Thursday, May 31, 2012

Secret 40: Jog Your Memory

If you want to stay young and healthy, don't just exercise your body. Exercise your mind! Do you remember the last time you solved a crossword puzzle? How about the last time you played Scrabble, Sudoku, chess or traveled overseas?  
Your brain benefits from workouts just like your body. Having to completely reorient yourself in a new environment will give your brain cells a heady boost. When was the last time you traveled to a country in which you did not speak the language? You don't have to move overseas for good to stretch your brain; even if you are abroad (wherever this may be for you) for just three months, learning your way around, navigating a new town, maybe even picking up the fundamentals of a new language - you will exercise your mind. Try following directions without the aid of an English-speaking GPS. If traveling is not your passion but you still want to keep your brain sharp, try varying your routine - whether it is a familiar route you take every day, or the way you choose to solve a problem. Be creative.

download a brain tease from the Internet free of charge
The bad news is that our memories start to fade once we reach adulthood (which may occur at differing times depending on the individual - reaching adulthood, that is). The good news is that you have the power to slow down this decline. Of course the ability to forget can be extremely beneficial, and letting go of painful memories and other annoyances that no longer serve you is a valuable survival skill. But memory is a useful asset, too, as you probably would like to be able to remember where you left your wallet, your car keys, your passport, or, more importantly your latest electronic gadget ("What did you do with MY IPad?" is a common exclamation in our home) or how many children or grandchildren you have. Of the 100 billion or so brain cells that constitute our incredible brains at birth, we lose around 50,000 a day ("hey, have you seen 50,000 of my brain cells lying around somewhere? I cannot remember where I put them").  50,000 out of 100 billion - if the government lost $50,000 per day or $18 million per year, wouldn't our economy be in much better shape? And that's not all. Supporting those 100 billion or so neurons are ten times as many glial cells. That's a lot of cells.  By the age of twenty, a human being has about 150,000 km of pathways in the brain. These pathways are known as myelinated axons (quick brain warm-up: 150,000 km are how many miles?)  Think you have too many cells up there? If losing 50,000 cells per day is not enough, you can accelerate this loss by sniffing paint, taking drugs, and exposing yourself to other forms of air pollution (alcohol won't do it, that just damages your liver.)

So how do you feed this amazing brain? The brain is the hungriest organ in your body; it consumes 20% of the energy used by your body. Since the blood-brain barrier protects your brain from the blood stream and does not allow fatty acids to cross, the main source of energy for the brain is blood glucose. To function at optimal levels, the brain is dependent on two criteria: an ample amount of energy and a constant amount of energy.
i. An ample amount of readily available glucose is necessary to maintain mental acuity. When glucose levels in the blood are low, for example during Ramadan or other times of fasting, the brain obtains its energy from ketones. These water-soluble fatty acid by-products are made by the liver. When I worked in Singapore, I was struck by how much my Muslim colleagues would slow down at work during Ramadan. Fasting during daylight hours drastically affected productivity. 
ii. The importance of a steady flow of energy to the brain is most apparent when someone suffers a stroke.  The energy supply is suddenly cut off, and damage is immediate and can be irreversible and hugely debilitating. While strokes are the second-leading cause of death in Western countries. they are preventable. If you follow a Mediterranean diet, you are half as likely to suffer a stroke.

Assuming that the brain obtains an ample and constant supply of energy, what can you do to stem the ageing of the brain? Here are some options that can help keep the brain younger:
  • being intellectually active i.e. brain games, reading, playing bridge, playing chess, taking part in stand-up impromptu comedy, learning a new skill or subject, picking up another language
  • exercise, as this helps detoxification
  • having a positive outlook on life
  • engaging in intricate manual work such as stitching, carving netsukes or composing. One of our most cherished possessions is a large, wood cutting board.  If you were to come across this at a flea market, you would not give it a second glance. However, if you had a great grandfather who had made this board at the age of 100 years, it becomes a treasured heirloom. Maybe the fact that he kept working with his hands allowed him to reach an advanced age
  • being an active member of one's community (being popular and sought after)
  • enjoying a brain-friendly diet high in omega-3s and antioxidants, and low in refined carbohydrates
Is it moving?  Think about it.

Since you are probably on-line while reading this, you might want to check out  Maybe one or the other game might strike your fancy? 

