Category Archives: Physiology

Good Friends Promote Good Health

I can’t imagine going through the journey of life without having wonderful friends with whom 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 flooded 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 chronically depressed or tightly-wound.

We can take advantage 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.

Why Biochemistry Makes It Hard to Lose Weight

In Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease, Dr. Robert Lustig, MD addresses a global pandemic at the heart of a medical, social, and economic crisis: OBESITY. He begins by taking aim at the power players who’ve contributed to this unfortunate state of affairs:

  • The commercial food industry that serves up nutritionally deficient foods rich in sugar and fats (factors known to heighten appetite)
  • The medical profession who relegate treatment to personal choice and willpower
  • The insurance industry that offers no reimbursement for treatment
  • The obesity profiteers who make billions of dollars annually on weight loss supplements, programs, and specialty foods amid rising obesity rates

obesity pandemicDr. Lustig does not deem it rational to ascribe personal responsibility to the obese individual. That posture fails to take seriously the underlying biochemistry that perpetuates the condition. He argues that biochemistry drives behavior. Here are a few highlights from that discussion:

Our fat cells produce leptin when they’ve deemed that we have enough stored energy to attend to our needs and maintain our weight. It tells our brains that it’s OK to stop eating. Unfortunately, obese individuals develop leptin resistance. As such, the brain doesn’t get the message that its energy reserves are just fine. It worries about the threat of starvation and generates sensations of hunger. It also slows down the metabolism to ensure that it won’t overrun its reserves. It directs the pancreas release insulin to ramp up energy storage and weight gain. Excess insulin makes leptin resistance even worse.

Our brain cells are wired for reward to motivate behaviors that ensure survival. As such, we’re built to find food consumption pleasurable and preference taste over nutritional value. In ancient times, sweetness proved a reliable indicator that something was safe to eat. Sugary fruits came to full bloom during summer months when the population needed to fatten up in preparation for winter, when food stocks are in shorter supply.

Sugar causes the pleasure centers in our brains to “light up” in ways that mirror addictive drugs. It wasn’t a problem in the days of yore when sugary foods were relatively uncommon. Today’s food manufacturers have found ways to produce sugar in mass quantity cheaply. They are well-aware of the fact that we get addicted to food. In particular:

  • We binge eat.
  • We develop tolerance and require escalating amounts to achieve the same levels of satisfaction.
  • We crave the desired foods and become depressed and/or anxious when experiencing withdrawal.
  • We fail to contain our undesirable behaviors despite the negative consequences (e.g. medical complications, social stigma, expense, diminished job prospects).
  • Overeating interferences with our lives and favorable regard for ourselves.

Stress contributes to obesity. Many of us use “comfort foods” to ease the tensions we experience in life. Unfortunately, stress eating elevates insulin output (which increases fat deposits) and cortisol (which impedes sleep). Sleep deprivation increases ghrelin (the hunger hormone), reduces leptin (the satiety hormone), and activates the reward system. The net effect is increased body mass.

Excess cortisol (stress hormone) encourages the body to accumulate belly fat (a.k.a., visceral fat). These fat deposits are more active metabolically than fat deposits in our extremities. Visceral fat drives inflammation and causes insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is associated with a high incidence of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes, and other chronic disease.

Dr. Lustig’s prescription for healthy weight management includes:

  • Eliminate sugar. It’s a toxin that damages the liver, turns proteins brown (like rotten bananas), and promotes addiction.
  • Take in at least 25 grams of fiber daily. It slows digestion and absorption to a rate that ensures proper food metabolism. It speeds the passage of food and waste through the gut which accelerates the production of leptin (the satiety hormone). It decreases blood glucose and cholesterol. It promotes beneficial bacteria growth in the gut.
  • Eat whole, unprocessed foods. Dr. Lustig is a fan of the Mediterranean Diet which emphasizes legumes, fruits, vegetables, unrefined grains, dairy, eggs, fish, olive oil, and wine in moderation.
  • Eat a healthy breakfast. Delayed food consumption elevates ghrelin (the hunger hormone) all day long.
  • Stop nighttime bingeing.
  • Exercise consistently. It supports growth of fat burning mitochondria in the cells. It reduces stress and releases mood-elevating endorphins in the brain. It helps the liver burn energy more efficiently.

That being said, he acknowledges the difficulty of transforming one’s environment to drive different biochemical responses. Most lifestyle interventions work for 3-4 months before relapse. Therefore, we need support systems in our healthcare institutions and social infrastructure to help people on the road to success.

The Marvelous Microbiome

microbiomeSince participating in the very first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, I’ve had heightened awareness of the delicate global ecosystem on which all planetary life depends. In recent weeks, I’ve been learning about an equally important, life-giving ecosystem: my microbiome. It consists of trillions of bacteria, viruses, and fungi that inhabit virtually every part of my body. And it turns out, they’re crucial to my health and longevity.

