Recently I ran into an interesting, but truly frightening statistic. It was suggested to me that, given the prevalence and the trajectory of chronic neuro-degenerative disease in our culture today, at the age of 85 I will have a 50-50 chance of being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Literally a coin toss. That scares the (fill in the blank with your favorite invective: make it nasty) out of me. During the same seminar I was listening to on the connection between brain health and the microbiome, I was informed that the time between the onset of that disease and symptoms actually occurring is 20-25 years. Since I recently passed my 60th birthday, that puts me at the point of still being able to do whatever is possible to get those 50-50 odds back in my favor.
Right around that time I also happened to run into one of the best articles I’ve read yet regarding the various factors that can affect the neuro-plasticity of the brain, the ability we all have to continually repair and rewire the brain for long term health and function.
Thus was born the Young Brains Project, a commitment that my wife and myself, along with a couple of friends also in our stage of life, have to understanding and applying these various factors as best we can for the next 25 years and beyond. Here are some things affecting brain health with a couple of brief thoughts as to how I might try to keep my brain young for the duration.
Aerobic exercise. Movement that qualifies as aerobic doesn’t just help our muscles and heart, but also our brain, not just with increasing blood flow, but having a significant impact on the negative consequences of stress as it serves to train our fight-or-flight response, our “monkey brain,” informing it that our actual brain is really in control, so you can just swing back up into the trees, thank you very much. I love my morning jogs and backyard workouts by myself as well as the real ones with our trainer. But we’re also in the process of taking it to another level as we transform our garage into a functional gym for her to work out of. Maybe we’ll see you there sometime!
Emotional health. Fostering healthy emotional attitudes such as gratitude and compassion and healthy, secure relationships based on trust also foster neuroplasticity. Actual dinners and/or happy hours with family where we talk about life and support each other is an important value for us. We also are playing around with Mindfulness Mondays, a time to gather with people interested in exploring topics and practices around managing stress, as well as a Wednesday night meetup for those of us who need a safe place to process questions, doubts and hurts regarding the religion we grew up with that has become either questionable or toxic. I am personally convinced that a healthy and positive spiritual practice belongs on this list. Unfortunately, de-toxing from one based on fear and shame is sometimes a prerequisite to achieving that as you free yourself from a worldview that creates rather than alleviates your stress. And then, of course, there’s always what happens on weekends around the backyard BBQ, Pizza Oven and Firepit with whoever wants to hang out.
Environmental enrichment. Things that stimulate our senses and that challenge our motor abilities and social engagement are critical to keeping our brain active and hence, healthy. The author mentions as examples playing a musical instrument, hiking, traveling, dancing, etc. I’m in. If I could find some people to play guitar with again I’d be way in, especially something that would justify a big stack of amplifiers that go up to 11. For now, maybe I’ll just keep playing it around the firepit. And it’s still on my bucket list to learn to play the piano and another language. Rhonda and I have begun to get hikes back on the calendar and certainly want to begin prioritizing travel for the next few decades. And by all means, let’s dance. Crazy how sitting around watching TV didn’t show up on the author’s list, what’s up with that?
Meditation. With regard to current scientific research on increasing brain neuroplasticity, I would be surprised to learn that anything receives more attention then this. My meditative practice for years has been contemplative prayer, but has been far too on again, off again, especially in busy times of stress when I need it the most. I am very committed to cementing and enhancing principles of mindful meditation in my life and I’m sure that various ways to accomplish this will be a subject that will be coming up on Mondays as well.
Nutrition and Inflammation. I have been nearly overwhelmed lately with all the research being done on the connection between our gut and our brain. Neuro-degenerative diseases, like any auto-immune disease, can all be traced back to inflammation which doesn’t typically start in the brain, but travels to it: primarily from the gut. The right nutrition that avoids inflammation and the leaky gut that gives it the opportunity to travel to the brain is, of course, what the Nutrition Kitchen is all about and something which will always be a part of our long term healthy aging plan, including avoiding cognitive decline.
Physical touch. Yes the mind and body (and the spirit) are inter-related. By touch, of course, we’re not talking fisticuffs. In the context of safety and love, physical touch is healthy for the brain. We’ll continue our regular massage sessions here at home, and more hugs!
Relaxation and deep breathing. Breathing is the one autonomic function we have control over, and learning the techniques that turn off our fight-or-flight response in situations where we don’t actually need it to survive is one of the most useful things we can do maintain brain health. Learning and practicing these, not just in meditation but throughout the day, will continue to be a focus.
Sleep. This is so necessary to restore and repair all of the bodily functions, but the neuroplasticity of the brain is one of the major beneficiaries. How to assure restful sleep is a post to itself, but I do particularly like this one, I’m not going to lie. Not everyone is wired for them, but I particularly enjoy using this to justify my afternoon naps in the sunshine.
