Posts Tagged ‘science’

The HPA axis: an introduction

I have been serving up diatribes for several weeks now.  It’s time to bring it back to physiology for a while.  I feel this way especially because I am so interested in how we might best mitigate hormone dysfunction.  One way is by investigating the means by which cells communicate to each other.   The HPA axis, for this reason, is a very big deal.  From my perspective, for those of us who suffer hormonal imbalances, it is the most important part of our bodies to pay attention to. Here’s why:

If our cells are a kingdom, and our hormones the governors, and leptin the bitchy king, then the HPA axis is the divine law that enables and justifies the whole damn thing. Or we could call it the flashy green code of The Matrix. Or the binding of a book. The point being that when the HPA axis is good it’s good, and when it’s bad all the king’s subjects die. No one wants to die. How do we stop everyone from dying?

The abbreviation HPA axis stands for Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal axis. It is sometimes called the Limbic Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal axis, and also the Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal Gonadotropic axis. (Gonadotropic, ladies!) This axis describes the complex interaction between the vast diversity of your hormone hubs, via direct influences and feedback mechanisms.

The Hypothalamus

The hypothalamus, at the core of our brains, is the primary point of connection between the central nervous system and the endocrine system. The hypothalamus releases hormones into the bloodstream. Some of them act on distant tissues, but others go directly to the pituitary gland and in turn tell it what to do. This is why it is often said that the hypothalamus controls the pituitary gland. The secretion of hypothalamic hormones GnRH, gonadotropin releasing hormone, GHRH, growth-hormone releasing hormone, TRH, tryptophin releasing hormone, dopamine, somatostatin, TRH, thyrotropin-releasing hormone and CRH, corticotropin releasing hormone all influence the action of the pituitary and adrenal gland. Hence why they are called “releasing” hormones. The job of the hypothalamus is to conduct the orchestra. It asks for certain things to be played, and if all things are running smoothly, the whole orchestra plays in beautiful concert.

The hormones released by the hypothalamus have specific effects. There are a few that are more relevant for our purposes here. GnRH stimulates LH and FSH activity in the pituitary, which are directly responsible for ovarian activity, ovulation, and menstruation. TRH stimulates the release of TSH–thyroid stimulating hormone–so without this the thyroid gland does not produce what you need. Dopamine inhibits prolactin release, which also acts on the ovaries. And CRH stimulates the release of adrenocorticopin, a precursor to stress hormones. We might say that CRH is the first line of activity in the stress response.

The Pituitary Gland

The pituitary gland is generally divided into two parts, the anterior pituitary and the posterior pituitary. The posterior pituitary releases those distant-action hormones (ADH and oxytocin) which are less relevant for the axis. The anterior pituitary is the one that produces the relevant hormones. Follicle stimulating hormone stimulates the development of follicles on the ovaries and the production of estrogen. Luteinizing hormone triggers ovulation. TSH stimulates production of T4 and T3. In all cases, it’s clear that the receipt of stimulating hormones from the hypothalamus to the pituitary is crucial for reproductive function.

So direct central nervous system stimulation affects pituitary function. One example of this is circadian rhythms and the release of adrenocorticoid to stimulate waking. Yet there is another mechanism that tells the pituitary what to do, and this is feedback from its own system. The hormones directly secreted by the pituitary indicate to the pituitary how much of the product is in the bloodstream. This acts on the pituitary, but also on the hypothalamus, such that high estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone levels can all inform the hypothalamus to reduce production of GnRH. This is helpful often. But in other cases it is absolutely NOT, since high testosterone levels can inhibit GnRH in general, which reduces the production of all pituitary hormones.

The Adrenal Glands

The adrenal glands consist of two distinct parts: the adrenal medulla, which secretes catecholamines directly into the blood, which I’ll touch on a bit later, and also the adrenal cortex, which secretes steroid hormones. The primary steroid hormones are cortisol, corticosterone and DHEA, the precursor to adrenal sex hormones.

Approximately 90 percent of the cortisol in our systems is “bound.” The remaining 10 percent is free, and it’s what is biologically active. Cortisol is metabolized in the liver, and it has a half life of 60-90 minutes! Isn’t that amazing? If we are not constantly stressed, then the hyper-stressed states we enter into from an immediate event are only supposed to last for 60-90 minutes. Amazing.

Cortisol is important for a number of reasons. Without it, we die. Here are some of its functions:

1. Metabolism.  Cortisol and other glucocorticoids exert anabolic effects– that is, gluconeogenesis and glycogenesis– on the liver, and catabolic effects– or proteolysis, and lipolysis– in the tissue. What this means is cortisol stimulates activity that utilizes energy sources. Proteolysis eats muscle tissue, which is generally bad, but lipolysis eats fat tissue, which is usually good. Gluconeogenesis and glycogenesis make glucose and glycogen in the liver.

