Category Archives: Physiology

Lights Out!

If you follow my blog, you’ll know that I’ve already written a couple of posts about sleeping. It’s a subject that is near and dear to me as I’ve always been a lousy sleeper. When my head hits the pillow, my “monkey mind” takes over and keeps me awake. So I’m naturally drawn to books that offer insights about how I might improve.

lights outLights Out: Sleep, Sugar, and Survival by T.S. Wiley (with Bent Formby, PhD) provides interesting insights on this subject matter. Wiley is an anthropologist whose research on human physiology gives hearty consideration of our evolutionary history. She’s also meticulous in combing through and documenting studies by luminaries in the field. (She devotes roughly a third of the book to endnotes and bibliography!)

She notes that in 1910, the average adult slept 9-10 hours per night. Now, we’re lucky to get 7 hours per night. And when we don’t get enough sleep, we’re more likely to be fat, hungry, sickly, hypertensive, and prone to cancer and heart disease. (Yikes!) Here’s why…

As humans, we are hard-wired to store fat when exposed to long days, short nights, and a diet rich in sugars. Our bodies think it’s summer – a time to add some extra padding to get ready for sparse food supplies in winter. The combination of less sleep and increased sugar consumption revs up our appetites, thereby ensuring that we grab all the calories we can while the getting is good. As we bulk up, our livers also transform excess sugar into cholesterol to help keep cell membranes from freezing when the low temperatures settle in.

Shorter nights also result in less melatonin production which dampens immune function. Melatonin is a powerful antioxidant. Moreover, according to the NIH, it takes three-and-a-half hours of melatonin secretion before you see prolactin. You need six hours of prolactin production to maintain immune T-cell and beneficial killer-cell production. A fall-off in production may not be an issue during the warm summer months, but it IS a problem when the cold and flu season hit. And, of course, it’s all the more an issue given the modern day exposure to carcinogens.

We need healthy endothelial cells to control clotting, cellular overgrowth, fat metabolism, and blood pressure. We harm endothelial function by:

  • Chronically high cortisol (caused by too much stress)
  • High levels of endotoxins (caused by insufficient sleep)
  • High homocysteine (caused by too much light)

When humans created artificial light, we threw thousands of years of evolutionary biology out of whack. We no longer have seasons of long days and short nights followed by short days and long nights. With lights, TVs, computers, and all manner of electronic devices on, we think it’s always summer. So we keep storing up for a season of hibernation that never comes. And that’s how we wind up overweight, over tired, and prone to illness.

The solution: Eat foods that aligned with seasonal production in your local area. Meditate, do yoga, or whatever to relax and ease into sleep. Keep house lights at low intensity after dark. Wear rose or amber glasses to block blue light. Live in total darkness for nine-and-a-half hours per night for at least 6-7 months of the year.

EBV: A Pernicious Little Virus

I was diagnosed with mononucleosis as a kid. I don’t remember much about it other than a prolonged absence from school. I thought it was a one of those once-and-done childhood illnesses. I was wrong! Here’s what I’ve learned since…

epstein barr virusEpstein-Barr virus (EBV) causes mononucleosis. It targets lymphocytes and epithelial cells (i.e., those lining the mouth, tongue, and nose) and uses them as breeding grounds. Once infected, people may experience fatigue, fever, sore throat, swollen lymph nodes, enlarged spleen, rash, etc. Symptoms typically abate within 2-4 weeks, although some folks remain under the weather for weeks or even months.

Transmission occurs via bodily fluids. Common forms of contact include kissing, sharing food and drinks, sharing cups and utensils, and having contact with toys that kids have drooled on. Most people get infected with EBV at some point in their lives. Once infected, the virus hangs around for life. Fortunately, a properly functioning immune system can keep it in check.

Because the symptoms are similar to a lot of other viral conditions, physicians test for EBV antibodies to make a positive diagnosis. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), these antibodies include:

  • Viral capsid antigen (VCA)s: Anti-VCA IgM appears early in EBV infection and usually disappears within four to six weeks. Anti-VCA IgG peaks at two to four weeks after onset, declines slightly, then persists for the rest of a person’s life.
  • Early antigen (EA): Anti-EA IgG appears in the acute phase of illness and generally falls to undetectable levels after three to six months. However, 20% of healthy people may have antibodies against EA for years.
  • EBV nuclear antigen (EBNA): Antibody to EBNA slowly appears two to four months after onset of symptoms and persists for the rest of a person’s life.

