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Saturday, January 16, 2021

From Resolution to Reality: Part II

Last week, I wrote about how "focus is the currency of resolve." Without focus, we cannot maintain resolve. In a sense, focus and resolve are similar. 

When we resolve we "settle on a solution" or "decide firmly on a course of action." 

Last week, I also wrote about notional boundaries, the beginnings of days, weeks, or months that often inspire so much enthusiasm. The new year is, perhaps, the ultimate notional boundary, the moment when so many of us, inspired by the very idea of beginning, resolve to change. 

I am reminded of the famous quote, often misattributed to Goethe:

Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.

Beyond the misattribution, the problem with this quote, however inspiring it may be, is its utter lack of specificity and practicality. 

A resolve to change, then, must be accompanied by a focus, "the center of interest or activity" or a "clear visual definition." It is no coincidence that visualization is associated with a host of benefits, including "confidence, courage, focus, concentration, and...resilience." 

In other words, you start with solution and you maintain your resolve with a clean vision of what you need to do, each and every day. Of course, I am using these words for my own purposes here. One could define the calculus of change in many ways. 

I like both words, resolve and focus, because they imply centeredness: a solution, a center of activity. 

However, in my experience, resolve and focus are also helpful because they speak to another key element of change.

To make a change, you must begin it now, yes, but you must also begin it the next hour, and the next hour, and the next day, forever focused on your goals. Even as you remain rooted with your "robust soul" you must venture out, and "level that life, to pass and continue beyond."

Momentum: The Key to Change

Momentum is "the quantity of motion of a moving body, measured as a product of its mass and velocity." This popular definition from physics is helpful because it speaks to the basic element of movement. 

For our purposes, we can simplify momentum into two parts: positive momentum and negative momentum.

Positive momentum: Good choices lead to more good choices. 

Negative momentum: Bad choices lead to more bad choices. 

We all cycle through both types of momentum, each and every day. This is life. On one day, you exercise, feel inspired to eat a healthy dinner, and then enjoy a beautiful night's sleep, which leads to a new day of good choices--at least the start of a new good day.  

On another day, you drink too much wine, sleep poorly, and wake up yearning for a donut. Incidentally, science tells us why we have this sort of craving. And we know, as Matthew Walker writes in Why We Sleep, that "too little sleep swells concentrations of a hormone that makes you hungry while suppressing a companion hormone that otherwise signals food satisfaction."

Most of us understand, intuitively, how our habits, good or bad, create their own sort of momentum. 

Despite this knowledge, many of us feel helpless to escape our cycles or good and bad; many of us feel stuck in our "rat race." As Bob Marley sings: "Don't forget your history/ Know your destiny/ In the abundance of water/ The fool is thirsty."

Happily, you don't need to be thirsty. You can escape the rat race quickly and easily, and once you've learned how to escape, you don't have to look back. 

The Autonomic Nervous System: The Root of Momentum 

How do you feel right now? To a large degree, your physical and emotional state at any given moment is defined by the relative balance of your autonomic nervous system.

The nervous system, which is comprised of the brain and spinal cord, is the body's communication network. When we receive sensory input, our brain sends messages to the rest of the body through nerves that branch off from the spine. Many these impulses govern our conscious actions, like getting out of bed, picking up the phone, and checking social media. 

The nervous system also communicates impulses with the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which governs unconscious actions. The ANS includes the enteric nervous system (responsible for digestion), and the sympathetic and the parasympathetic devious. 

These two divisions are often defined as antagonistic in nature because they often perform opposing actions in the body.

The sympathetic nervous system is our "flight or fight" response, which "directs the body's rapid involuntary response to dangerous or stressful situations" (source). As Live Science notes:

A flash flood of hormones boosts the body's alertness and heart rate, sending extra blood to the muscles. Breathing quickens, delivering fresh oxygen to the brain, and an infusion of glucose is shot into the bloodstream for a quick energy boost. 

The parasympathetic nervous system is our "rest and relax" response. As Science Daily notes: "the parasympathetic system conserves energy as it slows the heart rate, increases intestinal and gland activity, and relaxes sphincter muscles in the gastrointestinal tract."

Ideally, these two systems perform in concert, creating a harmonious balance, a condition few moderns humans enjoy. This fact that should be obvious to anyone who wakes up, picks up the phone, and checks social media, instigating an immediate sympathetic response. 

We may not have to fend for our lives like an ancient ancestors, in whom the fight or flight response developed as a response to threats. But our modern body cannot differentiate between a ferocious lion and a triggering social media post--and so, too often, we are thrown into a sympathetic mode in our day-to-day lives. 

Recently, Marcelo Campos noted on the Harvard Health Blog:

If we have persistent instigators such as stress, poor sleep, unhealthy diet, dysfunctional relationships, isolation or solitude, and lack of exercise, this balance may be disrupted, and your fight-or-flight response can shift into overdrive.

Essentially, this is the rat race, and this is the momentum of our stressful lives, which creates anxiety and depression, and ultimately distracts us from our resolves. 

Heart Rate Variability: A Key Metric 

To recover, we must shift our momentum. We must find balance. Balance can be quantified in a precise way. One recent determinant is heart rate variability (HRV), a measure of the variation between two heartbeats. 

As Jay T. Wiles recently noted on the Wild Health Podcast: "The heart does not operate like a metronome...There should be variability. More variability of the heart demonstrates more psychological and physiological resilience to outside and internal stressors."

