Updated: 4 days ago
This post is a compilation of past essays.
To live mindfully, we attend to fundamentals. Meditation, a good night’s sleep, a balanced exercise routine, and a nutrient dense diet are some of the habits that promote not only physical well-being, but mental clarity, improved concentration, and emotional balance.
When we look within, we discover the insights we need to live more mindfully. Meditators develop interoceptive awareness. We connect with the body and observe sensations as they arise. If we’re eating poorly, we feel that. When we’re eating foods that agree with our constitutions, we learn experientially which foods aid in concentration.
Our gut has its own nervous system, sometimes called the enteric brain. It has over 100 million neurons and 35 neurotransmitters. Our bodies are home to trillions of bacteria. They outnumber our own cells 10 to 1. They’re spread across the digestive system. Most live in the intestines and colon, commonly called the gut. This community of gut bacteria is called the microbiome. The gut microbiome not only regulates digestion, vitamin supplementation and metabolism, but affects brain function, neural development, immune function, pain perception, and mental health. It also plays a key role in the stress response.
The foods we eat affect the milieu of our gut flora. This microbiome plays a vital role in both our physical and mental well-being. 95% of the information received in the gut goes to the brain; it’s not the other way around. What we eat, in other words, affects our concentration, energy levels, and moods for better or for worse.
Research has shown that the gut microbiota modulate gut and brain functions. Gut bacteria produce neurochemicals that the brain uses to regulate physiological and mental processes which affect learning, memory, mood, and by extension behavior. 90 percent of the neurotransmitter serotonin, for example, is produced in the gut. Serotonin, sometimes called the calm molecule, influences both mood and gastrointestinal activity. When serotonin levels are elevated, we feel a sense of contentment and calm. Serotonin inhibits the amygdala, which plays a role in threat detection. Now It's the serotonin secreted in the raphe nuclei of the brain which modulates mood. But how well it performs in the brain is impacted by what happens in the gut.
Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that is a precursor to serotonin. Foods like whole wheat, potato, lentils, oats, pumpkin seeds, eggs, spinach, and beans, adaptogens like ginseng, nutmeg, or St. Johns wort, and supplements like 5-HTP and SAM-e increase serotonin uptake. To promote sleep or rest, I’ll usually time these foods for later in the day.
Gamma-Aminobutyric acid or GABA is another inhibitory neurotransmitter that promotes relaxation. One doctor called it the chillax molecule. Fermented foods like sauerkraut or yogurt, almonds, walnuts, cherries, brown rice, potato, oats, lentils, navy, and lima beans and supplements like vitamin B6 are some foods rich in glutamic acid.
To promote clarity and alertness during the day, I’ll consume foods that are richer in protein and fats to enhance the signaling of excitatory neurotransmitters and neuro-modulators like dopamine which amplify activity of brain circuits associated with seeking, motivation, and reward, or like norepinephrine which amplify activity of brain circuits associated with focus, acetylcholine amplifies activity of brain circuits associated with alertness, and glutamate amplifies activity of brain circuits associated with learning and memory.
Tyrosine is a precursor to dopamine. Foods like almonds, apples, avocado, bananas, beets, chocolate, green leafy veg, green tea, lima beans, oatmeal, sesame & pumpkin seeds, turmeric, watermelon, and wheat germ, supplements like l-theanine, and Rhodiola rosea can alter dopamine levels. Mucuna pruriens is another supplement I use. This magic velvet bean is not only a source of protein, but of L-dopa, another precursor to dopamine. I add mucuna pruriens to my shakes.
Brussel sprouts, broccoli, peanut butter, and chocolate can alter acetylcholine levels. Glutamate occurs naturally in high protein foods such as cheese, milk, mushrooms, and many vegetables.
Dopamine affects motivation, and motivation is affected by oxidative stress. What is oxidative stress?
As cells consume various micro and macronutrients for fuel, they produce toxic poop in the form of highly reactive molecules collectively known as oxidative species. To restore the cell's chemical balance, cells flush these out. When cells cannot clear out toxins efficiently enough the result is “oxidative stress”.
Antioxidants are molecules that fight oxidative stress. One of the brain's most important antioxidants is a protein called glutathione. Higher levels of glutathione in a brain structure called the nucleus accumbens correlates with motivation (Sandi, Zalachoras, et al., 2022). The nucleus accumbens plays a major role regulating motivation, reward, reinforcement, and aversion. N-acetylcysteine is a precursor to glutathione and increases glutathione levels in the nucleus accumbens. N-acetylcysteine can be synthesized in the body from its precursor cysteine. Cysteine is contained in high-protein foods: eggs, fish, whole-grains, and vegetables such as broccoli, onions, and legumes.
Not only what we eat, but when and how often we eat matters. Meditators were fasting intermittently before it became trendy. This time-honored discipline gives the gut a reprieve and aids in digestion, metabolism, and sleep- which aids in concentration.
Traditionally, in the East, only breakfast and lunch are served on retreat. On retreat, we practice eating slowly and mindfully, savoring each bite. Not only does this practice ground us in the present moment, chewing slowly aids in digestion and promotes satiety.
As an aside, if you don’t care to fast intermittently or can’t, consider consuming your last meal 4 hours prior to bed to give the digestive system time to process and shut down.
