Lessons from a year of blogging

Last summer I started my blog, WellNow.be, on a whim.  The idea came to be in a state of sleep-deprivation after being up all night volunteering at Western States 100.  There’s something about seeing people run 100 miles through the Sierras that inspires action.  I wanted an excuse to learn more about how to live a healthy life, an excuse to write, and a means for connecting with others around healthy living.

I learned a lot in the process of writing the blog and I sincerely hope that I have helped some of you to live a healthier life.  After having had my own struggles and triumphs with health, I can’t imagine a greater gift to give to any of you.

While I have no plans to wrap up the WellNow.be blog for good, I’ve decided to devote some of that mental energy elsewhere – including a new blog with a broader focus at http://chanceandviability.com/.  But I thought I would take a moment to acknowledge the year of writing and researching and practicing with a post intended to summarize what I have learned.

The most important things

After a year of blogging on health and wellness, the most valuable lesson for me was the importance of two things: diet and attention.  What we put into our bodies and what we do with our attention has a profound impact on our well-being.

Diet

It’s sometimes considered picky, fussy, or even unmanly to be particular about one’s diet.  I disagree.

Consider for a moment the power of minute amounts of substances to have enormous affects on us.  I like how Kurt Vonnegut puts it in Breakfast of Champions:

I tend to think of human beings as huge, rubbery test tubes, too, with chemical
reactions seething inside. When I was a boy, I saw a lot of people with goiters… Those unhappy Earthlings had such swollen thyroid glands that they seemed to have zucchini squash growing from their throats.

All they had to do in order to have ordinary lives, it turned out, was to consume less
than one-millionth of an ounce of iodine every day.

Now consider the sheer amount of food you eat everyday and think about how that might affect you if you’re choosing well or poorly.  I’m of the opinion that it is in fact irresponsible and foolish not to apply forethought and discipline to one’s diet.

And if I had to select one piece of advice to guide those I care about in their eating habits, it would be to eat a low glycemic diet.  In the short term, high glycemic foods will give you an energy and mood crash after a brief high.  In the long term, they will contribute to obesity and insulin resistance – a precursor to diabetes.  Understanding how the glycemic index of a food affects you and being able to identify which foods are high glycemic or low glycemic is easy to do, and I hope I made it easier with this post:  Glycemic Index made simple.

If you’re eating a low glycemic diet, there’s a good chance that your diet will also include less gluten and be less inflammatory, which would be great.  Of course, if you’re taking an evolutionary approach to diet you’ll naturally be eating a low glycemic, anti-inflammatory diet free from gluten.

I hope you’ll have a look at all my posts on the topic of diet, but again I implore you to learn about glycemic index and to make choices leading to a lower glycemic diet.

Attention

The other major revelation for me over the preceding year has been the importance of our attention.  I’m referring in part to the practice of paying attention to your health, even to the point of self-tracking - taking regular measurements to inform you of change and progress.  The mere fact of applying your attention and awareness to a given aspect of your health is likely to result in an improvement.  When you pay attention, you get results.

But more important than the practice of self-tracking is the practice of mindfulness.  If I was to select only one piece of advice from among all the posts of the preceding year it would be to establish and maintain a mindfulness practice.  

Our mental capacities make us exceptional among the inhabitants of this planet and even in the best of conditions this is as much a responsibility as it is a gift.  But particularly now, when there are so many temptations and obligations that require us to take our awareness far from the present and the real and to hop from alternate times and realities in rapid succession, we must be aware of our awareness.

I hope my posts on the why and how of mindfulness are helpful introductions to this topic.

Thank you

Finally, as I look back on a year of blogging, I’d like to thank you.  Thank you for reading and for your comments and e-mails and mentions.  It has truly been a pleasure.

Thanks for reading.  Be well!

How I Came to Love Exercising

I used to hate exercising.  I knew I was supposed to do it, so every now and then I would embark on some new exercise routine only for it to sputter out.  And that’s the way it went for years.

