There is a common misconception out there that the more you breathe, the better. The more oxygenated we are, the better... right? Wrong. At a basic level we need food, water, and air. We know too much food is bad for us. We also know too much water is bad for us. So it only makes sense that too much air is bad for us. Let's look at why.
Carbon dioxide is not simply a waste product. We require a certain amount of CO2 in our bloodstream (about 6%) for proper oxygen transfer. Oxygen is transported in the blood by hemoglobin molecules. They deliver oxygen to all the tissue cells. However, hemoglobin molecules cannot release their oxygen unless carbon dioxide levels are sufficient. Over-breathing depletes carbon dioxide levels creating the paradoxical situation where we have all this oxygen in the blood, but we can't use it.
Mouth breathers typically suffer from over-breathing. When not engaged in intense activity we are meant to breathe through our nose. The nose contains mucous membranes that infuse incoming air with nitric oxide which promotes vasodilation of the blood vessels in the lungs. The nitric oxide also has a sterilizing effect on the air. Breathing through the nose engages the diaphragm which draws air into the deepest part of the lungs where there is greater capacity. The result is a more efficient exchange system that naturally promotes a slower breathing pattern.
Check in with yourself throughout the day to see if you're breathing with your nose - not your mouth. Spend a couple minutes a day making a conscious effort to slow your breathing. Meditation is great for this. Being a more efficient breather at rest will directly translate into better performance during exercise when oxygen transfer is crucial.
In another blog post I mentioned how cooperation initiated the rise of humans approximately 70,000 years ago. What triggered this quantum leap in cooperation? Monkeys form social groups and cooperate like us, but they are limited to a total group size of about 50. Each monkey has to manage a personal relationship with every other monkey. As the group size grows the number of one-on-one relationships increases exponentially. Somewhere around 50 the monkey shit starts flying, and the group implodes.
It turns out we humans are also limited to an effective group size - about 150. When you go past that number it becomes too difficult to manage all the relationships and emotional baggage that goes along with it. So how did we develop civilizations that require the cooperation of millions of people? Well, we have something that no other animal has. We have the gift of myth. We can makes stuff up and believe it. More importantly, we can get others to believe it. Collective myth is what allows humans to cooperate in groups far larger than 150 people.
What are some of our myths? Governments, companies, nations, laws - these are all myths. They are completely made up by our imagination... but they have real power because collectively we believe in them. And because of this collective belief we are able to cooperate as a nation of 300 million people. Some days we cooperate better than others, but any day where 300 million people aren't slinging their feces at each other is a good day... and we owe it all to our ability to make stuff up. How funny is that?
I've been reading the book Brain Rules by neuroscientist John Medina. He takes the latest scientific research and understanding about how the brain works and puts it into plain english.
As a result of our evolutionary history, the brain has three layers. The first layer is the lizard brain. It cares about the four F's - fight, flight, food, and f___, um... reproduction. Next there's the mammalian layer which gives us our nurturing instincts and emotions. Finally, at the top of the brain pyramid sits the cortex - rational thought, planning, and impulse control.
Our brain was forged in an environment of constant motion. We hunted and gathered all day long. This has a major implication. Cognitive health is predicated on an active lifestyle. Statistics show that regular exercise cuts your risk of dementia and Alzheimer's in half.
Sharks have to keep moving just to breathe. We aren't quite that dependent on motion... but it's close. You don't need a crazy amount of exercise to get the cognitive health benefits. A couple of intense sessions a week and a daily walk does the trick. So hit it!
Is it possible that the same stuff that made you forget where you parked your car as a youth may actually help reverse mental decline as you age? That's what they found in a recent study performed on mice. Elderly mice given a small dose of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, saw their maze test scores improve dramatically. Groovy! Meanwhile, the young mice test scores plummeted as they sat around eating Doritos and freaking out about government conspiracy theories.
