Saturday, December 31, 2011

A Vitamin D Deficiency

On this last day of 2011, I can officially say that a blood test finally revealed something abnormal about me:

I have a Vitamin D deficiency.

As I've been learning (and should have remembered from junior high nutrition class), Vitamin D is one of the few nutrients we really can't get from foods.  It's called the "Sunshine Vitamin" for a reason -- sunlight hitting our bodies triggers Vitamin D production.  I highly recommend you read this article from the National Institute of Health. It gives a great overview with a ton of research cited.

It's true that I have very little exposure to sunlight and that's not by choice.  My work office has NO natural light in my corner.  Last year I definitely noticed a little SAD (seasonal affective disorder) but didn't think much beyond.

Apparently, a Vitamin D deficiency is also more common in northern climates.  You can't get a decent intake of the vitamin when you're wrapped up like a mummy 4 months out of the year.

That same article suggests that those who are overweight also struggle with deficiencies.  It's thought that the extra fat we carry "locks" up the nutrient so it can't get to where it's going.

No matter how the deficiency came to be, it causes multiple issues.  The main symptoms are fatigue, muscle weakness, and bone pain.  Vitamin D also affects your bone health and immune system, generally leading to osteoporosis.  This is definitely a concern for me because virtually ALL of the women on my maternal side have osteoporosis.   

I think the combination of my probable birth control reaction and this Vitamin D deficiency would go a long way to explain my health issues.  

Both could be contributing to my fatigue and muscle weakness, which are preventing me from exercising properly.  You (likely) have no idea how frustrating it is to feel as if your body is conspiring against you when you want to be active.  I start off tired and sore, become even more exhausted and in pain once I've exercised, and then need several (3+) down days to recuperate.  That's totally ineffective for weight management.

So what's the game plan, you ask?  Vitamin D does occur in a few foods, sometimes naturally (fish) and often fortified (dairy).  I unfortunately do not eat anything that lives in the water, so fish is out.  Now that it's winter here in Iowa (despite the lack of snow), getting some sun is also not an option.  I keep finding contradictory research about the potential of tanning beds and since I've never gone tanning before, I'll likely skip that as an option.

What I can do are these four things:
  • Take a supplement.  My doctor asked me to get a 5,000 IU dose for Vitamin D.  Now, there's also tons of research out there that gives a wide range of IU numbers for a "correct" dosage.  I suspect my doctor wants me to take this high level only temporarily, as a way to get my levels back up in a hurry.  We are, in fact, going to be retesting them in a month.
  • Eat more eggs.  1 egg yolk has about 10% of your DV for Vitamin D.  On a frugal note, eggs are also incredibly cheap, so it's easy for us to incorporate them more.
  • Drink more milk.  I used to drink bucket loads of milk as a child.  I still enjoy the stuff.  But I think worries about calories and my dehydration issues have caused me to eliminate it.  Except that 1 cup of milk offers 25% of your DV (though not all brands do).  Now I'm simply adding a glass to dinner in the evenings and will consider smoothies with a milk base more.
  • Eat more yogurt.  The brand we use has 20% in each serving.  Good thing yogurt is also inexpensive and easy to eat plain or in smoothies.

I feel rather good about this new health direction.  I know that eliminating birth control and adding a vitamin isn't going to make me magically drop weight.  However, if the two can give me enough energy and chase away muscle pain, it's going to make such a HUGE difference.  

Here's to hoping that January 2012 is going to see some improvements for me!

What kind of vitamin routine are you on?

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Price of Going Off of Birth Control

Migraines, mood swings, and exhaustion, oh my! 

As I previously suspected, it's possible that I'm experiencing yet another rejection of birth control.  It's at least another avenue my new doctor and I are exploring.  

For the previous 4 years, I've taken estrogen-based pills.  Long story short, I ended up PMS-ing constantly, getting panic attacks, and having high blood pressure.  I then switched to a progestin-based brand (synthetic) within the last year.  The general crazyiness subsided, so I didn't consider that other symptoms were still present.

I recently looked up the side effects of my brand and was shocked: out of the 30 known side effects, I have 12 of them.  Everything from weight gain and fatigue to trouble sleeping, bladder infections, and acne.  It may be coincidental, it may only be part of my problems, but it's clear to me that birth control is some factor in my health.

Which is why, after deliberation with Mike and my doctor, I have elected to go off of them.

