Tom Hanks has been in some of the biggest movies of all time, but it’s actually one of his box office flops that holds a special place in my heart - Joe Versus the Volcano. As the movie opens, we see the incredibly dreary world through which Joe trudges every day. His office is perfectly bleak right down to the greenish, soul-sucking fluorescent lighting.
At one point, Joe’s doctor tells him that he is suffering from a brain cloud - a condition the disinterested doctor seems to have made up. The absurdity is what makes it funny.
The thing is... nowadays just about every health product and diet claims to alleviate brain fog. It’s perfect, right? Make up a symptom that most people can convince themselves they have... and that they can just as easily convince themselves has been cured by the product they bought or the diet they tried. Confirmation bias is a wonderful thing.
For me, it’s a red flag when a product lists brain fog as one of the symptoms it cures. Instead of spending your hard-earned dough, maybe check out Joe Versus the Volcano. Joe beats his brain fog by finding purpose and gratitude in life. Now if only we could bottle THAT!
An MRI seems like a great idea. Let's look under the covers, and then we'll know what's what. Right? We get injured... we get an MRI... we look at the image and say, "There! That's what's causing the pain". The problem is we're only looking at the "after" pic. What if we had taken a "before" pic... and it looked the same as the "after" pic? Now it's not so conclusive.
They did a study once. They took MRI's of people who had no current nor previous back pain. What they found is that a significant amount of them had what would be classified as a herniated disc. 30% of the people in their 30's had one. 40% in their 40's, 50% in their 50's. See a pattern? So if disc herniation is the source of back pain, how come these people had no symptoms? And now you can see the folly of the typical scenario of feeling back pain, getting an MRI, and coming to the conclusion that the disc herniation is the source of pain.
Knowing all of this, I went for an MRI anyways. My rationale was that maybe it would show my back had no disc herniations so I could rule that out, plus then I would have a "before" pic in the event that I had some future issue. So into the white cave with the ominous hum I went. The results... Richy has an L4/L5 disc herniation. Crap! Stay tuned...
Update (1/1/2018) - If you're interested in delving further into the science of how chronic back pain is likely more mental than structural check out this article.
In my last post I talked about how a back injury really got me down. Well, it was definitely a thing, but ultimately I learned a lot from the experience, and I want to share it. My "ooohh" moment was at the bottom of a back squat. It felt like an invisible plane of weakness slicing through me just above my pelvis. I got up from the squat and racked the bar. It got stiff real fast, and I was walking around like Redd Foxx. I call it the "Sanford & Son feeling". Bamp bum banna...
The pain and stiffness diminished somewhat, and after about a week I resumed exercise, but it was still present. A short while later I tweaked it again, and the pattern repeated itself. This went on for a few months until I acknowledged that I needed to address this issue. Of course, I had already been trying every lower back stretch I could find, but clearly that wasn't fixing the problem.
So what does Richy Rich do next? He goes for an MRI. Stay tuned...
As I noted in my last post, I've had some pretty bad writer's block over the second half of this year. Not surprisingly it coincided with a back injury. As most exercise enthusiasts will tell you, injury is often a quick route to depression. It's understandable that not being able to participate in an activity you enjoy is a downer, but injury can also wreak havoc on your psyche. Is my body breaking down? Am I getting old? Is it all downhill from here?
Over the next couple of weeks I'm going to discuss some of the things I learned while dealing with my back injury. But the most important lesson is a philosophical one. Nelson Mandela once said, "No matter where you find yourself, there is always journey ahead". Life isn't fair, and we can certainly find ourselves in disheartening situations. Once you accept your reality you can then get to work. The work may get you back to where you were... or it may involve transformation. It is this work wherein lies the salvation.
As my readership of three can tell you, I've had classic writer's block for some time now. The book The War of Art is about our inner battle with a character the author calls Resistance. Resistance is very crafty - sometimes posing as your friend... other times your harshest critic. Regardless of the form he takes, at his core Resistance is the voice of self doubt.
