Making Life Easier

RA can make it challenging to accomplish tasks that we once considered easy.  Rather than struggle and be frustrated, or give up activities we enjoy, it makes sense to adapt.

Opening Doors – Just say no to doorknobs.  Save your pennies, then swap out those pesky knobs for levers that work even when your hands don’t.

doorhandle

If you have significant issues with doorknobs and can’t afford levers, get creative. Occasionally a business will change out all the locks in their building – and will change all the levers, even those that don’t lock, so that everything matches.  They work perfectly well, but there isn’t much market for used commercial door hardware. If approached right, some locksmiths might give you a bargain (as long as you realize that it’s clunky, commercial hardware and not the lightweight stuff you normally find in houses).

Laundry – First, get a good sorter and train everyone in the house in its use.  I keep my three-bin sorter in my laundry room and taught the kids how to separate their clothes into whites/mediums/darks as soon as they were able to dress and undress themselves.  If I could do it over again, I’d get a fourth bin for denim. We do have a separate bin for clothes that require cold/delicate handling. This method makes things much easier because I don’t have to bend and reach and go through various contortions to retrieve everyone’s dirty clothes and sort them into their respective loads.  When a bin is full, I dump things into the washer. It’s that easy.

That said, there are different styles of sorters.  I highly recommend finding one that has separate bags that lift off the frame, not a single bag with multiple compartments. This will allow you to pick up the bag and empty it into the washer, rather than having to bend over multiple times to dig every last sock out of the bottom of the bag!

In an ideal world, only dry items would go into the sorter, but in the real world, children toss wet socks and washcloths into the sorter and eventually the bag mildews.  Therefore, I highly recommend getting the style that has bags which easily slide off their hangers.  This means that the bag can be tossed into the washing machine and dryer along with the clothes.

laundrysorter

My other laundry tip has to do with detergent.  If your hands or shoulders get to the point that pouring detergent into the washer is difficult/painful, spend the extra money for individual pods.  I’m pretty frugal (I have five children, so can’t afford to throw away money), but have decided that these convenience packs are worth every penny.  It works out to 15 cents per pod; I use one in most loads, but two on socks and dirty jeans.  There is a similar option for dishwasher detergent.

laundrydetergent

Hanging Rods – Closets with rods that hang at (or above) eye level are poorly designed, in my opinion, and not a friend of anyone with shoulder issues. If you have trouble reaching up to hang your clothes, consider modifying things so that you can hang your clothes at waist height.  Fortunately, my closet has rods at two heights; when my shoulders started causing problems we swapped things around so that my husband had all the top rods, and I got all the lower ones that I could reach easily.

closet

Berry Picking – There’s nothing like trekking up into the mountains to get huckleberries.  The peace and quiet, back-to-nature, time with the family… it’s heavenly. Months later you get to re-live the pleasant memories while enjoying the berries you’ve preserved. Unfortunately, huckleberries are tiny little things (half-the size of a blueberry), and not always easy to grasp.  This year I discovered two tools that I love.  While I used them for huckleberries, they’d also work on blueberries, gooseberries, and various other berries (not so great on wild blackberries, imo, but cultivated ones might be okay).  Do these tools work?  I have five gallons of huckleberries in my freezer for us to enjoy all year long.🙂

The first tool I found is oh-so-imaginatively called a berry picker.  You just stick it under the branch, then gently comb along the branch from the center of the bush out. The berries fall into the picker, while the leaves (mostly) stay on the bush.  A little debris gets mixed in with the berries, but it’s quite easy to shake the container gently and get the leaves to fall out.

berrypicker

The second tool is made by the same company, and just as creatively named:  berry cleanup tray.  This was not something I planned to purchase, but it was suggested when I ordered my berry picker.  I don’t usually fall for those gimmicks designed to part you with your money, but this had very good reviews and my Raynauds-afflicted hands do not appreciate being immersed in cold water.  After some experimentation, I discovered that the most efficient method is to pour the dry berries into this tray and shake it gently.  Most of the debris will fall out of the tray (exactly as designed).  I then grab my blow-dryer and turn it on the low/cool setting; this blows the remaining debris off of the huckleberries. Note that this method is best used on dry berries.  Wet leaves stick to huckleberries and the tray.  It’s a pain.  First get rid of the debris, then rinse the berries after all the leaves and twigs have been removed.

berrycleaner

Don’t struggle, making tasks harder than they need to be, and don’t give up things you enjoy.  Invest in tools that will allow you to do the things that you both need and want to do.  What are some gadgets you’ve discovered that make life easier?