The colon serves as host to most of the microbiome. This collective of microorganisms break down fibers, digest starch and lactose, and make vitamins and amino acids that are transmitted into the bloodstream for the body’s use. They also help regulate metabolism and blood sugar, and participate actively in our immune system. As a case in point, our “good bacteria” protect us against “bad bacteria” by minimizing the habitable space available for intruders while secreting substances that prove inhospitable to them.

Just as diversity is a hallmark of health in our external environment, a diverse microbiome is essential for our internal environment. A healthy individual hosts a small number of highly abundant species and a large number of highly specialized ones. The latter provide the genetic blueprints to produce enzymes to eat unfamiliar plants and animals. They also have the ability to “bloom” when called to respond to atypical or virulent microbial threats.

The microbiome in our guts also affects our brains. They make substances like gangliosides that our neurons use to build their cell walls. They also contribute to the manufacture of 80% of the body’s serotonin, a substance known to influence mood. As such, a disturbance in microbiome diversity could translate into disordered mental or emotional functioning.

Chronic disease, food allergies, and even obesity have been linked to low microbiome diversity. Early evidence suggests that the Standard American Diet rich in sugar, meat, and processed foods may result in a distorted ratio of microbiota that results in extraction and absorption of excess calories from food.

In Missing Microbes: How the Overuse of Antibiotics is Fueling Our Modern Plagues, Dr. Martin J. Blaser, MD sounds the five-alarm bell to cease-and-desist unnecessary practices that damage our microbiome. Over prescription of antibiotics tops the list. These drugs are used frequently in response to respiratory infections that are caused by viruses impervious to antibacterial agents. Meanwhile, broad-spectrum antibiotics attack good as well as bad bacteria. Vital, small population strains may be wiped out permanently. Resistant strains, fungi, and yeasts are free to grow without the control present in a healthy competitive environment. Should any of these bacterial strains prove harmful, a more potent dose of antibiotics may be required to eradicate them… leaving super-resistant strains in their wake. Unfortunately, pharmaceutical companies may not keep pace with the development of all these resistant strains.

Those who choose to avoid antibiotics unless medically necessary may still get “dosed” via the meat and poultry they consume. According to Dr. Blaser, 70-80% of all antibiotic sales go toward fattening up farm animals. Animals that habitually take antibiotics gain more weight per pound of feed than their drug-free counterparts. Hmmm… could be another reason why organic meats are more expensive!

What should we do to maintain a healthy microbiome?

First and foremost: Avoid taking antibiotics unless absolutely necessary. Dr. Blaser notes that a 1-week course of antibiotics can leave resistant strains of bacteria 3+ years later!

Second: Minimize meat consumption and/or focus on products produced by organic, pasture-raised animals. Increase consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables. Avoid sugar and processed foods.

Third: Opt for soap and water instead of antibacterial sanitizers to cleanse hands unless visiting or living with a sick friend or family member. Many, many bacterial strains are our friends!

Fourth: Lower stress and exercise more. Stress creates a cascade of symptoms that produces inflammation in the body – including the gut. It makes us more susceptible to infection and disease. Exercise is a natural stress reliever and contributions to the production of mood-elevating endorphins.

While some practitioners advocate for use of prebiotics and probiotics for gut health, Dr. Blaser claims that there are no scientifically verified studies to attest to their efficacy. That being said, he deems them generally safe for use by a healthy individual.

Wherefore Art Thou Telomeres?

shoelacesTelomeres. When first hearing the word, it conjures up the image of some exotic, tree-hugging animal known to inhabit the dense jungles of Africa. Telomeres are actually found inside human cells. They’re 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.

We have really long telomeres when we’re born. However, every time our cells divide, we lose a bit of telomere length. Once our telomeres whittle down to an unacceptably short length, our cells no longer divide. They’ve reached a state known as “senescence.” Senescent cells don’t function effectively and don’t take care of their debris. They emit irritants that bring the entire “neighborhood” down – much like one bad apple spoils the whole bunch. Short telomeres are associated with chronic disease and death.

Scientists have discovered an enzyme called telomerase that can slow, prevent, or even reverse telomere shortening. The body is somewhat miserly in its production of this substance; it produces just enough to keep cells in good working order. While supplementing the body’s production with artificial telomerase may seem like a good idea, it turns out to be a bad call. Excess telomerase can goad cells into becoming cancerous.

In The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer, Drs. Elizabeth Blackburn and Elissa Epel serve up a brief tutorial on these life-giving substances. They review research on risk factors associated with accelerated telomere attrition and offer strategies to counteract them. In particular:

