The hot topic at 180 these days is stress. But before we continue with the conversation, I think some important groundwork needs to be laid down. Many of us here have had some various form of stress undermine our health, be it an extreme diet, a traumatic event, poor nutrition, endurance exercise, calorie restriction, sleep loss, a job that we hate, or what have you. Many more of us have had stress in the form of food allergy and sensitivity, other allergies and sensitivities, chronic illness, and so on (Read more about some of these issues Diet Recovery).
There’s no doubt that the number of things we can encounter in today’s world that trigger a decline in health are endless. But a huge question remains. Is it “X” trigger of our symptoms that is the problem, or is there something going on at a deeper level that makes us respond to various stressors in an exaggerated way? In other words, is the root problem STRESS itself, or our RESPONSE to stress? Here are some brain teasers that may help us to better answer that question.
In my early writing I discussed Pottenger’s Cats quite frequently. It’s been a while since I’ve brought these kitties up, but like Austin Powers, International Man of Mystery (who, other than the bad teeth is really who I try to emulate most in life), “I never forget a pussy… Cat.”
Pottenger’s Cats, when fed a nutritious whole foods diet of suitable, uncooked foods including mostly meat and milk, had excellent health and were able to produce litters of strong and equally-healthy kittens. However, a side-by-side comparison of those fed only cooked foods, which has been hypothesized by some to have damaged the amino acid Taurine and caused a deficiency (it could have been the heated lactose, it could have been the denatured proteins in milk, it could have been inability to assimilate the nutrients in cooked milk, or any number of things), revealed that the subsequent generation was all kinds of messed up. While it’s incredibly fascinating that they developed skeletal and facial deformation, which made their teeth crowded just like a modern human’s post-refined foods era, it is of greater interest to our conversation that they developed ALLERGIES.
To me, allergies epitomize what I mean by the stress RESPONSE, and not the STRESS being the root of the problem. In the comment thread on the last post we heard from people with an allergic reaction to everything from cat fur (guilty) to, get this… WATER! There are people with an allergic reaction to sunlight as well. It doesn’t get much more benign than water and sunshine. Fortunately, this allergic reaction to water has been overcome with super anal nutrition (this just means strict avoidance of refined and processed foods – not to be confused with the South Park episode where a new fad emerges in which everyone starts ingesting all their food rectally).
This also speaks volumes about why I generally try to discredit those who blame gluten or lectins or salicylates or nightshade vegetables or dairy or starch or cooked meat or fiber or various carcinogens or whatever for bringing about the demise of mankind. Individual food sensitivities usually spark the quest to unearth all the dirt and grime of the offender, and it’s easy to find supporting evidence for or against any known food these days (for example, one could easily formulate a one-sided counter argument championing Wheat as the ultimate food for digestive health, type 2 diabetes prevention, and more).
I’ve fallen into that trap before, as drinking water once gave me indigestion and I started telling people to stop drinking it while quoting other authors who seemed to have the same problem I did (Aajonus Vonderplanitz and Konstantin Monastyrsky). As character Nick Rivers (Val Kilmer) sang in the movie Top Secret, “How silly can ya get?”
And so, from Pottenger’s experiments, it appears to be that the stress response, and not a particular stressor per se, plays a more primary role in health. This perversion of the stress response looks like it can be most attributed to a general degeneration process, however, keep in mind that there was something about the diet – either presence of some toxic or indigestible substance and/or nutrient deficiency that was a stressor causing the degenerative process itself. Again, we are stuck with a little bit of a chicken or egg question.
Switching gears for a moment here, we have another leading contender for the perversion of the stress response – arachidonic acid (AA). As a reminder, arachidonic acid is a polyunsaturated fat that is either ingested directly through food (like eggs and liver, a minor source of total AA in the modern world) or is converted from linoleic acid (omega 6) found in greatest abundance in nuts, seeds, and vegetable oil (the primary source of modern AA).
