Reflections on the Bodhisattva

His Holiness The 14th Dalai Lama (a.k.a. Gyalwa Rinpoche) serves as the highest spiritual leader of Tibet and a living Bodhisattva, or one on the path to Buddhahood (an awakened one). For those of us who are curious about this spiritual path, The Dalai Lama provides a roadmap in A Flash of Lightening in the Dark of Night: A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life.

bodhisattvaHe opens the book with a brief discussion of core Buddhist principles, including the Four Noble Truths (discussed in last week’s post). He also tells us that the Bodhisattva takes refuge in three elements: the exemplary life of the Buddha, the Buddha’s teaching (Dharma), and the community of followers (Sangha). They inform and model his or her thoughts and behaviors and provide encouragement on the path. Interestingly enough, the Dalai Lama cautions against taking the Buddha’s teachings at face value out of reverence. Rather, one should examine each precept thoroughly and respect them only when finding a reason to do so.

As I read through the book, I made note of several elemental character traits that the Bodhisattva embodies (and that we would do well to emulate):

Carefulness: We must beware of the tendency toward self-centeredness. We are interdependent beings who coexist in a complex web of causes and effects. We act in the best interests of ourselves and others by helping all beings find happiness and avoid suffering.

Attentiveness: We must be alert to the allure of negative emotions; they take root in the mind, obfuscate truth, and do harm. Attentiveness is the watchdog that guards against negativity in thoughts, words, and deeds, and directs the heart and mind toward all that is positive for ourselves and others. We must avoid even the smallest negative action; we should do even the smallest good.

Patience: Given pervasive suffering and our propensity to react adversely toward it, we must put forth the effort to cultivate a peaceful state of mind that wards off anger and upset. When we develop the capacity for forbearance, we grow in tolerance and remain undisturbed. When people behave unkindly toward us or others, we do not react in anger or retaliate. We consider them “teachers” with whom we practice patience; we offer them compassion. Likewise, when others are prone to lavish praise upon us, we must not become attached to it. Even if well-intentioned, praise is a distraction.

Endeavor: The enlightened being makes purposeful use of one’s short time on earth by doing what is good. We realize our potential by leveraging four supports: noble aspiration, firmness (i.e., confidence in our capacity to do the task at hand properly), a joyful countenance with regard to our work, and moderation (so we don’t overdo it and burn ourselves out!)

Meditative Concentration: Meditation trains and transforms the mind toward a focus on kindness, love, compassion, and non-harm toward others. It tamps down the distraction of random thoughts that may go negative or form needless attachment. This practice proves essential for clear insight. It cultivates a good heart, the source of all happiness and joy.

Wisdom: The wise person acknowledges that everything we experience in life – including our own sense of self – reflects our perceptions, not reality. Because ours is a relative truth, we must not cling to it and close our minds to new insights. Rather, we glimpse at the absolute nature of things by listening, reflecting, and meditating on our experience.

Finally, The Dalai Lama reminds us that we are but tourists on this planet for a short visit. Let us all resolve to receive this endowment with a good heart and a deep intention to take positive actions with compassion and make something useful of our time here.

Four Noble Truths

four noble truths

In discussing Dan Harris’ book 10% Happier last week, I mentioned Dr. Mark Epstein, MD and his influence on Harris’ path to meditation. Though he covered the religion beat for ABC News, Harris did not have a faith practice and was not drawn to spirituality. In fact, he initially bristled at meditation teachers whose calm demeanors and flowery language seemed at odds with his sensibilities. In Epstein, Harris found a man of science who had integrated his training and clinical experience in psychotherapy with the ancient teachings of the Buddha.

In Thoughts Without A Thinker, Epstein identifies the Buddha as a source of practical psychology. According to Epstein, years of deep contemplation on the nature of existence led the Buddha to profound insights into the human mind and its propensity for self-created suffering. His also discerned the means to relieve our distress. He captured these insights in the Four Noble Truths.

FIRST: All existence is dukkha. The word dukkha is often translated as suffering, but a better sense of it might be pervasively unsatisfactory. We are mere mortals whose physical bodies are subject to disease, decay, old age, and death. We are prone to mental anguish by the fleeting nature of pleasurable experience and the disappointment that attends to not getting what we want. We are distressed by life’s uncertainty – never really knowing who we are, where we stand, or what will come next. And we feel pain when reality pierces the veil of our illusions. This is the reality of existence.

