#158 Why Believing Stress is Bad May Shorten Your Life

June 7th, 2016 by

Why Believing Stress is Bad May Shorten Your Life

Believing stress is bad may be dangerous to your health.  In fact, believing stress is bad could be considered the thirteenth leading cause of death in the U.S. according to recent research.  Read on to learn how to make stress work for you and extend your life.

I Was Also Convinced Stress Was Bad

Growing up, I thrived on stress.  Later, stress allowed my mind laser-like focus when pouring through medical charts or performing operations.  It even allowed me to stay up all night caring for sick patients without the slightest fatigue.

But that all changed a few years ago.  About the same time my poor diet led to a health crisis, I started examining all aspects of my life.

As part of this evaluation, I read many articles on stress. And, the more I read, the more I began believing stress is bad.

I was so convinced that stress was bad I started looking for ways to eliminate it from my life. Interestingly, the more I tried to avoid stress, the more stressed I became.

Long days in the hospital were no longer effortless for me.  To help battle stress, I even wrote articles like this, “Eliminate Stress in Seven Steps” (blog #14).

However, one study forever changed my life.  I now approach stress in a mindful and positive way.

Stress is not evil nor is it something that should be avoided. Rather, to grow and contribute in this life you have to embrace stress.

Stress once again gives me energy, clarity, and the strength to take on meaningful challenges.  Stress can do the same for you.

The Study That Changed Me

In this provacative study, researchers from the University of Wisconsin asked a fascinating question–is stress bad or is it the perception that stress is bad that cause health problems and an early death.

To answer this question, these researchers dug through survey forms from the 28,753 people who participated in the 1998 National Health Interview Survey.  As part of this survey, people were asked three questions.  Are you under a lot of stress?  Do you believe stress is harming you?  And, are you doing anything to reduce stress?

Researchers then compared the answers to how people rated their health and who was still alive eight years later.

Stress May Shorten or Extend Your Life

As you might have guessed, more than half of the people filling out this survey reported moderate or high levels of stress.  Also, as expected, those reporting high levels of stress were much more likely to suffer health problems and die early.

Fortunately, these University of Wisconsin researchers didn’t stop here.  And this is where things get really interesting.

For those people who reported high stress and also believed stress was hurting them were 43% more likely to die over the eight years of the study.

In contrast, those who reported high stress and also believed that stress was not harming them were 17% more likely to be alive.

Basically, this study showed that believing stress is bad was associated with health problems and an early death.  Based on these findings, these researchers estimated that 20,231 Americans needlessly die each year from believing that stress is bad. This would make believing stress is bad the thirteenth leading cause of death in the U.S.

How do you explain the findings?

How can stress be a good thing?  Fortunately, your body came pre-programmed with a stress response for a reason.  That stress response helped your ancestors fight off predators.   That same stress response can help you with a work or relationship challenge.  It can even help you stay up late helping your child study for a test and still function great the next day.

Exercise is Stress to the Body

A great example of how stress is good for you is exercise.  Exercise stresses the body.  For example, when you lift weights you are literally tearing small muscle fibers.  As the body repairs these small tears, the muscle gets stronger.

In contrast, if you did everything possible to avoid the stress of exercise, it wouldn’t be long before your muscles would weaken and health problems would develop.

What You Believe Becomes Your Reality

Perhaps it is the nocebo/placebo effect that explains the findings of this study.  For example, before a new medication is ever FDA approved, it must be compared to a “dummy pill.”  In these studies, people have no idea if they are taking the real pill or the dummy pill.

You would think that the “dummy pill” would have no effect.  However, quite the opposite is true.

Remarkably, 30% of people get better by taking the dummy pill.  This is the placebo effect.  And, any new medication has to help more than a dummy pill.

In contrast, about 10% of people in studies get deathly ill from the same dummy pill.  This is the nocebo effect.

It is possible that stress works the same way.  Whatever your beliefs are on stress, this then become your reality.

Five Reasons to Embrace Stress

1. More Strength and Energy

Have you ever wondered how people have been reported to lift cars or tractors off of dying loved ones?  While most people don’t need superhuman strength, studies show that viewing stress as a positive thing is associated with more energy during the day.

2. Enhanced Brain Function

Did you ever notice how much better you were able to study the night before a test?  This was the stress response in action.  Medical studies have linked stress to improved brain function.

3. Feel Happier

Studies show that avoiding stress isn’t associated with being happy.  Actually, depression is much more common in people trying to avoid stress.

4. A More Meaningful Life

Life challenges create deeper meaning.  Indeed, studies show that successfully passing through adversity is associated with a more meaningful and happy life.

5. Closer Relationships

When you are stressed, oxytocin hormone levels increase.  Oxytocin is what I like to call the “bonding hormone.”

When oxytocin levels are high, your body is programmed to seek the company of others.  And, as you strengthen these relationships, studies show that even more oxytocin is released.  Surging oxytocin levels can then block the potentially detrimental effects of stress.

Take Home Message

The key take away from the study, is that believing stress is bad may put you at risk for health challenges and an early death.  While no one study is ever definitive, other research has shown that eustress, or positive stress, is a good thing and should be embraced.

My challenge to you is to do the same thing I am now doing.  Every time I am feeling “stressed out,” I now say to myself “embrace the stress” or “stress is making me stronger.”

Have you also learned to mindfully embrace stress?  If so, please leave your experiences below so that others may benefit.  Also, feel free to ask any questions.  I read and respond to every question.

Special thanks to Dr. Kelly McGonigal whose writings introduced me to some of the research discussed in this article.  For a great read, please check out her book, The Upside of Stress.

#128 The Top 10 Causes of Weight Gain

October 25th, 2015 by

The Top 10 Causes of Weight Gain

The average American gains 1 to 2 pounds a year.  That is as little as 10 extra calories a day–less than one bite of food.  This weight gain is so subtle that most people don’t even know it is happening until one day they tune in and discover that they have gained 20 to 30 pounds since high school.