I got interested in EBV when my doctor suggested that my hearty little EBV band had reasserted itself, thereby resulting in chronic fatigue. So, I did a little research to see if anyone is working on a cure. Apparently, there isn’t one. Some folks are working to develop a vaccine to prevent infection. Unfortunately, those efforts would not benefit those among us who have already been afflicted.

Recommended treatments for EBV focus on bolstering the immune system. Treatment plans typically consist of a multi-pronged approach:

  • Drinking plenty of fluids, getting plenty of rest, minimizing life stressors, and logging 8-9 hours of high-quality sleep nightly
  • Practicing deep relaxation techniques (e.g., meditation, yoga, deep breathing) to calm the body and mind
  • Eating a healthy diet loaded with immune-boosting foods such as dark leafy greens, Vitamin A rich carrots and sweet potatoes, dark blue and back berries, nuts, seeds, and good quality protein
  • Using immune supportive, antiviral, anti-inflammatory herbs and supplements that have proven effective at counteracting EBV, preferably under the supervision of a trained medical professional

An interesting article by Nine Mikirova and Ronald Hunninghake describes a positive effect of high dose Vitamin C on EBV infection. In part, this treatment rectifies a vitamin deficiency often noted in virally infected patients. Vitamin C also promotes detoxification to counteract oxidative stress caused by viruses. They also found a potential role for Vitamin D in reducing viral antibody levels.

Finally, I’ve been reading The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. He writes about a simple form of meditation that has been shown to boost immune function. While lying in a relaxed position on your back, focus on each body part successively for 15+ seconds, going from toe-to-head. Think about flooding each part with healing energy. After focusing intentionally on the parts, think about flowing waves of energy pulsing up and down the whole body. Do this practice first thing in the morning and right before nodding off to sleep at night.

While it’s disappointing that I can’t just “take a pill” and be done with it, I take heart in the things I can do to be kind to my body and help it heal. My treatment has already produced tangible results in my blood work, and I feel so much better. I’ll keep some form of it up permanently… just to make sure that pernicious little virus doesn’t wreak any more havoc!

Health Tips for Menopause

For years, Dr. Christiane Northrup, MD was the go-to source on The Oprah Winfrey Show regarding issues of women’s health. I remember watching a show after the release of her book The Wisdom of Menopause: Creating Physical and Emotional Health During the Change in the early 2000s and thinking, “I should read that book someday.” That day finally came.

Not surprisingly, the book covers a lot of scientific ground regarding all aspects of women’s health. Topics covered include:

  • What’s happening our bodies and our brains
  • What’s happening with our hormones and options to deal with them
  • Foods and supplements to support the change
  • Strategies to support pelvic, breast, heart, and bone health
  • Myths and reality re: sex and menopause
  • Living with heart, passion, and joy

As one who favors a natural (non-pharmaceutical) approach to nurturing my body, I was keenly interested in the lifestyle choices that she recommended to promote optimal health. They are consistent with the advice dispensed by others throughout this blog… with a couple of interesting twists.

First, Dr. Northrup notes that menopause is as much a re-orientation of a woman’s psychological wiring as it is her physiological being. For most of her life, a woman has been programmed to focus on others as a caregiver for her life partner and their offspring. Menopause creates the opportunity for nurture herself – to resolve old issues and set the ground rules for the years ahead. Physical ailments that arrive during this season are messengers that illumine a pathway to her inner wisdom. If she heeds the message(s), she has the potential to heal holistically. For example:

“Lack of support, loss of or separation from one’s family, or difficulties balancing a feeling of belonging with a sense of independence can affect the immune system and increase susceptibility to infections and autoimmune disease.”

Hormonal imbalance may be adjusted with bioidentical replacements and/or lifestyle changes to address unpleasant side effects of the change. Laboratory tests can assess serum levels of estrogen (in its various forms), progesterone, and testosterone. There is no one-size-fits-all treatment for all women. An experienced physician can provide guidance and suggest alternative approaches.

A healthy diet makes a big difference. Eat a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables along with a goodly chunk of natural fiber. Eat three meals per days which each meal containing a healthy source of protein. Be attentive to portion size. If you cup your two hands in front of you, you approximate the size of your stomach. Don’t overtax this essential organ. Eat healthy fats (omea-3 and omega-6). Good sources include pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, flaxseed, hempseed, organ meats, and cold-water fish.

