Category Archives: health thoughts

Hacking

While it may not be the new verb on the block, hacking has morphed into a new comfort zone, shedding some of its bad rap.

When I was young, the ‘hacking’ I knew was messy.  Hacking a branch off a tree was sloppier than cutting it off.  Hacking was also the loud bursts of a spasmodic cough you could hear coming out of heavy cigarette smokers.  And of course, hacking was the description serious golfers gave to my golf swing.  The fact that I unintentionally hacked off a few plants at the roots with a gold club made me a hacker.

Could this have been the reason I was a hacker?

Then came personal computers, their coded languages, and the unauthorized access to other’s data.  Computer hacking was born.  If you hacked, you were a hacker.  Hackers were, and many still are, devious, spreading bugs, viruses and stealing what isn’t theirs.

Then at some point in recent evolution, we included building something quickly and being able to solve a problem using a shortcut, as part of the hacking definition.  Hacking became a good thing.  You can now find online life-hacking tips.  Dave Asprey, in his book Head Strong, discusses various techniques for hacking the brain to optimize its use.

One suggestion for brain hacking

Vanessa Van Edwards, the author of Captivate, outlines a multi-step approach to hacking the personality traits of others, for enhanced relationships.  I recently read a blog post by a doctor discussing the benefits of exercise hacking to improve workouts.  Hackety, hack, hack, hack.

Many of us are looking for shortcuts and tricks to gain an edge.  That now means hacking, which is okay, if, in the end, we are more productive, efficient, healthier, and good to each other.

If that’s the case, count me in.  I could be down for some serious hacking, wherever I can find it.

Biodynamics to the rescue

While somewhat of an obscure farming method, even though it’s been around for decades, biodynamic, not to be confused with organic, has been slowly creeping into vineyards, orchards, and farmer’s markets.

There is no question that the demand for organic food has been on the rise.  The proof is in its availability.  You can now find organic edibles in many local markets. Organic is mainstream.  Even in rural China, organic specialty foods have made an appearance.  But is organic worth the purchase?  There is no shortage of opinions on both sides of that question.  The answer may be, “it depends,” and also whether we care about ecosystem sustainability, nutrition, flavor, long-term biodiversity, residual synthetic chemicals in our bloodstreams, yadda, yadda, yadda.

from field to store, JD manages a certifiable process

As we were chomping down on rare cooked, organic, 1.5-inch thick grass-fed sirloin steaks during a small family gathering recently, discussing the relative value of animals (humans included), the topic of organic crops came up.  Nephew JD, who works as a produce broker, coordinating business between large grocery retailers (such as Whole Foods) and dozens (or hundreds) of small SE Pennsylvania farms, enlightened us about the smoke-and-mirrors of organic.  Perhaps because I’m a tail-end product of the hippy generation, I’ve been somewhat trust-worthing-ly naive about the “certified organic” label. Throughout the 80’s/90’s organic foods gain popularity as a valid alternative food source.  The standards in those days, I’m told (by Waldorf University agriculture students), for Certified Organic were stricter.  During the last two decades, with lobbying from the food industry, compliance for organic certification have been relaxed considerably.  As JD pointed out, organic food can be sprayed with pesticide and still be certified organic.  The pesticide may not be (as) synthetic as conventional farming, but it’s a pesticide nonetheless.  Additionally, organic has different standards internationally.  An organic tomato from Mexico is different from an organic tomato from the USA. 

Still, the point is we tend to think organically grown is healthier.  In many cases though, if it is, it could be marginal.  JD assured us though, that while the label isn’t what it seems, we were still not throwing our money away by buying organic.

To be fair, he explained, conventional farmers must go through a multi-year process, purging the soil of synthetic fertilizer to achieve organic certification.  Once they do though, their reward is a higher price yield. Still, organic has become marketing at its finest.

Biodynamic to the rescue.  Maybe.

