Did you skip out of bed this morning feeling good, ready to face the day ahead, or did you emerge, slowly unfolding your aching body, feeling stiff and thinking to yourself “boy, I’m getting old!”
Whether you make your living farming the land, delivering packages or hunched over a computer, your physical body is your home here on earth, your vehicle for experiencing life and moving around. Whether simply shuffling around your apartment or traveling the world, your body is either a source of freedom and joy, an impediment (or worse; a source of suffering). It’s probably safe to say most of us, if given the choice, would choose option #1. Guess what - good news! - we do have a lot of say in the matter! Let’s look at how in a little more detail. And if you’re not one to geek out on the scientific nitty-gritty, you can skip to the end of the article and head straight for the action steps.
Whether you feel pleasure or pain as you move around, or simply sit in your chair, depends mostly on your musculoskeletal system; the system of muscles, tendons, ligaments, bones and joints and associated tissues, such as the fascia, that move the body and maintain its form. This system is made of specific proteins, fats and minerals, and like all other parts of the wonder of you, it is constantly in the process of breaking itself down and building itself back up. In order to for this process to go smoothly and result in strong, healthy tissue we have to supply our DNA with the right signals and our body with the right building blocks. So how do we do this?
Food and your DNA
Far from being something set in stone, your DNA actually has many blueprints for how to construct you. Assume that as you were growing up, your diet was rich in minerals and all the other building blocks for bones. To the DNA this would signal that it is safe and appropriate to build a large (tall) skeletal structure, whereas the DNA of a child eating a diet poor in minerals would be prompted to activate plan B, an alternate blueprint for a shorter stature, rather than build a tall, but porous and weak skeleton. The same holds true for adults - even deficiency of one mineral, say Magnesium, leads to decreased bone building activity and therefore weakening of the bone, aka osteoporosis (1). We can observe the same effect even through the lens of history: hunter-gatherer populations were taller and stronger than the agricultural societies that followed them (2). due to the switch to a grain-based diet (more later about why).
Our changing food supply is changing our bodies
Changes in our dietary habits have affected us in other ways, too. Our ancestors, both paleolithic and more recent, tended to consume a much greater variety of animal products (hint: animals are made of the same building blocks our bodies are made of!) and thus ingested eg more minerals and collagen than today’s boneless-skinless-chicken-breast-eating populations. They drank mineral-rich water from natural sources and ate vegetable matter growing in mineral-rich soil. Todays’ agricultural practices have unfortunately lead to severely depleted soil, so that we despite a higher yield are receiving fewer nutrients (minerals, vitamins etc) from our food (3). Most of our meat is from animals that are not only kept in inhumane conditions that induce stress in animals, but also fed an unnatural diet. You know what cows like to eat, right? Grass. But CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation, aka animal factory, aka anything but meat guaranteed to be organic, grass-fed and grass finished) cows are fed a diet of (genetically modified) corn, soy and sometimes candy (yes, you read that right!) (4), (5) and fed and injected with hormones and antibiotics. This has a profound effect on the healthfulness of the resulting product, rendering once healthful foods, ruminant meat, organ meats and milk from these poor animals unhealthy.
The nutrients we are missing out on, and the things we really, really should avoid
Apart from nutrient-poor foods and de-mineralized water there is another dietary novelty that is robbing us of our health and well-being, and like a Trojan horse it’s tricking us to let it in. What I’m talking about is the addition of foods, until very recently unknown to mankind, that are contributing to inflammation in our bodies. One is refined sugar and the overuse of refined carbohydrates in general, and the other one is vegetable seed oils such as canola, cottonseed oil, soybean oil, safflower oil etc.
Sugars, and foods that turn into sugar in the body (most carbohydrates) are necessary for the body. But they are also harmful if they remain in our bloodstream unused. This happens when we eat them often and in large amounts, as we do today, encouraged by convention, taste and the ubiquitous and perhaps somewhat unfortunate “food pyramid”. One way in which they wreak havoc is by creating the appropriately named AGEs (advanced glycation end-products) that destroy proteins, including collagen in our bodies. Collagen is what gives us our form, holds us together, gives muscles and tendons their form and strength, gives our skin its strength and suppleness. Collagen breakdown equals tissue breakdown.
The other novelty, the industrial seed oil, comes to us masquerading as a health food. Canola oil bottles, for example, will often feature labels boasting that it is high in omega 3, a fatty acid that has anti-inflammatory effects on the body. However, that omega 3 has likely ceased to be healthful, as the fragile polyunsaturated oils have been exposed to a refining process (6) involving high heat and solvents (hexane) resulting in harmful trans fats. Industrial seed oils don’t only cause damage inside our bodies by virtue of their own oxidized fats, but actually by starting an oxidative cascade that damages other fats, too, thereby damaging blood vessels, cell membranes and bones as well as affecting hormonal signaling inside the body (7). I don’t know about you, but messing with hormonal signaling something I'd rather not do.