As noted above, of course, most of us do not enjoy this resilience. As the data analytics company Firstbeat notes:

HRV level changes naturally from day to day, based on the level of activity and amount of, for example, work-related stress, but if a person is chronically stressed or overloaded – physically or mentally – the natural interplay between the two systems can be disrupted, and the body can get stuck in a sympathetically dominant fight state, with low HRV and high stress hormone levels, even when the person is resting. This is very consuming on the body and can result in various mental and physical health problems.

Sound familiar? 

Find Your Center: Breath

We have many, many options for halting the momentum of the sympathetic state and downshifting into the parasympathetic state. 

All of us have within us the power to try perhaps the easiest, most effective, and most time-honored of all healing techniques: breathing

In his recent book Breath, James Nestor argues that breathing exercises can change your life. As Nestor notes, up to 80% of us are breathing inadequately and 25% suffer from chronic over-breathing. We are meant to breath primarily through our noses, yet "up to a half of us habitually take in breath from our mouths" (source). 

Mouth breathing is terrible for our health. Thankfully, for those who wish to make a change, the wellness world is ready with legions of videos and apps. Nestor himself has a wonderful resource page on his blog

Some of my favorite breathing exercises include the 4,7,8 method (which influences the autonomic nervous system) and the Wim Hof Method.

   

Be Uncomfortable (For a Bit): Hormetic Stressors

Wim Hof is also famous for cold exposure, a form of hormesis: a moderate (and usually intermittent) stress that produces an adaptive, beneficial response in the cells. 

Hormesis is the very essence of resilience--by exposing ourselves to small stressors, we condition the body and mind to better handle the all-embracing stress of modern life. 

Beyond cold exposure, which can change your life too, common examples of hormetic stress include heat exposure, certain plant compounds (like sulforaphane), and exercise and fasting. 

Hormesis may have a significant influence on aging. As the popular aging researcher David Sinclair says, each day be a little bit out of breath and a little bit hungry. 

Of all the hormetic stressors, fasting may be the simplest and most straightforward way to develop emotional and physical resilience (or "metabolic flexibility").

I’ve followed a routine of "time-restricted eating" for a decade or more. Most people might do this inadvertently, but most of us also snack and nibble throughout the day between meals. My practice is quite simple: I skip breakfast. By skipping breakfast, I usually create about 16 hours (from about 8:30 PM the previous night to 12:30 PM that day) when I do not consume food.

More on Time-Restricted Eating Improving Healthspan

I also often stack my stressors, which may enhance benefits. Exercising on an empty stomach may increase fat oxidation

Recover: Sleep

Sleep is undoubtedly the single best tool for optimizing mental, emotional, and physical resilience. As the sleep researcher, Matthew Walker writes, "sleep is the single most effective thing we can do to reset our brain and body health each day."

Learning about the dynamics of sleep, including the various sleep stages, and the importance of different types of sleep, including REM sleep and "deep" slow wave sleep, has profoundly changed my life. 

Matthew Walker is a wonderful resource. I recommend his three-part podcast with Peter Attia: start here. I also recommend his book, Why We Sleep.

In concert with learning, by tracking my sleep on my Whoop strap, I have learned to associate certain behaviors with better sleep. 

I now pay attention to the deeply biological wisdom of my circadian rhythm, and I try to support my own rhythmicity with daily habits like morning sun exposure, avoiding blue light at night, and sleeping in total darkness. For several years now, our house has not had one single blue-light lightbulb. (We use amber bulbs instead). 

My nighttime ritual, which includes a magnesium tonic and CBD, is non-negotiable in much the same way Walker says that, for him, eight hours of sleep is non-negotiable. 

Learning about sleep and developing your own sleep-supportive ritual is, in my opinion, the best way to set yourself up to meet the challenge of your resolves on any single day, week, month, or season. 

Saturday, January 9, 2021

From Resolution to Reality: Part 1

A few months ago, I watched a video from my children's elementary school: The kid's principal, Mr. Mac, was announcing the week's "blue ticket" winners. A student earns a blue ticket for embodying the school pledge:

I am a positive, proud, productive, and patriotic member of the Fort Washington community. I will try my hardest. I will never give up. My heart believes it, and my actions show it!

When Mr. Mac announced the Kindergarten winners, I wasn't exactly holding my breath.  So when he said, "Owen Pollins," my reaction was genuine. I shouted, "Yes," pumping my fist. 

When Mr. Mac announced the third-grade winners, I couldn't help but feel expectant. Still, when he said, "Ella Pollins," I was startled. 

Two winners? "Yes," I said. Then I began to cry. 

I never know when I'll cry, though some moments are easy to predict: watching "Golden Buzzer" clips, listening to "Blackbird," or reading a poem like "The Bench." 

This moment was unexpected, in part, because it inspired a simple realization: Damn, this is hard. All of it. The quarantine. The isolation. The election. The twenty-four-seven life with the family. And the children have endured countless trials, from virtual learning to Camp Overlord, and day after day of loneliness and boredom. Owen's had four teachers this year! And Ella wrote a book called SADNESS. 

And yet, here they were, winning blue tickets. 

Since last March, I've attempted to defy everything with relentless self-improvement projects, forever selfish in my pursuit to emerge from this shitshow stronger and healthier, with stupendous hair.  If I'd stopped to look, though, I would've seen a true portrait of strength right in front of me. 

For Owen and Ella, this time has never been about the end. "When will this be over?" Ella often asks, but both Ella and Owen's concern are immediate: "Can we play now?" 