To be honest, I've never been real comfortable with birth control pills.  I'm all for birth control as a method - I'm simply concerned about the chemistry.  One of my favorite words is "organic," but artificial hormone maniuplation is the furthest thing from that.   

And boy, has chemistry been on my mind lately.  Everyone knows what can happen when you go on birth control, but no one says much about going off of it.

Taking hormones out of your system will cause confusion in your body.  While it only takes a matter of days to actually dump the birth control, it can take weeks or months for your pitutary gland to regulate itself.

Every woman reacts differently, but I can tell you these last two weeks have been rather tough for me.  Bouts of exhaustion, unexpected migraines, crying spells, increased muscle pain, and general crankiness have peppered my days.

I admit, I was taken off guard.  No one warned me about this.  I've not had any girlfiends to consult with on this matter and the doctor only mentioned the possibility of weight fluctuation.

Despite these symtoms, I have seen a small measure of improvement.  My bladder almost instantaneously felt better - I don't feel like I'm constantly fighting off a UTI.  And despite some mood swings, I feel more balanced.  I don't know if that's a chemical reaction or just the mental relief of not having to take the pills anymore, but it is comforting nonetheless.

Lest you jump to any conclusions, no, Mike and I have not changed our stance about having children.  With him gone for part of next year and leaving in a matter of months, this is a perfect chance to rid my body of these chemicals and see if it improves my health.  Only time will tell!

Have you ever experienced a negative reaction to a medication?    

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Our Yule Tree

Phew, the holidays are over!  We survived another round of family Christmases, stuffing ourselves along the way and playing games.  It was an excellent time with many memories made.

As people are rushing to tear down their winter decorations, it seems odd for me to (finally) post about our Yule Tree.  But Mike took such lovely photos of it that I thought better late than never!

Unlike others, who have very specific rules about the duration of holiday trimmings, our little tree goes up shortly before Christmas and stays up for the duration of January.  We once had a traditional 7-foot tree, but years of apartment living prompted a switch to something easier to place and store.

This tree cracks me up because it's so obviously compiled from leftover tree bits at the factory -- a little bit of traditional pine, some snow-covered spruce, and a dash of holly berries.

The tree's petite stature is also cost efficient - there's no need to continuously buy ornaments for it (or decorate the rest of the apartment, as this is the only holiday item we have).  I splurged on bubbler lights (above) a few years back because Mike remembered having them as a kid and they're really hard to find.

In following my family tradition, all ornaments must mean something.  Sure, we have a few generic glass bulbs, but the rest are connected to our lives in some manner.  Both of these were given to us to celebrate the first Christmas we got our cats.

When Mike asked me to date him back a million years ago, he presented me with a Hershey's Kiss necklace, hence the significance of these cuties.

I wouldn't say our tree is themed, but there is a plethora of Snoopy and Woodstock ornaments.  This is a throwback to my first ornament, which was one of Snoopy.  With it just being Mike and I, Snoopy and Woodstock fits.

Though not always dated, we have one for each year we've been together.

So yes, I bought an overpriced memento from Hallmark, but at least it's only one.  Spending 14 bucks on holiday decorations each year is more than reasonable.  This is the one we selected for this year.

I like that our little tree stays up for weeks at a time, which makes it feel like we get more use out of it than others might.  There's also something nice about having its colorful glow up through January's snowstorms and dark skies.

It goes without saying, but if you're looking toward next year's decorations, make sure to hit up the stores now.  You'll find everything from the ornaments themselves to storage containers and lights 50% off.  There are some good steals you can find!

How important are holiday decorations for you?

Thursday, December 22, 2011

How to Destroy Chocolate-Covered Cherries

As we churned out recipes for this year's round of holiday giving, we may have run into one or two minor disasters.

It all started with the idea to repeat our chocolate-covered cherries from last year. We had received rave reviews and they were easy to make.  Plus, I'm a fan of making edibles that have an aesthetic element to them.

So we elected to do a double batch and spent a little over $6 dollars on maraschino cherries and powered sugar at Aldi's.  The first step was to drain the little guys on paper towels for an hour.  With no paper towels on hand, I simply put them out on a jelly roll to dry.  Little did I know I had just committed the first of a series of fatal errors. 

Once drained, I started on the fondant.  You mix powdered sugar, a little corn syrup, and butter together ...

And it turns into this ...

