Archive for the ‘Health’ Category

Is it dangerous to skip breakfast?

Posted 08 Dec 2014 — by Todd
Category Diet, Health, Hormesis

empty_plateThere is increasing evidence from recent human and animal studies that intermittent fasting — refraining from food or caloric beverages for at least 12 hours a day, several days a week — reduces the risks of cardiovascular diseasedementia and cancer.  Those benefits are well-documented in the hyperlinked articles, so I won’t repeat them here.  Yet many nutritionists hold that skipping breakfast or other meals and snacks can lead to weight gain and metabolic imbalance.  Several recent articles have suggested that IF and breakfast skipping is a particularly bad idea for women. Much to my chagrin, this view been even embraced recently by a number of ‘Paleo’ advocates whom I respect, such as Chris Kresser and Mark Sisson.

In this post I’d like to address three main objections that have been raised against skipping breakfast and other forms of intermittent fasting:

  1. It spurs hunger cravings, leading to compensatory overeating and obesity
  2. It causes cardiovascular disease and metabolic dysregulation of blood glucose and hormone levels
  3. It’s bad for women, leading to hormone imbalance, disrupted menstrual cycle, and heightened stress response

I believe these concerns with breakfast skipping are overblown, based on an incorrect interpretation of a few animal and human studies, and flawed personal implementation.  To the contrary, adaptation to meal skipping can actually help boost stress tolerance and improve blood sugar control. If practiced correctly, intermittent fasting (IF) can actually be a powerful tool to overcome hypoglycemic symptoms, and regain control over a harried lifestyle.   And it can be particularly useful for women who are struggling with cravings, weight management and stress management.

Opposition to intermittent fasting arises from both published research and anecdotal reports.  I’d like to address both in this post.  I’ll first point out some significant flaws in the interpretation of several recent studies purporting to show negative effects of reduced meal frequency on women and other groups.  And I’ll end by pointing out how to avoid common mistakes made by many who try intermittent fasting find it to be unpleasant and unsustainable.

Approached correctly, IF can provide major health benefits for most us.

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Track your HRV to boost adaptive reserves

Posted 21 Jul 2014 — by Todd
Category Diet, Fitness, Health, Hormesis

Frustrated_man_at_a_desk_(cropped)Stressed out?

There’s a surprisingly simple but little-known technique for measuring your in-the-moment ability to handle physical, mental and emotional stress.  Some of us have a higher level of “adaptive reserves” than others.  And for all of us, these adaptive reserves increase or decrease throughout the day and over days or weeks.   You might have a rough, intuitive sense of when you are more resilient to stress, and when you are weak or more vulnerable. There is no shortage of advice on the Internet about “stress management”, fitness and diet.  In general, sleep, physical activity and a nutritious diet build adaptive reserves, while these reserves are easily depleted by chronic stressors like worry or overwork.

But how do you know what really works to improve your resilience and resistance to physical and psychic stressors?  How can you learn what diet, exercise, and activities actually work for YOU — not just what researchers, health professionals, bloggers or your friends claim should work?

What if I told you that there is a reasonably objective metric for your overall adaptive reserves and a simple, inexpensive, and noninvasive way to measure your adaptive reserves throughout the day.

The metric is called heart rate variability, or HRV. It can be measured in less than a minute, using an inexpensive chest strap or finger sensor, and any of several smart phone apps that can be downloaded for a few dollars. Based on a review of numerous studies and extensive personal experimentation, I’ve learned some surprising things about what tends to raise or lower HRV.  And I’ve found one few amazingly quick, effective, and to boost a low HRV and keep it up, with real impact on adaptive reserves.  (For the impatient, scroll to bottom of this post and read Recommendation #1).

