Health – Vital Cycles: Cyclic Habits for Vitality and Longevity
It’s easy to take our health for granted, but when we don’t have it, everything else suffers. Maintaining our health is thus our top personal priority in our HRVWE model of the five most critical success factors in life. Without a basic level of health, nothing else works. With great health, everything else is so much easier. Our bodies naturally strive to be healthy. True, some of our genes start to work against us in later life, in a process of aging called antagonistic plieotropy, but even then, most of our body’s processes want health, right up to the point of death. The choices we make either help or hinder that natural striving of our biology. If we have our mental and physical health, we’ve got the greatest gift life offers to each of us. We should be grateful for it every day, and constantly be on guard against losing our most precious asset—a healthy life.
Here’s my current model of the top five habits for maintaining a healthy life. These habits are highly protective of your mental health and abilities first, and your body second. A healthy brain is the best way to a healthy body, via your neuroimmune system, the main controller of your body’s immune function. If you have any concerns about age-associated cognitive impairment as you age, even more than a desire for general health, these five habits should be at the top of your list of things to monitor on a daily basis. Running these six health capacity building cycles well is the key to maintaining lifelong mental and physical vitality and longevity (“vitalongevity“), or health.
The first thing we need to do is understand the difference between bad and good stress. More than anything else, chronic (steady, unrelenting) mental or physical stress is the primary cause that pushes most of us out of health. But at the same time, short exposures to stress, with recovery time, is actually good stress, aka eustress, and that builds our brain’s and body’s capacity. The key is to keep the stress at the appropriate intensity and duration, and to follow it with a recovery state in which we rebuild, which then gives us even greater mental and physical capacity in our next cycle. Our brains and bodies are actually built to improve based on regulated cyclic stress, a rule that all competitive students, athletes and weightlifters understand. Wolff’s law tells us that bone growth is adaptive to biomechanical stress. David’s law tells us that muscle responds to intermittent stress. Hebb’s law tells us that memories and thinking are responsive to use (stress).
In short, you need to understand your body is not a temple. Temples are quiet, clean, lifeless, and fragile. That’s a poor analogy, a way of thinking that will have you and your kids running from every challenge, living in antiseptic houses that cause your kids to get allergies as adults, being proudly peanut-free in your schools rather than making it clear that anyone can overcome their poor immune system training by taking responsibility for it, and in the social sphere, being a regressive leftist and living in a filter bubble, eliminating anything conflict or viewpoints you don’t like from your life.
In truth, your body (and mind) is a battlefield. It’s constantly being tested and stressed, and when you train your defensive and offensive forces in a good way, it makes you and your society stronger. These good stress cycles are the basis of improving our strength, our skills, our world views, our immune system, and they are the basis of hormesis, a biological version of Le Chatelier’s principle of buffering in Chemistry, where your cellular machinery reacts to small periodic and aperiodic stresses and toxins to not only resist their effects, but actually become stronger. Nick Taleb calls it antifragility. At the cellular level, hormesis is a central secret of life’s success.
So rather than just avoid stress, we must learn how to build our health and strength with good stress cycles, and a few extreme stress cycles, so we can better handle the catastrophes life will always bring our way. The distinction between good and bad stress is an evolving art and science. It’s also the key issue that will determine your lifelong health and vitality/capacity/ability, so learn to tell the difference in yourself, day by day.
The five good stress/recovery cycles we will discuss are Awareness/Sleeping, Learning/Reflecting, Socializing/Solitude, Moving/Resting, and Fasting/Eating. Each habit is a cycle between two fundamentally important states of life, one of stress, and one of recovery. The success code for these five habits is ALSMF. A good mnemonic is A Life Should Manifest Fitness. Less positively, for those who know about Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, you might prefer ALS causes Muscle Fatigue.
These five all work together to prevent cortical, hippocampal, and glial atrophy (thinning and wasting away of your brain’s gray and white matter, a common problem in unhealthy aging) and more generally, to keep your brain and body both healthy and vital for a very long time. For a good book covering some of the latest science and art in how to train in such a way that you can be fit and play sports as an older athlete, see Jeff Bercovici’s very enjoyable and topical Play On: The New Science of Elite Performance at Any Age (2018). As Bercovici reminds us, being fresh (well slept, healthy, efficiently and minimally trained) is the new ideal, the better we understand the dangers of overtraining and mistraining.
Let’s look now at these five health-building eustress cycles in more detail.
1. Awareness/Sleeping Cycle.
You want to strive to be as fully aware, awake, and conscious as you can, moment by moment, when you are in an awareness state. That is the eustress part of our first and most basic health-building cycle. The other part of the cycle is deep rest. One of the most amazing things to realize is how much of our lives we spend essentially daydreaming, or sleepwalking through our waking hours, not being fully rested prior to work, and thus not thinking or feeling as deeply as we could, and not being fully present. A certain amount of such coasting is healthy, but too much of that kind of behavior is actually squandering the opportunities that life brings our way.
Ideally, most of our lives we are either trying to wake up, focus, concentrate, and pay attention to either the world around us or to our own thoughts and feelings, or we are trying to get a sufficient amount of high-quality sleep. The middle ground, where we are not consciously self aware of our thoughts and feelings or our surroundings, yet we aren’t asleep, usually doesn’t help us. It may, in fact, amount to the chronic, unhealthy variety of stress, especially when caused by regular sleep deprivation.
When you are aware and mindful, both of your own thoughts and of the world around you, that awareness stresses your brain in a capacity-building way. Concentrate. Focus. Be conscious of your thoughts and feelings. Meditate daily. Meditation is a special form of focused waking that is excellent for building mental capacity. Even if you are very busy, you can meditate as you fall asleep, at a minimum, so you get at least 5-10 mins of quality meditation a day, if not more. Elise Labbe’s Psychology Moment by Moment, 2011 is an excellent introduction, from a clinical psychologist, to the use of mindfulness techniques to treat anxiety, depression, pain, stress, and other health challenges, and of mindfulness in therapy and self-therapy. Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Miracle of Mindfulness, 1999, and Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now, 2004, are both good, too, yet many of these works overclaim as well. Mindfulness is just one important state of being, albeit a very important one. We need other states of mind, including escape, entertainment, altered states, and the ability to regularly contemplate the past and future as well as the present. The Buddhist’s ideal of “denial of the self” is particularly useful for Western egoists, but it is very easy to overdo that too. It’s often the selfish, and those obsessed with a principle, that get things done, creating progress for all of us.