There are other benefits to fasting intermittently. Fasting enhances the activators, regulators, and transcription factors that mediate mitochondrial biogenesis and improve mitochondrial function. Mitochondria are the key cellular organelles involved in energy production. It seems counter-intuitive, but fasting improves athletic performance. Fasting boosts mitochondrial biogenesis which positively affects exercise performance and recovery. I usually exercise before breakfast, unless I’m participating in an event, touring, on adventure, or exercising later in the day.
When it’s time to eat, we consume nutrient dense foods. Because we take vows not to kill or cause to kill, meals are vegetarian and nutrient dense. We also take vows refraining from consuming intoxicants.
I’ve adopted these vows, and do not consume meat or alcohol. Although this essay is not prescriptive, by principle, I cannot advocate either. There is overwhelming evidence to support the benefits of refraining from intoxicants and sticking to an organic, plant based, nutrient dense diet.
Nutrient dense foods provide the body with the macro and micronutrients the body needs. The integrity of the nerve cells in the brain depends on fats, amino acids, and other nutrients which we get from the foods we eat. When the body's dietary needs are met, the brain signals satiety. We experience fullness. To support healthy brain metabolism, our brains require at least 30 micronutrients. We eat until we reach our amino acid threshold. One reason Westerners tend to overeat is precisely because the foods are so nutrient poor. We get the macronutrients we need (the fats, sugars, carbohydrates), but not the micronutrients (minerals, vitamins, and amino-acids). As a result, we eat more to supply the brain and body with the nutrients we need. And we often choose the wrong foods.
Fasting also helps us identify which foods might be problematic. We each have our own unique biochemistry, so I’m not advocating any diet. I follow a vegetarian one, you choose what agrees with you. I eat nuts; some readers may have nut allergies that would provoke inflammation. I eat plain Greek yogurt; some readers may be lactose intolerant. I eat grains, people with Celiac disease should avoid them. I eat fermented foods, some have a histamine intolerance. And I ingest supplements that may be harmful to others. To determine which foods might be problematic for you, consider consulting with a nutritionist, request a complete blood panel and food sensitivity test from a functional medicine doctor to get baseline data, then start an elimination diet to determine which foods are beneficial and which are not. By foods, we mean food groups: grains, dairy, sugars, oils, legumes, nuts and seeds, eggs, nightshades.
I fast intermittently and once a month I fast for 3 days. By slowly reintroducing foods after a 3 day fast, I can determine which are causing me discomfort. This worked for me; it may or may not work for you. Will Cole, a functional medicine and integrative doctor, outlines an 8-week plan in his book Inflammation Spectrum.
My father introduced me to fasting. He was a minister and himself the son of a minister who would fast for weeks at a time. My father was my mentor. I learned from his successes and his mistakes. And neglecting his diet was his costliest mistake. My father died from complications due to type-2 diabetes.
He was diagnosed with the disease at 30. I was a boy (7 or 8), but understood the seriousness of the diagnosis. One day, he was snacking on candy. I grabbed the bag from his hand. "The doctor says you can't eat this!" He snatched them back and yelled at me, "Don't tell me what I can or can't eat!"
I learned 3 important lessons that day.
First, most people don’t like being told what to do especially when it comes to nutrition.
Second, we are all subject to the laws of nature. My father often preached on healing and laid hands on people. But, without changes to lifestyle, prayer won’t reverse insulin resistance or lower your blood glucose levels. It might be better to pray for determination, self-discipline and the power to say no. Good health may follow from that. We won’t need to pray for miracle cures.
And third, once established, habits are hard to undo-even when we know that we are on the wrong path.
My father started taking insulin in his 40s. His kidneys failed in his 50s. He went on dialysis. He made minor changes to his diet, but by then it was too late. Diabetes is a merciless disease that pecks away at its victims rather than killing them outright. His toes were amputated in his early 60s, then his feet, then both legs. He suffered several strokes. He was partially paralyzed and wheelchair bound for his final years of life. He lost his ability to speak. Then he lost his sight. He had another stroke. We brought him home to hospice where he died peacefully on New Year’s Eve 2007.
The health care he received was excellent. His doctors were exemplary and caring. Our family remains deeply grateful to all of his clinicians.
My mother and I were his primary caregivers. We spent many hours in the hospital. It became clear to me that our health care system was invested in disease, not prevention. The money is in pills, in procedures, in treatments- not in promoting behavioral change with kale, nuts, or avocados. Few doctors will ask you about your diet or exercise routine when you go for your annual physical. If you are feeling unwell, most will ask about acute symptoms, run tests, diagnose, and prescribe a drug- without addressing root causes.
So suppose you eat fast food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. After several months of this, you begin to develop any one of the symptoms associated with the Western diet: low grade inflammation, oxidative damage, insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, or hypertension. The doctor will treat the symptoms and the prescription will work... for a while. Without changes to your diet or lifestyle, symptoms will worsen. Your doctor may increase your dosage and prescribe pills to treat the side effects from the first treatment regimen. He or she might hand you a pamphlet or literature on eating right. But, you won't be prescribed a meal plan or given an exercise regimen to follow. Insurance companies do not reimburse doctors for suggesting plant based or whole food diets, high intensity interval training or meditation. And neither mindfulness nor nutrition, as far as I know, are embedded in medical school curricula. I perused the medical schools course catalog for several top medical schools. Some offer electives and some require a few hours on nutrition, but it’s minimal.