SECOND: The cause of dukkha is craving. We crave pleasurable sensory experiences. We have a deep desire for security that the vicissitudes of life disrupt. We thirst to understand the essential core of our being and often create false selves in order to satisfy it. We suffer when our experiences, our sense of stability, and our assumptions prove transient. So, it might be said that dukkha is not a function of what happens to us in life, but rather a function of our yearning to make it other than it is.

THIRD: The cessation of dukkha comes with the cessation of craving. When we identify the sources of our craving and become liberated from them, we are free to experience life with a sense of equanimity. We enjoy sensory pleasures without becoming attached to them. We experience life moment-to-moment without undue anxiety over its impermanence. We forego the need to define ourselves. In short, we relieve suffering not by changing life, but by changing the way we perceive it.

FOURTH: There is a path that leads from dukkha. This Noble Eightfold Path includes right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.

Mindfulness looms large in Buddhist practice. The path to enlightenment calls for us to pay attention to our surroundings and the stream of thoughts that attend to our human experience. Meditation practice provides the means to slow down and both observe and tame the ego and its relentless inner dialog. We are invited to notice our stray thoughts and feelings without taking ownership of them. They are “just thoughts” or “just feelings.” We learn to separate our reactions from raw sensory events and give ourselves space to explore them with interest and compassion. And we can explore the cherished images we hold of ourselves and take leave of them.

One might perceive the Four Noble Truths as pessimistic and the call to mindfulness ascetic. Nothing could be further from the truth! Rather, when we open ourselves to the transitory nature of existence, we can “shift from an appetite-based, spatially conceived self [that is] preoccupied with a sense of what is lacking to a breath-based, temporally conceived self [that is] capable of spontaneity and aliveness.” We can let go and surrender to the moment. And that seems quite satisfying to me.

Samurai Meditator

I have aspired to be a meditator for a long time. I dipped my toe in those waters in the 1990s with a weekly class at the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Marin County, California. It turned out that meditation was not a discipline to which I had easy access. I found myself either too preoccupied to pay attention to the breath consistently, or so exhausted that I’d fall asleep the minute I released the tensions of the day. Feeling a failure, I abandoned the effort.

meditationI started researching and writing about meditation in early 2018 and assumed that my immersion in the science of meditation would have a positive effect on my practice. Not so much. I still found it difficult to sit still and focus on the breath. But when COVID-19 brought quarantine and a new flavor of stress into my life, I finally got with the program. I’m still struggling, but the voice in my head has become far less critical about my fledgling attempts to be in the moment.

If you hail from the land of Type As and find meditation challenging – even though it’s good for you – I feel your pain. I’ll also suggest that you curl up with Dan Harris’ book entitled 10% Happier. It’s part memoir, part bird’s eye view into meditation, and part words-of-wisdom from a guy who lived life in the fast lane for decades before embracing this ancient practice.

Harris launched a career in TV news right out of college. After working for local stations in Bangor, ME and Boston, MA, he landed a coveted job in network news at ABC under the tutelage of Peter Jennings. He worked insane hours, took every assignment offered him – including really dangerous ones – and leaned into the intensely competitive and ego-bashing side of the business for the sake of advancement. And advance he did! Yet on June 7, 2004, in front of 5 million viewers, he had a self-described on-air meltdown. That wake-up call started an intensive journey of self-discovery.

A fortuitous assignment covering faith in America eventually led Harris to Buddhism and meditation. His early impressions were less than favorable given a perception that the practice was too hippy-dippy for a seasoned journalist, news anchor, and morning show host. His gateway to the practice came through the aegis of psychiatrist Mark Epstein, MD for whom Buddhism’s positive outlook and meditative principle of living in the moment profoundly influenced his practice. Epstein spoke a language that Harris understood and, in time, convinced him to engage fully in the practice.