So we need to learn our way to the right balance of all the factors in our success codes, and there are no easy single answers. One of the great frontiers of 21st century medicine is understanding how deeply our mental and physical health are entwined. Our feelings and thoughts deeply impact our immune systems, as the field of mind-body medicine is learning. See Esther Sternberg’s The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions (2001) and Jo Marchant’s Cure: A Journey into the Science of Mind Over Body (2017) for two good books on this key topic. What we think and believe about ourselves, our futures, and our health strategies, both rationally and emotionally, both consciously and unconsciously, has a huge impact on our state of our health. So try to think and feel in ways that not only make you more conscious, of yourself, others, and the world, but make you happy with your life. We discuss happiness codes in the next section. Our consciousness is our greatest gift, yet it’s quite weak and recently evolved. Use it often and it will grow.
The rebuilding and recovery phase of the awareness/sleep cycle is sleep. Sleep is when your brain does all its repair, dreams, and decides what to commit to long term memory. A goal in sleep is to get as high quality sleep as we can, as much as we need. How much sleep is that? Enough to wake up fully rested. A good rule of thumb, if we sleep for eight hours a night on a regular basis, is that we will occasionally, between once a week and once a month, need ten, eleven, or twelve hours of sleep. When you are feeling particularly tired, sleep particularly long the next day. If you don’t let yourself occasionally take these long and rejuvenating sleeps, your performance and health will suffer. If you are in poor health at present, you may need such long sleeps for many days or weeks in a row.
When we don’t get sufficient sleep, we are slowly degrading our brains, bit by bit. Learn how to take daily naps if you need them for your brain or body to get back to an alert state. The siesta pattern is the second most popular sleep pattern, and it involves an afternoon nap of twenty to ninety minutes. There is some evidence that this pattern lowers inflammation and is better for the brain. Some days, two or more naps of twenty minutes each may be better for your productivity and overall wakefulness than a nap-free day. Find a quiet place, use eyeshades and earplugs, both of which greatly improve the quality of your sleep. The best eyeshades are shaped like bra cups, so you don’t feel them on your eyelashes. The brand I use is in the picture at right. Your car may be the best place if your office doesn’t have a good nap room. For home, get a good bed and pillow. Go to bed an hour or two earlier if you need to, to get your full eight or nine (or more?) hours. Use eye shades and earplugs if they help. Don’t use bright screens in bed or just before bed, if they make it harder for you to fall asleep (pay attention and decide for yourself). Do whatever you need, to get a deep recovery every night. If you aren’t sleeping well, be sure to do exercise, a hot shower, a sauna, sex, or some other activity that physically tires you out before bed. Be sure to have a quiet dark room, so that your very first sleep phase of the night (Phase IV, deep, dreamless sleep) runs as long as possible. That, and meditation while lying in bed, will get you a long way toward better sleep. Get a sleep tracker if that helps, though I’ve never felt the need for one. Tom Rath’s Eat Move Sleep: How Small Choices Lead to Big Changes (2013) will convince you that eating the right things, exercise, and sleep are foundations to your and your client’s health.
2. Learning/Reflecting Cycle.
Learning, and most especially intense, focused learning, is the eustress part of this cycle. Regular dedicated learning drives brain health, and a healthy brain craves learning time every day. Be aware of yourself learning throughout the day, and remind yourself of what you are learning. Take notes as you learn, either on your smartphone, with an app like Evernote or Google Keep, or on a pocket-sized moleskine that you keep with you.
Using our emotion (our amygdala) and seeing social or intellectual significance in what we are studying are both critical to learning. You want to be in touch with your feelings as you’re learning, and find a way to care strongly about the key ideas and concepts, and imagine ways that they are significant, and to whom. Ideally, you need to be able to take a nonlinear path and variable speed through the material, jumping around, slowing down or speeding up based on significance or complexity. You also need to be able to annotate, recording your own reaction to the material, and you need uninterrupted time and space to visualize what you are learning, and to consider probable, possible, and preferable futures related to it. For details, see Benedict Carey’s How We Learn, 2015, and Dyle and Zakrajsek’s brief The New Science of Learning, 2013.
Also set aside time for dedicated learning under a time limit, whether it’s ten minutes on a break, a half hour at lunch, or an hour in the evening. Give yourself at least an hour or two of dedicated learning time a day if you can. This dedicated time is for interval learning, which is your brain’s version of interval exercise. This is when you have decided to go hard for a very limited time, reading, watching, or doing whatever it is you’ve set up to learn. Ideally your brain will end up tired and quivering from a short, intense learning session, just like your muscles after interval sprints or doing cross training. My best learning sessions have sometimes ended with a mild headache. That’s a good session!
“Read a Book Like a Movie” is my favorite technique for interval learning. This method works great for books, and also applies to articles online, and great idea-dense magazines, like The Economist, BusinessWeek, The Atlantic, Science News, and others. In my experience teaching interval learning, if you use it, you will increase your reading quantity by at least 3X, and for some folks, as much as 50X. See Method Focus – Learning Via Reading in Chapter 6 for details.