2.  From the stimulation of cortisol, glucose output by the liver increases and glucose uptake by other tissues decreases. Another way to say this: cortisol increases blood sugar. Insulin is secreted in response to blood sugar, in order to mitigate the effects.

3.  Cortisol influences the immune system and inflammatory responses. Cortisol and all other glucocorticoids suppress the synthesis of arachnidonic acid, the precursors to a number of compounds involved in the inflammatory response.  They also decrease the key compounds interleukins and gamma interferon, which are crucial for the immune response.

4.  Cortisol also decreases REM sleep significantly: high concentrations in the blood can cause insomnia and, duh, decrease mood. Cortisol secretion increases in response to stressful stimuli. It is in fact crucial for survival in extreme circumstances. The reasons for this are not well understood, especially in light of the fact that cortisol inhibits immune function. The best guess is that cortisol is required for initial metabolic responses to stress–but that, right, we overdo it. Surprise.

ACTH and cortisol are released in irregular pulse throughout the day. The biggest pulse occurs in the early morning, and starts a few hours before waking. The lowest levels of ACTH in the blood occur right around the time of falling asleep (in someone with regular circadian rhythms.) Spikes in cortisol about half as large as though during waking occur each time you eat, roughly correlated to how much you eat. DON’T freak out about your meals because of this. Your body handles cortisol quite well. No irrational panics allowed. Just– take note. This is one reason why both grazing and bingeing are not optimal behaviors.

This whole system is moderated by negative feedback, as in most of the body’s systems. When the hypothalamus detects enough cortisol, CRH (in the hypothalamus), and therefore ACTH (in the pituitary), and therefore cortisol (in the adrenals) production, are all decreased. You understand, then. The HPA axis is a delicate flower.

Finally, there is a whole class of adrenomedullary hormones, such as catecholamines (epinephrine and norepinephrine), we haven’t talk about. But they’re important, too. The first step in their biosynthesis is catalyzed by tyrosine. Don’t be in tyrosine (an amino acid). It’s important.  Epinephrine and norepinephrine both increase blood glucose concentrations and metabolic rate.  Epinephrine increases cardiac output, vasodiliation in skeletal muscle and liver but vasoconstriction in other vascular tissues– so essentially it shunts blood to skeletal muscle and the liver. Norepinephrine causes primairly vasoconstriction, which results in increases in blood pressure–ie, a reduction in cardiac output.

Epinephrine and Norepinephrine are activated by “fight or flight” situations, ie, our regular lives. Their production is, here’s another surprise, initiated by the hypothalamus. BUT these babies aren’t regulated by negative feedback. This is important. Cortisol will decrease in response to high cortisol levels. Epinephrine and norepinephrine instead can just keep on rising.  Ack, ack, ack.

So that’s a review of the HPA axis.  It’s complicated as all hell.  But even more than complicated, it is important.  The HPA axis runs the whole hormonal game, and therefore the vast majority of your reproduction and metabolism.    It responds to stress, and it helps you mitigate stress.  It responds to hormonal input, and helps you mitigate hormonal problems.   It is sensitive to signalling from all over your body.  These are all awesome things, but it also means that disruptions, can really throw you off.

The HPA axis significantly effects your thyroid gland, how you metabolize food, how much estrogen and testosterone you produce in your ovaries, and how much stress hormones and sex hormones you produce in your adrenals.  I’ll talk about those issues in my next post.


04 2012

What is conditioning, and how does it affect our lives?

It has been far, far too long since I’ve written a post on the likes of Ron Weasley.  Where is the fire and brimstone?  Where are the charging hordes?  Where are the Kirbys, the Spocks, and the Sonic and Tales?  We all need a little bit of Patton in our lives, and I’ve been remiss in going astray.  So I want to talk first about a very important psychological phenomenon, and second about it’s implications for contemporary lives.


Everyone and their grandma has heard of Ivan Pavlov.  But he was such an important man, and his ideas so profoundly impacted psychology, that he merits a recap.

Ivan Pavlov was a Russian scientist in the late 1800s.  He was a medical researcher, and he made important strides both in organ physiology and in the functioning of the nervous system.  He was particularly interested in the idea of “reflexes,” which is what brought him to his most famous works.

Pavlov was investigating the salivary response to foods when he happened upon a phenomenon now known as classical conditioning. What he found was that dogs salivated not just at the sight of food, but also at the occurrence of “food is coming” signals.  First, the dogs responded only to the food itself.  Then, after having food delivered with the sound of a bell for a certain period of time, the dogs began salivating at the sound of the bell.  Even without food present, the dogs salivated.  They had been conditioned to salivate, and no amount of mental “no no no” would stop the saliva from coming.

What does this mean for human beings?

