Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Socety is still out of touch with the reality of addiction

(My latest Addiction and Recovery column.)

By Bob Gaydos
Philip Seymour Hoffman
 ... on the cover of Rolling Stone
        The congenital disconnect between much of society and the reality of addiction reappeared recently with the death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, apparently due to an overdose of heroin.
The Oscar-winning actor was found dead in his Manhattan apartment with a needle in his arm and bags of what was believed to be heroin nearby, according to police. Almost immediately, the familiar reactions were heard: How could he? He was so talented, so  admired, so wealthy, had so much to live for. He had been to rehab and he was sober more than 20 years. How could he risk it all for a fleeting high? And with heroin no less. Who does heroin today?
Apparently, aside from Hoffman and the late Amy Winehouse, a lot of people. And not just the down-and-out addicts who were once the stereotype for what some considered to be “serious” addiction, as opposed to what, one presumes, were considered less serious forms, like addiction to alcohol or cocaine. Addiction pecking order aside, today’s heroin user is just as likely to be your neighbor’s teen-aged son or daughter as a famous actor or singer.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which tracks drug use in this country, says a recent survey showed a more than 100 percent increase in the use of heroin in the United States between 2002 and 2012. Slightly less than half a million people were regarded as heroin dependent. How pervasive is it? The states of Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont (so much for stereotypes) report serious problems with heroin addiction and overdoses and deaths as a result of heroin use. Heroin use is up in Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio, name a state.
          Much of this increase is tied to the abuse of prescription pain killers, such as Oxycodone, Oxycontin, Vicodin and Percocet, which are opiates, like heroin. Concern over the over-prescription of such drugs and the growing use of them by teenagers who simply took them from their parents’ medicine cabinet, has made it more difficult to get the pills and to crush them for snorting. This makes them more expensive. In comparison, heroin on the street is much cheaper.
        And, quite possibly, much deadlier. Police are examining the many bags of heroin they found in Hoffman’s apartment, among other reasons, to learn if the heroin had been cut with another substance -- a dangerous synthetic heroin” that has emerged -- or if it were too pure. Heroin is not only one of the most addictive drugs, it reacts quickly on the brain, sometimes giving the user insufficient time to react to a bad batch.
Does any of this explain why Hoffman -- famous and sober -- decided to try heroin? No. Relapse, as professionals in the substance abuse field explain, starts in the addict’s brain, with changes in attitudes, behavior, a relaxing of diligence. Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, in commenting on Hoffman’s death, said, “You need continued awareness of the possibility of relapse. No matter how long you’ve been clean, if you take the drug, you’re at high, high risk of relapse.” Meaning, if you think you can take “just one more hit,” you’re probably delusional and definitely risking your life.
Addiction is considered a chronic, incurable disease because once the brain is reintroduced to the addictive substance -- alcohol, heroin, cocaine -- it can quickly return to its old ways. Addicts often say that when they started using their drug of choice after a period of abstinence, they were right back where they left off, or worse. This is why abstinence and continued treatment, be it therapy or a 12-step program, is recommended for recovery. A change in lifestyle and constant awareness are the keys, the experts say. Over time, the approach may gradually change, but as Volkow reminds, an addict can never forget what he is. And society would do well to remember as well.


Sunday, March 2, 2014

The new 'breakfast of champions'

By Bob Gaydos
The breakfast of champions
                                              IR photography

“Here it is,” she said with a smile, “the breakfast of champions.”

No, it wasn’t a bowl of Wheaties with a banana sliced on top. It was, check it out: A bowl of coconut/vanilla Greek yogurt, two sliced bananas, a big bunch of halved, red globe grapes with seeds, a mound of whole ground flaxseed meal, a healthy serving of blended trail mix (almonds, cranberries, cherries, raisins and pistachios), and a generous topping of chocolate granola (ingredients to come later).

Breakfast was sweet, rich, juicy, crunchy, delicious and filling. My breakfast partner does not skimp on the portions. And, by the way, it was incredibly good for my health.