As to what else to learn from besides great books, magazines, and online sources, in-person or online conversations with smart folks are key, so have regular social engagements (we discuss socializing as the next health cycle), and be sure to get out of small talk and into the good stuff like your feelings, goals, values, problems, and strategies for success. Audiobooks are nice if you’re stuck in a commute, or doing exercise, and they help you visualize, but we often don’t pause them when we learn something important, and we can’t annotate them, so we retain only a small fraction of relevant story points and details versus reading. Video is a great way to get interested in a topic, but don’t let it take over your visualization ability. Stop your videos often and annotate or mentally summarize your thoughts about them, to make them more interactive. Ebooks are great, but today’s ebooks still unfortunately have some disadvantages over physical books. It is still harder to concentrate on the story with ebooks, easier to be distracted from reading, annotating, and pausing to reflect, and who read them recall significantly less of the structure and details of a story than those who read physical books in the few studies done on them. Annotating them is not yet as easy as using a pen, so keep something open that you can annotate with as you listen, and stop often to annotate and rephrase. I’m looking forward to ebooks that offer recall and testing features after you’ve read a section.
Reflecting is the rebuilding/consolidating/recovery phase of this key health cycle. When you reflect on what you’ve learned, you are literally rebuilding a model of what you’ve learned in your neural networks, ideally in the most useful way for you. Answering questions about what you are learning, as you go through the material, is another good way to reflect. As you’re learning, ask yourself what questions that insight answers. Good use of the Socratic method by either the teacher or the material, will heighten your ability to recall and use what you’ve learned. So will applying what you’ve learned, in problems. Testing is another form of reflection. Low quality test questions simply require you to recall something, as in multiple choice. Higher quality questions make you synthesize, restate, and express your opinion, as in sentence completions, essays, or oral exams. Teaching a summary of what you’ve learned to others is another very effective way to reflect. The last stage of reflection is to be able to predictably recall what you’ve learned. The full learning/reflecting cycle slogan might be: “See one, do one, teach one, recall one.”
There are many strategies for recall. Spaced repetition software like Anki is a great way to recall an amazing number of facts, but it’s largely a strategic mistake to think that we need very accurate recall for most of what we learn, and the more time and brain capacity you devote to recall, the less time and capacity you have to learn and imagine new things. That’s probably why this software has never taken off, except for students getting through tests. There is a benefit to forgetting most of what we learn, which involves a regular developmental pruning of evolutionary possibilities. Good learning involves a continual balance between evo and devo approaches, like nearly everything important in life.
Set aside time for actively reflecting as well. Consider a game of trying to write out five or six key insights from what you’ve just read. If you are learning in an hour or two before bed, your reflection time may be just ten minutes, as you are falling asleep, making yourself recall some of the key elements of what you read. Do it again when you first wake up. If you make reflection as high a priority as learning, you’ll transfer far more of what you learn into your long-term memory, where it can inform, help, and entertain you for the rest of your life. Reviewing your notes about what you’ve previously learned is another kind of active reflection. Like intervals, reviewing is a mentally harder form of reflection, as it reminds you of all the things you’ve forgotten, and forces you to relearn them, restarting a stress/recovery cycle in your mind.
So like intervals, set yourself a time limit for reviewing, which is really re-learning mixed with reflection, and give yourself mental kudos when you do it. If you use a formal system like Getting Things Done, you can reclassify the things you are reviewing into different folders, like Next Actions, or Someday/Maybe, or by topic. In the future, our smartphone AIs will be able to watch where our eyes go, so we’ll know if we’ve reviewed any material, and how many times, and help us play other reviewing games, to make it less difficult. In the meantime, try to review all the notes you’ve taken at least once. As you review, ask yourself what your notetaking says about you, and your interests, passions, and limitations. Through such reflection, you can better understand yourself.
3. Socializing/Solitude Cycle.
Being social, relating in realtime to others, using your emotions and empathy and your rational thoughts, is the eustress part of this health-building cycle. After quality waking/sleeping and daily learning, regular social engagement may be the third most important way of keeping your brain healthy and strong.
Recall the famous Nun Study of Aging and Alzheimer’s Disease (1986-Present). The nuns who were always learning new things, and were socially engaged, throughout their life, had the lowest diagnoses of Alzheimer’s later in life. Some of the more learning- and socially-oriented nun’s brains were often riddled with Alzheimer’s plaques on autopsy, but that was not apparent in advance. Those nuns were always forming new connections, learning and relearning things that they were losing. Because they were social, they had many emotional reasons to learn, relearn, and care, about themselves, others, and the world.
So be social, and not just with folks who it is easy to be social with. Stay in contact with “difficult” people, both in your family and in the world. Those folks need you the most. Balance such folks out with a larger number of nurturing friends, however. Keep your social activities good stress, not chronic stress. Limit the time you spend with toxic people. But spend a little time with them on a regular, cyclic basis. Over time, you’ll become an interpersonal communication ju-jitsu master, able to deflect their baits and barbs, so they roll off like water on a duck’s back. You’ll also be able to give them tough love, and the honest feedback they need. They’ll be better off for your caring company, and you’ll get socially healthier as a result.
Don’t forget to regularly withdraw into solitude and quietness too. Solitude is the other critical half of this health-building cycle. Everyone needs their own alone time, preferably every day. Sometimes you want it for several days in a row. Not just for learning, which can be done socially. But for creating, on your own. If you don’t get enough solo time, you won’t be able to reflect on how to be better, more intentional, authentic, and present socially the next time. For more on the benefits of withdrawing, read Susan Cain’s excellent Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, 2013. Ideally, we are all extroverts and introverts on a daily or weekly cycle.
4. Moving/Resting Cycle.
Exercise is the eustress part of this cycle. Our bodies are made to move, and after being awake and fasting, our body craves movement on a daily basis, then it needs quality rest and nutrition to rebuild itself. Modern sports medicine is starting to learn what kind of movement is ideal. Startups like Sparta Science are now using wearable sensors and models to predict (predictive analytics) when an athlete will have an injury unless they change their movement routines to less repetitive, more balanced alternatives. We can expect these services, used by elite athletes today, to become increasingly affordable and useful. Startups like Halo Neuroscience are using transcranial magnetic stimulation, prior to athletic training, a blunt force intervention that temporarily “scrambles” neural pathways in the motor cortex. This “therapy” can actually increase brain plasticity, when not overused, making it easier to learn new physical skills, and even increase peak power, by inhibiting one’s inhibiting pathways. We can predict the claims for this technology will be greatly overblown at first, and it will be both misused and overused by early advocates.