Despite advances in evidence-based research on the benefits of certain diets, there is a dissemination gap of about 17 years for research to be integrated into clinical practice according to one 2006 study. Can you wait 17 years for the paradigms to shift and for the institutions to change? Do you have that luxury? Do you want to take that risk?
Good nutrition can be preventive medicine. And the prescriptions could be delicious. But its on us to research and self-advocate.
I am an educator by profession. It’s my responsibility to share the research and the facts. A doctor can save a life and extend the days of her patient. And a teacher who encourages his students to adopt a healthy lifestyle can be a partner in preventive care.
Simple lifestyle choices like exercise or a diet of whole, mostly plant based foods would have extended my father’s life by decades and made doctor's visits unnecessary.
But my father ate the typical Western diet.
Getting sick is almost inevitable if you follow the modern Western diet. Hundreds of quality, peer-reviewed studies have found links between the Western diet and obesity, dementia, prostate and breast cancer, sepsis, chronic gut infections, inflammation, depression, anxiety, and insulin resistance. The Western diet increases cytokines, molecules that promote inflammation. The Western diet also promotes oxidative stress.
The Western diet consists mainly of red meat (steak, pork, and barbequed ribs for example) , processed meat (like hotdogs, burgers, bologna, salami, etc.), prepackaged foods ( which are most of the items found in boxes, plastic containers, or bags), butter, fried foods ( fried chicken, burgers, and French fries), sweets (like donuts, pancakes, waffles, most cereals, coffee creamers, and energy drinks). The Western diet is low in fruits for example, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, apricots, goji, or acai), vegetables (e.g. kale, spinach, beets, broccoli, collard greens, etc.), whole grains (e.g. bulgur, couscous, barley, brown rice, oatmeal, etc.), nuts (e.g. walnuts, almonds, peanuts, pecans, etc.), fish, seeds (e.g. pumpkin, sesame, chia, flax, etc.), and legumes (e.g. red, white, or black beans, peas, lentils, garbanzos, etc.).
Dr. Uma Naidoo, a nutritional psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School listed 5 foods to avoid to fight inflammation, promote brain health, and sharpen thinking. All 5 figure prominently in the Western diet, even those marketed as low-fat, low-calorie, or diet.
1. Added sugars. High sugar diets are linked with memory impairments. The American Heart Association recommends women consume no more than 25 grams of sugar and for men no more than 36 grams.
2. Fried foods. Fried foods cause inflammation. Those who consume more fried foods are more likely to develop depression in their lifetime.
3. High glycemic load carbohydrates (e.g. bread, pasta, potatoes, white rice, honey, orange juice). Researchers discovered that people who had the highest score on the carbohydrate-quality index, meaning they were eating better-quality carbs, were 30% less likely to develop depression than those on high carb diets.
5. Nitrates. Used as a preservative and to enhance color in deli slices and cured meats like bacon, salami and sausage, nitrates may be connected with depression.
Food affects cognition. A healthy diet fuels the body, provides energy for the brain, and nutrients for the cells. The ultra-processed, modern diet, by contrast, fuels the body with cheap sugars, inflames the brain, and causes oxidative stress that damage cells.
60% of Americans have a chronic disease. 40% have two or more chronic diseases. Someone will have a heart attack every 40 seconds. Cancer is the second leading cause of death worldwide. 50 million Americans have an autoimmune disease. Almost half the population of the United States are pre-diabetic or diabetic. Brain health problems are also rising. 20% of adults have a diagnosable mental disorder. Depression is the leading cause of disability around the world. Around 1 in 5 American children ages 3-17 have a diagnosable mental, emotional, or behavioral disorder. Serious depression is worsening especially among teens… with suicide among girls reaching a 40 year high. Anxiety impacts more than 40 million Americans, and Alzheimer's Disease is the 6th leading cause of death in the United States. Since 1979, deaths due to brain disease have increased 66% in men and 92% in women. 1 in 59 children are now on the Autism spectrum (Cole, 2019). There is one underlying commonality between all of these health problems explains Dr. Will Cole in The Inflammation Spectrum. Each of these diseases is inflammatory in nature.
But, facts don’t drive change. Meditation promotes the kind of self-knowledge and experiential learning we need to make more informed decisions. Meditation promotes a top-down approach to self-regulation most effective for promoting and maintaining the kind of action we need to take.
Interoceptive awareness affects our capacity to regulate our emotions and behaviors. And how we read and interpret bodily sensations influences our wellbeing. Meditation not only enhances interoceptive awareness, it promotes health. In a recent 2021 study, researchers found that meditation can improve the immune response for conditions associated with inflammation. Researchers found the response to oxidative stress, detoxification, and cell cycle regulation pathways were down-regulated after meditation. 220 genes directly associated with immune response, including 68 genes related to interferon signaling, were up-regulated, with no significant expression changes in the inflammatory genes.
Paying attention to the body, we get feedback and insights. The better we get at detecting our body’s signals, the more insight. This in turn helps us make wiser choices from a more embodied place as we respond more thoughtfully to what we ingest. By contrast, poor interoceptive awareness correlates with increased psychological distress. Major depressive disorder, for example, is associated with altered interoception (Park et al., 2022). Many people with depression present with abdominal complaints. Whereas people with anxiety report more stresses on the cardiovascular system.