Marijuana contains compounds that mimic our brain's own marijuana-like molecules, referred to as endogenous cannabinoids. Our cannabinoid system is homeostatic which means both too much or too little have negative effects. Since endogenous cannabinoid production declines with age, it makes sense that the older mice received a mental boost from the exogenous source. It also makes sense that the young mice were negatively impacted by the dosage since they already had an optimal amount.
It's hard to extrapolate human guidelines from a mouse study, but retirement may have just gotten a little more interesting.
Remember in The Karate Kid when Mr. Miyagi has Ralph Macchio training by doing household chores? Just when Daniel is getting ready to tell Miyagi to go fuck himself, he realizes that the movements have become second-nature and are actually useful for defending himself against the neighborhood bullies.
I had a similar wax on wax off experience recently. My schedule has gotten a little jammed, and finding time for yoga class has become a challenge. One day in my living room I just started rattling off different poses. To my surprise, I could freestyle from one pose to another almost as if choreographed. Within a couple of minutes I had hit most of the basic poses (asanas)... almost as if Mr. Miyagi was barking commands at me.
Now I pepper the day with four or five of these micro-sessions. That's probably only about 15 minutes of total time, but I've actually improved versus when I was hitting a daily 60-minute class. Frequency seems to trump volume, at least for yoga. It's interesting... and in a future post I'll explain how I've leveraged this practice to yield an unusual benefit.
Ever come across comedian J.P. Sears? He likes to poke fun at, well... everything. I remember once he posted the following status update.
I've got big plans today. I'm going to look at other people's profiles and compare their lives to mine.
Facebook enables us to connect with others, but it also has a dark side. It's natural to compare ourselves to others. It's part of the ancient software running in our heads. Back in the day, jockeying with other cave men and women was important for the survival of our gene pool. But just as the modern world makes it too easy to over-eat, Facebook makes it too easy to compare yourself to others. What makes it an especially debilitating practice is that you are comparing the messy innards of your life to the carefully curated outsides of somebody else's.
So what should we do about it? It's an interesting topic, and one that I'm going to discuss over future blog posts.
Mitochondria (the purple guys in the sketch above) are tiny, little organelles scattered around the cell body. They are the remnants of ancient bacteria. Back in the early days of life formation a bargain was struck between our cells and bacteria. Bacteria would be admitted into the cell body in exchange for performing the vital function of generating energy to power the cell. You can think of mitochondria as the power plants of the cell - ATP production.
Why should you care? Because there is growing consensus that mitochondrial dysfunction is at the heart of chronic disease and aging. Mitochondrial health is a function of quantity (number of mitochondria per cell) and quality (how efficient they are). In the sketch above there are only 3 mitochondria, but cells can grow more.
A recent study, The Pleiotropic Effect of Physical Exercise on Mitochondrial Dynamics in Aging Skeletal Muscle, shows that exercise improves both the quantity AND quality of mitochondria in muscular tissue. Furthermore, the combination of endurance and strength training improves mitochondrial health better than performing only one of those activities.
Here's the take-home message. If you want to stay young, hit the weights... and also hit the cardio. A training regimen that incorporates both will be most effective in maintaining your vitality.
The other day I was trying to replace the filter of my water purifier. It's like trying to open an over-sized mason jar. You sort of realize that neither of your hands are large enough for the job. If you purchased the one I recommended in a previous post, you'll see what I'm talking about in 6 months. Being the neanderthal that I am, I decided to go outside to look for some implement that would help me unscrew this coconut.
On my way out the door, my 16-year-old son asks what I'm up to. He replies, "Dad, I'll just hold the bottom, and you twist the top". I thought, "Shit... that sounds like a better idea than wandering the apartment complex looking for some cro-magnon tool". So, we go into the kitchen. He holds the bottom. I twist the top... and the damn thing unscrews. I had to apply quite a bit of torque, but he was able to hold the bottom in place.
I realized that it hadn't occurred to me to ask him for help because I still thought of him as a child. It's funny what will trigger an a-ha moment. As I looked up, I saw that it was a man who had just helped me.