Health Hack: Chia Seeds

Ch-ch-ch-chia!  Lately, eating chia seeds has been all the rage.  But for those of us of a certain age, all we knew about them was Chia Pets (as seen on TV).  Slightly more fun than a Pet Rock (perhaps), a Chia Pet is a terra cotta shape that you soak in water and slather in chia seeds.  When the seeds sprout, your Chia Pet grows fur.  (I don’t know what the deal is with the alligator.  Who ever heard of a furry alligator?)

It never occurred to me that you could eat the chia seeds – it would have been like suggesting you could eat Sea Monkeys.

Flash forward a few decades, and suddenly the health food crowd is eating chia seeds (Salvia hispanica).

Touted as a “super food” by some, chia seeds are relatively high in protein and omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.  Many claims have been made regarding possible health benefits of chia seeds but, since this blog is for informational purposes only and I am not a healthcare professional, I leave it to you to do your own research and due diligence.

This article provides an overview, and is a good place to start.

Not much scientific health research has been done on chia seeds yet.  However, according to one journal article, “the historical use of Salvia hispanica suggests that it is safe for consumption by nonallergic individuals. Further rigorous examination is warranted pertaining to the use of Salvia hispanica as a dietary supplement, as well as in the treatment or prevention of human disease.”

If you are skeptical about the health claims being put forth in the popular media about chia seeds, and you want more scientific information, this blog post is just the thing for you.

My Experience: I read that chia seeds grew slimy* when they were reconstituting, and I thought the texture might be gag-inducing off-putting.  (*Apparently the less unappetizing adjective is “gelatinous”.)

In fact, “Chia seeds have the ability to absorb up to 27 times their weight in water,” according to Dr. Rebecca Rawl, from Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, N.C.

The articles I read suggested that the easiest way to start eating chia seeds was to mix the chia seeds into something where they could absorb moisture but the texture wouldn’t be noticeable, like yogurt.  So that is how I began eating chia seeds – mixed into yogurt.

To me, chia seeds don’t have a noticeable flavor.  But if they haven’t fully reconstituted they are a bit crunchy, which is fine, as long as you’re expecting it (yogurt, for example, doesn’t typically crunch).  So, if you want them to get good and slimy gelatinous, you have to give them a few minutes to soak up moisture from whatever you’ve mixed them into (or pre-mix them with water).

I currently mix them into a 6 ounce glass of low-sodium V-8 juice (which I season with Tabasco sauce), and wait for them to reconstitute before I drink it.  [Stir well – they tend to clump on the bottom of the glass!]

I have found that I don’t mind the consistency of the reconstituted chia seeds – it reminds me of tapioca pearls.  But a few always get caught in my teeth at the gum line.  So check your teeth before you leave the house…

“Why are you eating this slimy, disgusting seed?,” you might ask.

Good question.

To put it delicately, chia seeds help keep you regular.

Chia seeds are high in fiber*, and the gelatinous coating around the seeds helps them ease through your digestive system.  *“Just 1 tablespoon of chia seeds will give you 19% of your recommended daily fiber.”  It also helps your stool to be “fluffier,” if that makes any sense to you.

In other words:

“Chia seeds are a good source of insoluble fiber. The seeds expand quite a bit and form a gel when they come into contact with water. This gel adds bulk to your stool, which keeps bowel movements regular and helps prevent constipation.”

Certain medications, like iron supplements or opioid painkillers, cause constipation as a side effect.  Eating chia seeds helps counteract that effect.  Instead of getting dense and compacted, your stool stays more liquid and continues to move through your system.

It’s up to you whether you decide to take them daily, as preventative maintenance for your digestive system, or whether you choose to use them on an “as needed” basis.  They do seem to act relatively quickly, so you don’t have to wait days for the effects.

If you happen to keep an eye on your stool, you can make adjustments as necessary.

“Bottom” line: Many health claims have been made about the benefits of eating chia seeds.  Most of them have not been substantiated by scientific research (although much research remains to be done).  I use chia seeds as a natural means of maintaining regular bowel movements.  They contain only one ingredient, they’re easy to add to my regular diet, and they counteract the constipating effects of some prescription medicines and supplements.

But chia seeds are not for everyone.  See cautions below.

CAUTION:  WebMD lists several possible side effects of consuming chia seeds.  If you have one of these conditions, consult with your health care provider before consuming large or frequent quantities of chia seeds.  

CAUTION:  Some people are allergic to chia seeds.  These individuals should not consume chia seeds.  If you are allergic to sesame seeds or mustard seeds, you may also be allergic to chia seeds.

CAUTION: “If you plan to consume chia seeds or chia seed oil on a regular basis, talk with your doctor. Chia seeds can thin your blood and may affect how medicines such as Coumadin (warfarin) and aspirin work. You may need to avoid chia seeds before surgery.”

CAUTION: Although you can eat chia seeds wet or dry, it is not recommended that you eat a bunch of dry chia seeds and then drink a glass of water.  If you do this, it is possible to have problems with chia seeds lodging in your throat.  People with a history of swallowing problems or esophageal strictures are cautioned to only eat chia seeds after the seeds have fully expanded (same source as previous link).

CAUTION: It is recommended that you not consume more than 3 tablespoons of chia seeds at a time, as this can cause you to visit the bathroom more frequently than you might desire.  According to one source,  the recommended dose for children ages 4 1/2 – 18 is 1 tablespoon per day, although research has not yet established optimal or maximum doses for any age.

NOTE: For an overview of scientific research conducted on the health benefits/side effects of chia seeds, see here.