Harris’ description of his journey from novice meditator to committed practitioner bears the marks of unvarnished truth with a solid dose of humor thrown into the mix. If you’ve struggled with the practice – as I have – you’ll find a kindred spirit in Harris. You’ll also find that you can embrace a new way of being without sacrificing the edge that helps you function in an intense, challenging, competitive environment. To that end, Harris serves up ten pieces of advice for the meditative “corporate samurai”:

  1. Jettison the jerk and embrace your most compassionate self. It feels better and draws friends and allies into your circle.
  2. Don’t broadcast your Zen-fulness or expect an accommodation for it in a tough professional context. Simply compete aggressively but calmly.
  3. It confers a gaggle of benefits and enables you to respond rather than react to impulses and provocations.
  4. Figure out when worry and anguish yield a positive outcome and when they don’t. Let them go in circumstances beyond your control, capacity for change, or long-term benefit.
  5. Let your newfound equanimity impact creativity positivity. Celebrate the spaciousness created by clearing out the routinized rumination and unhelpful assumptions.
  6. Don’t force your way through difficult circumstances. Take purposeful pauses and embrace ambiguity as you make your way through.
  7. Embrace humility as a means of staying agile and open-minded.
  8. Go easy on self-criticism. Acknowledge flaws, forgive and learn from mistakes, and move forward. Resilience works better than recrimination.
  9. Work hard, play to win, but don’t get overly caught up in the results. There will be other games to play and new results for which to strive.
  10. Focus on what matters most. Use it as a gut-check when looking toward the future.

Harris published his book in 2014 and stayed with ABC News for another seven years. He left in late 2021 to focus on his mindfulness and meditation company, Ten Percent Happier.

Rethinking Person-to-Person

Having engaged last week’s post about rethinking, I hope we’re all committing ourselves to adopting an ounce of humility and equal measure of flexibility in our thought patterns. Getting stuck in “being right” isn’t a healthy or profitable way to go through life.

But what should we do when encountering a family member, friend, colleague, or community member who comes across as particularly rigid? Can we hope for a breakthrough? Adam Grant, author of Think Again, offers the following advice:

Approach the discussion with mutual respect and a deep desire for mutual understanding. Treat the interaction as an exploration with two engaged dialog partners, not a battlefield with two sides. Think like scientists. Acknowledge the complexity of the issue and be willing to look at it from multiple points of view. See the shades of gray.

Be an active listener. As the author says, “Interacting with an empathetic, nonjudgmental, attentive listener makes people less anxious and defensive.” Show a genuine interest in their views and ask thoughtful questions on how they came to hold them. How would they translate their views into reality? Tease out the benefits and costs that they’d expect to realize. Be curious, not accusatory. Simply hold up a mirror and let them take a good look at what they see.

Acknowledge common ground. It does not weaken your argument or conclusions to take note of points of convergence. Rather, it demonstrates your willingness to concede valid points and expresses confidence in their thought processes. It also encourages them to consider yours.

Ask: “What facts or experience might change your mind?” This question probes the extent to which one’s dialog partners would be willing to be open-minded. It also reveals what they consider to be the center of gravity for their belief system. Should you choose to provide evidence, focus in on a handful of relevant points, not the entire collective of opposing research. Less is more. An avalanche of input dilutes your message and gives them the option of rejecting your point of view based on your least effective argument. Be attentive to your data sources, using only those deemed credible.

Take the temperature of the conversation periodically. If emotions start to run hot, press the pause button and redirect the conversation to the process. Be curious about the dynamic. Express your frustration, disappointment, sadness, ambivalence, etc. and invite your partner to do the same. See what you might do to ease the tension. If you’ve reached an impasses, try a new approach. For example:

  • Consider how our views might be different had we been born in a different time, place, or circumstances.
  • Take the other person’s point of view and make a strong argument in favor of it. Pick up the mantle with seriousness of purpose – as if you were trying to win a debate with substantive prize money attached to it.
  • Think about how this issue might be viewed from outer space? Or from 100 years hence?

Honor freedom of choice… respectfully. At the end of the day, you may agree to disagree. That’s OK. We each exercise choice over what we believe. Let’s also make the choice to value each other’s humanity.

The Power of Rethinking

Graduate studies in business avail themselves of case studies to stimulate thought and discussion among budding corporate magnates. Some shine a light on success stories to provide exemplars of strategically sound thinking. Others highlight epic failures. The horse-and-buggy manufacturers who failed to take horseless carriages (a.k.a., automobiles) seriously. The purveyors of Encyclopedia Britannica who believed parents would continue to invest in their meticulously researched, gloriously illustrated tomes when personal computers hit the scene. The Blackberry CEO who held fast to miniature keyboards on his devices in lieu of touch screens.