Non-GMO soy-based protein contributes significantly to many aspects of health. For example, a 12-week study of persons ingesting 60-70 mg of soy isoflavones showed a 5.5% increase in HDL (good cholesterol), a 9% drop in HDL (bad cholesterol), a 13% increase in osteocalcin (bone builder), and a 14.5% decrease in osteoclasts (cells causing bone loss). Soy also reduces the risk of colon cancer.

Note: Many women have been counselled to avoid soy due to concerns over the phytoestrogen content and its possible relationship to breast cancer. According to Dr. Northrup, phytoestrogens are far less potent than human estrogens – on the level of 100ths to 1000ths of a percent in potency. Moreover, they are antioxidant (preventing free radical damage) and adaptogenic (balancing estrogen activity in the body – stimulating if too low, blocking if too high).

Avoid sugar, processed carbohydrates, alcohol, and caffeine. Eat whole organic foods to maintain normal blood sugar and avoid overproduction of insulin. Caffeine is a bladder irritant that can stimulate growth of bacteria and weaken crucial muscles.

Get regular exercise. Aim for 30 minutes of continuous aerobic activity at least 5 times per week. Use weight training sessions at least 2 times per week to place load on the skeletal frame and encourage bone growth.

Get outside in the natural light during the early morning or late afternoon hours to stimulate natural production of Vitamin D. Deficiencies in this critical nutrient sets the stage for poor health. Twenty minutes 3-5 times per week ought to do it.

Get 8-9 hours of restorative sleep nightly. Develop good sleep habits and create an environment in the bedroom that supports rest and relaxation.

Never retire. Have something that keeps you interested and alive for which you can’t wait to get out of bed in the morning. It doesn’t have to be related to an established career nor monetarily compensated.

Cultivate a positive attitude toward aging. Revel in the wisdom that this stage of life brings. Be optimistic, lively, engaging, and filled with good humor. Take the pruning shears to relationships and things that aren’t life-giving.

Survival Overdrive Syndrome

I’ve just finished reading the latest book by a physician/author who has answered the call to help patients (and the general public) de-stress in an overstressed world. Dr. Aviva Romm, MD provides “a proven 4-week program to rescue your metabolism, hormones, mind, and mood” in The Adrenal Thyroid Revolution.

The opening chapters introduce the reader to case studies of folks enmeshed in “survival overdrive symptoms” (S.O.S.) – fatigued, running on empty, foggy, groggy, hormonally imbalanced, achy, and frustrated. These conditions occur when the body has been overloaded chronically by stress, poor diet, lack of sleep, toxicity, and stealth viral infections. In Part I, Dr. Romm dives into root causes while giving her readers a basic primer in our biological systems and how they work. She also provides questionnaires to help readers discern which factors might contribute to their S.O.S.

Part II provides the 5 R’s of Dr. Romm’s 4-week plan to lead readers toward vibrant health. Here’s a brief summary:

rebbot, reframe, repair, recharge, replenish

REBOOT begins with saying YES to healthy foods and NO to a host of others. Adherents completely eliminate all artificial ingredients, poor quality oils and fats, sugar, refined carbohydrates, gluten and cross-reactive grains (e.g., barley, corn, millet, oats, rye, wheat), and dairy products. They also avoid common food triggers (e.g., nightshade vegetables, nuts, soy, yeasted products), alcohol, caffeine, and any personally known allergen. What’s left? Meat, poultry, fish, beans, legumes, whole grains (e.g., brown rice, quinoa, buckwheat), energy vegetables (e.g., beets, parsnips, sweet potatoes, winter squashes), leafy greens, rainbow vegetables, fruits, fermented foods, herbs and spices, and healthy oils and fats. She offers recipes and a day-by-day eating plan to get readers started.

REFRAME encourages readers to give themselves permission to pause. Several behavioral patterns need to get put on the shelf – i.e., perfectionism, stress addiction, approval addiction, worry, Fear Of Missing Out (a.k.a., FOMO), and scarcity thinking. Practical strategies for creating new thought patterns include:

  • Stay present. Don’t expend needless energy regretting the past or worrying about the future.
  • Be your own best friend. Don’t let negative thoughts take root. Let them pass by like dark clouds. Replace them with positive ones. Count your blessings and your good deeds.
  • Quit “should-ing.” Quit comparing. Find ways to translate your “I have to…” statements into “I get to…”
  • Tend and befriend. Be there for others and reach out to them when you need support.
  • Take breaks proactively. You can: Find a space to relax in solitude. Take quick meditation breaks. Do yoga. Soak in Epson salt and lavender. Journal. Get some fresh air. Play.
  • Get at least 7-8 hours of restorative sleep every night.

