In part one of this series on improving vagal tone, I explained that the vagus nerve is the information superhighway of your autonomic nervous system. It connects your brain to organs and glands throughout the body and acts as the main conduit of your parasympathetic (“rest-and-digest”) nervous system. Vagal nerve activity touches just about every system in the body, including respiration, immunity, cardiovascular activity, digestion, and the gut microbiome.
The term “vagal tone” refers to how active your parasympathetic nervous system is. Ideally, we want high vagal tone, because that indicates a generally relaxed state where the body can focus on growth and repair. When vagal tone is low, the sympathetic (“fight-flight-freeze”) nervous system is dominant. That’s no good. The sympathetic nervous system should kick in when we need to respond to an acute threat or stressor, but we don’t want it running in the background all the time.
Unfortunately, a chronically stressed, sympathetic-dominant state is the norm for most people nowadays. Scientists are always on the hunt for ways to alleviate that stress and reduce the medical burden associated with it. Some researchers are investigating pharmaceutical means of improving vagal tone, along with protocols for using electrostimulation. You don’t need these high-tech procedures, though. Once you start digging into the science of the vagus nerve, you realize something cool: Most of the things we promote in the Primal community probably improve vagal tone.
Dr. Steven Bratman coined the term orthorexia (“right appetite”) more than two decades ago to describe what happens when health-conscious diets go too far. Although it still hasn’t been accepted as an official medical diagnosis, orthorexia nervosa is a proposed eating disorder that involves an extreme obsession with eating a “correct” diet. People with orthorexia nervosa strive to eat only foods they consider healthy and strictly avoid foods they deem to be unhealthy or impure. Their obsession with eating a healthy diet takes over their lives, eventually impairing their mental, social, and even physical well-being. The topic of orthorexia is controversial within health circles. On the surface, it can be hard to distinguish between folks who are simply health-conscious and those who have crossed the line into disordered eating. Any diet—even relatively mainstream ones like Mediterranean or paleo—could veer into orthorexia depending on the individual. People who raise concerns about orthorexia often get accused of “fit-shaming.” Then the straw man arguments begin: “Oh, so I guess it’s healthier just to eat Twinkies and Big Macs, then?” No, obviously not. Orthorexia starts with food rules or following diets, but it’s much more than that. To be clear: Wanting to be healthy is not orthorexic. Neither is believing that some foods are healthier or more nutritious than others. Cutting out certain foods, tracking macronutrients, or following a specific diet is not inherently problematic. However, those behaviors can be stepping stones to orthorexia, so this is a conversation we need to be willing to have. What is Orthorexia Nervosa? Orthorexia nervosa is a preoccupation with healthy eating that ultimately interferes with health and well-being. The first stage involves setting rules and restrictions around what foods you will and will not eat. Specific rules vary from person to person. An individual might avoid gluten, food additives, GMOs, dairy, animal products, nightshades, sugar, artificial sweeteners, grains, or whatever they deem to be unhealthy. Before you get defensive, understand that food rules are only step one. They are necessary but not sufficient for developing orthorexia nervosa. Many people follow set diets or restrict certain food groups without developing orthorexia. Diet behaviors don’t cross the line into orthorexia nervosa until they start to interfere with quality of life. Definition of Orthorexia Nervosa Eating disorders and other mental health disorders each have a set of diagnostic criteria. These are like checklists that help doctors and therapists decide when a particular diagnosis is warranted. Currently, orthorexia nervosa is not recognized as an eating disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V). That means there are no agreed-upon diagnostic criteria. Nevertheless, researchers and practitioners need to be able to differentiate an ardent healthy-eating enthusiast from someone who has crossed the line into disordered eating. Experts have proposed various ways of defining orthorexia nervosa. While the specifics deviate somewhat, they share common features: Behaviors: Obsessive preoccupation with eating only foods one deems “healthy.” Strict avoidance of foods deemed “unhealthy.” Negative effect on mental health or well-being: Behaviors and/or thoughts … Continue reading “Orthorexia: Where to Draw the Line Between Healthy Eating and Obsession?”
If you ask the average person on the street to list “Primal emotions,” anger will be one of the first examples they offer. You understand why: It’s raw. It’s overpowering. It feels like it comes from deep down below, from somewhere instinctual. To most people, anger is the realest emotion of all because it’s so sure of itself. There’s no mistaking anger.
Though anger has a negative connotation these days, it’s there for a reason. All emotions have a purpose. If they didn’t, emotions as a physiological category wouldn’t have arisen and survived millions of years of evolution. An emotion is an adaptation to an environmental condition. Anger exists because it promotes—or promoted—a survival advantage. Those animals who felt something approximating anger outcompeted those who didn’t. That’s what it comes down to.
On the surface, anger is a self-protective adaptation. By showing anger, we display a capacity for aggressive action to those who would threaten us or our tribe—and most socially astute, reasonable people (and even many animal predators) will retreat in the majority of situations. Anger, in this way, is part of the “checks and balances” system inherent to our social contracts. It gives the other party pause to consider whether it’s really worth the trouble to encroach.