While we may not carry the weight of corporate strategy on our shoulders, we are certainly vulnerable to mental miscalculation. Habitual patterns of thought may weigh us down, stifle our creativity, disrupt relationships, and render us blind to opportunities, dangers, and roadblocks – especially in a world that changes rapidly. Adam Grant illumes a path to mental agility in his book Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know.

Most of us take pride in our knowledge and expertise. In fact, the more often our intellectual horsepower has proven right, the less likely we are to question our mental processes, and the more difficult it is to pivot in response to new information or insights. In our conviction that we’re right, we receive data through a distorted lens. Our confirmation bias leads us to focus on that which affirms what we already believe to be true. Our desirability bias gives greater weight to that which we want to be true. Both validate our established notions and feed into the sense of pride that kicked the cycle off. In reality, we are all wrong more often than we’d like to admit!

overconfidence and rethinking cycles

When we commit to being flexible and open-minded in our thought patterns, we proceed from a place of humility. We may be confident in our ability to process data and exercise sound judgment, but we’re open to the possibility that our thought processes may not reveal the best interpretations, conclusions, or solutions. We allow ourselves to be curious about a subject or issue and engage enthusiastically on a journey of discovery. This exercise alerts our minds to the vast sea of knowledge and perspectives over which we are not masters. It keeps us humble, interested, and open.

So, what advice does Adam offer to keep our minds nimble?

  1. Locate your identity in your core values, not your opinions. You’ll gain intellectual flexibility when your sense of self is not tied to a need to be right.
  2. Think like a scientist. Treat opinions like hypotheses that need to be tested and proven true (or false) with hard data.
  3. Don’t confuse confidence with competence. You can hold your mental skills and capacity to learn in high regard while questioning your current thinking on a subject or problem.
  4. Engage actively with facts and opinion pieces that challenge your sensibilities. Lend them a sympathetic ear and see how they inform your perspective.
  5. Be OK with being wrong – in fact, celebrate it! It means you’ve learned something and will invite self-improvement in whatever form it takes. As Thomas Edison was reputed to have said: “I didn’t fail. I just found 2,000 ways not to make a lightbulb. I only needed to find one way to make it work.”
  6. Don’t shy away from constructive conflict. Rather, welcome people into your orbit with whom you regularly disagree. We learn more from people who challenge us than we do folks with whom we share points of view! Make sure your rules of engagement call for mutual respect. Try framing discussions as scholastic debates in service of a spirit of discovery. You might even take the opportunity to argue in favor of a side that you oppose initially to stretch your capacity to see things from multiple points of view.

A final thought from Adam sums it up for me:

“Every time we encounter new information, we have a choice. We can attach our opinions to our identities and stand our ground in the stubbornness of preaching and prosecuting. Or we can operate more like scientists, defining ourselves as people committed to the pursuit of truth – even if it means proving our own views wrong.”

Spaghetti Revisited

I have been a pasta lover all of my life. Growing up, my “birthday meal” every year used to be Mom’s macaroni with cream sauce and a salty slice of ham. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever met a pasta I didn’t like – e.g., lasagna, cannelloni, tortellini, pasta alfredo, pasta with sausage and peppers, and, of course, spaghetti and meatballs. Yet, as a processed food, pasta isn’t all that healthy. And red meat has fallen out of favor given that a substance it produces during digestion – trimethylamine N-oxide or TMAO – may elevate the risk of cardiovascular disease.

So, what’s a pasta-loving gal to do? Make a few substitutions to my old spaghetti recipe!

FIRST: I substituted spaghetti squash for pasta. When cooked, this mild-flavored vegetable looks rather like a serving of angel hair pasta. I enjoy eating it plain with just a lite dousing of extra virgin olive oil and Mrs. Dash seasoning. It also makes a perfectly good base for pasta sauce and compares favorably with the Real McCoy. One cup of spaghetti squash has a mere 42 calories versus 220 in noodles. Spaghetti squash also delivers quite a few essential vitamins and minerals.