REPAIR focuses on gut health to make sure it can properly absorb nutrients, regulate our immune systems, and support detoxification. Start by eliminating (or minimizing) gut-disrupting medications – i.e., antibiotics, NSAIDs (e.g., ibuprofen, Aleve, Motrin), proton pump inhibitors use for acid reflux, and Tylenol. Adjust the diet to get rid of overgrowth of bad bacteria. (I’ve used The Body Ecology Diet by Donna Gates.) Take digestive enzymes to aid digestion and high quality probiotics to populate the gut with good bacteria.

RECHARGE takes aim at nourishing the overtaxed adrenal glands and thyroids through adaptogens that restore the weakened hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. They help calm inflammation, regulate immunity, enhance memory, boost energy, and restore health and vitality.

The REPLENISH phase allows for reintroduction of foods that were temporarily eliminated provided that they do not cause an adverse reaction. The plan entails testing one food every three days by adding in a couple of servings on a given day. If there are no reactions, that food can remain in the diet.

I find books like The Adrenal Thyroid Revolution helpful in that they provide a good overview of the body’s systems, how they can go awry, and what we can do about it. I choose to work through these paths under the auspices of a trained naturopath and leverage the benefit of her expertise and watchful eye on my progress. But if one lacks access to this resource, Dr. Romm’s book is worth a careful and considered read.

Good Friends Promote Good Health

I can’t imagine going through the journey of life without having wonderful friends with which to share it. I’m fortunate to have people in my life around whom I feel seen, heard, and valued. I am comforted in knowing that we give and receive without judgment, expectations, or scorekeeping. Their love and support is a source of sustenance, and I trust that mine is nurturing for them. I’m especially blessed to have married a man who is as great a friend as he is a life partner.

friends

Good friends make me feel good. But until recently, I didn’t realize the extent to which they are as much a contributor to my health as my happiness.

In The Healing Self, Drs. Deepak Chopra and Rudolph Tanzi tell us that the heart is responsive to how we feel physically and emotionally. Being loved and supported by others results in lower arterial blockage. It also affects the immune system. As a case in point, they ask their readers to assign one point to each relationship in which there is direct contact (face-to-face or phone) at least every other week. Those whose scores fall within the 1-3 range are four times more likely to exhibit cold symptoms than those with six or more. Moreover, the number and diversity of relationships exert greater influence on health than their intimacy.

In Mind Over Medicine, Dr. Lissa Rankin emphasizes the importance of having healthy, judgment-free relationships that give us the freedom to be our authentic selves. Love, nurturing, compassion, and feelings of belonging soothe the mind, halt the stress response, induce the relaxation response, and heal the body. They also bring out our best selves while elevating our moods.

Studies show that positive psychological states, such as joy, happiness, and positive energy, as well as characteristics such as life satisfaction, hopefulness, optimism, and a sense of humor result in lower mortality rates and extend longevity.
– Dr. Lissa Rankin, MD

Friendship also exerts an influence at the cellular level. Drs. Elizabeth Blackburn and Elissa Epel explore this connection in The Telomere Effect. Telomeres are a repeating segment of noncoding DNA that live at the ends of our chromosomes. Much like the plastic or metal aglets placed on the ends of shoelaces, telomeres keep our DNA strands intact. It turns out that good friends are like trusted guardians of these essential genetic building blocks. When they’re around, our telomeres are protected. By contrast, unhealthy relationships are a telomere risk factor. Situations that consistently mix positive qualities with unhelpful or disturbing interactions engender a kind of stress that produces shorter telomeres. When telomeres become critically short, our cells can no longer reproduce.

Finally, I recall a discussion with my father’s neurologist when Dad first exhibited signs of geriatric dementia. The doctor told us that four things were essential to maintaining one’s mental faculties for as long as possible. The first three were not surprising: a healthy diet, regular exercise, and adequate sleep. The fourth was socialization. While sudoku and crossword puzzles are fine diversions, they can’t compete with sustained, positive contact with other human beings. The more we engage with others, the more we exercise our brains and the better we feel.

How Stress Weighs Us Down

stressed outIn Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, I briefly summarized Dr. Robert Sapolsky’s outstanding book on the biological mechanisms inherent in the stress response. He also explains how these mechanisms go awry when stressors hang around for days, weeks, and months. Physiological disturbances include hypertension, elevated cholesterol, insulin resistance, and bone disintegration, to name a few. We may also accelerate the rate at which our DNA loses its telomeres – i.e., the segments at the ends of our chromosomes that hold the strands together.

