Simple Lifestyle Changes Can Transform Your Life
A Dangerous Dietary Shift
During the last 100 years we have seen a shift in the American diet away from fats and protein towards carbohydrates. Presumably this push was motivated by a desire to lower cholesterol and improve heart health. In reality, this directional change encouraged diets filled with refined grains and sugars and has actually facilitated an epidemic of diabetes, heart disease, dementia, and cancer.
Because refined carbohydrates are so easily and quickly converted to glucose they are responsible for great fluctuations in blood sugar levels. This results in equally volatile changes in serum insulin levels.
Ultimately, overexposure to insulin results in rising insulin resistance. As mentioned in Chapter 2, insulin resistance plays a role in the development of many health problems, from brain fog to dementia, from a lack of energy to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
Lower Insulin Resistance with Food and Exercise
Selecting appropriate foods is not as easy as it appears. At first glance it might seem that the way to lower insulin resistance would be to reduce the intake of foods that quickly convert to glucose—refined sugars and starches. Although this is a step in the right direction, it is not the total answer.
Researchers have analyzed foods to determine how quickly a food raises blood glucose after ingestion and developed a scoring system (glycemic index) to rate them. In this system each food is compared to straight glucose that has been given a somewhat arbitrary score of 100. That means, a glycemic index (GI) of 50 causes half the rise of serum glucose levels as glucose. In theory foods with a lower GI are better for controlling blood sugar.
Using this index makes sense because insulin is released in response to overall glucose levels. However,this approach is a bit problematic. That’s because there is not a direct correlation between a food’s propensity to raise serum glucose and the level of serum insulin that results from consumption of that food. For example, brown rice has a slightly lower glycemic index than white bread. Brown rice has a GI of 68 and white bread has a GI of 75. There’s more to the story, however. The amount of insulin released by brown rice is much lower than white bread. Using another scoring system (the insulin index) we see a much different, more accurate picture. The insulin index arbitrarily sets white bread at 100 and the other foods are scored in relation to the white bread benchmark—the higher the number, the more insulin is released.
A comparison of these two foods using the insulin index looks like this. When consuming equivalent caloric amounts (240 calories) white bread is rated at 100 and brown rice is rated at a much lower 62. Selecting appropriate foods is not as easy as it appears. At first glance it might seem that the way to lower insulin resistance would be to reduce the intake of foods that quickly convert to glucose—refined sugars and starches. Although this is a step in the right direction, it is not the total answer. 1,2
Since the goal is to reduce insulin resistance, and insulin resistance develops as cells are over-exposed to insulin, it seems that the insulin index would be a better basis for determining food choices. Not necessarily!
There’s at least one other factor here: a food’s ability to satisfy the appetite. If a food leaves you hungry, the chances are that you’ll eat more and deliver more glucose and insulin into the blood than if you ate less of a much more satisfying food with a higher glycemic index and a higher insulin index. Case in point: a baked potato has a much higher GI than white bread (potato@141 vs. bread @ 71) and a much higher insulin index (potato @121 vs. bread @ 100). But research shows that, calorie for calorie, a baked potato is over three times more satisfying.
In practical terms that means that you would have to eat 6 slices of white bread (396 calories) to achieve the same satisfaction as you would get from 1 baked potato (129 calories).
Dr. Susan Holt has published research that compares foods for glycemic index, insulin index, and a satiety score. It provides some much needed help in making proper dietary choices. 4,5,6 Although I am not giving a formal endorsement, there is a website using her data, as well as relative nutrient density, to provide a novel approach that makes wonderful sense. I’ve included a link to this site as well as other sites with valuable information at www.tonibarkmd.com.
The site advocates a slow dietary evolution from low nutrient density, high glycemic index, high insulin index, to much better foods by replacing the lowest scoring foods in your diet (one at a time) with better scoring foods. There are tools to make this process simple and nearly painless, and best of all, it is free.
A similar approach should be taken in regard to exercise. It is far better to increase exercise duration and intensity is small steps than to jump into a rigorous program that you won’t continue. That said, exercise does lower insulin resistance, especially if that exercise builds new muscle. Muscle tissues, by nature, are less insulin resistant than fat tissues and they pull more glucose out of the blood as well.
Avoid or Limit Foods that Increase Cortisol Levels
There are several foods that can elevate cortisol levels. Here are four that should be limited or avoided:
1. Refined Sugars and Grains. Probably the worst of the cortisol-stimulating foods, refined sugars are responsible for large and rapid serum glucose swings that the body interprets as stress. In response to this stress, the body releases cortisol and insulin into the blood. It is important to note that unless a bread or cereal specifically states “100% whole grain,” it is a refined grain. Just like sugar, refined grains promote volatile glucose levels. In addition, gluten has been linked to elevated cortisol levels so non-gluten grains should be used when possible.
2. Trans Fats. Although technically most food manufacturers have removed trans fats from their products, it is legal for them to use the term “trans fat free” even when the product contains up to 2 grams of these modified fats. If you see the words hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated in the nutritional section of the label, beware. These are other names for trans fats.
