Warning: This post might ruffle some feathers. It’s a bit speculative on my part, but I’ve had some things running through my mind a lot lately and I’d like to get them down “on paper” here and see if any of them resonate with my readers. (All four of you.) It’s a little metaphysical, and maybe even a little “woo-woo.” It’s not about biochemistry or physiology. (Well, in a way, but not predominantly.) It’s about things that affect our health that we can’t measure.
This post is born of something I’ve come to realize after digging very deep into my own feelings, and also things I’ve observed in clients—particularly the ones with “stubborn cases”—the people who are seemingly doing everything right but aren’t getting to where they want to be. Their diets are spot-on. They get enough exercise. They don’t feel particularly stressed out. So why can’t they drop those last ten pounds? Or why do they still have trouble sleeping?
I don’t know that I’ve found “THE ANSWER,” but I think what I’m about to talk about is certainly part of the puzzle, and it’s one that doesn’t get enough attention in the Paleo/Primal/Ancestral health scene. (Except maybe by Mark Sisson. He seems to have one of the most well-rounded, down-to-earth, and comprehensive approaches of anyone. And I’m sure he would agree with a quote I came across recently and am stealing shamelessly: “You should follow the most restrictive diet you can enjoy, not the most restrictive one you can tolerate.” A-freaking-MEN.)
I saw a newly minted word the other day and I just love it: Cyberchondriac.
Isn’t that fantastic? Not that the principle is fantastic, but that someone finally coined a word that so elegantly and simply describes the phenomenon. Which phenomenon, you ask? The one where someone constantly scours the Internet for the magic bullet that will make them invincible. Sometimes, these people are truly struggling with debilitating health issues that no MD or alternative healthcare practitioner has been able to help them with in the slightest. And to those people, I say, more power to you; don’t stop looking for answers and don’t give up, because this is your body, and your life, and you want to feel well and vibrant and alive.
However, more often than not, I find the “cyberchondriacs” are the people who are already at the 97th percentile of looking and feeling great and being in optimal health, and they’re driving themselves crazy trying to find the itty bitty tweak that will move them that last 3% to the finish line. (Never mind that as soon as they get there, they’ll find that someone’s moved the goalpost and they’re not at 100% like they thought they would be.)
What the heck are you talking about, Amy?
Well, if you’ve spent some time on various forums and blogs related to all this stuff, you’ve probably noticed that while most people are thrilled just to have lost 50 pounds, be off their insulin, blood pressure meds, and antacids, and be able to go up a flight of stairs without having to stop and rest, there’s a cadre of people who are so concerned over every teeny, tiny aspect of diet and exercise that they’re actually inducing health issues that wouldn’t otherwise be there. (You know who I’m talking about. The people who ask questions like: “How many grams, exactly, of glycine do I need a day? And how many cups of bone broth, exactly, will give me that?” Or, “I went to a restaurant and accidentally ingested 0.005 grams of soybean oil. Should I fast for three days to compensate? Or maybe take 4 Tbsp of fish oil to counter the inflammation?” And, of course, “I'm a 23-year-old female, and I do CrossFit nine times a week, plus I'm training for a marathon and planning my wedding, and I'm doing it all on 25g of carbs or less per day. Why do I feel like shit all the time and haven't had a period in 8 months?”)
So basically, we’ve got two camps: the camp that feels so much better than they used to, and they’re pretty darn content with where they’re at. Those people will probably continue to make gradual changes over time, but dammit, they’re going to enjoy a piece of cake at their friend’s wedding, and have a cup (or three) of gelato on their trip to Italy. And then there’s the other camp, where good enough will never be good enough. I’m not saying people shouldn’t strive to improve themselves—whether that’s with regard to health and fitness, education, being kinder, or what-have-you. I think those are all fine goals. But I do think that when we’re talking about diet and health, specifically, and in this Paleo/ancestral health community, in particular—where some people almost know too much for their own good—the constant striving and pushing isn’t always a good thing.
