I was inspired to write this article about how you can simultaneously improve your mood and immune system after reading this NY Times article on the mounting research suggesting that your body’s microbial community directly affects your brain, behavior, mood and even appetite.
At this point most people know that our microbiome is also the core of our digestive and immune systems. I want to close the loop between the brain and immune function and give you some practical ways that you can feed two birds with one hand.
Bathe in nature...
The Earth emits certain frequencies that have been shown to improve mood, calm anxiety and increase healing. Getting your hands and feet on dirt, grass and sand is the best way to improve your microbiome. When you make contact with the earth you allow yourself to be colonized with billions of beneficial microbiota - bacteria, fungi, and so on. If you remember, last week I linked this article talking about the growing body of research showing that your microbiome has an impact on mood, thought and the onset of neurodegenerative diseases.
From personal experience and that of my friends, I can definitively say that I feel happier, rejuvenated and more alive when I’ve been outside. In fact this is one of the main reason I quit my office job in a cubicle farm 10 years ago. Being inside all day under fluorescent lights surrounded on 3 sides by cubicle walls was making me sick, unhappy and depressed.
Anecdotally, one of my clients who grew up in the bush in Botswana told me that her mother used to make her and her siblings suck on the carpet in their hut to ward off illness anytime something was going around. She said the bush people believed dirt had the power to ward off sickness. Turns out they were right!
My advice: take your shoes off so your feet can make contact with the earth, put your hands on the ground/trees/etc, and lie down on the ground. The Japanese, who primarily live in huge urban centers, started practicing forest bathing as a way to connect with nature and absorb the earth’s life giving and healing powers.
Get in the sun…
Exposure to the sun is the best way to get vitamin D, which actually isn’t a vitamin, but rather the hormone precursor for DHEA, which itself is the precursor for our sex hormones testosterone and estrogen. Research shows optimal DHEA levels are correlated to longevity and that deficiencies have a negative effect on mood, immune function, and hormone function. (Of course hormone imbalances negatively affect body composition, as well.) Scientists have hypothesized for years that this is the reason Seattle is the suicide capital of the US.
Getting enough sun exposure isn’t as simple as just saying everyone should get 10-30 minutes several times a week. How much sun you need depends on the following factors:
● how far you live from the equator,
● the color of your skin,
● how much of your skin you’re exposing, and
● even the angle from which the sun is hitting you (are you lying down or standing up?)
Rather than get too deep down this rabbit hole, I’ll just refer you to this article I found on VitaminDWiki, which apparently is a thing.
Vitamin D supplementation is a good Plan B to support natural sun exposure and if you can’t regularly get the amount of sun exposure you need to maintain optimal vitamin D levels. The one I use in the winter for myself is the Thorne Vitamin D/K2 combo that we carry at the gym. Combining vitamins D and K can provide greater support of the immune and cardiovascular systems and bone health than each offers separately. For example, vitamin D is necessary for calcium absorption, and vitamin K is important for directing calcium to the bones.
Thorne uses the MK-4 version of vitamin K2, which is taken up by our tissues very rapidly after we consume it. While it hasn’t been studied as carefully as MK-7, it may be less effective than MK-7 at reaching liver and bone but more effective at reaching most other tissues. This would make it better at protecting those tissues from calcium deposits and cancer development and supporting sex hormone production through its direct actions within our sex organs.
I chose Thorne for the reasons above, because I can feed two birds with one hand (Vit D & K2), and because I trust them. They have all their products tested by an independent 3rd party lab.
*Checkout Dr. Chris Masterjohn’s Ultimate K2 guide if you want to know literally everything about Vitamin K2.
Eat fermented foods…
Only 40% of your body weight is human cells. The other 60% is a combination of bacteria, fungi, viruses and archaea that we collectively refer to as your microbiome. Most of your microbiome live in your gut and bowels where it helps digest and derive nutrients from the food you eat, neutralize toxins and destroy pathogenic invaders. Your gut flora is the militant arm of your immune system.
We also now know that our microbiome affects our mood and behaviors, which is the subject of this article I linked in last week’s issue of the 3RM.
Fermented foods like sauerkraut, kim chi, yogurt, cheese, and kombucha are loaded with beneficial bacteria and fungi that support a healthy gut flora by both introducing new colonies and feeding the ones you already have.
Here are some of my personal favorites -
● GTS Kombucha
● Farmhouse Culture Sauerkraut - Kim Chi style on Lo’s Asian Short Rib lettuce cups is the black belt move. Love that Smoked Jalapeno too.
● Mother In Laws Kim Chi - I’d be willing to do the Korean fat loss hula hoop if my mother-in-law made me Kimchi like this. Great as a spicy and crunchy side. My daughter Ryan always complains that it smells like farts when I open this stuff up. She was horrified that I was eating it because she assumed it tasted like farts too. She was really upset for me until I explained that wasn’t the case and it was just Lo farting the whole time ;) lol
Pickled is not the same as fermented. Pickled vegetables are delicious, but since they aren’t fermented you aren’t getting the benefit of consuming new microbiota.