This means that we can condition responses to just about anything.  Repeat a certain event with a stimuli for a certain amount of time– say, dinner (the event) at six o’clock (the stimuli) or food (again, the event) when I see a Starbucks (again, the stimuli)– we come to expect these things.   Naps in the afternoon, workouts in the morning, the same drinks every time we hang out with the same friends…

Moreover, it is not just a psychological expectation, but a physiological expectation.  I had a professor in college prove this to us.   For two months he would ring a bell then submerge his arm under hot water.  His arm would turn red.   At the end of two months, he rang the bell, without submerging his arm, and his blood vessels opened up, and his arm turned red.  Make no mistakes about it.  Classical conditioning is a very, very real thing.

We also have things called “habits” which are very similar to conditioned responses, only less specific and less strong.   Both are inherent parts of our every day lives.  Both are powerful, and both are hard things to break.

A lot of what we do in life is ruled by habit.  Habit makes things easier.  I always sit in the same seat in class, I eat a lot of the same foods, and I often eat at the same times.  Cool.  These are all helpful things.  But I also have some nasty habits.  I eat every time I come home.  Sometimes this act is so ingrained and subconscious that I have consumed an entire chicken leg before I even know I have food in my mouth.  Yikes.   Some other bad habits I have had in my life are eating while I talk to my mom, walking down the “bad” aisles of grocery stores, and pulling over every time I see a sweet potato cart.  These were subconscious, powerful, and–don’t forget–physiological compulsions.  They ruled my behavior.


It’s not all BAD NEWS BEARS for team humanity, however.  And why not?

Because as easily as we are conditioned to bad habits, we are broken of them. Without the hot water my professor’s arm still turned red, but each day afterwards, when the stimuli of the bell was rung, but the result of the hot water was absent, his arm got a little bit less red.  Within two weeks it didn’t happen at all, and he felt no difference.   He was, by then, conditioned to the new order of things, which was: ring bell, have nothing happen.  Cool!   We can be programmed to respond, but we can also be re-programmed, or de-programmed, to have different responses.

So if I forcibly stop myself from walking to the refrigerator the next time I go home, I will be de-facto starting the de-conditioning process.  Each time I do that it takes me further down that road.  This process is difficult as hell, especially at first, but each time gets easier and easier.  I can build up momentum in this way.  The more and more time we spend actively denying a bad habit, the easier and easier it becomes to let go.

How does this relate to Mr. Weasley?

Well.   It’s about being the hero of your own life. It’s about recognizing your bad habits, and about owning up to them, and facing them dead on.  It’s about being honest with yourself, and determined, and about taking action.  In a lot of ways, it boils down to bravery.  Here, we have the science to back us up.  We know what the road is going to be like.  We know it’s tough, but we also know that it gets easier over time.  We know that we have conditioned ourselves to act a certain way, but we also know that we can de-condition that behavior.   The first time you get yourself past the McDonald’s without pulling over, it’s an enormous struggle, but it’s also a momentous victory.  Huzzah!  And the second time, it’s still a struggle, but it’s yet another victory.  Bad habits suck.  Let’s be real.  But letting them rule your life and perpetuate disordered eating is even more horrific.  Be a Ron Weasley.  Be an Odysseus.  Be Mufasa.  Whatever.  Whoever.  Use every tool you have at your disposal to improve your life, then commit, and do it, god damnit.

Easy Peasy.  Pavlov says so, and he was the man.


06 2011


What does it mean to be radical?


I have a bit of a quandary with my blog.   Last week, I noticed that one of the search terms that brought someone to the site was “Stefani Ruper.”  Whoever that was, they weren’t interested in nutrition.  They weren’t already invested in the paleo movement.  They weren’t looking for vitrolic condemnations of contemporary society.   Instead, they wanted to know about me.  Curious.  And you know what?  I got scared.

I feel nervous when people I know come to my website.   I fear their judgment, and I fear alienating them.  (God, I hate myself)  In reality, of course, my worry isn’t that big.  I love who I am and what I do and what I think–I really, really, do–but I also know that unconventional passions are off-putting.  So there’s a grain of uncertainty there.  I can’t help it.  No one likes a radical.

Fuck!  I don’t like radicals!   How can I begrudge them when I have the same exact feelings?  Convictions generally piss me off.  Who are you to say what’s best for me?  Who are you to know what’s best for the world?  What is it about your knowledge and your brain that makes you so special?   Fuck!  To convinced, committed human beings I often say: get off your horse.  Be humble.  Recognize the vastness of the complicated clusterfuck in which we live and calm the fuck down.

But it’s funny, because radicalism is defined by norms.  It’s a relative scale.  My favorite analogy for this phenomenon is climate change.  I studied climate models for a couple semesters back at Dartmouth, and running regression after regression on the data prompted me to ask myself a very important question: when I got an outlier as a result, was it wrong necessarily because it was an outlier?  Or was it the right answer, and every other data point hanging out in the middle of the pack just wasn’t ballsy enough to stick to the scientific data?  Scientists struggle with this daily.  One one hand, maybe we should dismiss Joe’s answers solely because he predicts catastrophe within fifty years.  On the other hand, he may be just right, and we should all panic.  Now.

