There is much ado these days about ways of improving one’s cognitive abilities and various “hacks.” But just as with fake-news there is fake science. I recently wrote a LinkedIn Influencer piece on this entitled How to Protect Yourself from Fad Science. Therein I wrote about how differing perspectives wind up in print on the risks or the benefits of many foods, click-bait styled subject lines, and the latest cure-du-jure.
In that piece I pointed out clues as to sleuthing whether something is predicated on junk science and ways to properly vet a source and judge the science and methodology. I’d recommend readers interested in that to take a look. But herein, I’d like to share my personal, N-of-1 approach to better health span on all counts—cognitive, athletic, psychological, and so forth. It is reprised from another LinkedIn Influencer piece I authored. I hope you find it of use.
I certainly am no poster-boy for being a great athlete, but I’m pretty satisfied of where I am today and what I’ve been able to do—especially considering from where I started. I think this actually gives me some credibility to speak more so to the proverbial every-man (or woman) to some degree. I was not blessed with uber genes or predestined to anything close to being fit.
No, perhaps just the opposite.
I had some orthopedic issues as a boy and didn’t really run—somewhat of a rate-limiting factor in most sports or even play. When combined with a killer sweet-tooth, the result was a BMI of 33 by age 12. Ugh…
Then. Puberty hit.
It wasn’t like a shift in hormone titration caused a biological metamorphosis. No, it was more like a desire to not spend my high school career warming the bench and never being kissed. This was the first time I really began to pay attention to what I ate and how I exercised. I started looking at macro-nutrients and calories. I became a vegetarian, which wasn’t very common then, and pretty rare for those living on a beef farm. (Also, I think it was a secondary function of my attempt at adolescent rebellion as my dad was the one raising those heifers.) At age 13 I got my first pair of Nike’s and started to run. The results?
I lost 64 pounds in 3 months…
Granted, this may have been a bit of borderline eating disorder, but things normalized as I got older. Nevertheless, I remained active and a vegetarian. In the last two years I have been experimenting with a vegan diet.
While I try hard to not be an “ugly-vegan” when I go out to fancy-pants restaurants for work, I will have a conspiratorial chat with (all of) the wait-staff and share with them my desire to avoid the bone-broth-infused-headcheese appetizer followed by a bone-in 42-ounce porterhouse.
In a recent situation similar to this, one of my dinner mates (all of whom were new acquaintances) overheard of my vegan proclivity and asked what my reasons were for going exclusively plant-based. He and his wife were sincerely interested and curious, perhaps considering some tweaks to their diets as well. As I discussed my rationale and some data, another person also showed interest. That was really nice, and I quickly realized that I could not do justice to a somewhat complex set of answers over dinner.
So I wrote this.
I Am No-Pro
What I am sharing next will not help you make an Olympic team. But anyway, here is my “Every-Person’s-Guide to a Better Healthspan.” What follows is an examination of what’s available, what to look out for and what I’m tinkering with. I hope you find it of use. No laboratory required.
OK, let’s talk about “Hacking”
I use the word in the title and herein not as click-bait, and not as a cheaty-shortcut, but rather as a smart solution or ways to more efficiently make the gains you may be looking for. For example, I theorized that going vegan would be a “hack” for me run further ultra distances by having less inflammation and thus quicker recovery. And, for me, it seemed to work.
More Caveats and Disclaimers: The Half-Life of Facts
Just about everything you read will have something to contradict it; even in peer reviewed, non-fake, scientific journals. Often my smart and athletic son has opined to me “why can’t there just be a routine to follow that works?” This was in response to his researching sub-three hour marathon time training schedules, workouts, and diets. And he is right.
So, do keep in mind the dynamic nature of scientific understanding—better studies, new findings, more precise measurements, black swans, and whatnot all conspire to shake up the former orthodoxy. But also, there is bad science and biased science. Fortunately there are ways to counteract such without having to go to graduate school in bio-chemistry, thanks to Tim Ferriss and Ben Goldacre.And if a study sponsored by the dairy industry touts the values of lactose, well…
My personal-favorite site, and Switzerland of nutrition and supplementation, is Examine.com. They are a group of medical doctors, scientific researchers, professors, and pharmacists that keep up on the literature so the rest of us don’t have to, and they explain how they have come to the conclusions and consensus on a number of nagging topics like:
Is saturated fat bad for me?