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Remembering Seth Roberts

Posted 25 May 2014 — by Todd
Category Diet, Health, Psychology

seth-roberts-headshot-colorI was saddened last month to learn of the untimely death of my friend Seth Roberts, a highly original thinker on matters that lie at the intersection of psychology and physiology   Seth was known to many as a pioneer in the burgeoning field of self-experimentation. He was an early contributor to the Quantified Self movement, which owes a huge debt to his thinking. His experiments looked at how to optimize weight loss, mood, sleep, mental speed, balance and even to address specific conditions like acne. He wrote a blog on topics related to health and scientific method. I greatly enjoyed side discussions with Seth at the Ancestral Health Symposium meetings and personal correspondence over the years. This August, both Seth and I were scheduled to talk at AHS in Berkeley. While my talk on myopia will still happen, we will never hear his talk about self-experimentation.

Yet, to pigeonhole Seth as a primarily a self-experimentalist fails to understand what he was really about as a thinker.  As a professional research psychologist, he focused on developing “productive explanations” — explanations that help us not only to make sense of an individual surprising observation, but that also make predictions about additional diverse and often novel practical applications.  Self-experimentation was one important input, but certainly not his only source of experimental material. Self-experimentation has the virtue of allowing one to do more experiments in less time without spending a lot of money.  Self experiments allow you to make incremental progress rapidly, to adjust and learn quickly.

But Seth didn’t stop there  He typically synthesized results from many different fields into a coherent explanation.  He was not against using data from larger experiments, even controlled double-blind experiments.  It’s just that large “designed” experiments sometimes become unwieldy and expensive failures.  Simple self-experiments get you started “learning by doing” and often allow you to make rapid progress and weed out untenable hypotheses quickly, before you sink a lot of time and effort into your investigations. The best example of how Seth combined self-experiment with classical science may be how he came up with the Shangri-La Diet, a seemingly wacky–but actually very effective–way of losing weight, safely and without hunger.

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Banish back pain and sore muscles

Posted 08 Dec 2013 — by Todd
Category Diet, Fitness, Health, Hormesis, Rehabilitation

Is back pain and muscle soreness an inevitable consequence of intense physical activity and getting older?

images-2I don’t believe so.  The conclusion of my recent research and personal experience is that back and muscle pain can largely be prevented and reversed. (Caveat: This article is about pain that originates in muscles and connective tissue — I will not address pain due to disc herniation, spinal stenosis, degeneration, infection or cancer).

By implementing a few key strategies over the past year, I’ve almost eliminated the sore muscles or back pain that I used to experience after a long run or heavy workout. I’m able to quickly recover with little downtime. And I do it without resorting to anti-inflammatory medicines, icing, massage, stretching or many techniques that are commonly recommended to reduce or prevent pain and soreness. As I’ll show, a combination of specific exercises and dietary interventions can great help reduce and immunize you against back pain and muscle soreness.

This article is one of my longer ones, because I had to synthesize a broad spectrum of information into a coherent perspective on muscle pain and its prevention.  I hope you can stick with me or read it in bite sized pieces.  I will break it into four parts. If you just want my recommendations, skip to Part 4.  For those who want to understand the science, read on…

Part 1.  The biology of pain

Part 2.  Exercise for pain prevention

Part 3.  Diet for pain prevention

Part 4.  Recommendations

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How attitude transforms stress

Posted 13 Sep 2013 — by Todd
Category Health, Psychology

Listen to this inspirational TED talk by Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal. In my earlier post on Voluntary Stress, I wrote about the importance of attitude in how the body and mind respond to stress.   McGonigal’s presentation here  makes a nice connection between the psychology and the hormonal physiology of stress.  Towards the end of the talk there is a very interesting discussion of oxytocin and the social dimension of the successful stress response.

Thanks to Tony Kiel and Marnia Robinson for each making me aware of this great talk.


The case against nutritional supplements

Posted 17 Aug 2013 — by Todd
Category Diet, Health, Hormesis, Uncategorized

Here is a hyperlink with slides from the talk I gave today at the Ancestral Health Symposium 2013 in Atlanta.  I will upload a video of the talk once the organizers make it available.  Until then, you can click on the “Link to audio recording”  to listen to a recording that one of the conference attendees made and posted on YouTube.   The sound is a bit faint, but still audible, and should make the slides more intelligible.