It was clear why my children had won the blue tickets: They had tried their hardest. They hadn't given up. Their hearts had believed it. And their actions had showed it. 

To me, this pledge suddenly seemed instructive. And I believe it can be instructive for anyone who resolves to thrive in 2021. 


Notional Boundaries: The Power (and Problems) of Beginnings 
Why do we feel so compelled to make resolutions? 

In a classic piece for the New Yorker, "Why We Make Resolutions (and Why They Fail)", Maria Konnikova writes about timing and optimism: 

"The beginning of a week, a month, or a year forms...a notational boundary." 

These "notional boundaries" inspire optimism, and the beginning of a new year inspires extreme optimism. Just witness the "resolutionists" at the local gym courageously weightlifting, cycling, and running their way to the new, healthy person they hope to be. 

Unfortunately, the optimism of a notional boundary is hard to sustain throughout the week, month, and year. Buoyed by our optimism, we set unreachable expectations and condemn ourselves to failure. 

In 2008, the time management firm, Franklin Covey, surveyed over 15,000 customers about their New Year's resolutions. One-third of the survey participants broke their resolutions before February and only 20% stuck with their resolutions (source). 

Why We Fail: Specificity and Practicality 

So why do we fail? 

As Tara Parker Pope writes for The New York Times: "Resolutions tend to be too big without any thought about whether they are practical or even possible." 

Specificity is key. Instead of resolving to "eat more healthy," you might resolve to limit your dinnertime portions (to one plate), or skip breakfast. I often tell wellness clients to start at the beginning of the day with a "morning elixir" (details here). 

The practicalities matter, too. If you fool yourself into believing making a change is merely a matter of will, you will likely fail. Change is hard. 

As Jerome Groopman notes in a New Yorker article, "Can Brain Science Help us Break Bad Habits": "A large majority of us lack the self-control required to succeed in life." 

The Importance of Habits

However, as Groopman notes, we can "hack" our habits by "finding ways to take will-power out of the equation." As far back as the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle cited habit as the as the root of virtue. 

Summarizing Aristotle's virtue ethics in his famous book, The Story of Philosophy, Will Durant offered a succinct quote often misattributed to Aristotle: "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then is not an act but a habit."  

You know that famous marshmallow experiment--the one frequently cited to prove the power of delayed gratification, which leads to greater success later in life? Only a quarter of the participants--kids aged 4 to 6--succeeded in resisting the treat for a full 15 minutes. 

Groopman notes a nuance of the experiment:

The researchers compared the results of two situations: in one, children could see the marshmallow in front of them; in the other, they knew that it was there but couldn’t see it. On average, the children lasted only six minutes when presented with visible temptation but could manage ten minutes if the treat was hidden.

Perhaps the key is eliminating temptation. Groopman quotes a researcher who suggests creating friction--making our bad habits more inconvenient. 

A few years ago, I resolved to reduce my screen time, and I tried to support this resolution by deleting all social media apps. 

However, Groopman's article also describes another practical approach to changing habits: replace one habit with another and include rewards for the change. Instead of scrolling my social media feeds, I tried to read articles or books, or watch movies (in the evening). 

In the end, I failed. Lately, especially since the election, I've fallen head over heels back into my scrolling addiction. 

The Currency of Resolve: Focus 

Beyond specificity and practicality, Tara Parker Pope's advice speaks subtly to a more fundamental element of making a change. 

In my experience, the phrase, "without any thought," strikes much closer to the core problem. If you're like me, your attempts to change fail because you have not set your focus--your attention (and intention)--to being the change you want to see

As  Pedram Shojai recently said on the Bulletproof podcast

If you can't focus on what you say you want, and your focus gets pulled out into Instagram and into the Internet, and it gets pulled out into...the next crisis, you're never going to map out your life in a way that is going to be meaningful and going to nourish you because your priorities are being supplanted by the priorities put in front of you by social media or the news.

Obviously, this quote is specific to my failure, but it speaks to the essential nature of any failure. What Shojai is talking about here is integrity: Being your word. Focusing on what you say you want so you can be who you say you want to be. 

As Shojai notes: "We say we want something but our actions say otherwise." 

In other words, to succeed, my heart must believe it, and my actions must show it.  

In this sense, a true change requires an honest and clear assessment of how and where we spend our focus, and a corresponding resolve to shift that focus--and our actions--to what we want. This is not a nebulous concept. It is simple and straightforward: To change ask yourself, "How I am spending my time?"

The allure of social media and the "screen" is instructive, in this sense, because it is a distraction must people share. The famed researcher Adam Alter offers a bleak assessment of our screen time: 

Before the introduction of the iPhone, it was a couple of hours, and that was usually just in front of a TV. We only spent about 18 minutes looking at our phones. Once that device was...10 years later actually in 2017, we were spending about three or four hours a day looking at those screens; sometimes for kids, five or six hours a day. Personal time, exercising, hobbies, conversations with friends and loved ones used to be a couple of hours a day. It was now about half an hour or even slightly less than half an hour a day (source). 

The math here adds up to an unsettling conclusion: At our current rates, we are likely to spend 10-20 years of our lives (or more) on our phones.  

My Heart Believes It, And My Actions Show It!

To change, we must shift our focus. If you believe you want to change, your actions must reflect that change. Shojai looks at focus as a sort of capital. You reveal your priorities in your decisions to do one thing over another. 

One way to look a this is to honestly assess everything you believe you want to say "yes" to--your resolutions, so to speak. Your family and friends? Your projects? Cooking? Exercise? Mindfulness? 

