With COVID-19, many families are struggling like never before. Healthy, high-quality food wasn’t always accessible for many low-income families before the crisis. Now, more and more Americans are stretching their resources to nourish themselves and their loved ones. We stand with these strong, hard-working families, and hope that our blog provides some helpful new ideas and optimism for how to step forward towards nutritional well-being.
He may be known as the father of Western medicine, but Hippocrates was also most certainly the world’s first nutritional biochemist. In 400 BC, he is believed to have said “Let food be thy medicine, and let medicine be thy food.” Long before we knew that chicken soup contained anti-inflammatory properties, we’ve understood intuitively that certain foods are healing and play an essential role in our cognitive, emotional and physical health. Today we will talk about how making thoughtful nutritional choices can help supercharge the intelligence of our immune systems, in order to protect not only ourselves and our families, but in the era of COVID-19, our communities and fellow human beings.
To start, let’s get to know the Two Big M’s, the One Big E and the ancient family of S’s: the microbiome, the metabolome, the epigenome and the sirtuins.
THE MICROBIOME: It’s as unique as a fingerprint; it contains microbes, viruses and fungi and is the biodiverse home for all that goes on in your gut. Research on the gut microbiome (yes, poop) is one of the hottest areas in biopsychosocial science today for a couple of major reasons. First, the majority of our immune system function lies in the cells that line our GI (gastrointestinal) tracts. Second, these same cells shape our mood, cognitive clarity and mental as well as physical health. Eating foods that are right for our individual microbiomes can protect us from infections, allergies, autoimmune disorders, chronic inflammation and cancer.
THE METABOLOME: The other Big M, the metabolome, provides a real-time snapshot of the way in which lifestyle factors, including what we eat and drink, impact the operation of our cells. By examining metabolites (biochemical by-products) in our body’s fluids, cells and tissues, we can gain insight into health status, drug allergies and vulnerability to disease. It’s important to know that metabolic health is not just about getting to the “right” number on the scale. It’s about having ideal levels of blood sugar, fats (triglycerides), good cholesterol (HDL a.k.a. high-density lipoproteins) and blood pressure – without using medications.
THE EPIGENOME: Because our bodies are integrated systems, both the microbiome and metabolome operate synergistically with the epigenome: the central tenet of how nature operates via nurture. The roughly 20,000 genes in our genome are merely recipes for proteins – and are chemical followers – not deterministic leaders. Active 24/7, epigenetic processes work like a dimmer switch, turning genes – each which has its’ own particular job – ON, OFF, or somewhere in-between. This is the essence of how our life experiences (e.g. food and drink, exercise, sleep, perceived stress, etc.) are integrated into our brains and bodies. Epigenetics is the mechanism that confers perpetual biological malleability to us as a species, and undergirds our capacity to learn, grow and thrive.
To optimize our biological raw materials, each gene must follow the genetic job chart and have an accurate understanding of its own innate identity. In other words, a liver cell should be expressed in the liver, and a skin cell should be expressed in the skin. If a chemical signal is misunderstood (which happens more frequently as we grow older), it can morph into a full-blown cellular identity crisis. When the genetic job chart goes off the rails and liver cells start to think (and behave) like skin cells, this is decidedly NOT good for the liver – an organ without which we simply cannot function!
THE SIRTUINS: This is where the ancient family of SIRTUIN (SIR stands for “silent information regulator”) genes come in. The sirtuins are survival genes that have the mission-critical job of turning certain genes OFF (“gene silencing”) and restoring accountability for tasks on the genetic job chart (“DNA repair”). Think of these two things as heading off runaway inflammation and cancer at the pass and getting genes back on track. Sirtuins work at their best when feeling slightly stressed (remember, they’re survival genes!), which in practical terms, means giving our bodies periodic breaks from digesting food.
When we moderate snacks between meals and give ourselves at least 12 hours between dinner and breakfast, sirtuins get their wheels in motion to turn OFF runaway gene expression and repair the cellular communication equipment. At a physiological level, this means improved organ function, physical endurance, disease resistance and longevity.
