On Cortisol

Cortisol has been a bit of a mystery to me. Things I’ve gathered about cortisol include:

  • Cortisol is a hormone
  • Cortisol is elevated by exercising
  • Cortisol is elevated by drinking alcohol
  • The presence of cortisol spurs weight gain, and specifically, fat accumulation in the gut for men
  • Cortisol can impair the immune system
  • Vitamin C before bed (And getting plenty of sleep) can reduce cortisol (See Robb Wolf’s comments on this post)

Some reading on cortisol from the usual suspects:

There’s a lot of information out there on the subject of cortisol. As someone who is exercising and periodically imbibing alcohol, how should I deal with cortisol to mitigate its detrimental effects on my goals?

And what is overexercising anyway? What is over-training? If you tack on some low to medium intensity cardiovascular exercise to weight lifting / high-intensity exercise, do you cross the line between “just right” and “too much”? I have no doubt that the answers to these questions are case-specific.

What is a good mix of exercise for a relatively sedentary web entrepreneur?

“Insulin Control” – what it’s all about!

I subscribed to Mike OD’s The IF Life1 awhile back. Mike is a personal trainer with years of experience who is a big advocate of incorporating intermittent fasting into your life. However, his site isn’t merely about IF. From what I can tell, the IF Life aims to be a holistic resource on living a healthy and happy life. Mike’s site is a great resource — check it out.

In two recent posts on The IF Life, Mike used the phrase “insulin control” to sum up one of the key tenets of effective diets (See here and here).

In the first post, Mike alludes to the fact that insulin control is the chief goal of all effective diets, whether the diets know it or not (I.e. diets that advocate six meals a day are aiming to control insulin spikes, even if they don’t say so explicitly).

In the second linked post, titled Diet Book Insanity. When did Eating become this Complicated?, Mike states:

Now I know what many may say, but diets can work right? Sure … at the heart of all diets you see 2 main things that will get people results: Insulin control (see the carbs are not the enemy post and insulin and sugar post) and Calorie Deficit Intake (so the body burns from internal fuel sources, which is what you need if you want to burn that stubborn body fat).

Mike smartly tacks on caloric restriction to insulin control as the two overarching diet-advice mantras that tend to get results (Almost certainly so when used together). And though this wasn’t really the point of his diet insanity post (and I know I didn’t coin the phrase), I’m still going to take some credit for distilling the diet madness down to two simple words:

They’re all about insulin control!

Update 09/10/08: Robb Wolf, another blogger I’m subscribing to these days, happened to use the phrase “insulin control” back in October of 2007:

Super simple: Our nutritional recommendations are focused at insulin control. You could also say that our nutritional recommendations are what we are designed to eat and thrive on …

The post is about CrossFit, overexercising, and dialing in nutrition in order to see body composition changes. In my (limited) experience, his post rings absolutely true for me: exercise did little in the way to improve my body composition until I reigned in insulin.

1 “IF” stands for “Intermittent Fasting”, of course, and you gotta love the play on words the acronym creates!

Foreign governments own America.

I won’t go much into the Freddie/Fannie bailout (Which is just the latest in a long string of bailouts by the Federal Government) — it’s too depressing and so well covered elsewhere. For that matter, I’m just going to quote a salient point by an internet friend, Rolfe Winkler, who blogs under the ml-implode umbrella at Option Armageddon:

Folks, we don?t have the money. America needs to wake up and realize that we?re already bankrupt. The proximate reason for today?s bailout was that foreigners threatened to stop buying Fannie and Freddie debt. We?ve allowed ourselves to fall so deeply in debt to foreign nations that they are now driving U.S. economic policy. The deeper into debt we go, the more power foreigners will have.

That the U.S. is at the mercy of foreign governments is covered in more detail by Brad Setser here.

There’s little more to know than this: the leaders of this country have sold you out.

Napoleon Hill’s The Law of Success in Sixteen Lessons

I’ve been doing a bit more biking lately and wanted to see if I couldn’t put my hands on a decent mp3 audiobook that I could listen to while riding. Enter Napoleon Hill’s The Law of Success in Sixteen Lessons, which is apparently one of the original self-improvement/self-help books ever created.

The audiobook consists of over twenty hours of audio, so it is going to take some time to work through it; however, based on all the accolades Hill has received (Heard of Think and Grow Rich?), there must be a few solid concepts in this book. I’ll let you know once I slug through it all!

These days, I’m keenly interested in improving the quality of my life — facets including relationships, work, physical and mental health, et cetera. To that end, there is much waste and inefficiency in the way I currently manage my life, so I’m looking for ways to “hack” my processes and improve them. I’m also optimistic that in engaging in self-evaluation/self-hacking I might advance my life-goals, perhaps coming closer to finding an area on which to focus my energy.