Yes, it matters what we eat!

The science is clear. It matters what we eat.  Research that is especially pertinent to people with any type of autoimmune arthritis is the apparent link between diet and inflammation.  Barry Sears, PhD, calls RA (and other types of autoimmune arthritis) “screaming inflammation.”  He also claims that it’s possible to stop the screaming.  Unfortunately, he doesn’t go so far as to claim a cure.

Between mtx, ssz, and a biologic, my RA symptoms seem to be mostly under control.  It’s taken a while, but I’ve discovered that when I make different nutritional choices, I can drop the “mostly” from my “mostly under control” statement.

In pursuit of better health, I’ve been changing the way I eat.  Honestly, it’s a struggle.  Food choices are habits, and like any other habit, it’s hard to break.  Add to that the fact that I have a family.  If we go three days without any grain products, they all start begging me to bake bread!

I am discovering that I must plan.  Without menus planned in advance, I wander around the kitchen and grab easy foods, then get hungry and snack between meals, and it’s a terrible cycle that perpetuates itself and makes me feel awful.  Planning makes a world of difference.

But what to plan?  Unless my goal is to join the circus as the fat lady who can’t walk, planning to eat cinnamon rolls is a bad idea.  Although many diets count carbohydrates, newer research also considers the glycemic load of carbohydrate-containing foods.  It’s not just the number of carbohydrates, but the amount of insulin your body needs to produce to metabolize the glucose from those carbs.  The goal is a slow, steady release of glucose, not a dump-it-all-at-once release which then leads to a crash.  Have you ever eaten a sugary snack, then needed a nap?  That’s due to the snack having a high glycemic load.  The Insulin-Resistance Diet, The Anti-Inflammation Zone, and Grain Brain are unanimous in recommending that people control their glucose levels.  Meal plans need to consider glycemic load.

This is incredibly important for anyone with RA, because it turns out that not only does dumping glucose into the bloodstream leads to a release of insulin, this release of insulin stimulates the body to make arachidonic acid, which is a building block of inflammatory proteins.  Dumping glucose increases inflammation.

Glycemic Index and Glycemic Load

Controlling the release of glucose into the bloodstream is important.  The rate at which that release occurs is quantified by a number called the glycemic indexFor fats and proteins, the glycemic index is zero (fats and proteins don’t lead to a significant release of glucose into the bloodstream).  For carbohydrates, the glycemic index tells how fast the food’s glucose will be released.  High-numbered foods release faster than low-numbered foods.

Many people consider not just the raw index, but also the amount of the food eaten.  Obviously a whole pineapple will release more glucose than a modest-size bowl.  The load is easily calculated by multiplying the GI by the number of carbs in the food to be eaten, then dividing by 100 (to make the number sound smaller).  Even easier, google “glycemic load of ___.”  I like the website http://nutritiondata.self.com.  All sorts of nutritional information is included, including the estimated glycemic load:

glycemicload

So What?

The goal for most women should be a glycemic load of no more than 15 at every meal.  Most men, being larger, can aim for 20.  And, before you ask, no, we don’t get to save up from one meal to pig out at another!  The goal is steady levels of glucose in the bloodstream.

So is a glycemic load of 15/20 (women/men) a target or a limit?  It’s an upper limit, but very low can be bad for two reasons.  First, the brain needs glucose to function.  Second, low blood sugar can make you feel hungry (maybe it’s the brain saying, “Hey! I need some glucose!”), so although it’s important not to ingest too much in the way of a glucose source, it’s also important to get enough.  The glycemic load should probably be at least 8-10 per meal (5ish for a snack).  While it’s important to not eat too much, it’s also important to eat enough.