AA is a wildly unstable and inflammatory molecule, and its presence in excessive amounts causes a greater production of the most harmful and vicious inflammatory chemicals produced by the body – such as Interleukin-6 and TNF-Alpha (both of which have very strong ties to all inflammatory conditions from asthma and arthritis to heart disease and obesity).
In fact, the entire series of Zone books by Barry Sears is a long-winded argument and strategy for reducing cellular levels of AA, which he labeled in one of his more recent ramblings, “toxic fat.” Dr. William Lands has dedicated his entire career to lipid research and decided that AA, and therefore omega 6 polyunsaturated fat consumption, is basically the root cause of most modern disease epidemics. Ray Peat and Joe Blair, some of my favorite researchers, have come to similar conclusions and put greater emphasis on reducing AA in the body than on any other nutritional issue. Russ Farris, another of my favorite researchers feels that nearly all health problems can be traced to the production of these first line inflammatory molecules like IL-6, but has somehow failed to make the connection between omega 6 ingestion, AA, and these molecules.
This is the strongest theory I’ve come across in support of the belief that it’s not necessarily the stress your body is exposed to – be it infections, carcinogens and other environmental toxins, potential allergens, psychological stress, injury and other physical stressors, etc., but your body’s reaction to that stress that counts. And the severity of that reaction is believed to be entirely related to the fatty acids present in the cells themselves.
If overloaded with AA, the response to stress is overzealous. If overloaded with omega 3 instead, the response is much less dramatic – however there may be some serious health concerns with having your cells overloaded with omega 3 as well, and in those with these fatty acids in balance, like in the Japanese, there is certainly no shortage of stroke, cancer, autoimmune disease, and other inflammation-related illnesses. But there’s no doubt that omega 3 can displace and blunt the AA overload problem, which is why there is so much hype surrounding fish oil these days.
Ray Peat and Joe Blair feel like the best route to take is to not be overloaded in either omega 6 or omega 3, but consume the minimum of ALL polyunsaturated fats – triggering the production of a different and less explosive fatty acid to take the place of these seemingly-toxic ones. This internally-generated fat is called Mead Acid.
This all sounds amazing in theory. Only problem is, I have personally reduced my polyunsaturated fat intake to a minimum for an entire year now without a reduction in inflammation, pain, sensitivity to allergens, etc. My suspicion is that this theory is missing something. Then again, the process of overcoming AA overload is very slow. It took a century for the cells of Americans to get to this point of imbalance, and it takes several years of a very diligent approach to undo it – and one can’t expect to ever really feel a dramatic change at any point during the process.
Still, when I’m loaded up with pain killers like Advil that shut down the production of AA-derived eicosanoids, any aches and pains I have ever dealt with instantly vanish and activities that normally worsen or even cause the pain (like running) do not seem to do any damage. I used to load up on Advil every day before football practice from age 14 to 18. Without it I could barely walk due to the shin-splint like pains below my calf muscles, but with it I felt no pain during or following practice even after the Advil wore off. So I do KNOW that these molecules are involved with many problems, and maintain faith that avoiding polyunsaturated fat for many years will help.
But when we think back to Pottenger’s Cats, all of whom had the same fatty acid composition in their diets, it’s hard to look at the overall issue of stress overreaction as one that solely resides on the shoulders of cellular fatty acid composition. I also can’t deny overcoming my lifelong seasonal allergies and drastically improving chronic back pain that I had dealt with since I was a teenager while eating a considerable amount of nuts – especially cashews, almonds, and pumpkin seeds (all very high in omega 6), in my first whole foods nutritional bombardment trial back in early 2004.
The biggest glitch in the theory that STRESS is the cause of disease, as opposed to the body’s REACTION to stress, is my personal dealings with Layla as discussed in THIS OLD POST, and in recent comments.
Layla overthrows many of our modern stress theories because her life was the most stressful of anyone I’ve ever met, yet her health is also the best of anyone I’ve ever met.