Todd question AHS2013 - Copy

This presentation is based on material from several previous blog posts

The talk includes some new material not covered in those previous posts, in particular addressing antioxidant recycling, supplementation of calcium and the essential fatty acids EPA and DHA.  I have also provided a list of references of supporting studies and literature in the final 3 slides.

I enjoyed meeting many new faces and recognizing old ones at this year’s AHS.



Posted 07 Jul 2013 — by Todd
Category Diet, Fitness, Health, Hormesis, Psychology, Stoicism

Hormesis is the ability of organisms to become stronger when exposed to low-dose stress.  Is hormesis a basic principle of biology — or is it merely a strange but unimportant quirk of nature that only applies in exceptional circumstances?

Unknown-7Nassim Nicholas Taleb–the options trader turned philosopher–is intrigued by hormesis, and sees it as but one example of a much broader phenomenon:  a fundamental principle he calls “antifragility”. The principle of antifragility applies not just to biology–but to sociology, economics, and perhaps even physics. Taleb has been developing this idea for a number of years.  Antifragility made a subdued appearance in his 2007 blockbuster work, The Black Swan, a guide to dealing with unpredictable yet momentously consequential events in our increasingly volatile world. Taleb has now more fully developed the concept of antifragility in his most recent book, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder.

The antifragile is the antithesis of the fragile.  You might suppose that the opposite of “fragile” is something like “robust” — something that resists change. But Taleb points out that that would be the wrong answer.  A fragile thing – a package of wine glasses, perhaps — is easily broken when subjected to a stressor, such as being dropped.   Something robust is merely resistant to breakage. But an antifragile object actually benefits by being subjected to stress.  Taleb conjures up an image of the fragile as an object we would ship in a box marked “Handle with Care”; by contrast, a box holding the antifragile would be labelled “Please Mishandle”

At first, this seems to be a tease.  Are there really such antifragile things?  Yes, indeed; the world is full of them, including you and me. And there are steps we can take to become ever more antifragile.

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Physical improvements using hormesis

Posted 17 Jun 2013 — by Todd
Category Diet, Fitness, Health, Hormesis

Here is a link to the video recording from the talk Health Activator web conference presented June 19, 2013. It also includes a short Q&A session:

And here are the slides if you want to see them separately:

The talk covers the basic principles of hormesis and how to apply them to improve in four areas:

  •  Physical strength
  •  Vision improvement
  •  Metabolic health
  •  Immune health

Many thanks to Christine Peterson for inviting me as a speaker.

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What causes allergies and autoimmune disease?

Posted 26 Mar 2013 — by Todd
Category Diet, Health, Hormesis

Unknown-1Allergies and autoimmune disease are reaching epidemic proportions — not just in the U.S. and Europe, but in the rest of the industrially developing world.  Asthma, celiac disease, Type 1 diabetes, arthritis, multiple sclerosis, lupus — all are on the rise. Even certain conditions not previously considered immune disorders, such as autism, metabolic syndrome and obesity, are now seen as manifestations of immune dysfunction.

What caused all this?  Can the epidemic be reversed?  And what can you do if you suffer from asthma, allergies and autoimmune disease?

Many who follow this site are generally sympathetic to the “paleo” hypothesis: namely, that allergies, autoimmune disease , and other degenerative diseases are the spawn of neolithic agents — such as wheat and other grains, and legumes, introduced during the transition to an agrarian society  about 10,000 years ago.  These neolithic foodstuffs expose us to higher levels of carbohydrates and novel proteins and anti-nutrients — such as gluten, phytic acid and lectins — that our evolutionary history as primates did not adapt us (or at least many of us)  to tolerate.   There is a lot of evidence to support this idea — from archeology and comparative anthropology, to studies in genetics and immunology.

But is it true?