Then, something went wrong.  A lack of attention to my well-being combined with some unfortunate circumstances left me with an injury that reduced my abilities, left me in constant dull pain with intermittent intense pain, and scared the hell out of me.

As part of a slow and difficult recovery I was told that I needed to get more cardiovascular exercise.  Faced with this situation I began to reflect on my earlier short-lived attempts to establish an exercise habit and tried to figure out how I could change that pattern.

What I realized was that I had not been exercising for myself, but for other people.  I was forcing myself to exercise for other people in one way or another.  I would force myself to exercise so that others would find me more attractive, love me more, or just think that I’m a better person.

Some of this external force was real, but some of it was imagined.  It came in the form of the opinions and judgments that I knew or imagined others had of me and my efforts.  If I didn’t exercise I felt like a failure.  If I did exercise there were always questions of how much I had done, how hard I had worked, and how that stacked up against others.  So no matter what, I always felt bad.

No judgement, no measurement

Having realized why I had such feelings of dread around exercise I decided to try a new approach that addressed this problem.  The deal I made with myself was that I would leave the apartment in my running clothes and go to a nearby park and back.  That was all.  I could run any or all of it, I could walk any or all of it.  I promised myself I would not ever measure the distance nor check my time.

When I started making time for exercise like this – free of judgement, free of measurement – I discovered that I really loved to run and I loved the way I felt during and after running.  It kept me running (and exercising in other ways) ever since.

Ironically, the resulting benefits to my well-being have been so profound that I often think that the injury that lead to this change was one of the best things that ever happened to me.

If you’re struggling to establish or keep an exercise habit, don’t give up.  Don’t let the pain and suffering of injury or illness be the thing that finally gets you to do what’s right for your body.  And don’t let the opinions of anyone else stand in your way.  Do it for yourself.  You just might grow to love it.

If you’ve managed to make the change from hating exercise to loving it, I would genuinely love to hear about it.  Add a comment or send me an e-mail.

Thanks for reading.  Be well!

An Evolutionary Approach to Diet

As I’ve indicated before, I think that, in the absence of perfect information, an awareness of evolution is a useful guide for making decisions about your health. This is particularly true when the difficult question of what to eat emerges: If you knew nothing about the harmful effects of high glycemic foods, chronic inflammation, or gluten but applied an evolutionary guideline to your diet, you would be making the right choices anyway.

This diet, known as the Paleo Diet, is supported by some compelling facts. Our species began experimenting with agriculture only about 10,000 years ago, but has been anatomically modern for about 200,000 years. Agriculture lead to some major shifts in our diet. We moved from a diet of great variety to reliance on a small number of starchy crops with plentiful calories but with less nutritional density. In the brief period since then (from an evolutionary perspective) our bodies haven’t had much chance to adapt.

While it is common to believe that the development of agriculture was unquestionably beneficial for us, the truth of the matter is more complicated. Jared Diamond (author of the excellent and oft-discussed “Guns, Germs, and Steel“) has even gone so far as to say that this was the worst mistake in the history of our species. In addition to pointing out many social ills that agriculture gave rise to, he points out examples of adverse effects on our physical health such as the following:

Skeletons from Greece and Turkey show that the average height of hunger-gatherers toward the end of the ice ages was a generous 5′ 9” for men, 5′ 5” for women. With the adoption of agriculture, height crashed, and by 3000 B. C. had reached a low of only 5′ 3” for men, 5′ for women.

Of course agriculture supported the development of civilization which has brought us at least as many blessings as curses. But having developed our civilization we need not carry on all the habits and sacrifices of our more recent and physically diminished ancestors by eating their unhealthy diets.

So what does a Paleo Diet look like?

The simple answer is that a Paleo Diet consists of the kinds and proportions of foods our paleolithic ancestors would have had access to. More specifically, adherents of the Paleo Diet emphasize the importance of vegetables, lean meats, fish, shellfish, healthy natural fats, fruits, nuts, and seeds. The diet eschews grains, legumes, starchy vegetables, sugar, and dairy.