Once you've added all of these together, ask yourself, as Shojai suggests, "How many hours of the day are left after all of those yeses." Inevitably, you will have to say "no" to other things. You will have to reconcile what you want with what you do. 

This year, I resolved to spend less time on the phone. So far, I have failed miserably. I was drawn into the news, to the insistent beat of the chaos, which has guided and directed so much of our recent attention. And as I have let my attention stray, I have let me emotions stray, from optimism to anger. 

This is unfortunate. The Buddhist quote says, "You are the first victim of your anger." And by saying, "Yes," to the phone, and the never ending chaos, I cringe to think of all that I have said, "No," to. My family and friends? My projects? Cooking? Exercise? Mindfulness?

Happily, today is a new day. And on any given day, I can resolve to change. 

Saturday, June 13, 2020

James Baldwin: "Rejoice in the fact of death"

Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death—ought to decide, indeed, to earn one's death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible for life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return. 
~James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

Saturday, May 9, 2020

Food: Pleasure and Beauty

"Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are," Brillat-Savarin wrote in his masterwork, The Physiology of Taste, a collection of recipes and parables with topics ranging from "the inconvenience of obesity," to digestion, to food's effect on dreams, and so much more.

In investigating food's relationship to the body, however, Brillat Savarin probed deeply into the nature of food as a tonic for the soul:

"Those who have been too long at their labor, who have drunk too long at the cup of voluptuousness, who feel they have become temporarily inhumane, who are tormented by their families, who find life sad and love ephemeral...they should all eat chocolate and they will be comforted."

Elsewhere he asks of Adam and Eve, "You first parents of the human race … who ruined yourselves for an apple, what might you not have done for a truffled turkey?"

When thinking about diet, or sitting down to dinner, it often strikes me that comfort, and for that matter, pleasure, beauty, and happiness, is at least as important as nutrition.

After all, how you eat is an essential expression of who you are. And often, this expression has little to do with what you eat. A cupcake eaten with joy is superior to a bowl of brown rice eaten with penance. Good food, eaten with good company, inspires an inner joy so simple and sustaining that even a tiny olive fulfills. Without this joy, the most wholesome food can seem tasteless and unsatisfying.

In this spirit, I hope to offer a smattering of "lockdown recipes," each developed with wholesomeness and pleasure in mind.
Waking Up: The Morning Elixir 
The “morning elixir”--the term was coined, to the best of my knowledge, by Paul Pritchford--refers to a morning cleansing drink. Often, upon awakening, we are thirsty but not hungry; often, too, our stomachs are empty, and we might benefit from a cleansing elixir.

Depending upon your constitution, typical elixirs might include purified water, herbal tea, warm broth, vegetable juices, greens drinks, or fresh lemon juice in purified water.

For years, my preferred morning elixir was inner-ēco™ Coconut Water Probiotic Kefir, a probiotic drink. Lately, I've also enjoyed Four Sigmatic Chaga Mushrooms.

After my morning tonic, I fast (see below) until lunch or sometimes until dinner, drinking only one cup of organic coffee with theanine in the morning and organic green tea or organic turmeric tea in the afternoon.

Bulk Supplements L-Theanine Powder

Ocha and Company Organic Sencha Tea

Rishi Turmeric-Ginger Tea

Time-Restricted Eating

I’ve followed a routine of time-restricted eating for a decade or more. Most people might do this inadvertently, but most of us also snack and nibble throughout the day between meals. For me, the key is to not eat anything between meals, for a period of 12-22 hours or more.

My personal practice is quite simple: I skip breakfast. By skipping breakfast, I usually create about 16 hours (from about 8:30 PM the previous night to 12:30 PM that day) when I do not consume food.

The emerging science behind intermittent fasting has discovered that when fasting our bodies may switch from growth to repair mode--a process known as "autophagy."

A Japanese scientist, Yoshinori Ohsumi, won the 2016 Novel Prize for "his discoveries of mechanisms for autophagy." As the prize committee states: autophagy is "a fundamental process for degrading and recycling cellular components."

Rhonda Patrick on Autophagy

More on Time-Restricted Eating Improving Healthspan

More importantly, however, time-restricted eating has helped me discover a greater joy in my diet. I am more conscientious about how, why, and when I do eat I am truly hungry.

Morning Recipes
A Perfect Pot of Oatmeal

This recipe, which I originally developed for Whole Foods, takes cues from both Cook's Illustrated, who suggest using longer-cooking steel-cut oats and Peter Berley, who suggests soaking the oats overnight in a souring agent, such as yogurt, to promote lactic-acid formation. The final dish is delicious and creamy with a slight tang. Steel-cut oats take longer to cook than rolled oats, but much of the cooking time requires minimal attention.

1 cup steel-cut oats
3 1/2 cups spring water
1/4 cup plain full-fat yogurt
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
Fresh sliced apples, yogurt, or nuts for topping

In a heavy saucepan, combine the oats, water, and yogurt. Cover the pan and soak overnight, 8 to 10 hours.

In the morning, put the saucepan over medium-high heat and bring to a lively simmer. Simmer gently for 20 minutes. Add the salt and stir lightly with a wooden spoon. Continue simmering, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon, until oats have absorbed most of the water and the oatmeal is thick and creamy, 5-7 minutes.

Let the oatmeal stand off the heat for 5 minutes. Serve topped with fresh apple slices, yogurt, or crushed nuts.