If you weren't aware, this fondant is what liquifies around the cherry and under the chocolate layer.  That's why you get that lovely layer of liquid and cream.  The cherries actually have to sit for about 2 weeks to reach this stage.

Once the fondant is ready, you measure 1/2 tsp of the mixture and flatten it out so it can be formed around the cherry.

With the two of us tackling the process, it took just over an hour to complete 120 cherries (we elected for a double batch).  Then they sat in the fridge to chill for 60 minutes.

Little did we know evidence of problems to come were already visible in this photo
Next we set up a homemade double broiler (pot of steaming water + metal bowl rested on top but not touching the water).  The original recipe called for chocolate-flavored candy coating.  While it worked like a charm last year, I was not appeased with the taste.  I wanted real chocolate.  So we melted chocolate chips instead, unwittingly committing error number two.

We soon discovered melted chocolate chips don't coat as nicely as candy coating (which should seem obvious ...). The chocolate globbed excessively to the cherries.  I tried to minimize this by using forks to roll them.  Some of the cherries started to look promising, despite mounting frustrations with the chocolate.

But then we noticed that cherry juice was leaking out of the fondant.  Even though they had been well sealed, the fondant was starting to pull away from the cherry itself and was sticking to the wax paper.

This, we learned, is why you MUST dry the cherries on paper towels.  The excess juice won't allow the fondant to adhere to the cherry.  The weight of the chocolate ends up pulling the already-compromised fondant completely off the cherry.  Resulting in these fugly creations.

As we got down to the end of the batch, I noticed my chocolate starting to seize.  Knowing full well that water is death to melted chocolate, I threw in a little butter.  Guess what?  It turns out Walmart brand butter has a high water content - seized the whole thing up the second it hit the bowl.  Good thing there was only a small bit of chocolate left, so not much was wasted, but still irritating.

Upon examining the "good" cherries, we noticed yet another problem - the melted chocolate chips only partially coated the cherries.  You need a perfect seal for this candy and here we had over 100 candies with little fissures and pock marks.

At this point, now late into the evening and tired of standing in front of the stove, I may have said f*** it and put the poor candies in a tupperware container, hoping that the seal was just good enough to work.

Nope.  Several days later, we knew we had a lost cause on our hands.

Not only were the lovely innards leaking out everywhere, but the chocolate never hardened, causing further mayhem.

Are these little guys edible?  Yes, with a spoon.  Will they be eaten regardless at a family event?  Yes.  Will we be giving them as gifts?  NO.

Lessons learned:
  • Do not deviate from a candy recipe.  Either follow it to a T or substitute another recipe.
  • Not all butters are created equal.  The ingredients on butter should say "cream, salt."  I assumed that the different brands I was using were the same (HyVee, Aldi, Walmart). If you see "natural flavorings" in the ingredients, run for the hills.
  • If you are taking the time to create something for a gift, take the time to do it right and don't get cocky.  Just because something was easy the first time doesn't guarantee you'll get the same results the second.
Despite this snafu, we had relatively good luck with the rest of our baking endeavors (to be shared next week, once they've all been distributed to their intended receivers). 

Did you have an DYI holiday projects go belly up too?  

Monday, December 19, 2011

Lessons from Holiday Baking

As I type, I am but 4 recipes away from completing my holiday baking, two of those being pies.  With a wrecked kitchen, a fine layer of flour dusting the apartment, and a full freezer, here are my lessons learned from baking so far.

Complacency is a Killer
I'll be chronicling this in a separate blog entry, but one of my candies completely bit the dust. I missed a seemingly harmless step in the instructions and also made an ingredient swap.  The combination turned into 4 hours down the drain.  Just because something worked previously does not mean you shouldn't carefully reread all directions or make alterations on something you intend to give as a gift.

Line Up Backup Recipes
Not only did one of my recipes bomb, but a new one I tried grossly misstated the serving count.  Instead of 240 bit-sized nibblets as promised, I ended up with a disappointing 80 (I even followed the instructions to a T).  I had to replace BOTH of these recipes unexpectedly, which led to some unneeded stress and additional trips to the grocery store.  Next year I'll definitely have some backup dishes in mind.    

Inventory is Key
Speaking of which, we all know that multiple trips to the grocery store can be killer on the wallet, particularly during the holidays when there are so many enticing goodies stocked on the end aisles.  Due to recipe snafus, I had to go back and purchase additional supplies several times.  These didn't cost me too much (probably an extra $10) but it was a hassle to have to fight through holiday shoppers.  