If anyone has pointers in this regard, please let me know!

Weight Lifting: Slow or Fast?

Rusty, founder of Fitness Black Book, tells us that when it comes to lifting weights and building strength, the key is “slow and steady” (See his most recent post, Strength Training Rep). In short, rather than lifting heavy weights in a jerky fashion, which is best exemplified by the near chest bounce on the bench press, you’re better off going through the weight lifting motions in a slow, controlled fashion.

The benefits of slowness in weight lifting include reducing the chance of injury and, according to Rusty, more lasting strength creation. Actually, in reading through the aforelinked post, I’m reminded of Rusty’s post on “Mastering the Weight“, which I particularly found interesting.

Both are good reads with some solid food for thought. For me, the jury is out on this subject and there are all sorts of conflicting opinions. Arthur De Vany seems to be an advocate of more explosive lifting. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to track down the posts where Art advocates as much as it seems Google’s indexing of his site is broken (arthurdevany.com recently underwent a sitewide “upgrade”, and it seems that some posts were lost in the change). Art’s argument, if I recall correctly, is that explosive movements are more in keeping with function — i.e. we don’t sprint in slow motion. On the flipside, dead lifting in real life is hardly explosive.

Isn’t there room for both? Methinks yes.

Back to Rusty’s Strength Training Rep post — he had a great explanation on using irradiation to boost muscular definition and strength. Check it out:

The Skill of Generating Tension in the Muscle

Strength is largely determined by your ability to generate tension in a muscle. The harder you can contract a muscle the better strength you can demonstrate in that muscle. Did you know that you can contract a muscle much harder if you also contract the muscles surrounding it? I learned about this principle called “Irradiation” from Soviet Special Forces Trainer, Pavel Tsatsouline. Here is how he explains it.

  1. Try flexing your bicep as hard as possible without making a fist.
  2. Now try and flex your bicep as hard as possible while making as tight as fist as possible and squeezing.
  3. You should be able to contract your bicep much harder when making a tight fist.
  4. This is called “irradiation”?what is happening is that the nerve impulses of surrounding muscles can amplify the effect of that muscle.

How to Become a Master at Generating Tension

Here is the craziest thing about the principle of Irradiation. You can actually create stronger contractions in a muscle by flexing a bigger chain of surrounding muscles. Take that bicep example above. Try contracting you bicep as hard as possible but this time don’t only squeeze your fist, but contract your pecs and abs as hard as possible as well. Did you notice a difference? After a while you will become a master at irradiation to reach high levels of strength.

Anyway, some food for thought on this fine Friday. I like Rusty’s site and you should check it out. I’ve been particularly interested in his (and Lyle McDonald’s) approach to stubborn fat loss. You can check Rusty’s mini-book on it here (it is free!).

Vacationing and diet setbacks

I’m back from my two-week hiatus whereby I partied with old college buddies at my best friend’s wedding in Olympia, Washington, and then took a week-long vacation with my wife — we drove around Mount Rainier and toured Seattle and Vancouver. The vacation was much-needed, and I took the opportunity to disconnect entirely from work for most of it.

Of course, the five days in Olympia were spent consuming untold amounts of junk food and drinking immense amounts of alcohol, day after day, all on reduced sleep and fighting jet lag. Said differently, I lost control of my insulin and fell off the health wagon! And of course, once off the wagon, I took full advantage, eating every cinnamon roll and chip in sight.

It happens, I guess. Setbacks happen.

The downside to this admittedly enjoyable carbfest is that I gained probably eight pounds of non-lean tissue. I’m ballparking that a bit as my weight went up about that much and based on some skinfold calipers, my body fat percentage went up maybe 2 – 3%. Using pre-vacation figures and comparing lean tissue to post-vacation figures, my lean tissue stayed virtually constant, thus the reasonably accurate guess that I put on about seven pounds.

Amazing what a couple weeks of bad-eating can do, right?

We got back this past Sunday and I’ve since embarked on getting back on track. This has involved some mini-fasts, exercising, et cetera. I can already tell some improvement from just a few days ago in my torso adipose tissue.

Thus, maybe there’s a bright side to this diet setback. I’m learning about my body — or at least, formulating various conjectures as to what is going on. Here are some thoughts:

  • Caloric restriction and eating a low-carbohydrate diet will key your body in certain helpful ways. Insulin sensitivity will rise, for example. The body will cycle through waste-proteins and move to cell maintenance and repair. I liken this process to battening down the hatches, throwing overboard unnecessary baggage and running lean.
  • The flip side of caloric restriction and low-carbing is that heightened insulin sensitivity means both a more acute reaction to carbohydrates when consumed and, well, your body has been running lean and is all about replenishing lost resources. So in a period of abundant carbohydrates and the utter lack of exercise, your body is going to go into full storage mode.
  • All of the above demonstrates how dynamic our bodies are. Flip a few variables and you will get an entirely different result. Fat stores are incredibly dynamic.
  • The first two or three nights after consuming immense amounts of alcohol and carbohydrates, I had to sleep above the covers as I could not get cool. Pure speculation, but I’m guessing that my body simply wasn’t ready to produce enough insulin to reduce my blood sugar to appropriate levels, so it was heat cycling away the excess calories (Adaptive thermogenesis?).

