Gut Health = Brain Health?

One of my first blogs on this site was about a book called Grain Brain by Dr. David Perlmutter – a neurologist who blames lifestyle diseases (diabetes, heart disease, obesity, etc.) on excessive carbohydrate and gluten consumption. It’s been four years since that post and I have followed much of the book’s advice – I eat a primal diet that consists of meat, vegetables, fruit, and some whole fat dairy. My body is happy when I eat this way and I never have to worry about measuring portions or counting calories – this use to be a requirement because I put on weight easier than a bear preparing for hibernation.  Eating the aforementioned foods is not a diet but rather a lifestyle. Wheat, corn, rice, and added sugars are great once in a while but not as a base for your personal food pyramid. My buddy Chris O’Brien – an aspiring low-carber with a nagging penchant for club crackers – recommended that I read Dr. Perlmutter’s newest book Brain Maker: The Power of Gut Microbes to Heal and Protect Your Brain. This book changed the way I think about the microbes that live within our bodies. In a sense, we are more bacteria than human – we carry more single cell organisms than actual cells in our body. These microbes help us with a myriad of bodily functions like digestion, immunity, sense perception, and mental processes. Without microbes, we would simply die.

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The health of your gut bacteria determines the health of your brain. The stomach and brain are interconnected – just think of what happens to your digestive system when you are anxious. The rise in diseases like Alzheimer’s, mood disorders, ADHD, multiple sclerosis, and autism are being linked with imbalances in gut bacteria. These imbalances allow bad bacteria to flourish over good bacteria; this leads to excess absorption of energy (obesity), inflammation that stimulates autoimmunity (Multiple Sclerosis), and/or gut permeability which can exacerbate neurological symptoms (Autism).  Studies show that our ultra-sterile environments and antibiotic use is disrupting our microbiome. Added to this is our Western diet low in prebiotic fiber and high in carbohydrates which foster bad bacteria. As an icing on the cake, exposure to environmental toxins like plastic residues, pollution, and workplace stress can all disrupt good bacteria. The connection between the gut and the brain is most obvious in those struggling with mental health disorders – studies show that more then 50 percent of psychiatric patients struggle with digestive ailments.

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So what can we do to help our microbiome? We need to eat diets which are high in fiber so good bacteria have food to eat. Also, eating probiotics like yogurt or fermented foods like sauerkraut help introduce beneficial bacteria to the gut. Avoiding toxins is an obvious must, but don’t forget about toxins lingering in the food supply like gluten and added sugar. Is gluten actually a toxin? I would argue that gluten in high quantities – the amounts seen in normal Western diets – wreaks havoc on the digestive system and on the microbiome. If you require more convincing then I recommend trying a gluten free diet for a month – I bet you’ll start feeling better after the first week. I recommend these things not only from research studies but also from my own experience. I used to eat “healthy” whole grains and I normally had stomach pains, constipation, and bloating; I was even diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) before I started eating a primal diet. Now unsurprisingly, the only time my IBS flares up is when I go back to eating grains. If you suffer from any of the above ailments, it is worth it to read this book. You may not see a complete reversal of your disorder but I would bet your symptoms will get drastically better. Read the book for yourself. You have nothing to lose except some bad microbes.

Old World vs. New World

One of my wife’s favorite Disney movies is Pocahontas. She likes it for its fun music, its dark-skinned-female-protagonist, and its historical accuracy. We all grew up with some vague idea of what it was like for Native Americans before the advent of the “white man.” There were happy tribes scattered throughout the country which cherished the Image result for native american stereotypesearth and went about their lives in natural simplicity. These Paleolithic people lacked technology, advanced government, and large-scale societies like their European counterparts. Unfortunately all of those beliefs are flat out wrong. What did the Americas look like before 1492 – the year Columbus landed in the Caribbean? Thankfully, I came across a fascinating book which answers this very question: 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus by Charles C. Mann. With the advent of new technologies in archaeology there has been an explosion of discoveries that were never known about the early inhabitants of the New World; suffice it to say, the Western Hemisphere was comprised of sophisticated societies which rivaled any European, Asian, or African empire at the time.