Substance use. It goes without saying that things like smoking and excessive alcohol consumption are not going to help the brain age well. But hey, that’s why I brew beer: so I can pour just a half glass at a time from the keg.
First of all, let me just state that I am actually a fan of opportunities such as New Year’s when we sit back and take a big picture look at our lives, re-commit ourselves to the things that we think are really important, and do a re-set of any of the aspects of our lives that do not correspond with those. Personally, I like to use birthdays and the turn of the year for that activity: two things that happen just because the earth is managing to move around the sun, not because of anything I did. That strikes me as appropriately humbling in some way. It helps me ask, “Since this planet is going to keep on spinning on its path regardless of what I do, how do I make a difference with the time I’ve got?” For me those two events every year are just about equa-distant on the calendar, so they work well as two opportunities throughout the year to re-calibrate. That’s why on my birthday you’ll find me placing more emphasis on managing a long walk in the woods than on throwing a big party. Then I come down and have a clambake and drink some home brew.
Those are the big opportunities, but I actually think that to be really transformative this sort of activity also needs to focus on the fact that the earth is not just moving around the sun annually, but spinning on its axis daily. And we don’t have anything to do with that either: so what can we do today that is under our control that will actually mean something?
New Year’s resolutions strike me as very similar to diets: they don’t work, or at least that’s what most of the research would lead us to believe. I think that’s because at the same time they’re too short term as well as too long term. Too short term because they imply a one time thing, something you’ll accomplish this year (or in the case of a diet, 6 months or 30 days or until I lose so many pounds or whatever other useless marker someone is trying to sell you). And too long term because any truly transformative change that is going to go the distance is going to be about what you do today, or even this moment that you’re currently living in.
As I stated, I think it’s great to set goals and have a big picture in mind. But what is going to help you to evolve into achieving those goals is going to be more about the little things you do every day. Maybe one of the questions we should be asking is how small a step can I take in the various aspects of life that make up my wellness? For instance:
Nutrition. Rather than how many pounds am I going to lose, or how radically can I transform what I eat, how can I add a few more vegies to my plate, or another color to those vegies instead of just green, or one fewer source of refined carbohydrates (sugared drink, piece of white bread, donut, etc.).
Fitness. Rather than obsessing about how far you have to go to become an iron-person, how can you get a little more movement in my day? Take a little longer walk? Take a walk at all? Park in the back of the lot and walk to the store? Take that one flight of stairs to the office instead of the elevator? Two more reps with your exercises?
Stress management (my “everything else” category). Instead of jumping to a 30 minute deep meditative experience every day, where is space that you can carve out for a few minutes to just unplug and breathe deep?
Instead of worrying about single-handedly solving the homeless problem or resettling every refugee, what is something you can do for someone around you today that adds some value to their life?
Instead of obsessing over that person who did that horrible thing years ago , how can you give a pass to the person who cuts you off in traffic or puts you on hold again, and train yourself in little things to one day let go of the grudges that are still compromising your immune system and cutting years out of your life?
I could go on regarding whatever is making your cortisol flow. Ask any financial advisor, for instance, who will tell you that it is the little things done consistently that will transform that aspect of your life over time. For me, the important thing about that is to every day share with other people or do something else to let go of these things in order to remind myself of how little importance that really has in how significant my life will be in the end.
You get the picture. By that I mean the little daily sketch you make of some aspect of your life, not the big painting on the ceiling of the chapel that those sketches will eventually create. The problem with big resolutions is that they focus on the significant goals down the road, something that can be daunting and unmotivating. Put more than one or two of them together and they can seem downright unachievable. And the reality is that you may not achieve them at all, because you choose not to: in the process of the evolution in that direction, you may discover that your goals and values change over time: or that you as an individual have a mind, body and spirit that requires a slightly different mix and methodology of the components to your wellness than what the “experts” tell you. You are the expert on you, and the secret to discovering the intricacies of what works best for you is hidden in the small and perhaps seemingly insignificant daily opportunities that you take advantage of on your journey of wellness.
Maybe in the end we will discover that it wasn’t so much about where we were heading, but what direction we were heading in and taking the little steps every day along that path.
Maybe in the end we will look back and discover it was more about our evolution than about our resolutions.
And that we make a path by walking.
Happy New Year.
s(Disclaimer: this is a long post. They won't all be like this, so don't give up on me yet just because I got so wordy here. It's just big topic with a lot of pieces to the puzzle.)
