Category Archives: Physiology

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 when we 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 upon 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:

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.

7 Physiological Processes Tied to Chronic Illness

Healthcare has been a hotbed of activity in our nation’s capital for years. While everyone acknowledges the escalating costs of medical treatment, the debate always seem to center on the economics and allocation of healthcare services. Our elected representatives avoid the more pressing question: Why are Americans so sick?

chronic diseaseDr. Jeffrey Bland of the Personalized Lifestyle Medicine Institute takes aim at the matter in The Disease Delusion: Conquering the Causes of Chronic Illness for a Healthier, Longer, Happier Life. Chronic illness gives rise to runaway healthcare costs and blunts human vitality. Unfortunately, the prevailing medical protocols treat symptoms with invasive procedures and prescription drugs rather than get to the root cause of the problem. As such, patient conditions progress, and the prescription drugs they take may produce adverse collateral effects.

According to Dr. Bland, chronic illness is the result of an imbalance in one or more of the following core physiological processes:

Assimilation and Elimination: Most of us are aware of the fact that what we eat determines nutrient availability for our bodies. We need a healthy gut to extract vital nutrients while creating a barrier against toxic substances that might otherwise leak into our bloodstream. What we may not realize is that the gut also produces and secrets messenger substances that impact a multitude of physiological functions. When any part of this complex system is thrown off kilter by a poor diet or food allergens, chronic disease may result. Solution: Identify/remove food sensitivities, bolster digestive enzymes, and ingest proper nutrients through diet and supplements.

Detoxification: Our livers take responsibility for processing toxins and preparing them for safe elimination. These toxins can be introduced from the outside or take the form of a metabolic byproduct from normal cellular function. Problems arise when the total load of toxins outpaces the liver’s processing capacity. Solution: Minimize environmental toxins and support detoxification with pro-detox foods (e.g., green tea, turmeric, cruciferous vegetables, watercress, cranberry, pomegranate, red grapes.)

Defense: Our immune system takes responsibility for identifying pathogens and eliminating them from our bodies. To perform effectively, it monitors what we eat and what we experience in the environment and stands ready to go on the offensive. A genetic predisposition combined with one or more “triggers” and a leaky gut may cause an autoimmune response – i.e., an attack on the body’s own tissues. Solution: Identify/eliminate triggers and repair leaky gut through diet and lifestyle changes.

Cellular Communication: Cellular messaging manages interdependencies among core physiological processes. Chronic inflammation alters cellular communication, causing imbalances in the hormones that circulate in the bloodstream. It can manifest as chronic sleep problems, mood swings, fatigue, inability to concentrate, and anxiety. Solution: Identify and eliminate sources of inflammation in the environment, diet, and lifestyle. Consume foods rich in flavonoids and polyphenols to prevent inflammation (e.g., nuts, berries, garlic, onion, grapes, citrus, green tea).

Cellular Transport: The nutrients we ingest must find a way to nurture all of the cells in the body. Protein (as amino acids and albumin) and carbohydrate (as glucose) can be carried by the bloodstream directly. Low Density Lipoproteins (LDLs) transport fat and fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K) to the cell wall; High Density Lipoprotein (HDL) retrieves the LDL and returns it to the liver. All of these elements need to be in balance for the body to function properly. Solution: Eat a balanced diet based primarily on whole (not processed) foods. Engage in regular aerobic exercise to raise HDL and lower LDL.

Energy: The mitochondria in our cells transform the end products of digestion into energy. Too many calories over too long a period cause mitochondrial burnout. Excess stress for prolonged periods and aging also diminish our production capacity. Solution: Limit caloric consumption using a predominantly plant-based diet. Engage in aerobic and anaerobic exercise regularly to stimulate mitochondrial production.