Other Good Morning Options:

Berlin Bakery Spelt Bread

Magic Spoon Cereal

How to Poach a Perfect Egg

Lunchtime
During "normal" life, many of us eat hurried lunches in harried environments. If anything, the quarantine offers an opportunity to recalibrate our relationship with lunch.

My own relationship with lunch is informed by the time I spent in Italy and Spain during my early twenties. Both cultures view lunch as the main meal, a time to rest and relax with family and friends.

When I do not have time for a proper lunch, I often fast or eat simply: a few poached eggs or sardines and salad. When I do have time for a proper lunch, I inevitably start with soup, the true centerpiece of my diet, perhaps my life. I also usually eat tempeh and salad.

Carrot Ginger Soup

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil or grassfed butter
2 medium onions (preferably sweet onions), diced
1/2 cup crystallized ginger, chopped
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
1 tablespoon minced fresh turmeric
1 teaspoon dried turmeric powder
Sea salt
5 pounds carrots, peeled and sliced into 1/4" slices
5 cups vegetable stock or bone broth
1 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup full fat coconut milk
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

In a soup pot, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onion and a pinch of salt, cover, turn heat to low, and sauté until translucent, 10-12 minutes. Add the crystallized ginger, fresh ginger, fresh turmeric, turmeric powder, and1 teaspoon sea salt. Cook over medium heat, stirring, for two minutes.

Add broth, carrots, and baking soda.  Increase heat to high and bring soup to a simmer.  Cover and reduce heat.  Cook until carrots are tender (20-25 minutes).

When cooled, working in small batches, puree soup with coconut milk in blender until very smooth.  Return pureed soup to pot and add carrot juice and vinegar.  Bring to a simmer.  Add salt to taste.

Pan-Seared Zucchini 

In this recipe, thick rounds of zucchini are seared in a piping hot pan — cast iron is best — until just blackened, then tossed with olive oil. This is a summer recipe that adapts easily to most seasons. In Philly, we get local zukes (hothouse) throughout the fall, even into the winter, but summer zukes are undoubtedly the best.

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
2 large green zucchini

Slice zucchini into large rounds. Warm a 10-inch skillet (cast iron is best) until very hot. Place zucchini in pan and sear over high heat, until blackened, 2 to 3 minutes. Flip onto other side and sear additional 2 to 3 minutes, until both sides are blackened. Toss with olive oil and sea salt. Serve as is or with mashed avocado.

Good Lunchtime Recipes:

Moroccan Chermoula Tempeh

A Perfect Pot of Rice 

Blackened Jalapeño and Avocado Dipping Sauce

Dinnertime
I look forward to dinner all day. To me, dinner is the point. Dinner absolves the day's hassles. Dinner redeems the day's failures. Without dinner, the day has no structure, no purpose. Dinner is not only food--it is communion, with others, with ourselves. Immersed in our daytime ambitions and jobs and twitter accounts, we might lose sight of those we love; we might lose sight of ourselves. Dinner saves us. When we sit down to dinner, we settle back into ourselves; we become human again.

Perfect Grilled Chicken

One small chicken - 3 1/2 pounds
Sea salt
To stuff: 1 chopped onion, lemon, or apple

Pat the chicken very dry and season on all sides with sea salt, sugar, and brown sugar. Air dry on a rack in the refrigerator for 1 to 3 days before cooking. Before cooking, stuff the bird with any of following: chopped onion, lemon, or apple.

When you're ready to grill the chicken, cook breast-side down over indirect heat on medium-high (400-425 degrees) for 25 minutes. With a pair of tongs, flip the bird breast-side up for another 25 minutes.

Remove the chicken from the grill and set on a cutting board. Cut the chicken into pieces and serve.

Perfect Mashed Potatoes

5 pounds Russet potatoes, peeled and left whole

4-6 tablespoons grassfed butter
1/2 cup coconut milk (full-fat is best)
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
Fresh ground black pepper

Place the potatoes in a large saucepan with water to cover. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium and simmer until the potatoes are tender, 25-35 minutes. Drain. Reserve pot for mashing.

Meanwhile, warm the coconut milk in a medium saucepan over low heat. Season the coconut milk with sea salt, and black pepper to taste.

While still warm, cut each potato and place the potatoes, skin-on, into a food ricer or food mill. Extrude into empty pot.

Alternately, gently mash the potatoes with a potato masher.

Add grassfed butter. Add the warmed coconut milk, and gently season with additional salt and pepper, adjusting seasonings to taste.

Boiled Potatoes with Grassfed Butter and Herbs

1 1/2 pounds petite red or fingerling potatoes
1 1/2 tablespoons grassfed salted butter
1/2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt
freshly ground black pepper

Place potatoes in a medium saucepan. Cover with cold water. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer gently until potatoes are just tender when pierced with a knife, 18 to 20 minutes. Drain well.

In a small mixing bowl, add butter, olive oil, and sea salt to taste to drained potatoes and toss well. Taste and adjust seasoning, adding additional salt and pepper if needed.

Good Dinnertime Recipes:

Three Kickass Chickpea Recipes

Greatest Roast Potatoes Ever

Serious Eats Sweet Mashed Potatoes

Coconut Milk Braised Greens

Saturday, May 2, 2020

Immunity: Diversity and Unity

Medical literature often describes the immune system as a wartime defense strategy against invaders.

"Without an immune system," Medical News Today writes, "our bodies would be open to attack...It is our immune system that keeps us healthy as we drift through a sea of pathogens."

"When functioning properly," LiveScience writes, "the immune system identifies and attacks a variety of threats...while distinguishing them from the body’s own healthy tissue."

