One of the ways certain health products get marketed is by claiming that they make your body more alkaline (as opposed to acidic). Here's the deal. Your body maintains a tightly controlled pH level within the range of 7.35 and 7.45... always. If it didn't, you'd be dead. Nothing you ingest is going to make you more alkaline, so any product claiming to do so is being disingenuous.
There is something to keep in mind, however. Most of the food you eat will either be more acidic or more alkaline than your body's pH level. This isn't an immediate problem. Your body has buffering systems that counteract the pH level of the foods we eat to maintain the body's overall level. In order to neutralize acidic foods the body's phosphate buffer system uses calcium from the bones, which can weaken them over time if your diet is overly acidic. The calcium is then excreted through the urinary system which can lead to an increased risk of developing kidney stones.
Meat, dairy, sugar, and grains are acidic foods. Fruits and vegetables are alkaline. Your long-term health is best served by a diet that balances the foods from these two groups.
One of my guiding principles is that because our bodies are so amazingly brilliant, we should be more than happy to give them the basic things they need - whole foods, sleep, movement, sunlight, nature, relaxation. In return for this, our bodies engage in miraculous biological processes that keep us not only alive but thriving.
Did you know that we have natural killer (NK) cells patrolling our bodies? They are the first responders to threats like viruses and cancer formation. The rest of our immune system takes several days to ramp up, so NK cells are vital for keeping us healthy.
The lifecycle of an NK cell is really cool. They aren't born knowing how to fight cancer cells. They begin their lives in the bone marrow which serves as their Jedi training academy. Each day they learn how to identify and kill different types of cancer and viruses. Once their training is complete, each NK cell must pass a final test. They must demonstrate that they can tell the difference between a cancer cell and a healthy cell. This is called "licensing". Without a license to kill the NK cell cannot become a Jedi. Once an NK cell is licensed it is released from the bone marrow to serve and protect. How cool is that?
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!
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 listening to a podcast about artificial intelligence (AI). It looks like this stuff is no joke. It's coming, and it looks pretty big... tsunami big. Ironically, the turning point came when they figured out how to design a computer to mimic the way our brain works - a neural network. This approach allows a computer to program itself... to learn, essentially. This technology has been used to create software that performs real-time language translation. A task it can now perform faster and more accurately than any human translator.
Think about that for a minute. In one fell swoop there is no more need for human translators. That's a significant amount of jobs. Where will it all lead? As a good friend of mine (shout out, Kathy) used to say, "Who da fuck knows". Wanna hear the scary part? AI has reached the point where it can now design better computers than human engineers can. Machines making machines. Does that sound like Terminator to you?
To me, all this potential change reinforces the importance of being grounded with primal knowledge. We've already gone around the block with technology thinking we could design something superior to nature. Instead, we found poor health and chronic disease. The world may change, but our needs will stay the same - whole foods, moving well, sleep, mindfulness, and connection. Come with me if you want to live.
You probably know that about 66 million years ago a meteor struck the Yucatan peninsula kicking up a huge dust cloud that blocked the sun and led to the extinction of the dinosaurs. But did you know that this event also paved the way for us to inherit the earth? It's true. If that meteor hadn't flipped over the game board we never would have been able to get a start in this world.
Our species began about 200,000 years ago in Africa. What's interesting is that we stayed put in Africa for a long time... 130,000 years. That's a long damn time considering our restless nature. Don't you think? By that time (70,000 years ago) our numbers had dwindled to only about 2,000 people. We almost bit the big one. Then, all of a sudden, our fortunes changed. We migrated all over the freaking planet establishing magnificent civilizations everywhere we went.
Wanna know what changed our fortunes? Language happened. This enabled us to work together. Think about that. Being able to get along and cooperate saved our asses... literally. It's an awesome legacy and one that we should honor every day through kindness and compassion for all our brothers and sisters.
If you're ever having a bad day and need a pick-me-up, just replay this story. The atoms that make up your body were formed in the crucibles of stars that lived long ago. Under extreme heat and pressure, lighter elements like hydrogen and helium fused together to form heavier elements like carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen. At the end of their spectacular lives, these stars exploded - scattering their precious life-forming ingredients across our galaxy. You are made of stardust... literally. When you look up at the sky, know that you are not only in the universe. The universe is in you.
Yesterday I listed the four basic areas we need to consider when addressing our health - diet, exercise, sleep, and stress management. Over the next few days I'm going to delve further into each of those categories, but first I want to discuss an important concept: your genes - or rather, what else there is to the story of you besides your genes. I'm going to get a little technical in the paragraph below, but stay with me. The reason I'm doing this is because it's empowering to know that you're not merely stuck with a set of characteristics handed to you at birth. You have a say in how your genes are expressed.
Many people think that genes determine all of our characteristics - that our fate is etched in stone. This is not the case. It's true that our genes hold a set of instructions, but first the instructions have to be transcribed onto a protein molecule which serves as the owner's manual for the cell. This owner's manual governs all of the cell's behavior. The process looks like this.
Here's the interesting part. The transcription phase doesn't simply copy the DNA's instruction set. The environment experienced by our body plays a role in determining whether or not each instruction is copied and to what degree. Things like diet, exercise, sleep, and stress influence whether a gene instruction is turned on or... expressed. It's kind of like a card game where you may be dealt a certain hand, but you get to decide which cards to play and when. Geneticists refer to this as gene switching, and it is the mechanism whereby healthy behaviors protect us from disease.
The take-home message is that your lifestyle plays a huge role in how your genes are expressed. This is great news. It means that you are not relegated to the sidelines when it comes to your health. You are master of your fate.