Last week I published a post in which I went into some detail on my current struggle with my health. I was shocked (though in retrospect I am certain I should not have been) to learn how many women empathize.
Today I want to go into a little bit more detail about what (by my best guess) is wrong with me and why. Hopefully this’ll help us start a conversation about recovering from stress, as well as raise some awareness about how prevalent stress-related health complications are.
The match at the bottom of the haystack: January 2011
To be clear: my “haystack” is very dry. Very, very dry. It has been for as long as I can remember. I have always been anxious. I have always been a poor sleeper – there is not one time in my life I can look back on and say ‘ah, yes, those were the glory days.’ I have always been a basketcase — if a tightly controlled and happy one — that’s just the fabric out of which me and my life are made. My haystack has always been dry and full of friction, ready to ignite.
January of 2011 was when the match was struck and everything “Stefani’s Health” sprinted to hell in a hurry.
Why? What happened? For one, I began taking T3 for my hypothyroidism, which upregulated my metabolism and therefore my heart rate. Worse, however, I began taking spironolactone, a usually fairly harmless drug (save for the rare occasion in which it can make you drop dead of hyperkalemia) often proscribed to women with hormonal acne.
I was so desperate to overcome my acne that I took drugs.
Almost immediately, I began having panic attacks.
Almost immediately, my previous insomnia problem which had always meant trouble falling asleep at night became an insomnia nightmare in which I was up until 4, 5, 6, sometimes 7am (and having to wake at 8 for class) anxious, sobbing, terrified, and with my heart racing.
I knew that spironolactone was supposed to reduce my testosterone levels, and I also knew it was a potassium-sparing diurectic. Neither of those things are known to cause anxiety in any statistically rigorous way. But hormones are hormones, and balance is important. More importantly, being a potassium-sparing diuretic means that other electrolytes – sodium, calcium, and magnesium – the electrolyte you need in order to feel calm – are flushed out of your system.
I quit the thyroid hormone, and that helped. It took me another month or two to work past my terror of going off the acne med (which, by the way, actually made my acne worse and my skin improved when I got off it… so… suck on that, Pfizer). When I did, it got better. I was no longer extremely clammy. Panicked. Palpitating. Wired. Incapable of falling asleep.
Not as extremely, anyway.
It never went away. In fact, in fairly short order, it got a lot worse.
Having been on this drug, I think I lost a significant portion of my already weak magnesium stores, which hurled me into the most painful and terrifying season of my life. I never slept. I didn’t know why. My heart always raced. My brain was out of control. Anxiety flooded every moment of my life, such that even tiny decisions like what color shirt to wear made my palms sweat and my heart race. I sought therapists. I sought psychiatric help in the form of the brilliant Dr Emily Deans (I never took anxiety meds, however, since I had anxiety about what they would do to me. Alas, the brilliant irony of mental health prescriptions.) I sought anything that might help – even acupuncture (which did). I contemplated giving up on living for the first time.
At the end of August it dawned on me that electrolytes might be an issue. You can actually die from an extreme electrolyte imbalance, so I checked myself into the ER. They ushered me in because my heartbeat was so fast. But they found nothing wrong with me.
And so – since then. It has been a full 24 months since I began taking spironolactone, and 18 months since I stopped. 15 months since I realized electrolytes were a part of my issue. 9 months since I realized that I needed to supplement with magnesium on a daily basis (my favorite one here). 9 months still in which I struggled to sleep, struggled to be calm, and struggled to have the sense of self I had before January 2011. 2 months since the most stressful period of my life.
Of course magnesium is not the only issue.
Adrenal fatigue: Do I believe in it?
No, and yes.
No, I do not believe in adrenal fatigue in the sense that your body gets too tired of making cortisol to keep doing so. That’s a bit far-fetched to me — cortisol is the hormone responsible for wakefulness, so of course it is a natural compound present throughout every moment of our lives.
What I do believe happens is that our bodies can become cortisol resistant, just as they can be insulin and leptin resistant.
Do I have it?