Many of the adverse effects of stress lie beneath our awareness. As such, they may not provide sufficient motivation for us to take action. However, the following impacts may get our attention.

We have trouble losing (or maintaining) weight. Stress increases our appetite for starchy and sweet foods to provide us with quick energy. The body assumes that we’ll have an elevated need for fuel during a relatively short interval, so it wants food that metabolizes readily into glucose. It’s not worried about having excess sugars roaming around the bloodstream.

With a long term stressor, cravings become a 24×7 phenomenon. The potato chips in the cupboard, the ice cream in the fridge, and the candy in the vending machine form a chorus that calls our names. And because these foods trigger our pleasure centers, we’re happy to respond and let them give us a little TLC. Unfortunately, the excess sugar in our bloodstream causes a number of unpleasant biochemical responses and promotes fat storage around our middles. Both factors increase our risk of cardiovascular disease while keeping the dream of fitting into our skinny jeans at bay.

We have trouble sleeping. According to Dr. Sapolsky, stress is responsible for 70% of insomnia cases. When those folks finally manage to nod off, their sleep tends to be shallower. To top it off, not getting enough sleep is another stressor!

We don’t look or feel our best when we haven’t had the required ~7-9 hours per night of sleep. We also don’t function as well. Lost sleep means our brains have less time to process memories, information, emotions, and motor tasks. Loss of deep, slow wave sleep also impacts our perceptual abilities.

We’re far more susceptible to illness. Our bodies are programmed to boost immune function in response to a short term stressor. If we’re running for our lives and sustain an injury, we want a lot of antibody warriors at the ready to quell any infection that might arise during our escape.

Unfortunately, if we have a bunch of active troops wandering around in our bloodstream for very long, they’re going to want to pick a fight. If there are no infectious agents to attack, they’ll start going after our own tissues. For this reason, the body tamps down its immune response when stressors persist. So when the usual round of germs, bacteria, viruses show up, stressed out folks won’t have the proper resources at hand to address them. They’ll get sick.

We’re more likely to have issues with substance abuse. Stress increases the addictive potential of food, alcohol, and drugs if exposure comes right before the stressor. Ongoing stress amplifies addiction and reduces one’s reservoir of willpower. It also increases the likelihood of relapse for those who’ve achieved sobriety.

For all of the foregoing reasons, we’d be wise to take stress management seriously. Here are a few strategies to consider:

  • Make lifestyle adjustments to get rid of toxic stressors. Change jobs. Adjust commute patterns. Bid farewell to folks with whom there’s no hope of reasonably cordial relations. Find a more pleasant community in which to live. Ease financial pressures by living modestly.
  • For circumstances in which change is not an option, re-wire your thought patterns to treat stressors as challenges that can advance your knowledge, skills, experience, and self-confidence.
  • If a stressor doesn’t offer the potential for personal growth, work on training yourself not to react adversely to it. As my husband says: “Water off a duck’s back…”
  • Avoid hostility, pessimism, rumination, and vengeful thoughts. Practice mindfulness and meditation to elevate your awareness of these patterns and detach from them.
  • Exercise! It boosts mood and reduces stress.

Why Sleep Matters

sleepA recent Gallup poll revealed that 40% of Americans are not getting the recommended 7 minimum hours of sleep per night. Many of us are burning the candle at both ends juggling long hours at work with a gaggle of personal responsibilities. And when we’re not busy with the business of life, we’ve got all of those electronic devices competing for our attention.

We don’t look or feel our best when we haven’t gotten enough sleep. We might be able to power through our fatigue, perhaps with a certain amount of pride that we’re able to keep things rolling even when we aren’t operating at peak efficiency. But whether we like it or not, we really do need our sleep.

We need sleep to regenerate physically. During sleep, elevated growth hormones support nightly repair and rebuilding of our organs, muscles, and bones. Our heart rate and blood pressure lower, giving our entire cardiovascular system a much-needed rest. Sleep also allows for expansion in the space between our brain cells to expose and eliminate toxins. Should this debris transform into plaque, we increase our risk of stroke and dementia.

We need sleep to regenerate cognitively. Our brains use restorative sleep to process and consolidate our daily dose of information and experience. Sleep deprivation disrupts memory formation, diminishes our capacity for focused attention, and draws down our reserves of will power. Poor recall, a wandering mind, and difficulty sticking to the task at hand all contribute to a substantive decline in productivity. It also increases the odds that we’ll make errors, have accidents, and cause bodily injury to ourselves or others.