The famous 5th century B.C. Chinese General, Sun Zi, said in the book The Art of War, “If you know the enemy and yourself, you need not fear…If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will lose every battle.”

In this article, I am going to help you better know the enemy and share with you the top 10 causes of weight gain.  It is only by knowing the enemy and yourself that you can enjoy the weight that works best for you.

My High School Weight

While not especially lean, I weighed a respectable 180 pounds in high school.  My first year away at college, rather than “The Freshman 15,” I actually added “The Freshman 25” and hit a peak weight of 205 pounds during my first nine months away from home.

Fortunately, I started exercising again after my freshman year of college, which helped prevent further weight gain. However, it did not allow me to lose all of the weight I had gained.  I carried that extra weight around for two more decades until my 40s when I was forced to change my diet and lifestyle due to other health problems.

The Best Study on Weight Gain

To better know the enemy, most of the scientific data I am going to share with you is from a seminal Harvard study published in the most prestigious medical journal, the New England Journal of Medicine.  This study involved 120,877 U.S. men and women and the lead author was my former classmate, and fellow cardiologist, Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian.

What surprised me most about this Harvard study was that it wasn’t just one thing that cause people to gain weight.  Rather, it was a cluster of bad habits and lifestyle choices that led to 1 or 2 extra pounds each year.  Unfortunately, as the weight goes up so do chronic medical problems as well as the need to take lifelong medications and make appointments with the cardiologist or other doctors.

I should also point out that these top 10 causes of weight gain have also been seen in other studies.  Also, the Harvard study did not show causation but rather correlation.  In other words, weight gain was observed to happen in people who reported doing these 10 things–whether or not this was the actual cause of their weight gain cannot be determined from this Harvard study.

The Top 10 Causes of Weight Gain

1. Can’t Find Time to Exercise: 0.44 pounds/year (0.2 kg/yr)

It should come as no surprise that not exercising was the number one cause of weight gain.  While a weight gain of just 0.44 pounds per year (0.2 kg/yr) may not sound like too much of a price to pay for not exercising, this adds up to a total weight gain of 21 pounds (9.4 kg) from high school to retirement at age 65.

While many people mistakingly feel that you can exercise off a bad diet, the research just doesn’t support this.  Exercise is for maintaining not losing weight.  Even during my marathon running years, when I was running 20 or more miles a day, I never seemed to burn off the extra weight I gained from my freshman year of college.

2. French Fries and Potato Chips: 0.42 pounds/year (0.19 kg/yr)

The number two cause of weight gain caught me by surprise.  While I knew French fries and potato chips caused people to gain weight, I would never have predicted that this effect would be stronger than sugary drinks.

Even more surprising was that the average person in this study only ate French fries or potato chips one time per week at most.  I suspect the reason why fries and chips are so dangerous to your waistline is because these processed potatoes are instantly converted to sugar in the body, they contain high amounts of unhealthy oils, and the same people who eat fries are more likely to eat other junk food as well.

As with a lack of exercise, this gradual weight gain from fries and chips, on average, adds up to a grand total of 20 extra pounds (9.1 kg) by retirement.

3. Trans Fat from Processed and Fried Foods: 0.36 pounds/year (0.16 kg/yr)

Number three in this Harvard study also came as a surprise to me.  While I was well aware of the ultra artery clogging effects of trans fat, I had no idea this toxic fat also causes people to pack on the weight.

When it comes to trans fat in the diet, most of my patients mistakingly believe this is no longer a problem as all of their packaged food labels read “zero” for trans fat.  What they don’t understand is that, based on lax reporting guidelines, processed food companies can create such unrealistically small portion sizes so that the trans fat content in a “microscopic serving” is below the required reporting level of 0.5 grams.

To keep your arteries clean and your weight in check, if you see “partially hydrogenated oil” anywhere on the ingredient list then this is something that you should never eat.  When it comes to trans fat, there is no safe amount you can eat.

In addition to processed foods, the worst trans fat offenders are fried foods, microwave popcorn, and store bought bakery items.  If you give in and eat processed or fried foods you can count on gaining an average of 17 pounds (7.7 kg) and a likely visit to a cardiologist by retirement age.

4. Sugary Drinks: 0.25 pounds/year (0.11 kg/yr)

While falling much lower on this list than I would have expected, sugary drinks are still an important cause of weight gain.  In addition to sugary drinks, other forms of sugar like desserts, refined grains, and fruit juice combined also added up to an additional 0.25 pounds/year (0.11 kg/yr).  By refined grains, I am referring to the typical grocery store breads, pastas, cereals, crackers, etc.

Thus, if you do sugary drinks, desserts, refined grains, and fruit juice you can expect to gain 0.5 pounds/yr (0.22 kg/year) from your sweet tooth–an even greater effect than not exercising.

It is interesting that fruit juice did not cause as much weight gain as sugar sweetened beverages like Gatorade or soda pop.  The lead author of the Harvard study, Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, was also surprised and explained that the reason was likely because they found that most people seem to drink sugary beverages in much greater quantities than fruit juice.

Once again, it did not take much to increase weight.  The average person in this study only had a little more than 1 sugary drink per week and 1.3 servings of dessert and 1.2 servings of refined grains each day.

Regardless, doing all forms of sugar namely sugary drinks, desserts, refined grains, and fruit juice, even in very small amounts, can add up to a hefty 23.5 pound (10.7 kg) average weight gain by retirement.

5. Red Meat: 0.24 pounds/year (0.11 kg/yr)

For those who follow a dietary regimen that advocates meat, I’m sure the number five cause of weight gain in the Harvard study comes as a surprise.  I should point out that all meats are not raised and processed equally, and that most of the 120 thousand plus people in this study were eating the typical grocery store or prepared forms of meat which come from antibiotic and hormone treated animals.