How much vigorous exercise do we need each day, on average, to maximize longevity? The most convincing study I’ve seen yet comes from a twelve year study of over 415,000 individuals in Taiwan, published by Wen et al. in The Lancet in 2011. As the graph from this study shows at right, our longevity benefit from exercise tops out at about a 45% mortality reduction, with around 45 minutes of vigorous (gently sweating) exercise a day. You can remember Wen’s findings as “45 to Get 45”. It takes 45 minutes of daily vigorous exercise, on average, to get a 45 percent mortality reduction, versus the nonexercising population. Forty-five minutes a day, or fifty minutes a day if you take a rest day each week, is about five hours and fifteen minutes of vigorous movement a week. Beyond this, we’re probably reducing our longevity, not adding to it, as studies in mice have long shown. Note also that the best mortality reduction one can get from moderate, nonsweating exercise is under 30%, and that it takes more than twice the amount of vigorous exercise, one hundred and five minutes a day, to achieve that benefit. That is much more time than the average busy person can fit into their schedule. Clearly, our quality of movement is more important than the time spent. See my Medium article, Ten Tips for Running Long (2017), for more on this, and on how to use careful and efficient running to get most of your daily vigorous exercise, injury free, if that is a kind of movement that works well for you.
With respect to the brain, it is particularly important for folks who have at least one copy of the Apo e4 gene, the ancestral allele, which is up to 40% in some populations, to be be doing aerobic exercise an average of fifty minutes a day (either in one or two sessions, as fits your schedule), ideally every day of the week, excepting a day of rest each week. Apo e4 carriers need to understand that they have a gene that has a high probability of hurting their brain later in life, unless they vigorously exercise and fast at levels that our ancestors did. They are the “canaries in a coal mine” who are first to get hurt by falling away from ideal health patterns, and so they help us all understand what those best patterns are. See my article The Apo e4 Gene and Your Alzheimer’s Risk: What You Should Know, for more details.
Low-impact running, jogging, or fast strenous hiking is the easiest and most effective way to get aerobic exercise. Consider music or podcasts while you run, if that helps with your motivation. Alternatively, get an in-home elliptical, Nordic Track machine, rower, cycle, stair climber, or treadmill, which will allow you to watch videos or listen to podcasts while you exercise. If you run, be sure to do forefoot running (taking off and landing on the front of your feet) to strengthen your feet, and prevent injuries. Read Chris McDougall’s Born to Run, 2011, if you need inspiration to run. Remember that getting mild injuries from movement, mild enough that your body needs to recover from them in the days in between, is far better than getting no injuries.
Your body is designed to be stressed and to rebuild itself after stress. Swimming is also tremendously good for you. Whenever you can handle it, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) is the most helpful exercise you can do, as it pushes this vital cycle to beneficial extremes. It won’t reduce your waistline (that’s what fasting is for) but HIIT is the fastest way to build your peak power, VO2 max, endurance, and even immune function, according to studies.
A 25 minute HIIT session, of 10 seconds to 4 minutes of maximum or near-maximum effort, followed by two to five times as long for recovery, will leave your arms and legs weak, and you’ll feel exhausted. But after you recover, your heart and muscles will be stronger, and you’ll be able to go longer periods in anything before your energy starts to flag. Read Loehr and Schwartz’s The Power of Full Engagement (2005) for a great intro to the value of short stress/recovery cycles. The great thing is that intervals take no more time than regular exercise. They just fit in more eustress/recovery cycles in the same time period. That’s why they’re so good for you. Most people can’t do intervals every day, as they are a mentally harder form of exercise, but their mental difficulty also makes them mentally good for you, whenever you overcome the desire to avoid them. Make sure at least one day a week of your exercise involves intervals of some length, and congratulate yourself a little bit for doing them, when everyone else usually avoids them. Do intervals twice a week and you’ll soon start improving your peak power and performance.
Not only should your movement be occasionally extreme, with interval training at least once a week, but you should also expose yourself to extreme environments for your movement as well. Technically, this is a Sixth Cycle, Extreme Environment/Mild Environment, but we will lump it with Move/Rest for now, until the science is more developed. My favorite health, diet, and fitness site, Dr. Mercola has a pioneering article, The Many Health Benefits of Cryotherapy (2017), exploring the many good things that regular cold exposure does for our circulation and energy, including the induction of brown fat (mitochondrial metabolism) and mitochondria production, which increases our metabolic rate, lowers our weight, and reduces inflammation and related diseases, including diabetes and dementia.
Scott Carney’s What Doesn’t Kill Us: How Freezing Water, Extreme Altitude and Environmental Conditioning Renews Our Lost Evolutionary Strength (2017) will get you convinced of the great health value of occasional extreme environment conditioning. Our ancestors had to encounter extreme environments and movement challenges on a regular basis, and our body is adapted to give us a lot more performance when we move out of our air conditioned bubbles into extreme conditioning. There are many extreme conditioning routines you can turn into a healthy weekly habit, including taking cold showers once or twice a week (this habit is painful at first, but to help you do it regularly remember how amazing you feel afterward, drying off), jumping into a cold pool after a sauna, doing both hot and cold yoga, holding your breath as long as you can on a regular basis, seeing how many pushups you can do while holding your breath, exercising nearly naked in winter (starting with just a few minutes of cold exposure, but building up to an hour or more), exercising at altitude, and other kinds of extreme conditioning. Just like intervals, extreme conditioning will greatly improve your vitality, power, immunity, and performance. As with intervals, start gently, so you don’t get hurt, but if you regularly push to your limits with a few of these habits on weekly basis, you will see great health and energy benefits almost immediately. Use common sense, and don’t push past the point of pain and discomfort, which are both good, into damage, which takes time to heal. Make this kind of intense exposure a game, record your performance, and you’ll soon be surprised how much you can stand, and how strong and healthy you feel.