Just like physical exercise, find some mental exercise that you can be passionate about. You will more likely pursue this with enough vigor and enthusiasm to give your brain a thorough and regular workout and keep you going for many, many years to come.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Secret 39: Get Your Daily Dose of Sunshine

The sun can kill, but without our sun life on Earth would not exist. Sunshine is another great example of the importance of moderation. Sunshine affects our health and well-being, and is used by the body to produce an important hormone: Vitamin D: You may know that Vitamin D is also called the 'sunshine vitamin'. Vitamin D can be obtained through diet, especially fatty fish such as salmon (100 g. of cooked salmon provide about 350 IU Vit. D), tuna, eel, mackerel and sardines, but ten to twenty minutes of exposure to sunlight for people with skin that burns easily (or three to six times more if you have darker skin) will allow your body to produce enough Vit. D to cover your needs. Simply put, cholesterol in the skin, when exposed to sunshine, forms Vit D. To be more precise 7-dehydrocholesterol, present in mammalian skin, when stimulated by UVB rays (270 nm to 300 nm wavelength) changes into a Vit. D precursor. During long, dark winter days you may wish to add dietary sources of Vit. D such as eggs (a mid-size egg provides 20 IU) or, better yet, cod liver oil (one tablespoon = 1360 IU).

a Vitamin D feast
Beare claims that adequate levels of Vit. D protect against 'cancer, TB, osteoporosis, multiple sclerosis and hypertension. So why not simply supplement with mega doses of Vit. D to stave off these undesirable conditions? Studies on Vit. D supplementation have so far been inconclusive and contentious. Also, Vit. D is fat-soluble, and excessive amounts of Vit. D are not excreted like water-soluble vitamins such as C but are stored in the body and can be toxic. So how much Vit. D does a healthy body need? The health departments of different countries recommend different levels of dietary Vit. D.  But they do seem to agree that the upper acceptable limit of Vit. D supplementation is 4000 IU. Beare is more conservative. She urges half this amount or no more than 2000 I.Us per day for adults. First symptoms of Vit. D overexposure are nausea, vomiting and constipation. Long-term intake of excessive Vit. D leads to irreversible kidney damage. Note that if you supplement Vit. D, your body will still be manufacturing this hormone when you expose your skin to UVB. Can you overdose on Vitamin D if you stay in the sun too long? No. You will increase your possibility of developing skin cancer, but the body will destroy any excess sun-produced Vit. D once equilibrium had been reached. And, as stated above, this happens within ten to twenty minutes in light-skinned humans. Also note that sunscreen with levels as low as SPF 8 will block out more than 90% of UVB rays and thus prevent Vit. D formation. Make sure you use a sunscreen that:
i. does not contain unnecessary toxic chemicals (see for one possible classification system)
ii. also blocks UVA (UVB changes skin cholesterol to Vit. D, and Vit. D can protect the skin from precancerous changes, but if your sunscreen blocks UVB and not UVA, you are left with very little protection!)

If you are not a fan of sunscreen just stay in the shade and cover up. Or enjoy the sun when it is closer to the horizon.

Enjoy the sun setting over the Pacific

When the sun is high in the sky use an umbrella. Umbrellas are more effective than caps and hats at protecting you from the sun and can make a nice accessory to compliment your attire....

Low levels of Vit. D, on the other hand, cause rickets and may exacerbate multiple sclerosis. 

So what roles does Vit. D play in your health? First and foremost, as a hormone it regulates the concentration of calcium and phosphate in your blood. This affects bone growth and development. Vit. D also modulates cell growth, reduces inflammation and increases glutathione levels. Glutathione is an important antioxidant and is a critical element in iron metabolism. 

In Western countries milk, orange juice and cereal are often supplemented with Vitamin D. One way milk is enhanced with Vit. D is by exposing it to UVB radiation.  This procedure is also used to increase Vit. D levels in mushrooms.

But back to sunshine. Beare states that all five long-living populations live in sunny climates. Some of the benefits of sunshine include:
  • improved mood: melatonin is built up during dark, winter months and may lead to SAD or seasonal affective disorder. Sunshine inhibits the formation of melatonin.
  • better sleep-wake cycles or circadian rhythms: one of the constituents of sunshine is blue light (wavelength 460 nm to 480 nm) and blue light suppresses melatonin. Melatonin is also called 'the hormone of the darkness' and increases sleepiness. 
  • Vit. D production
So get your ten to twenty minutes of sunshine in the morning or late afternoon, use a sunscreen with UVA protection at lunch, and enjoy some salmon or mackerel!