A few years ago GV and I went to a wine tasting close to home in NYC where one of the California vineyard owners proudly and passionately served us samples of his biodynamic wines.  “They are alive,” he said.  One test, he said, was to loosely cork an unfinished bottle without the need to vacuum it.  After a couple of days, unlike traditional wine, it would be as vibrant and flavorful as the day it was opened.  He was right.

Union Square farmer’s market in NYC

In NYC’s Union Square farmer’s market, a few local farms now label their products certified biodynamic.  Apparently, this is a stricter level of certification where no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides are used.  Moreover, biodynamic farms must be regenerative, not degenerative.  In other words, there must be little to no reliance on imported (to the farm) products.  The idea is a holistic, ethical approach to farming and raising food, where systems are considered interconnected, the ecosystem balanced and diversified.

Are there critics of organic and biodynamic foods?  Sure.  There are plenty of studies showing doubt about various benefits of both, but none looking at long-term effects of pesticides or the subtleties of food language.  No studies are looking at the molecular makeup of what is produced and how it affects us over a lifetime.  We are finding out that what we put in our mouths passes chemical information to our cells from what they contain.  So if a plant or animal was raised with pesticides, hormones, or antibiotics, then those coded messages are passed along in what we eat.  It’s subtle, it’s deep, and more than likely, beyond most of our conversations.  It’s beyond the guy writing this post.

I’m a sucker, trusting this marketing bait

I bought fish last night labeled organic because it sounded healthier, although it’s more likely I was caught in a hocus pocus marketing ploy. [Hint: organic fish ≠ wild caught].  However, I remain hopeful that certified organic still means the absence of hormones, antibiotics, and GMO ingredients (GMO being another worm, er.., rat hole).

As in last week’s post, our decision to eat conventional, local, natural, organic, biodynamic, or growing our own, boils down not only to how we grew up and what we’ve learned along the way, but also to a healthy dose of our own self-constructed (sometimes quirky?) logic, combined with a dash of gullibility, with a pinch of trust.  For now though, when I see an organic or biodynamic label, I’m a certified sucker.

Logic didn’t make this chart

 

Fluently Fluenz

Although there is still much more about our brains that we don’t know than we do, what those who study our noggins have discovered is that learning a language is an activity that pays relatively high dividends.

Learning a foreign language creates more connections

For most of us, because of the complexity, learning a new language is not easy.  It takes time, thought, effort, recall, and lots of practice.  It’s kind of like aerobics, resistance training, and yoga all combined into a well-rounded mental workout.  And like physical exercise, the results are proportional to the effort we invest.  When we learn a language, brain scans are showing the firing of neural synapses actually help expand the plasma membrane where we need it most — memory and recall.

Good advice, but may not be too helpful for actually learning the language

As an added bonus, brain heads are also detecting a host of extra side benefits from learning a language, such as an increase in creativity, flexibility, openness, focus, and an improvement in general cognitive skills.

This seems to be about my speed

Having been in rural China (on and off) for a few years means that getting to know the basics of Mandarin not only makes life a bit easier but also a tad more enriching.  Fortunately, or unfortunately, most business communication is conducted in English, giving me an excuse and an out.  Still, I’ve poked around at several different learning methods, from podcasts, to classes, to a book and CD — each one improving my rationalization skills for avoiding the mental workouts.  I even tried using a stone of the rosetta variety, but nothing was sparking the neuron stimulation I was looking for. Then I found Fluenz.

While I’m still well entrenched in the beginner stage, it’s kind of thrilling to be able to direct a taxi and order food without pointing to everything like a dumbo.  After a few years, that’s not saying much.  Anyone with normal intelligence would be a lot further along.  But the fact that I’ve found something that is not a chore is thanks to the structure and format of this online and downloadable course.