Resistance can never be vanquished completely, and the more he wins the stronger he gets. It is a lonely battle, but sometimes we get unexpected help. My stagnated blog recently got a new reader who let me know how much the story of Ugly Becky touched her...
"Your writing is genuine, wise and and to me, captivating. I find so many people posing as motivators who are lacking the gifts of humility and believability. You have those gifts."
In an instant all the carefully placed papers of self doubt were blown off Resistance's desk. Oh, he was furious! That's right... I'm back, baby. But more importantly, I am reminded of the positive impact our words can have on each other.
This post is a follow-up to my recent experiment of lowering my desk down to the floor. The idea was to eliminate chair sitting and introduce a lot of ass to grass squatting. It worked. The problem was I couldn't quite get comfortable down there. Then I tweaked my back in the gym at which point sitting cross-legged in front of the computer became about as much fun as going for a root canal.
It was kind of a good thing because I used the computer far less. It became a bit of a problem, though, because I actually have work I need to do on that sucker. If you're in the small and exclusive club known as my readership, you may have noticed a dip in the number of blog posts over the past month.
So when down doesn't work... try up. Up I went to a standing desk. I had to steal a shoe rack from my closet for the keyboard, and my monitor is precariously perched on top of an old speaker and a stack of textbooks, but I made it to standing height... and it is da bomb. It isn't so comfortable that I want to spend hours on the computer, but it's enough to allow for typing out a blog post or writing a few client programs. You've probably heard by now that sitting is the new smoking. It might take some office gymnastics, but with a little experimentation you'll find something that works for you.
Supplements are synonymous with the fitness industry, and everybody always asks, "What should I take?". After a decade of going down every avenue in the health and fitness world, I have learned a simple truth. 95% percent of the game is eating whole foods, getting adequate sleep, managing stress, engaging in functional exercise, moving frequently throughout the day, and fostering positive relationships. Know what all these things have in common? They can't be sold to you. You have to make them happen yourself... through intention and daily practice. With that introduction, here are the supplements that I use.
Because I'm a health nut...
There has never been a study to show a benefit of taking a multi-vitamin except in the case of severely malnourished populations. Yet, almost every wellness practitioner admits they take one "just in case". I am no less of a hypocrite. I do believe in quality though, so I take this one.
2) Fish Oil
Solid research exists showing benefit for virtually every system in our body. Quality is important for two reasons. You want high levels of the active omega-3 compounds (EPA/DHA). Also, fish oil can go rancid, so you want to buy from a fast-moving supplier where shelf time is minimal. Refrigerate as soon as you get it home. Here's the one I use.
3) Vitamin D
Again, solid research exists showing several benefits. Sun exposure is the best way to get vitamin D, but most of us don't have that option due to climate and lifestyle. Most multi-vitamins don't provide an optimal dose. You want between 2,000 and 5,000 IU daily.
We now know that our health is tied to having healthy populations of friendly bacteria in our gut. It's such a new and complex subject that there simply isn't sufficient research, but I believe there is enough evidence to warrant hedging your bet by taking a probiotic. I like this one because it has a delayed digestion mechanism to help the bacteria get past the acidic environment of the stomach and into the gut. Of course, putting good bacteria into your gut only matters if you're also feeding them. Hello, veggies.
Over 300 enzymatic reactions require this mineral, and upwards of 80% of Americans are deficient. Veggies are the main source of this mineral. I learned from using a food tracker that it was often a struggle to get enough magnesium from my diet. There are different chemical forms of magnesium as a supplement. Magnesium oxide is the most common form but has poor absorption, so stay away from that one. This is the one I use.
Iodine is critical for our thyroid gland which regulates metabolism and other important hormones. The only good food sources are sea vegetables and fish. Most brands of table salt are fortified with iodine which is sufficient for most people. I use sea salt which is usually not iodized. Therefore, I take a kelp supplement to make sure I'm getting an adequate amount.
I think of turmeric as my "what the hell" supplement. There is no solid proof of its efficacy, but there are many purported benefits with anti-inflammatory topping the list. It's inexpensive, and I don't see any downside. Make sure you get one that contains pepper extract as that improves absorption.
