Nutrition and the Brain
To be sure I don't bury the lead here...
A consistently shitty diet will make your body feel consistently shitty.
(You can stop reading now, if you like. You got the main idea.)
Picking up on my last blog, I'm writing on ways to improve your health that are totally separate from exercise. I'm an exercise fruitcake, but I do genuinely understand when it isn't someone's priority. Happily, there are so many ways to practice health that you can always just work on something else. Be forgiving of what you don't have space for right now, but understand that there's always something you can do. Tiny commitments can make a giant difference. (For example, just 10% of Americans wear sunscreen every day but doing this one fifteen second thing reduces your risk of multiple skin cancers by up to 50%.)
Without exercise, it can be easy to go three sheets to the wind, especially when you're injured or struggling in your day to day life. When you're moving less and feeling worse about yourself, the decision to eat without effort becomes easier. Why does it even matter? Then you feel like crap, and who wants to work out when they feel like crap? So then you eat whatever's in front of you, because why does it even matter?
There's always something you can do.
I was talking with a friend recently who's been dealing with serious back pain. Knowing she was unsure how to proceed, I suggested that while she was figuring it out she could try an ultra-careful diet for a while. (Forever for the rest of my life, when I write "diet" it means "the food you eat" not "a weight loss method," ok?)
Not because I think it's going to magically cure her back (although stranger things have happened). But because we know nutrition has a monster impact all the way to the cellular level. Literally every time you eat, you change your body chemistry. Change it enough times and you'll find yourself navigating a brand new laboratory.
If it's Walter White's meth RV though, maybe try something else.
There's an important side note here. It's nearly impossible to mention diet changes without being taken for a douche. I am a douche, but not usually on this topic. Because our culture is so weight-obsessed, when I talk about making diet changes, people hear what seems like the obvious implication: that I'm either secretly calling them fat or that I'm secretly assuming they eat like shit.
Anyone who knows me knows I'm not secret or subtle about many things. I don't care about fat and if I think you're eating like shit I'll just let you know that I think you're eating like shit. So if I ever suggest that you take a look at your current diet as it relates to ongoing pain, the reason for suggesting it is so that you take a look at your current diet as it relates to ongoing pain.
Low-grade systemic inflammation is a real thing.
Here's why I suggest making diet changes. Many people eat relatively well, but very few people eat scientifically "clean" diets. By this I mean no fried food EVER, no extra sugar EVER, no high glycemic foods EVER, no MSG EVER, no alcohol EVER, no artificial sweeteners EVER, no red meat EVER. When I suggest rethinking nutrition, it's to get closer to this scientifically-sound diet.
Whew. This sounds like a nightmare. What the fuck is an American supposed to eat anyway? (There are many places in the world where these limitations are not limitations because food like this doesn't exist in the first place.) With the American food surplus practically shoving foods down our throats and our social dependency on less-healthy foods, it's not easy to opt for salad all the time. And I'm not advocating the above as a permanent diet, because I'd like you to be happy and have a fulfilling life and sometimes that really must include fried dough. But scientifically speaking, the closer we can get to an only-whole-foods-mostly-plants diet, the better we're probably going to feel.
This is the point where I remind you all that I am not a registered dietician nor a doctor and therefore you should always consult the appropriate professional when making major changes to your diet.
All I want to do in this blog is give you just one example of exactly how much your body is affected by food. Not in terms of weight, but in terms of pain, energy, ability, capacity, etc. It is, in my opinion, the most underestimated method of feeling way, way, way, way, way better than you might right now. Sleep is the other one, but everyone knows how it feels to sleep like a puppy.
Very few people have a grip on exactly how effective good nutrition is because it's not nearly as cute.
Low-grade systemic inflammation is a real thing, and it's seen in countless chronic diseases. Your body knows something is off and it's trying to handle it calmly. Inflammation is most familiar to all of us as being red, hot, swollen, and painful. However, those symptoms are caused by a high-grade inflammation, like a broken leg which is an all-hands-on-deck-shit-just-got-hectic emergency response.
Low-grade inflammation (also called silent inflammation) means that your immune system is tapping the Send Help button in the brain.
Silent inflammation doesn't call for a huge response. It's more like the text your mom sends that says, "Hey, can you call me?" Either someone died or she found your third grade report card but either way you react automatically by checking in to see what's up. Your brain checks in with the immune system to see what's up. (I have asked my mother for years not to send me this text message. She does it three times a week.)
Your body delivers intelligence briefings to your brain twenty-four hours a day. Even a small immune response can mean increased pain, higher sensitization of nerves, and increased internal warning signals. Anytime your brain thinks (or knows) there's an ongoing problem, it can make even normal movements more difficult or painful. An example of this is the horrible muscle aching that accompanies colds and flus. Your body sure as shit doesn't want to go run a marathon with the flu. So it makes your muscles feel like knives. Same with food-generated inflammation. It turns your body into knives.