Here’s the deal. And here’s where we get into the things I’m hesitant to talk about here. But I have to believe I’m not the only one who’s having these thoughts, so here goes.
I see a lot of people obsessing about the minutia. I see a lot of people trying all kinds of changes and tweaks and “hacks,” for the purpose of finding the magic bullet(s) that will finally, finally resolve whatever last little niggling symptom hasn’t gone away, even though they’re feeling pretty darn good in all other aspects. Like I said earlier—why won’t that little layer of fat around the abdomen go away? Why do the joints still hurt sometimes? And especially—most especially—why does someone still struggle with anxiety or depression?
Most of us spend a lot of time looking at the things we can measure and record. Am I getting too much omega-6? Not enough magnesium? Am I fasting too often? Not often enough? Am I eating too much coconut oil? Not enough sauerkraut? I weigh this many pounds and am this tall. How many calories, exactly, should I be taking in? And if I want to lose 6.73 pounds in the next five weeks, how much of a caloric deficit do I need to create?
Is anyone else’s head spinning?
So what’s the answer?
Answer: 102.43. You would have to create a deficit of 102.43 calories per day. (<--SARCASM.)
What’s the real answer? Well, like I said, what I’m going to share with you might not be “THE ANSWER,” but it’s part of it.
Mental house cleaning: difficult and
sometimes disturbing, but absolutely necessary.
Instead of trying to find nutritional answers to our struggles, we should try to identify why we’re struggling in the first place. And this requires a lot of introspection. It requires putting on your knee-high rubber boots and going wading deep into the muck of your own psyche. It requires stepping back and taking a serious look at you. And not the physical “you” you see in the mirror, but the inside you.
(Lord, I hope I haven’t sent anyone running for the hills. This might sound like spacey hippie nonsense, but I really do think it’s a huge missing piece of things.)
Instead of thinking that popping some 5-HTP is going to lift the dark cloud from over your head, you might be better served by trying to discover why you think you need more serotonin in the first place. Is there some reason your body isn’t making enough?
If you need L-theanine tea to help you calm down and get to sleep, try to figure out why you’re so anxious to begin with.
Of course, I have nothing against helpful supplements. Particularly when it comes to struggles with mood and emotions, I think they can be a godsend. If you need a little help to get through a day and function in the world at large, I have no problem recommending those things. But they’re really just band-aids. Short-term fixes. They will help you get through, but they’re not actually correcting whatever underlying issue is causing the problems.
So many people are desperate to find answers to their psychological troubles. We want to know what do—what to take, how much of it and when. And I’m as fascinated as the next gal to learn about the effects of different amino acids and fatty acids on mental/emotional health. But I’m much more interested in why these problems are so common these days. Where is all this anger, fear, worry, anxiety, tension, and pessimism coming from? WHY are so many people so anxious? WHY are so many people depressed?
I’ve given this a lot of thought. A lot of thought. Both because I’m a work in progress, myself, and because I’ve had some clients that have been mysteries to me. And from all that thinking, I’ve concluded that we need to look beyond the diet. Way beyond. Yes, of course what we cram down our pieholes plays a huge role in how we feel and look. But what about everything else? What about fresh air? What about smiling? What about watching a sunset? What about seeing the stars come out? What about joy?
Ah, joy. Good ol’ vitamin J.
I think simply enjoying one’s life is probably the single most overlooked aspect of health. And this is what I meant about wading through the muck in your mind (and your heart). If you really get in there and ditch the political correctness, ditch the platitudes and the rhetorical questions (like when someone casually asks you how you are and, on autopilot, you say, “I’m good, how are you?” even though you’re on the verge of a breakdown and if there were a bathroom anywhere nearby you’d probably run in there and cry). Get in there and do the dirty work.
Do you love your job? Do you even like it? At all? Or do you go through the motions because you’ve got obligations and bills to pay, and the health insurance is good, and even though you hate it with the fire of a thousand suns, you have no idea what the hell else to do, so you drag yourself through the day like you’ve already been doing for as long as you can remember? And you feel trapped.