There is an alternative explanation that has now been put forward, based upon a revolution in immunology during the past decade.  Like the paleo hypothesis, this new theory is grounded in evolutionary biology, and it likewise sees our modern lifestyle as an evolutionary anomaly.  But this new perspective places the advent of the twin epidemics of allergy and autoimmunity — and more generally inflammatory disorders — not at the introduction of agriculture, but much more recently:  at the upswing and aftermath of the Industrial Revolution. And it identifies the causal agent not as the addition of neolithic foods, but rather the subtraction of a key protective factor that we’ve lived with since the beginning of human evolution, or even mammalian evolution.

The agent of our immunological misery is the disappearance of something we co-evolved with in a mutually beneficial relationships:  microbes and parasites that have lived inside our bodies for millennia.

This new hypothesis is brilliantly summarized in a recent book by Moises Velasquez-Manoff:  An Epidemic of Absence: A New Way of Understanding Allergies and Autoimmune Disease.  In 307 pages the author, a science writer, synthesizes a diverse range of research, interviews and adventures into a detective novel that ends with a quest to treat his own rare autoimmune disorder.  The book is both compelling and honest in probing both the promise and the limits of the arguments and evidence for this new perspective on practical immunology.

This new view leads to some unorthodox ideas about how to combat allergies and autoimmune diseases.  Some of the ideas being tested may seem wild to you.  But I’ll end with one very safe recommendation that makes good sense to me now, despite earlier doubts, and which I’ve already implemented with great gusto.

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An alternative to vitamin D supplements?

Posted 11 Feb 2013 — by Todd
Category Diet, Fitness, Health, Hormesis

Screen Shot 2013-02-10 at 11.51.13 PMMy recent post on Why I don’t take vitamin D supplements generated a lot of interest and a few misconceptions.  In that article, I did not suggest any practical alternatives to taking high dose vitamin D supplements.  Here I will suggest a way that may provide the benefits of vitamin D without popping any pills, spending all day in the sun, or ingesting copious amounts of fish.

Some readers got the idea that I believe vitamin D is not beneficial, and that I discount the evidence from studies that show the benefits.  I want to dispel that notion.  I do acknowledge the key role that vitamin D and the vitamin D receptor (VDR) play in bone mineralization and regulation of  innate and adaptive immunity, and among other things.  I further acknowledge that many (but certainly not all) studies support an association between higher vitamin D3 levels and reduced incidence of diseases such as cancer.

As I wrote:

Nobody doubts the important role of vitamin D in the body. But are higher levels of a hormone like vitamin D–whether or not provided as a supplement– always a good thing?

My doubts are focused on several points:

  • Under-appreciation of the fact that vitamin D is a hormone with diverse and dose-dependent systemic effects, still not fully understood
  • Misleading  claims that vitamin D supplementation is “equivalent”  to vitamin D from sun exposure. While the two forms are chemically identical, levels of vitamin D3 synthesized from sun exposure are self-limiting due to feedback regulation.  What happens when we chronically exceed natural limits?
  • Inadequate attention to the possible effects of chronic vitamin D supplementation on homeostatic down-regulation of the VDR receptor. See this discussion bv Dr. David Agus of USC medical school.
  • Inadequate study of the possible long term adverse effects of chronic vitamin D supplementation. Few studies look beyond 4 years. Hormone replacement therapy was in favor for 50 years before the risks came to light . Things don’t necessarily look any more promising when synthetic hormones are replaced bioidentical hormones.

My article created a dilemma for several commenters. These people acknowledged the risks, but nevertheless cited  benefits they personally experienced  from supplementing with vitamin D–ranging from fewer colds and flu, to relief of autoimmune symptoms, and even lessening of depression.

For these people, a key question remains:

Is there a way to get the benefits of vitamin D supplementation, while avoiding the dependency and risks of taking vitamin D capsules daily for the rest of your life?  While I don’t have a definitive proven answer to that question, recent research leads me to speculate here that there is a promising approach that is within everyone’s reach.

It lies within a powerful natural biological process called autophagy.

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