Resting daily, in a quality way, is just as important as exercise. Make sure to get good, deep rests and good post-exercise nutrition between your daily exercise sessions, and perhaps short naps after exercise, if it has been intense. If you sit in a chair all day for work, switch it up with a stability ball, or even better, a permanent standing desk, so you can stand and sway and stretch all day, and take movement breaks every thirty minutes to an hour. Sitting is a form of resting, so move in between rests. Stretching before and after exercise is another great way to ensure you get a quality moving and resting cycle. Regular yoga, hot yoga, and cold yoga (outdoors, in cold weather) offer excellent forms of moving/resting cycles. Like meditation, yoga is particularly excellent for pushing you into states of deep rest. A daily sauna where you sweat is another powerful form of exercise. Think of it as a light form of aerobic exercise, with same blood flow benefits for your brain and heart.
Frequent weekly saunas, in fact, are a particularly easy routine to start, and a tremendously valuable health habit. Because saunas are such a mild form of exercise, they need to be done four or more times a week to see major health benefits. A 2016 Finnish study (PDF) of 2,300 middle-aged men showed that men taking saunas 4-7 times a week had a 66% lower risk of Alzheimers and dementia diagnoses, over a 20-year observation period (the observation group started at 42 to 60 years of age, and ended at 62 to 80 years, for this study), by comparison to those taking a sauna just once a week. Unfortunately, they didn’t include non-sauna takers in the study, so the brain benefit of regular saunas is very likely even better (perhaps an 80% risk reduction?) relative to the general population. Previous versions of their study have shown that regular saunas also greatly reduce the risk of fatal heart attacks (63%), coronary artery disease, and slightly reduce overall mortality.
Why is this? The study doesn’t speculate as it is correlative, not causative, but lots of other studies have shown that prolonged cardiovascular exercise has the same brain and heart benefits. Greatly increased blood flow to your brain and heart will occur when you exercise and when you sauna, and in both cases, you sweat as well. The studies show that you need that increased blood flow at least four times a week, and ideally every day, to really protect and improve your brain and body health. Hot yoga will do the same, and it has flexibility benefits that exercise doesn’t give you.
Because sweating cardio is just as valuable as saunas, try to combine regular weekly exercise (5 to 7 times a week) with your sauna. Saunas are also great inspiration time, so be sure to bring a waterproof notepad in with you to capture ideas or insights that will come to you during those 15-20 mins. See our discussion of a great notepad system in Task Management and Journaling: Your Actualizer. You may also want to bring a book or magazine to read in the sauna if that helps you justify the time.
One favorite health routine that takes just an hour i to run to my local gym’s sauna (fortunately just 10 mins away on a run), but take a longer route, so I get in a 25 min run, then a 20 min sauna, then a direct run home. I can do all that in about an hour, listen to podcasts on the way there, and read and think in the sauna, so its very hard not to justify doing it once a day, as this habit offers so many benefits.
If you live farther than 25 mins (by run or bike) from a gym with a sauna, consider driving part way there then running the rest of the way, or using a treadmill, bicycle, elliptical, or other cardio machine at the gym before your sauna. If you have the funds, consider buying a sauna kit (3 x 3′ on up in size) and putting one in an unused corner of your living space, in or outside. Keep some unread magazines there, or a used tablet PC you can afford to sacrifice, to make it a fun daily destination.
Both traditional (steam) and infrared sauna kits start around $1000. A $1200 infrared one from Home Depot is at right. Infrared saunas warm up faster, have lower temperatures (120-140º F), and are more energy efficient, so they are most popular at home. I prefer traditional saunas, which run hotter (150-180º F), and where the user can throw water on the rocks when they enter, to make it humid, which feels fantastic for your nose and lungs as well. Whichever sauna type you use is a personal preference. Both will make you sweat profusely.
No matter how you sauna, combining exercise with it, and doing occasional hot yoga and cold yoga (do both extremes) will greatly increase your vitality, and are even better than just a sauna alone. If you are not very healthy right now, just start with regular 15 to 20 minute saunas, then build in the exercise after a few months. In brief, start with daily sweat, then add muscular stress, stretching, and regular temperature extremes, and you will be on the road to a much healthier future.
5. Fasting/Eating Cycle.
Fasting is the eustress part of the fasting/eating cycle. Fasting is a time when your body is repairing and resting, and all of us do it every day, at least when we are sleeping. For most of the entire two million years of our humanity, we had to go without food for a day or two every so often. That’s why we store 15X more energy in fat in our bodies, by contrast to our other energy store, glycogen. Each of us could fast for three weeks straight, on average, if we had to. That’s how much energy the average person carries with them in fat at all times. People who are a hundred pounds overweight could easily and safely fast for four months straight, drinking just water while their cells eat their body fat the whole time. This happens regularly at many fasting clinics around the world. Current research is showing that regularly burning small amounts of our body’s stored fat for energy, a state called ketosis, is excellent for the brain, and for the body as well. When we fast, our body turns on repair genes, and generates growth hormones. It also starts eating all kinds of cellular junk, in a health-building process called autophagy (“self-eating”). The good stress of fasting pushes our metabolism into a lean-burning and repairing state. Unfortunately, most developed world people no longer burn their fat. They’ve been hoodwinked by our consumer culture into eating three big meals a day, and they eat at the first twinge of hunger, so we have an epidemic of obesity and now juvenile diabetes in the developed world.
The first step toward getting back to a healthy weight is not changing your diet, but relearning how to not eat for short periods of time. You could even eat sugary crap when you do eat, and as long as you fast daily, your insulin resistance would go away, as fasting studies show. You certainly do want a low-sugar, mostly plant-based diet when you eat (we’ll discuss that next) but it’s much more important to your mental and physical health to be able to not eat external food, and instead eat your body’s fat on a regular basis. When you are fasting, you can drink any no-calorie beverages (coffee, sparking water, iced tea, even diet soda if you find the fake sugar is comforting). You can even chew a few sticks of sugarless gum, but the key is you consume very little to no outside calories. You are teaching your body to eat its own stores of energy, first glycogen, then fat. You’re also teaching it how to optimize its metabolism, and give itself regular energy. If you are over 20 pounds overweight, start with Julian Whitaker’s The Mini-Fast Diet, 2013, which teaches you how to skip breakfast every day and take a short walk instead. Once you’re back within 20 pounds of your lean weight, start doing a few longer fasts, days where you eat for only five or six hours during the day instead. David Wilson’s Intermittent Fasting (2016) is a great introduction to the various methods. Find an intermittent fasting method that works well for you.