These fats end up on our plates and in our bodies because we use them in cooking, trusting the marketing claims. They are also get into our bodies via restaurant food. They are so much cheaper than healthy oils like butter and coconut oil that only upscale restaurants will avoid them. They are also found in virtually every processed food product you can think of. We also absorb them through our skin. (Try using unrefined coconut oil instead, or this wonderful balm http://www.vintagetradition.com/ )
Technically, the effect of these Tojan horses is know as lipid peroxidation (8) and glycation (9), respectively, and constitutes one of the major reasons for degeneration and aging.
Mind your minerals
Grains and legumes (soy!) contain phytates, which hamper mineral absorption from the food they are in. So while grains contain minerals, you will probably not absorb them well due to the phytates they contain, so be sure to get minerals from other sources. Nuts tend to be high in phytates, too. Even healthful vegetables such as spinach contain mineral-absorption hampering oxalates. Our more recent ancestors minimized these effects by soaking, sprouting and fermenting grains, nuts and legumes, and you can still benefit from this ancient technology for example by soaking your beans for a day before cooking them.
Speaking of bones, vitamin K2 is essential for them, and may protect you from calcification of tissues that you’d probable rather keep soft (arteries, for example). Vitamin K2 is found in some food and can be manufactured in our guts, but most of us would benefit from supplementation. Studies show that vitamin K2 far outperforms osteoporosis drugs, with none of their side-effects.
Bone broth http://wellnessmama.com/5888/how-to-make-bone-broth-tutorial/ , has become quite fashionable, and if taken several times a week, will supply you with valuable minerals. However, given that most people are deficient in Magnesium, you may want to supplement with at least this important mineral. There are several forms of Magnesium, some better absorbed that others. Magnesium glycinate is one of the better absorbed ones (unless you want to go for ionic minerals http://www.angstrom-mineral.com/ ). Magnesium is vital for maintaining a normal muscle tone, and therefore some of the many symptoms of magnesium deficiency include tight and sore muscles, muscle cramps, angina and high blood pressure.
Inflammation causes pain
It is no coincidence that many pain medications (think Motrin or Cortisone) are anti-inflammatories. Inflammation, whether for a good reason, such as your tennis game two days ago that triggered muscle and bone growth, or for a bad reason (inflammatory foods) is painful and, if prolonged, causes damage to the body. One of the most important steps to maintain, or regain, a healthy pain-free body and lead a long, happy and productive life is to minimize unnecessary inflammation. You already know that large amounts of sugar trigger changes that lead to inflammation. Your choice of fats play an important part, too. Avoid vegetable oils and trans fats, and balance out your omega 6 to omega 3 ratio (by avoiding vegetable oils, favoring olive oil instead, and eating wild-caught fatty, cold water fish fish and grass-fed meat) ideally making it 1/1.
Nuts (with the exception of Macadamias) also contain high amounts of omega 6 polyunsaturated oils, which may both sometimes be rancid and otherwise contribute to inflammation by skewing the critical omega 3/omega 6 ratio, so while nuts definitely belong in a healthy diet, using large amounts of nut flour for baking in order to avoid grains may not be ideal.
What all of these changes in what ends up on our plates amounts to could be summarized as quantity over quality. Good for industry, not so good for you and me. Luckily you can take many steps (ideas at the end of the article) to improve the quality of your food.
Lifestyle changes play a big part, too
Remember how what we eat affects what blueprint our DNA activates? We can affect the choice of blueprint in other ways, too. Sleep is, as mentioned in my previous post, critical. We need somewhere around 8 hours as adults and much more in childhood. Anything less will results in decreased time allowed for growth, decreased amounts of growth hormones (which are released during sleep10), increased levels of Cortisol and an increased desire for carbohydrate-rich foods (leading to more inflammation).
Last, but most definitely not least, the physical forces our bodies are exposed to strongly signal to our bodies whether we should be using our resources to build a strong frame or not. Bone and muscle is living tissue that needs to be stressed in order to stay strong (11). Astronauts exposed to weightlessness have discovered this the hard way - even relatively short stays in space have lead to significant osteoporosis in these brave men and women.
So what other steps can we take to make sure things go right, resulting in a strong physical frame that will serve us well over the course of a long life and function properly, carry us around and be a source of pleasure and joy? Turns out, there’s quite a lot we can do. Below, I have listed some of those action steps in a hopefully easy-to read (and implement!) format.
