I Wish I Were Far From the Madding Crowd

March 10, 2010

More on cortisol and stress

Came across a couple of blog posts about this topic and thought I’d share.  The author does a more complete job describing the role of cortisol in the body than I did in a previous post.

From Life and Body by Ben: Making the most of life and body

Ben’s focus is on the effect of cortisol on the storage of fat.  That’s necessary of course because our bodies need some fat reserves, but we all know that your body can also carry too much fat and that that can have very serious consequences for your health.  And cortisol does have other important functions that it carries out.

As I’ve noted in previous posts I’m very curious about the effects of environmental chemicals on the endocrine system in general and on hormones like cortisol in particular.

Reviewing The Endocrine Disruption Exchange‘s section on Prenatal Origins of Endocrine Disruption (links to each section are included here):

makes me wonder if there’s some sort of domino effect, some sort of cascade.

It’s clear that things like genetics, diet and nutrition, exercise and fitness, and even the stress of modern living all play a part in obesity and general health and well-being.  But having said that, the fact that those do have an effect does not preclude environmental chemicals from having an effect as well.

The problem for scientists and policymakers is that all of these factors are interwoven to some extent.  In The Optimistic Child (1995), a book about “immunizing” children from depression, Martin Seligman writes about an epidemic of depression that started in the late 50s and early 60s.  He notes that depression can have biochemical and genetic causes, then states quite matter of factly that “this epidemic is not biological.”   He states that no biochemical change has been identified that meets the time trends.

He specifically mentions fluoride in the water, ozone-layer breakdown, industrial pollution, and birth control pills as possible contributors to biochemical changes.  Instead, Seligman places the blame squarely on the “self-esteem” movement.  While I think he very well might be right about that having had a major impact, I also think that he was too quick to dismiss the effects of industrial pollution, many of which we weren’t aware of even in 1995.  For example, Our Stolen Future, which documented many of the effects of endocrine disruptors, wasn’t published until 1996.  (We also did not really take into account that children are not just smaller adults, but that childhood is a time when their bodies are growing and changing and that exposure that might not have an effect on an adult, whose body is already grown, might have subtle, yet still damaging consequences for a child.  And recent discoveries in neuroscience seem to indicate that adult brains can, surprise, surprise, still develop neurons.  Perhaps some chemicals are affecting adults’ brains, either directly or indirectly.  Perhaps many mental disorders from anxiety to depression to autism to Alzheimer’s are simply different endpoints on a multi-dimensional “spectrum” of the brain misfunctioning.)

In addition, we now know that drinking water can contain chemicals and byproducts from the drugs and pills people take, household cleaners and soaps (and other consumer products, etc., and we really have no idea how those interact with fluoride and chlorine in water.  (Well, actually, we do know that fluoride and chlorine can react with organic matter in wastewater to form toxic byproducts.)

So here’s are some hypotheses.  Could industrial chemicals have had neurological effects that directly caused an increase in depression (and other mental disorders)?  Could they have affected people’s bodies such that their endocrine systems got out of whack (that, I believe, is the technical term ;-)  )?

Could they have affected the production of cortisol, such that people’s bodies started storing more fat?  Did the resulting imbalance in the endocrine and immune systems start making people more susceptible to stress thereby compounding the problem?  Or are increased cortisol levels the byproduct of some of these processes?  And are some chemicals affecting the ability of the blood-brain barrier to keep certain chemicals out of our brains?

And, going back to Seligman, he argues fairly persuasively (I haven’t finished the book yet), that depression is caused by “learned helplessness.”  Learned helplessness is, according to Seligman, a strong predictor of depression.

Which makes me wonder, what were people’s reactions when Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was first published in 1962?  You’ve just found out that the world in which you live is being contaminated by chemicals from industrial plants, pesticides, etc.  Wouldn’t you feel rather helpless?  This is not to say that such information should be kept from us.  Without knowing we can’t make informed choices.

Most people would, I think, agree that there’s some connection between mind and brain, between brain and body.

Aside: While looking for info on Silent Spring, I stumbled across the website for the Silent Spring Institute.  The institute’s mission is to identify and break the links between the environment and women’s health, especially breast cancer.

Interestingly, when I checked out the American Cancer Society’s site, there is no obvious link to anything about causes from exposure to chemicals in the environment.  It seems to be primarily about screening, diagnosis, and treatment.  This is not to say that screening and treatment aren’t important, but why not try to reduce or prevent the occurrence of cancer in the first place?  (The cynical answer is, there’s no profit in that.  More on that in another post.)

With respect to the difference between treatment and prevention (whether it be with respect to a disease or pollution), I am reminded of a story I heard—more of a parable really—many years ago.

A tribe that lived along a river.  One day they found a body floating down the river next to their village.  The tribe members were saddened and decided they would respectfully bury the body.  The next week another body floated down the river.  Again they buried the body.  A few days later, another.  And pretty soon they would sometimes find two or more bodies and hardly a day went by that they didn’t find at least one body.  The tribe became very good at building coffins and digging graves, but it never occurred to them that perhaps they should find out why bodies were floating down the river in the first place.