At the start of this whole process, I should have gone through and made a complete inventory of the cupboards so if I had to switch gears, all of my basics were on hand.  For example, I volunteered last minute to bake a cake for some coworkers' birthdays.  Halfway through the recipe I realized I didn't have any canola oil on hand.  Mike graciously went to the store, but it could have been prevented with just a little more planning.

Laugh and Regroup
I wasn't saying this last week, but baking shouldn't make you grumpy. Gift giving is supposed to be an enjoyable process, something that can get lost whether you're hustling around the mall or kneading bread dough.
Baking definitely hasn't gone as smoothly this year as it did last year. I point a partial finger at my still-extended workload and teaching, but part of the blame rests with me and my misplaced ambitions.  I chronically bite off more than I can chew (haha, baking pun) and I need to set better limits so I can enjoy myself in the process of creating carb and sugar bombs.

Lastly, I need to leave the perfectionist in me at work because I'm no Martha Stewart.  I'm a working woman with 2 jobs and it is unreasonable for me to think that I'm going to churn out picture-perfect edibles with scalloped frosting and pretty ribbons (aka - any of the pictures in this post).  

People are impressed with homemade goods no matter how they look.  Besides, they simply appreciate that you spent time making something especially for them that you could have just thoughtlessly bought at the store.

To all the holiday DYI-ers out there, I salute you!  Only a few more days left! :) 

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Sleep Study Was a Bust

Got the results back from my sleep study.  I was "in the normal range for women."  No sleep apnea, limb movement disorders, or screwy brain signals.

Seriously the worst night of sleep I've ever gotten!
Right now, there aren't anymore suggestions on what I have.  The endrocrinologist drew a blank, the sleep study was a nada, and thyroid issues were MIA.

After spending a few days beyond irritated (greatly complicated by deadline week at the magazine plus finals for my class), I have decided to regroup.

Fortune would have it that the original PA I started this line of inquiry with is out on maternity leave. A full MD is now picking me as a patient and I will see them next week.  I gave explicit instructions to the nurse on having ALL of my recent bloodwork results and other tests available for the doctor to review.  I want to make sure something wasn't overlooked. 

In the meantime, I've put my mind to other possibilities.  I have 3 things I'll be confirming with the doctor:
  • Insulin Resistence: No one has said I have diabetes, but I exhibit some trouble symptons - constant thirst, frequent bathroom trips, blood sugar crashes, intense carb cravings, and skin tags.  
  • Allergies / Food Intolerance: It's been suggested (by friends) that I might be suffering from a food allergy, such as to gluten.  I only experience digestive issues when I've eaten oats, so I'm not sold on this.  However, the maternal side of my family suffers from allergies intensely.  No harm in checking into this.
  • Reaction to Birth Control: I have a long history of birth control making my life miserable.  In fact, one of the constants in my life the past 5 years of feeling like crap has been taking hormones.  After reading what the side effects of my brand are, I was shocked to find many of my non-specific symptoms are listed as "rare side effects."  Since this would mean both estrogen and progestin versions disagree with me, it might be time to get off The Pill altogether.

So there we have it.  I continue to play medical sleuth and testing keeps coming up short.  I find myself frustrated most days that we've been looking into this since August.  But I know there is great value in knowing what I don't have.  

The best Christmas present I could get would be to know what the heck is going on.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Difference Between Planning and Banking

First off, thanks to all who gave feedback about the nature of the blog.  It really helps me to know that the readers I have enjoy what I create.  Hopefully when my work schedule isn't so demanding and this term of teaching is over, I will be back with renewed energy and increased posting frequency!  xoxoxoxx to all

After several weeks of adjusting to some recent news, I can now admit that Mike and I had been pursuing some job opportunities in another part of the state.  There was an opportunity for Mike that we learned about this summer, and we've been sitting on this knowledge for several months between the job actually opening, the application process, and the interview.

Long, disappointing story short, the job was given to someone else.  I had even applied to a position and it also didn't go through.

One of the chief disappointments with the outcome was either of these jobs would have been a financial golden ticket for us.  Salaries twice as high as they are now, job security, steady opportunities for pay raises and advancement. 

However, Mike and I set us up for even greater disappointment.  You see kids, there's a world of difference between planning for and banking on something.

Banking is much like gambling - it's risky, there are no guarantees, and the house usually wins.

Planning is a responsible approach - you mitigate future risk by your actions today. 

