The Balancing Act
We are what we eat!
Depending on your last meal this statement may or may not elicit feelings of fear or anxiety. Even the person with the most draconian nutritional habits occasionally ingests foods that are not optimal for health. When you acknowledge that your body is actually made up of what you ingest, it is a sobering realization – our choices affect our health in a very absolute and structural way.
Busy schedules, stress, and limited amounts of time interfere with our best intentions and decrease our ability to plan, cook, buy and consume locally grown, free-range, and organic foods. These factors stop us from exercising, from taking care of ourselves, sleeping enough, relaxing. Add in a love life and family and you can feel like you will spontaneously combust! Our hectic lifestyles and food choices may or may not cause disease (that’s beyond the scope of this article). But if there is a predisposition to a given condition, the choices we make can attenuate or exacerbate progression of a disease.
Many things contribute to the initiation of disease. One of our body’s innate responses to invaders such as bacteria, infections, stress, wounds, and/or damaged cells is inflammation. It can be acute, lasting 10-14 days (a cold, appendicitis or the like) or chronic, lasting weeks, months or years. It is characterised by swelling, redness, heat and pain. Imagine the redness and swelling when you cut your finger. This same process is continuously going on in different parts of your body when you are in a state of chronic, low-grade stress. The system doesn’t turn off. There is a growing body of literature that links inflammation to cardiovascular disease, asthma, arthritis, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, autism and cancer. Chronic inflammation is also found in the obese.
We can’t change our genetics – although, sometimes, we might want to – but we can adopt habits that BALANCE our intake of foods, exercise, and our reactions to stress. There are many ways we can change our nutritional intake to combat the effects of inflammation, but we will concentrate on… The Skinny on Fats The fats we ingest can play an important part in the functioning of our immune system and relieving chronic inflammation. Fats are made up of fatty acids linked together. These fatty acids are used to make hormones and as fuel for energy. They are also the building blocks of the outside membranes of all the cells in your body. Think of a cell membrane as a plastic storage bag that holds soup. If you eat a lot of meat, butter and cheese (all saturated fats) your cell membrane (the plastic bag) will be made up of saturated fats. If you eat a lot of greens and salmon your cells will be made up of polyunsaturated fats – specifically omega-3 fatty acids.
The Science Behind the Balance of Fats
|Type of Fat||Name on Labels||Action||Food Sources|
– “All the links between the fatty acids are taken”
– Solid at room Temperature
Baked goods pastries
– 1 of the links between the fatty acids is free
– Neutral Fat
– Liquid at room temperature
– More than one of the links between the fatty acids are free
– Liquid at room temperature
– Immune function in large amounts
– Clotting of blood
|Omega 3||Eicosapentaenoic( EPA)
– High insulin
– Asthma symptoms
– Improves skin, psoriasis
– Can slow effects of aging process
Lean red meat
Green leafy vegetable
Omega three eggs
Free range eggs not grain fed.
– Liquid polyunsaturated and made saturated in the lab
– Avoid at all costs
– Cardiac disease
You not only have to be aware of the amount of fat you eat, but also the type of fat you eat. Your diet should be about 25-30 percent fat. On a 2000-calorie-a-day one that would be about 66 grammes (fat are 9 calories per gramme) in the ratio of 1:2:1- Saturated, Monounsaturated, Polyunsaturated. In addition, the type of polyunsaturated fats you choose can affect your health either by decreasing or preventing the initiation or progression of chronic low-grade inflammation.
Prostaglandins, and Leucotrienes are chemical messengers in the body – think fed-ex tracking – that play a role in inflammation both acute and chronic. They can cause contraction or relaxation of veins, arteries, and muscles in your body; they affect blood clotting, inflammatory messengers, and calcium and hormone regulation and they can induce fever. The fats you eat ultimately get broken down and create prostaglandins and leucotrienes among other things. For simplicity’s sake, think of it as two systems. The Arachadonic Acid (AA) and the Eicopentaenoic system (EPA). When we eat polyunsaturated fats they are digested and result in one of these fatty acids. The AA system comes from omega-6 fats (vegetables oils, grains, cereals). These cause an increase in the production of prostaglandins and other chemical messengers that increase the process of inflammation. The EPA system from omega-3 polyunsaturated fats creates a system that reduces inflammation and its caustic effects on the body. Omega-3 polyunsaturated fats also help clear the body of the toxic chemicals that increase inflammation. They are an all-round good choice.