While true, these definitions tend to downplay the adaptive function of the immune system--in attacking invaders, immune cells also produce antibodies, which assimilate or harmonize the invader, rendering it less harmful. This is also the function of a vaccine. This is also why many of us may have cross-reactive antibodies (from suffering other forms of coronavirus), which may help if we get infected with this new coronavirus.

As my friend and teacher, the doctor and poet C. Dale Young writes on Facebook:

"We all have been infected by a coronavirus at one time or another. Therefore, even though this is a new virus, many of its proteins have been seen by your immune system before. Even if infected, your immune system can fight it off."

Read: "How the Immune System Works"

A Metaphorical View of Immunity

Viewed metaphorically, I think, these two functions of the immune system, attack and adapt, speak to any number of current ways of thinking about our world.

In recent years, for example, even as the fear of invaders has seemingly spread across the world--in calls for border walls and Brexit-style isolationism--more and more people are beginning to see the vital importance of living in harmony not only with each other but with nature.

In his famous encyclical, Laudato si', Pope Francis writes movingly of humans living in harmony with nature:

"There is a growing sensitivity to the environment and the need to protect nature, along with a growing concern, both genuine and distressing, for what is happening to our planet… Our goal is not to amass information or to satisfy curiosity, but rather to become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it."

When thinking about immunity, I urge you to be wary of unwanted invaders--to stay at home, wash your hands, and practice distancing, when possible.

But I also urge you to think holistically about immunity as an adaptive process  What's so empowering about this view, I believe, is that by working on your own immunity you cultivate a harmonizing power that can transform yourself and the world around you.

Whenever I think about my own connection to the environment, I remember the happiness of my early-eighties childhood, when the grass was nothing less than "the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven."


What Can We Do?
I cannot read these lines from Pope Francis without thinking about our current crisis, which in so many ways feels like a call to "discover what each of us can do."

For those of us sheltering in place, this call is partly spiritual and partly practical: How can we live right now to help ourselves and each other emerge from this crisis stronger and more unified, equipped to battle the next crisis with equanimity and resolve?

Humanity has shown, again and again, that we can emerge from a crisis stronger and more unified--after any number of assaults, we have adapted and evolved as a people.

One of my favorite examples is the Victory Gardens of World War I and II, when the National War Garden Commission encouraged Americans to grow gardens so more food could be exported to our European allies. After the second war, especially, the Victory Gardens proved tremendously successful:

"In 1942, roughly 15 million families planted victory gardens; by 1944, an estimated 20 million victory gardens produced roughly 8 million tons of food—which was the equivalent of more than 40 percent of all the fresh fruits and vegetables consumed in the United States" (source).

Gardens feel relevant to our current crisis, too, even beyond the fear of shortages that have prompted more people to plant gardens. A garden is one way for a human to connect with the earth in a way that enhances the health of both. The key, in both cases, is the land itself--the dirt.


Immunity and the Hygiene Hypothesis
An increasing body of scientific evidence supports the "hygiene hypothesis," the notion that our modern sterile environments, in our living and working environments as well as our bodies, weakens our immune response.

As Kathleen Barnes, a Johns Hopkins Medical School researcher, said in a Science Talk podcast on the hygiene hypotheses:

"As we make the shift from dirt to sterile...you...chang[e] the direction of your immune response. And so in the context of asthma, and...other autoimmune diseases and diseases of inflammation, it's this imbalance from that side of our immune response that we believe evolved to protect us against things like bacteria and viruses...to the other side of our immune system that, frankly, when it's revved up causes diseases like allergies and...other diseases of inflammation."

The sterile environment engendered by antibiotics and antibacterial soaps, detergents, and household cleaning products, not to mention the chemicals in our food and water systems, decrease the biodiversity of our microbiomes and increase our resistance to life-saving antibiotics.

These same chemicals are a scourge to our natural systems, creating polluted waterways, which run into the ocean and exacerbating the problem of fallow farmlands in America, far worse than the original Dust Bowl.

Zach Bush, the triple board-certified doctor, speaks eloquently of these issues, specifically on several life-changing episodes of The Rich Roll Podcast. I recommend Zach's recent appearance, in which hie discussed a "Pandemic of Possibility," but I implore you to listen to his first two appearances on Rich Roll, in which Zach explores the GMOs, gut health, and the science of human and planetary transformation. I can truly say that these podcasts changed my life.

Listen: "Zach Bush, MD On GMO’s, Glyphosate, and Healing The Gut"

Listen: "Zach Bush, MD on the Science and Spirituality of Human and Planetary Transformation"

Elsewhere, Zach states "the problem" of our current relationship with the environment quite bluntly:

"A century of mono-crop farming and reliance on pesticides has damaged our nation’s once-fertile soils and the health of every American. The rapid increase in pesticide use over the past few decades has coincided with this explosion of chronic disease."

The solution to this problem, as Zach and others have noted, is a return to "regenerative agriculture."  Zach has even created an organization to help farmers: Farmer's Footprint

The scope of this problem, like the current pandemic, feels overwhelming, especially when viewed on the micro-level, from your own perspective. Yet you can make changes now to help yourself and the planet, supporting the immunity of both.

The key is engendering bacterial diversity and unity within and without. Practically speaking, this means supporting brands that offer safe alternatives to household products as well as supporting agriculture that promotes ecological diversity in the environment and your own body.