Most people know about the Incan and Aztec Empires. There are still many remnants from these cultures and many sites are visited by overweight tourists. What most people don’t realize is that each of these nations was home to millions of people during their peak. The Incan Empire, in the year 1491, was the Image result for incan empirelargest empire on earth, surpassing the Ming Dynasty in China, Ivan the Great in Russia, the Songhay in the Sahel, the Great Zimbabwe in West Africa, the Turks in the Ottoman Empire, and any European state at the time. Their dominion spread over 32 degrees of latitude which is the equivalent distance between Cairo and St. Petersburg. The Aztecs, located in modern day Central Mexico, numbered over 25 million which at the time was the most densely populated place in the world; twice the number of inhabitants per square mile than China or India; for reference, Spain and Portugal had a combined population of fewer than 10 million.

Concurrently, Tenochtitlan – the Aztec Capital – was the biggest metropolis on earth far exceeding the second largest at the time-Paris. When the Spaniards first walked into Image result for Tenochtitlan sketchTenochtitlan, they marveled at the wide streets, ornately carved buildings, bustling markets, long aqueducts, immense banners, colorful promenades, and immaculate public spaces.
What was more astonishing than the structures were the people themselves: taller, healthier, stronger, and cleaner than their European counterparts. This pattern of civilization was common throughout the Americas from the Amazon Rain forest to the Appalachian Mountains: there was advanced technology, sophisticated government, and efficient agriculture. So what the frick happened?

One word – DISEASE. From the time that Columbus landed in 1492, various diseases like Hepatitis and Smallpox spread throughout the Americas with rapid force. When Pizzaro and Cortez conquered the Incans and Aztecs, disease had already destabilized the populace and the political foundation. By the beginning of the sixteenth century, the epidemics killed 100 million Native Americans which would be 1 out of every 5 people on earth at the time – the greatest destruction of life in history. Image result for native american disease and epidemics
Overtime, disease would kill almost 95% of all peoples in the Americas. A great example of this death toll is the east coast of the United States. Before the Pilgrims landed, there were hundreds of thousands of Native Americans inhabiting that area. A smallpox epidemic swept through during the late 16th century and cleared all resistance – the English zealots settling on a mass-grave site.

What remained of the Native Americans were small bands of people which were restarting their personal lives, their families, and their societies; this is how Europeans viewed their perpetual state – subsequently writing the history books. The Inca and Image result for native american mound builders sketchAztecs were not exceptions but rather the rule in respects to American civilization; advanced civilization rose and fell for over five millennia. Even more fascinating was the manipulation of the landscape by these cultures. We imagine the virgin forest as a staple of the pre-Columbian landscape – wrong again.
Not only were structures built, but the forest was regularly manipulated for agriculture, harvesting, and wildlife management. All of these facts are extremely important for today because it gives us a greater understanding of human and ecological development. We can gain knowledge from past cultures to improve our environment and Disney movie plot lines. The more we know the less we think one group of people is “better” than the other – maybe the term “savage” was applied to the wrong hemisphere.

Trump Economics?

Following the election of Trump, I became apolitical. My current view on politics is similar to my current view of the night sky – it is there but I only gaze up in wonder every now and again. I want Trump to do well because we should always root for our leaders to make the right decisions. However, it seems that whenever I do gaze up into the twinkling lights of Washington – I suddenly get a crick in my neck. In the past, I posted about Mike Rowe and his views on voting. Basically, he doesn’t think everyone should vote; only those individuals who are informed and educated enough to respect the privilege. In his article, he references a book that everyone should read to get a sound understanding of economic policy: Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt. Hazlitt wrote this book in 1946 and it has sold over 1 million copies in the past 70 years. Suffice it to say, this book’s principles are solid and are still applicable to today’s economy. I say this because economics is many times a political subject.This book is not tainted by left or right wing media and it disproves many fallacies which are commonly used to wrongly steer our decisions. I’ll explain one of the biggest and most encompassing fallacies of all – putting America first at the expense of everyone else.