You bet your bottom dollar that I do. In the wake of those drugs, on top of an already stressful life, plus the stress of poor sleep and anxiety for two years plus the extraordinary culmination of four hours of sleep for two straight months –
Yes. My heart races at the drop of a hat, let alone at any kind of moderate stressor. Fights with my partners, important interviews, hell, even the idea of waking up early in the morning, all prevent me from being able to sleep throughout the entire night and give me anxiety. I used to be able to still fall asleep at some point during the night. Now, if there’s an issue, my body won’t calm down at all, and I might squeeze in 90 minutes somewhere between 8 and 10am.
Even if there’s not an issue, my eyes snap open with my heart thumping loudly in my chest exactly four hours after falling asleep nearly every night.
We’ll see how fun March is for me – a national book release. Hooray.
So what am I doing about it?
The absolute best thing I possibly can.
The reason I wanted to write this post was to share with you, again, the depths of my struggle with my physiological response to certain stressors.
I also wanted to emphasize how important it is to do everything you can for yourself.
Coming out of my period of stress, I knew that I needed a radical change. That lifestyle could not continue. I did not want it to. It was killing me, and I wasn’t having too much fun.
So I saved as much money as I could and I moved into a safe, quiet space away from my normal, hustle-and-bustle life. I do not make appointments before 2pm unless its Abel James Bascom and he’s dragging me out of bed for a crack-of-dawn podcast (more on which in a week or so). I go to sleep whenever my body allows it. I eat when I am hungry and I stop when I am full. I do not exercise unless I really feel like it (and it took me six weeks of serious rest before I felt like doing sprint workouts again.) I am “sugar detoxing” (using this plan) – by which I mean simply that I am attempting to reduce my addiction to and craving for sweet foods. I dance as often as I want to because that makes me happier than anything in the world.
I say no to obligations that might impede my healing.
As hard as it is, I know that what I need more than anything is to be slow. To stop trying. To not be perfect. To be calm. To weigh 130 pounds. To only spend time with people who energize and love me and make me feel safe.
This isn’t to say that I am incapable of life.
To the contrary. I am eminently capable. I have a lot of willpower. But willpower is what usually gets us into these messes in the first place. We push and push and push and push until there’s no muscle left to do the pushing anymore.
So we back up, and we repair, and we begin inching forward again.
This is the story of my tipped over physiology. Today I am healing. This morning I woke after seven hours of sleep with my heart beating peacefully, like it did so many years ago I can barely remember, and I looked at the sun streaming through my window with a smile. This morning I felt like I had enough energy to get up and work right away, and to exercise, and to forego naps. This morning I did not have insatiable sugar cravings. I am certain it is a long and winding road ahead. Today is one of the better days. But at least I am walking it, and gently.
Looking for more on the relationship between stress and health? I wrote even more about it in my bestselling book, Sexy By Nature.
It’s funny. Sometimes I think I spend most of my time on this blog trying to drum up ways to legitimize inappropriate topics for it rather than actually writing. Fear of rejection? World of Warcraft? The nature of human community? Why not? I can manufacture a paleo reason to talk about anything.
Today’s topic, I do think, however, has serious paleo resonances. I do a lot of talking about the paleo diet (and did even more in my book, here), and I even talk about the paleo lifestyle, which includes things like play and ample sleep on this blog. And we like to talk about differences between how we live today and how, presumably, many of our ancestors did. How did they think, live, eat, sleep? Beyond that, even, we get to ask: how did they relate? Love? Act? Is that important for us now?
Sometimes I think what’s most important is not figuring out what ancestors did, but rather different things that we do in different cultures today, and comparing them. This enlightens us to how incredibly conditioned we have all been.
For example, we know well that beauty norms come largely from culture. Whether we like big noses or small noses or men in high heels versus women in high heels is all a matter of perspective. We can dig deeper than that, however.
What about our basic fears, our basic hopes, our basic loves?
Here’s one example I’ll delve into at another point in time: consider the notion that we do not have capitalism because humans are inherently selfish, but rather that we are selfish because we have capitalism, the idea being that we have to become defensive and self-aggrandizing in order to be safe and hold our own. Culture over time can make us fearful and think of ourselves as more selfish than we are, and it sits so deeply in our psyches that it’s nearly impossible to find.
Which in a roundabout way brings me to today’s topic: why are we such a mess about death in American society?
