Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Six Principles of Optimal Health: #2-Avoid Toxins

"There is a growing consensus in the scientific community that small doses of pesticides and other chemicals can have adverse effects on health, especially during vulnerable periods such as fetal development and childhood." 
Andrew Weil

In the first principle of achieving optimal health, I focused primarily on the importance of eating more nutritious foods. After you start to improve the nutrient content of your diet, you then have to start focusing on avoiding as many dietary and environmental toxins as you can. While chronic exposure to individual toxins may not be very destructive to your health, collectively, these toxins can cause chronic stress and/or mess with the proper function of the endocrine system. So even if your diet is 100% on point, chronic exposure to the multitude of environmental toxins typically found in industrialized countries (especially the US) can relentlessly chip away at your health.

Being assaulted by any toxin can cause a stress response as the body detoxifies itself. If you are constantly assaulted by many toxins every day, then you can suffer from chronic stress and endocrine disruption.
  •  Chronic stress brings excess cortisol which can strip muscle, increase body fat (especially abdominal fat), cause insulin resistance, sap energy, and suppress the immune system. 
  • A malfunctioning endocrine system prevents the body from using hormones correctly to manage essential life processes. 
Both chronic stress and endocrine disruption accelerate the development and progression of disease.

Of course, nature is full of dangerous chemicals. I'm not talking about these natural toxins. I'm talking about man-made dietary and environmental toxins that are a consequence industrialization. These toxins were largely an unintended consequence of the Industrial (both first and second) and Green Revolutions. While these revolutions lifted peasants out of poverty and produced an abundance of calories, it also allowed for the creation of dangerous synthetic chemicals, destructive pollutants, and unhealthy pseudo-foods.

Environmental Toxins
I'll start this section off with a little history. In most industrialized nations, unhealthy exposure to environmental toxins really started with the heart of the Industrial Revolution: The steam engine. For the steam engine to work, it needed lots of heat, which came from the combustion of large amounts of low-quality coal. When this coal was burned, it released toxic smoke and soot, which was disposed of by simply funneling it out of smoke stacks. Unfortunately, this smoke and soot eventually came back down to the Earth, literally turning whole cities black. This smoke and soot also had a terrible impact on the health of people who worked and lived around cities that used coal. (1) 

An artist's depiction of early industrial pollution.

While electricity eventually helped to reduce coal use, some places were slow to embrace this change. (1) This was punctuated in 1952 in London when the pollution from commercial and private coal use, combined with automobile exhaust and very calm weather, produced a thick and persistent 5-day cover of yellow and black tinted smog that resulted in an estimated 12,000 deaths (and over 100,000 cases of respiratory infection/aggravation). (2) 

A London police officer tries to protect himself from The Great Smog with a "smog mask."

The Industrial Revolution didn't just pollute the air, it also polluted water. Of course, humans have unknowingly polluted their water sources with raw sewage f
or many centuries. Sometimes this pollution was so bad that it led to many outbreaks of infectious diseases like typhoid and cholera (however, the connection between human waste and infectious disease wasn't realized until 1854). 

But industrial waste water was something else, adding both conventional (e.g., oil and grease) and unconventional (e.g., mercury, lead, and cadmium) pollutants into common waterways. By the 1950s and 60s, waster water pollution had gotten so bad in Ohio that the Cuyahoga River actually caught on fire several times during these two decades. In other places, many species of fish became so polluted with mercury that they were unsafe to eat.   

The degree of pollution in the Cuyahoga River was so bad in some places that it could coat a person's hand in oil and grease. These oils slicks would occasionally catch on fire. 

Finally, the advances of the 20th century gave rise to another deadly form of pollution: Synthetic chemicals (e.g., dyes, insecticides, plastics, and fertilizers). Although many of these chemicals have no known effect on human health, a few of these chemicals were found to mimic the hormone estrogen (e.g., PCB, BPA). Unlike natural estrogen, the body cannot control the action of these estrogen mimickers, causing endocrine disruption. (4)

This picture shows how the man-made pollutant polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) can move up the food chain. As it moves up, it concentrates. This means that phytoplankton will have the least amount of PCBs while the herring gull (or humans) will have the most.

Today, government regulation has reduced or eliminated much of this earlier pollution. And even though air, soil, and water quality has improved, there is still environmental toxins hanging around. Burning fossil fuels releases air pollutants. Residues of banned synthetic chemicals (e.g., dioxin, PCB) are still found in waterways. And endocrine-disrupting pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers pollute soil, water, and food products. Being exposed to any of these toxins on a daily basis can cause chronic stress (and disease) in the body.  
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Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Success Story: Now Taking Care of My Health

I've always been kind of a pudgy guy.  Even after I joined the Air Force and went through boot camp I could still pinch well over an inch around the ol' midsection.  Even after I had mandatory PT four times a week almost every week during which I ran for miles, did push-ups and sit-ups and jumping jacks in formation; in unison to a four-count bellowed by somebody with all seriousness.  Even in my late teens I was still soft around the middle, and not very muscular.  And so it went, for years and years... seven and one-half years in the Air Force, all the while barely passing my annual fitness evaluations.  I'd cram for each PT test, "study" if you will...

"Crap!" I'd say.  "I have a PT test in two weeks!  I need to get in shape!"

This (obviously) was the wrong approach, but since I spent the better part of the rest of my life trying to decide where and when to eat (largely contingent on who had the best margarita specials, two-for-one coronas, dollar drafts, etc. etc...), my annual fitness evaluation seemed more an inconvenience than anything else.  Come time for me to shine, I'd push, grunt and sweat my way to a barely passing score and then return to my usual loafing.  At the time it all seemed good enough; at least I was having fun.

Years after I got out of the military I was still sort of depending on my youthful metabolism and luck when it came to being "in shape".  Then I started to get fat... and it made me nervous.  I hadn't really changed anything about my lifestyle, but I found myself breathing more heavily, getting winded more quickly, snoring louder, getting tired more...until I was peeking over thirty extra pounds of pudge just to see those little numbers on the bathroom scale.  Not to mention someone was sneaking in at night and pumping a few more psi of air into my spare tire. 

That sneaky bastard!

It was right around this time that I moved to Missouri, where I happened to settle in a few miles away from an old friend from back in the day:  Bryan Mayo.  As it turned out, Bryan had recently become particularly interested in the areas of personal fitness and nutrition.  He began ravenously soaking up information from every possible source and he shared the best points with me as he went, sending me his condensed notes on all sorts of nutrition and fitness books that he had recently devoured.  One such book was "The Paleo Solution" by Rob Wolfe.

"Read it."  he said, with no small amount of conviction.

"Okay."  I replied, since I had no reason not to.

I read it, and between that and Bryan's prodding I finally decided to have a real go at being healthy for a change.  Once I read that book, I understood why Bryan was so passionate about understanding what it means to really be healthy.  I'd been doing everything wrong.  Even the stuff I'd been doing in an attempt to stay reasonably not-too-fat wasn't doing me any good and was actually harming me.  It blew my mind; it was as if I'd tasted the truth and now I wanted more of it! 

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