This must mimic my own circuitry — minimal

The co-founder, Sonia Gil, has developed a method that actually makes learning the language engaging.  The premise of Fluenz is that each language requires a slightly different approach, at least for English speakers. I can’t speak for their other courses, but the Mandarin version consists of three levels, each one with more than a couple dozen sessions.  Each session is broken down into many, aptly named, workouts.  The exercises include a short dialogue with and without translation, explanations, matching words with photos and sentence structures, practice writing what you hear with the correct inflection (pinyin), and more. The sessions are pleasantly mixed and diverse enough that the learning process is stimulating.  Additionally, the iPad and iPhone versions are appealingly interactive.  The course also includes digital flashcards in a variety of formats, mobile podcast practice, and a short dictionary.

My rationalization skills for avoiding study time are still well-honed.  Many days spent justifying why not studying Mandarin is in my best interest has made me an expert at fooling myself.  The one phrase I’ve got memorized for the Chinese people who try to speak to me is “tīng bù dõng” which in essence means, I’m clueless about your language, so it’s fruitless to talk with me. But because I’m an oddball in their world, the locals are curious.  They want to converse. By not trying, tiny grains of richness evaporate, so it doesn’t seem right that I deny them, or myself, those scattered yet potentially wholesome morsels.

With luck, if the gray matter is not too thin and I can somehow overpower the phony excuses, I’ll eek out of baby phase at some point and into toddlerhood. If so, I’m hoping to eventually savor some of those residual benefits.  I won’t hold my breath, but if there’s a chance, it will be thanks to the Fluenz course.

And if I can power through, I just may pick up another Fluenz language and chalk it up to encephalonic health care.  Not being in the country where the language is spoken doesn’t mean there isn’t value in the effort.  Daily mental calisthenics with so many perks could be a worthy commitment.

Catching restorative Z’s

During my 40’s & 50’s, I was an avid alarm clock user.  It was set for 5 am, weekends included.  I was either in the gym or outdoors doing something active every day at 5:30 am, no matter what.  The daily morning engagement was a commitment.  It didn’t matter if the evening prior was filled with late fun, the outdoor date with myself at 5:30 in the morning held.

To get up at five, meant I should have been in bed and asleep by nine the evening prior.  That never happened.  It was more like 11 pm, or sometimes 12.

We should not need one of these

In my 30’s I didn’t get up that early.  But the idea may have been festering for years. During the time I lived in San Francisco, I met a young, upwardly mobile, apparently successful and vibrant couple, each running their own business.  We became friends and occasionally jaunted up to Napa and Sonoma on our motorcycles for lunch.  Curiosity led me to ask about their workout routine.  They explained that they got up at 5 am to workout in their home gym so they could fit in their physical activity before their day jobs.  Their answer to “what time do you go to bed and sleep at night” left me with my jaw hanging open.  Nine pm they said. They were my age, early 30’s.  How could anyone go to sleep at 9 pm every day I thought.  But they did. They were not going to trade-off sleep.

It wasn’t until my later 50’s, that I was slapped upside the head (actually the neck).  Yea, ok, I’m a (real) slow learner.  Little did I realize that length, and of course quality, of sleep, is just as important as eating and exercising well.

Sleep researchers say that adults need between 7-9 hours of sleep a day.  Throw out the 3rd standard deviation, and that leaves more than 80% of us requiring between 7.5-–8.5 hours daily — depending on our individual rem sleep cycles.  If we trim or curtail our required sleep-time, we are not doing ourselves, or our bodies, any favors.  In other words, cutting sleep short creates metabolic distortions.  And, if we are getting the right amount of sleep we shouldn’t need an alarm clock to get out of bed.

A common habit — eating into healthy sleep time.

Most of us have (self-created) demanding, competitive, activity-filled lives, hell-bent on productivity and getting ahead, that a major challenge is squeezing life into our waking hours.  Unfortunately, sleep usually takes a hit.

It’s not surprising.  Many business success self-help books extol the virtues of waking up earlier, burning the midnight oil, and other push-the-envelope advice, ignorantly neglecting the health repercussions of extended sleep deprivation.