She actually provides incredible insight into the argument of stress vs. nutrition in a battle of importance, as her parents’ nutrition, as well as hers during the formative years of her life, was the best of anyone I’ve ever met personally. Her facial development, with 32 teeth in perfect alignment (no dentists, orthodontists, toothbrushes, or toothpaste required) and broad nostrils just as Weston A. Price described, is a testament to that nutritional excellence. When a person with the best health you know had the best nutrition, and the most stressful life, that is one hell of a check mark in the Nutrition box.
Layla was raped and beaten over 100 times before the age of 10. When she was still a young kid war broke out in Somalia and she spent six months on the run with her family. The sound of bombs and gunshots trailed slowly behind them, leaving them in a constant state of fear. They were sleep-deprived, food-deprived, over-stressed, and over-exercised. Her mother was nursing a child the whole time (successfully) while subsisting off of mostly powdered milk. Traumas unimaginable to us were the daily norm, including seeing lions scavenging on human remains daily, and the constant fear that if she were to succumb to exhaustion, a starving person would cut her throat and drink her blood for nourishment (which was rumored to be common). This isn’t even the half of it. She also spent over a year in isolation, separated from her family, traveling thousands of miles by foot and subsisting primarily off of nuts and berries. This tale of trauma goes on and on and on I assure you.
Yet, Layla today runs 100 miles per week. She has less than 10% body fat. She drinks blue Powerade and eats boxed breakfast cereals and glutinous goodies and cooks her food in vegetable oil. Yet, she has never had a menstrual irregularity or negative menstrual symptom, can sleep for 2 hours and not be tired the next day, has no major or even minor health complaints… you get the picture. While the rest of us become allergic to frickin’ water or have all our teeth rot out and wheeze n’ sneeze every day of our lives with 248 food sensitivities from eating a mediocre diet and having to study hard for exams, or that one moron-a-thon we were dumb enough to run, or having an adult fondle us inappropriately a few times when we were a kid, or developing a life-threatening autoimmune disease from petting a cat with a retrovirus, she thrives.
The bottom line is that we are all a pretty sorry lot of degenerates, and poor NUTRITION, not exposure to STRESS – including infections, emotional traumas, overexertion, lack of food, and so on, is the ROOT CAUSE of the health circumstances many of us have found ourselves in.
But a strange twist is that exposure to STRESSORS is now a much more powerful cause of disease than poor nutrition, as it is much more of an immediate threat to our health. For example, a person I know who just completed a moron-a-thon 10 days ago, has had a fever consistently for 10 days and has the first cold sore breakout in a year, which the doctor described as “the worst case I’ve ever seen.” 12 cold sores in total covering the mouth, and even breaking out on the nose and in the ear. More marathons for this person and autoimmune disease, allergy, infertility, bone loss, weight gain, and god knows what else will follow.
I think this strange phenomenon is exactly why so many of us have decimated our health much more on highly restricted diets like vegan or low-carb, doing too much endurance exercise, restricting calories, staying out partying too late, studying too hard, dealing with the loss of a loved one or traumatic event, and so forth than we ever could have just eating white flour and white sugar till the cows came home while otherwise taking great care of ourselves.
Like Paula said in a comment on the last post, all the nutritious food in the world couldn’t counter the stress of repeatedly ingesting gluten, as she is a diagnosed Celiac.
The grand summary is basically that poor nutrition got us into this mess, and while it’s the only thing that will take us back to health collectively, there are far greater pressing and more imminent concerns on an individual basis than diet.
A good analogy would be that of lighting a house on fire by playing with matches. The fire department shows up and gives you a lengthy lecture about how you shouldn’t play with matches, and that’s how fires get started. The appropriate response to that would be…
“Thanks for the tip jagoff, but if you haven’t noticed my frickin’ house is on fire. Can you please help me put out the flames before we have a discussion about how it got started?”
And so the stress conversation will continue. I certainly continue to stand by RRARF, an anti-stress, nutritionally-outstanding strategy that makes a great starting point for those with health problems of all kinds – particularly for those who developed health problems on a superficial quest to find their abs or achieve eternal youth based on the advice of one of the thousands of health authors and bloggers out there.