TELOMERE RISK FACTORS LIFE-GIVING STRATEGIES
Early onset cognitive impairment Stay interested and engaged in life. Keep learning and growing. Challenge yourself to have new experiences. Cultivate positive relationships.
Chronic stress and the feelings of fear, anxiety, shame, and/or defeatism that go with it Re-wire your thought patterns to treat stressors as challenges that advance your knowledge, skills, experience, and self-confidence. Make lifestyle adjustments to be rid of toxic stress.
Cynical hostility, pessimism, mind-wandering, rumination, and thought suppression (e.g., pushing away unwanted feelings) Don’t buy into or act on your negative thoughts. Develop mastery in a mind-body discipline (e.g., mindfulness, meditation) to elevate awareness of, and experience detachment from, these thoughts.
Purposelessness Pursue interests that serve the common good. For example, Experience Corps volunteers reversed 3 years of aging via 2 years of volunteering!
Sedentary lifestyle Moderate aerobic enduring exercise (e.g., 45 minutes per session, 3x per week) produces a significant uptick in telomerase activity. The more varied the exercise, the greater the benefit.
Poor quality sleep, sleep disturbances Practice good sleep hygiene to ensure at least 7 hours of quality sleep every night. Be attentive to the transition time at night to support the descent into sleep.
Maintain a healthy weight without excess belly fat. Eat a whole food, plant-based diet that features fresh vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, legumes, and omega-3 fatty acids. While helping to conserve telomere length, this diet also minimizes oxidative stress and inflammation. That being said, don’t stress so much about diet that it works against your healthy telomere regimen!
Environmental stress. Seek housing in a low-crime, “friendly” neighborhood that is devoid of toxic waste. Use safe cleaning products in the home.
Unhealthy relationships Weave your social fabric with trusted friends and forwarding group affiliations. Avoid situations that consistently mix positive qualities with unhelpful or disturbing interactions. That kind of stress produces shorter telomeres.

I suppose it shouldn’t come as a shock that the strategies for sustaining healthy telomeres align with recommendations offered by a large chorus of other health professionals. Nonetheless, I was struck by the amount of coverage accorded to the relationship between our mental/emotional health and our cellular integrity. It’s a clear indicator that we need to be attentive to our overall level of life satisfaction if we want to enjoy long life.

Famed Scientist Calls Sugar “Pure, White, and Deadly”

In 1955, American physiologist Ancel Keys delivered a presentation to the World Health Organization that linked coronary artery disease (CAD) to blood serum cholesterol based on epidemiological data from seven industrialized nations. His research turned the tide of American eating habits away from saturated fats toward diets rich in protein and carbohydrates.

British physiologist and nutritionist John Yudkin was not convinced that eliminating saturated fats from the diet would lower rates of CAD. For one thing, two independent examinations of epidemiological data from 20+ industrialized countries failed to support Dr. Keys’ findings. Since affluent populations tend to consume more fat and sugar, smoke more, and lead more sedentary lives, one could argue perhaps that all of these factors contribute to CAD, not just fat consumption. Moreover, Dr. Yudkin claimed that no one has been able to demonstrate that people with CAD on average consume more fat that people without it. He did, however, have his suspicions about the relationship between sugar and CAD, and chased that theory by conducting his own research and reviewing a host of studies by peers.

sugarYudkin published his findings in Pure, White, and Deadly: How Sugar is Killing Us and What We Can Do to Stop It, my latest bedside read. The book warns that excess consumption of sugar produces a host of unpleasant biological responses that are detrimental to our health, including:

  • Elevated blood serum cholesterol and triglycerides
    (How about that? Sugar holds the smoking gun on cholesterol!)
  • Hormonal imbalance cause by increased blood serum levels of insulin, cortisol, and estrogen
  • Increased “stickiness” of platelets
  • Increased acidity and digestive activity of the gastric juices
  • Enlargement of the liver and kidneys
  • Elevated risk of CAD, hypertension, diabetes, insulin resistance, gall stones
  • Tooth decay

Dr. Yudkin also theorized that excess sugar interferes with the balance of good and bad bacteria in the gut microbiome – a theory that has subsequently proven correct.

Dr. Yudkin is quick to point out that his research on sugar should not give rise to a new wave of simplistic advice regarding CAD. People with coronary artery disease tend to have multiple “disturbances” that impact their conditions – e.g., genetic predisposition, unhealthy diets, excess body fat, tobacco use, physical inactivity, stress. So giving up sugar is not a “silver bullet”… even though abstinence comes highly recommended.

So with all this bad news regarding sugar, why do we eat so much of it? One clear answer lies in the fact that sugar tastes good. It makes foods highly palatable and motivates us to eat more and more of it. As such, U.S. food manufacturers have found ways to add sugar into nearly everything they produce. Is it any wonder that our per capita sugar consumption is skyrocketing?

sugar consumption in the usa

A second major factor lies in the fact that most of us are unaware of how much sugar we’re eating. Very little of Americans’ daily sugar intake comes from table sugar. Most of us aren’t diligent about reading labels and may not even recognize the various forms of sugar that are listed there. And, we may be so used to food tasting sweet that we don’t even register the presence of sugar anymore.

The good news: If you choose to eat whole foods, you won’t have to worry about reading labels, and you won’t ingest hidden quantities of sugar, salt, or fat. And as I’ve learned over the past couple of years, there are lots of ways to make whole foods highly palatable while benefitting from all that good nutrition. Once you’ve broken the sugar cycle, you’ll start to notice all the subtle flavors… and, perhaps, not miss it so much.