NOTE:  Nowhere have I found clarification as to whether the suggested doses (in tablespoons)  refers to the dry seeds or the reconstituted (wet) seeds.  I measure approximately 1 1/2 tablespoons of dry seeds into my food or drink and wait for them to reconstitute before consuming them.

Medical Procedures: What It’s Like to Have a Steroid Injection

Approximately six weeks after hand and wrist surgery, I developed “trigger finger” in the pinky finger of my surgery hand.  After the splints were removed and I started using my fingers again, I noticed my pinky finger “clunked” when I curled it, and it “clunked” upon full extension too.

Trigger finger (medical name: stenosing tenosynovitis) happens when inflammation occurs in the sheath surrounding a finger’s tendon, narrowing the space through which the tendon moves and impinging its movement.

After two weeks of occupational therapy and treatment for the swelling in my hand and wrist (eight weeks post-surgery), the clunking in my finger had gotten worse.  So the therapist informed the surgeon, and he decided to treat the trigger finger with a steroid injection.  This was not fun.

My orthopedic surgeon cleaned the injection site thoroughly with an alcohol wipe and then he sprayed an icy numbing spray on the area.  I felt the needle go in.  But the discomfort started as he began to inject the steroid solution.  It felt very similar to an arthrogram injection – there is increasing discomfort as the space begins to fill.  In the case of an arthrogram contrasting solution injection, your joint fills with fluid.  In the case of this steroid injection, my tendon sheath filled with fluid.

As the discomfort increased, I once again found breathing exercises very helpful for controlling the discomfort (for more on breathing exercises, see this previous post).  Additionally, my surgeon was applying pressure to the tip of my finger which helped focus my attention away from the discomfort at the injection site near the base of my finger.

About halfway through the process of filling the tendon sheath with the steroid solution there was a noticeable “clunk”.  Both the surgeon and I could feel it.  He asked me if I felt it, then grinned and said “That’s a good sign.  We’re getting the solution where we want it.”

Toward the end of the injection there was a second “clunk”.  My surgeon was very pleased.  As he continued the injection, he asked if it felt to me like the area was getting too full.  When I said no, he finished emptying the syringe, removed the needle, and placed a band-aid over the injection site.

My surgeon warned me that it would probably hurt the next day – possibly a great deal.  He mentioned that I might find myself saying very uncomplimentary things about him.

[As it turned out, I had no pain or discomfort the next day.  I don’t know if it made a difference that I was wearing a compression glove, a compression stocking, and a brace on that hand.]

My occupational therapist cautioned me not to do my therapeutic exercises for the remainder of the day, as that could cause the steroid solution to work its way out of the target area.  She also told me not to apply heat to the area for the remainder of the day, but said that I could ice it as desired.

For several days following the injection, I am supposed to modify my therapeutic exercises to exclude my pinky finger as much as possible.  My surgeon said it can take up to five days to achieve the full effect.  The steroid injection should reduce the inflammation and allow the affected tendon to move freely again.

I did notice the temporary side effect of facial flushing, but it didn’t last very long (maybe 20-30 minutes).  My finger was also swollen and numb after the injection.  I’m not sure how long that lasted, because I went home immediately and applied a cold pack to the area.  By the time I removed the cold pack, the numbness was gone and most of the swelling was too.

In theory, the steroid injection will relieve the inflammation and cure the trigger finger.  Meanwhile, the rest of the post-surgery swelling of the hand and wrist should gradually abate and hopefully the trigger finger condition will not return.  In other words, hopefully this one treatment will fix it and I shouldn’t need another steroid injection.

Bottom Line: It was pretty uncomfortable during the injection, but I didn’t experience any after-effects.  If this cures my trigger finger in one treatment, it will have been totally worth the temporary discomfort.  As far as medical procedures go, for me, this one was no big deal.

Where Do You Get Your Health Information?

Previously, I spoke about becoming a critical consumer of health information. Today I read an article at U.S. News that adds another element to the discussion – the element of celebrity health advice.

As the article points out, most celebrities are not medically trained, nor are they experts in health science.  Neither are we.  So we often listen to celebrities because we are familiar with them, and they’re good at getting their message across.

Sometimes, we don’t even know where the health information we’re hearing originated from.  A friend tells us.  Then we hear it from our mail carrier, barista, or barber.  If we hear the same health advice from many acquaintances, we start to believe it.  But that doesn’t mean it’s true (or scientifically proven).

I am beginning to read more frequently the argument that scientists and health experts are not as good at getting their health information out to the public as celebrities and other sources are.  I tend to agree that they could be much better at this.

In the Information Age, the traditional academic and scientific methods of distributing information are too slow and too narrowly distributed.  If they do not improve, they will be seen more and more as irrelevant, and the public will get their information elsewhere (as we are already seeing).

Please read this article about celebrity health advice, and why we tend to believe it even though we probably shouldn’t.  Hopefully it will make you more aware of where your health advice comes from, and it will encourage you to get your health information from expert sources such as the NIH, the CDC, the Mayo Clinic, Johns Hopkins, or other academic and scientific sources.

After all, if you get health information from academic and scientific sources, controlled experiments have already been safely conducted on other people.  If you follow health advice from unproven sources, you’re conducting uncontrolled experiments on yourself.

Here’s to your health,

Crew Dog

Status Update

ALCON: The Botox has worn off, and I have two more weeks until the next treatment.  I’m back to spending my days strung out on the couch.  Blog posts will most likely be scarce for the next few weeks.