Do I need to eat six times a day to keep my metabolism high?
How important is sleep?
What should I eat for weight loss?
Is high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) worse than sugar?
Are eggs healthy?
Is diet soda bad for you?
Is my “slow metabolism” stalling my weight loss?
How much protein do I need every day?
Personal Genomics: “23andYou”
Final disclaimer, advice is a tricky business. Most of it may NOT work for you. Not because it is incorrect, but because it may be incorrect for you. Please note, everything may be different for everybody. While we share a lot, we do not share the same biology, biome, motivation, genetics, drives, proclivities, strengths, weaknesses, needs, problems, risk factors, protective factors, goals, fears, experiences, situations, traumas, victories, you get the picture.
So bottom-line, measure what you want, measure what matters, and experiment. I saw a guy in my first marathon smoking a cigar. I don’t think I will be puffing a Cuban on my next workout. Repeat after me:
We are all (very) different.
If 23andMe had a baby with Examine.com then Dr. Rhonda Patrick would deliver “Found My Fitness.” Dr. Patrick is amazingly brilliant; she scours the literature for relevant and properly done studies similar to the folks at Examine, but what is really cool is that you can upload your 23andMe data and she will share what studies are relevant to YOUR specific genomic data. I did use Rhonda’s Genetic Tool, and I have also used Promethease. Both are a $5 bargain.
Promethease runs your genomic data against a whopper database called SNPedia. It is a wiki for human genetics with more than 57,000 published gene polymorphisms. Using it provides information about your propensity for and against certain diseases. It uses the data on specific Single-Nucleotide Polymorphisms (SNPs) within your genome. Its comprehensiveness is both a blessing and a curse in that the findings are overwhelming to review, and is like many genetic findings, puzzlingly contradictory. I found Rhonda’s Genetic Tool, to be much smaller, but more useful. Indeed, she notes “The report represents the genes I think are most interesting with regard to my focus which is maintenance of health span. In some cases, some polymorphisms may have more obvious lifestyle intervention implications… in other cases, it might just be because it’s a gene variation that interests me and I want to tell you about it. In all cases, however, they are picked by me and reflect my personal exploration of thisgrowing field. In this sense, it is a living report that might be worth re-running periodically to see my latest revisions and possible corrections!” Thank you Rhonda.
Why Do I Care?
You may think, “I really don’t care if I am prone to wet ear wax,” or “I really do not want to know what possible disease will take me out in a quarter-century from now.” I get that. What I think is actionably helpful is the ability to personalize your nutrition. This is the brave new world of nutrigenomics, or the interaction of your genetics with how you metabolize what you eat. Dr. Patrick is the shiz on this topic. Some SNPs are associated with folate metabolism, or vitamin B12 absorption, or other biological processing of other vitamins and nutrients.
I noted earlier about my trying to not be an ugly-vegan when going out with colleagues, so you may have guessed I am dabbling in being plant-based, and you’d be correct. Again, it’s not for everyone. I am not an evangelist, but I am a fan. I enjoy Dr. Michael Greger’s work and his book “How Not To Die” and here’s a great Google Talk on the topic as a primer. I also like his “Daily Dozen:”
Berries, 1 serving
Beans, 3 servings
Fruits, 3 servings
Cruciferous veggies, 1 serving
Greens, 2 servings
Veggies, 2 servings
Flaxseeds, 1 serving
Nuts, 1 serving
Whole grains, 3 servings
Beverages, 5 servings
Exercise, 1 serving
Spices, 1 serving
Lots of folks, from Tim Ferriss to Donald Layman (Professor Emeritus of Nutrition at the University of Illinois), recommend consuming at least 30 grams of protein for breakfast. I like it timing-wise as it then comes post-workout/recovery when I really need it. Get it however you wish. Being plant-based makes my choices legumes, greens, nuts, and seeds more so on the weekends when I have more time, and a pea, rice, or hemp protein shake weekdays on my drive to work.