Putting it all together, the Two Big M’s, the One Big E and The Sirtuin Family (“MMES”) work synergistically to support our interconnected and dynamic biological systems. Being kind to our bodies is all about making the best possible choices available to us, under circumstances of both excess and scarcity, as so many vulnerable families are experiencing today. We must control what we can, knowing that our intentional decisions: what we eat, when we eat, and importantly – when we don’t – begin to show up in our microbiome in less than 24 hours. Let’s band together and clean up the “MMES!”
Tips for Your Mental Environment:
- Be mindful in the kitchen.
- Remember to breathe! Long, slow breaths, six in and six out. Conscious breathing will help you be where your feet are.
- When possible, cook with your children. Teach them a family recipe and a lifelong skill.
Tips for Your Physical Environment:
- GIVE SUGAR THE BOOT. All calories were not created equal, and sugar is one we can comfortably leave on the bench. One form is called “glucose” (complex sugars and carbohydrates) which fuels our bodies and is the primary energy source for our brains. When glucose is metabolized, our liver decides whether to store it, burn it for energy, or convert it into triglycerides (fat). Another kind of sugar, called “fructose” (fruit juices, honey and foods / drinks with high-fructose corn syrup), is metabolized by the liver and immediately stored as fat. Over time this automatic fat storage increases risk for fatty liver disease, heart disease and undermines broad measures of health. High levels of fructose (which most Americans consume via sodas, juices and sports drinks) garble our metabolic signals, drowning out “I’m full” with a shrieking “I’m famished!” Here’s the good news. Moderating sugar consumption quickly begins to stabilize our blood sugar and other biomarkers of health, leaving us feeling more in control of our emotions, bodies and minds. And if you’re craving salty foods, make sure to drink a full glass of water before – it will dilute the fructose and help short-circuit the fat switch.
- MAKE SMART CHOICES. Lean proteins such as fish, lentils and chicken; foods low on the glycemic index; nuts and seeds; bright, colorful fruits and vegetables; and single-ingredient-named foods made by Mother Nature (e.g. apple, chicken, almonds) will serve you well. They will reduce inflammation, build immunity, stabilize blood sugar and leave you feeling satisfied between meals.
- REST AND DIGEST, so your sirtuins can do their jobs! This is worth repeating: Minimize snacking and put at least 12 hours between your final calorie at night (yes, this includes nightcaps!) and your first one in the morning. Breakfast literally means “breaking the fast.”
- EAT SLOWLY AND ENJOY YOUR MEAL! If still hungry afterwards, have a cup of tea or go for a short walk. Remember, it takes time for the “I’m full!” signals to reach both our stomachs and our brains. Set a timer, be patient and wait it out. If you’re still hungry after that, choose protein, such as a handful of nuts or seeds, to avert blood sugar spikes.
- HYDRATE. Because there is no average person, there is no set recommended amount – but here are some guidelines. Keep a water bottle filled and make sure you’re getting the right amount for you.
Our bodies and brains work as integrated systems. That means that positive lifestyle choices which support one aspect of positive functionality, generally support the others. Choosing healthy foods and drinks to support our microbiomes, metabolomes and epigenomes, and giving our sirtuin genes the time and space to course-correct cellular identity crises are not just a “nice to have,” but a “must have” – especially at this moment in history when immunological vigilance is vital.
By making thoughtful nutritional choices and making health and wellness a part of our message to the people in our lives, we are protecting not only ourselves and our families from COVID-19, but also helping equip our students with health-promoting tools that will serve them for life. Investing in the development of an intelligent immune system will pay off in spades – not only in mental and physical health – but importantly – in brain health. And in optimizing the health and longevity of our brains, we can feel secure in knowing we’ve not left one stone unturned in striving to reach our full human potential.
We are grateful for your presence with us today. Please jot down a few things you found helpful and integrate them into your Daily Recipe. We look forward to being with you next week for a conversation about meditation. When practiced in a disciplined and intentional way, meditation allows us to “come home to ourselves,” giving us permission and freedom to access our hearts and emotions, stepping away from “human doing” and towards “human being.”