According to some models of healthcare, many of the common diseases Americans suffer, including heart disease, cerebrovascular disease, diabetes, and autoimmune disease are largely unrelated conditions, and therefore treated differently.
I’d argue that these diseases do share a fundamental theme: 21st century lifestyle.
*(If you want to really delve into how the modern world is killing us, and you desire a radical, piercing, chilling, brilliant perspective on illness and “wellness,” forget about the rest of this post, and just read this.)
One hundred years ago, we didn’t die from the same things we do now (see What Killed Us, Then and Now for an overview). Of course, there are variables that need to be taken into account, including vaccines, regular health screenings, and other advances in medicine that have reduced the incidence of now treatable (or avoidable) ailments that once might have sent a person to their grave. But why the increase in heart disease? Why the increase in stroke? Diabetes? What it is about our modern lifestyles that increase the prevalence of these diseases? And what can we do about it?
Staying healthy in the 21st century is a multi-faceted endeavor that includes diet, movement, sleep, stress, community, and purpose.
1. Diet & Nutrition
You’re heard it a billion times, I’m sure.
“Eat real food.”
“Don’t eat junk.”
An ideal diet incorporates real, nutrient rich, whole foods, and limits the amount of processed and refined foods that are associated with the Standard American Diet (SAD). How to pull this off, especially if you’re strapped for time and cash? Check out 10 Simple and Sustainable Dietary Guidelines for straightforward, practical advice.
2. Movement & Exercise
Ain’t no question about it. The human body is designed for movement.
But Americans have an increasingly sedentary lifestyle; in fact, many of us spend an 8 hours sitting at work, then come home and…sit some more. After-dinner activities include watching TV or scrolling through Facebook. If you’ve done this kind of thing (and most of us have), I’m sure you’ve felt it. Things get stagnant, fast.
Daily movement is an essential part of health. What kind of things do you love to do, that also include movement? Is it dance? Long urban walks while listening to your favorite podcast? Gardening? Yoga? Soccer? Going to the gym?
And by the way, you don’t have to beat yourself up when you’re exercising – for real. Here’s a really great podcast episode about exercise, and how much we really need to do in order to stay fit. (It might surprise you.)
Side note: See here for some great instructive yoga videos in which instructors acknowledge ableism and teach yoga from a place in which body diversity is recognized and supported.
3. Restorative Sleep
Prioritizing sleep is difficult. Especially for Americans, who feel like they should work harder, make more money, look hotter, and smile more. 1/3 of Americans are getting fewer than 6 hours of sleep each night. But here’s the deal – you need 7 to 8 hours of sleep to function properly, and sleep deprivation has been associated with a long list of chronic diseases. So, yes, getting good sleep is important.
Here’s 3 simple things you can do to sleep better:
Limit your exposure to artificial light at night (i.e. no electronics for two hours before bed).
Create an environment conducive to sleep (comfy, cool, and dark).
Avoid eating too close to bedtime (my rule is if it’s two hours before bedtime, then it’s tea with honey).
4. Manage Stress
It doesn’t matter how healthy you are – if you don’t have ways to manage stress, you’re at an increased risk for modern degenerative conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and thyroid issues.
Here’s the deal. Maintaining your health involves homeostasis, which is the body’s ability to regulate its inner environment (i.e. your bodies ability to return to baseline after a stressful event). If you’re exposed to unmanaged and/or chronic stress, the body can lose the ability to return to homeostasis, and this sets the stage for disease.
Finding what stress management tools works for you is essential. It could be yoga, mantras, meditation, music, long strolls in a green space, or simply hanging out with a good friend. Whatever it is, do your best to identify it, and incorporate it into your life as much as possible.