Meditation is also a tool for rewiring the brain, promoting neuroplasticity and the brain’s ability to change. We all know to eat right, exercise, stick to a sleep schedule, save and invest, but this knowledge is worthless if it is not integrated into our lives.
Basic information about how the brain works can help us interrupt the habit loop. Habits describe behaviors that have become so ingrained that we perform them automatically. Habits can become compulsions or addictions. This is in contrast to goal-directed, purposeful behavior, in which an action is explicitly performed to obtain a desired outcome. We can use goal-directed, purposeful behaviors- like mindfulness- to encourage habits that promote well-being and to eliminate those which do not promote health.
Goal-directed behavior (like learning to cook nutrient dense meals), is characterized by active deliberation and exacts higher computational costs, at least initially, until these become habits.
Automaticity allows the brain to free up attentional and decision-making resources. It’s more efficient. However, automaticity can also be detrimental and lead to bad habits, compulsions, and addictions if we’re not intentional and firm.
Habits, compulsions, and addictions rewire the brain; breaking them also requires a rewiring of the brain. The brain's ability to rewire itself is called neuroplasticity. It takes time for new connections to form and for familiar and strong ones to weaken until they are extinguished. The more we reinforce any habit, whether good or bad, the more robust the connections. Non-reactivity can also become a habit.Every time we resist temptation, the weaker those connections become. We may relapse, but if we persist, we can build back a more resilient brain. The brain can heal itself. If it is compromised or damaged, it can make compensatory modifications and reorganize itself.
Change can be challenging to sustain, so we leverage the power of habit. It is easier to take small actionable steps and build them into our daily routines so that we no longer have to think about them or motivate ourselves to do them anymore than we have to think or motivate ourselves to brush our teeth. Good habits become routinized and require little effort.
This may take time. Contrary to the popular notion that it takes 21 days to establish a habit, it can take from 18 days to 250+ days for the brain to rewire itself- depending on the individual and the habit one is trying to adopt... or break.
It took me decades to change my diet. I eliminated pork, beef, and alcohol in my early 20s, chicken and fish in my mid 30s, and reduced sugar, pasta, bread, dairy, white rice, and most cooking oils in my mid-40s. Giving up favorite foods was hard initially, but I reframed the choice by acknowledging that what I was really giving up was inflammation, fatigue, low energy, moodiness, stress, and illness. There’s still room for improvement, and I'm working on it. That said, this recovering fast food junkie has come a long way.
A brain structure called the basal ganglia contains circuits that promote both action execution and action suppression. The basal ganglia runs a "Go/No-Go" algorithm. Experiments suggest that the basal ganglia plays a key role in modulating and gating decisions via the go or no-go pathway. One part of the brain mediates a go signal, the other sends a no-go signal necessary for extinction learning. At the experiential level, many of us find it easy to say go to some things (whether positive like exercise or negative like ultra-processed foods). And many find it easy to say no-go to other things (whether that’s saying no-go to donuts, or no-go to okra).
Within the basal ganglia is another structure called the dorsal lateral striatum. The dorsal lateral striatum is active at the beginning and at the end of a habit. This function is called task bracketing. The dorsal lateral striatum frames events just before we initiate a habit. Other neurons are active during the execution of the habit. Task bracketing is like a script that runs when certain conditions are present. Whether this algorithm runs or not is based on our state: on how focused, how resourced, how calm we feel. When we are tired, distracted, stressed and spent, it is easier for the brain to run the GO command for cigarettes or alcohol to take the edge off the anxiety, to issue GO for cookies or processed foods that suppress cortisol and alleviate stress (at least momentarily) and to issue NO GO commands to work out, to meditate, to prepare a nutrient dense meal.
There are cue-induced and stress-induced triggers. Interrupting these cues and delaying a response is key to breaking habits.
Because once that script executes, the habit follows automatically. This is why you feel powerless to resist the cookies, ice cream, or chips. Once the task-bracketed script runs, we lock in torpedo-like despite all the alarm bells, health risks, or consequences we know will follow.
Task-bracketing is a subcomponent in a complex series of neural processes. It’s like the first domino to fall in a domino run.
This process can be interrupted. Terminating the task-bracketed script is like stopping a domino rally by doing nothing.
This is not as easy as it sounds. Attending to cues and contexts requires vigilance or mindfulness. Cues can be external (people, places, things associated with prior abuse) or internal (stressors, emotions, and somatic states). Habit formation is exacerbated by stress (Dias-Ferreira et al., 2009).
Wanting to change is an important first step. Attending to cues and stress-induced triggers is a second step. Self-compassion can be helpful here. Expect to fail forward.When you learn to identify cues, triggers, and patterns you can run a new script to interrupt the brain just before task-bracketing. It starts with a pause, with a delay, with response inhibition. Response inhibition is key to terminating an unwanted behavior. This response delay terminates the "go" signal.
Dr. Judson Brewer is a leading researcher in the field of neuroscience, addiction, and mindfulness. You can find several of his talks here on Insight Timer. Dr. Brewer proposes 4 simple steps to interrupt task bracketing.