We’ve all had to work on less sleep from time-to-time, but when it becomes a lifestyle, then long term health is compromised.  The right amount and quality of daily sleep set us up for optimal physiological and biological performance.  It’s just as important as exercise and diet, if not more so.

The challenge for most of us is not waking up early, but getting to bed, lights out/devices off, so that we can wake up, alarm free, after a full night’s sleep.

I still have the morning date with myself but without the alarm clock.  It’s still a tug-of-war getting to bed on time.  But seeing that compromising sleep-time is a health disservice, it’s worth protecting like gold. 

Cigarette smoking is not harmful

And if you believe that you might also be convinced that cellphone microwave emissions are not harmful.  But then again, it’s possible they both are.

One could argue, and make a strong case, that smoking one, two, or three cigarettes would not cause physical harm.  Likewise, the same could be said that one, two, or three five-minute phone calls with a cellphone against your head is harmless.  But the answer is, in both cases, different if we are talking about the cumulative effects over decades.

Smoking was sexy

It only took us (in the USA), about 100 years to go from romanticizing cigarettes after WW1, to permitting smoking in airplanes and hospitals, to then thinking they may be harmful, to realizing that they indeed are,  then making it compulsory for a warning label on the side of their package, to banning the marketing of them, to the airlines slowly going smoke-free, to moving the warning to the front of the cigarette package, and only recently prohibiting them from restaurants, bars, and public spaces.  Are we in the romance stage for cellphone usage?  It’s much too early to say, but initial studies are showing there are indeed undesirable effects.

No other generation in history has carried powerful handheld devices that emit radio frequency close at hand as we do today.

Taken from Dr. Devra Davis presentation

It was barely 25 years ago when I acquired my first clunky mobile cellphone.  It was a business expense since I was in the field working in Brazil, so not everyone had them.  It also wasn’t so smart and didn’t stay with me like an appendage.  There was no such thing as WiFi at that time.  Now of course, just about everyone on the planet has smart handheld devices and/or tablets with them at all times.  The market is so device saturated that we’ve begun advertising phones to children and tablets to babies.

Consider that the electromagnetic waves that power cellphone connections are the same kind and frequency used in microwave ovens.  They both generate heat.  The only difference is the power used to produce them.  The few studies done so far for cellphone electromagnetic safety have been industry funded studies.  (sound familiar?)

Taken from Dr. Devra Davis presentation

Consider also that companies like Apple bury the warning inside legal mumbo jumbo, advising against the use of these devices against the body.  The headset that is provided is not because they want to give us something extra, but because the radio frequency absorption rate tests indicate a potential health risk. They are implying that there could be consequences for not keeping space between your body and the device.  The statement leaves them legally off the hook.

In the about/legal section of every Apple mobile device

The fact is, we don’t know exactly how unhealthy sustained exposure to these microwaves is.  We do know that children and babies have softer bones and tissue.  Several countries, such as France, have recently banned marketing cellphones to children.

Cellphones emit the strongest pulse radiation signals when 1) a call is answered, 2) we travel (walk or drive) and connectivity switches from tower to tower or 3) there is other cellular activity.  The non-industry testing that has been done so far suggest that constant use over decades, beginning at an early age, points to negative consequences.

We won’t have real data until perhaps 40 years into continuous use.  We’re not there yet.  Then again, the difficulty will be the lack of control groups as nearly everyone uses these devices.  Therefore, it may be prudent to be safer rather than sorry(ier).

Following are a few tips:

  • Keep the phone on airplane mode whenever possible and use Wifi (wifi dosage is less than cellphone RF)
  • Use a headset or speaker to talk on the phone, not the phone against the head
  • Don’t keep the phone on your body when not in airplane mode (i.e., pants pockets or bra)
  • If you keep the turned-on device on your person, line your pockets or bag with an RF blocking material
  • Don’t sleep next to your turned-on device
  • Don’t let children carry phones if it can be prevented (unless you don’t mind them being part of a large experiment)

Of course, there’s always the option of keeping the phone turned off most of the time and living life outside the device.  But we may have reached the point of no return.

