Category Archives: Physiology

A Deeper Dive on Osteoblasts and Osteoclasts

Earlier posts provided a brief introduction to Our Beautiful Bones as well as tips on How to Promote Healthy Bones. In short, a balanced system of remodeling maintains bone health. When osteoblast (bone building) and osteoclast (bone deconstruction) activity get out of synch, bones become more fragile and elevate the risk for fracture.

Dr. R. Keith McCormick, author of The Whole Body Approach to Osteoporosis, wrote a fascinating article that ties bone health to immune function.1 This high-level summary seeks to capture the main concepts for laypersons (as I understand them!) We’ll start by looking at the genesis of osteoclasts and osteoblasts.

Osteoclasts trace their origin to hematopoietic (blood-oriented) stem cells located in the bone marrow. These stem cells can differentiate into:

  • Red blood cells, which carry fresh oxygen all over the body
  • T Cells, which help the body mount an adaptive immune response
  • Dendritic cells, which are responsible for initiating the adaptive immune response
  • Macrophages, which engulf and digest cancer cells, pathogens, cellular debris, and other foreign/unhealthy substances
  • Osteoclasts, which secret acid phosphatase to dissolve bone crystal (hydroxyapatite)

hematopoietic stem cells

The presence of macrophage colony-stimulating factor (M-CSF) causes the hematopoietic stem cell to differentiate into myeloid progenitors. M-CSF may be released by osteoblasts (bone builders) in response to stimulation by the parathyroid; it may also be released when the body senses a need to combat inflammation. Osteoclasts come into being when RANKL attaches to the receptor activator of nuclear factor KB (RANK) on the myeloid progenitor.

Note that RANKL does not confine its activities to bone remodeling; it also plays a role in immune function. It can be expressed by Helper T Cells to activate B cells to secrete antibodies and macrophages, or activate cytotoxic T cells. It may also alert the immune system to lymph-born antigens.

Osteoblasts trace their origin to mesenchymal stem cells. These stem cells can differentiate into:

  • Adipocytes, which specialize in storing energy as fat
  • Cartilage cells, which form connective tissue found in the larynx and respiratory tract, the external ear, and in the articulating surfaces of joints
  • Osteoblasts, which leverage cytokines (cell signaling proteins) to instigate bone remodeling and subsequently deposit collagen and alkaline phosphatase into bone excavation sites for mineralization

mesenchymal stem cells

In healthy individuals, osteoblasts actuate just the right amount of messenger proteins (e.g., RANK-L) to dissolve bone in a manner consistent with the osteoblasts’ capacity for bone building. Osteoblasts also produce osteoprotegerin (OPG), a soluble decoy receptor that absorbs excess RANK-L and keeps it from activating too many osteoclasts.

The RANK/RANKL/OPG system of bone homeostasis receives substantive bone remodeling support from estrogen. Estrogen improves Vitamin D absorption in the gut (for improved availability of bone-building minerals) and stimulates the release of calcitonin (to make osteoclasts less active). Moreover, estrogen-receptor activation of osteoblasts stimulates release of the growth factors TGF-β and IGF-1, and OPG. This action limits M-CSF and RANKL (which reduces osteoclast formation) and increases osteoclast cellular death.

Individuals with reduced estrogen levels (notably post-menopausal women) and/or persistent activation of the immune system may lack the natural ability to limit RANKL engagement in osteoclast production. As noted previously, both the immune and bone remodeling systems use the same intercellular communications tools. Unfortunately, osteoclast precursors do not consider the source of the signals when acting upon them. When immune system activation boosts production of RANKL and cytokines, the healthy balance of osteoclast-osteoblast function tips in favor of bone breakdown and compromises bone strength, density, and microarchitecture. Therefore, reducing antigenic load, inflammation, and oxidative stress may prove as critical for sustaining bone health as estrogen.