We need sleep to regenerate emotionally. No matter how much we enjoy our work, our friends and families, and our communities, we need a break to reset our emotional clocks and start anew. REM sleep provides the opportunity to process and consolidate our emotional experiences. Sleep deprivation and chronic fatigue dampen our enjoyment of life and is a risk factor for anxiety and depression.

We need sleep promote longevity. Folks with good sleep hygiene tend to have long telomeres. Telomeres are the protective “tips” on our DNA strands that hold them together during cellular division. Poor sleep quality threatens these life-sustaining biological structures. Once they’re unsustainably short, our cells can no longer regenerate.

A pharmacological approach to sleeping is not a good idea. It doesn’t deliver the quality of sleep that Mother Nature intended and carries the risk of physical or psychological dependence. It’s far preferable to pursue good sleep habits that help the body leverage its built-in mechanisms.

Here are 7 tips to promote good sleep:

  1. Make your bedroom a sanctuary for sleep. Get a comfortable bed with high quality sheets, blankets, and pillows. Ban TVs, phones, computers, and other electronic devices from the room. Use dim lighting.
  2. Maintain regular sleep patterns. Go to bed and rise at roughly the same time daily.
  3. Support your body’s circadian rhythm by getting lots of bright light during the day and avoiding artificial light in the hours before bedtime. (Note: Amber-tinted glasses can be used to block the blue spectrum light that disrupts production of sleep-inducing melatonin.)
  4. Eat on a regular schedule to keep your hunger hormones in check. The last meal of the day should tide you over until morning without making you feel full at bedtime.
  5. Don’t drink alcohol at night. While alcohol is a sedative upon consumption, it has a stimulatory effect as it breaks down in the bloodstream. It releases adrenaline and disrupts serotonin production.
  6. Design a relaxing bedtime routine to manage the transition from wakefulness to a slow descent into sleep.
  7. Use a yellow- or red-tinted night light to avoid sleep-disrupting blasts of blue light during nocturnal pit stops.

Sweet dreams!

 

Sources:

  • Sandra Aamodt, PhD and Sam Wang, PhD – Welcome to Your Brain: Why You Lose Your Car Keys but Never Forget How to Drive and Other Puzzles of Everyday Life, ©2008
  • Elizabeth Blackburn, PhD and Elissa Epel, PhD – The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer, ©2017
  • Sara Gottfried, MD – Younger: A Breakthrough Program to Reset Your Genes, Reverse Aging, and Turn Back the Clock 10 Years, ©2017
  • David Perlmutter, MD – Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth About Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar – Your Brian’s Silent Killers, ©2013

Dr. Axe Says: “Eat Dirt”

In an earlier post, I discussed the importance of maintaining a healthy microbiome – i.e., the population of microscopic organisms that live symbiotically in our small intestines and colons. They aid in digestion, help regulate metabolism and hormone levels, support immune function, protect the gut lining, and ward off harmful microorganisms. Diversity is the hallmark of a healthy microbiome with no more than 15% of its residents deemed potentially harmful.

When our microbiome is out of balance, we are far more susceptible to chronic illness and disease. According to Dr. Josh Axe, author of Eat Dirt: Why Leaky Gut May Be the Root Cause of Your Health Problems, a number of factors compromise our microbiome:

  • A poor diet characterized by excess sugar and nutritionally bankrupt processed food
    (Note: A test subject’s biodiversity dropped by 40% after eating a diet based wholly on fast food for 10 days!)
  • Dietary gluten that triggers production of zonulin, a hormone that causes the tight junctions of our gut lining to loosen up
  • Overuse of antibiotics and antimicrobial sanitizers which kill off good bacteria with the bad
  • Environmental toxins
  • Stress

eat dirtMicrobes die off and must be replenished. To nourish the good microbial population, we need regular exposure to the soil-based microbes found in dirt and other plant life. While it isn’t necessary to serve ourselves daily spoonfuls of dirt, it certainly doesn’t hurt to leave a little bit of dirt on the fruits and vegetables we consume. Microexposures reinforce good bacteria and help our bodies respond appropriately to pathogens. Those of us who own dogs and cats get a little dose of dirt every time we handle their dirty paws!

As an aside: I’ve always noshed on baby carrots at parties to keep me away from higher calorie snack foods. Until reading this book, it never occurred to me that packaged carrots tend to be bathed in chlorine to increase their shelf life. Chlorine kills bacteria in the gut!

Other than becoming a pet owner, what dietary and lifestyle practices support the cultivation of a healthy microbiome?