One of the most powerful IF routines is to not eat for 12-19 hour stretches, at least three times a week. My favorite IF routine is Burt Herring’s Fast-5, covered in The Fast-5 Diet and Lifestyle (2005). Fast-5 is a schedule where you eat for just five hours a day, as many days of the week as you can manage. 1pm to 6pm is a typical eating window, as it lets you get a lunch with colleagues (you may have to take it “to go” if it is an early lunch) and have a nice dinner at home. 2pm to 7pm is my current favorite eating window. After a few months on such a schedule your appetite will be corrected, and you’ll no longer have distracting hunger pangs in the morning. Instead you’ll have much better energy, focus, and productivity than you’ve ever had before in those hours. I started doing Fast-5 on Mondays-Fridays beginning in 2010, keeping my weekends for “eating holidays.” But it became so easy, and felt so good, I soon moved to seven days a week. Nowadays I eat breakfast only a few times a year, on big family occasions, and have no-calorie beverages when I sit at breakfast with others. After a few months of IF you’ll be ready for the deep health benefits of occasional two or three day fasts, anywhere from once a year to once a month, as you feel inclined. After two and a half days of fasting, some real magic happens: your body reboots its immune system, and your hippocampus produces new stem cells, greatly improving your memory and health for weeks afterward. Joel Furhman’s Fasting and Eating for Health, 1998, and the WeFast community, are both excellent places to learn
Eating the right things is the rebuilding phase of the fasting/eating cycle. Your body uses that nutrition to build a better you. But we can easily obsess over what we eat, and we are often far too concerned with things like gluten and other allergen avoidance, and processed chemicals of all types. I am convinced that evidence will show that intermittent fasting, including periodic multi-day fasts, is a more important contributor to our health than what we eat.
Hans Rosling in his excellent book Factfulness (2018) describes chemophobia as an unreasoning fear of human-made chemicals, but it can be even better defined as an unreasoning fear of any chemical. We often assume that manufactured chemicals are typically more toxic, or less likely to create healthy societies than “natural” (evolution-created) chemicals, but that is not an evidence-based assumption. Nature and bacteria are constantly creating poisons and toxins and chemicals that damage us, and many natural unprocessed foods and bacterial environments are full of toxic, harmful chemicals. Cut enough celery and you’ll get a rash from the toxins celery produces to keep bugs from eating too much of it. Alfalfa sprouts contain a variety of plant-produced toxins, and breed bacteria. Countless more examples of natural toxins, mutagens, and oxidizing chemicals can be cited.
People who who obsess about what they eat, creating distress for themselves, their families, and our schools, even though evidence shows our diets can be amazingly varied and are less important contributors to health than factors like sleep, bad stress avoidance, good stress and exercise, and regular intermittent fasting, are victims of chemophobia with respect to diet. So are parents who have hysterical concerns about allergies and allergen avoidance in our schools, even though our immune systems can be retrained to reduce the severity of any autoimmune reaction or allergy, as we’ll describe later in this section.
As Rosling notes, our aversion to using DDT for global malaria control, even though DDT has yet to be proven to cause a single human death since its advent in the 1960s, is a tragic example of the social cost of chemophobia. Our chemical industry was guilty of not monitoring DDT’s environmental effects at first, as Rachel Carson courageously exposed in Silent Spring (1962). But it was a big mistake to stop using DDT in areas where it would reduce human death and disease, as its general safety profile was so good. Many of the other pesticides we’ve developed in years since don’t work as well, and have worse environmental effects.
What matters most subjecting our all our chemicals, manufactured and natural, dietary and environmental, to evidence-based reviews and testing. We need to spend less time worrying about human-made chemicals and more on supporting the science, technology, and entrepreneurship that will get us the most useful and sustainable chemicals for every purpose. We also must recognize that an increasing number of those chemicals will be manufactured via ever more intelligent processes, not simply by selected by evolution.
With all of this said, I would say that Dr. Michael Greger’s How Not to Die, 2015 is one of many good sources for what to eat, when we are trying to eat well. For general brain health, you will do well to try to get a high good fat, moderate protein, low carbohydrate, mostly plant-based diet. In addition to regular short fasts, that type of diet will help reduce general brain and body inflammation over your life. Proteins and carbs, if you consume either in high doses, are more damaging to your body than good fats.
Regarding good fats, we know that PUFAs, polyunsaturated fatty acids, and to a lesser extent MUFAs, monounsaturated fatty acids, are the most beneficial for reducing inflammation, which is especially important for the 14% of folks around the world, like me, who have the Apo e4 allele (this percentage is higher in some populations). All of us, and perhaps particularly such individuals, should try to stay away from both inflammation-causing saturated fats and trans fats, which are made by too much processing of food. A good rule of thumb is try to eat foods where the Polyunsaturated Fat + Monounsatured Fat over Saturated Fat ratio, gram for gram, is better than 3:1. Try to avoid foods with trans fats as much as you easily can.
So if you are willing to look at nutrition labels, which I recommend, besides eating lower carbs and moderate protein, pay particular attention to this ratio:
PUFA + MUFA
A way to remember this ratio is “PUFF and MUFF are good dogs (Good Fats) that like to sit on the SOFA, three or more at a time (3:1 or better)”. Forget the percentages on each label, they are meaningless. Just look at the grams of each and calculate the ratio in your head. In a more evidence-based dietary future, we can hope that this ratio will be calculated and labeled for us in advance, with Red, Yellow, and Green shading to easily show us three general groups of fat-containing foods. Obviously we should limit our consumption of bad ratio (“red fat”) foods, even if we love them. But there’s also no need to avoid them entirely, especially if they have a cultural or social heritage. Our bodies can surely handle dietary bad stress, in small doses.