Many of us are unaware of the ways in which we activate our immune systems. We may feel that our bones are not at risk because we don’t have inflamed tissues, viral infections, or other obvious signs of physical distress. And yet our lifestyles may induce immune responses that fly “under the radar.” For example:

  • Oxidative stress is stimulated by processed food, preservatives, food coloring, air pollution, toxins, and smoke inhalation.
  • A weak intestinal endothelial lining (a.k.a. “leaky gut”) may permit bacteria and dietary antigens to escape into the blood stream. Common factors that increase intestinal permeability include: alcohol, food allergies, gluten, NSAIDs (e.g., Advil, Motrin, ibuprofen), psychological stress, surgery/trauma, and unsaturated fats.
  • A high sugar diet may encourage bacterial and/or fungal overgrowth in the gastrointestinal track and oral cavity, such as the characteristic white-coated tongue associated with Candida albicans.
  • Chronic inflammation caused by long-term infection (e.g., periodontal disease), food allergies, autoimmune disorders, and the like evoke immune response.
  • Chronic stress amps up inflammation and weakens immune function.

Dietary and specific nutrient interventions can reduce inflammation and limit the potential impact of excess osteoclastic activity. Ask your doctor for recommendations, or read Dr. McCormick’s article.

 

1 R. Keith McCormick, DC, CCSP, Osteoporosis: Integrating Biomarkers and Other Diagnostic Correlates into the Management of Bone Fragility, Alternative Medicine Review, Volume 12, Number 2, 2007

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 increases calcium absorption in the intestines and stimulates the kidneys to reabsorb calcium from urine
  • Vitamin K – specifically menaquinones 4 and 7 (MK4 and MK7) – helps clear excess calcium from joints and arteries, protects bone sheath flexibility, and supports calcium deposit in the bone matrix
  • Calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, and trace minerals contribute to the hardening of bones
  • Silicon improves bone matrix quality and facilitates bone mineralization

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; estrogen also keeps osteoclasts in check

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 caused 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

Women’s Health

During a peak period in parent care, I checked in with my primary care physician for an annual physical. I reported symptoms of fatigue, brain fog, dry skin, joint aches, cold intolerance, and low heart rate – all classic signs of hypothyroidism. My doctor told me that I was depressed and suggested that I go on antidepressants. I explained that I did not feel anxious or depressed. He said, “If it walks like a duck and squawks like a duck, it’s a duck.” I passed on his advice and opted to see a naturopath instead. A simple blood test pointed to a thyroid problem. With the right medication, all of the symptoms went away.

stethoscopeUnfortunately, my experience is all too common. Studies reveal a gender-biased medical system that treats women as invisible, ignores their legitimate concerns, and belittles them. In a 2001 study (“The Girl Who Cried Pain”), men and women presented the same symptoms to their care providers. The men generally received pain-relief medication, while the women were directed toward sedatives. The presumption is that women are too emotional to report symptoms accurately. This dismissive attitude is especially troublesome given the prevailing hormonal epidemic. According to Dr. Aviva Romm, MD:

  • 85% of women experience troublesome premenstrual symptoms
  • At least 75% have painful or heavy periods
  • Up to 20% of women experience chronic pelvic pain
  • 10% of women have endometriosis, and half of all women aged 60+ will have had a hysterectomy
  • Between 5-10% of women have polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
  • An estimated 30 million women have hypothyroidism

What has happened in the last 70+ years to have gotten our hormones so out of kilter? It turns out that our inner and outer ecosystems are no longer health promoting. We’re dealing with poor nutrition, elevated stress, substandard quantity and quality of sleep, poor digestion, a dysfunctional microbiome, toxic exposure and accumulation, excess use of over-the-counter and prescription medication, inflammation, and oxidative stress. That’s quite a lot! Mercifully,  Dr. Romm tells us that our sorry state of affairs can be reversed. We do not have to put up with unpleasant health outcomes!

In Hormone Intelligence: The Complete Guide to Calming Hormone Chaos and Restoring Your Body’s Natural Blueprint for Well-Being, Dr. Romm shares everything you might ever want to know about women’s health along with a 6-week detailed program for getting things back on a natural and balanced track. It includes:

  • A discussion on healthy eating along with detailed advice on what to eat and what to avoid for hormone health
  • An exploration of stress and its impact on hormone health along with a prescription for de-stressing your life
  • A fascinating look at the body’s natural rhythms and how to get the body’s master “clock” and peripheral “clocks” to synch up
  • A detailed discussion of the gut-hormone connection that covers topics about which I’ve posted earlier – i.e., the body’s enteric system and microbiome (Who knew that the small and large intestines would be so crucial for optimal health?)
  • A prescription for detoxifying our bodies
  • Strategies for revitalizing cellular repair