I began having panic attacks about dying when I was five years old. I laid in bed at night, shaking with a racing heart, terrified of the abyss. I imagined winking out of existence and sobbed in abject horror. This was largely, I believe, because I was not raised in a religious or openly spiritual household that talked about that kind of thing. This notion, however, presumes that there is something terrifying at all that needs to be reconciled with a spiritual viewpoint. Why was I terrified of dying before I even read my first novel?
By the time I was in first grade, I had been exposed to two things. I was exposed to media in which death is portrayed as the one thing to fear and avoid at all costs, and I was exposed to our culture response to it. In TV and in movies especially we portray death as the ultimate horrible end. People and story plots go to the most incredible length’s to preserve lives — this simplistic and dramatic trope is, in fact, the dominant plot thread in most of Western story-telling. This indicates a more broad abhorrence of and distance from death in our culture as a whole, but in the media, and as a child, I was bombarded with it and all its terrifying might without context. Worse is the aftermath. We dress in black. We weep. We sob. We storm. We conduct solemn funeral processions that last days. 100 years ago, I might wear a black dress for a whole year if my betrothed happened to past.
I was exposed to a barrage of negative images around death as a child. And I am of course similarly exposed today: the act. The event. The response. All of it terrified me for most of my life. What is this horrible thing, this non-existing thing, this thing that everyone talks about in hushed voices only and that is far away from me, far away from my life, and this horrible, gaping, looming threat? Because the worst part of it all, to me, is that we continue to portray and treat death as the most abhorrent curse without ever sharing our experiences or thoughts or doubts around it.
The roots of the Western fear of death run deep, deep, deep, deep. Fortunately for me (!?), one of my specialties in my work as an (aspiring) philosopher is existential despair and dread and nihilism in general. So I have learned a fair bit about it and have come to grips with so much of it that I feel quite at peace with all of it now. There’s too much to go into in any great detail here, though our estrangement from nature, our (waning?) investment in supernatural deities, and our Christian/Judaic/Islamic heritage play no small role.
This, however, is not how it has to be done.
Consider the funerary practices of the Maori culture in New Zealand:
At one point while living in Taiwan I became close friends with a Maori woman. She expressed to me that she was puzzled over our fear of death. She thought (and I do now, too), that a great deal of it has to do with our cultural practices. For the Maori, when a family member is nearing death, everyone related is called to their home, and they throw a day, or two-day, or week, or however-long-they-choose party for the ailing member. They have festivities and the children gallivant and play out in the fields and everyone does what they can to be present with their precious loved one in the time remaining, full of laughter and lightness. And then they bid her farewell, surrounding her on her deathbed as she dies. If she does not pass, everyone goes home and comes back to Ethel’s Goodbye Partay 2.0 the next time she looks like she might be ready.
Being closer to death, this Maori woman I knew thought that it was less of a big deal, for one. She was familiar with it. She wasn’t raised to fear it, to cloth herself in black, to be private about her feelings, and to stand in awestruck terror in front of corpses. She was, instead, encouraged to be close to death, to be present with it, and to be familiar with its processes. Psychologists know well that a large portion of our fear comes from the unknown and from things about which we perceive we have no control.
Looking at this Maori culture demonstrates that we don’t have to be as afraid of dying as we have been conditioned to be. Many other cultures around the world shed similar light on the topic. Hell, Buddhists don’t think there’s a “self” that exists to die anyway, so what’s the big fuss about? Of course holding that belief and practicing is easier said than done, but that is the goal of much of the tradition. Non-attachment is the name of the game.
One more example is something – one of my favorite belief systems – called the Religion of Nature. One of its primary tenants is that we are inherently natural beings, part of a great cycle of good and evil and death and rebirth. It’s all inevitable. It’s all a part of the process. What have we to so intensely fear? Death is as much a part of life as anything else. In fact, one thing you may want to consider is a biological fact popularized (somewhat) and interpreted by famed biologist Ursula Goodenough:
Life used to exist solely in unicellular form. This form was, more or less, immortal. It did not have to die as it regenerated itself and reproduced. But in order to utilize more cells and grow into larger organisms, life needed to burn more energy. More energy meant more oxygen. More oxygen meant burning more strongly, more brightly. It meant that life became a flame that had, necessarily, to be extinguished. Death, it turns out, is the biological price of life. Without it, no advanced lifeforms would exist. With out death, so the evolutionary story goes, none of us would be alive.