Here are some of my favorite vegan resources:
While obesity is a major health concern in the U.S. and many other developed countries due to all the additional problems it begets — orthopedic, cancers, diabetes, hypertension, cardiac, pulmonary, etc. — there is a growing awareness of people looking more seriously at what they eat, looking for the hidden sugars (a.k.a high-fructose corn syrup), and simply not wanting to eat bad things. Recent documentaries such as Forks over Knives, Cowspiracy, Fed UP, Hungry for Change, Food, Inc., Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead, and Vegucated all provide concerning perspectives on what we eat and how it affects our health, performance, and longevity. Podcasts such as Rich Roll’s and websites such as Thrive Forward all act to further educate and provide tools to consider. This growing awareness is especially critical in medicine and healthcare vis-à-vis the recently published findings in the Journal of the American Medical Association that “nearly 60 percent of Americans — the highest ever — are taking prescription drugs.”
I have not done a deep dive into paleo, or raw, or ketosis, so I cannot be much help there. I’d recommend Tim Ferriss’ book, “The Four Hour Body” as a great, unbiased perspective on most anything and everything that’s legitimate in the realm of eating and performance and health. I have to let you know there is also a controversial push-back to all-plant-based/vegetarian diets in the new book “The Plant Paradox” that sounds an alarm on lectins. (Full disclosure, I’m not convinced, especially in the context of my own testing and in working to better understand the process of hormetic dietary phytochemicalshormesis so please check back here for updates on what I am able to learn.) I have also reached out to Rich Roll, Rhonda Patrick PhD, and Michael Greger, MD, about this to see what they have to say.
This can be a tricky area. Ideally, all of your micro-nutrients and minerals would be made available via your diet. But that can be difficult with limited time, access, and many other real-world bothers. And athletes needs’ can vary depending on level, age, and season. In general, vegans may want to supplement Vitamin B12, and proper levels of Vitamin D and K can be tricky according to Drs. Greger and Patrick. And do keep in mind Dr. Patrick’s helpful points vis-à-vis nutrigenomics and consider getting your DNA looked at to see if your genetics are monkeying with your ability to metabolize what you eat.
I have come close to being evangelistic about the role of gut health and well-being as of late. Personally, I like Inulin, a pre-biotic that is actually sweet and can be sprinkled on or mixed in just about anything that you’d like a wee bit sweeter. And in pill form, I supplement with a capsule of a strain of 1 billion Lactobacillus Sporogenes (vegan sourced, of course), three times daily. I will spare you all the details, but let’s just say I have noticed a number of benefits.
For more on dietary aspects of boosting your microbiome, Kriss Carr has a nice piece on 3 Ways to Boost Your Digestion & Improve Gut Health and dietary options to help out. Such can be especially important if you have a history of antibiotic use that could have knocked your GI’s flora out of whack.
I’m a big fan of Tony Horton, and I’ve spent many a morning with him doing P-90X and P-90X3 and variations thereof. I stretch and do abs every morning. I then lift (dumbbells and body weight) on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. I mix up routines about every quarter, as well as weight and reps and speed of eccentric motion. I run shorter distances on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and longer on Saturdays (ideally on trails). I’m a fan of Chris McDougal and his “Born to Run” book and after having adopted a more forefoot/midfoot foot strike I have vastly improved my running and decreased my impact related injury issues. Sundays are kettle bell day. I find them to be a nice combination of dynamic movement and weight. I need to add more yoga but I do like Onnit’s Unbreakable and extended stretching (a la Pavel); I try to do some each evening. It’s good to stretch—metaphorically and physically. Get outside of your comfort zone. At work, I try to go for a two minute walk every hour, I try to sit no more than 20 minutes at a time, and to do yoga squats.
All of the above are tweaked when traveling or training for a climb, or hike, or race, or a goofy thing like “The 100 Ton Challenge” in which one lifts 200,000 pounds in a day, or a run with bulls, wall climbing, Mud-Dashes, and the like.
But workout styles and preferences differ, too. I know my wife loves being in an organized class at the YMCA. My daughter loves running and training with others. And my son is Mr. Solo, except when on a team with his coach and mates. Others like a personal trainer, or virtual trainer, or app, or virtual community. The point is, do what you can keep doing, and enjoy, and get benefit from—physically and psychologically.