The book is so jammed-packed with great information that I’d advise female readers to keep a copy of it on their bookshelves (or Kindle) for reference. It will equip them to have a more engaged dialog with their primary care providers. To that end, Dr. Romm offers the following tips to get the best medical care:

  1. Work with a woman. Studies show that they listen more, interrupt less, and make fewer mistakes.
  2. Remember, you’re the boss. You do not have to accept your doctor’s recommendations or treatment. You are entitled to get second opinions.
  3. Trust yourself. If something is “off,” don’t let yourself be shamed out of getting help to resolve it.
  4. Be your own advocate. (Dr. Romm’s book will help you gear up for that role.)
  5. Bring an advocate who can support you during your consultation – especially a forthright and/or knowledgeable one.
  6. Know when it’s time to get another doctor. If your care provider is disrespectful, condescending, distracted, or unskilled in a therapeutic modality that interests you, find someone with whom you can forge an effective partnership.

SIBO and Leaky Gut

Until recently, I’d never heard of small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO, pronounced see-bow). Family and friends brought it to my attention after they’d experienced nausea, bloating, diarrhea, and the like. Their physicians attributed these symptoms to excessive bacterial growth in their small intestines. They received treatment with antibiotics along with recommended changes to their diets. Unfortunately, some of them found no relief.

I received an invitation to a nutritionfacts.org webinar entitled SIBO and Leaky Gut: What the Science Says and decided to attend. As noted in an earlier blog, I’ve developed a high degree of confidence in this website based on their mission and research methodology. Here’s what I learned from their latest webinar:

  • digestive tractPhysicians typically use a breath test to determine whether or not someone has bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine. Such tests may not reliably detect the presence of excess bacterial overgrowth. They may detect false positives.
  • Even if we could accurately diagnose SIBO, there has been no reported difference in symptoms among those who test positive and those who test negative.
  • When patients are treated with antibiotics, their good bugs get wiped out with the bad ones. With competition thus removed, antibiotic resistant (bad) strains of bacteria can get the upper hand, which can compound physical trauma. Moreover, some people experience unpleasant side effects from the antibiotics themselves.
  • SIBO may not be the causal agent in gastrointestinal (GI) distress. Upwards of 44% of the population have been found to be lactose intolerant. If dairy consumption triggers symptoms, antibiotics will not provide relief.

Dr. Michael Greger suggests that it’s not bacterial overgrowth that creates the problem but the type of bacteria that takes root in the intestine. In particular, when our daily diet consists of low fiber, high sugar foods, we lose the good bacteria that produce short chain fatty acids with which we keep our gut linings good and tight. Substances that should be contained in our guts start to leak into our bloodstreams causing an inflammatory response. When we take aspirin or ibuprofen to relieve symptoms, we increase the GI barrier dysfunction (a.k.a. leaky gut). By contrast, when we cut out the sugar and eat high fiber foods (e.g., whole grains, legumes), we feed the good gut bacteria, produce the requisite short chain fatty acids, and tighten up our gut lining.

Unfortunately, the average adult eats on 15-16 grams of fiber per day. That number needs to top 50 grams per day using whole foods. It cannot be corrected with psyllium supplementation. Those products help with constipation, but they don’t provide the nourishment for good gut bacteria. We should also minimize (or eliminate) alcohol consumption and saturated fats as both contribute to bad bacteria growth and, hence, leaky gut.

If you are not used to eating whole grains and beans, the dietary change can cause a little GI distress. No worries! Simply work you way up to several servings per day a little at a time. Your body (and your gut) will adapt to the change. It’s not a race to the finish line. It’s a commitment to eating healthfully for a lifetime.

Are you among the 1 in ~50 folks who has a problem with gluten (i.e., wheat allergy, celiac disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity)? No worries! There are plenty of gluten-free whole grains. Or, you could increase your consumption of legumes along with fresh fruits and vegetables.

To see the SIBO videos, subscribe to nutritionfacts.org. They’ll be published on-line in the coming weeks.