To roast spaghetti squash in the oven, start by pre-heating the oven to 375°. Then:

spaghetti squash cut and cored
Cut the spaghetti squash lengthwise in half and scoop out the seeds. Drizzle with olive oil and season lightly with salt and pepper.
spaghetti squash ready for baking
Place cut-side down on a lightly greased or nonstick cookie sheet. (I use a nonstick liner.) Roast until tender, about 35-45 minutes. A knife should pass easily through the rind and flesh.
scraping the pulp from spaghetti squash
Use a fork to scrape out the flesh in long strands. When cooked “just right,” the flesh releases all the way to the rind yet doesn’t taste “mushy.”
spaghetti squash ready to eat
Voilà! You’re ready to eat!

If you’re short on time, you can slice, core, and grease the spaghetti squash, and then microwave it for 5-15 minutes, depending on the size of the squash and the microwave’s power output. Or, a pressure cooker can steam a whole, 2-lb spaghetti squash in about 15 minutes. Whatever cooking method you use, make sure you do not overcook the squash! You want the strands to have a little stiffness when cooked.

SECOND: Plant-based ground beef alternatives have been around for decades. They typically involve some combination of beans, grains, vegetables (e.g., mushrooms, kale), nuts, seeds, and/or tofu. I’ve tried a bunch of these recipes with varying degrees of success. None came close to replacing the good-old-fashioned ground beef that sizzles on the outdoor grill or cooks up nicely in a tomato sauce… until now.

In 2011, Stanford emeritus professor Pat Brown founded a company called Impossible Foods with a mission “to save meat and earth.” A biochemist and pediatrician by training, Dr. Brown was alarmed at the collapse in global biodiversity as a function of our excessive use of animals for food. He recognized that folks wouldn’t readily give up what they love to eat. So, he decided to create a plant-based product that tasted, smelled, and acted meaty.

spaghetti revisitedAfter years of research and development, the company’s signature product – the Impossible Burger – was launched in July 2016. Version 2.0 was released in January 2019. Impossible Burgers are available in select grocers and fast food restaurants. You can buy grill-ready patties or a block of ground meat substitute. From a nutritional standpoint, the Impossible Burger compares favorably with lean ground beef. A 4-ounce patty provides 240 calories, 19 grams of protein, 9 grams of carbohydrate, and 14 grams of fat. Having tried the patties and found them tasty, I used a ground block in my favorite tomato sauce to good effect. (I doubt anyone would know that I’d made the substitution!)

For those who are lactose intolerant, you can make a “vegan parmesan cheese” to top off your spaghetti by grinding a cup of cashews, a half-cup nutritional yeast, and some salt-free seasoning (e.g., Mrs. Dash Garlic and Onion) in a small food processor. I’ve used this concoction often and find it reasonably tasty. But I also allow myself the indulgence of freshly grated Parmesan cheese from time to time.

Clutter Free Productivity

Though mostly retired from paid employment, I still like to fill my day with meaningful tasks and go to bed at night with a feeling of accomplishment. I’m open to ideas that will help me feel greater satisfaction out of my waking hours. David Allen’s book – Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress Free Productivity – fit the bill. While the title suggests it’s just one more way to simply check more things off the “to do” list, the author has a loftier goal. He wants us to have more energy, feel more relaxed, and have more clarity in the moment. As he puts it: “Be effectively doing while you are delightfully being.”

overwhelmedAllen’s methodology challenges us to capture all of the things that might need to get done now or later and get them out of our heads and into a trusted system. Why? It turns out that unfulfilled commitments large and small (a.k.a. “open loops”) take up space in our consciousness and drain energy and focus. They stand ready to hijack our attention while doing something else or keep us up at night when we should be getting restorative sleep. That being said, the manner in which we process the resulting list and develop systems to track progress matters greatly.

As we contemplate each item on the list, we need to ask ourselves: Why does this item matter to me? What commitment(s) have I made to myself or others about it? What deadline(s) have I set? How do I define “done” (outcome) and “doing” (action)? What is the next step to make progress? If the task does not hold up to scrutiny, we may decide to jettison it. If it holds interest but requires no action, we close the loop by filing the item away for future reference or placing it in a tickler file for consideration at a later date. If action is required, we can do it, delegate it, or defer it and use a reliable tracking system to free up our brains from fussing about it. (Allen suggests that we knock out any item that takes <2 minutes – i.e., just do it!) Every “open loop” should have a next action and associated due date and system for prompting action.

Of course, we may still face the age-old dilemma of having too much to do and not enough time to do it. Allen presents a “natural planning model” to align our priorities with how our brains work.