Hit the (Cold) Showers
This is tough in a Chicago January after having run in -10 degrees Fahrenheit, but science says that cold water exposure can help your body’s immune, lymphatic, circulatory and digestive systems as well as help in the weight-loss department presumably because it seems to boost your metabolism. I find once I complete my shampooing and cleaning phase, I then dial back the temp to frosty. I find it helpful to do some Wim Hof-like breathing (I warn my wife first, however).
I’m not a touchy-feely kind of guy, but I do find it helpful (while doing my daily stretching/yoga) to purposely think about what I am grateful for and prayerfully focus on the needs of my family and friends. I do keep a Bullet Journal and have a section on gratitude as well. I have tried both Calm and Headspace to try to more easily integrate a meditation practice into my life. Personally, I prefer Calm, but it’s really personal taste.
Here’s what’s next in My Experimenting…
Time Restricted Eating
A type of “diet-agnostic” manner of eating to support weight lost, lean muscle, enhanced longevity, and perhaps a number of other promising health-span benefits, has to do with the time in which one eats and does not. Certainly fasting is gaining greater popularity and scientific scrutiny, and as is always warned, please don’t do so without medical supervision. However, the restricted eating or intermittent fasting protocols are not as drastic but seem to hold promise as well. (There is a whole world of work being done in the area of ketosis, sort of a cousin of fasting. If you are interested in that, here is a good source.)
This is also known as “Leangains” which was started by Martain Berkhan. Basically one does not consume calories for 16 hours and one can eat during the other 8. (Some suggest 14 hours of fasting for women.) It’s fairly easy to fit into most lifestyles and folks can further tweak based on goals of weight loss and fitness gains with meal and workout timing.
Eat Stop Eat
This was founded by Brad Pilon and simply is based on fasting for 24 hours once or twice a week.
Feel free to also check out The Warrior Diet by Ori Hofmekler, which is basically eat one meal a day in the evening/night, true to our biological origins. John Romaniello and Dan Go developed a combo of the above, of sorts and call it Fat Loss Forever and incorporates one weekly cheat day, and then a 36-hour fast. Next then is a divided seven-day cycle made up of the different fasting approaches noted.
There is a growing, peer reviewed literature in support of heat stress’ benefit to longevity and athletic performance as delivered via sauna use. Here is a great resource. One really needs to have a physician’s clearance before experimenting with heat as it seems that longer duration at higher temperatures is the secret sauce in its effectiveness, but there are obviously risks more so for some folks. Be safe and smart.
I could not help myself, but if you want an unofficial endorsement of something that may seem dicey, look at what some athletes are doing to get an edge. There is an Athlete Microbiome Project that is investigating the saliva and poo “…from a cohort of highly fit professional cyclists, (to) make an attempt to understand how their microbiomes may differ from those of the general population. The goal is to characterize the species present, the genes they carry, and how gene expression is modulated in athletes who push their bodies to the limit.”
Sleep is the New Black
OK, for anyone who has living under a rock and not seen the following super-ubiquitous and commonsense advice as to a good night’s sleep:
One cannot bio-hack unless you measure. This can be a stopwatch plus mile marker and a notebook, or much… much more. Kevin Kelly, co-founded with Gary Wolf, The Quantified Self. As Tim Ferriss put it, “…this is the perfect home for all self-experimenters. The resources section alone is worth a trip to this site, which provides the most comprehensive list of data-tracking tools and services on the web.” As a scientist, big data fan, and bio-hacker, I am so curious about single subject research. Mark Drangsholt said: “Single subject research is generally not even thought of as science.” I know! How can you generalize…?! Big data, that’s the ticket…! Right? Well, here’s Mark’s parable…
Imagine an earth-like planet in a distant galaxy populated by intelligent creatures with a physiology similar to our own. Like us, the aliens have discovered the scientific method, and they even use familiar experimental tools for health research such as case-crossover studies and placebo controls. However, the aliens rarely aggregate data from many individuals. In fact, such aggregation is frowned upon. After all, why ruin accurate individual data by mashing it into a synthetic construct like a population? Now you’re guaranteed to be wrong about everybody!”
We are very complex beings—biologically and psychologically. In managing our lives, we begin at a point in time and we have some options and choices. I simply recommend that we all experiment, that we try things out and on for size. Keep what works, discard what doesn’t. Tweak, iterate, experiment, rinse and repeat. Our bodies and psyches change over time and situations, so we will always need to monitor and course-correct as need be.