Angioplasty, Stents, and Statins

My husband and I attended a webinar entitled How Effective Are Statins and Stents last Wednesday, courtesy of Dr. Michael Greger of NutritionFacts.org. Although neither of us has a heart condition to warrant treatment, Dr. Greger’s well-researched videos always get my attention. Moreover, since heart disease is the number one killer in America, it never hurts to know something about it.

Statins purport to reduce the risk of myocardial infarction (MI, a.k.a. heart attack) and death among those with coronary heart disease by reducing low-density lipoprotein (LDL) carriers of cholesterol. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, 27.8% of adults over 40 in the United States use statins.1 Not surprisingly, Pfizer’s Lipitor holds the record for the best-selling drug in the history of the pharmaceutical industry. Even with an expired patent, Lipitor still rakes in nearly $2 billion in annual revenue.2

Stents are tiny mesh tubes that surgeons use to prop open blocked arteries or ducts and restore the normal flow of fluids. Angioplasty provides a minimally invasive alternative to stents by using tiny inflatable balloons to compact spongy debris (plaque) in narrowed vessels. Hundreds of thousands of Americans avail themselves of these procedures annually, and they’re neither cheap nor risk-free. According to Dr. Greger, 1 in 150 cases result in death from the stents, 2% experience blood vessel damage, and 3% react negatively to the blood thinners that complement the procedure.

Dr. Greger addressed the surgical procedures first – i.e., angioplasty and stents. He began by noting the benefits of these treatments for patients in emergency situations. If a blocked artery threatens death or disability, then taking immediate remedial action makes sense. But what about elective procedures for those with stable coronary artery disease? Do they prevent heart attacks and/or prolong life?

Using double-blind, randomized control trials involving thousands of patients, medical researchers identified no material benefit in mortality or infarction rates using angioplasty or stents for non-emergency circumstances.3 It turns out that most heart attacks are caused by nonobstructive blockages. These small lesions span the entire vascular system and can “pop” at any time. Treatment for a small sample of trouble spots does not constitute a cure nor provide material long term protection.

Dr. Greger claims that cardiologists have known all about the trials that have cast doubt on the efficacy of angioplasty and stents for treatment of stable heart disease; 70% admit to performing the procedures because they profit from them. The overwhelming majority of patients continue to believe that they benefit from them, yet only 3% have been shown to have been given all of the facts before they agreed to move forward.

Statins offer the promise of reducing the risk of heart disease by lowering plaque-inducing LDL cholesterol. As noted above, they’re widely prescribed, and patients are told that they’ll reduce their relative risk of heart attack by 50%. In absolute numbers, a person on statins has a 2% chance of a heart attack versus a 3% chance without medication. For that 1% drop in risk there’s a compensatory increase in risk of contracting diabetes that persists years after discontinuing treatment.

Here’s the good news: Nothing comes close to reducing one’s risk of heart disease and diabetes than making healthy lifestyle choices. That means pursing a predominantly whole foods plant based diet, eliminating proceeded foods and sugar, losing excess body fat, exercising (aerobic, weight-bearing, stretching), quitting smoking, minimizing stress, and getting a good night’s sleep consistently.

Want to assess your risk of a coronary event? Check out bit.ly/ACCrisk, bit.ly/FRArisk, or bit.ly/REYrisk.

References:

    1. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamacardiology/fullarticle/2583425
    2. https://www.statista.com/statistics/254341/pfizers-worldwide-viagra-revenues-since-2003/
    3. The 2007 Clinical Outcomes Utilizing Revascularization and Aggressive Drug Evaluation (COURAGE) trial revealed that percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI) did not reduce death, myocardial infarction, or other major cardiovascular events compared with optimal medical therapy alone. The 2017 Objective Randomized Blinded Investigation with optimal medical Therapy of Angioplasty (ORBITA) trial revealed that PCI did not relieve symptoms of coronary artery disease. Those who participated in “sham surgeries” experienced the same symptom relief as those who had PCI.

Am I Watching Too Much TV?

watching tv

It has been nearly 11 weeks since our household went into quarantine. We’ve gone out to grocery shop, pick up prescriptions, attend to the dog’s health, and go to the post office. Otherwise, we’ve had to content ourselves with activities and entertainment available in our Home Sweet Home.

