Posts Tagged ‘cortisol’

One of a Kind

April 4, 2015

Standing at the kitchen counter, I lop off each end of a large green plantain, cut a slit down the spine of the fruit, the insert my thumb under the edge of the skin to peel it back. My goal is to undress the plantain without breaking the skin. As I succeed, I give thanks to Susan, the massage therapist who advised me, more than 30 years ago, to base as much as possible of my liquid intake on deionized water. At that time I was already experiencing some arthritis in my fingers and hands. In the decades since, not only has the arthritis not advanced, it seems to have reduced, leaving me with strong fingers and with thumbs able to peel plantains efficiently.

I’m led to reflect on the range of steps I’ve taken over the years to address health concerns in “old folk rather than “modern medicine” ways. Old folkways from many cultures and continents, in that I use acupuncture regularly, Asian herbs to calm an irritated colon and to treat the spring allergy symptoms which many of us are experiencing now. This morning I added a generous dose of new world herbs to my breakfast – notably parsley to be a diuretic since I’ve eaten a bit too much starchy food lately. In my body, starch functions to retain fluid. When I see a three pound weight gain from one day to the next I know I need both parsley and a change in diet.

My reflection moves on to the plethora of different, often conflicting, diets promoted in the popular press. Sober judges of “what is good for you” usually insist that all those that actually work do so because they reduce caloric intake, while they warn against lopsided programs which label certain types of food (carbohydrates for example) as bad. I begin to suspect that the multiplicity of possible diet regimens is an unconscious acknowledgement that we are all, individually, very different in how our metabolisms work. Although each of the diets still presents itself as a one-size-fits-all remedy, the existence of so many conflicting paths to the goal of a healthy weight indicates to me that there is no such thing as one size fits all. Indeed, over the years I’ve come to the conclusion that we each must learn enough about how our own bodies deal with what we put into them, to make reasoned choices and to each ultimately design our own “diet for life.”

An element of that culinary life pattern that is almost never mentioned, so far as I’ve seen, relates to the role of emotion in changing body metabolism. It’s not just that some emotions push us to eat (or to avoid food) in unhealthy ways we need to recognize. I’m recognizing that some emotions change the way in which bodies process different foods. For certain, the recent dramatic increase in my happiness with my life contributed substantially to my successful weight loss, a loss which occurred despite minimal change in my pattern of eating and exercise. I can’t prove, but feel certain, that being happy changed my metabolism from one of “hanging on for dear life” to every calorie, to a more relaxed “easy come easy go” burning off of unneeded fuel. Yes, I hear those of you who are now yelling “Cortisol levels, check your cortisol levels.” I suspect you may be right that stress produces cortisol which has the property of preparing the body for battle, including slowing metabolism to conserve calories and promote endurance. The processes may not be so simple, as I know it is possible to be both happy and stressed at the same time. Undoubtedly I have much to learn about the relationships between endorphins and cortisol and which one outweighs the effects of the other under differing circumstances.

I probably also need to read more deeply into the research on allergens such as that which has recently produced the suggestion that children be exposed to peanuts in order to build up a tolerance, instead of having all potential allergens removed from their diets. The development of drug-resistant infections indicates that too many of us have taken the “ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” adage out of context, and thrown several pounds of cure at situations where just the one ounce would have been enough. Similarly, with each discovery of a cause and effect relationship between some aspect of living in this world and a health or sickness outcome, we tend to overreact and generalize and simplify to the point that the parameters of that cause and effect relationship are destroyed.

Desensitization is a technique sometimes used to treat phobias. A person excessively fearful of cats, for example, wanting to overcome this limitation, might use desensitization as a small step by small step process for learning to be calm in the presence of a picture of a cat, then while seeing a cat through a locked window, then in the same room with a cat that is tethered on a leash, etc. Each exposure involves allowing the fears to manifest and then experiencing the fact that none of the feared and fearful outcomes occur. Relaxation and calming follows this perception, and a new connection is made between cat and non-fearful status which can gradually be strengthened to the point that the subject is able to encounter an unrestrained cat with only minimal discomfort.

Exposing children to minimal doses of allergens in order to build up tolerance is an identical desensitization process, carried out on the physical rather than the emotional body. Just as some phobias or compulsive reactions are too strong for desensitization to work, I’m sure some allergies are too immediately life-threatening to try a dietary desensitization process. On the other hand, because a few situations are not appropriate to the technique does not mean parents should avoid trying the process with their children. Again, the fallacy lies in a “one size fits all” assumption that is no more appropriate to eating patterns than it is to latex gloves.

Which brings me back to the challenge facing each of us, to learn the unique and individual ways our bodies and minds function, in order to adjust our diets and our lifestyles to what gives us each the best odds of achieving our goals. I know I can’t hope to succeed in this on-going, lifetime study, without a healthy dose of introspection and an equally strong commitment to listening to the wisdom coming through me from my Divine Teacher. For me, that means slowing down both body and mind with periods of stillness and contemplation every day. Without that sort of reflective space in my life, I am certain I would not have truly heard Susan’s suggestion all those years ago, and would not now be able to peel plantains with ease.

I’m curious what my next contemplation may reveal to me that will show its relevance thirty years hence. And oh, in case you’re wondering, yes I’m making porridge plantains again, and I’m pleased to know that – per the assessment of the six Cameroonians who ate my cooking last weekend – I’ve graduated from neophyte to proficient at doing so.

Which means you can teach an old dog new tricks, as was ably illustrated by scientific research cited in the sermon given recently by Reverend Frank Yates at Las Vegas’ First United Presbyterian Church. But that’s a blog topic for another day.

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