Let’s not beat around the holly bush: the holiday season just isn’t the same this year. You could get down in the dumps about it OR you could get creative about finding ways to celebrate with friends and family. Honestly, it’s ok to do both. Grieve the ambiguous losses we’re all experiencing this season while also looking for ways to make the best of what we have. We might be apart from loved ones, but we can still be together in spirit. One thing I’ve realized this year is how often physical closeness is used as a proxy for bonding. That is to say, people get together in the same physical space and call that “bonding,” when all they’re really doing is being near one another. Being in the same room is great—oh, how I miss it—but by itself, it doesn’t generate emotional closeness or deep connection. Nobody is making lasting memories simply by virtue of watching a football game and eating turkey together. This year, we have an opportunity to get out of old holiday ruts and try something different, maybe even start new traditions. Somebody needs to put the ho-ho-ho back in the holidays, and I nominate you. Here are some ideas you can put into action: Things You and Your Loved Ones Can Create Together Family members or friends all contribute, and the final project is something special to keep for years to come. You’ll learn more about your family members and end up with a record of special memories or family favorites. As a bonus, these ideas are all free! Shared photo album Set up a shared album in any of the many online photo album tools. Invite family members to submit their favorite family photos from years past, or ask for old holiday photos specifically. Level up: Optionally, arrange the photos chronologically. Do a family Zoom session and view the slideshow together, pausing to reminisce and tell stories about the scenes from the images. Family cookbook Everyone submits their favorite recipes. A shared Google doc will do the trick, but it’s even better if someone collects the recipes and arranges them in a pdf. Free tools like Canva make it simple to lay out a basic cookbook, which everyone then gets as a holiday gift. You could even have them spiral bound and sent to folks who prefer hard copies. Level up: Host a Zoom party where everyone cooks a special family recipe together or a virtual dinner party where everyone prepares recipes from the cookbook at home. Memory book Same idea as the cookbook, but everyone submits their favorite memories of holidays past or recounts the wildest family legends. Level up: Have one person collect the memories and put the stories in a slideshow to be shared during a virtual get-together. Music playlist Nominate an “emcee” to collect everyone’s favorite songs (holiday or otherwise) and create a family playlist in Spotify, for example. Level up: Everyone agrees to play the playlist at the same … Continue reading “How to Really Bond with Your Family This Holiday Season”
When you were a kid, adults probably drilled into you that you should “be nice,” share your toys, and put yourself in other people’s shoes. Those are necessary lessons, of course. Humans are prosocial creatures. Our ancestors needed the protection of the clan, so they had to get along and be team players. Individuals who caused strife within the group risked being kicked out, which could be a death sentence.
It pays to be considerate of others, but that message often gets twisted into “don’t rock the boat” and even “other people’s needs are more important than your own.” When getting along is your top priority, you become loathe to assert your own needs. However, in the long term, being too self-sacrificing is detrimental to your relationships and your own mental wellbeing. It’s a slippery slope into allowing other people to make unreasonable demands on your time or say or do things that hurt you (often unintentionally).
Moreover, not being honest about your needs is unfair. Other people never get the chance to reciprocate the consideration you’re offering, and all the while you are stewing in hurt or resentment because you aren’t getting what you want.
Holiday get-togethers can be dicey, even uncomfortable, for those of us who eat a “weird” diet. Everyone has an opinion or a biting remark. As tempting as might be, you can’t just holler, “I’m not weird, YOU’RE weird. I’M eating a SPECIES-APPROPRIATE DIET!” in Aunt Martha’s face when she tries once again to put a biscuit on your plate. You have to say something though, right? Or do you? When do you have to explain your food choices? I’m tempted to say: Never. End of post. By and large, your diet is nobody else’s business. But communication is vital in relationships, and here’s where it gets tricky. On the one hand, you don’t owe anyone an explanation, and it’s disrespectful on their part if they expect you to justify or defend your choices. Often, though, people are just concerned, confused, or simply curious. You don’t owe these folks an explanation, but in the spirit of open communication, you might choose to offer them one. General tips for keeping the peace: Keep it personal. You won’t get as much pushback if you focus on how your diet makes you feel. Don’t launch into a lecture about phytates or how soda is ruining our country’s health. Nobody’s looking for a lesson on leaky gut and inflammation during dinner. Don’t overexplain yourself or get defensive. Keep it short and sweet, then move on. Don’t try to convert them. If you start to proselytize, you’re doing the same thing to them that they’re doing to you. Your simple explanations will plant the seeds for anyone who’s interested in learning more later. Don’t get sucked into an argument. State firmly that you’d rather not discuss your diet. If the other person continues to challenge you, walk away (or, in 2020, leave the Zoom). Beyond that, the best strategy for dealing with diet queries depends on who’s asking and why: Mild Incomprehension This is the “I don’t get it…” and “Wait, so you’re not going eat stuffing?” crowd. There’s no malice. They just can’t grasp why someone would give up bread and pasta. Strategy: Deflect “Haha, I know, I thought it was crazy when I started, too, but I can’t believe how much better I feel. Plus I get to eat all the turkey. Ooh, will you pass me a leg? Hey, how’s work going?” “No stuffing for me, thanks. I’m trying this experiment for a while longer. Did I see on Facebook that you’re writing a book?” “It’s true, I’m eating Primal/paleo/keto/carnivore now, but you don’t want to hear me ramble on about my diet. Let’s go see if Mom needs help setting the table.” Sincere Curiosity You can tell these folks from their tone of voice. They are genuinely interested in hearing what you’re doing (and maybe even trying it for themselves). Strategy: Lightly educate It’s up to you how deep you want to go here. My advice is to stick to basics and offer to talk more later. Avoid launching into a diatribe … Continue reading “Holiday Meal Script: When and How to Explain Your Food Choices”