Whether it’s family, friends, a housing co-op, or a support group, people who feel part of a social group or community increase their chances of living longer. In one meta-analytic review, researchers reported that people with stronger social relationships had a 50% increased likelihood of survival than those with weaker social relationships. From this review:
Humans are naturally social. Yet, the modern way of life in industrialized countries is greatly reducing the quantity and quality of social relationships. Many people in these countries no longer live in extended families or even near each other. Instead, they often live on the other side of the country or even across the world from their relatives. Many also delay getting married and having children. Likewise, more and more people of all ages in developed countries are living alone, and loneliness is becoming increasingly common. In the UK, according to a recent survey by the Mental Health Foundation, 10% of people often feel lonely, a third have a close friend or relative who they think is very lonely, and half think that people are getting lonelier in general. Similarly, across the Atlantic, over the past two decades there has been a three-fold increase in the number of Americans who say they have no close confidants. There is reason to believe that people are becoming more socially isolated…
These findings indicate that the influence of social relationships on the risk of death are comparable with well-established risk factors for mortality such as smoking and alcohol consumption and exceed the influence of other risk factors such as physical inactivity and obesity. Furthermore, the overall effect of social relationships on mortality reported in this meta-analysis might be an underestimate, because many of the studies used simple single-item measures of social isolation rather than a complex measurement.
The research is growing. If we can access our “metaphorical compass” and let that provide direction in our day-to-day lives, we’re increasing our chances of living longer. Here for a reason? Is there something in your life that drives you? If so, you’re likely to be here for longer. Check it out.
(This the 3rd article in the series of three. See the first here, and the second here.)
Can Diet Affect the Health of Your Teeth?
After researching the conventional approach to preventing cavities, I started to dig into the potential relationship between teeth and nutrition.
A bit of background, first. I spend a lot of time reading about food and nutrition. The dietetic wars fascinate me. There’s a lot of big-brained, highly-qualified, critical-thinking, research-waving people out there who vehemently disagree with one another about the most health-optimizing diet. They’re blogging, researching, teaching, publishing, and raking through data with a fine-toothed comb.
For transparency’s sake: I do not recommend one diet over another. I try to work with my patients from a Traditional Chinese Medicine perspective and help them find the diet that works best for them. Modern research has shown that there is no such thing as the “perfect diet.” Because there is tremendous variation among populations with diet, there is also tremendous individual variation. For instance, some people do better with no dairy products in their diet, yet others thrive on moderate amounts. Some feel better with a low-carb approach, while others feel better eating more carbohydrate. Beyond that, I’m also an advocate of finding pleasure and enjoyment in food, which helps with the sustainability of any particular approach to food.
More than anything, though, I recommend one thing the most: chewing.
Which is kind of hard, actually, with a bad tooth.
It’s worth mentioning that it can be difficult to do blinded, randomized, controlled trials of diet. For instance, it’s hard to adequately ‘blind’ subjects to what they are putting in their mouths (though some blinded research has been done, for instance, with the type of fats used in cooking since it can be hidden). If you want to know more about the difficulties of studying diet, see here.
One of the most problematic issues (as well as one of the most common) involves sharing correlational findings as if they are causal, which is straight up unethical when done purposefully in order to capture attention and wallets. This happens a lot.
Anyway, back to my burning question. Can nutrition affect teeth?If so, how? And if so, what should I add to or subtract from my diet in order to increase the resilience and health of my teeth? Below is what I did to try to find an answer to my questions. And not to ruin the results, but I never found the “answer.” I did, however, put together an approach that I felt confident might help me avoid future cavities. As for treating the ones that already exist…well, we’ll see at my next dental appointment. (Update as of 1/2016: Just met with my dentist; no new cavities!!!! Just a cleaning!!!!)
1. I read everything I could find about the conventional dentistry approach to caries. See here.
2. I read everything I could find about nutrition and teeth.
Let’s start with this. Here’s a website that’s been given the official stamp of the American Dental Association (ADA). If you like reading about nutrition, you’re going to find this website lacking; granted, the ADA is writing for the average American whom likely consumes the Standard American Diet (SAD) and whom may not have the time, money, or resources to delve deeply into nutrition…so to some extent it’s wise to keep dietary recommendations simple. (The question of how simple is too simple bears asking).
The ADA also follows the general guidelines of the MyPlate USDA food guide, which replaced the food pyramid, and is riddled with its own set of issues. Some of the information on the ADA site was of mild interest to me because it appears asifthere ARE some basic nutritional guidelines/suggestions endorsed by the ADA. I remain curious to why my dentists have neglected to share this basic information with me. Ever. Even when asked twice.