When I decided for health reasons to move away from a diet centered on meat and fried foods to one focused more on plants, my major concerns were that I would be able to eat enough to feel full and energetic and that I would find enough food that I actually liked.

No problem, thanks again in large measure to my breakfast partner. And it hasn’t been a problem since I made the decision. What it has been is a gradual process of becoming accustomed to, not necessarily foods that are new to me, but a new way of looking at some familiar foods and a new way of making them part of my regular diet.

I now eat lots of rice and beans and greens and baked potatoes and sweet potatoes and fruits and vegetables. Also some pasta. Pizza is still on the menu. I also eat vegetarian versions of meatballs, bacon, sausage, turkey with all the vegetables, etc. No portion control. Again, the tastes are a bit different, but delicious. It’s all in the way the food is prepared. That, to me, is mind over matter. I think we are conditioned from earliest days to think about certain foods in a certain way and, after a while it becomes automatic -- so, lots of red meat is good, vegetables are wussy.

I’ve said it before, but I will repeat myself: I’m not crusading here. I don’t begrudge anybody eating whatever they choose (not entirely true -- horses are not for eating). However, since my dietary changes, I’ve become increasingly aware of the strong contradiction in what many people say about their desire to be healthier (to lose weight, to have more energy, to feel stronger) and the food they actually eat. So I write about what I’m going through to maintain my own awareness and, maybe, let someone who’s contemplating a similar change know that it’s possible and not necessarily painful.

There’s a slowly growing awareness among Americans for the need to eat more healthful foods, foods free of chemicals and so-called “natural” added ingredients. You can see this in expanded organic food sections at supermarkets and half-hearted attempts by some fast-food chains to offer what they regard as healthier choices. When the monied interests -- the corporations that control our food supply -- start offering more choices, even though they may exaggerate their health benefits, I think it’s a good first step. They're starting to pay attention..

It’s also a signal for consumers to start insisting on more such choices and at more reasonable prices. It seems to me that companies should not get rich by offering lots of cheap food that isn’t good for our health (and may actually be bad for our health) while pricing nutritious, tasty food out of the reach of far too many people. History tells us that, greed being what it is, this corporate mindset won’t change unless enough customers insist on it by spending their food money differently. By putting our money where our mouths are and by insisting that elected officials do more to protect the food supply rather than the food suppliers, we might actually be able to help ourselves become healthier.

Back to the breakfast of champions. It satisfies the various food pyramids’ daily recommendations on fruits, nuts, seeds and dairy in one sitting. It is full of super foods:

  • Greek yogurt: Loaded with protein, Vitamin B12 and calcium. Also has potassium, B-6 and magnesium.
  • Bananas: Good for Vitamin B-6, Vitamin C and potassium. Also magnesium and dietary fiber.
  • Red grapes: Source of resveratrol, which helps dilate blood vessels, which can lower blood pressure. Also may help weight loss by reducing cells’ ability to store fat.
  • Flaxseed meal: Soluble and insoluble fiber. Studies suggest flaxseed as regular part of a diet lowers bad cholesterol and increases good cholesterol. Has lignans, natural anti-oxidants that protect against unchecked cell growth. Source of alpha-linolenic acid, or omega-3, which can help provide healthy cholesterol levels, reduce cell inflammation (by supporting the integrity of cell membranes of vital organs, thereby protecting the body against disease). Also may lower blood pressure. Studies suggest flaxseed may help protect against some forms of cancer, decrease menopausal symptoms and reduce blood sugar.
  • Trail mix: Good source of Vitamin E, manganese, copper and magnesium (important minerals often neglected in many diets). Also a source of potassium and dietary fiber.
  • Chocolate granola: Among other things, it contains whole grain oats, ground flax seeds, rice and soy lecithin, an emulsifier that keeps the blood slippery.

Full disclosure, the chocolate granola, being a commercial product, contains sugar and cane juice. But people are free to mix their own granola. Like I said, I’m no purist, just a guy trying to live a longer, healthier life. One spectacular breakfast at a time.