A slice of half-baked pie

It’s tricky being in the advice business, especially the “what is right to eat” one.  There are thousands of diet books enthusiastically embracing a “correct way to eat.”  I’ve read a few recently published, written by smart, educated, scientific minds, several with medical degrees — strongly advising us what we ‘should eat’ to be our healthiest, giving us our best chance to avoid disease.  They all agree on one thing:  we should be eating real whole food and avoiding highly processed (junk).  That makes sense to any dummy.  Eating an apple, they agree, is healthier than a Snickers bar.  Duh.  

Since we are all so “food group” conscious, what the books don’t agree on are the ideal proportions of those whole food groups.  Some are polar opposites over saturated fats, particularly from meats and dairy, whether they are good or harmful.  One camp exposes a strictly plant based diet, showing studies of how animal fats are directly related to our maladies.  Others point to similar studies showing why animal fats and good dairy may help cure them.  Some champion low fat in general.  Others high fat.  Some encourage whole grains, yet others endorse avoiding them.  There are loads of conflicting beliefs and recommendations.  How can smart, educated, studied, professionals be so at odds about what whole foods we should eat?  They all can’t be right.  Or can they?

We’ve all been somewhat dimwitted when it comes to what we’ve been sticking in our mouths over the last century as we’ve radically changed our diets away from natural whole to processed food.  We gain weight and have health problems, then try to reverse years of bad habits, so we listen to what we hope is smart advice.  The thing is, most well-intentioned smart, nutritional advice givers, dedicated to helping people, don’t really know what is the best formula for eating. They can only look at slices of the pie.

We know that our bodies are a collection of atoms, too numerous to put a number to.  We’ve learned that atoms join together to form molecules and that these molecules are in constant communication with each other.  Life at the molecular level is highly dynamic and interactive.  What we eat and breath, ends up communicating with our cells, made up of those molecules.  Throw in coded messages from our non-stop thoughts and the quality of sleep, and our internal systems, from brain to toes, are constantly buzzing with vibrant interactions.

In affect, the advice-business folks make blanket claims about what is good or bad with blinders on.  We are learning that our molecular messaging system is so complex that  effects are sometimes not known for decades, or even generations, leaving us little choice but to make assumptions by looking at slices.

As a complex species we are somewhat the same, but each with unique messaging systems.  Is there a “best diet” for everyone?  From a logical perspective it’s highly unlikely.  At the same time, what is also logical is that food (including the food’s source) which has been manipulated (altering the original intended message) is most probably sending less-than-desirable information to our cells, whether that food is processed, whole fruits and vegetables, or animal origin.

So a hearty thanks to those doing the hard research and giving sound advice, particularly those warning that vegetable oils and sugars are highly toxic.  At the same time, it might be helpful for certain advise givers to qualify their advice and offer caveats, that studies have limitations and that their advice may not be for everyone.  Anything less is a half-baked slice of delicious home-made pie.

Heading to the bars

It’s developed into a relatively new habit, at least a few times a week.  Even when traveling, I’ve started investigating where the bars are so that I might stay nearby.

It all started in Bangkok a couple of years ago when, in the course of going out, I took a side street and discovered a bar area worth hanging out in.

Bars can set you free, no club to join, and like most bars, a congregation area for meeting others with the same goals.

For those sharing the same hankering, the following are a few images of bar areas I’ve run across in recent travels.  If you care to share your favorite bars, your input would be most welcome.

 

The bars that started the obsession — Lumpini Park, Bangkok

East River near the East Village, NYC

When I must stay in Shanghai, I try to stay around Jing’an Park, which has a semi-hidden bar area (partial view)

On the ocean in Danang, Vietnam

Manhattan Beach, California, a bar area hard to beat

Partial View of a bar area on the Colorado River, Austin, TX

Zhangjiagang go-to bar area as long as the locals are not using them for drying clothes

This morning’s alternate bar area in Zhangjiagang, Jiangsu, China