All of which is to say that there are tons of things in our culture that make death more terrifying than it needs to be. The process of death as we portray it, and the way in which we mourn it, and the incredible, terrifying distance we give it from our everyday lives (not to mention our increased ability to avoid it with medicine…leading to an even greater attachment to immortality) is a bit absurd, and it’s everywhere. It demonstrates an underlying terror in our psyche, but we cannot chip away at that terror unless we start recognizing all of it’s sources.
And the reason I bring this all up, and on a paleo blog, to boot, is three-fold.
1) Anxiety is a huge problem for the modern world. A large portion of our anxieties, I think, lie in our unresolved feelings regarding both the deaths of those around us as well as our own looming mortality.
2) Looking at the variety of cultures around the world and at the variety of ideas out there like the religion of nature demonstrates just how culturally conditioned we are in our basic fears and hopes and loves and dreams. We do not have to be any particular way. We do not have to feel a certain way. There are biological imperatives, sure. Of course we do not want to die. Of course we want to be loved. But we have choice and agency and the ability to feel any number of different things. The only thing to do with that choice is to act on it.
3) If paleo is about natural stuff, and if my writing on this blog is about being natural women, then we might have the leeway here to consider what true naturalness means.
If you are attached to immortality, if you believe in God or gods or any number of things, or you don’t, whatever, that is awesome. I give giant thumbs up to all metaphysical views.
But we should, individually and together as a community of beings, to be able to, no matter what our belief systems, consider ourselves a part of the natural world, and love ourselves for all of that. When we wrap ourselves up in fear of death, and when we distance ourselves from it and erect barriers in our lives to avoid confronting it, we distance ourselves from perhaps the most essential part of being human. And of course we cannot ever learn how to love that part of ourselves.
We cannot–or at least I now refuse to–hate or fear or resent our bodies for degenerating. We cannot live in terror. We cannot fight constantly against a natural process and expect that we will maintain positive mental health. I refuse to be upset that I live so precariously on the edge of life. I am what I am–no more, and no less. I am a body. I am a woman. I am a speck of universe-dust come alive. More importantly, perhaps is the fact that death runs on its own clock. And as it does, I can only breathe. I can only peacefully accept my place in the overturning processes of the cosmos. I accept and embrace my fragility as it is, and do my best to live a life that floats among the chaos.
The universe is rife with uncertainty, though we can still be certain of our power and serenity as natural beings in a natural world. None of us can beat death. But we can dance against and around it, and live courageously into a future that is unknown.
I had a conversation in early May of this year that sticks with me. I think of it often, like it’s stuck to the insides of my skull and I could not scrape it off even if I wanted to.
A friend of mine and I sat on a hill of grass overlooking Boston as the sun set. I wondered aloud to him — “You know that feeling of bliss, of being so in love with the world, and so passionately delighted to be alive?”
“Yeah,” he responded, a bit of wist in his voice.
“Didn’t you used to feel that way all of the time? I used to feel that way all of the time. It was my default. Now — I’m lucky if I can muster that feeling up for a few brief moments every month. What happened?”
“I’m not sure,” he replied.
Then, at the same time, we both said, “It’s because we’re adults.”
The difference between childhood and adulthood is mostly responsibility, in my opinion. It’s about having to take care of things. It’s about having things be at stake in your decision making. And it’s not not just anything at stake in your decision making, but important things. Your health, the health of your significant other, parents, and children, your career, and your ability to keep putting food on the table are just a few examples. Your ability to pay for insurance and to have a roof over your head. Looked at from this angle, being an adult is about bearing stress. It’s about juggling all of these things and taking care of so many people. Stress is worry — it takes your brain’s resources and directs them towards managing your responsibilities.
The thing is, however — that this worry is the precise thing that separates us from the youthful joy of being alive.
So it’s not the responsibility that robs us of freedom and joy per se. But it’s the mental energy that comes along with it.
Think about the times in which you happily engage others, really enjoy yourself, and spread love. Think about the times in which it is easy to be open, to be loving, and to be joyful. Are they not the times in which you are the most unburdened and free? In which you are unafraid, and do not bear the weight of fear and stress?
Alternatively, think about times of your life in which you have had many things to worry about. Do you not feel curled into your own self? Do you not feel as though it is more difficult to positively engage the people around you? Ever have an impending deadline and snarl at every person who approaches your workstation? God forbid they disrupt your ability to get the damn thing done on time.