So, why is this, anyway? Why was it relatively simple for me to get some nutritional advice with a 2 second google search, but could get nuthin’ from the leather dental chair? Well, for starters, only about 1/4 of American med schools offer the 25 hours of nutrition training recommended — but not required — by the National Academy of Sciences. I interpret that to mean that we shouldn’t expect our doctors to be the ones to administer advice about nutrition, which seems only a tiny bit !CRAZY! to me.
I completed a 4 year Master’s degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine; as part of my training, we were required to complete 48 hours of study in nutrition. (I wish it had been more.) The biggest difference is that TCM considers nutritional therapy an essential treatment approach, and most acupuncturists use food therapeutically in daily practice. This is not to say that all acupuncturists always give good advice; this is to say that acupuncturists think about food as medicine. In other words, if you were to ask an acupuncturist about food recommendations to support the health of your teeth, you may have a hard time getting them to shut up.
The most content I could find (that wasn’t from a TCM perspective) regarding the relationship of nutrition to dental health came from followers of the dietary tenets of Weston Price. Weston Price was a dentist in the early 20th century who founded what eventually became the research section of the American Dental Association. The Weston Price folks had a great deal to say about the relationship of diet to teeth; doubly fascinating to me was that many vegans (who often lament ol’ Weston and his meaty prescriptions) agreed with the underlying theory, but differed on how to fill these nutritional holes.
Weston Price, in some circles, is referred to as the legendary dentist, but he’s not nearly as glorified in other circles. For those of you needing your information to come in the form of the double-blind, placebo-controlled, and largely populated, well…you aren’t going to be overly excited about Price’s data. His research was done in the early 20th century and wasn’t nearly as rigorous as your modern research geek would require. Also, I later discovered that Price’s research was problematic in another way (see how Price and the eugenics movement were relatedhere).
So, what were people saying about nutrition and teeth? Here’s what’s been theorized:
The modern Western diet (particularly flour, sugar, and modern processed vegetable fats) cause nutritional deficiencies that are a cause of many dental issues and health problems.
The modern diet does not contain enough fat-soluble vitamins (for the sake of this article, we’ll look at D and K).
The presence of phytic acid in a diet heavy in nuts, seeds, grains, and legumes influences our ability to absorb minerals.
Food remedies that may heal cavities and prevent tooth decay
So, assuming that optimal tooth formation is positively influenced by a diet that is sufficient in minerals, fat-soluble vitamins, and low in phytic acid, here are specific recommendations.
Enamel is the most mineralized substance in the human body. It is made up of mostly calcium and phosphate. Vitamin D is important for increasing the absorption of calcium and phosphate from the food you eat. Increasing the absorption of calcium and phosphate can improve the strength of your teeth and their ability to fight demineralization from bacteria.
Vitamin D receptors are found on cells in your immune system and in your teeth. Vitamin D can bind to these receptors and increase the amount of good antimicrobial proteins in your body which help to fight the bacteria that cause dental caries.
In addition, the cells in the teeth that form dentin and enamel contain vitamin D receptors, meaning that vitamin D may play a role in their functioning. Some studies show that dental caries are most common in late winter and early spring, when vitamin D levels are likely to be at their lowest. Many studies have found that geographic location and sun exposure are related to dental caries. People living closer to the equator with greater amounts of sun exposure are less likely to develop dental caries.
Mothers of children with early childhood caries have lower vitamin D levels during pregnancy than mothers whose children don’t have caries.
Studies that give people vitamin D supplements to prevent caries have found that vitamin D is effective at preventing the development of caries.
Vitamin D: Sources
Real sunshine is the best, but not always practical. If your arms and face (or the equivalent amount) is exposed to the following amounts of midday sun (11 am to 3 pm), without sunscreen, on a day when sunburn is possible (i.e., not winter or cloudy), then you should not need any dietary vitamin D that day:
Light-skinned: 10 to 15 minutes
Dark-skinned: 20 minutes
Elderly: 30 minutes
Animal sources of Vitamin D include the egg yolks of free-range chickens, cold-water, fatty fish (like sardines and salmon), and dairy products from cows that ate green grass (not corn). Shiitake mushrooms have vitamin D in small amounts. For a more detailed list of Vitamin D food sources, see here and here. It’s also relatively inexpensive to supplement with Vitamin D, though it’s ideal to have your levels tested in order to avoid over-supplementation, which is dangerous).