Dr. Axe favors getting back to nature. A few simple lifestyle adjustments might include: (i) walking barefoot on the ground daily; (ii) working in the garden; (iii) showering with water and no soap a few days per week to help maintain beneficial microorganisms on the skin; (iv) washing hands with water and certified organic therapeutic oils (e.g., tea tree, orange, melaleuca, rosemary) or Dr. Bronnor’s Pure Castile Soap; and, (v) swimming in the ocean.

As for food, Dr. Axe offers the following recommendations:

  • Eat probiotic rich foods such as kefir, yogurt, and fermented vegetables.
    (Note: Commercially prepared sauerkraut may or may not have been fermented; it could just be cabbage seasoned with vinegar.)
  • Drink raw, fermented, organic goat or sheep milk and cheese.
    (Homogenization destroys essential enzymes and probiotics as well as oxidizes fats and creates free radicals.)
  • Substitute coconut flour or almond flour for wheat-based flour.
  • Use extra virgin coconut oil for cooking and ghee, olive oil, or flaxseed oil for dressings, et al.
  • Use bone broth and collagen powder to repair the gut’s mucosal lining and provide a rich source of minerals that the body can readily absorb.
  • Avoid sugar and artificial sweeteners.

Biochemistry and the Mind-Body Connection

My last post explored major influences on cellular activity. For a deeper dive on the subject, I read Dr. Candace B. Pert’s book Molecules of Emotion: The Science Behind Mind-Body Medicine. It chronicles a distinguished career devoted to exploring protein receptor molecules while providing a behind-the-scenes look at the interpersonal and organizational dynamics of high-stakes scientific research.

integral membrane proteinsAs noted in my last post, protein receptor molecules (a.k.a., Integral Membrane Proteins or IMPs) dot the landscape of each cellular membrane. They bend and change shape in response to chemical and electromagnetic forces, and bind selectively with specific configurations of molecules called ligands. Once binding takes place, the cell may initiate one or more processes – e.g., manufacturing proteins based on its DNA blueprints, opening or closing ion channels, adding or subtracting chemical groups, or initiating cellular division. Think of it this way: If cells are the “engines” and receptor IMPs the “buttons,” then ligands are the “fingers” that push the “buttons.”

There are three broad types of ligands: neurotransmitters, steroids, and peptides (e.g., hormones, growth factors, interleukins, cytokines). They are messengers that carry (or block) information transfer to the cells. Agonists attach to receptors and create cellular change. Antagonists bind to receptors and block the associated cellular activity.

Dr. Pert cracked the field wide open with her discovery of the opiate receptor, an IMP that binds to endorphins as well as man-made opiates. Her methodology provided the key to identifying a vast array of receptors. Moreover, it turned out that this intercellular communications construct within the brain was far more active than chemical signaling across synapses, perhaps by as much as fifty-fold.

The core limbic system (amygdala, hippocampus, and limbic cortex) contains 85-95% of the various neuropeptide receptors. It’s the part of the brain that is most closely associated with emotions. This finding contributed to Dr. Pert’s assertion that biochemicals serve as the molecular underpinning of what we experience as feelings, sensations, thoughts, and drives – in other words, they are the “molecules of emotion.”

mind-body connectionNeuropeptide receptors were also found all along the spine, with the highest concentrations associated with processing of sensory data (visual, auditory, smell, taste, touch). Most, if not all, were discovered to alter mood states. They were also found in the other major systems in the body. In fact, a massive amount of communication takes place throughout the body through neuropeptides (which should just be called peptides as they’re not confined to the brain!). The information exchange constitutes a rich language of relatedness, cooperation, interdependence, and synergy… and our brains are in on the conversation.

It turns out that we realize an optimal state of health when the information flow is rapid, unimpeded, and aligned with the body’s natural design. We threaten our well-being disrupt that flow. A few case studies illustrate the point:

When an excess of ligands flood the system, the associated receptors desensitize. If the surplus reflects a chronic condition, they’ll shrink and grow fewer in number. For example, eating processed foods and sugars causes the pancreas to secrete large amounts of insulin to promote fat storage in cells. When food with insulin, the receptors stop responding to the messaging, causing elevated levels of blood sugar and a host of associated maladies.

When we repress intense feeling (e.g., anger, grief), we disrupt the normal flow of neuropeptides. When these blocked emotions find release, the internal pathways clear, and we experience an influx of energy. This phenomenon explains why happy people are more resistant to disease than those who are chroically depressed or tightly-wound.

