Feed your head

For those faithful readers, I wanted to take this opportunity to tie together a few of my recent topics, and offer some practical solutions to a modern conundrum. As everyone knows, a conundrum is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. But this should not daunt those of you with insatiable curiosity and loads of spare time.

Fat guy in a little boat
Fat guy in a little boat (photo: Zvoncic)

This confluence of ideas on healthcare, personal ownership and wellness center on my exploration of cures to a common disease. In past posts, I’ve gone on at length about how health insurance is a sucker’s bet, how we have forfeited accountability for our own healthcare and that there’s no good reason why we can’t take it back. While I believe to a great extent in the power of self-healing, I’m no Christian Scientist (an oxymoron), rather, I’m interested in a self-owned life, and this begins first with ownership for our health.

I began my wellness journey with the intention of reversing joint pain. I’m just 43 years old, but for various hereditary and environmental reasons, I’ve been dealing with wonky joints for years. I first began to notice a clicky/sticky rotator cuff, most likely from competing on still rings in high school gymnastics. Then there’s the right knee, which I’ve wrenched more than a few times, logging thousands of miles of hilly trails. A year ago I was rudely awakened at 3 a.m. with a stabbing pain in my big toe, which turned out to be gout. Think of the Annie Lennox song, Walking on Broken Glass. Luckily, tests reveal that I don’t have rheumatoid arthritis, a serious auto-immune disorder, nor are my uric acid levels, the primary culprit in gout, unusually high.

But what I found it that while arthritis is a common disease that starts to reveal itself for most people around mid-life, it is part of a larger health issue that is often ignored in western medical treatment, but has everything to do with diet. Through this understanding, I’ve been able to reverse much of my own joint problems, to the point of carrying 60 lbs. of gear up a 27,000 foot mountain (Cho Oyu) two years ago, and keeping up regular strenuous exercise, without the use of any drugs or medical interventions.

So what I want to share is the nutrition side of preventing and curing a wide range of diseases, including arthritis, with a very simple philosophy, supported by a lot of scientific data.

Inflammation
This is the key to understanding and taking responsibility for our health. Nearly all physical disease involves some form of inflammation. Arthritis, infection, tumors, asthma, headaches, heart disease, acne and just about every other malady is the result of inflammation. A doctor will tell you that inflammation involves cytokines, molecular messengers between cells that regulate various inflammatory responses. With blood tests, the c-reactive protein marker can measure the severity of the body’s response to disease.

We have lots of dugs to deal with inflammation, but what is less talked about, (because there’s no money in it) is food. Certain foods are inflammatory and as my sister says, make her look like “Puffy the Clown” the next day. If you’re prone to skin problems, you’ve noticed that some foods make you break out. What are called food allergies, are just a more severe form of this same inflammatory response. I believe that everyone is allergic in varying degrees to inflammatory foods, which is why you see people who eat them all the time look bloated and suffer from hypertension, diabetes, etc. It’s the visible inflammation from a constant, heightened immune response that eventually ends up as metabolic syndrome, the latest medical term for the host of problems associated with being too fat to fit in an economy class seat. Certainly our genetics and other environmental factors play a role in inflammation, but our modern western diet is mostly to blame.

There’s been a ton of research on this, much of it popularized by Monica Reinagel. Dr. Andrew Weil is also a well respected nutritionist in this area, but I find some of the choices in his Wellness Pyramid (ie; eating lots of grains), to be contradictory with prevailing science of inflammatory foods.

I first happened upon this theory through¬†Dr. Loren Cordain who wrote the Paleo Diet. It’s based on eating low GI (glycemic index) foods and eliminating grains. Cordain says for a few million years, our ancestors have eaten only meat, vegetables, fruits & nuts and it’s only in the last 10,000 years that agriculture made grains a staple. He asserts that this is not enough time for our metabolisms to evolve, and that the lectins (like gluten) in the grains aren’t easily digested, pass through the gut barrier into the blood and cause inflammation. He makes the case that aboriginal people who have not been exposed to western diets have none of our modern maladies, where as those such as the Inuit who have recently adopted our high glycemic diet, now have acne, coronary disease and diabetes, whereas these conditions had not previously existed in their population.

Inflammatory Foods pioneer, Monica Reinagel has a sample chart on her website that lists the ‘healthy’ foods (higher positive numbers) and ‘less healthy’ foods (higher negative numbers). When compared to Dr. Cordain, there are some clear commonalities among the best foods:

  • Low glycemic index (no refined grains or sugars)
  • nutritionally dense
  • Good ratio of fats & essential fatty acids
  • high vitamin and mineral content
  • contain antioxidents or other anti-inflammatory compounds

Things I like about this nutritional regime:

  • Based on decades of research
  • Oriented toward fresh foods
  • No need to buy into a meal plan or lots of expensive supplements
  • Don’t need to join any lame diet club
  • No need to count calories
  • Easy to follow
  • It’s all free

You can eat the ‘less healthy’ foods in moderation, as long as on balance you’re eating more of the ‘healthy’ foods.

A wonderful (and free) nutrition data site includes an inflammatory food rating in its nutrition analysis, and is one of the best tools to understanding the chemistry behind everything you eat.

In addition to following the inflammatory foods regime, I’ve also included some supplements, such as B-complex to manage pain, vitamin C to reduce serum uric acid among other benefits, and grape seed, which is a powerful antioxident. I make sure to get outside everyday to get my vitamin D, and add a gram of calcium everyday, because I don’t like milk. Finally, I take some flaxseed oil every day to suppress inflammation (there’s a PDF on the brand I like that explains omega oils in detail here).

By sticking with this program, I’m looking forward to the increasing mobility, strength and overall health I’ve experienced since I began it. With the money I’m saving in medical costs, I can spend more on prevention as my own primary healthcare provider, and keep learning as much as I can about staying healthy. ¬†After all, who should care more about my health than me?

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