Equally as strong as red meat for weight gain in this study were processed meats.  By processed meats I mean meats like bacon, hot dogs, sausage, and deli meats.  If you eat processed meats you can expect to gain an additional 0.23 pounds each year.  Thus, eating both red and processed meats will cause you to gain, on average, 0.47 pounds per year or 22 pounds (10 kg) by retirement.

I should point out that the people in this study did not eat much red or processed meats.  Indeed, the average person had less than one serving daily of red and processed meats combined.

If you are a meat eater, and don’t want to gain weight, then the Harvard study would suggest giving up red meats as well as processed meats and instead focus on poultry or fish.

6. Stress: 0.15 pounds/year (0.07 kg/yr)

Most of us also know that we naturally crave junk food when we are feeling stressed.  Stress causes changes to the hormones that regulate hunger.  According to the study I use to calculate the damage from stress, you can also count on gaining an average of 7 extra pounds (3.2 kg) if you are under a lot of stress.

7. Sleep Deprivation, 0.14 pounds/year (0.06 kg/yr)

Most people intuitively know that they also crave junk food when they are tired.  I know this is a weakness of mine after I have been up all night in the hospital taking care of patients.  Sleep deprivation is a well known cause of activating our hunger hormones in a way that causes weight gain.

What most people don’t understand is that when it comes to weight gain, over sleeping seems to be just as dangerous as under sleeping.  In a separate study I use to calculate the weight gain risks associated with sleep duration, it shows that sleeping under 5 hours or over 9 hours a night puts you at risk of weight gain.

Based on these definitions, if you under or over sleep you can count on gaining an average 7 extra pounds (3.5 kg) from high school to retirement.

8. Butter: 0.12 pounds/year (0.05 kg/yr)

In the 1980s and 90s a, few people would have been surprised to see butter on this list.  Yes, it is true that butter is much healthier for you than the trans fat containing products, like margarine, from the 1980s and 1990s.

While butter made the top 10 based on the data from the Harvard study, I should point out that dairy had mixed effects when it came to weight gain or loss over time.  For example, the Harvard study showed that cheese also caused weight gain but milk was neutral and yogurt even caused significant weight loss over time.

Thus, the type of dairy seems to be important in determining whether or not you gain or lose weight with dairy.  For the worst dairy offender, butter, it can cause you to gain an average of 6 pounds (2.7 kg) from high school to retirement.

9. Alcohol: 0.1 pounds/year (0.05 kg/yr)

As with dairy, the data on alcohol and weight gain are mixed.  Heavy beer drinkers seem to show the highest weight gains from alcohol.  In the Harvard study, alcohol drinkers can expect to gain an average 0.1 pounds per year or 5 pounds (2.3 kg) by retirement.

10. Electronic Devices: 0.08 pounds/year (0.04 kg/yr)

Rounding out the top 10 list are electronic devices. When this Harvard study looked at television watchers, they found that just 36 minutes a day contributes to an average four extra pounds (1.7 kg) by retirement.

Final Thoughts

So there you have it, the scientifically proven 10 best ways to gain weight as an adult.  When it comes to changing any bad habit, the first step is awareness.

As the 5th century B.C. famous Chinese general, Sun Zi taught us in The Art of War, the key to wining any battle is to know the enemy and yourself.  Now that we have identified our top 10 enemies in weight gain, it is time to become aware and create an environment that helps us to conquer these enemies.

What is your number one weight gain enemy?  What has helped you to battle this enemy?

#126 Do Smartphones Cause Heart Attacks?

October 12th, 2015 by

Do Smartphones Cause Heart Attacks?

“What are you working on?” Jane asked.

“I’m just checking my email really quickly,” I replied.

Had I been at my office this would have been OK.  Sadly, we were out on our weekly date.

A recent study shows that 70% of people in a romantic relationship have been snubbed by their partner’s phone.  Related studies show that 60% of college students have a smartphone addiction and these students can spend up to 10 hours a day on their phones!

In this article, I share the latest scientific data on the cardiac risks of phone snubbing, or “phubbing,” as well as heavy phone use in general.

What is Phubbing?

Phone snubbing, or “phubbing,” is a new word describing a situation where someone looks at their phone rather than the person they are with.  Phubbing could range from taking a cell phone call while you are talking to another person to checking email, text messages, or Facebook posts.

The Dangers of Phubbing

To better understand the risks of phubbing in our modern society, researchers James A. Roberts and Meredith E. David from Baylor University recently published a study on the impact of phubbing on 308 adults.  As you might have suspected, given the significance of this problem, this study received worldwide media attention.

Here is what they found in this study.  Phubbers and victims of phubbing are more likely to suffer from the following:

1. Strained relationships

2. Increased anxiety

3. Decreased life satisfaction

4. Increased risk of depression

Of course, this study does not prove that phubbing causes relationship breakups, anxiety, unhappy lives, and depression.  It is equally possible that the reason why these people “phubbed” is that they were already suffering from these problems.  Regardless, common sense tells us that phubbing can’t be healthy.

Are You a Phubber?

Are you guilty of phubbing?  Here are six of the phubber criteria as established by James A. Roberts and Meredith E. David in this study.

1. During a typical mealtime that my partner and I spend together, my partner pulls out and checks his/her cell phone.

2. My partner places his or her cell phone where they can see it when we are together.

3. When my partner’s cell phone rings or beeps, he/she pulls it out even if we are in the middle of a conversation.

4. My partner glances at his/her cell phone when talking to me.

5. During leisure time that my partner and I are able to spend together, my partner uses his/her cell phone.

6. If there is a lull in our conversation, my partner will check his or her cell phone.

What Are the Dangers of Cell Phone Use?

While we all have heard about the possible cell phone brain cancer link and the dangers of texting while driving, could there be other equally dangerous risks?