  1. Define purpose and principles. Purpose clarifies why the task earns a spot on the list and provides guideposts for success, decision-making, resources, and options. Principles tell is what behaviors are in and out of bounds as we proceed.
  2. Envision outcomes. We need a clear sense for what we’re trying to accomplish by articulating what success looks, feels, and sounds like. This clarity ensures our actions stay on course.
  3. Brainstorm. We capture ideas without judgment to load up on options for consideration in achieving our objective(s).
  4. Organize. We identify natural relationships and structure, constituent pieces, sequences of events, and priorities in sufficient detail to create an actionable plan.
  5. Identify next action(s). The rubber meets the road in this final step. We ask ourselves: Are we really serious about taking this task or project on? If so, who will do what by when?

Having gone through the process of creating the master list, we can create our own system to manage it or take advantage of an app to do that work for us. On a weekly basis, we are encouraged to:

  • Process all of the new stuff that vies for our attention and decide what (if anything) to do about them – including the all-important next action
  • Review the system to ensure that it is still set up to meet our commitments and desired outcomes
  • Update short-, medium-, and long-term task lists
  • Get clean, clear, current, and focused

The more complete the system – and the more we work it – the more we trust it. Allen warns against getting paralyzed in the process or allowing ourselves to procrastinate. W don’t have to get it all done now! In fact, the beauty of sustaining focus on the next action is that we make our lives easier all the while gaining clarity, accountability, productivity, and empowerment.

While we may pride ourselves in having a good memory, the mind really isn’t designed to manage projects and tasks on its own. We can relieve our cognitive load and have more energy for projects, tasks, people, and fun if we let external systems do some work in our behalf. Allen promises rewards in psychology capital – self-efficacy, optimism, hope, and resilience.

How to Promote Healthy Bones

we can do this

As a woman of a certain age, my primary care physician (PCP) ordered a routine bone scan (DEXA test) to gain a baseline reading on bone density. Because the results proved concerning , I’m working on my bone health plan.

I contacted my naturopath and enrolled her participation in efforts to identify the root cause for my bone loss and develop a remediation strategy. While a low level of sex hormones is the most likely cause given my otherwise excellent health, we opted to run a comprehensive series of tests to rule out any other confounding factors. These insights will inform any requirements for medication or nutritional supplements.

Meanwhile, there are a host of lifestyle interventions that support healthy bones, all of which promote overall wellbeing.

First and foremost, eat a healthy diet with 5-9 servings daily of fresh, unprocessed, organic fruits and vegetables. Limit grains to 1-2 servings daily as they are acidic. Get your protein from plant-based sources, grass-fed meat, free range poultry, or wild caught fish… but don’t overdo it. Go easy on dairy and salt; limit consumption of sugar, processed foods, soft drinks, and alcohol. Consume limited amounts of healthy fats (e.g., omega-3 and omega-6) and eliminate unhealthy fats. Drink at least eight 8-ounce glasses of water daily.

Note: While I’ve followed these guidelines for years, I decided to install My Fitness Pal on my phone to track my daily intake. I’ve made some simple adjustments as a result and will continue to use the app.

Second, use nutritional supplements as needed to shore up any deficiencies in essential vitamins and minerals. My diet hits the mark on everything except Vitamin D. As a resident of the Pacific Northwest and member of a family with a history of skin cancer, I’m ill-advised to have my body manufacture this crucial element through unshielded exposure to the sun. Moreover, older adults do not absorb sun well enough to make an adequate supply. So, I’ll take a daily supplement to address this matter.

Third, practice good posture, move safely, and support lifts using leg instead of back muscles. For those with advanced osteoporosis, avoid bending or twisting the spine as those actions can cause microfractures. Use a pillow strategically to avoid twisting while sleeping. Use long-handled tools for gardening and housework.

Fourth, cultivate an active lifestyle within the parameters set by a knowledgeable physician. Stretching prevents injuries and improves agility. Weight-bearing exercises and activities of daily living may stimulate bone growth. Weight lifting builds muscles and bones. Studies have shown the latter to have the greatest impact on bone mineral density. Moreover, a strong body with a keen sense of balance reduces the risk of falling. That being said, exercise must become a regular part of daily living. Gains may reverse rather precipitously should one return to a sedentary lifestyle.