What's the science behind inflammation? Here is a handy-dandy infographic to show you how it works:
Basically, it's a giant heaping shitshow in there.
Because of this, scientists don't have a consensus on precisely which chemicals are responsible for chronic inflammation, nor which chemicals are responsible for tamping it down. This doesn't mean it doesn't exist! Just like vaping, the evidence is overwhelming that this is a problem, they just don't have a specific cause and effect yet. There might not be a specific cause and effect at all since the body is so absurdly complex. Very few things are just "eat like this, body responds like that" which is why medications all come with a buttload of side effects. There's no easy answer for what to eat or when to eat or how to eat.
So the questions to answer as best I can are:
1) How does nutrition affect the immune system and
2) Why does this cause pain and
3) How can you make a difference through eating?
A high fat, high calorie diet causes high levels of circulating fats in the blood. These circulating fats (often accompanied by high blood sugar levels) are irritating to blood vessels. The immune response is invoked to repair this blood vessel irritation. An immune response invokes all the nerve sensitivity that I described above. Increased nerve sensitivity equals a lower pain threshold. So the likelihood increases that ordinarily normal movements can become painful. All of this from food!
We know that your immune system is in steady communication with your central nervous system. (Remember, your inner body is always having conversations you don't know about.) When your immune system is irritated by having shitty food in the bloodstream, it tells your brain about it. Your brain springs to defense mode. You know when your best friend fills you in on some asshole they have to deal with at work? And you hate that person automatically and want to get rid of them? Your brain is the same. When the immune system asks, your brain uses pain to try and eliminate the threat of Hunter from IT coursing through your blood vessels. I don't know what operating system I'm running, Hunter. I don't want to switch to Linux. Put down your cold brew and come help me.
How fast can crap food affect your brain?
One to three days.
But it can go further than just general body irritation. These circulating fats, immune cells, and cytokines can reach the level of the hypothalamus, deep in the center of your brain. Researchers think these alter hypothalamus function which is a big goddamn deal. Your hypothalamus has about 30 trillion cellular followers. It's the original influencer. If @hypothalamus changes her opinion, here's who responds:
*Your heart rate
*Your digestion rate
*Your body temperature (You can thank your hypothalamus for helping you sweat instead of just exploding every time you overheat)
*Pretty much all your major hormones including the ones that help you have friends and the ones that help you pee (Shout out to all my friends who have helped me pee in the past, y'all are like all the best hormones in one. PS designers: just put jumpsuit zippers on the side why are they on the back I don't want to have to do yoga just to go to the bathroom.)
*Your fluid balance
*Your thirst (for water AND for David Beckham)
*Body weight and appetite (Animals which have their appetite-controlling portion of the hypothalamus destroyed will literally eat until they die. And by the way these poor animals are also super hostile which I probably would be too if some dick scientist did that to me. Animals which have their appetite-increasing portion destroyed will die of starvation even with food sitting right in front of them.)
*Pain modulation (Some new research has been done with implanted hypothalamus-stimulating electrodes. There are signs it might reduce chronic pain from spinal cord injuries.)
That's a lot of potential impact from nutrition.
By the way, how fast does shitty food reach your hypothalamus? In rats, one to three days.
I'm all for macaroni and cheese but the direct effect of a macaroni and cheese diet is a high price to pay for that instant cheese reward that we all love. (Instant cheese reward sounds like the best scratch ticket ever.) Live your life and you do you, but remember that every meal instantly changes your body's chemistry. Your chemistry bubbles, boils, creates that cool looking fog, and then leaves a long-lasting precipitate well after you've forgotten the mac and cheese. (I just had a flashback to chem lab. Thanks, Rachel, for always knowing how much precipitate was made while I was seeing which solutes were most easily set on fire.)
Food matters. We do think we know a lot of this science, although things are changing every day. Nonetheless, doing research on more than one variable of a human body is difficult and unpredictable. So be your own research model. (This is the idea behind Whole 30 and similar nutritional tactics.) Pay attention to (or better yet, record) how you feel when making nutritional changes. Track your hunger, your pain, your mood, your sleep, anything that gives you information about how you're feeling. It can be a lot of tracking if you really dive in, but being able to look back on a month's worth of your own data is invaluable. Consider how it feels one hour after eating fried dough vs. the feeling one hour after eating roasted veggies. Food that makes you feel good in the short term is bound to make you feel good in the long term. The small exception to this is salads, if you're not normally a raw vegetable eater. All that fiber when you haven't been eating fiber can startle your intestines and deliver some serious diarrhea. Gently increase your vegetable intake over time and you'll be solid as ever. Mentally, physically, and otherwise.