Stop taking antibiotics (unless it’s a life a death situation)...
Antibiotics kill microbiota, which is great when you have a severe infection, like staph or have had a surgical procedure in the cesspools that are hospitals. (Fun fact: When I worked as a medical sales rep in critical care research I learned that the #1 cause of death in hospitals is infection and that the most common infection is urinary tract infection from catheters...How many of you guys just grabbed yourself?)
Unfortunately antibiotics kill indiscriminately so they also kill all the good bacteria and fungi that are actually aiding digestion, immune function and balanced mood.
There’s a reason your stomach gets messed up, you have diarrhea or constipation, and feel like shit when you take antibiotics and now you know why.
Americans have gotten in the habit of taking antibiotics, like candy, for the most minor illnesses, which is why we now have superbugs that are impervious to the effects of antibiotics. Let’s all cowboy up a little when we get sick and leave the antibiotics alone.
Practice Wim Hof Method breathing…
The research on the efficacy of WHM breath work is overwhelming and undeniable. Practicing WHM will boost immune function, improve mood, increase healing and make you more resilient to heat, cold and stress in general. It only takes 12 minutes a day to be effective!
There are documentaries, YouTube videos, podcasts, and books dedicated to telling Wim’s story so I’m not going to try to do it here.
Last year I interviewed Dr. Trisha Smith, the first North American WHM instructor, who taught the Wim Hof workshops at the gym. It’s an informative quick read if you want to know more. I’d also recommend reading The Way of the Iceman if you want to understand the science behind WHM.
Regular cold exposure…
Direct, intense cold exposure stimulates brown adipose tissue (BAT).
BAT has an incredibly high concentration of immune system cells. When it’s stimulated by cold exposure it responds by releasing cytokines that stimulate immune function and enzymes that tell your body to start burning body fat to raise your internal body temperature. The more often BAT gets stimulated the more those cells divide, therefore, the more BAT cells you will have, which means a more robust immune system and the potential to mobilize more body fat when exposed to cold.
Cold exposure also releases endorphins that give you a euphoric feeling and boost your mood. As unpleasant as cold water can be at first you have to admit you feel amazing when it’s over.
The easiest way to incorporate cold practice is to finish your showers on 30-60s of cold water directed primarily on your neck, chest and the back of your shoulders where most BAT exists in adults.
An even better way to do it is to jump in the ocean or a cold body of water to fully submerge yourself. With the ocean you have the added benefit of communing with nature and absorbing all the minerals from the ocean salt.
If you can’t get to the ocean or a cold body of water 40 lbs of ice will make a standard bathtub get down to the mid-40 degrees so it’s a solid Plan B. I know from experience. Nature is still by far the best choice so make the effort and get outside!
Extreme heat is beneficial for all the same reasons as extreme cold. Heat stimulates BAT and releases heat shock proteins (HSP), which have similar benefits as CSP. Extreme heat has the additional benefit of detoxifying your body as a result of extreme perspiration. I don’t think we need scientific research to agree that sweating it out in a sauna makes you feel amazing.
I find it fascinating that almost every culture in the Northern Hemisphere has a tradition of heat therapy in saunas - the Russians, Scandinavians, Balkans, Japanese, Greeks, and Turks are just a few societies famous for their sauna culture.
So we’ve established extreme heat and cold are good for you on their own. If you put them together doing cycles of hot-cold contrast you exponentially expand the benefits for mood, immune function, anti-inflammation, recovery and healing.
Cold constricts blood vessels shuttling blood to the vital organs and away from the extremities in a protective action. You can live without fingers, toes, arms and legs, but you can’t live without a liver, kidneys and a functioning cardiopulmonary system. The effect here is that all the blood, toxins and metabolic byproducts in muscle tissue in your extremities rushes into the very organs that clean it, oxygenate it and then load it with new nutrients.
Heat dilates blood vessels forcing blood to the extremities in an effort to keep your core temperature down to maintain homeostasis. This cleaned, oxygenated, nutrient-rich blood fills muscle tissue to stimulate healing and recovery.
Hot-cold contrast cleanses the blood. It also expands and contracts your blood vessels in an action like strength training for muscles, which keeps them healthy and elastic, as they should be.
A simple way to practice hot-cold contrast is to vasolate your shower back and forth from extreme hot to extreme cold in one to two minute intervals. An even better way to do it is to go to a spa that has a dry sauna and cold plunge.
When I go to Vodaspa I do rounds of hot-cold for 2 to 3 hours. One round consists of 15-20 minutes in the dry sauna (200-220°) followed by 3-5 minutes in the cold plunge (40-45°) and then a few minutes of treading water in the tepid pool to move my joints before the next round.
I urge you to put these 7 Practices into your wellness routine. Getting optimized both internally and externally will make you feel better and your immune system will level up to superhero status!