While not as dangerous as a possible brain tumor or an automobile accident, heavy smartphone users now often suffer from “text neck.”  As the head can put 60 pounds of pressure on the neck when tilted down to text it is not hard to imagine why smartphones are quickly becoming one of the leading causes of chronic neck pain.  Not only does “text neck” cause chronic neck pain but it can also cause you to be permanently hunched over.

Perhaps much more serious than “text neck” is that studies show that heavy smartphone use increases stress levels.  Even more frightening is that depression may follow those people who can’t ever seem to put their phones down.

Do Smartphones Cause Heart Attacks?

As we have learned from this “phubbing” study, broken relationships, stress, and depression often follow phubbers and their victims.  According to medical studies, what are the cardiac dangers of bad relationships, anxiety, and depression?

1. Broken relationships increase the risk of heart attacks by up to 45%.

2. Stressed out people are more than twice as likely to suffer a heart attack.

3. Depressed people are up to 6 times more likely to die from heart problems.

6 Ways to Beat Your Cell Phone Addiction

As smartphones are part of modern life, what can you do to protect your heart?  Here is how I advise my patients.

1. Download the Breakfree App

Are you addicted to your smartphone?  Awareness and tracking are critical steps in identifying and breaking any harmful habit.

To help me with my own smartphone addiction, I have recently downloaded the free iPhone and Android app, Breakfree.  I like this app because it will give you your own honest smartphone addiction score.

In addition, Breakfree will tell you how many times you unlock your phone each day, how much time you spend on your phone, and it will tell you exactly how you are spending all of your phone time.  For those of you with kids, this app can monitor their phone use and determine when they can and cannot access the internet.

2. Unplug

As scary as it might seem, you need to periodically unplug from your phone for a healthy heart.  This “unplugging” helps you to connect with those things in life that really matter most.

At minimum, I recommend unplugging for the first 30 minutes after you wake up and for the last 30 minutes of your day before bed.  You just don’t need the stress that comes from checking your phone first thing in the morning or the sleep loss from checking your phone just before bed.

Some of my patients have shared with me that they actually turn their smartphone off on Sundays or when out with friends.  Personally, when I am not on call, and everyone has made it back home safely at night, I have started switching my iPhone to the airplane mode to help me resist cell phone distractions.

3. Turn Off Notifications

The constant buzzing or chirping of a smartphone will drive anyone but the most focussed to check their phones.  Knowing my own personal weaknesses, I have turned off every notification except the ringing of an incoming call.  To keep a ringing phone from driving me crazy, I have only given out my cell phone number to my closest friends, family members, and my office staff.

4. Delete Non-Critical Apps

To minimize temptations, do you really need the Facebook app on your smartphone?  Are there other apps you can delete to save you from your phone?

5. No Devices at Meals

Mealtimes are times to eat mindfully and connect with other people.  Outside of the dangers of “phubbing” someone during mealtime, screen time at mealtime can quadruple your risk of obesity.

We have had to establish rules in our home as children, as well as adults, will naturally gravitate to electronic devices during mealtime if left unchecked.  Commit now to device free mealtimes with your family and friends.

6. Vote Now to Stop Phubbing

There is now an organization dedicated to the mission of eradicating phubbing.  While this might be a bit much for some, if you are motivated to end phubbing, like me, you can visit their website and vote to stop phubbing.

Are you guilty of phubbing?  Have you been phubbed before?  Please leave your comments below for our community to read.

#115 6 Ways Clutter Damages Your Heart

August 3rd, 2015 by

6 Ways Clutter Damages Your Heart

“Has anyone seen my $20 bill?” my son cried out this morning.

As expected, no one had seen it.  All morning he searched frantically to find his birthday money.  He was sure someone had stolen the cash.  In the end, he found his money once he cleaned his room.

How many times have you tried to sort through your clutter as well?  In this article I discuss 6 ways clutter damages your heart and offer 8 tips on reclaiming your sanity.

Is Clutter a Problem?

If you can’t find something you probably have too much clutter.  Like most Americans, the longer we live in the same home the more “stuff” we collect

Clutter has to go somewhere.  The more of it we get the more boxes and other storage containers we need.  Over time our house became one big storage center and we spend all of our time just maintaining, organizing, and repairing our stuff.

6 Ways Clutter Damages Your Heart

1. No Garage Space

An interesting UCLA study showed that 75% of middle-class Los Angeleans could not even park their beloved cars in the garage due to too much clutter.  While we can at least get our cars into the garage it can be difficult at times.  Being forced to park your car on the street or not being able to use your garage causes unnecessary stress.

2. Late Bills

The Denver Post reported that the reason why 23% of Americans don’t pay their bills on time is because they can’t find them in the midst of all of their clutter.  We have certainly been guilty of this one in the past.  Studies show that financial stress is one of the main reasons why marriages fail.

3. Lose an Hour a Day

Julie Morgenstern, in her book Organizing from the Inside Out, reports that the average U.S. executive loses an hour a day from missing stuff.  Lost things could also be electronic files, an old email, or a report that you can’t remember where you filed.

4. More Housework

One study found that 40% of housework could be eliminated with getting rid of all the unnecessary stuff.  For many people, having housework hanging over their heads is reason enough for stress.

5. Renting Unnecessary Storage Space

Fully 1 in 11 Americans now has to rent physical self storage space because their homes are not big enough to accommodate all of their stuff. The recurring expenses of renting a unit, not to mention the thought that there is all that stuff that needs to be dealt with one day, is very stressful.

Whether it was intentional or not, my Macbook and iPhone cannot seem to keep up with my need for more electronic storage space.  Thus, like many other Americans, I have been forced to purchase additional cloud storage space for my digital life.  Indeed, one third of America’s electronic stuff is now stored in the cloud.

Now we have extra physical and digital places to look for all of our stuff.