Imagine a little boy playing baseball and accidentally breaking a window. His friends all crowd around with their jaws gaping and they immediately start a philosophical conversation about the economic implications of the event. The first obvious line of thought is that a new window will have to be purchased. One boy exclaims that this will be beneficial to the window installer and hence stimulate the economy. All the boys agree and use this line of argument when confronted by the angry home owner. The home owner will have to spend 100 dollars to fix the window. The man listens to the boys but then says he was just about to use that 100 dollars to buy a new golf club. The boys learn an important economic lesson. Certain policies that appear to help, actually have a reciprocal effect of hurting others. Humans have a hard time with economics because we focus on the winners and not the losers. It is easy for us to see jobs being created but it is hard for us to imagine jobs or purchasing power being lost.

Let’s imagine that America put itself first in all trade deals. From the example above it is a fallacy to think this will benefit us because there is always another group which suffers. In this example, the domestic America manufactures may have better protection and hence better sales. But what about the American manufactures who export products to other countries? They no longer can profit from the open trade agreements and hence lose out on business. Countries around the world would have less reason to buy from America and thus would take their money elsewhere. Additionally, these policies promote greater inefficiencies which in the end reduce American purchasing power, real wages, and production potential. The negatives are overlooked because it is easy to see new manufacturing jobs, but hard to see the world economy shifting. To put it another way, policies which benefit 12.3 million American manufactures, in the long run, will hurt the other 140 million American workers.

Whats’s the win-win economic policy? The best economic policy in the long run is to have open trade. This will benefit the most efficient American manufacturers and allow Americans to have the greatest purchasing power. It will also allow other countries to buy more American products which will stimulate greater production and job growth. These policies are in fact usually trumpeted by Republicans. Ironically, Trump is pushing for more Democratic protectionist views. These aforementioned economic policies are proven effective and it only takes one to read about the sad history of protectionism to quickly understand their soundness. Hazlitt, in 1946 wrote this quote several times in the book.

“…those who are ignorant of the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Unfortunately, demagogues go for the policies that appear to be sound but usually only help specific groups in the short term. We are a globalized world and we need economic policies that benefit all sectors. We can do this in a responsible way that facilitates environmental projects, new job training, and stability in developing countries. There is no first place when it comes to economics. There is no benefit of putting America first – our strength comes from the strength of others.

Would you be Sterilized?

Imagine today if Donald Trump made a decree that all morons and imbeciles must be sterilized to prevent further contamination of the American gene pool. Could you imagine the uproar? Even Fox News couldn’t spin that Twitter rant, but sadly, forced sterilization is still constitutional in the United States. Ninety years ago, in the infamous case of Buck vs. Bell, Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes Jr., declared by many as the wisest man in the United States, wrote the majority opinion summarized by this one sentence:”Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” The history of Buck vs. Bell and America’s dark marriage to eugenics is detailed in the fascinating book Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck by Adam Cohen.

Eugenics is defined as the purposeful cleansing of defects in the gene pool to improve a particular species. For example, eugenics is commonly used today when dogs are cross bred to remove negative health traits: English Bulldog + Labrador = Bullador. Human eugenics started in 19th century Europe with the advent of Social Darwinism. Essentially, people thought that “survival of the fittest” not only applied to animals but also to racist white guys. The whitest of the white, Nordic Europeans, viewed themselves as the beez neez and thought all other races should bow to their paleness. Many geneticists believed that every trait, belief, attribute, and characteristic of a person was passed on from their parents. There was very little understanding of the environmental impact on behavior and subsequently all vices were blamed on bad genes. Drunkenness in the Irish. Criminality in the Italians. Promiscuity in the Poles.  Usury in the Jews. Imbecility in the poor. Basically, anyone who was not a white-Northern-European-rich-pious-fricker was deemed to have poor progeny.