Note: While I’ve been relatively active throughout my life, I’ve decided to step it up. I’m exploring higher intensity aerobic exercise options and working with exercise bands at home for weight training. (The body doesn’t care how resistance is generated so long as it fatigues the muscles!) I’m using a desk riser to vary office work between sitting and standing. And, I’ll try to move about or exercise every hour or so. Every little bit counts!

Fifth, minimize stress. When the body stays on high alert, it shuts down its “building projects” in favor of initiating its fight or flight response. As I’ve detailed elsewhere, it’s not a healthy state of affairs and far from noble to simply “take it.” Look for all the large and small stressors in your life and make a considered effort to reduce them. Meditation and mindfulness may help. (It works for me!)

Sixth, don’t smoke. It creates a whole gamut of health-related risks. Bone health is just one more reason to quit.

Finally, stay positive. Establish goals directed toward improving your bone health. The greater your belief in the treatment protocol, the more likely you’ll stick to the plan and realize its benefits.

For more information, check out The Whole Body Approach to Osteoporosis: How to Improve Bone Strength and Fracture Risk by Dr. R. Keith McCormick.

Our Beautiful Bones

For twelve seasons, the crime procedural drama Bones traced the exploits of an FBI agent and his forensic anthropologist partner who helped solve cases by examining human remains – the bones. Viewers watched the team bring the bad guys to justice while also learning a bit about human anatomy. I’ve learned still more in a recent flurry of reading (see below).

human skeletonOur bones define our basic shape, protect our vital organs, and serve as the scaffolding on which all of our soft tissues hang. They house bone marrow in which our red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets are produced. They also provide a storage repository for minerals essential for energy production and tissue growth. When our diets fall short on nutrients, our bodies take what they need from our bones. Unfortunately, a chronic nutritional shortfall puts our bones’ strength and stability at risk.

Bones consist of three concentric layers. The familiar skeleton from biology class or Halloween decorations reflects a densely-packed outer cortical sheath. A spongy cancellous (or trabecular) bone sits just inside its harder cousin and resembles a honeycomb. It provides support without added weight. The inner medullary cavity contains the marrow.

Our skeletal frame undergoes tremendous growth between infancy and adulthood. We achieve peak bone mass somewhere between age 20 and 30, yet bone remodeling remains a mainstay of our physiology for a lifetime. Osteoclasts break down and absorb old and weakened bone to make way for stronger material. Osteoblasts deposit collagen into these excavation sites for subsequent combination with lysine (an amino acid) and minerals (e.g., calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium) to form new bone. Osteoclasts and osteoblasts need to work in lockstep to maintain healthy bones. Too little osteoclast activity can make for weakened bones and insufficient triggering to activate osteoblasts. Too little osteoblast activity causes bones to lose density.

Several vitamins and minerals contribute to bone development:

  • Vitamin A helps regulate osteoclast and osteoblast activity
  • Vitamins B6 and B9 keep homocysteine levels in check so as not to disrupt bone remodeling
  • Vitamin C plays a role in making collagen and serves as an antioxidant
  • Vitamin D supports proper absorption of calcium and phosphorous in the digestive tract
  • Vitamin K aids in the production of osteocalcin, which is part of the bone production process
  • Calcium, magnesium, and phosphorous contribute to the hardening of bones

Hormones also get in on the action:

  • Calcitonin (secreted by the thyroid gland) binds with osteoclasts and makes them less active so that osteoblasts can do their work
  • Parathyroid hormone (secreted by the parathyroid gland) promotes calcium absorption in the intestine and reduces loss through urine
  • Cortisol (secreted by the adrenal gland) assists bone growth in small amounts… and interferes in large amounts!
  • Growth hormone (secreted by the pituitary gland) increases muscle mass and strengthens bones
  • Thyroid hormones (secreted by the thyroid gland) control the rate of bone remodeling, although an excess may disproportionately increase bone resorption
  • Sex hormones (estrogen and testosterone) stimulate bone formation

And, of course, we need well-functioning digestive and liver function to ensure that we extract nutrients effectively from our food. So, just as our bones support our whole body, a whole lot of physiological elements need to come together to support our bones.