Structure: We need proper alignment of our bones, muscles, and nerves to function at peak efficiency. Imperfect alignment gives rise to excess wear-and-tear and pain. We also need a proper amount of body fat. Abdominal fat increases the risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, dementia, kidney disease, and breast and prostate cancer. Solution: Bone health requires good nutrition, weight bearing exercise, good digestion, no (or minimal) inflammation, and proper insulin functioning. FYI – Dr. Bland is a fan of the Mediterranean Diet.

partnershipWhen treated by a functional medicine practitioner, doctor and patient form a partnership to ferret out the root cause of disease and develop a personalized solution based on changes in environment, diet, and lifestyle. This process may entail some trial-and-error to determine what suits the individual’s unique physiology. The physician must be attuned to the patient’s feedback; the patient knows best about his or her condition and the impact of certain therapies and interventions. The partnership works when the parties share knowledge and divide authority. While the treating physician can provide expert guidance, the patient must take responsibility for making the requisite changes to improve health outcomes.

Our Guts Have Minds of Their Own

I suppose that my interest in healthy eating would inevitably lead me to understand a bit more about my digestive system. After all, it’s responsible for processing the food I eat, extracting the nutrients to feed my body, and eliminating a lot of waste. So, to help the system do its job, it matters what I eat and how I eat it. But I never appreciated the complexity of the whole process until I read Dr. Michael Gershon’s book, The Second Brain.

It turns out that we have a distinct neural apparatus that runs our digestive operation. Dubbed the enteric nervous system, it contains over 100 million nerve cells to manage the precise chemical reactions necessary to get what we need from food while simultaneously defending the body from harmful substances. By giving our guts their own intelligence, our brains are free to address a myriad of others inputs, signals, decisions, and actions without worrying much about digestion.

Our brains play a role at the start of digestive process as we experience food through our senses (especially taste and smell), or even think about it. It causes us to excrete saliva that will moisten the food as we grind it with our teeth. It also signals the stomach to ramp up production of digestive juices. While we’re chewing, the enteric nervous system receives signals to indicate what’s coming down the line so the stomach can make preparations.

digestive system

Note: The more we chew our food, the greater our ability to extract nutrients from it. Chewing also slows down food consumption to a pace at which our body has a chance to tell us when it has had enough to eat. It needs at least 20 minutes after chewing begins!

Muscles in the esophageal wall drive the food toward the stomach, entering through an opening at the esophageal sphincter. Once the material enters the stomach, it starts churning the food mechanically to transform large pieces into minuscule particles while subjecting them to potent gastric acids. Because these acids are as damaging to cellular tissue as they are to food particles, it takes a complex mechanism to regulate their production and secretion into the stomach. A thick mucosal layer protects the stomach lining from damage.

Note: The world’s healthiest, long-lived human beings eat to 80% of capacity, leaving plenty of room for the stomach to function effectively.

The stomach contents must be rendered to baby food consistency before they are deemed acceptable to the small intestine. The brain controls the pyloric sphincter which serves as the gateway between the stomach and small intestine. It empties into the small intestine as if feeding a baby – one small bite at a time. As such, the stomach serves as a storage facility for partially processed food until this rather slow process comes to fruition. Once all of the material has passed through the pyloric sphincter, the enteric nervous system runs the show.

Note: Now you know why the stomach can feel uncomfortably full for quite a while after an oversized meal!

The initial segment of the small intestine (a.k.a., duodenum) uses sensors to measure the pH of the incoming contents and leverages the enteric nervous system to signal for release of appropriate digestive enzymes by the pancreas. (All of that acid from the stomach must be neutralized!) The enteric nervous system also communicates with the liver and gall bladder (i.e., the storage repository for bile) to secure substances that emulsify fats so that digestive enzymes can process them.

The small intestine assumes primary responsibility for digestion and nutrient absorption. Folds in the intestinal lining combined with cellular projections on the cell walls (villi and microvilli) maximize the surface area through which absorption may occur. Tight junctions between cells in the lining keep undesirable materials from entering the bloodstream.

Note: For some individuals, certain foods cause the lining of the gut walls to lose their integrity. The resulting gaps allow oversized food particles and pathogens access to the bloodstream. Their entry sparks inflammation that may trigger an autoimmune response.

The small intestine transfers largely watery materials into the large intestine (a.k.a., colon). Of the roughly 2 gallons of water that the colon receives daily, all but 6-7 tablespoons are reabsorbed by the colon to prevent dehydration. Bacteria hang out in the colon and make up a good portion of excreted materials. Immune-competent cells in the lining shield the body from attack by “bad” bacteria. The brain steps back into action at the end of the line by regulating bowel movements.