Step 1: What do I get from this?
Think of the habit you want to break. Really imagine the habit. Then ask yourself: What do I get from this? It may feel good or calm you down. Go deeper. What does it feel like in the body? What sensations, urges, or emotions come to mind? How rewarding is the activity really?
If I were to eat a jelly donut, I’d feel an initial rush. After a few hours, though, I may feel the crash: stiffness in my joints, fatigue, a simmering irritability and excitability.
Step 2: Try RAIN. RAIN is an acronym coined by Michele McDonald.
R: Recognize. By practicing mindfulness, we become aware of thoughts, sensations, cravings, and emotions. We become aware of our triggers. During the craving stage, we may be aware of strong sensations in the body, a restlessness of mind, heightened anxiety or other strong emotion demanding to be pacified with this or that. When it comes, welcome it. Sit with that.
A: Acceptance. Allow the unpleasantness to be there without trying to push it away. Relax into it.
I: Investigate. Investigate the sensations? Where are they? How strong are they? Is there a restless quality? Tightness? Tension? Recognize whatever unfolds without reacting to it. Dive deep. Investigate your perceived suffering with curiosity.
N: Non-doing, non-reactivity, non-judgment. Do nothing. Resist nothing. Expect nothing. Anticipate nothing. Don't try to take the edge off of it. Don't try to feel better. Sit with it.
Different meditation techniques train different attentional styles. The body scan meditation is one of the best techniques for achieving this state of non-reactivity and non-judgment.
With practice, we build up interoceptive accuracy and sensitivity. The sensations are linked to our emotional state. We attach valences to sensations (whether strong/weak, pleasant/unpleasant) and we react to these sensations with craving or aversion. Interoceptive learning is a complex process that includes updating and integrating information from current body signals with previous body signals and mental models. Over time, these connections are strengthened. Learning to redirect attention to the body facilitates cognitive insights, helps us manage stress, and regulate emotions.
If I feel stressed and my conditioned response is to reach for a slice of pie and a glass of wine, rather than react, I can sit with the discomfort, and relax into it. I don’t act on my impulses or urges. The urge arises, I recognize it, accept it, and investigate it without judgment. I can feel the sensations: tingling as tingling, pulsing as pulsing, an accelerated heartbeat as an accelerated heartbeat, shallow breathing as shallow breathing, etc. There is no storyline, just raw moment-to-moment experiencing. Thoughts and emotions will blend with sensations. With practice and over time, we will see these as discrete processes. I may feel uncomfortable. I may feel aversion to the discomfort. Anticipation may follow. I may want to quit. If, however, I can allow this to arise and be and simply watch and feel and stay with the intensity of it all and embrace the chaos of it all, a different neural process will begin to unfold. If we can learn to attend to sensations with curiosity and not judgment, we develop equanimity, a balance of mind. Over time, the brain will change. Meditation promotes anatomical and functional brain changes.
To live more mindfully is to write executable scripts for the brain to run no matter what, to exercise no matter what, to meditate no matter what, to eat well no matter what, to sleep well no matter what. We can do this by visualizing, by mentally rehearsing an event- with particular attention focused on the moments preceding an action and following the action (the task bracketing sequence). We anticipate challenges and imagine obstacles. For example, if I have sugar cravings and know from my experience that I tend to snack on sugary foods when I’m tired or stressed, I can anticipate this and refrain from buying sweets. So that when the urge arises, there will not be anything in my cupboard or refrigerator to tempt me. I might snack on a banana or blueberries instead. Here, I leverage laziness and lethargy. I may want something sweet, but may not want to get dressed and drive to the store for a treat. So, by purchasing strategically, I can make it easier to follow through on my intentions when temptations arise. And as far as food is concerned, they will arise often. You can expect that and plan accordingly.
Formal meditation practice helps with executive control. We learn to stop reacting with desire to pleasant sensations and with aversion to negative sensations. Meditation promotes emotional balance. Diets are hard to change, because our emotions and feelings often trigger our food choices. Negative emotions cause distress. If I feel guilty because my diet is poor, the tendency of the mind is to respond to the guilt with aversion. Guilt is an unpleasant feeling, and the mind will orient attention away from the unpleasantness. We want to feel better and food provides a degree of comfort.
The good is one thing and the pleasant is another. You’ll find this truth in ancient texts… and in scientific lectures. The more pleasure you seek, the more unhappy you get, Dr. Robert Lustig affirmed. There are biological correlates to this. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps nerve cells communicate. Dopamine is an important chemical in the brain's reward system. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that amplifies activity of brain circuits associated with seeking, motivation, drive, and reward. Dopamine levels can be measured. On an average uneventful workday, the brain will secrete around 50 nanograms per deciliter, 40 nanograms per deciliter on a bad day, and around 100 nanograms per deciliter on a great day. Food, interestingly, increases dopamine levels to 92 according to Corey Waller, director, Spectrum Health Medical Group and Center for Integrative Medicine.
Dopamine is excitatory. The brain functions optimally when it is tickled with it, not when its bludgeoned or flooded with it. Too much leads to dopamine depletion. To protect themselves, neurons down-regulate the dopamine receptor such that we need a bigger hits or rushes to get the same effect. We build up a tolerance to the sugars, the alcohol, and the fatty foods. Chronic excess reward interferes with contentment. The good is one thing; the pleasant is another.