The German philosopher Friedrich Hegel proposed a method of history that has shaped western thought ever since.  He said: suppose life is in condition X.  Then event Y occurs, and now life is in condition Y.  After a while, things equilibrate to a moderate position, condition X-Y.  In this way, radical events happen all the time, and then sort of settle down to the middle.  This means we almost never give the radical serious attention.  For example, look at  today’s paleo movement.  For a while there it was: “no carbs no carbs no carbs!” and everyone swore by Gary Taubes’s work, Dr. Atkin’s results, and the benefits of a ketogenic diet.  Today, ketogenic dieters are viewed as radical, are they not?  And people are looking to Kitavan diets and the work of researchers such as Stephan Guyenet PhD and Dr. Kurt Harris, and eating bowl after bowl of rice krispies.  Is the Paleo community going to swing somewhere more neutral re: carbohydrates in the diet some time soon?  I think so.  Absolutely I think so.  Perhaps it’s there already.  In any case:  What does this mean for radical positions?  It means that they effect change, but only as a “radical.”  Rarely does the radical position hold.  Rarely is it given serious weight.   Rarely is it viewed as sustainable.  It is sometimes a catalyst, always an outlier, and rarely more.


What does this mean for the paleo movement?

Well.  First, I want to state right off the bat that eating a diet that eschews grains, legumes and dairy and looks to a couple of other markers of health that are supported by evolutionary anthropology is not radical.  Or maybe it is radical, but absolutely it should be, and it’s Joe, the climate guy, and we should all be paying serious attention. Eating paleo is not crazy.  I swear it.  I try really fucking hard to be scientific and fair and objective in everything I do, and to never come down on the sides of practically any issue.  But when it comes to this stuff, the evidence is just way too solid and the reasoning way too compelling.  I mean this more than I’ve ever meant anything.  I eschew radicalism and convictions like it’s my job, but I can’t help it in this case.  Eating paleo is not crazy.  What is crazy (imho) is putting something such as Saltines in a human body and expecting everything to proceed hunky dory.

In a world where nutritional science has been so mishandled and abused, talking about diet is like talking politics, complete with shame, discretion, resentment, and social pariahs. Diet comes up, and you shut your mouth.  One of two things always happens: A) Everyone looks nervously around.  No one makes eye contact.  Someone might make an aborted hand gesture or two, appearing to have a violent tick.  Or B, the more frequent reaction: Each person starts fucking talking at the same time.  Everyone eats, and everyone’s got an opinion, and for some reason we’re all experts, whether we’re vocal or silent.   This means that we, as human beings, have almost have no choice.  How do we deal with the outliers in any conversation?  Especially one’s that are so convinced of their truth?  We call them crazy and walk away.  It’s the reasonable, Hegelian, easy-existence sort of thing to do.  This comes as naturally to us as breathing.

To that I say: fuck off!  Who wants to be average?  Who wants to be a republican or a democrat?    Who wants to plod through life as easily and obsequiously as a mule?   Evolutionary anthropology and biology are fucking important.  A paleolithic perspective should not be dismissed just because it’s different.   No viewpoint should be.  Real life and real decisions and real changes aren’t easy, and it’s about time we own up to that fact.   What is radical in any system?  Why do we consider some things radical and others not?  Are we compelled by fear?  By ignorance?  By stagnancy?  Are we too in love with our boring routines to really give an ear to revolutionary viewpoints?   Hell yes, we are.   Clara Pinkola Estes once said: “Be brave.  Be fierce.  Be visionary.”  Amen, sister.  Yet we don’t even have to go that far.  “Be thoughtful, be open, be positive,” would work just as well.  What is radical?  Who is radical?  By whose standards?  Fuck that shit, and live!

So am I radical about diet?  I don’t know.  You tell me.  At the very least, I am radical about the pursuit of knowledge.  I am radical about listening to unorthodox ideas, and about weighing facts, and then doing with my new knowledge as I see fit.  I am radical about making positive change.  I am radical about reaching out to people.    I am radical about helping clients deal with eating disorders as best they can, about using every possible tool at our disposal, and about positive progress.   I am radical about living naturally, about listening to our bodies, and about the freedom to think and act as we all see fit.  I am radical about life.  And I’ll be damned if I ever let fear of being labeled a radical bother me again.  The things about which I am radical enable me to live a beautiful and informed life.   Fuck, I love it.  There is nothing more.  There’s just me and fierce, fierce a desire to live.

Fortunately, Paleo is a part of that package.




I’m off my game.  I haven’t ended a post with a lol cat in a while.  Here goes:



05 2011

Why eat paleo?

Why, indeed?