6. Our Brains Don’t Work Properly

In a fascinating study, neuroscientists at Princeton University wanted to understand the impact of visual clutter on the brain.  Interestingly, the more visual clutter people were exposed to the less effectively their brains worked.

Stress and Heart Disease

All of this “clutter” is not benign when it comes to our health.  As reported in Psychology Today, clutter causes stress.  Even in the UCLA “clutter” study I mentioned above, trying to manage all of the clutter in the home caused mothers in this study to have high stress hormone levels.

Stress contributes to heart attacks, heart failure, and arrhythmias.  One of the best ways to lower our risk of cardiovascular disease is to create both physical and mental space in our lives through decluttering.

We Are Committed to the Decluttered Life

Jane and I have committed to take some significant steps in our journey to declutter our lives.  It is time to reclaim our space- physical, digital and mental–and here is our strategy:

1. Two-second Rule

If we see something that we can effectively get rid of in 2 seconds, we do it immediately.  Usually, this means putting it in the trash.

2. Create a Place for Everything

Long ago I created a special basket for my keys and wallet.  I now do the same for my iPhone, Macbook, and just about everything else I own.  If all of our stuff has a “home,” then you never have to look for anything.

3. Lock Down Bin

We have younger children.  As anyone with children will tell you, if left unchecked, kids will leave their stuff everywhere and I mean everywhere.

To help solve this problem, we have a lock down bin.  Here is how it works.  If we ever see a child’s item where it shouldn’t be, we simply put the item in the lock down bin.

To get the cherished possession back, our children either need to do a job or pay a dollar.  If lost items are not purchased back within a certain period of time, we donate everything left unwanted in the lock down bin.

4. Space for Something New

We are now instituting a rule that for every one thing that is added, one or more things must be removed.  This works for new clothing as well as new commitments for our calendar.  If I can’t donate a shirt I don’t buy a new one.  Likewise, if I can’t take something off of my schedule I don’t add anything new.

5. Empty Space

Empty space is the most beautiful thing in our home.  It doesn’t matter where it is — an empty shelf, an empty desk.

6. Make Everything Electronic

Several years ago I made the rule to never file or save anything “physical” again.  I can’t tell you how liberating this has become for me.  I now store all receipts on Evernote.  All of my children’s important school work is photographed and digitally filed.

7. Autopilot

Trying to remember to pay our bills on time was costing us time and money.  Now we’ve automated every bill possible and set up electronic tracking systems. I love getting the electronic “FYI” that everything has been automatically taken care of for me.

8. Three Item To-Do List

I used to have never ending to-do lists.  What didn’t get done on one day was passed on to the next day.

It was a no win battle.  Now I have electronically created  system whereby I can only put in a maximum of 3 items on my to-do list for any given day.  If something goes on then something must go off.

9. Readily Available Donate Box

To help us regularly donate old or unused items, we have a readily accessible donate box in our garage.  As soon as the box is full it is donated.

Closing Thoughts

I once asked Makun, one of our centenarian friends in China’s Longevity Village over lunch, “Where did you used to keep your stuff?”

“What stuff?” she replied.

It was clear that Makun did not suffer from the burden of unnecessary clutter.  This, perhaps, was one of the many secrets to her health and longevity.

#061 How to Bulletproof Your Heart: The Roseto Effect

January 12th, 2015 by

How to Bulletproof Your Heart: The Roseto Effect

More than four in 10 Americans will die from a heart attack or other heart problems.  Not only is heart disease still the number one killer for both men and women but the same people who suffer from heart problems are also the ones more likely to suffer from Alzheimer’s Disease, strokes, and poor brain function later in life.

Is it possible to bulletproof your heart so that regardless of your diet or how much you exercise you won’t suffer from heart or brain problems later in life?

What I Was Taught at Johns Hopkins Medical School

When I was a medical student at Johns Hopkins in the early 1990s we were all taught the risk factors for heart disease.  Namely, if you don’t smoke, you don’t have diabetes, your cholesterol and blood pressure are in check, and there is no family history of heart disease then it would be very unlikely for you to have a heart attack.

As I have progressed further in my career and research I have come to learn that there are far more factors at play.  Indeed, these “other factors” may be just as important as the big five I was taught in medical school.   Let’s explore this concept further.  Welcome to a small mysterious town in Pennsylvania where people seemed to magically be protected from heart problems despite a poor diet, high rates of smoking, high cholesterol, and a lack of exercise.

Roseto, Pennsylvania: The Village of “Bulletproof Hearts”

In 1961, at the height of the heart disease epidemic in the U.S., a local Roseto doctor happened to mention to Dr. Stewart Wolf from the University of Oklahoma  that heart disease was virtually nonexistent in Roseto.  From this chance conversation, outside researchers quickly converged on this small town.

With the blessing of the mayor of Roseto, everyone in the village was studied.  They collected blood samples, monitored what they ate, and basically how they lived their lives.  Researchers poured over every death certificate and interviewed everyone.  After spending several years in this small town they had their answer.

As reported in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association in 1964, and later by Malcolm Gladwell in his bestselling book Outliers (affiliate link), Roseto was a small community where people ate all of the wrong foods and had high rates of obesity and smoking, had high cholesterol, breathed toxic fumes from working in the slate quarries, and yet somehow were protected against heart disease.  Indeed, the risk of a heart attack in this small Italian village in Pennsylvania was just half as much as the five surrounding towns.

How can this be?  How can you do everything apparently “wrong” for your heart and yet be protected from a heart attack?  There had to be an explanation for this paradox.

At the time, Roseto was a small tightly knit community of Italian immigrants living about 75 miles west of New York City.  This village was settled in 1882 by Italian immigrants from Roseto Valfortore in Italy.  When they immigrated to the New World they kept their exact same social structure as they did in Italy.