And because I'm a meathead...
I've blogged about creatine before. It's safe and has been proven to help increase strength gains and muscular growth. Creatine monohydrate is the most studied form, and it's also the cheapest.
Zinc is important for testosterone production. Did I mention I'm a meathead? Zinc also improves immunity. As with magnesium, there are several different forms. Zinc picolinate is reported to have better absorption.
BCAA refers to the three branch chain amino acids - leucine, isoleucine, and valine. Because I train in the morning in a fasted state, I take it pre-workout to help prevent muscle breakdown. Dosage is 5 to 10 grams. If you're not a skinny dude (or gal) working out in a fasted state, don't bother. You're likely getting plenty from your diet.
Conspicuously absent from this list is whey protein powder. Like most people, whey was probably the first supplement I ever bought back when I was a newbie. Whey is the part of cow milk that used to get thrown out or fed to the hogs before it became a goldmine for the supplement industry. It would be impossible to consume pure whey without gagging so they have to add a ton of artificial sweetener and flavoring to it. It comes from cows that are pumped to the gills with steroids and antibiotics. And... it's totally unnecessary for most people. If you're eating two servings (palm sized pieces) of meat per day, you're getting plenty of protein.
Now, if you think that's a long list of supplements for someone who just said they are only 5% of the game... you're right. Health and fitness is my passion, so I give myself permission to go all in. If your interest and goals are more moderate just take fish oil and vitamin D. Those two supplements represent the biggest bang for your buck.
Have you ever done something or reacted a certain way, and then said, "Why the fuck did I do that?". I'll tell you why - because your brain was designed 70,000 years ago to reward you for actions that increased your chances for survival or reproduction. It goes something like this. Every time you do something your brain asks itself, "Did what this fool just do increase our chances for survival or making children?". If the answer is yes, your brain releases some dopamine (the feel-good drug) as a reward.
This is why we pursue food, sex, and social status as if they were drugs. But the world has changed on us. We're chasing a dopamine high for things that don't necessarily improve our chances of survival. Back when getting enough food was a challenge it was beneficial to be chemically rewarded for eating, but now that it is overly abundant this mechanism leads to over-eating and chronic disease.
In tribal days, social status was important for finding a mate, but now even after finding a mate we're still stuck in the endless loop of trying to impress others on Instabrag and Facebook. The caveman in us is still running the race for survival when in reality we've already crossed the finish line.
Our brain was designed for our survival... not for our happiness. However, we were given a tool - consciousness. We can be aware of our nature and therefore seek to master these things that no longer serve us. Be master of your dopamine.
I don't fly a lot - a couple times a year - but when I do I like to peruse the bookstore at the airport. Traveling tends to put me in a different frame of mind, so it's a good way to throw a changeup into my reading list. A couple weeks ago this habit resulted in picking up a copy of You Are a Badass by Jen Sincero. There was a time when I read self-help books 24/7, but it's been a while, and I felt like I needed a kick in the pants.
With the title and bright yellow cover I have to admit I felt a little self-conscious reading it, but I liked the author's voice. The part I found most interesting was when she discussed the power of our subconscious mind. She put it like this.
"Our conscious mind thinks it's in control, but it isn't. Our subconscious mind doesn't think about anything... but it IS in control".
She goes on to say that our subconscious mind develops its belief system in the first five years of our lives. Usually this belief system is dominated by our parents' fears and insecurities and whatever emotional trauma we experience. Then, for the rest of our lives we're walking around with this 5-year-old part of our brain setting the tone for everything we do and how we react. Scary, right?
The good news is that if we're mindful of this dynamic, we can slowly start to unpack our subconscious belief system. Understanding the emotions that are driving our behavior is the first step in changing it.
Birthday number 48 passed quietly while I was traveling with my daughter on the left coast recently. They say the Pacific Ocean has no memory. That may be true... but I do. It's been a good life. The experiences are what I cherish most. As the California sun bid us a fond farewell that evening, I thought of all the wonderful lessons learned along this bumpy road.