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Secret 38: Exercise, exercise, exercise

To live is to move and to move is to be alive. Secret 38 is a wonderful sequel to secret 36 'detoxify'. Not only do we want to ensure that our bodies are being provided with the best nutrients possible, but we also want to ensure that our bodies are effectively eliminating toxins. And a most effective way to aid this detoxification is by helping every cell of our body release all unwanted and undesirable material. This we achieve by revving up our circulation. Exercise is a most effective way to enhance delivery and removal of waste products at the cellular, tissue and organ level.  And if you are not at  ideal weight and you burn more calories than you eat, you may be able to dissolve some fatty tissue and with it stored toxins. Just make sure that you provide your body with plenty of clean water so that the toxins that have been dislodged can also easily be excreted and do not simply settle down and stay in some other corner of your body.
The Swiss ball is a powerful tool to improve balance and strength

Some of the benefits of exercise include:

  • mood elevation
  • improved lymphatic function
  • reduced cancer risk esp. colon cancer in men and breast cancer in women
  • lowered LDL cholesterol levels 
  • lowered blood pressure
  • stronger circulation
  • stronger waste drainage
  • lower risk of osteoporosis
  • slower aging due to stimulation of the growth hormone
  • stronger immune system
  • lower blood glucose levels
  • less anxiety and depression
  • and, according to a study quoted by Sally Beare, a higher IQ
The beauty of exercise is that it can be done anywhere, and at any time (for example, yoga under your office desk). And you can start exercising at any age. It is never too late to start moving. The benefits are swift, even if you have been sedentary most of your life.  If you have been sedentary, start slowly.  Walk more. Take the stairs slowly. Build up gradually. Beare recommends 1/2 to one hour of somewhat strenuous exercise most days of the week. Even while watching TV you can do push-ups and sit-ups (yes, you can!). The best types of exercise simulate movements that we do naturally and activities that involve our entire body (muscular, circulatory, lymphatic, nervous, immune, skeletal) such as brisk walking, swimming, or dancing. You will want to do some combination of strength training and aerobic exercise (the latter makes us breathless). By the way, yoga is considered an aerobic activity since deep breathing helps oxygenate the tissues. It enhances blood and lymph flow, and if you do yoga in a heated, humid studio, detoxification is greatly enhanced by sweating. Just make sure to drink enough water before and after to flush out any dislodged toxins. 

Martial arts

Deep breathing improves detoxification during any kind of exercise. Exhale your stress and tension. And, most important of all, choose an exercise that you greatly enjoy. There are so many different kinds to choose from: hiking, martial arts, Pilates, yoga, belly dancing, Zumba, tai chi, archery, horseback riding, sailing, surfing, cycling, soccer, basketball, golf, diving, swimming, gymnastics, climbing...  Individual sports, team sports. For those of us who are musical, exercising to music can increase the fun aspect. The main thing is to combine movement with an activity you love to do. 

Beare makes an important comment about exercising: just like eating, you want to exercise in moderation. While Iron Man and triathlons sound like worthy goals, exercising too much or too intensely can harm the body by releasing the stress hormone cortisol, increasing the amount of age-accelerating free radicals and inflammatory prostaglandins, and weakening the immune system. Female athletes in child-bearing age are known to stop menstruating. Your healthiest choice is moderate, pleasurable, regular exercise that enhances detoxification and improves coordination, flexibility, stamina and feelings of well-being. As you move more you will feel more alive. The main thing is to do something you enjoy and do it regularly.  After a while it becomes something you cannot imagine living without.  A good friend, a steady companion.

Zumba: aerobic movement to a catchy international beat

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Secret 37: ‘Supplement Your Diet’ or better, 'Eat Your Colors!’

Supplements: do we really need them?

Secret 37 is titled: “Supplement Your Diet”. The premise is that vitamins and minerals are essential, we are not obtaining the necessary amounts via our diet, so taking these in synthetic form in doses much higher than any of our ancestors ever have is essential to our health.
First of all, the five long-living people described by Sally Beare are not reading without glasses at an old age because the supplement industry has discovered their existence.  In fact, the centenarians are healthier than specimens adhering to the Standard American diet because they are obtaining ample supplies of nutrients through their diet. So should we just mindlessly swallow chemical substitutes to make up for our careless dietary choices?  Is this the answer to our health problems?
Let me turn the question around.  Ever since synthetic vitamins and minerals have been available on the market, has the health of Americans greatly improved?
Secondly, the supplement industry is a multi-million dollar industry that can assign a generous amount of its juicy margins towards marketing. “You are not obtaining the necessary vitamins in the necessary doses – take multis and enjoy great health!” and “our soils have been so depleted that even if you eat a healthy diet you will be deficient (note: ‘healthy diet’ is very loosely defined – processed juices in the store claim to be ‘healthy’ even when the main ingredient is sugar and little, if anything of the original nutrients of the original fruit is kept since the juice has been reconstituted from water and concentrate powder).
The supplement industry is not as regulated as the food industry and I suspect it is an immensely profitable industry. Sally Beare suggests that official government guidelines cover the bare minimum and that a healthy person needs to supplement to obtain the necessary amount. “In order for our bodies to function optimally, we need at least 17 minerals and 13 vitamins, as well as protein, fiber, carbohydrate and the right fats”.  I would argue that we need many more substances than the handful identified by Beare. We most likely need substances found in fruit and vegetables that have not been officially identified yet.  Also, while we like to state the functions of individual vitamins, our bodies are complex systems and a very finely orchestrated mélange of necessary nutrients need to be available to our bodies for optimal functioning. For example: the presence of vitamin C enhances iron absorption, vitamin C increases levels of glutathione.