Most things on typical plant-based good fats lists, except for coconut anything, are quite good for you. For example, almonds are a particularly great food (9:1), so are walnuts (9:1), peanuts (6:1), and most other nuts. Good-fat veggies like avocados (5.4:1) are great. So is olive oil (6:1) and most plant oils. Hydrogenated oils like palm and soy oil are high in saturated fat, so they need to be used sparingly or they’ll kill your 3:1 ratio.
Once you start paying attention to this ratio, you’ll learn that some natural foods, like coconut milk, coconut butter and coconut oil (1:12, a bad ratio in the wrong direction) are unhealthy foods you should eat only sparingly. Unfortunately, they are often mistakenly recommended as good for you. Dairy butter is not very good for you at 2:1, and it typically contains trans fats as well, but it also isn’t that bad, either. Eating butter in moderation is certainly not going to be that harmful. Don’t stress about it. At the same time, choosing a high PUFA+MUFA margarine like Earth Balance (3.6:1) when you can get it, will be a better fat source than butter, even though it is more processed, and will also give us a world with less cows, an even more valuable outcome, when ethical and environmental concerns are included with health concerns.
The label at right shows some crackers, for example, with a reasonably good Poly + Mono over Saturated fat ratio (3.5:1). Don’t make the obsessive mistake of always avoiding crackers, or carbs, which are quite pleasurable foods to eat. Books like Wheat Belly (2014) have been helpful in getting the average American off of majority carb diets, but like most things health-related, people often get obsessive in their carb reduction, creating stress, for no good reason. You can’t avoid carbs, they are in everything, and bread and crackers are really tasty and lovely, in moderation.
If you want to treat anything obsessively, try to make sure your carbs are a lower percentage of your calories than your protein, which in turn is a lower percentage of your calories than your fats, and try to mostly good fats (3:1 and better) and mostly plant-based and minimally processed food, and you’ll be just fine. A bean dip, hummus, avocado or a nut butter with your crackers or bread is an excellent choice, and will keep you where you want to be.
The Paleolithic diet is a good step away from the traditional American diet, as it avoids high carbs and seeks to recreate the ancestral food supply conditions for which we were selected. Most Americans eat far too much bread and pasta, and Paleo writers can help us see that. But the problem with Paleo is that most practitioners recommend much more meat each week than humans would have had access to for most of the last two million years. Paleo meat eaters eat lots of meat because it tastes good and is a super nutrient dense food. But by going so high-protein in their diets, they get more cancer, heart disease, and degenerative and inflammation-related diseases in late adulthood as a result.
You don’t need to eat meat more than once or twice a week, in small portions, to get all its good vitamins and nutrients. For your meat, consider being mainly Piscetarian, and staying with good fat, high PUFA fish like salmon, tuna, and mackerel. Sure, steak and hamburgers taste great. But there’s also lots of evidence that red meat is bad for you in large amounts. More importantly, you’re killing a global-warming-causing, big-brained animal to get that meat, and those environmental and ethical issues should be even more important to you than the health consequences, in my view. So switch to fish when you can, which is increasingly available almost everywhere, and eat it in moderation.
Finally, supplement daily with a few key inflammation-reducing supplements, like micellar curcumin, fish oil, vitamin E, vitamin K2, and multivitamin. Of all of these, micellar curcumin, which is tremendously helpful for reducing brain and body inflammation, is probably the single most important daily supplement we all can take to improve our vitality and longevity. See my article, Curcumin: A Powerful Brain Protection Supplement, for more.
What about food intolerances and allergies, and tests to uncover them? Pharmacies are happy to sell you IgG-based intolerance tests, like Hemocode, and Cyrex Laboratories offers some particularly extensive antibody panels, but unfortunately, there’s no good science yet behind any antibody test. As Scott Gavura says in IgG Food Intolerance Tests: What Does the Science Say?, at ScienceBasedMedicine.org, 2012, there’s no evidence that higher antibody counts in your blood against any particular food means you should cut it out of your diet, or even that it causes inflammation. Skin prick testing is probably the best test for allergies. A weal under your skin is clear evidence that the food causes inflammation.
As Dr. Andrew Weil says, the best intolerance test for any food isn’t even a skin test, it is simply to eliminate each suspect food, one by one, then do a challenge, over several cycles, see if it continues to reliably set off a reaction. If it does, don’t stay away from that food forever. That will just keep your immune system likely to overreact in the future. Instead, under your physician’s guidance, try the offending food later, in a much smaller dose, and see if your body can learn that it’s safe. It usually will reduce its reaction after you’ve been away from it for a while, via a set of ancient physiological pathways called immune tolerance.
Of course, your physician will recommend extra care in immune system retraining when you are dealing with kids, elderly, the sick, and others with underdeveloped, frail or compromised immune systems. So use common sense, or work with a specialist if you think your kid has a “severe” reaction (this word is vastly overused, by helicopter parents). For those wanting to use food to build their immune system and reduce allergies and autoimmune dysfunction, read Joel Fuhrman’s Super Immunity, 2013.
So if you suspect you have gluten sensitivity, and are currently eating a lot of gluten-containing foods, do a Cyrex Array 4 panel to measure your antibodies to various gluten-containing foods. If it shows high gluten, take a break from those foods, but don’t avoid them for the rest of your life. The same goes for anything that causes a weal under your skin in a skin prick test. Most intolerances are either temporary things, as our immune system is learning, or they are in our minds, not our bodies. Avoiding suspect foods entirely will cause unnecessary psychological stress for the rest of your life and make your immune system weaker, not stronger. It will take a while for our modern, comfort-oriented, fear-driven society to recognize these obvious facts of biology and medicine, but the evidence will eventually take us there.