Some years ago I was doing my personal chef thing in a shared kitchen I was working out of and one of the other tenants asked what I did with my business when I got sick. I had to think for a bit to try to remember how many years ago I had actually had the flue, or even a cold. There was that one time a few years prior when I had a 24 hour bug, but it wasn't on a cook day, so I had to admit I couldn't remember actually missing a day due to illness.
That was a few years ago when that happened, and few before that (couldn't recall exactly) when I actually got sick, so now that whole flue thing is fading into truly distant memory. What I do recall is when getting sick was some kind of annual ritual: you weren't sure when or with what it would happen, but you were pretty sure at some point you would be out of the game for awhile with some kind of bug. I assume that will happen again, of course, but I no longer consider it inevitable like I used to, and I really don't think it needs to be for any of us.
Maybe this will be the year I get to lay around feeling sorry for myself again. There are days that actually sounds somewhat appealing, to be honest. Maybe all those bugs have just been conspiring against me, biding their time until they band together to attack en masse and give me what for. Or maybe whatever it is that's giving my immune system the tools it needs to keep bugs from becoming symptomatic will continue to operate like it has been.
So what is it that causes me to miss out on all the flue fun? I know that all the ways in which I'm just a little abnormal are still being catalogued and analyzed for posterity, but I'm pretty sure my basic biological system is put together the same as the normal people's. I suppose it's hard to say with certainty exactly what health metrics accomplish what in a system as complicated as ours, so rather than attempting some kind of prescription and fool-proof system (although pretending I had one and writing a book looks like a great gig) I guess I can just describe how I roll with this stuff and let you ponder what might be useful.
Nutrition. Of course, I have to start there or my publisher will wonder about me. Or S/he would if I had one. I analyzed how I usually start the day last week to see how much of the daily requirements of the most basic winter immune vitamins it gives me (C, etc.) and depending on which program I used, it was between 150 and over 200%. Its really pretty simple: a couple of eggs scrambled with a bunch of vegies and starting with a little olive oil. I try to include something cruciferous (kale, spinach), and as many colors as I can get out of the fridge. In winter I especially go for the mushrooms, plus I love mushrooms. That with some fruit, esp. citrus in winter of course, and maybe some berries (lots of times with a little yogurt for the probiotic thing) and that's about it. I'm thinking of getting back into the supplement thing which I haven't done for a long time, esp. some D3 in winter, but we'll see where that goes. For now my system seems to be pretty functional without the expensive add ons to just real food.
During the day I graze on nuts a lot. I know they've got a ton of benefits for reducing inflammation which is always good for the immune system. One article I read insisted people who eat a handful of nuts daily live longer, and I believe that. Plus I'm a huge fan of roasted, unsalted almonds particularly. There's usually a container of them within reach. I also graze on stuff like carrots etc. as well. It always goes without saying that avoiding refined carbohydrates (think sugar) is always on the menu (not on the menu?) for daily nutrition. Dinner is not the most important meal of the day, so it is what it is. I have three wellness rules for dinner. 1. Eat real food, not too much, mostly vegetables (OK, I cheated and crammed three into one: credit to Michael Pollen for number 1) 2. Eat slow. 3. Eat with people you like to hang out with.
Loving up on my buddy el Sol. The one essential immune boosting vitamin that you don't metabolize from food is Vitamin D, which your skin creates from sunshine. Not as easy to get in the winter, I know, but I do whatever I can. When I remodeled my home I put a south facing second story deck to make sure I can take naps with buddy el Sol whenever I get a chance. It's about wellness, you know: not because I love naps in the sun. Anything else I can do without too many clothes is good. Easy in California, actually. I decided a while back that having a mostly bald dome on top is crucial to my wellness. I know, we've all been trained to believe that the sun is our worst enemy and that we need to cover and cower whenever we see him. As we approach summer, keep an eye out for more of what I have to say in response to that particularly unseemly slander of one of my best buddies.
Speaking of naps, of course getting enough sleep is always crucial to immune function. The whole dark thing in winter is not my favorite part of the season, but it does serve to remind us that we should be getting plenty of Zs during a season when our system needs what they have to offer in fighting disease.
I try to drink plenty of water. That's another one that's easy to backslide on in winter, but its still crucial for flushing whatever toxins manage to make their way into your system. The rule of thumb I've heard is 2/3 of your body weight in ounces every day, so keep the water bottle handy. If your pee isn't nice and clear you should shame yourself.
Except don't shame yourself. Shame is a stress producer, and managing stress is just as critical to immune function in winter as any other time. Avoiding Christmas music in grocery stores this time of year is impossible for me, so I have to work extra hard at making sure I apply the basics: Meditation and other mindfulness stress management practices, letting go of things that really aren't as important as they want us to think they are, wine and cheese (that's our term for the daily time we get together in our home to support each other and de-tox from the day together), pursuing positive life giving relationships in ways that accomplish that: all the stuff. I put together an 8 week program for this sort of thing to detail what I think really works and how to put it into practice. If you're interested just let me know and I'll send it to you.