Does your work—whatever it is that you do—give you a sense of fulfillment? Of satisfaction? Do you believe in what you do? Do you feel like what you do matters? Are you making a difference? (And do you want to? Some people don’t, and that’s totally cool. Some people are content to just clock in and clock out and be semi-comatose in between, but if that isn’t you, give some thought to how a lack of these feelings could be getting in the way of your health goals.)
When was the last time you had quiet? Have you had any time recently away from the computer, away from your phone, your pods, pads, and other electronic chains? Have you gone therapeutically incommunicado lately? Even just for a few hours?
Do you like where you live? Are you in an urban apartment complex when what you long for is a homestead and wide open space? Are you in a rural area but fantasize about moving to a big city? Is your home a sanctuary, a solace and respite from the cruel world outside? Do you feel comforted the minute you walk through the door after a long day, as if the space itself is wrapping its arms around you? Or did you splurge on a place you can barely afford and worries about the rent/mortgage are now keeping you up at night?
Do you love your significant other? Do you even like him/her anymore? If you were to meet him/her today, instead of ten years ago, would you still ask them out? Ask them to marry you? Or are you staying in a stale, loveless, blah marriage because you think you “should?” Because of the kids, or because your finances or your furniture are so intertwined that you can’t imagine having to untangle them so you could go your separate ways? Does your partner excite you, or has your relationship become more of a business arrangement?
And if you don’t have a significant other, how long has it been since you did? How long has it been since you walked through the door and had someone ask how your day was, and they actually cared about your answer? When was the last time you had someone to call when you were in a crisis, or just feeling out of sorts, and it made you feel better just to hear their voice?
If you don’t have a partner, that’s all right. Completely fine. Better to be by yourself than with the wrong person for the sake of appearances or meeting society’s expectations, or somesuch. But make sure you have a good patch of friends in your life. People you can turn to, people who “get you.” People who know what kind of day you’ve had just by looking at you, and would offer to take you out for a beer or possibly an ass-kicking—whichever you need more.
This is all joy. Human contact. Connection. But it only works if you have people in your life you enjoy being with. If you have miserable coworkers, mooching family members, a condescending and bellicose partner, or other people who are “energy drains” (if you have them in your life, you’ll know), then sometimes it’s actually better to spend some time by yourself.
And what about hobbies? Do you play an instrument? Build models? Read? Take photographs? Tinker with electronic gizmos and gadgets? Whatever it is, do you spend enough time doing it, or is it usually last on your priority list, such that your guitar case has an inch-thick layer of dust on it, or the last camera you bought was from the Clinton administration? Do you carve out time for the things that bring you joy? (Even just a little bit. We’re all living in the mad rat race, and we can’t exactly spend hours upon hours every day indulging our inner children, but we owe it to ourselves—and to those around us—to move these enjoyable activities a little further up the list. I assure you, that pile of laundry ain’t goin’ anywhere, so unless you’re literally down to your last clean pair of underwear, it can wait ‘til tomorrow. [And even then, if you’re a brave soul, you could just go commando and buy yourself a few more days.] And that messy bedroom? It’ll still be messy next week. Clean it then. Go do something fun.)
Does your hobby involve the outdoors? Does any of your life involve not being boxed in by four walls and a ceiling?
SO much better than pill bottles.
When was the last time you spent time outside? Specifically in a green, wooded area? The therapeutic benefits of fresh air, sunlight, and green spaces are off the charts. We feel better when we’re exposed to the natural environments our bodies evolved to expect: blue sky; green scenery; the sound of a breeze ruffling the leaves; the clean, crisp smell of fresh air that comes from live trees and even decaying organic matter on a forest floor. And let’s not forget coastal areas. Personally, I hate beaches, but mostly I hate them during the day, when they’re a zillion degrees and reek of Coppertone, and instead of the sound of the waves, what I hear are toddlers whining or rap music blaring from the spot someone’s staked out a hundred yards away. (Not to mention cigarette smoke! Beaches are one of the few places where people can still smoke, and it seems that no matter how far away I am from a smoker, the smell drifts directly toward my face. But I digress.)