At the turn of the 20th century, America was becoming inundated with all sorts of new immigrants: tides of Irish, Jews, Eastern Europeans, South Americans, and Chinese. These new immigrants oftentimes lived in squalor and were more likely to commit crimes, have large families, and be less educated compared to their Anglo-Saxon counterparts. Hence, “real “Americans decided to clean up the gene pool and the States began to pass laws that allowed the sterilization of anyone who had unappealing traits. Intelligence tests were given out to see whether people were imbeciles or morons. These tests were completely erroneous and in many cases found that half of test takers were mentally unfit.

The Immigration Act of 1924 was passed in direct connection to eugenic beliefs on racial inferiority. It drastically decreased the number of immigrants from countries that were not Anglo-Saxon in origin. The climax of the eugenics movement occurred in 1927 when Buck vs. Bell went to the supreme court to determine whether Virginia had the right to sterilize Carrie Buck –  a poor-white-southerner. The case was a complete sham. Carrie was not an imbecile but rather an intelligent girl who had the bad luck of being raped and blamed for promiscuity. Carrie’s lawyer was actually on the prosecutions payroll and she was not informed about any details of the case. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. was a firm believer in the “survival of the fittest” and wrote that sterilization did not impede upon Miss. Buck’s constitutional rights.

The eugenics movement in America helped Hitler cement many of his policies during WWII. The Immigration Act of 1924 assisted the Holocaust by  barring Jews from entering America. Nazi Lawyers, during the Nuremberg Trials, actually used the case of Buck vs. Bell as a justification for 1000’s of sterilizations. In total, the US sterilized over 70,000 people throughout the 20th century – the last forced sterilization was in 1981. Today, Buck vs. Bell has still not been overturned and there are cases of coerced sterilizations in prison and mental health systems. Eugenics is still a major concern with advancements in technology that can screen babies for “undesirable” traits. Is it right for a couple to abort a child who has Down Syndrome? What if we get to the point that prenatal screenings tell us the risk of stunted height or ADHD? Who gets to define what traits are good or bad? America’s history with eugenics is scary but its future is even more precarious. Let’s not repeat the mistakes of Social Darwinism and nonsensical-immigration restrictions. I think Charles Darwin said it best:

“The love for all living creatures is the most noble attribute of man.”

The Hike of a Lifetime

Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.

-John Muir

One of the top things on my bucket list is to hike the Appalachian Trail (AT). The AT is 2,200 miles and stretches from Georgia all the way to Maine. The trail was completed in 1937 and is maintained by hundreds of volunteer clubs. Each year, over 2 million people hike the trail at least 0ne day and over 2,400 complete a thru-hike of the 2,200 miles. A thru-hike is extremely difficult-those who attempt this endeavor take an average of 6 months to complete the expanse and 75% will fail in their pursuit. If you can’t get 6 months off from work then there is the option of section hiking the AT-this officially counts as completing the entire trail and can be completed over a lifetime. My goal is to section hike the trail over a 3 year period. I think one-month stretches twice a year during the best times for hiking would make the trip much more enjoyable. My ultimate goal is to hike the AT along with the Continental Divide Trail (3,100) which runs through the Rockies and the Pacific Crest Trail (2,600 miles) which runs through the west coast.

So the question is why would anyone want to hike over 8,000 miles of wilderness? What is the point? It is a hard question to answer because in a sense it requires one to describe an instinctual urge. I feel better in the woods. I feel more happiness in the woods. I feel alive in the woods. The woods bring me into nature in the most intense way because they encompass every sense: the sight of trees, the songs of birds, the smell of fresh air, the texture of trail beneath my feet. In addition to the surrounding nature, the act of hiking is the most relaxing and pleasant activity. Hiking is the foundation of mankind’s physical prowess. We walked across continents and spread throughout the entire world with our ability to hike. When I’m hiking in the woods my mind is in a proverbial hot tub of relaxation. Moving through the woods tangibly connects me to the earth and to the ancestral urge to explore. Contrast all these feelings with the unnatural state of everyday life: driving in a climate controlled vehicle, staring into a computer screen, shopping at Walmart, watching TV commercials, etc.