For some of us, this is old news.  But it’s always nice to be reminded, and to think deeply about why we live the way we do.  On the other hand, a relatively large quantity of diet explorers have been coming by recently (hello!), and I want to share with them a smattering of  delicious reasons for giving it a try.  Feel free to add on more (or dispute them) in the comments section.   Also, you should perhaps consult my post on perfectionism and expectations in the paleo world. In my opinion, paleo rocks, and nutrition is infinitely important for our well-being, but we should approach all things in life with appropriate expectations.   For information on the diet, check out my “paleo diet” page.  Also, the “links” page is hugely important, as there are loads of good guides and scientific blogs out there that you absolutely must check out if you are interested.  I can help you pick out the resources that are best for you.

Finally, I want to be clear with semantics.  “Diet” here means: way you eat.   Like Richard Nikoley put so well last week in his Raw Vegan Radio debate, “”Paleo” is not really a diet. Rather, it is a framework within which any individual determines their own lifelong, sustainable regime.”   Right.  Eat stuff that seems like a good idea.

A “why paleo” list, in no particular order:

1)  Eating a paleo diet just. makes. sense. Look at all of the ailments and diseases humanity faces.  Overweight, diabetes, cancer, alzheimers, arthritis, irritable bowel, mental illness, heart disease…hell, even myopia. Why do no other species on the planet exhibit the same problems?    Contemporary society has this totally misguided idea that disease is inevitable, that humans today “live longer than they used to” (false), and therefore that we need to use medicine and the pharmaceutical industry to fix all of these inherent, inevitable problems.  Wrong. Why do things go wrong with us in the first place?  Why do we develop cancers?   Why do children have diabetes?  Why does anyone?

We are made out of the food we eat.  Literally.  So if we put food in our bodies that is unnatural or that they don’t know how to handle, they are going to work way out of whack.   A good analogy is this:  say you want to build a house.   Are you going to use redwoods, or are you going to use toothpicks?  Worse, still, are you going to use something right out of a factory, that hasn’t been properly tested, that you don’t know is good for you or not, such as… I don’t know… tar?  No.  You want to use the best stuff out there.  A house made out of inappropriate materials would never stand.  Ever.  So why do the same to our bodies?

2)  Paleo cures ailments. Look at my mother, for example.  Or me.   Or these thousands at Marks Daily Apple.   The science is really quite solid on this one.  If you have a disease of civilization, there is a very good chance you can fix it with diet.  More importantly, however, people are staring to share their awesome stories of recovery, health, and vivacity.

3)  Preventative medicine is better than treatment.  For real.  It’s cheaper, it’s better for you, and it’s more natural. A doctor can give you statins for your heart all you want, but did you know statins increase the risk of other degenerative diseases and organ failure? A heart doctor might not necessarily know that either.  He specializes in one thing only.  How is he supposed to know that his medicines mess with your brain?  Drugs have effects. They might “fix” one part of your body, but they’ll surely mess with another.   Plus they are expensive. Taking care of our bodies now helps us avoid having to fix them in the future.

4)  Sugar is toxic. More than a teaspoon of sugar in the blood is toxic (this is why we have insulin, and why our bodies are so good at storing sugar as fat.)  Know how much sugar is in a can of soda?  Right.  Plus, Cancer feeds off of sugar. More and more people are looking at paleo-type diets to cure cancer, and more and more of them are having success.

5)  A paleo diet stablizes blood sugar levels and gives you more energy. Do you feel tired in the afternoons?  After eating?  Do you ever feel woozy after standing up too fast?  You might think these are all perfectly natural phenomenon, but they’re not.   What’s happening to you is that once you eat carbohydrates, your blood sugar spikes, and in order to clear these toxins out of your system your body releases insulin.  Insulin gets the sugar out of your blood and into your fat cells, and then your blood sugar plummets.  You feel tired, cranky, or dizzy, and sometimes ravenously hungry.    However, if you eat a diet low in carbohydrate, your blood sugar will not spike, so it will not plummet, either.  You will happily exist on an even keel, and you will have loads and loads more energy.  Promise.

6)  Wheat is bad for you. Period.   It steals important nutrients from our intestines and significantly decreases our nutrient supply.  Ever wonder why Americans eat the most dairy but have the highest rates of osteoporosis in the world?  Worst of all, perhaps, wheat creates gut permeability.  Once you have a permeable gut, all sorts of toxins and bacteria can get into your bloodstream.  From there, they can give you systemic infections.  They can also provoke your immune system into hyperdrive, and induce autoimmunity.

6.5)  Wheat and rice are BORING. Once you get over them, you will never miss them.  They have no flavor.  Bread feels like dust in my mouth these days.  So why do we still eat them?  Because they increase opiate sensitivity in the brain.  Grains = drugs.

7)  A paleo diet is the best candidate for a “cure” for leaky gut, the common cause of autoimmune disease. This is because it eschews foods that have recently been introduced to the human diet and cause all sorts of havoc in our digestive tracks (as well as other places).  These are: wheat products, dairy, and legumes. Whole, raw, unprocessed dairy may be okay to eat.  The jury is still on this one. In any case, eschew it if you’re autoimmune.  Use your best judgment otherwise.  The diseases a leaky gut can cause include but are not limited to: Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, Lupus, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Alopecia Areata, Rosacea, Celiac, Grave’s, Crohn’s…..