For the majority of our confinement, I’ve been on a tear to complete household projects that had been lingering on the “to do” list forever. I had quite a lot of them, so it has kept me quite busy. But as I neared the end of that first wave of activity, I started watching more TV. A lot more. So, I decided to explore the subject to see if that was a healthy response to our circumstances.

According to a 2019 Nielsen study, Americans spend a great deal of time in front of screens. (See Note 1.) On average, we watch a smidge over four hours of television per day. We log another six hours on the Internet via our computers, notebooks, SmartPhones, and tablets. Add in another hour-and-three-quarters on the radio and forty-five minutes on game consoles and you’ve got quite a lot of media stimulation! But here’s the kicker: During a national crisis, we tend to up our media consumption by 40-60%. And we’re that much more attuned to social media to bridge the gap in missed face time.

Is all this screen time good for us?

Brain imagining scans show that excess screen time results in a deterioration in structural integrity. (See Note 2.) Gray matter atrophies in areas that govern executive functioning (planning, prioritizing, organizing, regulating impulses), reward pathways, and empathy. Compromised white matter affects internal connections between the right and left lobes as well as the higher (cognitive) and lower (emotional/survival) brain centers. As a result, we’re less adept at critical thinking, less sensitive to others, and more prone to addictive behavior.

Screen time has been associated with increased heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes as a function of high blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess midsection body fat, and high cholesterol/triglycerides. (See Note 3.) Such risks proved to be dose-dependent and were not moderated substantially by outside physical activity. Moreover, watching TV two or more hours per day and snacking while viewing has been associated with increased risk of obesity. (See Note 4.) And, of course, if we’re working full time and watching a lot of TV, we may not make time for exercise.

But doesn’t TV relieve stress and help us chill out? Assuming the content imparts happy or peaceful images, that argument likely holds true for limited engagement. But protracted screen time may be associated with impaired emotional health. Decades of data collected by the General Social Survey demonstrates that happiness has been linked favorably with social activities, religious affiliation, and reading and negatively with television. (See Note 5.) Of course, correlation does not prove causation. But, it certainly warrants moderating one’s screen time to see if less results in a better mood.

So, what should I do?

First and foremost: Exercise! For optimal cardiovascular health, Dr. Dean Ornish recommends stretching at least 20 minutes per day plus 30 minutes of aerobic exercise. That regimen should be supplemented with weight training for healthy bones and firm musculature. Exercise is good for the body and good for the brain.

Second: Meditate. I’ve written several posts on the benefits of meditation. This practice gains increased importance during times of uncertainty and stress. We cannot change the past nor control the future. We can train ourselves to live in the moment with a calm, clear, centered outlook. That perspective will alleviate stress and place us in the best position to make good decisions.

Third: Read. The Pew Research Center found that readers are drawn to books for pleasure, personal enrichment, and the joy of escaping into an alternate reality. (See Note 6.) Researchers at Emory University also found that “reading stories not only strengthen language processing regions but also affect the individual through embodied semantics in sensorimotor regions.” (See Note 7.) In other words, reading gives the brain a nice workout!

Fourth: Just do something. Cook. Garden. Knock off projects on the “to do” list. Learn to play a musical instrument or perfect skills on ones you already know how to play. Learn a foreign language. Make some art. Write a poem. Play cards or board games with family members. Give your screens – and your eyes – some rest!

References:

  1. https://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/article/2020/staying-put-consumers-forced-indoors-during-crisis-spend-more-time-on-media/
  2. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/mental-wealth/201402/gray-matters-too-much-screen-time-damages-the-brain
  3. https://academic.oup.com/jpubhealth/article/30/2/153/1542221
  4. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1111/j.1525-1497.2006.00379.x
  5. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11205-008-9296-6
  6. https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2012/04/05/why-people-like-to-read/
  7. https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/full/10.1089/brain.2013.0166

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 align 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 black 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 Nina 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 with 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 offspring. Menopause creates the opportunity to 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 messages, 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 good chunk of natural fiber. Eat three meals per day with 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 (omega-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 LDL (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 or 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.