I think most of you who are reading this agree with me about the awesomeness of hiking. However, I still haven’t justified why I want to hike 2,200+ miles while carrying a backpack and sleeping in a tent. Backpacking is a humbling experience because you can only carry so much stuff and what stuff you do pack becomes quite heavy overtime. It is the antithesis of our consumer culture where we accumulate tons of stuff but never really feel the environmental impact of our consumption. This antithesis attracts me to backpacking and my minimalist lifestyle delights in carrying only the most essential. So what is the point of hiking all those miles? The point for me is to push myself and see what I am capable of. God has blessed me with great health and I want to utilize those blessings to the fullest. This logic runs parallel to my proclivities for reading and writing-I don’t want my talents to be wasted so I regularly do both of them. We all have goals but unfortunately many of them are misaligned. I want to get a promotion. I want a new car. I want an extra 20,000 a year in salary. I want a remodeled kitchen. I want bigger biceps. Humans need goals and we like to conquer those goals. That is why I want to hike all these miles. It is a challenge that brings me closest to my naturally aligned physical and mental state. What do you think? Would you like to join me?

Tomorrowland

In the year 2050 I will be 60 years old. It seems like a long time from now but I know the date will suddenly slam me in the face along with familiar phrase, “where did the time go?” It seems like all the predictions of today are framed around the year 2050: the global population will double, the earth will be 3 degrees warmer, we will need millions more pounds of food, Donald Trump will be in his 8th term as Supreme Leader. It makes me scared because none of the predictions are positive and I worry about the abuse we are putting upon our planet. Obviously, global warming is a big deal and something everyone needs to be educated about. To better understand how we have caused this precarious situation I read The Prize and The Quest by Daniel Yergin. I already talked about The Prize  which summarized the last 150 years of oil in a previous postThe Quest talks about the oil industry of today and how we need to transition from oil to more earth-friendly sources of power. Using the information that I learned from The Quest, I want to write a letter to my future 60 year old self…

“Hey you older frick! I hope that you have had an excellent 34 years since the time this blog post was written. Is the world as crappy as we thought it would be? I hope Justin Beaver isn’t running for President. Anyways, I want to write some of my predictions for what 2050 looks like. You are currently driving an all electric car that is charged by solar panels installed at the house; ideally, there is a very high efficiency battery that powers all your electrical needs throughout the day even when there is no sun. Charging the car is fast and easy because stations are ubiquitous across the country. Utility bills are nearly non-existent because the house is built to optimize heating and cooling throughout the year. Worldwide carbon dioxide emissions are now decreasing each year and there are large government sponsored initiatives to remove the existing carbon from the atmosphere and oceans. Sadly, i’m guessing these initiatives only came after drastic damages to worldwide agriculture, coastal property, and most importantly-Wall Street’s trading computers. Are there still coral reefs? Do we still have our beautiful snowy days? Will our grandchildren have a promising future? I want to believe that the US now receives most of its power from solar, wind, biomass, nuclear, and natural gas. The Middle East is a center for banking and finance, now that their revenues come mostly from overseas investment funds. Maybe there is less turmoil with terrorism because oil no longer funds their operations. The developing nations in 2016 are probably much-more developed by now and may be the last countries depending on oil. Society as a whole is much more concerned about conservation and there are concerted efforts to bring carbon levels back to pre-industrial averages. The whole world has united in its effort to reverse global warming and they predict by 2100 that the earth will finally have normal levels of greenhouse gases. What an awesome time to be alive!  Of course i’m sure there are many problems in 2050: poverty, crime, starvation, and illness to name a few. Heck Kim Kardashian still probably has a reality TV show. At least, the climate issue is being addressed and you will have many more beautiful years on a healing planet earth. 