Dr. Gershon provides insights on several common digestive ailments so that the reader can understand the biological mechanisms at play. I’ll confess that I didn’t explore all of them in detail. However, my elevated understanding of the entire system will certainly inform my food choices and eating habits going forward.

How to Turn Back the Clock

healthy agingIf you’ve already crossed the midpoint of your first century on earth, Dr. Sara Gottfried’s book Younger: A Breakthrough Program to Reset Your Genes, Reverse Aging, and Turn Back the Clock 10 Years might have some appeal. For while we can’t stop the ticking of the clock, there’s much we can do to make the time pass more pleasantly.

Dr. Gottfried tells us that genes only account for 10% of our body structure as we age. Our lifestyle controls the other 90% by virtue of its effect on our biochemistry and, therefore, the expression of our genes (a.k.a., epigenetics). If we want to look and feel younger, we need to make healthy lifestyle choices consistently.

Left unattended, five forces work against us as we age.

  • The MUSCLE Factor: We accumulate fat and loose muscle.
  • The BRAIN Factor: Our neurons lose speed and flexibility, and our brains resist mood-elevating estrogen.
  • The HORMONE Factor: We make less estrogen and testosterone. Sluggish thyroids slow down our metabolisms. And we’re less adept at regulating insulin (to manage blood sugar) and cortisol (to control the stress response).
  • The GUT Factor: Our intestinal health and quality of our microbiome (i.e., the colony of healthy bacteria that digest food and support immune function) either speed up or slow down our biological clocks.
  • The TOXIC FAT Factor: Belly fat accumulates environmental toxins and causes more rapid aging.

Accelerated aging occurs when the body loses its capacity to clean up its daily damage – i.e., removing mutated DNA, improving sluggish hormone and enzyme production, and neutralizing highly reactive molecules (a.k.a., free radicals). The following conditions impede the body’s efforts to maintain itself in peak operating condition:

Getting fat
Sitting too much
Medication (anti-anxiety, antihistamine)
Too much processed food
Losing muscle tone
Sleeping too little
Lacking vision or purpose
Getting too little Vitamin D
Feeling stressed
Social isolation

Fortunately, it’s never too late to build new habits. Our bodies continue to adapt to their environments – for better or worse – until we die. To that end, Dr. Gottfried provides a 7-Week program during which the motivated reader can transform his or her life. Here’s a brief summary:

WEEK 1: FEED. Get rid of processed foods. Eat homemade meals. Include 5-10 cups of fresh vegetables daily. Avoid common allergens (e.g., gluten, dairy) as well as sugar, sweetener, and caffeine. Minimize red meat and fat. Ingest collagen in bone broth or powdered form as it’s rich in antioxidants, lowers blood pressure, and improves bone density. Opt for organic red wine when drinking alcohol. Floss and brush twice a day.

WEEK 2: SLEEP. Make sure you get 7-8 hours of high quality sleep every night. Sleep promotes physical restoration, memory consolidation, and brain detoxification. Avoid stimulants and artificial lights at night. (Use blue-blocker glasses after sundown if you can’t avoid artificial lights.) Make the bedroom conducive to sleep.

WEEK 3 MOVE. Integrate physical activity into your day. Excessive sitting weakens bones, atrophies muscles, promotes organ damage, impairs circulation, and causes back issues. (If working in an office, alternate between sitting and standing at your desk!) Get at least 150 minutes of moderate (or 75 minutes of strenuous) aerobic activity each week. Increase muscle mass through strength training.

WEEK 4: RELEASE. Find ways to release the tension and habitual tightness that builds up in the body. Yoga and other forms of release clear stress, increase range of motion, boost respiratory health, and improve recovery time. They also supports the body’s mechanisms to supply fresh nutrients to tissues and whisk away toxins and chemical byproducts.

WEEK 5: EXPOSE. Increase intake of key vitamins, minerals, fiber, and nutrients to strengthen the liver’s ability to collect and process the body’s garbage. Eat foods rich in antioxidants – e.g., leafy greens (especially kale, broccoli sprouts), berries, organic walnuts, green tea. Use natural cleaning products (or make your own). Take saunas, steam baths, or hot water baths with Epsom salts to encourage the body to sweat out the toxins.

