it was possible to work that much.
I was cooking privately, teaching both private and public
classes and helping my husband, Robert run our business.
It was also the first season of my cooking show on national
public television and I was adjusting to that life change.
We had both decided that work was becoming our lives
and that we needed to make some changes, to rest more,
play more. But we loved our work and loved working together,
so we never actually got around to making things change.
We were 'saving the world,' one meal at a time.
I was teaching a class on healing foods
) and was feeling uncharacteristically
irritable. My husband (nursing a broken foot) was trying
to help me unload my supplies as we arrived back home
after class. I remember telling him that he was more
of a hindrance than help and he limped away, somewhat
confused by my shortness. I thought I was just tired.
As I stood up from placing my last pot
in the lower cabinet, I was struck by the most pure
and intense pain I had ever experienced. It felt as
though an ice pick had been inserted at the base of
my skull, just where that precious soft spot resides.
I called to Robert who, hearing the clear panic in my
voice was there in a second. I told him to call 9-1-1,
as I was having a brain hemorrhage. As of this writing,
I have no idea how I knew so clearly what was happening,
but I did. At that moment, I lost motor control and
At the hospital, everyone stood over
me asking about my 'headache.' I responded by saying
that I was having a brain hemorrhage, but they just
smiled and said they would run some tests and see what
was going on. As I lay in neuro-trauma intensive care,
I began to cry. The pain was excruciating, but that
was not the cause for the tears. I knew I was in serious
trouble, despite the patronizing reassurances from the
Robert sat by my side all night, holding
my hand and talking. We knew we were once again at a
crossroads. Change would be forced on us
we were sure, even though we did not know the severity
of my condition.
The next day, the head of neurosurgery
came to talk with us. As he sat on the bed, he took
my hand and said, 'I have good news and bad news. The
good news is very good and the bad is well, pretty bad,
but not awful. Which would you like to hear first?'
With the worst headache of my life still
pounding, I gave him carte blanche to choose. What he
told me shocked me, leaving me to reflect on my diet
and lifestyle choices yet again. He explained that I
had experienced a brainstem aneurysm and that 85% of
the people who suffer these hemorrhages do not survive
(I guess that was the good news).
He knew from the questions I had answered that I did
not smoke, drink coffee or alcohol, eat meat or dairy;
that I ate a very healthy diet and exercised regularly.
He also saw from test results that at the age of 42,
I had not one hint of plaque in my veins or arteries,
not one hint of blockage (both of which are characteristic
of the condition). And then he surprised me.
Since I did not fit the 'mold' for this
condition, they wanted to runs some more tests. He was
of the mind that there had to be some underlying condition
that had caused the aneurysm to rupture (it was apparently
genetic and I have three more of them in the same area).
He also was puzzled by the fact that my burst aneurysm
had closed; the vein wall literally sealed shut and
the pain I was experiencing was from a blood pool pressing
on nerves. He rarely, if ever had seen this kind of
thing, he said.
After days of blood and other tests,
Dr. Zagar came and sat on the bed again. He had answers,
which made him very happy. He explained that I was seriously
anemic and that my blood was severely deficient in Vitamin
B-12, causing my homocysteine level to increase enough
to cause the hemorrhage to occur.
He told me that the walls of my veins and arteries were
as thin as rice paper, again from this deficiency and
that without proper supplementation I would be a high
risk for a recurrence of my condition with less likelihood
of a happy ending. He also explained that my tests indicated
that my diet was too low in fat, resulting in numerous
other deficiencies (but those are for another article).
He said that my dietary choices had to be modified because
they could not sustain my level of activity. At the
same time, he said, the way I had chosen to live and
eat had most likely saved my life.
I was shocked. I ate a macrobiotic diet,
as I had for 15 years. Robert and I cooked most of our
meals at home, using the best quality ingredients we
could find. I had heard
I was getting sufficient amounts of this essential nutrient
in the fermented foods I ate daily. Boy, was I wrong.
I came to macrobiotics from a background
in science and biology. In the beginning of my holistic
study, my scientific thinking made me skeptical, unwilling
to believe what I was learning simply based on 'energy.'
That slowly changed and I learned to marry the two styles
of thought to create my own understanding, one that
would serve me well now.
I began to do research into Vitamin B-12,
its sources and its importance in our health. I knew
that, as a vegan, I faced more challenging ways to source
it, since I was unwilling to eat animal flesh. In my
macrobiotic practice, I had also eschewed supplementation,
believing that I could get all the nutrients I needed
from my food. What I discovered in my research has served
me well in regaining and in maintaining my neurological
health, so I am no longer a walking 'time bomb' waiting
for the next hemorrhage to occur. This is only my story,
not a critique of other people's beliefs and practices,
but it is a subject worthy of serious discussion as
we advise people in the art of using food as medicine.