So, why is there a big fuss all of a sudden?
Historically, we’ve had a 1:1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats naturally in our diet through the foods that were available for us to eat. We need both pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory responses to maintain health. But over the past few decades there has been a change in our farming, cooking and eating styles. Animals that were once fed in grass pastures have been fed on grains. Chickens, cattle, even fish used to contain the same amount of omega-3 fats as deer, buffalo, or wild turkey. People are eating more meat, more processed foods, baked goods or using vegetable oils in cooking. All these contain more omega-6 fatty acids.
Free range meat ~4 % of total fat from omega-3 Grain-fed farmed – none Wild trout: a 7:1 ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 Farm raised trout: a 2:1 ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 It’s a waterfall effect – throw one stone in the water and the ripples continue. We all know we should eat less fat, use olive oil, and add avocados to our diet – common sense. Depending on how much stress we are experiencing, or if we have any chronic issues, employing these subtle differences in the choice of fats can have an enormous effect on our health. The jury is out on the exact amount of omega-3 to omega-6 fats your body requires, but it is somewhere between a 1:2 to a 1:4 ratio. Remember, in healthy people this can maximise immune function, and prevent sickness or disease. Imagine having clearer skin, fewer allergies, less painful joints! In people with chronic illness it may relieve some symptoms. We must consume all types of fats to function and stay healthy. It takes balancing at a different level.
- Consume fats in a 1:2:1 ratio – saturated/ monounsaturated/ polyunsaturated fats.
- Limit saturated fats (anything solid at room temperature) but do not eliminate them.
- Eat certified free-range meats and eggs, if you eat meat, to increase omega-3 intake.
- Eat certified organic free-range cheese.
- Add flax or hemp seeds to yogurt, salads, and vegetables.
- Make vegetables 60 % of your meal.
- Use olive oil to cook or on salads.
- Snack on olives or nuts.
- Eat fish two to three times a week (salmon, mackerel, herring, anchovies)
- You can even use flax seed oil or olive oil on your skin as a moisturizer!
Stress – The Silent Enemy:
You miss your flight, the kids are sick, your parents are getting older. A close friend dies, the traffic is horrible, you couldn’t sleep, you’ve lost your job. The stock market crashed! The stock market crashed! Again! The future is unknown, your lover didn’t call, and your spouse isn’t paying attention to you. You have no time! STRESS!
When these kinds of stressful situations happen the brain sends messengers to the body to mobilise it’s energy store (that is, fats) to prepare for fight or flight. Run away from that woolly mammoth or tiger that is chasing you, or be ready to turn and fight it. The system has a green light to go. Unfortunately, in our societies we often don’t fight or flee. We just sit. The body’s response to stress is the same whether we lose our keys (my personal stressor, since I do it a few times a day!) or that tiger is chasing us. Same physiological response – blood pressure increases, muscles tense, pupils dilate, the body begins to sweat and tremble, and the face pales. Blood moves to the centre of the body and leaves the arms tingling. The fats the body is mobilising are the same fats we have just discussed. As your body breaks these fats down for energy you either have more of the fats that increase inflammation or that decrease it! Basically, the hypothalamus (the general of the army) tells the pituitary, adrenals, and pancreas (three glands in our body that control metabolism) to secrete epinephrine (up to 10 times normal), cortisol (the stress hormone), insulin, and glucagon. It also tells the pituitary gland to release hormones which send out messengers to the thyroid and adrenal cortex (which control metabolism and blood flow). Cortisol and its compatriots, the mineralocorticoids, are responsible for the long-term effects of stress. These stress hormones only last a few minutes, so the body keeps releasing them. When there is no action from the body, the brain perceives that there is still a stress and continues the reaction. These glands are responsible for emotions, sleep, hunger, and body temperature. They control the kidney, heart, stomach, and blood vessels. The body then experiences sleep disorders, irritability, appetite abnormalities, tension headaches, backaches, accidents, depression, lip biting, gastrointestinal disorders, teeth grinding, and substance abuse! Sound familiar?