Application

If I serve cinnamon rolls for breakfast, a 2-roll serving contains 516 calories, 81 g of carb, and has a glycemic load of 57.  This means, basically, that if I eat half of one cinnamon roll it uses up the entire allowed glycemic load – and I still need protein and a nap.  In contrast, a breakfast containing a fried egg with hashed browns and bacon contains 495 calories, 27g of carb, and has a glycemic load of 12.  It’s delicious and filling, and will last me until lunch time.  Basically, we should be getting our carbs from fruits and vegetables, not from grains.

By keeping an eye on the glycemic load of the foods to be eaten (as well as balancing proteins and carbs) I’m discovering that it’s easy to get enough food and never feel hungry. I’m feeling better, and as a bonus, my extra weight is slowly coming off.  What we eat has a huge impact on how we feel.

Crop Rotation

In the spirit of making gardening easy — ie growing a maximum amount of food with a minimal amount of energy expended — I started out years ago doing some very basic crop rotation.  Vegetables will usually grow no matter where you plant them the first few years, but in the long run you’ll have healthier soil, healthier plants, and fewer pest problems (and less work) if most plants go a different spot every year.  Yep.  The benefits of crop rotation include:

  • Disease prevention (only of the plants, unfortunately, not people)
  • Insect control
  • Nutrient enhancement

Bugs live in the soil. If they wake up in the spring and find a different plant than what attracted them there the year before, they have no food and don’t survive.  Some plants use lots of nitrogen; others put nitrogen into the soil — therefore it makes sense to grow nitrogen-fixing plants one year, and nitrogen-using plants in the same spot the following year.  That’s what crop rotation is all about.

Rotating crops is easy.  It does not mean that you have to uproot and move your plants.  Crop rotation just means that plants don’t go the same place year after year.

CropRotationEasy Three-Year Rotation
This is a simple rotation that doesn’t require a degree in botany to understand about different plant families.  If you have a single vegetable garden, divide it into three sections.  Manure one section per year.  Obviously, if you have separate garden areas you can simply manure a different one every year.

In these three sections/gardens, the rotation is:

  • First section:  till in lots of manure.  Manure provides the nutrients that plants need to produce healthy leaves.1  Grow leafy vegetables that produce above-ground:  lettuce, spinach, cabbages, squashes, corn, etc.
  • Second section:  do not amend soil.  Grow root crops:  potatoes, carrots, parsnips, etc.  No manure here because you don’t want to grow big tops; you want to grow lots of good roots.  Manure makes carrots hairy.
  • Third section:  do not amend soil.  Plant peas and beans, which will fix nitrogen in the soil.
  • Fourth year, repeat 1st year.

Easy 4-Year Rotation

4yr crop rotationThis is very similar to the above, but the first group is split in two:  leaves/flowers (lettuce, spinach, cauliflower, broccoli, etc.) and fruits (zucchini & other squashes, melons, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, corn, etc.)

Sketch a Plan and Put It Where You Won’t Lose It

It doesn’t have to be complex, but it’s a good idea to have a notebook (or file on your computer) with notes about what is planted in each location every year.  This can be as simple as a sketch with the year written at the top.  You can add more details as you find yourself wanting the information — things like which brand of seed, which specific variety, amount planted, yield, planting date, harvest date, weather details, etc.  Whatever information will help get the maximum yield for the least effort should go into the notebook.  Don’t be a slave to the notebook, though. It’s about making life easier!

Plan your garden before you start scattering seeds.  If something ends up getting planted in a different location than you originally planned, it’s not the end of the world.  Throw seeds in the dirt, water well, mulch heavily, and wait for plants to grow.

A More Advanced Option

Garden planning can get much more advanced.  First, consider plant taxonomy.  Plants within a family have similar needs/pests, so rotate by families, rather than the simplified rotation noted above.  Also consider companion planting.  Some plants do better when paired together, and some plants do worse when planted together, so keep these discoveries in mind when deciding where to locate plants within your garden.

Taxonomy

Gardening according to plant taxonomy rotates plants according to their families (shown in red).  To rotate this way, you will need as many areas as you have families.  There are generally eleven vegetable families, but you only need to grow what your family will eat.  For instance, I have no need to grow okra so that eliminates an entire section of the garden.  Likewise with sweet potatoes.

