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Health Hack #42 - A Holistic Road Towards Happiness

I personally don’t absorb much news through the television, instead choosing to read my news. By doing so I’m given the advantage of curating my own subjects, glossing over headlines that don’t appeal to me. This comes at the risk of missing out on virtually all filler and non-headlining material, since my interests tend to be fairly niche.

Earlier this week I found myself watching a world news program, and I picked up a few tidbits that would’ve ordinarily passed me by. Low and behold, Michelle Obama had launched her podcast! Kidding aside, the brief clip focused primarily on admissions she’d made on her first episode. The former First Lady acknowledged enduring what she referred to as a “low-grade depression”, tied to COVID/lockdown, our current administration, and racial tensions. The clip was all of 30 seconds, and it quickly concluded by summarizing her defense strategies, which she acknowledged had been helping some. Her recipe? Getting outdoors, sticking to routines (namely a recurring family dinner time and a dedication to quality sleep), and exercise.

For most, the clip was totally forgettable. You could easily argue that of all people, it should be most forgettable to someone like me, as one who worships those activities and seeks (often failingly so) to religiously employ them myself. But it stood out to me immensely.

One oft overlooked aspect of our new Quarantine era is the toll on mental health. What of the anxieties born of future uncertainty? Of job insecurity? Of this sudden overthrow of our cherished routines? What of the remedies to combat them? The concentric circles that can be formed between boosting our immunity against the threat of COVID-19 and warding off the angst that comes with living inside the specter of a COVID-infected world are pretty staggering. Why are we prodded to wear masks, to distance ourselves from one another, but nothing else? Is mask wearing and distancing worthwhile advice? Absolutely. Let’s trust our leading virologists and take their word. But where are our health experts dishing out advice for how to best prepare and condition ourselves for the possibility of infection, or for the social and economic ramifications that will likely ensue? Whether you watch or read the news, it’s rare to stumble upon anything like this. We desperately need more voices that point towards a holistic approach to keeping ourselves together. Let’s all be grateful to Michelle Obama for putting forth a notion so simple and obvious, but largely absent from our national dialogue. To that, let’s break down her simple strategy. As it turns out, we’ve already tackled two of her three pillars.

We’ve previously discussed the benefits of getting outdoors in a variety of ways. For starters, as it pertains to acquiring the all-important Vitamin D, a.k.a. The Sunshine Vitamin (Vitamin D). We later tied the outside to its immunity boosting properties (How To Boost Immunity During Quarantine). And as a recurring theme throughout our entire series of articles, we’ve done our fair share of gospel spreading when it comes to remaining mindful of our evolutionary paths. In this respect, we’ve learned that our circadian biology is heavily contingent on proper light cues. Obtaining outdoor exposure in the morning locks in our biological start time, while hunkering down indoors at night (ideally with the lights dimmed or off) solidifies our sleep clock.  

To that last point, routines, namely those towards the end of the day, play a vital role in crystallizing our rhythms. As we covered in detail in the early going (Sleep (pt.1) + Sleep (pt. 2)), a reliable dinner time and a recurring bedtime possess tremendous benefit in assuring a quality slumber. Grade A sleep is a key pillar of healthful living, and awakening in a properly rested state kickstarts a series of hormonal ramifications that maximize our mood and our energy levels.

What struck me most about Michelle Obama’s admission was her mentioning of exercise. Not because I couldn’t connect the dots, but because there’s fascinating science behind the mechanisms at play that most are unaware of. Many of us know full well how an exercise session possesses an uncanny ability to diffuse anxiety and feelings of despondency. But how does it work? Why does it work? How and why does putting our bodies through fleeting bouts of stress and intensity help ward off symptoms associated with anxiety and depression?

Tryptophan and Serotonin

For starters, the enzyme tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin. Yes, tryptophan is precisely what many of us associate with Thanksgiving dinner. It’s an essential amino acid, meaning it must be consumed through the diet. It’s found in most abundance in chicken, turkey, eggs, cheese, and fish. Vegans and vegetarians can find this essential amino acid in nuts, namely cashews and pistachios.

As we’ve learned in the past (How Realistic Goal Setting Positively Affects The Brain), serotonin is known as our happy hormone and most associated with mental well being. It’s known that somewhere between 85-95% of serotonin is produced in the gut, via the bacteria that resides there. The hype surrounding microbiome health turns out to be quite legitimate. This is not to suggest that every product advertising probiotics (which provide us with beneficial gut bacteria) is a wise idea, but rather to illuminate the simple notion that a well maintained and diversified real foods diet is a natural combatant against most mood disorders. Talk about holistic solutions missing from our national dialogue. Ironically, Michelle Obama acknowledged having to often “feed myself with something better”, as it pertained to finding alternative news and entertainment sources as an escape from the onslaught of negativity coming through her standard channels. I would add the literal interpretation of that admission as a 4th key defense strategy.

As it turns out, intense exercise compels the enzyme tryptophan to cross the blood brain barrier, where it’s then synthesized into serotonin. Say what? When we exercise, with modest to high intensity, we blanket our brains in feel good hormones. We don’t leave an exercise session feeling better than when we’d entered because we’re giddy about our total calories burned. It’s far more biological than that, and it’s not subjective. It’s measurable. We’re awash in positivity.

Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF)

Exercise has also shown to increase the production of a protein in our brain known as Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor. BDNF is a known combatant to depression and anxiety, and it’s often used as an overall marker of brain function. BDNF is linked to a strengthening of the hippocampus, which translates to improved cognition and memory.

I could exercise 18 hours a day, produce enough BDNF to fill a banquet hall, but still remain completely incapable of disseminating precisely how this process works. That’s a task suited for a brain that works better than mine. The takeaway here is that when you exercise your body, you’re also exercising your brain. The analogy of benefits is beautiful. On the mat, on the bike, on the track, wherever - we strengthen our muscles, we increase our bone density, we help shed the fat. Via those same platforms, we strengthen our aptitude for learning, we improve our memory, and we help shed the negative emotions.

It’s important to note that for both serotonin production in the brain and an increase in BDNF, the type of exercise matters. Studies have shown that HIIT (high intensity interval training) is most efficacious when seeking a boost in BDNF. Resistance training (a.k.a. weightlifting) leads to a higher certainty of tryptophan crossing over the blood brain barrier and into the actual brain.

But why?

We’ve tackled the how. There are biological reasons. They’re scientific, and for some, maybe a bit boring. But what about the why? No one talks about why. Here is my best guess.

In terms of stages of being for homo sapiens, we’ve most recently evolved from hunter gatherers. Hunting was directly tied to sustenance and livelihood. If the hunt failed - particularly in regions devoid of plant foods, or in wintry periods when plant foods disappeared - the tribe died. It was that simple and stark.

The hunt would often be associated with bouts of extreme physical intensity. A run, maybe a sprint. A grapple and maybe a clubbing. A heavy carry back to a family’s cave. An effort not all that dissimilar from what us modern era homo sapiens equate to intense exercise.

The elation experienced at the completion of the hunt was assuredly immense. The conclusion of the “exercise” of the hunt was the gift of continued life. What better reason for an uptick in positivity than the promise that you’ll live another day?

Become Active, Remain Active.