What can we do in 2016 to help reverse Global Warming? Below are three practical steps.

  1. Offset your carbon footprint by supporting programs that aim to reverse global warming: carbonfund.org
  2. Update your house with energy efficient appliances, lighting, and insulation. It will safe you money every month and decrease energy usage significantly.
  3. Lose weight: when you weigh less you use less fuel, eat less energy intensive food, and you just feel better. Win-Win.

 

Plastic: Birds, Beaches, and Bodies

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The obese albatross was having quite a hard time sailing through the air. Obese being the wrong descriptor, the bird had all its weight centered around the stomach like a varsity-jacket-wearing 45-year-old male. It was a quite odd site and it seemed like the bird was designed for heavy bomb drops and not quick-swirling noise dives like his counterparts. All of a sudden the heavyset bird hit a patch of hard wind and the belly was lifted up as if composed of a material that was not dense but quite light. Although there was a strange lightness to the protrusion, the bird continued to sink further and further towards the mating lands of his ancestors. Below him were thousands of little baby chicks just hatching to start a life filled with majestic days of flying through the skies as he had done so many times before. Sadly though, this bird’s last experience of flying would end quite soon. The bird suddenly began coughing, choking, and hacking, making his flight look like a shot-down-black-hawk helicopter. The crash was eminent and I wonder in those last seconds whether his life passed before his eyes: making love to his seagull woman, regurgitating food for his chicks, pooping on cars, squawking with his friends. Mothers quickly moved their chicks out of the way, elder birds looked on in horror and finally the sickened leviathan hit the ground with a force that lifted a mushroom cloud of feathers. No average bird could survive that fall and the other birds began to collect decorative seashells for the funeral. But wait! The bird was still moving! The bird was still alive, the large stomach must have cushioned the load. Would he survive this unbelievable ordeal? Sadly, his movement was short lived with one last violent coughing fit. The bird lay still as his counterparts went on their way coughing in an eerily similar manner to their now dead friend. A few weeks later the bird was still in his death spot, but now that large gut of his had spilled open. The contents looked like one of those stores that sells cheap party supplies: a toy ring, reusable lighter, a disposable fork, and a whole host of worthless plastic junk. The plastic in the bird was tangled and knotted, looking as if it was in a continual loop of digestion for quite some time. What kind of bird would eat plastic? Maybe he thought it was a new tasty food like a fat  kid salivating over candy at the checkout counter. The answer became clearer when the mating territory was combed over. Trash as far as the eye could see. The gulls were surrounded by a cornucopia of junk that engrossed their entire food system. Worse than the trash, was the litter of bird carcasses that lay among the waste-the natural birds’ bodies composting while the unnatural plastic eternally waited for its next victim.

This story is fake but the premise stands in the fact that our plastic trash has a real effect on the health of our world. Plastic is ubiquitous and we use it everyday without much thought to where it goes after we throw it away. I wanted to know more about plastic so I read Plastic: A Toxic Love Story by Susan Freinkel. The book made me analyze how I use plastic and what impact it has on my life. Plastic became quite popular after World War II and inundated the market with the promise of convenience, functionality, affordability, and durability. We became a throw-away culture and began using many plastic products one time before tossing them in the trash. Plastic lasts a very long time and our land fills, oceans, and beaches are now suffocating from its “durability.” The role plastic plays in our life is complex and there is no easy answer to what we should do about the plastic that is already in our environment. What we can do is take personal responsibility with our everyday use of plastic and try to reduce, reuse, and recycle. First, reduce the amount of trash you create by buying less single-serve food items and less material crap in general. Second, buy reusable-tote bags instead of using single use plastic bags at the grocery store. Thirdly, take a minute to throw the plastic that you do have in the proper recycling containers. These are easy steps to do your part in making the world a better place. Less plastic means less litter, less plastic chemicals getting in your food, less plastic getting in our bodies, and less depressing pictures posted on this blog.