What I’m really curious about is how long it will take me to get back to my pre-vacation weight. Is two weeks too much to hope for? A month?

In the coming days, I’m going to experiment with different concoctions of fasting and exercising. I’m curious to try out Lyle McDonald‘s Stubborn Fat Protocol, which is essentially:

  • Drink 100 – 200mg of caffeine an hour prior to working out
  • Do ten minutes of high intensity interval training
  • Rest five minutes
  • Do 30 – 40 minutes of low-intensity cardio
  • Eat some protein an hour or two after working out, and then back to a meal a few hours after that

What I’m finding difficult in implementing the above is that I’m still fighting the reverse jet lag, which makes going to sleep at a decent time very difficult. In turn, I wake up late, and the SFP is almost certainly best implemented in the morning fresh off a fast.

Ideally, I can combine SFP with CrossFit to get a nice training regiment going. Regarding CrossFit specifically, I’m leaning to implementing a 3x week CrossFit training schedule whereby the days are not back to back. That level of high-intensity, in my opinion, puts too much stress on my body: I’d rather integrate CrossFitting with some SFP and/or low-intensity “activity”. Any suggestions?

Apologies for the brain-dump here, just been working through some ideas and brainstorming them out here on the blog. Whether they make for good reading is moot!

Feedback is welcome.

Update 09/05/08

Seems a week’s worth of dieting and exercise has already made some impact on getting me back on track. Of course, to echo my real interest — I want to see how long it takes me to get back to pre-vacation definition. I’m hoping it will be “easy come, easy go” while fully realizing that its a lot easier to gain weight than it is to lose it, particularly when that weight is fat.

On the road: Olympia

Just an update. I’m on the road for the next ten days for a wedding out here in Olympia, Washington this Saturday and then an extra week of vacation in Seattle and Vancouver (Hey, gotta make use of the 5.5 hour flight out here from Atlanta). For some (or most) of that time, I’ll still be plugged in for work, though I’m assured to get a few days in there where I’m disconnected. I’ll also be taking a stab at slipping in some workouts.

It’s damn near impossible to stay healthy on the road, but I’m doing my best. I find that my Achille’s heel is alcohol as it seems to lower my inhibitions just enough to snack on nearby junk food. I don’t know if this goes on to spike my insulin (And I’m guessing, I’m fairly insulin sensitive these days) which cascades to carb-binging, but I’ve seen a carb-cascade occur and I don’t like it.

In other eating news, I feasted on fresh Dungeness crab last night harvested yesterday morning from Puget Sound. It was delicious.

Here’s a view out from the top of where the groomsmen are staying for the wedding. Porches on every level of this house, this is the topmost, third floor porch view:

I’ll have to take some “real” photos of this place. It is awesome.

Searching for the right mix of cardio and high-intensity exercise

I stumbled across a blog post titled Conflicting Cardio that pondered aloud the following:

As I read Mark’s essay, I distinctly remembered hearing advice somewhere that completely contradicted what he was saying. I remembered reading that we were actually genetically designed to run long, slow distances, and that the way our ancestors hunted was not in short sprints (antelope would outrun us no problem), but rather in long, slow jogs, waiting for the animal’s body temperature to overheat. At that point, the animal simply passed out from heat exhaustion, and we moved in for the kill. This is based on the premise that human beings evolved an evaporative cooling system, whereas animals didn’t; they don’t sweat, and thus, they’re terribly inefficient at cooling their bodies during exercise.

Fortunately for you, I have a spectacular memory. The article I’m referencing was from an issue of Men’s Health that ran about a year ago, titled Yes, You Were Born to Run. The author, Richard Conniff, based the article on research conducted by Daniel Lieberman PhD, a University of Utah biologist.

I find this situation particularly hilarious because it illustrates perfectly the dilemma that the typical North American finds itself in when attempting to establish what, exactly, is good for us in terms of our health. Is it low-fat or low-carb? Steady-state cardio exercise, or HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training)? 12-15 reps or 6-8? The amount of conflicting information published is astounding.

What is the right combination of cardiovascular exercise and strength-training? Is one better than the other? Is endurance exercise healthy? These are important questions to ask.

Here is my brief take, which is cross-posted as a comment on Becoming Adonis:

Thought-provoking post.