8)  Paleo diets are the most fun diets out there. You get to eat fat, and– fuck!  As much of it as you want.  And protein.  Every animal!   Some carbs if you want.  And big, fulfilling meals.   Check out this phenomenal cookbook and Melissa McEwen’s blog to see what I mean.

9)  Paleo diets are uniquely satiating. Why?  Because eating fat is uniquely satiating, and there’s loads of it on this diet.   Because protein is the most important macronutrient for satiation, and it’s also big on this diet.  Because fructose induces hunger and high insulin levels induce hunger and blood sugar swings induce hunger, and they are all limited on this diet.  If you are a busy human being, this will keep you going without food.  If you struggle with cravings, this will help.  Enormously. That’s the theme of 50 percent of the posts on this blog.

10)  Most people spontaneously lose weight on paleo diets. Eliminating inflammatory foods and sugars, and getting back to normal metabolic processes just does it for people.  Our bodies stop panicking and overproducing cortisol (the stress hormone)  and insulin and inflammatory agents, and then get a chance to reset.

11)  People lean out and look hot on a paleo diet, especially if they’re trying. Eat paleo, throw some heavy lifting in there, and sprint once in a while, and you’ll look like Mark Sisson in no time.  I’m not kidding.  Look at all of the “leaders” of the movement.  They’re all scientists, but they’re ripped, and they’re radiant, and they’re healthy.  Why follow doctor Oz when he’s a skinny fuck with an unhealthy colon?   Or your doctor, who munches on doughnuts between office visits?  Or Gwenyth Paltrow, who looks great, eats a vegetarian diet, and has osteoporosis?  That’s a bit beside the point.  What I’m saying here is: if you want to be ripped, this is the way to do it.  Even if you’re 60.  Gods, I should post pictures of my mom.

12)  Joint pain is almost always reduced on a paleo diet. Check out that post I linked to earlier about my mother.  Inflammatory foods such as vegetable oils and grains irritate our joints.   For example, my knees act up if I’m not being careful with limiting my omega 6 consumption.  Otherwise, I am absolutely pain free.

13)  Stress and anxiety can decrease on a paleo diet.  I’m not saying that paleo will cure the ailments of your life.  What I am saying, however, is that any stress that exists in your system from the food you’re putting in it will go away.  Your cortisol levels will probably fall.  It’s nice.

14)  You get to be proud and indignant on a paleo diet.  Why should I buy a box of “heart healthy” food out of a box, fortified with fiber and what-have-you-other supposed health benefits?  Why promote awful industries?  Why participate in waste?  Eat whole, local, organic foods, and revel in the good you’re doing for yourself and for your local economy.

15)  You get to extend your “mobile years.” Recent studies have shown that while humans are living longer, we are also mobile for fewer years of our lives.   Due to excessive joint pain and obesity an increasingly large amount of time spent in wheelchairs and nursing homes is the American norm.  This is insane.

16)  A paleo diet significantly decreases the risk of dementia. I watched my grandmother spiral into insanity.  If that’s not reason to eschew grains, sugars, and other inflammatory agents, I don’t know what is.

17)  You get to think about ancestral humans in other realms of your life. You realize that you should sleep more.  That shoes aren’t always the answer, and a lot of our pain might come from the unnatural stride they give us.  That a lot of modern “necessities” are really just ways we are trying to recover from the damage we’ve done.  I use little soap, for example.  I wash my hair with natural things.   I brush my teeth only for vanity’s sake, not because I need to. And that’s not weird, it’s just fine.  I am just as clean and healthy as I always was, if not, cross my heart, more so.   I avoid fluorescent lights, and now I sleep better.  I know that “playing” is healthy for me.  I know that stress is bad.  Etc.

18)  Paleo makes phenomenally healthy babies. Regardless of your view on nutrition, you cannot argue against the fact that a paleo diet is the most nutritionally dense one out there.  Check out this comparison of nutrient density of fruits to beef liver. Moreover, did you hear about the ruckus of the French parents who raised a vegan baby and killed it with vitamin deficiencies?  Yikes.  If you’re interested, check out Chris Kresser’s work.  He recently has put together a great online course on “how to make and raise a healthy baby.”    A healthy pregnancy, healthy nursing, healthy early nutrition… it’s all super important for the baby for the rest of it’s life.

19)  Stabilized hormone levels from a paleo diet mitigate the symptoms of PMS.  It’s not normal to be fucked up by your periods.

20)  Paleo diets prevent heart disease. Think the cholesterol theory of heart disease is right?  Think again.  Even conventional doctors are coming around on this one.