I recommend reading “The Paleo Solution: The Original Human Diet” by Robb Wolf for more detailed information and guidance. I also recommend using the Paleo Diet as a guideline to which you adhere 90% of the time. Occasionally it’s just fine to indulge in some post-agricultural treat like dark chocolate.

A Word On Meat

It seems that some people take the Paleo Diet as an excuse to eat lots and lots of meat. While there are populations that survive primarily on animal products my inclination is to aim to eat meat in moderation. There are conflicting findings about diets that include large portions of meat, especially red meat. However, there is no such confusion about vegetables. There is resounding consensus on the benefits of a diet high in fresh vegetables.

In addition to potential health concerns about excessive meat consumption there are serious questions about sustainability and ethics. I normally would not delve into the non-health questions on this blog, but I think these merit some consideration and I have great respect for vegetarians and vegans for considering these issues. I will say, though, that I think both of these issues are at least partially addressed if you take care to consume meat that has been raised on a diet that that animal evolved to eat and living in a manner similar to how it evolved. I would rather eat a healthy animal that got a chance to live a decent life than a sick animal pumped full of drugs in a factory farm.

Thanks for reading. Be well!

Telomeres and Aging

Inside each of our cells, at the tips of our chromosomes there are some additional bits of DNA known as telomeres.  Telomeres serve to protect the chromosomes during cell division by providing a series of DNA that is expendable and demarcates the end of the chromosome.

Telomeres are of particular interest to gerontologists, who study aging.  This is because, with each cell division, telomeres are shortened a little bit.  When the telomeres get too short, the cell line becomes inactive and dies.  The shorter your telomeres, the closer you are to death.

So what affects telomere length?

The length of the telomeres you started life with was dictated largely by your genetics.  However, the age of your father at the time of your conception may also play a role since sperm cells maintain and even increase telomere length over time.

Cell division steadily erodes telomere length, however, cells can produce an enzyme called telomerase that repairs telomeres and effectively slows the aging process.  Eventually cells fail to produce enough telomerase and die.  Somehow stem cells use telomerase in such a way as to avoid telomere length reduction.  But there can be too much of a good thing: Cancer cells are so hard to eradicate because they possess a mutation that causes them to produce excess telomerase, effectively making them immortal.

We know that smoking and obesity can contribute to prematurely shorter telomeres.  But gerontologists still have a lot to learn about telomeres and other critical factors in aging.  Perhaps some day we’ll know how to radically slow or even stop telomere erosion.

This is a complex but fascinating topic.  Here are some great resources if you want to learn more:

“Getting long in the telomeres” from 23andMe

“Are telomeres the key to aging and cancer?” from the University of Utah

http://biohackyourself.com/telomeres-should-you-measure-yours-with-telome/

Thanks for reading.  Be well!

GRAPES

It’s easy to let life get out of balance and wind up feeling down or stressed out.  As a means for avoiding or remedying this I recommend bearing in mind the acronym GRAPES.

Each letter stands for something we should try to incorporate into our daily lives and, when we’re feeling out of sorts, it may be because one of these is missing.  Also, noticing which of these is chronically missing can give you insight into how you might need to restructure your life to be happier in the long run.

G – Gentle With Self

Be kind to yourself and be mindful of your thoughts.  An awareness of the list of cognitive distortions can be helpful in this regard.

R – Relaxation

Give yourself an opportunity to really relax.

A – Achievement

Feeling as though we’ve accomplished something each day is important.  It’s also important to be realistic with this one.  Your achievement should be a practical one that you can accomplish inside of one day.  This may take the form of a small but discrete part of a larger goal.  It also may be something quite humble but which is nonetheless an accomplishment.  At some point we will all have a day in which just getting out of bed is an accomplishment, so forgive yourself for not summiting Everest (see “G”).

P – Pleasure

Do something that gives you pleasure.  Play, dance, have fun any way you like.