Action steps for a healthy musculoskeletal system:
-Match the use of sugars and carbohydrates to your activity level
Sugar from carbohydrates is used for some structures in the body, such as mucus, tears, joint fluid etc. But most of all it's fuel. Don't eat much more carbohydrate than you will burn for your body's basic needs and physical activity at any given time. The rest will be stored as fat, after it's circulated in your body and may have raised your insulin unnecessarily, causing inflammation. Go easy on sugar, fruit juices, soft drinks, desserts etc. Fruit also contains sugar, especially since all modern fruits are hybrids bread for their high sugar content. Minimize use of refined foods, especially low-fat varieties, which contain a lot of “hidden” sugar.
-Minimize the use of vegetable seed oils
Use animal fat including butter (choose grass-fed aka pastured butter) and olive oil instead.
-Include healthy fats and protein in your diet - your body is made of them
Saturated fats (from healthy animals and tropical oils) are building blocks for our bodies, are a source of energy and protect the fragile mono-unsaturated fats that we also need. Eat grassfed organic ruminant meat (beef, lamb, goat, bison), pastured butter or ghee, grassfed dairy, olive oil and fatty fish such as salmon and sardines. People with stain genetic traits may need to keep their saturated fat intake a bit lower than others, but contrary to long-circulated soundbites saturated fat does not "clog arteries".
The above-mentioned meat and fish are also a safe source of proteins (apart from fats and minerals, we are made from protein!)
-Get sun and organ meats
The sun triggers the formation of vitamin D in the body, while organ meats supply valuable nutrients such as vitamin A, found in large amounts in liver) to balance and work with vitamin D. You already know that vitamin D is necessary for growth, but did you know that it also has many more functions, including modulating inflammation 12? Liver is also an excellent source of valuable B-vitamins (and no, it does not filter or store toxins).
-Make bone broth, slow-cooked stews and eat meat on the bone
Cooking bone and the connective tissue (contained in the fascia in the meat and cartilage on the bone) frees these valuable nutrients into liquid and build these same tissues (bones and other connective tissues such as tendons, fascia and skin as well as joint cartilage and discs) in our bodies.
Whenever possible, choose whole foods and a natural lifestyle over supplementation. However, there are some supplements that may be necessary due to the changes to our environment and lifestyle detailed earlier.
Getting enough sun exposure in the summer is the ideal way to raise your vitamin D levels. In the Midwest, winter months are dead-zones for vitamin D production and supplementation is necessary to reach healthy levels.Bone mineralization is optimized at serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels near and above 40 ng/ml 13.
As mentioned, K2 builds bones, treats osteoporosis and makes sure calcium ends up where we want it to end up. It’s even been shown to reverse calcification of arteries. Now that’s an offer you can’t refuse!
Bone broth and other healthful foods will supply you with some the Calcium you need. Magnesium is another story, and most will benefit from supplementation. Organ meats, meat and other foods supply minerals, as does high-quality water. A tissue mineral analysis http://www.arltma.com/HairAnalysis.htm may show you where you stand, although this test hasn't yet been properly validated. Important minerals you want to make sure you get enough of include Iodine (especially if you live in the Midwest), Selenium, Potassium (instead of reducing salt, increase Potassium by eating more vegetables)
If you are over 65 years of age, your body is less receptive to the muscle-building signals of the protein in your food. You need to eat approximately 25% more protein in order to maintain your lean body mass (muscle and bone) and to reap the benefits of exercise.
A special note on Osteoporosis
Women, especially, tend to be understandably fearful of osteoporosis and tend to follow the somewhat misguided advice to supplement with large amounts of Calcium without simultaneous attention to other factors contributing to this debilitating degeneration of our frame. Other culprits of osteoporosis are deficiencies of vitamin D, vitamin K2 15 and Magnesium as well as the low activity levels typical of our society. Including collagen-rich foods in the diet, minimizing inflammation and increasing physical activity, all mentioned in this post, are also of great value.
An another one on digestion
We are not what we eat, but what we digest. With time and some conditions our production of stomach acid may decrease. If this happens, digestion suffers and our absorption of body-building substances such as protein and minerals suffer. Symptoms of low stomach acid include heartburn, heavyness and bloating after meals, gassiness or abdominal distention, poor resistance to infections, slow emptying of the stomach, fatigue and illness. Note that salt is an important source of the Chloride needed to produce hydrochloric acid. As mentioned before, most of us would benefit from increasing Potassium and Magnesium rather than decreasing Sodium e.g. in order to normalize blood pressure.
So there you have it! Avoid inflammation, supply your body with the right building blocks and lead an active lifestyle and get plenty of sunshine and sleep to signal to your DNA to build a strong, health body.
Free bonuses include: more beautiful skin, increased energy for all the wonderful things you want to do with your life, decreased risk of erectile dysfunction and other forms of vascular disease and much, much more. Now that’s what I call a great deal!