WEEK 6. SOOTHE: Eliminate stressors or find effective ways of coping with them. Add new responses to your defaults – e.g., prayer, mindfulness, yoga, meditation, qigong. Connect positively with others. Get enough sleep!

WEEK 7: THINK. Change the perception of your external environment to create a healthy internal environment. Create new neural pathways such that your self-talk becomes loving and supportive. Cultivate an affirming community of friends.

This brief post hardly does justice to the wealth of material in Dr. Gottfried’s book. Hopefully, it encourages a deeper dive!

Why We Said NO to Statins

For the past several years, my husband’s physicians have been trying to get him to take statin drugs to manage cholesterol. That recommendation struck me as odd given that his serum cholesterol is relatively low, and he maintains a healthy weight and diet. Moreover, a good friend developed severe muscle pain and weakness when she took statins. So my husband opted to take a pass.

statins warningDr. David Perlmutter, renowned neurologist and author of the international best-seller Grain Brain, would applaud my husband’s decision. As it turns out, 60-70% of our brain matter is fat. (Yep – “fat head” is an apt description for all of us!) Our brains rely heavily on a steady supply of cholesterol as an antioxidant to quell inflammation and as a source of energy to grow and sustain neural synapses. Low Density Lipoproteins (LDLs) capture this life-giving cholesterol and transport it to the brain. Statin drugs diminish the body’s LDL supply which reduces the brain’s access to cholesterol. When taking statins, some folks experience cognitive impairment, confusion, and memory loss as a result. Stains also interfere with the brain’s serotonin receptors, leading to a higher risk of depression and suicide.

Statin drugs also disrupt production of coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10), a fat-soluble substance known to be an important nutrient for the heart. Low levels of CoQ10 give rise to fatigue, muscular pain, and problems with mobility and balance.

As a post-menopausal woman, I was especially alarmed by a couple of statistics that Dr. Perlmutter shared. In particular, post-menopausal women who take stains have a 48% increase in risk for diabetes. Having diabetes doubles the risk for Alzheimer’s disease!

So how do we reconcile these facts with a multi-billion dollar statin market? Aren’t high levels of LDLs associated with increased risk of coronary artery disease (CAD)?

Statin proponents frequently cite the JUPITER Study in which participants on statins experienced 31 heart attacks and those on the placebo experienced 68. This simple numeric comparison suggests a 58% reduction in relative risk. However, given that the experiment and control groups each had nearly 9,000 participants, the overall risk of heart attack went from a very low 0.76% in the control group to 0.35% in the statin group. Thus, the minimal protection one might achieve needs to be weighed against the high percentage of people who have unwelcome side effects from the drug.

The answer to the second question appears to be yes… and no. Healthy LDLs are not a risk for coronary artery disease. They go about their business and leave the surrounding tissues alone. However, when excess sugar molecules in the blood stream attach themselves to LDLs, the LDLs become oxidized – i.e., lose electrons and transform into free radicals. They cease to function properly and become “sticky” when encountering the tissues surrounding the blood vessels. Once these tissues are damaged by oxidized LDLs, inflammation starts. When the body’s immune system deals with the inflammation, foam cells build up. That build-up leads to arterial blockage.

Dr. Perlmutter’s findings align with Drs. Bowden and Sinatra’s book, The Great Cholesterol Myth. Eating foods high in cholesterol doesn’t give rise to CAD, per se. Diets high in sugar, processed carbs, et al do! That being said, we don’t get a free pass to ingest a bunch of fats. Every author I’ve read lately admonishes readers to focus on consuming healthy fats (Omega 3s) and limit intake of unhealthy ones (Omega 6s). Omega 6 fats are precursors to inflammatory compounds; omega 3 fats are anti-inflammatory.

Prescription drugs certainly save lives. Though I am not a trained physician, I expect that there are patients whose conditions merit serious consideration of pharmaceutical intervention via statins. However, my husband and I prefer to make dietary and lifestyle choices to improve our well-being and use medication only when absolutely necessary.