This was a socially isolated village.  They only married within the community, kept to themselves, spoke Italian, worshiped God, only shopped at their own local small stores, and lived as three generational families under the same roof.  The worked at the numerous local slate quarries and lived the “old” Italian way even though the rest of the country had already gone through rapid changes in the years following World War II.

The Roseto Mystery Explained

You may be wondering, how can you eat all of the wrong foods, gain weight, smoke, and have a high cholesterol but yet not develop any heart problems?  Let me outline the key factors as to why a heart attack was an incredibly rare event in Roseto.  If we can maintain a healthy lifestyle, unlike the Rosetans, and incorporate these additional four factors then we can truly “bulletproof” our hearts.

1. Family Centered Life

For the Rosetans, family was everything.  Families were close and multiple generations all lived within the same home. Families were self sufficient and took care of their own.

Indeed, there have been countless studies in the medical literature supporting the fact that strong marriage and family relationships can protect us from heart attacks.  As the quality of our family relationships has such a profound effect on our heart health the question is what can we do to strengthen these relationships?

For me, what has helped the most is to put the needs of my family ahead of my own.  As I give of myself it always seems that in the end my needs are met as well.

Also, given my busy lifestyle, I have found that what gets scheduled gets done.  In other words, the calendar on my iPhone is also filled with many family events including scheduled one on one time with family members.

2. Spirituality and Religious Ties

On Sundays, everyone in Roseto went to church.  It was a God fearing community.  They had strong Christian values and were very spiritual people.  They cared for their neighbors and looked after each other.

As with strong family relationships, many studies have shown that religion and spirituality can protect us not only from heart disease but many other chronic medical conditions as well.  Even if you are not religious, taking time to care for your spiritual needs can be very therapeutic.

In our family, we worship together at church each Sunday.  Even if it is a boring sermon at least you can tell yourself that, based on medical studies, you are getting healthier each time you go to church.

3. Strong Community

From a socioeconomic standpoint, you did not know in Roseto who was rich or poor.  There was no keeping up with your neighbors.  Even if you were wealthy it was socially taboo to display your wealth.

The community cared for everyone.  If a neighbor was in need, everyone came to help.  They were all “brothers” and “sisters” in the community.

Once again, there is a vast body of scientific data that socioeconomic disparities or even perceived disparities can lead to heart attacks.  Trying to keep up with your neighbors or peer group will drive you crazy and cause undo stress on your heart.  At the end of the day, all we really need to be happy is a safe home with enough food and loving relationships.

4. Low Stress

Despite difficult working environments at the slate quarries, Rosetans perceived very low levels of stress.  They put their worries into God’s hands and knew that whatever happened in life their family and community would always be there to help.  Crime was nonexistent in this village.

Based on all of the studies published to date, it goes without question that perceived stress is a powerful predictor of who will get a heart attack.  Much has been said about stress and I have published many blog articles on the subject as well.

For me, the three most important things in keeping my stress levels in check are to live as healthy as possible, always plan to arrive or be ready 15 minutes early, and to always look for ways to simplify my life.  As we can eliminate the “clutter” in our lives and focus on that which is truly essential we can minimize our perceived stress.

Roseto Today

By now you are probably considering moving to Roseto, PA and living a utopian life free of heart disease, stress, and worries.  Indeed, this is where Malcolm Gladwell left off in his book Outliers (affiliate link).

I wish this is where the story ended but unfortunately there was an unravelling of the Roseto Effect.  Today, Rosetans no longer have “bulletproof” hearts.  Let me now share with you what happened in the late 1960s.

By the time the late 196os rolled around, the American way of life had infiltrated the village.  They still ate poorly, smoked, and failed to exercise.  However, now they began intermarrying, families started to split up, religion was no longer the glue to the community, and the pursuit of wealth and materialism was in full swing.

Indeed, by the 1970s Roseto was no different than the neighboring towns and their heart attack risk became the same as everyone else as well.  They were no longer bulletproof.

What is the lesson of the Roseto Effect?

In medical circles, the term “Roseto Effect” has come to describe how a close-knit community can escape the risks of heart attacks.  When Rosetans lost the Roseto Effect they then fell victim to the consequences of their unhealthy lifestyles.

While the Roseto Effect is NOT an excuse to live an unhealthy lifestyle, it does show that by having close family relationships, living a spiritual life, caring for neighbors, and minimizing the effect of stress in our lives, we can escape many of the unnecessary chronic medical conditions like heart disease.

Do you have the Roseto Effect working in your life?  Is your heart bulletproof?

#053 Sense of Time Urgency and Heart Attack Risk

December 7th, 2014 by

Sense of Time Urgency and Heart Attack Risk

Do any of these statements describe you?

1. I usually feel pressed for time.
2. I eat too quickly.
3. I get upset if I have to wait.

If any of these statements describe you then your risk of a heart attack is four times higher according to the results of this study.

Time Urgency and Risk of Heart Attack Study

In this study, researchers evaluated 680 people. Of these 680 people, 340 had suffered a heart attack and 340 had not. These researchers found that those people who had suffered a heart attack were much more likely to identify with these three statements.

The Stress Response

What makes someone who answered “yes” to these three statements more at risk for a heart attack? I suspect that it is due to the stress response.

People who are experiencing chronic stress have much higher levels of cortisol and adrenalin. While these stress hormones can be beneficial during short periods of stress, the problem is that if the stress never goes away these same stress hormones can wear out the heart and the body.

My Three Strategies to Answer “No” to These Three Statements

How can we turn a “yes” to the three statements above into a “no?” Let me share with you the three things that I have found to help me control my sense of time urgency and impatience.

1. Try to Arrive 15 Minutes Early

I admit that I am guilty of racing the clock or a sense of time urgency. I have found that if I try to arrive somewhere 15 minutes early then my stress levels are much lower and I can be “in the moment.”

This extra 15 minutes allows for unexpected things that may arise.  It buffers in extra time if traffic is slow or your child cannot find where they placed their shoes.