There’s a reason vacations “at the coast” or “by the sea” were practically prescription drugs back in the day. What do we get on a beach? (Preferably when the sun is going down, and it’s quiet, and all there is is the sound of the waves crashing, amazingly fresh air, and a fantastic Technicolor display the sky puts on for free.) We get the sea air. Loaded with minerals. And we literally soak them up, even if we don’t dip a toe into the ocean. That air lands on our skin, right? Well, quick lesson: we can absorb minerals through our skin. (Why do you think they have magnesium gels?) It lands on our skin, but we also breathe it in. Talk about a much more fun and natural way to get some minerals than popping supplements and hoping for the best!
Cost of therapy: FREE.
So yeah…when was the last time you really got outdoors? A nice walk or hike in a wooded space would probably be best, but at the very least, maybe stepping out your front door on a weekday morning just for five minutes to breathe in the calm, quiet morning before you’re off to the races until quittin’ time. I honestly believe fresh air is medicine. Maybe not as high-quality medicine if all you have access to is a parking lot on a busy thoroughfare, but I’m sure you can find time—even just a little, a couple days a week—to get away from the traffic and just breathe, and be.
Am I a total nerd for saying that? That I believe our bodies expect these inputs? The sound of the birds chirping, the sight of a cloud changing shape overhead? We didn’t evolve to be inside gray buildings, with gray carpet, in gray cubicles, staring at screens all day.
There’s been a lot of buzz about vitamin D recently. How much is enough? Are “low” levels really that low? Do we even need to care? Should all of us be supplementing, regardless? Chris Masterjohn has some awesome work (as always) on this. And naturopathic doctor Bryan Walsh also had an eye-opening look at vitamin D. It seems that cranking up our D levels as high as possible isn’t necessarily the wisest thing to do. Plenty of conditions that one would think might respond to vitamin D, don’t. And sometimes people get their levels higher but don’t feel any better.
So this got me thinking: even though we know that vitamin D is a pro-hormone and has obvious and undisputed physiological effects, since health doesn’t always improve with higher vitamin D from synthetic supplements, and since we associate vitamin D levels with sunlight exposure, what if vitamin D levels are really just a proxy for being outdoors? (In which case, it's not just about the sunlight, but all the other things we experience outside, whether or not we even realize we're experiencing them.)
There’s a reason gardening is so good for mental health, and for sure, it goes beyond the pride of raising pretty flowers or producing awesome, homegrown vegetables to use in your cooking. What about getting close to the soil? The literal earth. What about digging your hands deep into that soil—teeming with minerals, with microbes, with life? Again—sights, sounds, and smells we’ve likely come to expect, if not outright require for good health—emotional/psychological far more so than physical. (This is why I love visiting farms so much. Small farms don’t smell like manure lagoons like the big feedlots do. They smell like grass, and soil, and nature, and renewal, and life. There’s “stuff” in the air there—stuff that you breathe in and feel better without being able to identify exactly why.)
And what about laughter? When was the last time you had a belly laugh? A laugh from deep within yourself that made your cheeks hurt when you finally stopped? How often do you smile? And I mean really smile, not one of those fake, one-off smiles that goes along with the, “I’m good, how are you” falsehood. How long has it been since something moved you to give a real, honest smile? The kind you feel down to your toes?
I know this all sounds a little “out there.” Believe me, I know. But I’m also speaking from personal experience. A lot of the positive inputs I’ve mentioned here have been missing from my life for a long time. A long time. And I’ve only just recently realized how devastating this is. But now that I have realized, I can do something about it. Like I said, I’m a work in progress, myself. I’m a nutritionist, but that doesn’t mean I’m in perfect health. I have no major complaints, but for sure there are a few things that aren’t where I’d like them to be. And I do still eat too much sugar, and I don’t get anywhere near enough sleep. But even so, I don’t feel that my body composition (and some other stuff) reflects the quality of my overall diet or my dedication to exercise. And it’s occurred to me that these other factors are likely playing a role.