To be honest, all of this is okay, I think. It makes perfect sense. I see it as a matter of energy. Each of us only has a given amount of energy. This energy can be directed anywhere — toward sadness, anger, play, delight, or diligent work. But it cannot go everywhere. And it is limited. And your biological priority is taking care of yourself and your responsibilities first and foremost (or your offspring and family, but that’s just as draining.)
So when you are worried, anxious, stressed, or have any kind of mentally-demanding challenge floating arond in your brain, you direct your energy inward. You do everything you can with all of the resources at your disposal to manage your responsibility. You might overshoot and give it more energy than it needs, but you are still doing your best and you need to be understood and forgiven for that. On the flipside, when you are not anxious, stressed, or have inner-problems toward which you need to direct energy, then you are liberated to give your energy to other things. To happy things. To external things. You are free to play, free to laugh, and free to love.
The reason I bring this all up is because I think it is one of the most important factors for overall wellness.
We talk about stress a lot in the health world. But what do we mean by this, and what is its real effect? What are the different kinds of stress? How should we handle it?
Understanding stress in this way helps me navigate it better and reduce it. I know that my body directs all of its energy toward my responsibilities because it is doing its best to keep me alive. But does it have to? Can I not allocate time for certain worries, and firmly tell my brain to cool it at other times, and let the gratitude and joy of liberated living flow into that vacuated space?
Understanding stress in this way makes me forgive myself for being stressed in the first place, too. It’s okay — I understand now that my body and my brain are doing their best to help me. I understand that they demand my energy because they think they need it in order for me to be safe. Sometimes I don’t need them to do this, and I can tell them to relax and take a break for a while. On the other hand, sometimes I really do need to give 100 percent of my energy to the problem I am dealing with. When this is the case, I let myself do it.
I understand that I actually need to devote all of my energy to stressful events sometimes. This is important. In some sense, it’s an acceptance of my basic humanity and fragility where I let my need to take care of things override my desire to feel or ability to act outside of this stressful zone. I let my stress run its course through me without resistance. I give myself to the demands my situation has put upon me, and I let my brain do the mental work it wants to do. When I can accept and live through times of crisis in this way, then even the fact that my brain has demanded 100 percent of my mental energy does not make me feel as wretched at it normally does, because I know that this is the best and most efficient way to weather the storm. My stress and I in this case work together rather than against each other.
This works for me in a million different realms, particularly when it is a professional or social situation that demands thought and care. This is especially important for me as someone who’s job it is, literally, to think. Though it works in myriads of other ways, too, particularly in how I relate to myself and manage my relationship with myself.
Many of us worry about our health. Or we worry about how loved we are. Or how beautiful we are. Or something. But how much energy do we need to give that? What does your brain need in order to efficiently achieve a level of safety and love? Do you let your stress have the time that it needs? Do you let yourself think and research health issues the appropriate amount of time? You can do it too much, and you can do it too little. What is right for you? What is the best way to work with your stress and the mental energy it is demanding, rather than against it?
All decent food for thought, in my opinion. What do you think? Do you experience a limited amount of energy that can either go inward or outward? What helps you feel positive and share your positivity rather than being curled inside of yourself?
What helps you feel the grand joy and excitement of being alive?
What are your strategies for keeping stress from getting in the way?
The last post I published here was about my recent test results. Everything out there is better than it was before, huzzah! My male sex hormones are down, and my female sex hormones are up. My fasting insulin is improving, and my thyroid levels are inching normal, too.
Perhaps best of all, however, is that I have a libido again. I have consistently clear skin for the first time in three years. I have a curvy but fit body that maintains its weight naturally. I don’t have to monitor calories. Things aren’t perfect — but they are leaps and bounds on the rise.
What has facilitated this recovery and rise?
Part of it has been diet, absolutely. The specific troubleshooting I did within the paleo template was also crucial. A big part of my problem was fiber (more on which in future posts). The amount of fiber I ate contributed to inflammation, which piggy-backed onto hormone flucutations and gave me cysts on a regular basis. I also added magnesium back into my life, which has been a godsend if there’s ever been one.