Oftentimes, your body was is not reacting to the food itself, but to a contaminant, a pathogen, or to some other associated physical or psychological stress. Your immune system made an improper association between that food the other antigen-creating entity. This problem is called cross-reactivity. Eating the food again, in small doses, will usually retrain your body out of the improper past association. Only repeated careful exposures will tell you if you have a real and enduring intolerance. Your immune system is a learning system, in many ways like your brain. It will typically retrain itself via healthy eustress cycles of elimination and challenge, just like everything else in your body. So keep cycling and challenging it. If you suspect an intolerance, simply try eliminating and reintroducing individual foods, in small doses at first, and to carefully noting your symptoms.
Again, our immune systems can be retrained, by well-known but still poorly studied methods like oral tolerance, to reduce physiologic reactions to any allergen. A team of researchers at Duke University and NUS Singapore, led by Ashley St. John, working with mice bred to have peanut allergies, have shown they can retrain immune systems, and permanently and massively reduce allergic reactions by delivering peanut antigens and Th1 cytokines to the mice’s lymph nodes via skin injections, just prior to peanut exposure. Physicians have long avoided using oral tolerance to reduce immune system reaction, even though it has long been known to work to some degree. With this new research I am hopeful they will step up and finally solve the allergy problem for all of us. I’d also like to see rating system that tells parents, and society, just how reactive someone’s immune system appears to be to any suspected dangerous allergens.
We’ve seen a nut-banning hysteria sweep American schools in recent years. Selling epi pens to fearful parents who actually don’t need them for their children has become a very profitable new business for our health care industry. There are even overzealous socialists now talking about banning nuts in all public places. The smart thing to do, as the evidence indicates, to introduce “suspect” and “dangerous” foods like peanuts in very small doses, as early in childhood as your pediatrician will allow, and when kids have reactions, to retrain their immune systems to reduce the severity of those reactions. Policies like this will reduce the tragic deaths we are presently seeing from anaphylactic shock, which appear to be rising in recent years, the more we run away from suspected allergens. When we don’t seek to train away our immune sensitivities, when we avoid vaccines, or when we raise our kids in antiseptic environments, we just make societies with weaker and more dysregulated immune systems.
Both lactose and gluten intolerance have a genetic basis, and most of those may be lifelong. But evidence in animals shows that even lifelong intolerances can be made far less severe by immune system retraining. Your immune system is a learning system, just like your brain. We label peanut, egg, shellfish and other allergies “severe” and “lifelong” simply because very few physicians work to train them out of their patients once they are diagnosed with them. It’s time for our medical community to take responsibility for fixing this problem, and making it obvious to society that we can do so. We also must understand that both high levels of fear and actual antigenicity can drive any immune system reaction, and we need to train away both in people who think a substance exposure may incapacitate or kill them. Our modern societies have a growing problem with chemophobia, an irrational fear of chemical exposure, and that phobia must be treated along with any immune system dysfunction that may exist.
What I hope to see in America in coming years, as this medical science develops, is a few pioneering schools, with good legal backing, allowing everyone the freedom again to bring whatever foods they want to school, and requiring parents who believe their kids may have severe reactions to get their allergic status formally evaluated, and to have their kids enrolled in immune system retraining programs if they want to attend those schools.
Our health care system needs to pay for these retraining programs. Again, they start by taking short breaks from offending foods, and regularly introducing small very amounts of an allergen in the food, and measuring immune reactivity. Social policies like this, shifting responsibility back on the medical community to solve this problem, rather asking everyone to avoid an ever growing list of foods and weakening everyone’s immune systems as a result, is where we need to go as a society.
Again, it’s easy to obsess about what we eat, causing unnecessary mental stress. Eat simply, and in moderation, and remember that the eating is a rebuilding phase. We don’t eat to live, or live to eat. Rather, eating is just one of several vital cycles that keeps us healthy. So put eating in its proper place. It should be pleasurable and social and healthy, but don’t obsess over your food, and be sure to fast every day as well. Make social productivity, and personal vitality, not eating, the center of your life, and you’ll be truly happy.
One day I hope to write a very brief book titled Vital Cycles: Awareness/Sleep, Learn/Reflect, Socialize/Solitude, Move/Rest, Fast/Eat: Five Key Habits for a Long and Healthy Life, to offer my take on how paying attention to all our eustress cycles is the most powerful way to have vital and long lives. In my view, good health starts with getting high quality versions of both states in each of these vital cycles.
It’s pretty clear that any healthy habits we find valuable are going to be vastly better managed in the future. As our personal AIs, smart agents, AR, and wearable and implantable sensors improve over the next two decades, we’ll enter an era of agent-guided preventive healthcare. Our health sims will know our current physical health status, and nudge us into behaviors, minute by minute, that help us eliminate chronic stress, engage daily in good stress (eustress), and get us to deeply recover from every challenge. The best of tomorrow’s health agents will even monitor our mental health, recording our conversations and guiding us in how to speak better, moment by moment. Agents will help us improve our ability to play and our sense of humor. They’ll help us review particularly poor communication episodes, right after they happen, and we’ll learn how to communicate nonviolently, improve our relationships, and raise our children better.
Some people, particularly older ones, will be creeped out by this level of intimacy with their machines, and keep those mental health functions turned off, at least at first. But most of the youth will dive right in, and they will reap faster benefits as a result. These systems will have risks of abuse, particularly in their early versions, but over the long term I see them a deeply positive development for human health.
By such methods, tomorrow’s medicine is very likely to give all of us another decade or two of vital, healthy life. Our average age of death in 2050 might be 100, or very near it. Some time this century, AI will be smart enough to push biological life beyond 100, but as we speculate in Chapter 7, many of us may no longer want to be biological once AI gets that smart, for a host of reasons. There are just too many ways that biology eventually falls apart, and it’s just too slow and limited for all the things we want to do, as goal-seeking intelligences, as we continue to grow and adapt.
In the meantime, however, I’m looking forward to a more healthy future for all of us.