And many ultra-processed foods are engineered to last longer on shelves and to taste good. Good for profits, bad for you. They use additives – colors, thickeners, emulsifiers, and gelling agents to improve the properties of foods that might otherwise taste bland. "natural" flavors (that are not natural). So called "Natural" flavors may contain solvents, emulsifiers, flavor enhancers, and preservatives. The term has no formal legal definition. "Unfortunately, the United States has not established clear requirements for natural claims and manufacturers are using this term liberally." (Skubisz, 2016) Out of principle, I don't buy products from companies that mislead with doublespeak.
Ultra-processed foods often lack the antioxidants and phytochemicals we find in whole foods. The nutrients added to foods that have been stripped out during processing are inferior to those found in whole foods, according to Priscila Machado, a public health nutritionist at Deakin University in Geelong, Australia.
It's important to note that people have been processing foods for tens of thousands of years. Fermentation, pickling, milling, baking, salting, and brining are examples of processing. Processing allowed our ancestors to travel greater distances by preserving them. Processed foods allowed them to survive cold winters, long droughts, and harsh famines.
It’s also important to note that many foods labeled natural and organic are not. My sister wanted to improve her diet, so I took a trip to Nevada to help. Some of the so-called "food" in her pantry and refrigerator was engineered by chemists, but was labeled natural and organic. Where in nature do we find soy lechtin, potato dextrin, Di Sodium Dihydrogen Diphosphate and Sodium Carbonates, Xantham Gum, Methyl Cellulose, Sodium Stearoyl-2 lactylate, calcium propionate, dextrose or "natural flavors?" These are among the ingredients of just 4 items in her pantry. They are packaged in boxes labelled organic and natural.
I took a trip to a Farmer's Market, an international market and several stores for produce and spices. Do you recognize these ingredients: sesame seeds, cucumber, onions, garlic, ginger root, turmeric root, broccoli, kale, asparagus, eggs, carrots, beets, lentils, chickpeas, beans, mushrooms, yams, tomatoes, cilantro, cauliflower, black beans, spinach? These are among the ingredients that will be going into the dishes and beverages I prepared for her that week.
It was all living food. Take a bulb of garlic and plant it in the ground... it grows. Scoop Sodium Stearoyl-2 lactylate in the soil. Will it sprout? Your body knows what to do with a bolus of spinach. How does the body react when it does not recognize something you ingest that you yourself can barely pronounce, like mahltitol or is it maltitol?
We have enough research to answer this question.
When the body recognizes something as foreign, whether an allergen, pathogen (like a virus or bacteria) or chemical, the inflammatory response is triggered. "Inflammation is the body’s response to a problem," according to Doctor Edwin McDonald, M.D. of the University of Chicago School of Medicine. And much of what we eat is the problem. Many of the foods we eat trigger inflammation. "All processed foods can cause inflammation," asserts Dr. McDonald. "They can alter the bacteria that live in our gut, and that alteration has the ability to interact with our immune system and eventually trigger it in a way that leads to chronic inflammation."
Morganella, Klebsiella, and other gram-negative bacteria in the gut have been implicated in depression and other diseases. Their presence triggers the activation of the inflammation response system. Once these molecules cross the blood brain barrier and enter the brain, microglia are activated. Microglia, the resident immune cells of the central nervous system, respond to neuronal damage and remove the damaged cells by phagocytosis. Chronic microglial activation is a hallmark of brain pathology. The brain gets flooded in an inflammatory bath. Over time, inflammation causes neuronal damage through the release of toxic molecules such as pro-inflammatory cytokines, reactive oxygen intermediates, proteinases and complement proteins.
Exercise, sleep, intermittent fasting, and diet are simple lifestyle choices that reduce pro-inflammatory microglial states.
Other gut bacteriophages particularly in the Caudovirales order may improve executive function and memory. Diet has been shown to alter the composition of the gut biome. The microbiome thrives on fermented foods. 2 to 4 servings daily can do the body well.
Fermented foods are integral to diets around the world ( not so much in the West). But you might find some items at the grocery store: kimchi, yogurt (without the sugars), kefir, injera bread, sauerkraut, pickles, kombucha, natto, miso, and tempeh.
Foods that are good for you may take getting used to, especially fermented foods. The good is one thing; the pleasant is another. I don't let my preferences dictate what I eat. If, in my ignorance, I could force myself to acquire a taste for beer, I can force myself to drink kombucha. Processed Sugars are toxins. If I can happily ingest them, surely I could ingest foods and drinks that are better for my health. The good is one thing; the pleasant is another.
Many ultra processed foods contain sugars. "Sugars obtained by chemical synthesis, such as high-fructose corn syrup and invert sugar, are common low-cost ingredients of ultra-processed foods," according to Fernanda Rauber, a nutritional epidemiologist at the University of São Paulo.
Many products advertised as sugar-free contain sugary substitutes. Ingesting these foods or beverages can be dangerous for those with diabetes. Many "sugar-free" labels are misleading. Maltitol syrup, for example, has a glycemic index of 52; table sugar has a glycemic index of 60. If a manufacturer substitutes table sugar with a sugar alcohol like maltitol, and labels it sugar free, the pancreas will still secrete more insulin.