The good news is that the reaction and the belief of the person experiencing the stressor determines the nature of the stress and it’s effects on the body. So here are a few tips on balancing it out:
Many eastern traditions, such as acupuncture, Ayurveda, Thai body massage and martial arts believe that disease is a result of blocked areas in the body of Prana, Chi, or Ki – all of which are various terms for what is simply our life force. When you release these blockages and reestablish the flow of energy, the body is restored to health. Even Western medicine is increasing its trust in mind-body connections such as pranayama, meditation, acupuncture, and yoga. All are ways to manipulate and improve the relationship between the mind and the body.
One way to dissipate those hormones that lead to chronic inflammation from stress is to MOVE YOUR BODY. Not such an original thought!
- Cardiac workouts such as walking fast, running, kettle bell, or biking can go a long way towards diminishing the effects of stress. After all, our body is expending the energy it has mobilised to fight that “tiger.”
- Yoga also assists in decreasing the body’s response to stress – whether it’s power, hatha, or restorative. Yoga moves all the muscles in the body and massages the inner organs. It stretches the fascia (connective tissue that runs through the body) and opens the joints. Many believe that the fasciae hold a cumulative stress quota – so that by releasing them you release all the old wounds from physical, mental or emotional traumas. Yoga helps open up the body’s energy centres so that air, blood and prana can return to their normal flow. Yoga poses balance the nervous system, allowing the body to be less reactive to stress and decreasing anxiety. They also decrease the hormones that are secreted in a chronic stress reaction. Here are some poses that may help relax the system:
- It’s great to start with a series of Sun Salutations A + B. This is a cardiac sequence which begins to loosen the muscles, works every muscle, massages inner organs, and warms the body up. It creates endorphins, which are responsible for feelings of relaxation and well being
- Gentle inversions such as Forward Fold help to increase blood flow, and stimulate the glands that control metabolism and immunity – those same ones that are exhausted by long term stress and inflammation.
- Grounding poses such as Tree or Tad Asana/Mountain Pose make you feel strong and build inner strength.
- Child’s pose or Sava Sana (Corpse Pose – maybe you should try it before stress makes you a real one?) are the ultimate in relaxation.
- Gentle twists, backbends such as cobra, bridge or side bending.
Joint Mobility/ Functional Exercises:
These exercises keep the joints loose and in working order. They include such positions as: a small lunge where your thigh and calf are in a 90 degree angle ,while picking a weight up off the floor; or squatting down, placing your hands on the floor, leaning into them and then using your core to stand up. This also primes the body to react to falls.
It has been found that slowing and extending exhalation during breathing slows the heat rate and switches the nervous system from the stress response – fight or flight – to the relaxation response (decreasing cortisol and epinephrine levels). So when we bring our attention to our breath, we reduce the effects of stress.
Alternate Nostril Breathing is a great way to either energize or relax the body. First, place your first finger and your thumb on the upper part of the nostrils slighting pinching off the airway passage. Then following these steps:
- Step 1: Release the left nostril and inhale through the right nostril.
- Step 2: At the top of the inhale, close the left nostril.
- Step 3: If you would like, hold the breath for a few counts.
- Step 4: Exhale through the right nostril.
- Step 5: Repeat.
Usually, breathing through the right nostril energises the body and breathing through the left nostril relaxes the body. You can practise this breathing exercise everyday or use it when you are under stress, or when you want to go to sleep. People might look at you funny – or not. It’s pretty popular now to use Pranayama.
Thousands of years ago Patanjali wrote the Yoga Sutras. It is amazing how this great sage’s advice is still pertinent. He states in the second series of his sutras – I paraphrase: “When disturbed by negative thoughts think of positive ones! Remove yourself from a negative environment until you feel stronger. Think and consider before you fixate on this stress, negative thought or action. What will be the results if you focus on this negative situation? Before anyone else is effected you will feel sick. Your blood will boil. You will be exhausted. When you are stressed out think of a loved one, a pet, a child, or a beautiful sunrise. The sunrise never disappoints; it shows up everyday and sheds its light on much beauty in the world. Take time to notice it.”
If you are very disciplined and structured (representing yang or Shiva energy) perhaps you need to loosen up and enjoy life a little. Go on a picnic, turn off the cell phone, smell a flower, dance under the moonlight! If you are walking around with your head in the clouds, an extremely creative, impulsive, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants type (yin or Shakti energy), maybe you need to make a list, stick to the schedule, wake up at the same time each day. Either way, take into account your strengths and weaknesses and try to balance them out.