Another part of it has been stress reduction in my life as a whole. My living environment used to be stressful. My academic life carried a high amount of worry and stress. My life as a health advocate had its own troubles. Having a project such as The Book hanging over my head didn’t help, either. Working on all of those things has done enormous things for my wellness.
But I have come to believe that the most important part of my healing has been healing my relationship to healing. Let me explain.
As I moved forward with my acne, my hormone problems, and my concerns about my body in general, I was attached to what I achieved. I focused on the results. I wanted clear skin. I wanted libido. I wanted menstrual cycles. Every time I tried a new tact and didn’t achieve what I was looking for, however, I became more frustrated. I got more afraid, more angry, and more disheartened. “It’s been years, mom!” I have whined several hundred if not thousands of times in the last stretch of my life.
Then, whenever things started to improve, I got even more anxious because I didn’t want them to go away. If I managed to have clear skin for a week, I’d have an unhealthy amount of hope about it sticking. I’d be a freak about it. I’d do my best to stay away from mirrors and such, but I couldn’t help but always be on the lookout for more acne, safeguarding myself against that demon that had haunted me for so long.
And I was stressed about it, and it hurt the quality of my life, and also my physical body, I am sure. I didn’t want to stress about it, but I know it sat in the corners of my brain, haunting me silently.
I wanted to heal, and I wanted proof of healing. Now.
Today, I have “healed.” I have hacked the things that needed hacking in my body and in my life. I have seen a lot of improvement. It’s tempting to become attached to my clear skin. It’s tempting to get invested in my slim body. A part of me feels a strong pull to put all of my happiness and confidence into those things, and to fall back on my own model of feeling sexy, healthy, and happy because I was meeting some standard of health and appearance. Who doesn’t want to look in the mirror and see a stereotypically hot woman staring back at her?
The thing is, however, is that I have realized as I have healed that the most important thing for my wellness right now is not being attached to those things at all. The acne will not be perfect. I will probably always get some breakouts. I might even fall back into serious skin issues. More important still are the truly inevitable things. My body is aging every day. I will not always been the young little thing flying around the dance floor. Some day I will lose everything my physical body has to offer. We all will.
Most of you know I am a student of philosophy of religion in my “real life.” Most of the world’s religious traditions speak to what I have been wrestling with on some level, and one of my favorite strands of thought on it goes something like this:
We are here to delight in the good things we have, but we must be able to let go of them. Just as the leaves fall every autumn, so nothing good or bad lasts forever. This is an inevitable fact of being alive.
With health, relationships, statuses, jobs, and just about anything else in our lives, we are always in relationship. In these relationships, we have the choice to stitch our skins to the good stuff and bleed when inevitably torn apart, or we can hug and kiss and nuzzle them with loose, loving, and forgiving arms.
The more I learned to accept that the good, fun things like six pack abs and good health I get to delight in will not last forever, the more peace I developed in my healing and my maintenance of good health. I can do my best, but I cannot maniacally monitor, shape, and control everything that happens to me around the clock. More importantly, I cannot base my happiness on my clear skin. If I did, then I would be hurt by the stress of maintaining it and by the stress of (maybe) losing it.
Instead, if I base my happiness say on my gratitude for the good health I get to have now, and on my relationships, and on my purpose and on all of the beaty and love in the world, then I can delight in the good stuff without anxiety and be happy. Otherwise I’d just walk around worrying all of the time. Someday it might all fall to pieces, and I have got to be okay with that happening.
I remember after paleo fx this year I wrestledsignificantly with the question of what we were all doing there. Why bother troubleshooting health so vociferously? Why keep looking for perfection in a body? Why keep optimizing? I think this sits at the heart of that trouble I had. Physical health is so important, but it has got to be folded into healthy minds and healthy hearts, at peace with existing no matter what instability and tremors live within them.
At least for me. I love your thoughts, as always.
Enjoying the good stuff without anxiety is so important to me that I’ve written several guides to help you do the same. Want to lose weight in a healthy way while loving yourself? Check out Weightless Unlocked. Looking for a general guide to eating for health (and libido!)? My best selling Sexy by Nature has all the details.
Obviously, when we’re talking about how long we are ever going to live, the “diet hypothesis” holds. Poor food choices make us ill, and these illnesses make us die sooner. They also generally degrade our physical functions, and as our telomeres and organs deteriorate increasingly into shreds, we become weaker and weaker. Just about everybody who has ever written about longevity and food has the general idea right: food matters.