21)  You get to eat MORE on a paleo diet if you want. In one study, people ate equal caloric amounts (only 12oo calories!) on high carb versus high fat diets, and those who ate mostly fat lost weight, those who ate equal amounts lost a little bit, and those who ate mostly carbs actually gained weight.  I’ve noticed a similar phenomenon in my own life.  I used to eat a tiny cup of quinoa and some cereal and six grapes for breakfast, then maybe a sweet potato for lunch…. now it’s omelets and bowls full of pork soup and fish filets galore, with an even fitter, more muscled, happier body.

(Edit: Of course there’s lots of contrary evidence out there on this point.  Check out this great comprehensive post over at Carb Sane.  Then eat and see.)

22)  It’s easy.

23)  Bacon.

24) Bacon.

25) Bacon.


05 2011

Do we really know anything? Science, experience, and yo’ life

Not really.

Or, we don’t know the whole picture.  On my last post, Erin from Pretty in Primal (the bomb) suggested supplementing with dopamine.  She said that it helped her enormously with her Hashimoto’s-fucked metabolism, cravings and general well-being, and I think that’s wonderful.  It never even occurred to me to research such a thing.  See how little I know?

Millions and millions of other examples abound.  I am not an economic specialist, so I don’t come down on either side of cap and trade debates.  I don’t know shit about the politics of medicine (that phrase in itself demonstrates how fucked up the whole deal is) so I don’t come down on health care.   Even if I were a specialist, there would be dozens of people in my field who disagreed with me strongly.  How can I assert my position with certainty?

The issue of the greatest importance for my life right now, however, is nutritional science.   There’s been a lot of talk recently about re-defining “paleo” and making sure the “bad science” stays out, but the problem is that we’re constantly evolving towards a better understanding (we hope) anyway.   The thing is, I think the paleo community has the right idea in general– our health is best maximized by paying attention to the evolution of the human body and what Kurt Harris calls “neolithic agents of disease”– but beyond that, the specifics are still way up in the air.   Do I eschew carbs or make sure I get at least 50 g per day?  Do I supplement with fish oil or is that actually bad for me?  What about vitamin D, the one thing every one has been on board with for the longest?   Not even that is certain.  Conflicting studies are published daily, and to proscribe a certain set of foods and principles with confidence is not just audacious but downright swimming in hubris.  IMHO.

I write my posts with all of this information in mind.  I say “fructose is evil,” and I do certainly think so, based on my own experience and the information I’ve analyzed over months and months, but I still don’t have 100 percent certainty.  You have to decide that for yourself.    Moreover, I try my hardest to write with a style that conveys that.  Hopefully, what you get from my posts is “this is what works for me, and it aligns with current literature in such and such a way, so I think you should try it, but please don’t take any suggestion as a cemented proscription.”  This applies most obviously to my blog posts, in which I am forced to take a position, and often do so gladly.  However, this also applies to the correspondence I have with so many of you.  Take my advice and mull it over, and try it, and then pay attention to your own body.  No one knows your body and your happiness better than you do.

So what’s my point?  I think that anecdotes and experience are really the best sources of information.  I know that there’s a lot of carb-friendliness going on out there in the literature and in the paleo movement, but personally I think I’ve objectively observed that they derail my body fat percentage, independent of changing calories.  Every time I try to add them back in I see my weight not just inch but balloon.  I’m done trying (for now).   This is just what works for me.  I’m not quite sure why–people fight about the importance of insulin for fat storage all the time–but I’m going to keep using this method until I find reason to change it.   The same thing applies for fruits.  I experience enormous fruit cravings, and I just live better eschewing them entirely.  Science seems to support this undertaking.  I’d advise you to try it.  But, well.  Some people feel otherwise.

That said, this manifesto for experience requires a caveat.  Which is: even though no one knows anything for certain (What up Kant!), some of us know more than others.   For example, scientists.  The thoughtful sort.   Or, better yet, scientific data.  And in those cases, we had best listen.   What I mean is:  there are some aspects of the paleo diet and lifestyle that immediately effect our well-being, that we can “experience” and know and immediately feel good about.  A good example of this is my stabilized blood sugar levels, and how I no longer fall down right after standing up.  However, there exist much more subtle benefits.  You could be very slowly tearing holes in your arteries.  You can’t feel that on a day to day basis.  You might be unduly stressing your joints with certain exercises.  Or, perhaps most infuriating, you might say: “but Stef, I still feel good on wheat and vegetable oils!”  Certainly you do.  But some day, you might get sick. You are, in all likelihood, like the rest of us, inflamed.  And it is because you prioritize your immediate feelings over good science.  I see this all the time.  All the time.

So the point is that we have to balance the two lines of thought. On one hand, our experience and feelings are excellent indicators of health.   Science is shaky, people are fallible, and advice is not always good.  On the other hand, scientific data does in fact exist for a reason, and many interpretations (most?  some?) say important things about the body that we should be listening to.  It’s hard to filter what’s right and wrong, and honestly I have no idea half the time, but we’ve just got to think and test and think and test and think and test.  This is another good reason to consider “progress” the ultimate goal.  How can we know even what “perfect” is?  And if we do, how incredibly long would it take to get there?  Best just move forward with our feelings and our minds doing the best they can, and focus on healthful progress.  I have this sign hanging on my wall.  It says perhaps the most important lesson I’ve ever learned on it: Listen, it says.  Listen.  To yourself and the universe and every thing you can.