Exercise. I think the stress thing might be the most important, but if it isn't this certainly has to be. Or maybe the nutrition thing. Or..... Well whatever: best to go holistic with it just to not leave anything out. I'm a runner (if you can call the pace at which I do that running), so I still get out in the winter with my running gloves and beanie (I hate cold ears). My workout is usually outside in the back yard with some basic equipment: dumb-bells, mat, TRX, ball, etc. Where I live that's usually OK, even in the morning when that happens for me, but the things I do can also happen inside: basic HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) exercises that can literally happen in a small room with the 10-20 minutes you have to spare. It all gets mixed up and different stuff happens different days depending on schedule, but the point is to get moving every day, do some resistance stuff, etc. I really think that along with drinking plenty of water, producing enough sweat is key to getting rid of the bad guys. One of the keys, of course, is avoiding the bad guys in the first place, so whatever I do is as far away from gyms as I can. As far as I'm concerned, gyms are second only to hospitals (or maybe elementary schools) for germ exposure. Everyone is different and enjoys different things, but find what works for you. If exercise isn't part of your routine, I hope you enjoy laying around with a fever feeling sorry for yourself and missing work (actually that last part might be OK...)
Speaking of avoiding germs, I do wash my hands a lot during the days because of what I do in the kitchen. Dozens of times a day like I do is surely not necessary, but those kinds of hygiene basics will be important.
Those are some things I give credit for my track record on sickness. No, I don't do shots: I have this aversion to needles, not to mention deliberately injecting pathogens into my body. So far the immune system I was given seems to be able to fight off whatever bug is slinking around. But hey: maybe this will be the year I get sick. If so, I'll lay around for a day or two and let someone else bring me some soup for a change.
Its Thanksgiving season and its all about food. And since this is a site that is first of all about food, there must be something to say about it at Thanksgiving: how to make it healthy, how not to eat too much of it..... blah to that. Just eat in the ways that the Nutrition Kitchen exemplifies most of the time and go enjoy your Thanksgiving meal. Here I want to get beyond food and explore other aspects of life that effect our health and wellness. Does practicing gratitude qualify?
Welcome to my blog. I know this site is first of all about the Nutrition Kitchen, but truth be told I have interests in many aspects of health and wellness. So if you’re interested, this is where you will find me ruminating on some of those. Things related to nutrition might find their way here, of course, especially if I think it’s something that deserves a longer treatment than a short facebook post. Think recipes, for instance. Other categories I think are important that relate to wellness might include:
Fitness. The nutrition kitchen first started when I was approached by a personal trainer who knew that if his clients were really going to get to mission accomplished they needed a solid nutritional program to complement their fitness training. And off we went. Along the way we had an ongoing debate about how big a piece of the pie (that would be a turkey pot pie with almond crust and granola topping: fans of the kitchen might recognize that) each element was in the overall picture. Oddly enough, we both insisted that the other’s discipline was the more important: I went for fitness, he went for nutrition. Regardless of where it falls, this is something I’ve been interested in and on occasion may have some thoughts. Or I might have a guest who actually knows what they’re talking about give us an offering.
Stress management. In my studies on wellness, particularly some of what I dived into during my education with the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, I became impressed by how important this issue is in our overall wellness. Thinking about just how under-appreciated this issue is totally stresses me out sometimes. But seriously, although I sometimes lose track of the degrees and certificates I have: pre-grad, grad, post grad degrees; culinary school, health coach training…. If I were to dive into it one more time the one I would consider would be mindfulness based stress management. I actually created an 8 week course in that based on my studies which I make available for free if you’re interested. In any event, It is very possible you’ll get exposed to your fair share of my rants on that subject.
Other stuff. In my mind, wellness means living well in this world which starts with being well. That broadens the horizons of what is fair game for discussion, as you can imagine. I take particular interest, for example, in the mind/body/spirit connection. That can bring us into some of those fuzzy areas related to spirituality and relationships and such stuff. You may end up deciding you need to be a little more discerning here, and just stick with the recipes for turkey pot pie. I completely get that. Don’t worry.
My personal mission is that every day I want do something that adds value to someone else’s life. I’m going to do my best to see that whatever ends up on this page has the potential to do that for my readers. I will post to the Nutrition Kitchen facebook page when something new comes up, so liking that will be a good way to get notified when I’ve gone off on something I thought might be useful.
To your health,