E – Exercise

Even if it comes down to something like a walk around the block, get some exercise each day.  Many of us believe that we need to do at least 30 minutes before an activity “counts” but the science shows that every little bit helps our bodies and minds.

S – Socialize

We are a social species and a need for each others’ companionship is written into our basic design.  Make genuine connection happen.

Thanks for reading.  Be well!

Men’s Diets and Their Effect on Future Generations

In my last post I noted one way that a woman’s diet influences the health of her offspring. This post takes a look at how a man’s (or rather a boy’s) diet affects his as-yet-not-conceived children’s health.

Epigenetic Effects

Historically, we have been unable to affect the actual genetic sequences (the A-C-G-T acids and their order) that we pass on to the next generation (though the development of new technologies is creating new possibilities). However we are able to affect how those genes are expressed.

The study of how genes are expressed is called epigenetics and while the field is in its infancy there are some very intriguing findings. The best example I’ve come across is detailed in The Violinist’s Thumb: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code, a fascinating and well-written book by Sam Kean.

A small Scandinavian village by the name of Överkalix provided an excellent natural experiment due to an isolated population, periods of feast and famine, and generations of detailed records on crop yield and the health of the residents. The result was that researchers were able to see the effects that a period of feast or famine had on the descendants of the male survivors of those conditions.

From Kean’s book:

Most notably, they discovered a robust link between a child’s future health and a father’s diet. A father obviously doesn’t carry babies to term, so any effect must have slipped in through his sperm. Even more strangely, the child got a health boost only if the father faced starvation. If the father gorged himself, his children lived shorter lives with more diseases.

The influence of the fathers turned out to be so strong that scientists could trace it back to the father’s father, too – if grandpa Harald starved, baby grandson Olaf would benefit. These weren’t subtle effects, either. If Harald binged, Olaf’s risk of diabetes increased fourfold. If Harald tightened his belt, Olaf lived (after adjusting for social disparities) an average of thirty years longer.

The book goes on to explain that it was the diet of the ancestor around ages 9 to 12 that impacted the descendant’s health. This is the period when a boy’s body begins setting aside a stock of cells that will produce sperm for the rest of his life. Those cells will still produce sperm with the same A-C-G-T genetic code, but how that code is read and how genes are expressed will have been changed by the boy’s diet during that key age.

When we bear these findings in mind and consider the kind of foods modern 9 to 12 year-old boys can and would eat, given the chance, the implication for the health of future generations is dire. Of course there’s no need to starve your sons, but ensuring that they eat healthy will protect the interests of your unborn grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Thanks for reading. Be well!

Women’s Diets and Their Effect on Future Generations

Everyone knows that the food and drink they consume directly affects their health.  But what we eat also has the potential to impact the health of future generations – even decades before they are conceived.

Two ways that parents-to-be can influence their descendants health are through in utero experience and through the fascinating and as-yet poorly understood means of epigenetics.  I will touch on the former here, and the latter in my next post.

In Utero Effects

Since Gary Taubes said it best in his book Why We Get Fat: And What To Do About It, I will quote him at length here:

Children in the womb are supplied with nutrients from the mother (through the placenta and umbilical cord) in proportion to the level of those nutrients in the mother’s blood.  This means that the higher the level of the mother’s blood sugar, the more glucose her child gets in her womb.

As the pancreas in that child develops, it apparently responds to this higher dose of glucose by developing more insulin-secreting cells.  So, the higher the blood sugar in the pregnant mother, the more insulin-secreting cells her child will develop, and the more insulin the child will secrete as it gets close to birth.  The baby will now be born with more fat, and it will have a tendency to oversecrete insulin and become insulin-resistant itself as it gets older.  It will be predisposed to get fat as it ages.

To avoid this predisposition in her child, the pregnant mother should be aware of the effects of carbohydrates on insulin and eat a low glycemic diet.  And I’m of the opinion that her partner should be eating a similar diet, both for his or her own health and to help establish the new habit.

Watch for my next post on epigenetics and the male influence on future generations.

Thanks for reading.  Be well!

 


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