Seems to me that any “cardio” should be conducted at low-intensity. “Intensity” is incredibly vague, so for my purposes, I am defining it as whatever rate at which my body burns mostly fat for energy. For most of us, I imagine fairly low levels of exercise — probably less than jogging but greater than walking (Though walking with weight could serve in a pinch). For individuals who train for endurance, the level will be higher as their bodies are more efficient at burning fat for energy — I’m thinking specifically of Ironman athletes or other high endurance individuals who necessarily blow through all of the glycogen stores in their bodies and simply must burn fat for fuel. For a discussion on this, see Mark Twight’s write-up on endurance and fat (here).

Based on a number of articles about endurance exercise (See More Reading below), I don’t see a lot of benefits in endurance training. I’ll save further discussion on that topic for another time.

Meanwhile, HIIT and/or weight lifting is right up the alley of most all of us mere mortals for the very reasons Mark Sisson and you describe (Sprints being a great example).

How do we put all of this together? Do we just ditch cardio/endurance exercise altogether?

Modern man is scarcely active relative to our ancient ancestors. Hunting/gathering at the grocery store is hardly going to require a lot of energy nor is typing 90wpm or clicking a mouse. The big incongruity is simply a lack of basic, low-intensity activity that would have been a matter of course to paleo man but is a foreign concept to us bloggers.

So what is the solution? We should simply seek to be more active at low-levels of intensity. This means more walking (perhaps weighted) or perhaps low-intensity biking or mountain biking. I imagine there are a number of competitive sports that could also fit the bill here. Mix these activities with HIIT and weight-lifting and you’ve got an optimal combination.

More reading:

  • Did you happen to see this post by De Vany on sweating? Totally jives with the evaporative cooling mechanism discussion in your post.
  • The Men’s Health article referenced can be found here

And a bevvy of articles on endurance exercise, most which question its health benefits:

Cooking and Human Intelligence

Research has been conducted on human brain chemical processes that appear to have changed about 200,000 years ago. The findings may indicate that a leap in human advancement came as homo sapiens were able to consume greater calories, a necessary precursor to fueling our energy-hungry brains. In specific, what may have driven the advance is that humans learned:

The extra calories may not have come from more food, but rather from the emergence of pre-historic “Iron Chefs;” the first hearths also arose about 200,000 years ago.

In most animals, the gut needs a lot of energy to grind out nourishment from food sources. But cooking, by breaking down fibers and making nutrients more readily available, is a way of processing food outside the body. Eating (mostly) cooked meals would have lessened the energy needs of our digestion systems, Khaitovich explained, thereby freeing up calories for our brains.

Our brains need something like 500 to 700 calories a day in energy, so it stands to reason that greater energy uptake would foster advances in our intelligence.

The best quote from the article:

“This happened because we started to eat better food, like eating more meat,” said researcher Philipp Khaitovich of the Partner Institute for Computational Biology in Shanghai.

Take that, vegetarians!

(Link to the article at LiveScience)

On Coffee (And Caffeine)

The NY Times published an article titled Sorting Out Coffee?s Contradictions the other day. Here were my notable takeaways:

  • On the myth of dehydration: “studies reviewed last year found that people who consumed drinks with up to 550 milligrams of caffeine produced no more urine than when drinking fluids free of caffeine. Above 575 milligrams, the drug was a diuretic.”
  • On mental benefits: “At consumption levels up to 200 milligrams (the amount in about 16 ounces of ordinary brewed coffee), consumers report an improved sense of well-being, happiness, energy, alertness and sociability”
  • On being an exercise supplement: “caffeine enhances endurance in aerobic activities and performance in anaerobic ones, perhaps because it blunts the perception of pain and aids the ability to burn fat for fuel instead of its carbohydrates.”

There’s a bit more here.

That at normal or even high levels of consumption (575mg of caffeine is a lot) coffee is not a diuretic, acting instead like water in hydrating your body, hits on a point Mark Sisson has made. I had previously wondered at what consumption levels dehydration kicks in, so this is good to know.

It also hammers home something I’ve realized in the past few weeks as I have drastically reduced my “raw water” consumption, which is that even if I’m drinking beer, tea and coffee only, I am still managing plenty of hydration.

It also makes me wonder if overhydrating can have a negative side-effect, which is that your body becomes dependent on needing higher levels of water consumption. The reason I ask this is because I have previously drank 100 oz. of water every day (or more) plus all the water I got through food. On nights that I imbibed a bit of alcohol, I found hangovers to be stronger, which I also chalked up to the dehydration. Yet now, I’ve cut way back on my daily water intake and any hangover I’ve experienced seems less severe. How does this make sense? The closest thing I can liken it to (oddly enough) is becoming dependent on chapstick from overuse.

This isn’t exactly a rigorous experiment, but it’s still interesting.