When a weakened physiology disrupts the activity of the aforementioned vitamins, minerals, and/or hormones, bone breakdown can outpace bone regeneration and render bones weak and porous. Physicians refer to the initial stage of disease as osteopenia and the advanced stage osteoporosis. More women than men are diagnosed with the disease due to the precipitous loss of estrogen during menopause. According to the International Osteoporosis Foundation, one in three women and one in five men worldwide over age 50 will sustain a fracture due to osteoporosis in their lifetimes.

Age is an obvious risk factor for bone loss given a general weakening in physiological function. Other risk factors include:

  • Chronic nutritional deficiency that fails to satisfy the body’s need for essential vitamins and minerals
  • Chronic low level acidosis which causes the body to leach calcium from the bones to maintain its slightly alkaline blood
  • Poor digestive function which inhibits the absorption of nutrients from foods – e.g., Celiac disease, dysfunctional microbiome, leaky gut, low hydrochloric acid
  • Chronic inflammation cause by long-term infection, food allergies, autoimmune disorders, and the like which elevates osteoclast activity
  • Excess cortisol caused by unrelenting stress which suppresses bone growth
  • Oxidative stress caused by poor diet, gastrointestinal disorders, hormonal imbalance, toxicity, stress, aging
  • An inactive lifestyle that provides little incentive for the body’s construction team to build bone and muscle
  • Use of certain prescription medications (e.g., glucocorticoids) that interfere with serum calcium and bone formation

Most of us do not pay much attention to our bones unless and until we sustain a fracture. Among older adults, such occasions may result in painful recuperation, loss of function, decreased quality of life, and even morbidity. A consultation with one’s physician complemented by a diagnostic bone scan can assess risk. No matter our age, a healthy lifestyle that is sensitive to skeletal health can help us preserve its function for many years to come.

References:

  • Bart L. Clarke, MD, Medical Editor, Mayo Clinic Guide to Preventing and Treating Osteoporosis: keeping your bones healthy and strong to reduce your risk of fracture, ©2014
  • Joy M. Alexander, PhD and Karla A. Knight, RN, 100 Questions & Answers About Osteoporosis and Osteopenia, Second Edition, ©2011
  • Felicia Cosman, MD, What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Osteoporosis: Help Prevent – and Even Reverse – The Disease That Burdens Millions of Women, ©2003

Beans! Beans! Beans!

Blacks beans. Kidney Beans. Pinto beans. Chickpeas. Navy beans. Lentils. Green peas. These luscious legumes (and more) figure prominently in the daily diet of the healthiest, longest lived people on the planet. They are a mainstay of a whole foods plant based diet.

Here are just a few of the reasons why I love them:

  • kidney beansA one-cup serving offers 14-18 grams of high quality protein.
  • They’re high in fiber which helps dilute the caloric density of a meal, creates a sense of fullness, and dampens the appetite. Higher fiber consumption is associated with lower cancer rates in the rectum and colon and is linked to healthier gut flora.
  • They’re loaded with vitamins and phytonutrients. (The darker the color, the more the nutrients.)
  • They have a low glycemic index – i.e., they slow the rate at which glucose is absorbed in the bloodstream. As such, they’re especially good for persons with diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and/or weight management issues.
  • They’re naturally low in cholesterol and fat.
  • There are lots and lots of delicious ways to prepare beans leveraging cuisines from all over the world!

Dr. Michael Greger of NutritionFacts.org tells us that legumes are the most important predictor of survival of older people globally.

Despite their impressive credentials, beans have come under attack by some nutritional consultants. Why? Beans contain lectins which provide a defense against microorganisms, pests, and insects. Lectins enable raw beans to pass through an animal’s digestive system intact, thereby enabling it to germinate in the soil when eliminated. As such, these consultants argue that beans give our digestive system a rough go of it and should be avoided.

Here’s where that logic goes wrong:

  • First: We don’t eat beans raw. They’re hard as rocks and might even break our teeth! And they wouldn’t be tasty even if we managed to chomp them down.
  • Second: Beans lose their lectins when properly prepared. One method calls for soaking the beans for at least 5 hours, rinsing them off, and then boiling for 30-45 minutes. If lacking time to soak the beans, they can be cooked in a pressure cooker for 45-60 minutes.

In other words: If you cook beans to the point where they’d be considered edible, it should be more than sufficient to destroy the adverse activity of lectins. For more information, see How to Avoid Lectin Poisoning on NutritionFacts.org.