On the other hand, I am now coming to believe that so long as no drastic health issues are at stake, the perfect diet is not necessarily the path to a long life (or at least definitely not the sole path). If you look at studies done on centarians the world over, what we find over and over again is not necessarily that they eat a certain diet. Some eat lots of pork, others a fair bit of rice, others tons of home-made yogurt, for example. I know one woman who eats frozen dinners. Doctors and health theorists argue over what the perfect longevity diet might be all of the time. But there really never has been shown to be a bulletproof, universal, centenarian-begetting diet, so far as I can tell. Usually they stick to whole foods. That seems to work quite well.
From my perspective, the real common variable is that centenarians (and especially the springy ones, not the bedridden) tend to live simple and happy lifestyles. Relatively healthful food, very little stress, some sleep, some walking. There’s actually a fair bit of data that demonstrates the benefits of walking. And personally, what I have found in my observation is that those people I know and read about whom are both elderly but still enormously youthful… they exist in existential satisfaction. Whether at peace because of their communities and family, or because they have faith, or are committed to charity, or because they are immersed in passionate pursuits, their degree of satisfaction with existence stands out as their primary characteristic. In my opinion.
Plenty data show that stress weakens the immune system and decreases lifespan. Here, here, and here, for example. And many show how crucial both metabolic and psychological stress are for cellular decay, for example, here.
But what about the converse? Why not think about it in terms of the opposite of stress? Of peace, of contentment, of authentic happiness?
Which brings me to my favorite study this week: Smile Intensity Predicts Longevity.
The study, found here, was conducted on 196 Major League Baseball players from the 20th century. MLB players were chosen because fairly good data about their lives already exist. The researchers did their best to control for factors that have already been found to influence longevity:
“The Baseball Register (1952) and Lahman (2006) allowed us to control for numerous factors related to longevity, such as year of birth, body mass index (BMI), career length (a reflection of continued physical fitness and performance), career precocity (Abel & Kruger, 2005, 2006, 2007), marital status (Lillard & Panis, 1996), and college attendance (Kalist & Peng, 2007).”
They didn’t look at diet at all.
What they did was study the intensity of the smiles on each of the MLB player’s official baseball cards. What they found was striking:
Controlling for the above variables, the degree of smile authenticity in each photograph taken decades ago remained significantly correlated with longevity. The more authentic the smile, the longer the player lived.
How do you know what an authentic smile is, you ask? It’s called the Duchenne smile (wikipedia it, here), and it’s a pretty well-known and well-regarded marker of happiness in psychological studies. It is the smile that pulls at muslces around the mouth and particularly the eyes… the smile that you feel when you’re laughing, or hugging someone you love. Try comparing it to the smile you muster up for strangers you pass in the hallway on a bad day. There is a world of difference.
We can see that difference in photographs, and calculate it precisely. And from that, we have found that authentic happiness predicts longevity.
Players who had Duchenne smiles were half as likely in any given year to die than non-smilers.
Players who had Duchenne smiles had greater longevity predictions than those who wore partial smiles, but not in a statistically significant way, who in turn did not differ significantly from non-smilers. ( “Adding smile ratings led to a significant improvement in predicting mortality, χ2(2, N = 162) = 8.2, p < .017.”) This seems to indicate that partial smiles sat somewhere in the middle, whereas non-smilers experienced reduced longevity and Duchenne smilers experienced increased longevity relative to them.
The study concludes with two interesting notes: 1) that physical attractiveness was not a significant correlate with longevity, and 2) that teaching ourselves to smile can actually influence our emotions (more in which in subsequent posts).
In other studies, individuals instructed on how to make Duchenne smiles generated patterns of regional brain activity associated with subjective enjoyment (Ekman, Davidson, & Friesen, 1990). If the phenomenology and expressions of emotion are hardwired (Ekman, 2007), individuals whose underlying emotional disposition is reflected in voluntary or involuntary Duchenne smiles may be basically happier than those with less intense smiles, and hence more predisposed to benefit from the effects of positive emotionality. Attractiveness did not influence longevity.