2. Engage in Meaningful Conversation While Eating

Once again, if I am not careful I can literally inhale my food. Eating fast is not only bad for our heart but also leads to overeating, which creates a myriad of health problems.

To help me slow down I try to engage in meaningful conversation. I try to engage colleagues while eating at work and my family while eating at home.

3. Always Bring Something to Do

If we always have something with us that we can do, then if an unexpected delay arises, we won’t mind waiting.  It always amazes me that most of my patients who come to see me in clinic don’t bring something to do.  I would like to think this is because they know I am always running on time but I know this is not the case.

Always bring along a good book or even your iPad or a laptop. You might actually enjoy an extra minute or two to yourself while waiting.

What will you do to help you answer “no” to these three statements?

1. I usually feel pressed for time.

2. I eat too quickly.

3. I get upset if I have to wait.

How is slowing down and reducing your sense of time urgency helping you?

#037 How to Overcome Emotional Eating

September 22nd, 2014 by

I can find all sorts of reasons to eat. I don’t even need to be hungry!

Just this afternoon, I finished a very healthy and satisfying lunch, and it was time to go back to work. My first thought was, “I’m going to head out to the garage freezer and see if we have any chocolate out there.”

Having quite a bit of experience with this faulty thought process, I caught myself and asked, “Jane, are you really hungry?”

The answer: “No.”

“What do you really need right now?”

The answer: “I am tired but I feel I need to get back to work. I have so much to do. Instead of giving myself permission to rest for a few minutes, which is what I really need, I thought I’d try eating some chocolate and keep going.”

Aha! The truth!

I decided that I would honor my real need to rest for 20 minutes before I went back to work and assured myself that I could eat the chocolate later, if I still wanted it.

Rejuvenated, I went back to work, and made it through the rest of the day without feeling any pull from the chocolate.

This week, in our seminar, we explored the false promises of these sugary and fake foods.  They tell us that they will meet our needs, when really they just make us want more of them and less of what our minds and bodies really need.

When we look beyond the confusion of the labels and marketing of fake food products, it’s crystal clear that simply eating real food when we are hungry is the way to nourish our bodies.

So, why can’t we implement this knowledge and eat only real food only when we’re hungry?

Why are we lured in by these fake food products, often when we’re not even hungry?

The Top Ten Reasons We Eat

Here are ten of our favorite reasons to eat.  Do any of these sound familiar to you?

1. I am tired

I am tired, so I think I’ll eat something.

2. I am procrastinating

I don’t want to do this, so I think I’ll eat something.”

3. I am happy

I am happy! Let’s eat!

4. I am sad

“I don’t want to deal with these feelings, so I think I’ll eat something

5. I am thirsty and need water

My body is sending me a signal that it needs something, I’d better eat.

6. I am with people

Here we all are with all this great food! Let’s eat!

7. I am alone

I am alone—no one will see me eat this.


“I am lonely, maybe eating something will make me feel better.

8. I feel stuck

I don’t see any other way to meet my needs right now, what can I eat to feel better?

9. I see food

Oh, that looks good! I wasn’t even hungry, but I think I’ll have just one.

Our seminar participants came up with many more favorites, including: I’m bored, It’s family tradition, I’m stressed, I’m rewarding myself….

But, here’s the one real reason to eat that will actually meet our needs:

10. I am hungry

I am looking forward to a nutritious, satisfying meal.

Separating the Truth from the Lies

Here’s the lie in the first nine (or so) reasons to eat:

I can fix the problems in my life or make the good things better in my life by eating.

We can eat and eat and eat until we feel stuffed, but are never satisfied. Eating for these reasons can never satisfy us because we are not addressing the real issues.

Here’s the truth in the last reason, number 10–eating because we are hungry:

“My body is ready for nourishment. I am going to honor it and give it what it needs. I am going to be satisfied because I am eating for true hunger and giving it real food.

When I eat for any reason other than hunger, more often than not, I turn to the fake and sugary foods which lie to my brain and lie to my body that they can meet my needs and that what I really need is more of these “foods.”

How to Interrupt the Cycle

The key to interrupting this cycle and developing healthier behaviors is to become aware of the cues that precede our reach for the unhealthy/unnecessary stuff, insert ourselves by asking a few questions, and provide ourselves with a different option that satisfies our true needs.

The last chapter of Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit offers a helpful formula. I highly recommend this fascinating collection of stories and case studies, which illuminates how habits develop and the enormous consequences that can result.

I also highly recommend Susan Albers’ Eating Mindfully for an in-depth exploration of the habits that trap us in emotional eating cycles and strategies to return to mindful eating.

Here are the three questions I’ve learned to ask myself when I feel the urge to grab something to eat:

  1. Am I hungry–do I feel like eating real food?

If I am thinking about eating fake sugary food items, and I can’t think of something healthy and nourishing that I want to eat, the chances are high that I am looking to eat for reasons other than true hunger.

  1. What do I need right now?

If I can’t think of something nourishing that I want to eat, I can ask myself what I am actually feeling and needing. More often than not, I am feeling tired or procrastinating doing something I know I need to do but don’t want to do.

  1. What options can I give myself?

When I want to reach for junk food, I am usually in a situation where I feel I can’t meet my needs otherwise—usually at work. But there is always something I can do to interrupt this cycle. If I am tired, I can close my eyes and breath for a few moments and commit to giving myself time to rest or meditate when I finish a project. If I am looking for distraction, I can set a time for 5 minutes, go on a walk, listen to a podcast, call a friend, etc..

In each case, I can interrupt the cue-reward cycle with a question and an option. Then, I can invite myself to wait until I am actually hungry to eat and offer myself real food first.

Taking a minute to check in by asking myself these questions and giving myself other options dissolves the seeming desperate urge to eat foods I don’t need and enables the overall health and well-being I desire–one mindful choice at a time.