While we do know the causes of many cancers (and for those for which we do know some of the causes doesn’t mean we know all of the causes), we know a lt more than we did just fifteen years ago.  But we just don’t know enough yet to pinpoint the exact causes of all cancers or diseases or disorders.  Well, scientists are researching that, but that’s not something most of us can do.  Do what can we do?  I guess I’d say the take-away lesson of all of this is, do what you can now to get in shape and to reduce stress.

One of the examples of small steps that Robert Maurer describes in One Small Step Can Change Your Life is of a woman who knew she needed to get more exercise and to eat better, but found the idea of committing to half an hour several times a week too overwhelming.  The step he suggested to her that finally got her started on the way to being in shape was that she simply march in front of the television one minute a day.

March 6, 2010

Small steps, part 2

Going back to my previous post, “Small steps,” on One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way by Robert Maurer, one of the things he recommends is keeping a journal.  He says that psychological research shows that writing 15 to 20 minutes a day in a journal can be psychologically beneficial for a lot of people.

But in keeping with the kaizen approach, he recommends starting out writing two minutes a day.  Or just writing three sentences.  So, after the last longish post, I thought I’d quickly just write up a short one.

In addition to the chapters I mentioned previously, he identifies the following as a way to continue, “Solve small problems,” “Bestow small rewards,” and “Identify small moments.”

Maurer offers kaizen tips, a kaizen approach to New Year’s resolutions (exercise, eating more healthfully, and so forth), using kaizen to beat bad habits or addictions.  Note: Kaizen may not work for everyone.  And Maurer doesn’t oppose innovation, and based on his background (at the time the book was published he an associate clinical professor at the UCLA School of Medicine) I’m pretty confident that he would recommend seeking professional help if your problem is more serious.  He uses examples of people who were given orders by their doctors, but were finding it difficult to follow those until they started taking small steps.

And if you don’t know where to start?  Maurer suggests using kaizen techniques to figure out what your first small steps will be.

March 4, 2010

Small steps

Have started reading

One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way by Robert Maurer.  Workman Publishing, 2004.

Contrasts kaizen (small, comfortable steps) with innovation (a drastic process of change).  Interestingly enough, Maurer’s explanation of why small steps can actually help you accomplish more than drastic change ties in with some of Aron’s writing on Highly Sensitive Persons.

The chapters flow from “Ask small questions” to “Think small thoughts” to “Take small actions.”

Maurer says that one of the reasons drastic change often does not work is because thinking about what it would take to make such a change can cause fear, which triggers the fight-or-flight response of the amygdala.  The small steps taken in kaizen, on the other hand, do not trigger such a fear response.  So is there some sort of strong connection between the system Aron calls the “automatic pause-to-check” system and the amygdala?

I’m also intrigued by Maurer’s description of “mind sculpture” (from a book of the same name by Ian Robertson (which I will now have to track down at the library).  Mind sculpture apparently is going a step beyond visualization.

Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point (see below) would also appear to indicate how small steps can make a big difference.

Responses to “ How Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think?” (Edge Question of 2010)

Included information from a couple of the answers in my previous post.  Now I only have about 170 answers to go.  :)

Nexus: Small Worlds and the Groundbreaking Theory of Networks by Mark Buchanan, c2002.

A fairly basic explanation of network theory and complexity theory.  I had become aware of Granovetter’s “The Strength of Weak Ties” from reading Andrew McAfee’s Enterprise 2.0 (listed below).

Buchanan explains some of the mathematics behind that, as well as the “Six Degrees of Separation,” which many people are probably aware of because of the connection with Kevin Bacon.  (If one expands that beyond movies and into books and music, many more people get drawn into his network.  More on that in another post.)

I’ve listed some other books I’ve recently finished, but following Maurer’s suggestions re small steps I’m going to stop for now and touch upon those in later posts, too.

Though I would highly recommend that everyone read Cradle to Cradle (see below) to find out what we’re doing to our environment—and ourselves and our health and our kids’ health—and why we need to stop making many of the industrial toxins we’re making and move toward a lifecycle approach to chemicals, rather than making things that just end up in landfills.

Recently read

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford. Three Rivers Press, 2004.

Elaine Aron.  The Highly Sensitive Person, c1996, and The Highly Sensitive Child, c2002.

Andrew McAfee.  Enterprise 2.0: New Collaborative Tools for Your Organization’s Toughest Challenges.  Harvard Business Press, c2009.

William McDonough and Michael Braungart.  Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things.  North Point Press, 2002.

Not so recently (but still thought-provoking)

Malcolm Gladwell. The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.  Back Bay paperback edition, 2002.

Social epidemics; word of mouth; Mavens, Collectors, and Salesmen; “Ideas” (memes? viral ideas?); E-mail (discusses “immunity” to e-mail)

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