Sugar goes by many different names: dextrose, fructose, galactose, glucose, lactose, maltose, sucrose,, cane juice crystals, honey, malt syrup, maple syrup, corn syrup solids, crystalline fructose, dextrin, diastatic malt, ethyl maltol, Florida crystals, glucose syrup solids, maltodextrin, sucanat, agave nectar/syrup, barley malt, blackstrap molasses, brown rice syrup, buttercream, caramel, carob syrup, corn syrup, evaporated cane juice, fruit juice, fruit juice concentrate, golden syrup, and high-fructose corn syrup.
These sugars are in products where you wouldn't expect to find them from salad dressing and breads to condiments and pet food. Even our pets are becoming diabetic.
I came across a disturbing study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics on the doubling of pre-diabetes in children 12 to 19 years old. Pre-diabetes is a condition marked by high blood sugar levels that have not yet crossed the diabetes threshold.
"If we do not intervene, the children who have pre-diabetes have a higher risk of developing diabetes and also have a higher risk of all cardiovascular diseases," study author Junxiu Liu said. Type-2 diabetes, in turn, accelerates aging, cognitive decline, and other forms of neurodegeneration (Antal et al., 2022).
A 30 year study which tracked 1244 children aged 7-15 in 1985 found links between cognition and fitness later in life. Those children who were more active and fit performed better on cognitive tests than those who were obese in early childhood (Tait et al., 2022). Obesity, by contrast, is linked to poor brain health in children. Researchers observed structural brain changes in children with higher weight and body mass index (BMI) scores. Areas of degradation included the white matter of the corpus callosum, the principal connector between the brain’s two hemispheres, and tracts within the hemispheres that connect the lobes of the brain. Resting-state fMRI images revealed that increased weight and BMI scores were associated with decreased connectivity in the functional networks of the brain that involve cognitive control, motivation and reward-based decision making.
“Increased BMI and weight are not only associated with physical health consequences but also with brain health,” Simone Kaltenhauser, who led the study at Yale's School of Medicine, said. “Our study showed that higher weight and BMI scores in 9- and 10-year-olds were associated with changes in macrostructures, microstructures and functional connectivity that worsened brain health.”
Unfortunately for kids, many adults have abdicated their responsibilities and power. Some shamelessly market garbage to children. Others wallow in guilt and shame or make excuses for poor choices. Many educators approach nutrition as if they feared offending some multinational conglomerate or hurting a caregiver's feelings with facts. I compromise my integrity if I withhold truth.
Consumers must be informed and self-advocate... even a 12 year old diagnosed as prediabetic. Such are the norms of the times. If a child is suckered by false advertising into buying an energy bar and vitamin drink marketed as sugar-free from a school vending machine and becomes diabetic, it's her fault, or we blame her parents. We don't examine poor policy, the educational curriculum, misleading ads that affect consumers' perceptions, or corporate complicity.
According to Harvard’s School of Public Health, the leading causes of death in America- heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cirrhosis, and high blood pressure- are largely preventable and could be avoided with the right diet, exercise and lifestyle. Complications related to poor health from osteoarthritis to respiratory impairment to the cognitive decline that accompanies old age have also been linked to lifestyle choices and diet.
Obesity rates are driven partly by sedentary lifestyles and the consumption of cheaper, processed foods. As an educator, I'm concerned with the trends I see on the ground. Childhood obesity is epidemic in America. Roughly ⅓ of children and adolescents are obese. Over the past three decades, the childhood obesity rate has more than doubled for preschool children aged 2-5 years and adolescents aged 12-19 years, and more than tripled for children aged 6-11 years. In the inner city, where I started my career, the statistics are worse. The disparities in obesity prevalence are higher for Latino and Black children.
Good health is a wellspring of intangible wealth. If I could encourage students to be good custodians of their health and well being, I could spare them and their loved ones the misfortune of ill health, both physical and psychological.
Food affects mood. In a recent study, researchers found that "young men with a poor diet saw significant improvement in their symptoms of depression when they switched to a healthy Mediterranean diet" (Bayes, 2022).
Change your diet, change the way you feel. Many studies have found improved mood regulation and reduced irritability and explosive rage, including in placebo-controlled randomized trials of children with ADHD (Rucklidge aet al., 2017) and mood dysregulation (Johnstone et al., 2021).
Changing your diet and you can affect global change. The ancients didn’t write much about nutrition because foods were locally grown and nutritious. Today, we can't be 100% certain that the foods we buy have not been genetically modified, sprayed with pesticides, contaminated with molds, or grown in mismanaged and degraded soils depleted of their nutrients- like B vitamins, and minerals like magnesium and zinc essential for health.
Agribusiness is the largest contributor to climate change- more than all forms of transportation combined. Raising livestock is an inefficient use of limited resources. One acre of land can produce 50,000 pounds of tomatoes, 53,000 pounds of potatoes, 30,000 pounds of carrots, but only 250 pounds of beef. To produce one pound of beef takes 2,400 gallons of water. 55% of the fresh water used in the United States goes to animal husbandry, compared to 5% for private consumption. Globally, the figure is between 20-30%.
The Venerable Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh cited a statistic claiming that if we in the West reduced our consumption of alcohol and meat 50%, we could end hunger. Small sacrifice to contribute to the well-being of others.