Beare’s admonition that ‘you need to take supplements’ is based on some of the following arguments:
       The produce available at supermarkets is excessively low in nutrients. One of the reasons for this is because the produce is harvested before it is ripe. Another is that the longer the produce travels and sits on the shelf, the lower the nutrient content.  Beare cites an example of ‘an orange you buy at the supermarket can have zero vitamin C’. Is this really true (goodness, how OLD is that orange? If that orange were lying on the ground no animal would stop to nibble at it since it has long lost any scent) and if so, how representative is this statement of oranges in supermarkets in general?  She also cites an example of ‘magnesium levels in carrots have dropped by 75% in the last few decades’.  What objective scientific studies support this statement?  Without analyzing store-bought carrots, I would suggest:
i.                    as much as possible eat produce that has been recently harvested i.e. eat local as much as possible. 
ii.                   as much as possible, choose organic.  Since this produce does not have the aid of chemicals to enhance its shelf life, it deteriorates much faster than conventionally handled produce and this would imply that the organic produce you choose in the store has been harvested more recently and would thus have a higher nutrient density
iii.        whenever possible, plant your own produce and use self-made compost as fertilizer (hopefully compost made of organic waste?)
iv.                  ensure that a large proportion of your diet consists of unprocessed food.  Try to eat ‘single ingredients’ or produce that has been steamed, that has a bit of olive oil added to it rather than TV dinners that consists of an unpronounceable, chemical alphabet
v.                     juice -- as in juice your own vegetables and fruit.  Every healthy kitchen needs a few gadgets; one of these is a juicer. To ensure that you obtain high levels of nutrients, throw various organic vegetables and some fruit in a juicer.  If you do not want to lose the precious fiber and do not want to add this to your compost heap, add the leftover fiber to soups.
vi.                     buy directly from farms or join a food coop.
vii.                 mix your food sources.  If you always purchase from one farmer, buy the same vegetable from another farmer as soils will vary and produce reflects the soil in which it grew.

What you put in your mouth is YOUR choice. You can choose a highly processed, nutrient poor diet and help subsidize the supplement industry by reacting to their fear-inspiring claims, or you can carefully select a diet that ensures the highest amount of nutrient delivery possible.

Here are some great nutritional sources for various anti-oxidants and minerals:

Vitamin A: orange, red and dark green vegetables and fruit such as carrots, apricots, spinach; liver and cod liver oil

Vitamin B-complex:
Folic acid: green leafy vegetables, cruciferous vegetables, nuts and seeds, fish, poultry, red meat, organ meat, mushrooms
            Vitamin B6: seafood, poultry, nuts, sweet potatoes, bananas
            Vitamin B12: fish, poultry, meat

Vitamin C: oranges, grapefruit, pomelo and other citrus fruit; broccoli, cauliflower and other cruciferous vegetables; blueberries, strawberries, raspberries and other berries, red peppers

Vitamin E: avocado, olive oil, fish oil, peanuts, hazel nuts, Brazil nuts and other nuts

Chromium: whole grains, nuts, seeds

Magnesium: broccoli, green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds

Selenium:  garlic, asparagus, Brazil nuts, seafood and whole grains

Zinc: garlic, green leafy vegetables, seafood such as oysters, poultry, meat, whole grains, nuts, seeds

Alpha lipoic acid: broccoli, spinach and other dark green leafy vegetables

Coenzyme Q10: mackerel, sardines, organ meats

Glutathione: avocado, asparagus, cruciferous vegetables, watermelon

What you choose to put in your digestive tract is your choice.

Our salivary glands work in conjunction with our senses.  Which whets your appetite?


Or this: