The Nordic Connection: A Starting Point

If my genes come from the Baltic, why am I eating eating like a Mediterranean?


Yup. Amber.

Amber- a Baltic tradition.

That’s what finally tipped the scale. I’m ready to put my ideas out there, confident that I won’t get laughed off the stage, at least. I have tried to write this about ten times, and I rapidly get into book territory, which is utterly overwhelming. There is SO much there, I’ve been struggling to put it into words.  I apologize for the clunky approach- but I’ve definitely hit the point where if I don’t get this out there- I’m gonna burst!
My daughter’s birthday party was a few weeks ago. It was nice and warm, so the kids were swimming in our little pool. I noticed that one of them was wearing an amber necklace. I don’t know if this is a west coast lotus land ‘thing’ or not, but there are a fair number of parents who buy amber necklaces for their child to help with teething. Seeing a seven year old wearing one, I happened to notice it. I began to reminisce, Oh, I forgot that the string broke on my amber, I’d probably wear it if I restrung it- I’ve even got some extra silk… I thought about my trip to Estonia in the early 90’s, and how I’d gotten the necklace for a steal because I had ‘hard’ currency. And another penny dropped.

Baltic amber. Purported to have anti-inflammatory effects.  And every single Finnish woman of my mother’s generation has an amber necklace. It’s one of those gifts that are given at graduations, 21st birthdays, etc.. Rather like a gold chain, a string of pearls or a gold pen… It’s less common in Scandinavia, but the Balkan states love amber, and many people wear it on a regular basis. What if Northern Europeans didn’t just value amber for its esthetic beauty? Could it be that people didn’t only wear it for its beauty or status, but because it made them feel better?

Another new piece of information that fits into my theory with ease. There’s decent logic behind the ideas, but it’s definitely not ‘fact’ (not even alternative ones…). I’m bursting to share my ideas, to debate about what I see, to see if it rings true for others. Could it be that what was once highly favourable evolutionarily is backfiring in dramatic fashion?

If my genes grew up around the Baltic, why am I eating a Mediterranean diet?

This is a question that comes up in the MCAS groups. People with MCAS don’t usually do well with wine, red peppers, tomatoes, etc. And it isn’t only the foods themselves, but how they are prepared and how food itself is viewed. What if by attempting to be healthier, we are making ourselves worse?  That ‘traditional’ knowledge that science has scoffed at, could some of it be based in fact, is there anything we can learn from them?
MCAS is at least partially genetic; this isn’t proven ‘fact’, but nobody disputes that there is a significant genetic component. Incidence rates in studies currently underway indicate that over 10% of the US population has aberrant mast cell activity (otherwise known at twitchy mast cells…). In the online groups I see a pattern. A strong pattern. I have the advantage living in Vancouver, where ‘white’ is now a minority.  When I was going from school to school for work, I was often the only white person there. I’m more likely to notice a lack of diversity as odd. And the MCAS support groups online are stunningly homogeneous. We are almost all fair skinned- I can only think of one or two who aren’t. The vast majority were blonde as children.  We all have Scandinavian, Northern Germanic,   Celtic or Balkan Heritage. Last year in a Canadian MCAD group someone replied to a friend in Finnish. At that point there were about 150 people in that group- and five of them spoke Finnish- nobody speaks Finnish in Canada unless you’re in Thunder Bay. Why are there so many of us here? (Just for clarification, I can’t speak Finnish. I studied in Helsinki for a summer, and I could order coffee, get directions, but that is long gone). I noticed that someone in one of the US groups were talking about ‘Balkanfest’, encouraging others in the local group come out and join them. Why would Balkanfest be advertised in an MCAS group? It wasn’t an error- several people from the group were going. An interesting overlap. I had enough clues to tell me where to explore.

Without going into depth, these are the things that I noticed. Individually, they could be co-incidental, circumstantial, or unrelated. Individual puzzle pieces are meaningless. Put them together, a picture begins to emerge.

  • There is a seasonal pattern to many foods in the North. Strawberries are ripe for two to three weeks, then raspberries, then gooseberries, then currants, etc. Food is either eaten right away, or intensely preserved; either cooked at high temps, dried  use of buckets of salt or lye (not that I’m advocating that we eat lutefisk…. even if it turns out to be a silver bullet- I’m not eating it!).
  • my cousin (who has primarily German genes, but lives in Finland), can only eat strawberries at midsummer. It takes the rest of the year for her to become ‘not reactive’. I can often eat things for a week or two, and then to not be able to eat them for 6 months, and repeat that cycle.
  • Sources of vitamin C and flavonoids were especially valued in Scandinavia. Flavonoids are abundant in dark fruits- elderberry, currants, blackberries, raspberries, etc. Things like rose hips were essential. The darker the colour, the higher the flavonoids (and other important micronutrients). There was a scene in ‘Call the midwife’, set in the U.K. that highlighted that they were consciously addressing vitamin C needs in the kids after the war. My mom had several of those stories as well- sitting in front of the UV lamps to get their vitamin D in the winter, vitamin laden chocolate squares that they each got one of per week, etc.
  • Carrots, apples, pears, plums, etc are not in season when the birch and alders are pollinating. (The proteins in raw, unpeeled stone and ray fruits, as well as certain root veggies cross-react with birch pollen; it’s called oral allergy syndrome). In Northern Europe, those foods are not in season when those trees are pollinating. There are no fresh apples in Norway in May. If there are some left from the fall, they wouldn’t be eaten raw- pie is a much better idea. Maybe OAS wouldn’t exist if we hadn’t set ourselves up to eat those foods year round.
  • Accessing fresh foods year round is often sited as a good thing for human health. I’m not so sure. Maybe my body isn’t supposed to eat strawberries in January.
  • Mildew and dust are the sworn enemy if every German hausfrau. Italians- way less so. (And I’m not touching the British concepts of cleanliness- They must have had a lot of moorish influences… and yes, I’m kidding. Sort of).
  • Speaking of stereotypes.. stereotypical older German man, a big belly and red cheeks. A beer in one hand and a strudel in the other…
  • They eat a lot of grains- either baked into hard bread, or fermented. I’m reactive as hell to beer, but I could eat crisp bread crackers till the cows came home. They don’t eat corn. At all. Corn is for animals, not people. (The first thing my Mother learned about Canada had to do with corn, it’s a cute story. It’ll keep for another day).
  • Traditionally, Northern Europeans ate most of their meals from a cast iron pot. “Pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold Pease porridge in the pot, nine days old…”
  • If they didn’t use one in their home, the local herbalist brewed all of her concoctions in one of those cast iron cauldrons. (Maybe the Three Witches were just iron depleted…?)
  • Iron is a potent mast cell stabilizer (and yes, there is some research to back this up- not a lot, but some). People with MCAS go through a lot more red blood cells than most. Those nasty white blood cells take out a lot of red blood cells when they explode….anemia is very common in MCAS.
  • Cheese. The Germanic tribes relied on milk from their cattle and sheep. There are some very distinct regional differences through. No Northern European would intentionally make moldy cheese. It tastes so hideously rotten to me- YUK! But the French seem to adore the stuff. Bring me the cheddar, the Swiss, the havarti. Skip the Brie… (What’s with the Brits? Stilton- ugh. Definitely too much French influence… 😉).
  • Europeans love their mineral water. Whether drinking it or bathing in it. Many nutrients can be absorbed through the skin, magnesium being at the top of the list. Artesian spring water can make a big difference for people with severe MCAS
  • Research is showing that for some people, fasting is just fine- it helps them loose weight, and can actually boost their metabolism. Maybe my body is really good at storing up food for lean times, and needs to give up certain things for lent. (Which happens to co-incide with the leanest months in Northern Europe….). I very well designed to put on weight in the summer, and use up my stores over the winter. It’s highly adaptive if you live in a northern climate, not so great in the modern world.
  • In 2015 I didn’t eat for 40 days. I lived on mineral water- I couldn’t tolerate tap water well at all. I lost just over 40 lbs. I then lost another 80 in the two months after I started eating again. Before that (unintentional) fast, I was eating 400 calories a day, didn’t lose any weight. Now, if I eat less than 2000 calories, I start to lose weight.
  • There is some evidence that fasting can ‘re-set’ the immune system to a certain extent. After my ‘fast’ I could eat almost everything. The effect didn’t last long, and was gone by 6 months, but the fact it happened at all is fascinating
  • The Mayo lab that developed most MCAS tests is in Minnesota. (Okay, I know it’s a stretch- but hang on for a second..).
  • Reactive arthritis is known to be much more prevalent in people with Scandinavian heritage. They figured it out when an entire fire department got sick after a picnic. A huge portion of the fire department was down with reactive arthritis. Everybody got the salmonella, only the Swedes got the reactive arthritis a few weeks later. Where was this event? Minnesota. (SEE… I told you to hang in there. There’s a joke that there are more Swedes in Minnesota than in Sweden.. So maybe it isn’t just co-incidence!).
  • Kids in Scandinavia eat a fair amount of candy, drink pop, etc., but it doesn’t seem to be horrible for them. There doesn’t seem to be the type of childhood obesity there that we have in North America. The sugar doesn’t come from corn, though.
  • The Canadian Government allowed the seal hunt to expand in the arctic about 15 years ago (don’t quote me on the dates). In fact, they did an educational campaign to increase seal hunting. Turns out that no matter what they tried, the Inuit people were depleted of vitamin A, D and calcium (if memory serves). The government shipped in airplane loads of fresh fruit and veggies, educational campaigns, supplements for kids, etc.. Nothing made any difference. The only people who didn’t have the nutritional deficits were a bunch of the elders- those who stubbornly decided to eat seal meat regardless of what they were ‘told’ to do. (Can’t you just imagine a weathered old man, saying “This is how they did it for hundreds of years. Now some white man in Ottawa is going to tell me what to eat? Tell them to come up here and stop me, then.”). Seal liver is one of the world’s only dietary sources of vitamin D. The Inuit have lived in the arctic since the last ice age. They wouldn’t have lasted if they needed a lot of sun and/or plant food sources…
  • Vitamin D deficiency is indicated in many inflammatory and immune disfunctions. Vitamin D deficiency is extremely common in the age of reducing UV exposure. Sunscreen blocks UV, and reduces vitamin D production dramatically. The fairer you are, the worse it is.
  • The higher up the food chain, the higher the risk of toxin exposure. 4/5 of women in the Inuit population has mercury levels that are higher than recommended by Health Canada.
  • We are told that sodium is bad for us so, and strongly encouraged to eat less salt. And then we turn around and start taking salt tablets to help with POTS?

What if this illness (or cluster of illnesses) is a genetic ‘difference’ that has become a ‘problem’ due to changes in lifestyle, diet, toxic load, etc.?

I did a bit of research, and found a few interesting things. The first thing was a journal article that said that health outcomes for Finns was better on the Baltic diet than the Mediterranean diet. I just found this one today that links a lower risk of obesity related inflammatory factors when people eat a Baltic Diet versus a Mediterranean diet.  I wa my be that  obesety linked inflammatory factors are both due to MCAS?

My best friend is originally from Sweden, and her parents are wonderful cooks. Between my house and hers, I got to eat a lot of really good Scandinavian food, and learn eating habits. What were the things that our parents did that I could connect to? The more I look, the more connections I see. We both had Ribena as the next food after Mother’s milk. (It was preserved with vitamin C at the time, now it has sodium metabisuplphite in it, grrr.). Kids in our neighbourhood would come running when they heard that bzz-bzz was coming up (frozen berries in cuisinart with a bit of sugar. Perfection.). Rose-hip soup was a staple when I was little, and even as a teenager I had a doctor who gave us mega doses of Vitamin C. (Turns out those canker sores in my mouth were caused by mast cells…, yup, that vitamin C worked! I get vitamin C IV’s every week now.).

I’ll recap the most salient parts of the Baltic Diet. These are things that seem to hold true either from my own experience, or from talking to others, as well as the information in some of the Finnish studies. (I’m not sure I agree with everything they say- but that may be a matter of semantics.).

  • eat seasonally. Skip the California strawberries in January, and the Chilean apples in the spring. Eat all the crayfish you want. Once a year. Only once a year.
  • Meat. A significant preference for game meat or caribou/reindeer rather than farm raised beef. Red meat is lean and the organ meats are included (bring on the liver and onions- but I’m not eating sweetbreads, no matter what anyone says!). Things like blood pancakes actually sound pretty good right now. (I have almost no iron right now…)
  • Iron. Buy a cast iron cauldron. (Or not…). Maybe a lucky iron fish could help…
  • Dairy- – fresh milk or hard cheeses. Send the moldy cheeses back south of the Alps. Yogurt and sour cream…hmmm. I don’t know, they are wildly high in Histamine.
  • Fat. Animal fats specifically. A lot of nutrients are fat soluble, not water soluble. A diet that has very little fat can be a significant problem. If nutrients aren’t absorbed, a vicious cycle results.
  • Lots of fish, (I can’t do fish, but it was one of the last proteins I could eat. Watch out for mercury, PCB’s, etc. the bigger the fish, the higher the toxic load.
  • Nuts and seeds (Tree nuts, not peanuts). They last forever, they are nutrient packed, and are easy to nibble on. They have to be cooked well, though.)
  • Northern grains such as rye and barley.
  • Grains are almost always very well cooked.. Stick with whole grains, especially rye. skip the bread and pasta, keep the crackers, toast, rusks and pumpernickel. And cookies.
  • NO corn. Especially GMO corn (not because of the genetic modification per-se, but because of WHY it’s GMO. The pesticide load on GMO plants is astronomical. It’s so bad that I can taste it sometimes).
  • lots of root veggies and squashes (including cucumber). Greens in season.
  • Lots of cruciferous veggies- (this is one ‘fundamental’ in Northern European diets that doesn’t seem to fit most people with MCAS. I wonder what would happen if we never ate raw broccoli or cabbage..Could coleslaw be the downfall of cabbage?).
  • Skip the above ground nightshades- tomato, green, eggplant, etc. Jury is out on potatoes- while they are nightshades, it’s the root, not the fruit that we eat, so people can be sensitive to one or the other. Potatoes are a new world food, so it’s not ‘technially’ part of the Baltic Diet, but they seem to be well tolerated. Eggplant? Not so much…
  • Mushrooms- as many wild ones as you can find. Chanterelles in season- one of the most delicious things on the planet. Yum. Eat them or dry them right away.
  • Vodka or scotch or beer. Not wine. The Finns make a range of alcoholic cordials- cloudberry liquor is unbelievably tasty. (Not that I could go within a mile of alcohol at the moment).
  • Try beet or barley sugar instead of cane sugar. (Made a big difference to me until I actually ate a beet. Couldn’t touch anything with beet sugar for 8 months. oops. Remember that I am the ‘extreme’ example- but even so, I can eat beet sugar again. Won’t be trying unrefined beets again really soon, though!)
  • Berries- gorge on them. Some people with MCAS are sensitive to berries- but I think that if fresh ones are only eaten in season, they can be a critical food source. I’ve been eating strawberries for the last three weeks- and I haven’t had any fresh ones since last summer. I regularly eat european strawberry, blueberry and raspberry jam- I can’t eat the North American stuff, (maybe because of corn-based sugars or the use of gelatin? ?). I hit my ‘fill’ of fresh strawberries yesterday- itchy mouth galore! But I COULD eat them for a while. (By  which I mean that I could could have three or four of them every other day. Doesn’t sound like much, since I have no regular fruits or vegetables that I can eat, that is huge!) If I continually do this, I should have one or two berries and/or fruits at any given time of the year. A bit like an extended rotation diet- (by the year, not every three days). It’s gonna take a while for me to test this one out, I think next is raspberries…? (Cranberries, lingonberries Saskatoon berries, elderberry, etc etc. That’s an experiment I don’t mind trying!).
  • food is either eaten fresh, cooked or WELL preserved. Real jam, not freezer jam. Pickled herring. Apple strudel, not apple wedges dipped in caramel (I wonder what McDonald’s puts on its apple slices to have them not go brown for several days. Belay that, perhaps I don’t want to know).
  • avoid processed foods- not because of the fat and salt, but because of the preservatives.
  • Minimize toxic exposure- organic, locally grown food whenever possible
  • Dried fruits used to be a great idea- they almost all have sulphites in them now. Skip them. (Or make your own?)
  • Graze. The French have long, leisurely meals- one a day. Us Northern folk need to graze- a slow intake of food over the whole day. We eat a lot of foods on the move- Trail mix or granola in our pockets. Sausage in a bun. Crackers and cheese, pemmican (okay, nobody eats this now- but you get the idea). Anybody who gets the “Nastie masties” or “hangry” knows that we need snacks in our pockets at all times. There were feasts as well- when meat was abundant, but day to day meals were not drawn out affairs.

Before we get off this magic carpet ride, I would love to hear your ideas and reactions. Over time I will expand on the points above. Be gentle- this is a place to begin.  I am looking forward to hearing counter examples,  – and to fleshing out the proofs (logical ones if not factual ones). Everywhere I look, I see another reason why this makes sense. I’m implementing a few of these concepts into my and my daughter’s diet. We are playing with different things, and time will tell if it helps. In the meantime, I’m curious to try a bit of micromacrame- time to re-string my amber!

Are you still here? Start a discussion!