And don’t ever believe a thing I say.


04 2011

Dopamine signalling findings: Support for a physiological theory of disordered eating and motivation to keep on keepin’ on

Today I woke up to a really awesome, generous surprise in my inbox.   One of my best friends, we’ll call him Dan, recently attended a lecture by Frank Guido, a neuroscientist at the University at Denver.  Dan took great notes, and he took enormously gracious initiative to type them up and send them to me.  And now I am going to pass them along to you.  Unfortunately, I don’t have the details of any of Guido’s studies.  All I’ve got are the take-aways.   So I’m going to put a little bit of faith in Guido’s science (epistemologists say science is a faith anyway) and allow this awesome gift to inform my life and methods.


Guido’s talk focused on dopamine level comparisons between anorexic, bulimic, and obese patients.  Recall that dopamine is a pleasure hormone, stimulated by the act of fulfilling survival needs.  This is (partly) why we eat, and (partly) why we have sex, and all of those other very basic, very human, very animal things.  One thing that’s both fascinating and important to note is that dopamine, while pleasurable, is associated primarily with survival, and not with pleasure.  Therefore, with dopamine signalling, our bodies are trying to make us “healthy.”   They are doing what they can with the resources they have available.  They don’t want to make us have fun.  They want to fix us.  This, in my humble and highly uninformed opinion, supports the “set point” theory of weight loss.  Your body, for one reason or another, has a certain idea of what your “correct” body size is, and will adjust your dopamine regulation accordingly.   So what do you do with this information?  Maybe that means you want to allow yourself to put on a few pounds.  It could help you feel more satisfied.  Or maybe it means you can now more easily forgive yourself for your cravings.  Or perhaps you want to buckle down and fight anyway.   It’s your body, and your decision.


Anyway, first, Guido notes that Anorexic subjects generally have high dopamine levels in their cerebral spinal fluid.  This is because anorexic subjects “are good at delaying rewards,” and “have an elevated drive to avoid harm.”   Bulimic
subjects, on the other hand, have low dopamine levels in their cerebral spinal fluid.  This, according to Guido, correlates to bulimic subjects being “impulsive,” and “having reduced inhibition.”  Third, obese subjects experience lower and lower dopamine receptors the higher their BMI.  This suggests that our bodies give us less and less reward for eating if we are overweight.  This makes sense.  Also, according to Guido, obese subjects ” are also impulsive and poor inhibitors.”

Then Guido discusses his experiment.  In an fMRI, researchers measured dopamine responses to sweet flavors.
This is what they found:

Anorexia nervosa patients experience an increased dopamine response to sweet flavors. We can infer from this information that anorexic patients are hypersensitive to self-harm (i.e. weight change).  Their bodies give them high amounts of satiation for eating.   That’s quite enough!, says the sensitive patient.

Binge eating and obese patients have decreased dopamine responses to sweet flavors.  This means that they need more stimulation to feel satisfied. Binge eaters have developed a “food tolerance,” — much like we discussed before, with drug habituation.   (Read: Food addiction: harder to kick than cocaine?)  Moreover, the more frequently someone binged, the more dopamine they required to feel satisfaction.


Yikes.  So what do we conclude?

The more frequently someone binges, the lower his dopamine response.   Guido also notes that the more (calorie) restricted he is, the lower his dopamine response.  These facts mean that:

1)  If you severely calorie restrict or under-eat in any fashion, or are underweight according to your “set point,” your body is going to try to get you to eat more.   It will require you to eat more food to feel satisfied.  It will do this until you ingest the “proper” amount of calories or until you reach the “proper” weight.  Therefore, it is not necessarily your fault if you feel so restricted and so unsatisfied.  Your body might be veritably begging you to eat.

2)   Your body gives you less and less reward the more and more you binge.  This is because it is habituated to the behavior.  So what do you do about it?  You should binge less.  I KNOW!  CRAZY IDEA!  The thing is:  this motivates me to reach for food less often. It helps me stop.  Because if I don’t binge now, it’s going to make my life easier later.  And how nice would that be?    Every single time I refuse food it is going to get easier and easier to refuse, and my body will get more and more adjusted to my new eating habits.  I will begin to feel more satisfaction from a normal diet, and I won’t have to eat so much to feel satisfied.  Just like my body got conditioned to eating way too much, I can recondition my body to eat the proper amount of food.  All it takes is a first step, and as much diligence as I can muster throughout.

So keep on keepin’ on!  Each time you do a good food behavior you are making it easier to do it the next time.  If that’s not motivation, I don’t know what is.  For real.

Thanks Dan!


04 2011