Garden Taxonomy

Click to enlarge

Companion Planting

Companion planting accommodates the specific needs of plants you’re growing.  This theory says that it’s not enough to rotate from year to year.  We also need to bear in mind things like the fact that beans should never follow the onion family (technically, it’s the Liliaceae family, but most people would have to look up liliaceae and then find a list of those plants, whereas most people hear “onion family” and think, “Oh, that’s stuff like onions, garlic, and shallots” without having to stop and do extra research🙂 ).

Garlic not only repels vampires.  It also repels aphids, so is great to plant among your roses.

Tomatoes do well with asparagus.  Both are heavy feeders.  Tomatoes also do well with basil.  However, tomatoes and potatoes are in the same family and will both have fewer pests if they are in different parts of the garden.  Tomatoes should not be near cabbage.

Brassicas (cabbage, cauliflower, etc) grow well near aromatic herbs like sage, rosemary, and peppermint — perennials that you don’t necessarily want in your vegetable garden, but might like to have nearby or in the border.

Lettuce doesn’t like hot weather.  It can be planted among the corn; the corn will shade the lettuce, keeping it cooler so it lasts longer.

Lots of plants don’t like to grow near sunflowers. Corn is an exception.  Corn and sunflowers both do great if planted in alternating rows.  I like to plant four rows of corn in each bed, with one row of sunflowers down the center.

Raccoons like corn, so if you’re plagued with this problem, plant vining squashes at the ends of your corn rows.  Raccoons don’t like the vines and will leave the corn alone.  In addition to putting vines with your corn, you can also plant pole beans with your corn, letting the beans climb the corn stalks.  Of course, this requires delaying the bean crop so that the corn is tall enough to support the beans when they start shooting up 4″ per day.  (Horses also like corn, but your only remedy here is to plant far enough from the fence that the horses can’t reach — easily accomplished if you leave space for vines next to the fence, but I’m ashamed to admit how long it took me to figure this out).

The best thing, really, is to google companion planting and locate the vegetables you want to grow to see what things will grow well together.  Or visit your public library and borrow the book Carrots Love Tomatoes.

Fertilizer

I am amazed at the number of gardening books & websites that advocate testing soil to figure out which type of fertilizer is needed.  Don’t fall into that trap.  If you don’t have access to horse and cow droppings, you can still manure your garden.  Some horse stables sell manure — others will give it away if you do the scooping/hauling yourself.  Take a drive out in the country and knock on doors where there are animals.  You’ll have to go out in the pasture with a shovel and buckets, but the benefit to your garden is worth it. If you’re not brave enough to knock on the door of complete stranger, leave a note on the bulletin board of a feed store.  Call a large-animal hospital — some even have signs up periodically offering free manure (u-haul).  Another option is to put a rabbit hutch in your garden.  Some people put the rabbit hutch on skids and move it every year — this means you just let everything drop out the bottom and fertilize your fallow garden spot, then till it in the next year when you slide the hutch to a new spot in the garden. There are much better options than purchasing chemical fertilizers.

My Garden

Theory can sometimes be overwhelming.  “Just tell me what to plant!” someone might moan.  Well, plant what you’ll eat.  My gardens vary every year based both on what we want to eat, and on how much I have left over from the year before.

This year I’m using two garden plots and completely ignoring the third (although I should at least plant a cover crop in the third, but probably won’t get around to it):

2016Garden

Next year, everything will rotate.  Also, I put spinach in the raised beds with the strawberries (and might add borage). There’s a separate raised bed for lettuce, carrots, and peas; the peas shade the lettuce and it lasts most of the summer.  Herbs and rhubarb are near the house (I plan to move the herbs since they’ve grown much larger than anticipated), and artichokes and asparagus are in raised beds around the yard.  Sadly, something killed all my blueberries.

The whole goal is to grow what your family will eat, without wearing yourself out.  Happy gardening!

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1Horse, cow, and chicken manure need time to begin decomposing. If using fresh manure, rototill into the soil, then wait two weeks before planting. The breakdown generates heat which can kill seeds and young plants (which is why these are called “hot” manures). “Cold” manures such as rabbit droppings and llama/alpaca beans can go straight onto plants; there is no need to wait before planting in soil amended with cold manures.