To do so, eat an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables from local farms. Tend to your inner garden with fermented foods or, if necessary, gut-supporting supplements, like Just Thrive or Zach's mineral supplement to "support the integrity of tight junctions in the gut lining": ION* Gut Health. Or try quality "probiotic" foods, like inner-ēco Coconut Kefir.

And FYI: You do not need to wash your hands with anti-bacterial soap right now. Source: FDA.

Supporting Immunity Strategically
Changing your lifestyle by synching with nature (emotionally, spiritually, and biologically) is the best way to support immunity. Beyond engendering a diverse ecosystem within and without, pay attention to both defense against attack as well as the adaptive side of immunity.

Even at home, we have at our disposal any number of adaptive strategies to improve immune function, including cold therapy, mindfulness, exercise, and sleep, which plays a crucial role in regulating the activity of our Natural Killer T-Cells.

However, of course, in the time of COVID 19, you may feel a need to support immunity with supplementation.

First, try to ignore the apparent hype surrounding a variety of "immune-boosting" formulas, which seem to miss the concept of immunity entirely:

"The immune system is not designed to be 'boosted', and if it were able to work in overdrive it could actually result in us becoming more unwell by damaging our healthy cells and tissue as well, which is what can happen in 'autoimmune' conditions."

Second, focus on the supplements that arrive with sound scientific evidence, including Vitamin D (1), Zinc (1), Vitamin C, Sulphorphane, and possibly others, like selenium.

Resources

Dr. Bronner's Soap

Our Favorite Laundry Detergent: Molly's Suds

Our Favorite Dishwasher Tabs: Ecover Automatic Dishwasher Tabs

Our Favorite Toothpaste: Weleda Natural Salt Toothpaste

Zinc

Life Extension Zinc Lozenges

Vitamin C

There is evidence that Vitamin C can fight the common cold, reduce respiratory symptoms, boost immunity, and alleviate the body's response to stress.

The best form of Vitamin C (especially if you intend to take larger doses if you get sick) may be liposomal. But remember, since Vitamin C is water-soluble, you'll likely want to take it throughout the day to maintain your levels.

NutriFlair Liposomal Vitamin C

Dacha Liposomal Vitamin C

Rhonda Patrick on Vitamin C

Vitamin D3 with K2

Reasonable sun exposure (without burning) is the best way to get Vitamin D, but supplementation is likely necessary right now for most of us on the East Coast. Even then, I'm guessing all of us, if tested, would have low vitamin-D levels.

As noted in a major global study, optimized Vitamin D levels protect against "acute respiratory infections including colds and flu."

Most experts feel that taking Vitamin D3 with K2 increases absorption.

If you're not currently taking vitamin D3 supplement with K2, you might consider the following:

Thorne Research Vitamin D3 and K2 Liquid Drops

Micro Ingredients Vitamin D3 and K2 Softgels

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Mood: How to Optimize Your Emotional Resilience

How do you feel? We hear this question so often, in so many different contexts, and our answer is invariably the same: "Good." Or perhaps, "Fine."

Yet, during any given day, how often do we stop to sincerely consider this question.

How do I feel? How do I feel right now?

Learning to improve your health is often about learning to answer this question with pinpoint accuracy. Is this possible? I believe so. Over the coming days and weeks, I urge you to ask yourself this question and to answer honestly with self-compassion.

Today, I will discuss how to answer this question. I will also offer specific tools for optimizing the answer, whatever it may be.
Handsome Sad Clown
The Gut-Brain Axis
When asking yourself this question in the context of mood, specifically, the first thing you'll likely note is that your mood is never merely about your feelings (your emotions). The answer is usually equal parts body and mind.

The condition of your gut, for example, inevitably informs the condition of your mind. For many years, in fact, I have focused on this connection as a simple yet powerful guide to improving my own mood.

In a well-referenced article from Psychology TodayMarwa Azab Ph.D., writes: "There is bidirectional communication between the gut and the brain."

This communication network, known as the gut-brain axis, is becoming the subject of more and more research, including studies examining the connection between gut health and psychiatric, mood, and stress-related disorders.

As Azab notes, the gut manufactures over 90 percent of our serotonin, and "scientists have found that gut bacteria produce many other neurotransmitters such as dopamine, norepinephrine, acetylcholine, and GABA, which are critical for mood, anxiety, concentration, reward, and motivation."

Of course, this is obvious to anyone who has ever experienced butterflies in the stomach or enjoyed the comfort of a home-cooked meal prepared with love.

About that home-cooked meal: Research has also shown that a balanced diet with a variety of plant foods is the best way to improve gut health by diversifying the microbiome.

The American Gut Project, for example, found that "those who consumed more than 30 different types of plants each week had much more diverse microbiomes than those who consumed only 10 or fewer types of plants weekly."

Read: "Largest Microbiome Study Weighs in on Our Gut Health"

Beyond your diet, you might also try a probiotic which has been clinically researched, like Just Thrive.

Try a mineral supplement to "support the integrity of tight junctions in the gut lining": ION* Gut Health.

Try quality "probiotic" foods, like raw fermented vegetables or inner-ēco Coconut Kefir.

Do you eat 30 different plans each week?
To Feel Good, You Have Options, Both Mental and Physical
The gut-brain connection proves a simple, yet profound, point about mood: to improve your mood, you have multiple options, both physical and mental.

Of course, no intervention is merely physical or mental. This dichotomy does not exist. As an extremely active person, however, I see the value in viewing mood-improvement as an equation: I may not always feel equipped to engage in an explicitly "mental" activity, like meditation, but I can engage in "physical" activity, like exercise, to improve my state of mind.