Compassion for all living things is at the root of the vegetarian diet. How animals are raised today is appalling. 13.6 million kilograms of antibiotics are used for livestock in the United States annually, to arrest the spread of diseases common in crowded and unhygienic factory farms.
For a meditator seeking to purify the mind, a vegetarian/vegan diet is ideal. The choice is an act of compassion that grows out of practice. We are aware of what we eat, mindful of what we consume.
It takes a strong resolve and firm determination to discipline the mind. Controlling the appetites of the body is a way to strengthen one's practice and resolve. Another way to strengthen one's resolve is with data.
I ordered Inside Tracker's Ultimate Plan which tests up to 43 blood biomarkers—including glucose, cholesterol, cortisol, and hemoglobin. I had my blood drawn and was eager to see my results.
95% of my biomarkers were within optimal range. Results tagged with a yellow dot indicate that those markers, while within a healthy range, can be improved. My HDL levels are below optimum. HDL helps protects against damage to the cardiovascular system by removing excess LDL (the "bad cholesterol") from the bloodstream. My sugar levels (glucose & HbA1c), by contrast, are on the higher end of the spectrum.
I started a no-sugar challenge prior to ordering Inside Tracker and will continue until February (when I take a follow-up test). My sugar will come from fruits, vegetables, and the occasional dollop of honey. I also started taking spirulina, a blue-green algae, which reduces the rise in blood sugar following a meal (called postprandial glucose). Spirulina has also been shown to be effective at lowering high levels of fasting glucose. I'm consuming probiotic foods for breakfast (miso and unsweetened Greek yogurt). Fasting glucose levels improve after regular consumption of probiotic foods. I bought an ALA supplement (alpha lipoic acid). ALA can lower blood sugar levels by reducing excess fat in muscle cells.
ALA also acts as an antioxidant to reduce free radicals. Free radicals, if left unchecked, can cause oxidative stress, which contributes to body-wide inflammation. Inflammation is the body's response to a problem. High-sensitivity C-reactive protein (hsCRP) is an inflammation biomarker. ALA can decrease CRP by about 38%.
My hsCRP levels can be improved. I'll switch from coffee to green and black tea. Black tea is prepared from the leaves of Camellia sinensis. Compared to green tea, black tea has been oxidized for a longer time resulting in darker color and stronger flavor. Black tea contains the polyphenols catechin, theaflavin and flavonoid which help prevent oxidative damage and can improve hsCRP levels in a month or two according to the research.
Most of my biomarkers were optimal, 9 were average and 2 were outside of optimal range: Transferrin Saturation (TS) and serum iron. High TS levels indicate that my iron levels are too high. Because I am vegetarian, I supplement. High dosage dietary iron supplements combined with high intake of foods fortified with iron may be causing these elevated levels. Serum iron was the second biomarker outside of optimal range. My ferritin and hemoglobin levels, however, were optimized. Optimized ferritin and hemoglobin levels indicate that I am consuming enough iron to meet the body's needs. So I can titrate down and decrease my dosages.
The data is granular and gives me the feedback I need to make minor adjustments to improve my performance. My Vitamin B12 levels, for example, are slightly elevated most likely due to supplementation. Vegetarians tend to have low B12 levels, so I take a B-complex, a multivitamin, and a B12 supplement. Bloodwork suggests it's overkill. My creatine kinase levels are also slightly elevated which may indicate over-training. Elevated levels of creatine kinase are present when muscle cells rupture during intense exercise. The more creatine kinase in the bloodstream, the more muscle damage there is. When creatine kinase is above optimal, an athlete increases his risk of inflammation, muscle damage, cramping, fatigue, delayed recovery and injury. This is why rest and recovery are so important. Nutrition also plays a key role. Protein is essential for muscle repair. CoQ10 supplementation has also been shown to decrease high creatine kinase.
My father’s death was preventable. The thousands of dollars he spent over the course of his lifetime on junk and processed foods sickened him. Not one of the food companies that engineered the foods he consumed sent him a get well card when he was admitted to the hospital. Not one of the multibillion dollar, multinational corporations helped with his medical expenses which crippled the family's finances. Not one of the lobbyists or lawyers who promoted and defended the interests of the conglomerates shared in the burden of his care.
Disgust is sometimes considered a negative emotion, but it can be transformed to action. We can leverage negative emotions to sustain motivation and change.
Better to educate ourselves than to trust the integrity of advertisers, the goodwill of marketers, or the moral codes of elected officials. A marketer can deceive me with clever packaging, but in the end, the body keeps score. The pancreas, the liver, the gut microbiota, the cells and molecules do not respond to clever ads, but to the chemical composition of the foods we consume.
Teaching what matters is my tagline. And what we eat matters. I can’t tell you what to do or how to eat. I’ve presented the facts as best I could.
Please do not cede responsibility for your health over to systems, clinicians, grocers, marketers or anyone else. Commit to learning and growing. It takes resolve and discipline to commit to a healthy lifestyle. Don't hope to feel equanimous, be proactive. Don’t leave your well-being to chance, set your intentions. Don’t blindly follow experts or trends. Assume responsibility for your well-being, listen to your body, and self-advocate. Choose well. May you enjoy good health and vitality.
I wish you good health and a sound mind.