3. Alcohol. Since the body is unable to process alcohol, it is toxic to the liver and creates internal stress.
4. Caffeine. Caffeine can increase glucose levels. When doctored with a refined sugar and/or cream, it is a double threat. If you must, drink it in moderation.
Fortify Your Diet with Foods that Decrease Cortisol Levels
There are several foods that can reduce cortisol levels, here are five that should be included in your dietary regimen:
1. Green, Leafy Vegetables. The magnesium and zinc in these foods helps to limit cortisol production.
2. Egg Yolks, Chicken & Beef Liver, and Beans. All these foods are rich in phosphatidylserine, although most people could not eat enough of these foods to meet their needs for this nutrient, they do help counteract the adverse effects of cortisol.
3. Citrus, Kiwis, and Red Peppers. Vitamin C rich produce like these helps slow the production of cortisol.
4. Fish, Flax Seed, and Walnuts. Studies show that these omega-3-rich foods, help to reduce cortisol levels, reduce inflammation and perceived stress
5. Dark Chocolate. Both inflammation and cortisol production can be reduced by the naturally occurring antioxidants in dark chocolate. One research study found that consuming about 40 grams per day reduced cortisol levels. Since most chocolates are sweetened, just remember, too much of a good thing is no longer a good thing.
Power Your Brain with a Non-Glucose Super Fuel
Until fairly recently, it was believed that glucose was the only source of energy for the brain. A few years ago, researchers discovered that neuronal mitochondria can tap an auxiliary source of energy through the metabolism of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs). This is accomplished when the body begins to catabolize proteins and fatty acids in the absence of glucose. When a body moves to this alternate fuel source, it produces compounds called ketones: a physiological state that is called ketosis.
Diabetics can go into ketosis when there are in sufficient carbohydrates to covert into glucose. This state is easily recognizable by a characteristic “fruity”smell on the breath. Researchers have found that neurons can use certain ketone molecules (ketone bodies) to generate needed energy when there is insufficient glucose of these ketone bodies, D-beta-hydroxybutyrate (DBH), has been shown to be more efficient in mitochondrial production of ATP than glucose—so much so that some researchers call DBH a brain “superfuel.” DBH as a primary energy source enables man to survive starvation for months as the body metabolizes stored fats.
Some researchers believe that DBH could be extremely valuable in the treatment of neuronal diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases involve 1) insulin resistance, 2) oxidative stress, and/or 3) oxygen starvation.
A measurable decline in the brain’s ability to metabolize glucose is one of the early characteristics of Alzheimer’s. It has been suggested ketone bodies might be a good treatment for this type of dementia. With the goal of testing that hypothesis, a double-blind study reported significantly higher cognitive test scores for Alzheimer’s patients treated with ketone bodies than those given a placebo. Another study found that ketone bodies offered neuron protection and actually corrected defects in mitochondrial energy pro
Natural, virgin coconut oil is a quality source for the medium-chain triglycerides the body converts to ketone bodies. Interestingly, Alzheimer’s disease is rare to non-existent in populations that consume this food. A study with two Polynesian groups who consume large amounts of coconut oil also found that vascular disease is rare in both groups.
Replacing butter and other animal fats with coconut oil is smart for many reasons. Most importantly, unless the animal source is completely organically raised, fed grass and not corn or soy, the fatty acids can be contaminated with an accumulation of chemicals. Coconut oil supplies the possibility of providing extra protection and fuel for the brain.
Reverse the Tide with Exercise, Meditation, and Sleep
Exercise stimulates brain cells and muscle spindles and it helps to maintain muscle and bone mass as well as cardiovascular tone. Since the human stress response is designed to provide “fight or flight” energy and response, aerobic exercise in the midst of a time of stress or immediately after helps to reset your metabolism back to normal.
As in dietary changes, exercise regimens should be incremental. Start where you are and make small steps toward your ultimate goal. Be sure to consult your physician before making any significant dietary or exercise regimen changes.
Meditation and/or breath work helps maintain focus, restorative tone and works in conjunction with exercise to maintain cardiovascular health and what is called heart rate variability. Having good heart rate variability reduces the risk for a sudden heart attack. Tissue repair cannot occur until the “fight or flight” metabolism is reset to the “rest and digest” phase of the human stress response. Sleep plays an important role in this essential reset and provides an optimal state for tissue repair and growth. For most people, blood levels of cortisol are the lowest three to five hours after the onset of sleep. During times of low stress, serum cortisol levels are highest early in the morning. 13 This means that, for most people, going to sleep two or three hours prior to midnight and sleeping 7 to 8 hours per night will provide optimal stress recovery and tissue repair.
Clear Mind Fog by Creating New Synapses
Many researchers have noted that the risk of developing dementia seems to fall as the years of formal education rises. Although no one knows the actual reason or mechanism for this phenomenon, a logical case for “use it or lose it” can be made for the brain as well as for other aspects of human fitness. Challenging the mind with new learning develops new synapses and keeps others working.
Lifestyle changes that include eating avoidance of stress-producing foods, moderate exercise, meditation, adequate sleep, and challenging the mind with new learning can help Reverse the Tide in the battle against premature aging.
As important as these are, a powerful boost is available through the use of key nutrient supplements. And that’s the subject of our next chapter…