And, again, they didn’t even look at diet. We might argue that each of these players was born into a more traditional diet, and perhaps a fairly homogenous one– and therefore the variable would not have been as significant for this group, but these men still probably ate things such as carbohydrates, nuts, nightshades, rice, and lots of other ~paleo/non-paleo foods we are worrying about these days. I’d bet they ate dairy and wheat products, too. Which isn’t to say, of course, that a better diet would not have helped them live even longer. I certainly think that it would. But this goes to show that the amount of authentic joy in your life really is a major player in your lifespan.
More on happiness, longevity, and how to make it all happen forthcoming.
While the title of this post may sound hyperbolic, it nonetheless is grounded in truth. There are a wide variety of dietary and lifestyle factors that affect reproduction. Stress may be one of the greatest of all.
Dozens of studies performed on cynomolgus monkeys, bonobos, chimps, and baboons have demonstrated that having low social status–even while maintaining the exact same diet at high social status individuals–induces impaired fertility in primates.
Human models, while approximations, do not differ. In some, a simple progesterone-dampening effect occurs, in others the levels decrease precipitously, in most cortisol levels skyrocket, but in general a wide spectrum of reproductive disorders- from hormone deficiency to full-blown long-term amenorrheic infertility- follow from psychological stress.
This is something about which I have written before, and it’s a serious problem, causing not just outright and obvious infertility but also sneakily impaired and sub-optimal fertility all across the country.
Pysychological stress wreaks all sorts of havoc on the body. Most importantly, cortisol levels rise, and the body’s inflammatory and immune responses become impaired. Blood sugar levels rise, and insulin levels rise, too. When these things happen, healing cannot occur, and tissues become progressively damaged with time. This applies to reproductive tissues as much as it does to the rest of them. Hypercortisolemia is good for nobody.
Several hormone responses also occur. Three of the primary ones are as follows:
1) As I mentioned, due to elevated cortisol levels, insulin levels may rise, and testosterone levels rise right alongside it. This is because insulin directly stimulates testosterone production in the ovaries. This is bad for reproduction because a proper balance between testosterone and female balance needs to be maintained in order for proper reproductive signalling and tissue development to occur. One particularly potent way in which this imbalance often hurts women is in the hormone condition Poly Cystic Ovarian Syndrome. It is not the only thing that contributes to PCOS– definitely not– but it can play a big time role in it. For more on stress and PCOS (and overcoming PCOS!), check out the book I wrote.
2) Moreover, another effect that may occur as a result of stress is an increase in production of DHEA-S, a hormone produced in the stress glands. DHEA-S is, like all other hormones, an important and very healthful hormone in proper balance. But if the stress glands are in overdrive, they might over-produce everything, including DHEA-S. This is detrimental, because DHEA-S is also a classically male sex hormone, and it plays a role similar to testosterone in PCOS. DHEA-S in excess blocks estrogen signaling, interferes with LH and FSH signaling, and also increases hormonal acne. DHEA-S can play a role in both type I and type II PCOS.
3) Finally, the brain, via the hypothalamus, sometimes turns off pituitary activity in response to stress. This often leads to a cessation of LH and FSH signaling–the two primary pituitary signalling molecules–which in turn decreases levels of estrogen and progesterone in the blood. Recall that reduced progesterone levels are one of the primary markers of reproductive distress in primate studies. Prolactin levels may also decrease. These facts make it impossible both to ovulate and to menstruate.
*Graphic extracted from PCOS Unlocked: The Manual.
These three categories– testosterone elevation, DHEA-S elevation, and pituitary decreases may occur differently in all women. And there are a wide variety of other, more subtle, hormonal responses that also occur, especially when considered in conjunction with all of the other bodily stress that follows from psychological woes.
All that being said, STRESS IS BAD. We know some of the reasons why, as I’ve explained above. Others likely exist. Even if you don’t have infertility problems, you may have hormone imbalances or deficiencies, and those can be just as insidious. Eat right, sleep right, live well, breath deeply. Repeat.
Stress is a significant problem for women’s health, and particularly women’s hormonal health. This is manifested in a wide array of problems, but also most predominantly these days in the condition PCOS, or Poly Cystic Ovarian Syndrome.
You can read more about stress and it’s interplay with cysts, as well as how to overcome it all, in my guide, PCOS Unlocked: The Manual.