A recent study published in JAMA Psychiatry "saw a 26% decrease in odds for becoming depressed for each major increase in objectively measured physical activity."

Such physical activity does not need to be fanatical: "This increase in physical activity is what you might see on your activity tracker if you replaced 15 minutes of sitting with 15 minutes of running, or one hour of sitting with one hour of moderate activity like brisk walking."

Just gently moving throughout the day, the study authors note, can make a difference: "any kind of movement can add up to keep depression at bay."

My tip? Why not take a walk in the early morning sunshine--and improve your mood and your circadian rhythms?

Watch this clip with Satchin Panda, a sleep researcher at the Salk Institute: "How exposure to light in the evening affects mood and the circadian clock."

Your Autonomic Nervous System
The tips above, like most tips for improving mood, focus on balance. And finding a balance between mind and body is often the best way to improve your mood.

In itself, the notion of finding balance may seem esoteric, the sort of mumbo-jumbo you hear repeated in any number of "natural" health publications.

However, balance can be quantified in a precise way. One recent determinant is heart rate variability (HRV), a measure of the variation between two heartbeats.

Whether you measure your HRV or not, learning about the diagnostic tool can offer profound insights into your health.

As Marcelo Campos recently noted on the Harvard Health Blog:

"This variation is controlled by a primitive part of the nervous system called the autonomic nervous system (ANS). It works regardless of our desire and regulates, among other things, our heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, and digestion. The ANS is subdivided into two large components, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the fight-or-flight mechanism and the relaxation response."

Read: Heart Rate Variability: A New Way to Track Well-Being 

Recently, many of us have been living in a state of near-total fight-or-flight. As Campos notes:

"If we have persistent instigators such as stress, poor sleep, unhealthy diet, dysfunctional relationships, isolation or solitude, and lack of exercise, this balance may be disrupted, and your fight-or-flight response can shift into overdrive."

To halt this cycle, we have many, many options. First, we can try to change our habits.

Of course, changing a habit is hard. As Jerome Groopman notes in a New Yorker article about habits: "A large majority of us lack the self-control required to succeed in life."

However, we can "hack" our habits by "finding ways to take will-power out of the equation."

Groopman quotes a researcher who suggests creating friction--essentially making our bad habits more inconvenient. However, Groopman's article also describes another effective approach to changing habits: replace one habit with another and include rewards for the change.

Recently, instead of consuming media, for example, I try to read about wellness, denim, or JAWS. I try to talk to my children and my wife. Instead of listening or watching the news, I listen to music. I sing. I don't mean to sound trite, but I believe this is a good response to the current situation: Just sing.

Singing (or humming) stimulates the vagus nerve, which is one of the best ways to reduce stress--and to increase HRV.

Read: "Traumatic Experiences: Vagus Nerve, Microbiome, Heart Rate Variability (HRV) and Effects of Exercise"

Why not replace a stressful stimulus with an enjoyable, and altogether more human act?

Read: "This Might Be the Simplest Scientific Way to Get Rid of Stress You've Ever Heard Of"


Resources
WHOOP Strap

New York Times article on pulse oximeters

"There is a way we could identify more patients who have Covid pneumonia sooner and treat them more effectively — and it would not require waiting for a coronavirus test at a hospital or doctor’s office. It requires detecting silent hypoxia early through a common medical device that can be purchased without a prescription at most pharmacies: a pulse oximeter.

Pulse oximetry is no more complicated than using a thermometer. These small devices turn on with one button and are placed on a fingertip. In a few seconds, two numbers are displayed: oxygen saturation and pulse rate. Pulse oximeters are extremely reliable in detecting oxygenation problems and elevated heart rates."

In-Stock Pulse Oximeter: Philips Pulse Oximeter

Bristol Stool Chart

Just Thrive Probiotic

Inexpensive Blue Light Blocking Glasses

Swannies Blue Light Blocking Glasses

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Quarantine Notes: To the Class of 2020

The photo below was taken twenty-five-years ago on the Ocean City boardwalk.

Karen was seventeen, young and carefree. She wanted to travel around the world. She wanted to go to college. She wanted to learn several languages, to work for the United Nations.

I was eighteen, extremely serious and painfully in love. I wanted to settle down, to be with her day and night, reading and writing in some seaside cottage, completely alone. I wanted children, even then, a brood of little ones with my dark skin tone and her light hair and eyes.

My intensity alarmed Karen, especially when I dared her to match my emotions. Of course, what I wanted defied the communion at the heart of any good relationship: the coming together of two people with two radically different points of view.

But what did I know of this--of anything?

I knew I had never felt anything with such force, and although everything felt painful, songs and poems, even trees and sand, I was often moved to tears of joy by the sheer beauty of the world.

Today, I feel compelled to dismiss this ridiculous person. I knew nothing—nothing of the pain to come, the failures and woes.

Lately, however, marooned at home with Karen and our children, I am feeling my eighteen-year-old self. I am reading for hours each day. I am writing, as I did then, without expectation. I am listening to Weezer. And sometimes, perhaps on a Saturday after my third glass of wine, my urges drive me outside, where I think about my life with tears in my eyes, all that I have and all that I want.

With all these tributes to the class of 2020, I am thinking about the boyfriends and girlfriends, all the young people missing each other so deeply right now. I’m sure they’re worried about the future. Will the relationship survive? I’m sure they’re feeling the pain of isolation. I’m sure each day feels like an eternity. I feel you, young people. Hang in there.