I also know this because there was a time in my life when everything came together. I loved my job, loved my coworkers, had a schedule that was in sync with my natural circadian rhythm, looked forward to most of what I did throughout the day—BUT—my diet wasn’t as “clean” as it is now. It was pretty darn good compared to the standard American diet, but I ate my share of ice cream, garlic bread, Nutella, and stuff like that. (Not together, of course!) And you know what? I was in the absolute best shape of my life. Physically and psychologically. I felt like a million bucks most days.
The reason I look so happy is
because I was.
And the funniest part? I was in a war zone.
I’m talking about my brief deployment to Iraq in 2008. I ate “worse” than I do now, but I looked and felt better. So what gives? I can tell you that not all the factors I’ve mentioned here were relevant. There was approximately zero green space at Balad Air Base, and if you’ve followed the news at all during the last few years, you know we had less fresh air and more toxic fumes from the burn pits. And I was single at the time, so no significant other, but I was surrounded by people I really loved being with. My feelings, my approach to life, my “aura,” for lack of a better word—the energy I was putting into the universe—was so much more positive, and it reflected back to me with amazing health and physique. (I told you this would be a little woo-woo.) If you see the picture of me at the top right corner of this website, it was taken not long after I returned home from that deployment. I was able to achieve that look while eating some things certain people in this health community wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. What I’m trying to say is, I was able to be less strict with my diet, yet enjoyed great health inside and out, because so many of these other things had fallen into place.
If you’re interested in this kind of perspective, I encourage you to check out a question that was posed on Paleohacks a while back. Here’s the link. Read the question that was posed and then scroll down to see my reply. (It should be the first one below the question.)
I've come up with a couple of graphs that illustrate some of what I've talked about here.My apologies for the crude drawings. I had to make them myself, and while I like to think I know a thing or two about stringing words together, I am useless when it comes to artwork.
Let’s take a look at graph number one.
Here, someone is spending all their time in the negative section. The section where the darker thoughts and feelings reign: worry, anxiety, fear, self-doubt, insecurity, pessimism, etc. This is not a fun place to be. Believe me, I know. I’ve spent way too much time there, myself. It is more damaging than we can possibly realize—emotionally, obviously, but also physically. (You’ve heard of the mind-body connection, right?)
And how about graph number two?
This is someone sitting at baseline. It’s a vast improvement over the first graph, right? This person has pulled themselves out of the emotional quicksand. So we’d rather be here than down in the dumps, but this doesn’t look like the emotional curve of someone who’s enjoying life, does it? So while this is way better than #1, it’s still not where we want to be. With stress management, calming down, learning to roll with the punches, we bring ourselves out of the basement. But look where that leaves us: along the flatline. We can do better than that.
How about number three?
Here, our subject spends all his/her time in happy unicorn wonderfulness. Nothing ever goes wrong. He/she loves everybody and everything, and never has a negative or vindictive thought about anything, ever.
Now that’s just plain ridiculous.
I mean, it sounds good, but it’s simply unrealistic.
One last graph, and then I'll get out of your hair.
I think most people would feel pretty darn good here, on graph number four. We’d spend most of our time at our normal baseline, some time feeling insanely good, and, as is only natural, once in a while we’d dip down into the blues.
The difference between graphs 2 and 4 are at the heart of this post. When I talk about the clients who do manage their stress, and who do exercise, and who do eat a very good diet, those people might be at graph 2. They have no major “problems,” and yet, something’s missing. They can’t identify what; they just know something isn’t quite right. And when I talk about vitamin J—love, hobbies, green spaces, stargazing, human connection, fulfillment, a sense of purpose—that brings us more to graph 4. Everything else was already in line, but now we’ve got a couple of things in our lives that give us those occasional moments of really, truly, loving the skin we’re in.
What are your thoughts? Does any of this resonate with you? I'd love to start an honest dialogue about all this.
Remember: Amy Berger, M.S., NTP, is not a physician and Tuit Nutrition, LLC, is not a medical practice. The information contained on this site is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any medical condition.