Vitamin K, specifically K2:
Vitamin K is actually a group of fat-soluble vitamins that are involved in blood coagulation and calcium binding. Low levels of vitamin K weaken bones and may promote calcification of arteries and other soft tissues.
There are three basic types of vitamin K. Their common names are K1, K2, and K3.
K1 is the “plant form” of this vitamin; the best sources of this vitamin are green vegetables. K1 is known for its role in blood-clotting. For instance, newborns are often given a K1 shot (or K1 drops) at birth to decrease risk of hemorrhage.
K3 (menadione) is a synthetic form of Vitamin K. Though it’s used for certain medical treatments, it’s generally considered unsafe and unnecessary for general use.
K2 is produced in animal tissues or as a result of bacterial fermentation (K2 comes in various forms, called menaquinones). Menaquinone-4 (MK-4) is produced by animal tissues. One of the richest sources of MK-4 is goose liver.
Menaquinone-7 (MK-7) is produced by bacterial fermentation and is found in products like natto and blue cheese.
A number of other forms of K2 (like MK-9) are found in fermented dairy products, though MK-4 and MK-7 are the best studied forms of Vitamin K2.
Vitamin K2 can be made from K1 by bacteria and other microorganisms. In plant foods, you won’t find much preformed K2, unless those plant foods have been fermented or transformed by bacteria. Nattō is one of the only good vegan sources of Vitamin K2. Nattō is a fermented soybean product that is notorious for it’s stench and sliminess (it’s also not easy to find in Maine).
K2 appears to be a key vitamin in maintaining bone mineralization and limiting the formation and lifespan of osteoclasts. Researchers are also increasingly optimistic about K2’s potential for those with or at risk for osteoporosis. In addition, it’s being looked at as an important factor in cardiovascular health, in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis, in the treatment and prevention of tooth decay, and as a factor in the prevention of prostate cancer. So far, research is in it’s early stages (and more must be done), but I intend to watch developments with interest.
Sources of K2
Good sources of K2 include nattō, pâté, grass-fed butter and ghee, and egg yolks from chickens. Moderate sources of K2 include blue cheese, Gouda, Brie, Jarlsberg’s and Edam. Here’s a more detailed look at the types and sources of K2 if you’re interested.
Phytic acid: The issue of phytic acid is controversial. This is the most comprehensive info I found on phytic acid. I try to soak and sprout as often as possible, since it does seem to make some (controversy exists regarding exactly how much) nutrients more readily available for the body to use.
How Does Traditonal Chinese Medicine Think About Teeth?
Eventually, I closed my laptop, all my books, and shut my peepers for a second to consider myself as a case study. What would be my Traditional Chinese Medicine diagnosis, and what would be my treatment? Over the past couple of years, my diet hasn’t been as consistent or nutrient-rich. Basically, I had a kid and my food prep and homemade food-makin’ time got squeezed pretty thin for a while (I’m workin’ on it!). Any of the health issues I’d experienced in the past couple of years (mostly minor, but bothersome) pointed to an imbalance in of the TCM concept of Kidneys – the organ associated with the teeth. Typical nutritional recommendations for a kidney imbalance? There was definitely some overlap, notably marrow (bone broth), cold-water fatty fish, small amounts of raw milk, and ghee.
A Lauren-designed, Lauren-experiment
So, what to do with all of this information? I came up with a plan simple enough for me to sustain, ordered from most exciting (pleasurable) to least.
As always, continue to fill much of my plate with lots and lots of veggies and some fruit
Add small amounts of grass-fed organic dairy, especially pasture butter and raw yogurt (I’ve recently committed to buying all of my dairy from a local co-op; it’s not cheap, but I did have enough wiggle room in my budget for this allowance. I made this decision because of this and this.)
Fuzzy thinking, loose stools, fatigue, and aching joints – all of these things can arise from excess dampness in the body, according to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). If you missed the post explaining how TCM conceptualizes dampness, see here.
Acupuncture is great for treating dampness, but it’s equally important to modify your diet if you want good results. WAIT, DON’T RUN! I promise that I’m not going to launch into an extreme dietary diatribe. Read through the list below and choose the modifications that seem sustainable to you – it’s not necessary to do all of them. Pick the ones that seem sane for you, and run with it! Continue reading…