Here is what I found out
to get a little 'science-y' from this point. Use it
as you see fit in your own life and practice.
Vitamin B12 is a member of the vitamin
B complex. It contains cobalt, and so is also known
as cobalamin. It is exclusively transmuted by bacteria
and is found primarily in meat, eggs and dairy products.
Necessary for the synthesis of red blood cells, the
maintenance of the nervous system, and growth and development
in children, deficiency of Vitamin B-12 can cause anemia,
neuropathy, stroke, the degeneration of nerve fibers
and irreversible neurological damage.
Vitamin B12's primary functions are in
the formation of red blood cells and the maintenance
of a healthy nervous system. It is necessary for the
rapid synthesis of DNA during cell division, like in
the bone marrow tissues responsible for red blood cell
formation. If B12 deficiency occurs, DNA production
is disrupted and abnormal cells called megaloblasts
occur. This results in anemia, with tiredness, breathlessness,
listlessness, pale complexion and poor resistance to
infection among the symptoms.
B12 is also important in maintaining the nervous system
(now I was listening
). Nerves are surrounded by
an insulating fatty sheath comprised of a complex protein
called myelin. B12 plays a vital role in the metabolism
of fatty acids essential for the maintainence of myelin.
Prolonged B12 deficiency can lead to nerve degeneration
and irreversible neurological damage, which can result
in strokes and brain hemorrhages.
The most common form of deficiency occurs when there
is a failure to effectively absorb B12 from the intestine
rather than a dietary deficiency. Absorption of B12
requires the secretion from the cells lining the stomach
of a glycoprotein, known as intrinsic factor. The B12-intrinsic
factor complex is then absorbed in the ileum (part of
the small intestine) in the presence of calcium. Certain
people are unable to produce intrinsic factor and are
treated with injections of B12.
Vitamin B12 can be stored in small amounts by the body.
Total body store is 2-5mg in adults, with about 80%
of this is stored in the liver. Vitamin B12 is excreted
in the bile and effectively reabsorbed. This is known
as enterohepatic circulation. People eating diets low
in B12, including vegans and some vegetarians, may be
obtaining more B12 from reabsorption than from dietary
sources, which is the reason that it can take more than
20 years for deficiency disease to develop in people
changing to diets absent in B12. In comparison, if B12
deficiency is due to a failure in absorption it can
take only 3 years for deficiency disease to occur.
The only reliable unfortified sources of Vitamin B12
are meat, dairy products and eggs. There has been considerable
research into possible plant food sources of B12, with
fermented soy foods, sea plants and algae have proposed
as possible sources of B12. However, analysis of fermented
soy products, including tempeh, miso, shoyu and tamari,
found no significant B12.
Spirulina, on the other hand, an algae available as
a dietary supplement in tablet form, and nori, a sea
plant, have both appeared to contain significant amounts
of B12. However, research is now showing that what exists
here are compounds structurally similar to B12, known
as B12 analogues, which are unusable by humans.
Researchers have suggested that supposed B12 supplements
such as spirulina may in fact increase the risk of B12
deficiency disease, as the B12 analogues can compete
with B12 and inhibit metabolism. In the final analysis,
at least for the moment, the current nutritional consensus
is that no plant foods can be relied on as a safe source
of vitamin B12.
Bacteria present in the large intestine are able to
synthesize B12. In the past, it was thought that the
B12 produced by these colonic bacteria could be absorbed
and utilized by humans. But the truth is that the bacteria
produce B12 too far down the intestine for absorption
Good sources of vitamin B12 for vegetarians are dairy
products or free-range eggs. Fermentation in the manufacture
of yogurt destroys much of the B12 present as does boiling
milk, so even within dairy products, the choices must
be carefully thought out.
So what about us vegans? Science recommends that their
diet includes foods fortified with vitamin B12, including
yeast extracts, soy milks, vegetable and sunflower margarines
(without hydrogenated or trans fats) and some enriched
There are no plant sources of useable Vitamin B12 for
those of us who choose not to eat any animal protein.
I choose to take sublingual supplements, rather than
enriched packaged foods. However, we choose to obtain
this essential vitamin in our diet, it is imperative
that we do.
From my own experience, I can tell
you that my standard macrobiotic practice did not provide
the amount of B12 I needed. With simple supplementation,
an increase in good quality fat
and a new understanding
of how to balance work and rest, I have, once again,
discovered the great life promised me by this lifestyle.