We can take advatange of the mind-body connection to produce positive health outcomes. Changes in the rate and depth of breathing produce changes in the quantity and kinds of peptides released from the brain, and vice versa. Biofeedback techniques have been used successfully to control blood circulation, heart rate, pain… even the stickiness of immune cells.

These findings suggest that the mind and body should be treated as a whole, and that proper modulation of the neuropeptide communications network could vastly improve our health. As Dr. Pert says:

“I can no longer act like a dumb machine and wait to be fixed by a mechanic. Now I have the potential to consciously intervene in the system myself, to take an active role in my own healing. I’m both more powerful and more responsible for creating the health I experience.”

How Chemicals, Energy Fields, and Thoughts Influence Our Cells

In bygone days, we believed that our genes pretty much determined our destiny. Through a new field of inquiry known as epigenetics, we’ve learned that most of our genes simply provide the blueprints by which we manufacture substances to construct and maintain our cellular structures, tissues, and organs. These blueprints do not self-actuate. Rather, something in the environment triggers (or inhibits) their activity. Cell membranes play a crucial role in genetic expression as they are gatekeepers for environmental influence.

Dr. Bruce H. Lipton’s book entitled The Biology of Belief: Unleashing the Power of Consciousness, Matter, and Miracles was my first port of call when diving into the world of cellular biology. Prior to becoming a best-selling author and lecturer, Dr. Lipton had a distinguished career as a researcher and medical school professor. Among his strengths is the ability to translate complex science into everyday language and illustration. Here’s what I’ve learned from him.

Our bodies make and use over 100,000 distinct proteins – chains of amino acids held together by peptide bonds – using templates stored in our DNA. These chains are “shape shifters,” bending and contorting as a function of the electrical attraction and repulsion of positive and negative electrons that comprise the chain. They also adjust shape in response to changes in their electrical charges caused by: (i) binding to other molecules or chemical groups (e.g., hormones), (ii) adding or removing some of their charged ions, and (iii) exposure to external energy fields.

protein channelCell membranes contain a variety of Integral Membrane Proteins (IMPs) that traverse their erstwhile impermeable walls. Each IMP is designed to match the charge of a specific type of molecule or vibrational energy and change shape when coming into contact with it – much like a lock and key. When the charge is introduced, the altered shape of the receptor IMP may allow substances to gain access to the cell’s interior. It may also actuate effector proteins inside the cell to read and act upon genetic instruction.

Receptor IMPs are also sensitive to energy signatures. Dr. Lipton reminds us that quantum physics characterizes atoms as vortices of energy in continual motion (spinning, vibrating). Each atom, molecule, and collective of molecules manifests its own energy signature. Manipulation of the quantum properties of matter – e.g., exposure to external energy fields (microwave radiation, radio frequencies, cell phones) – influences the course of biochemical reactions. In fact, electromagnetic signals provide a far more efficient means to relay environmental information than chemical carriers (hormones, neurotransmitters, growth factors). As such, the energy fields with which we habitually come into contact may well influence the environment within our cells and, hence, our genetic expression.

Thoughts – the mind’s energy – also impact our cellular environment. For example, research has shown that deep rest induced by practices like meditation, yoga, deep breathing, and prayer produce positive changes in genetic expression with respect to immune function, energy metabolism, and insulin secretion. In addition, many medical practitioners embrace the “placebo effect” – i.e., belief in a treatment even when no drugs or procedures are actually employed – as an effective treatment for ailments. Belief may simply activate the body’s intrinsic healing mechanisms. In the words of Mahatma Gandhi:

Your beliefs become your thoughts.
Your thoughts become your words.
Your words become your actions.
Your actions become your habits.
Your habits become your values.
Your values become your destiny.

Dr. Lipton warns that only a small percentage of our thoughts are controlled by our conscious mind. Our subconscious mind stores a warehouse of beliefs, behaviors, and attitudes based on what we’ve experienced in our families, our peer groups, and our life journeys. It initiates behaviors automatically in response to environmental signals. Such behaviors can be useful – e.g., driving a car (somewhat subconsciously) while carrying on a conversation (consciously). They can be harmful when we act in ways that seem in conflict with what we say we believe. Fortunately, we can disrupt our “autopilot” by paying attention to our knee-jerk reactions, stopping the associated behaviors, and creating new responses.

All of the foregoing causes me to marvel at the wondrous complexity of the human body and its capacity to adapt and respond to a variety of environmental inputs. It also makes me conscious of all of the ways in which I exert control over my body – for my betterment or my peril – and encourages me to adopt healthy behaviors.