When it comes to finances, you should be planning as much as possible.  Planning applies to your savings account, 401k and other retirement investments, medical expenses, and vacations.

Banking, however, is disastrous.  Banking is making financial decisions today based on something that has a high probability of not happening.  Banking is what Clark Griswold does in Christmas Vacation: he puts a downpayment on a pool because he's banking on a large Christmas bonus that never materializes.

Mike and I knew we were edging past planning and into banking during these last months of uncertainty.  There were so many factors in the air that we began to lose sight a little.  We were dealing with the possibility of a complicated move, where one of us had to stay in order to fulfill some obligations.  That meant apartment shopping and two rents to consider.  There's a deployment in 2012 that was an unaccounted factor.  I'm still knee-deep in medical testing that hasn't yielded any answers yet.

We did two things that we regret.  First, we took Mike's classes down from full to part time, anticipating he might have to pick up on short notice and go.  This cut his GI in half, removing $700 of our income each month.

This resulted in us backing off of reducing our debt aggressively.  We were back to treading water, not moving forward.  This was due to both the lessened income, but also a growing mindset that our income problems could soon disappear altogether. 

This is precisely the problem with banking.  And I would recommend you avoid it all at costs because you could be making decisions that end up hurting you.

We came out of this with little more than a scrape, honestly.  And with a good lesson learned to boot.  In fact, we took what we had been hoarding in our savings account and eliminated 2 credits cards to make up for lost time.  So not a major foul.

The situation also caused us to look more deeply at our finances.  We know that my salary will be fairly static.  I make just over $26k and that's not likely to change in the next year.  We also know that Mike's GI Bill won't change provided he's taking 2 classes every term.  Since he won't be done with school until 2014 (the deployment will push things back a bit), we can reasonably say we'll be pulling in $46,000 annually for some time. 

This leads us to several conclusions.  We need to continue being creative with our money to get rid of debt.  We also have to find some way of funding a savings account with what is already coming in.

It's also made us consider if Cedar Rapids may not be the place for us to settle.  We moved to the area with the intention that we'd be here for 2-5 years, gain some financial security, and then go to the next spot.  Clearly we were ready to move with these job prospects.

However, the only problem we've had here is getting Mike a job.  That's it.  We like the distance from family (2 hrs is a nice buffer) and we're clearly in love with Dubuque.  We can drive 5 hours and hit Chicago, the Twin Cities, St. Louis, or Kansas City.  The bike trails and parks are excellent.  There are cultural options each week and we've yet to explore Iowa City 20 minutes away.

So who knows.  Once upon a time, it was common to have a 5-year plan.  You could reasonably set goals based on this time frame.  No longer, my friends, no longer.

Mike and I have limited our planning to 2012 and 2014 respectively.  Next year will be an unusual one for us.  With Mike deployed, he'll earn in 6 months what I do in a year.  That clearly is a financial windfall and you'd better believe we have some distinct plans for the income.  We are going to capitalize on this with every ounce of energy we've got.  

Next year will also mark my 2-year anniversary with the magazine.  Should I get a pay raise, it might help me establish what I can expect for salary increases in the years to come.

2014 is when Mike gets done with school and will be on the market again.  If he were to find a job, and one that he liked, it would be mighty hard to leave the area and terribly easy to talk about buying a home.  

Now, we aren't banking on that.  Who know what the economy will do in the next three years.  There's a very real chance that Mike will finish with classes, look for jobs, and be without any income at all for an extended period of time.  You can bet I'm planning for that now when I think about our savings account.

So the lesson of the story here?  Recognize the difference between if and when with your finances.  If could leave you down a path of regret. 

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Future of the Blog

As the year winds down, I've been doing a lot of goal reevaluation and planning for 2012.  

One of them has been the blog.  I started this over a year ago and frankly, am wondering whether I should continue it.  I don't always have the time I'd like to devout to this and I'm unsure whether my posts are meeting your reading needs.

I'm not phishing for compliments here, but if you could take a moment and provide a little feedback for me, that would be really helpful.  I need to figure out if what I'm doing is good and simply increase the frequency, whether I'm overlooking things I could add, or if I should just cut my losses on this little experiment:
  • What kinds of topic do you like reading on the blog? (personal, advice, food, wine, ect)
  • What areas aren't of interest?
  • Are there subjects you'd like me to cover that I haven't been?
Thanks everyone!!!