Please share with us! What have you found to be most helpful as you strive to eat mindfully?

#036 Does Stress Cause Weight Gain?

September 22nd, 2014 by

Does Stress Cause Weight Gain?

Do you feel tired, have difficulties sleeping, weigh more than you should, experience head aches, or have digestive problems?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, chances are that you are part of the 77% of us that feel the weight of chronic stress every day. The paradox of our modern society is that with our ever increasing “conveniences,” life is becoming more complex and stressful.

We are living lives our bodies were not designed to live and our waistlines are expanding. Increasingly, we find ourselves inside all day long, not using our bodies to work and not eating real food. Additionally, studies show that the more time we spend keeping up with news, on Facebook, and watching TV, the more stressed we become.

Whether we realize it or not, these things are putting a stress on our bodies and our minds. It creates a negative spiral. The more stressed we feel, the more we turn to these things that are actually causing our stress.

What is Causing Our Stress?

Just what is causing 77% of us to feel so much stress?  According the Stress in America 2013 Report by the American Psychological Association, the top 5 causes of our stress are in the following order:

1. Health (family or personal)

2. Money

3. Work

4. Economy

5. Family responsibilities

How Stress Recently Threw me Off Balance

I recently finished a difficult week of being on call at the hospital.  As a cardiologist this means that I am available 24/7 for a week to help our patients.

The work load is intense and I am constantly receiving calls and on the run helping patients throughout the hospital.  With these hectic days, I am lucky if I can even carve out 5 minutes to eat.

The stress of racing to keep up really threw my eating off balance.  I was craving junk, I was hungry all the time, and my energy was depleted.

In my attempt to eat I did it all wrong for several days.  I just wanted to kill the hunger pains.

Here’s how my thought process went:  “I have no time to eat, but I’ve got to get something fast so I can keep working. I’ll just get a slice of veggie whole wheat pizza and make sure I’m getting in some steps while I eat.  Also, I am so depleted physically, I think I’ll just take a few swallows (three to four to be exact) of Diet Coke from this free soda dispensers in the staff area.”

It’s a vicious cycle, and I knew it.  I eat pizza and drink Diet Coke and it just makes me want to do it all over again.  It’s not real food and it’s not giving my body what it needs.

When I am stressed, I have a raging appetite.  I think about food all of the time and it is hard to feel full.

The only thing that keeps me from putting on extra weight during periods of intense stress is that I keep a very detailed food and nutrition log each day on my iPhone. Somehow, this tool helps me to get back on track more quickly when I lose my way.

Hormonal Changes to Our Body with Stress

Just how does stress cause weight gain?  In addition to cravings and the desire to overeat, stress has many other effects on me.

Even though my phone was not ringing during the night when I was on call, I started having problems sleeping again. I also had difficulties engaging with my family in the evenings.

It turns out that all sorts of things were out of balance in my body due to stress.  Let’s take a look at what’s happening in our bodies when we are under stress.

1. High Cortisol

When we are stressed, our bodies release cortisol.  The two main effects of cortisol are to raise our blood sugar and shut down our immune system.

When our blood sugar goes up insulin levels also go up.  Insulin is the main hormone in our body that causes us to store our calories as fat on our body.

Insulin also makes us hungry. Cortisol decreases leptin so our brains never get the signal we are full.  Another hunger hormone, ghrelin, is increased.

Of course, when our immune system is suppressed we are very likely to get sick. Have you or someone you know ever taken prednisone, a Medrol Dose Pack, or another steroid before?  What happened with the surging cortisol from these steroids?

Did you or someone you know experience an increased appetite and gain weight? The same thing happens when we feel stress.

2. High Adrenalin

Adrenalin for short periods of time, i.e. during intense exercise, can feel good and strengthen the body.  However, when the adrenalin is never shut off, like with chronic stress, it wears out the body.

In particular, chronically high levels of adrenalin cause plaque build up throughout the body leading to heart attacks and strokes.  It also raises blood pressure and is associated with back and other joint pains.

3. Low Thyroid Hormone

When we are exposed to chronic stress, thyroid hormone production generally decreases. Low thyroid hormone makes us tired and causes us to gain weight by slowing our metabolism down.

4. Low Growth Hormone

When children are exposed to constant high levels of stress, they can develop a medical condition called stress dwarfism.  This condition causes their bodies to stop producing growth hormone.

Children with stress dwarfism not only stop growing but the development of their cognitive abilities slows as well. Chronic stress can also cause growth hormone deficiency in adults, causing us to lose muscle mass, gain more fat, and lose our energy.

5. High Insulin

Not only is our insulin increased from toxic cortisol levels when we are stressed, but our cells also become resistant to the effects of insulin.  This causes our pancreas to make even more insulin.

With surging levels of insulin, we are then at high risk for diabetes.  As the insulin levels go up even more with stress, our body goes into fat storage mode and we feel compelled to eat even more.

11 Ways to Stop Stress from Making Us Gain Weight

The first step to preventing weight gain from stress is to recognize your stress. Modern life is incredibly stressful.  If we don’t actively do something everyday to keep stress in check, stress may affect our health. Let me share with you my 10 very best tips:

1. Track Yourself

When I find myself under intense stress, I have to be incredibly careful, or I will reach for the pizza and Diet Coke wherever I am.

This is why, when I am feeling stressed, I track myself. Stressed or not, in general, most of us eat much more than we think we do.  For many of us, tracking what we eat is the single most effective tool to bring awareness of what we are actually eating, otherwise weight gain will likely occur.  This is only magnified when we are stressed.

Tracking tools that have brought me the greatest success include my free healthy habit tracker app or an app on your smartphone like Lose It. While I am not a fan of “counting calories” using some sort of a tracking system is the key to successfully avoiding weight gain during a stressful period of time.

2. Name 3 Things You Are Grateful for Daily

Gratitude puts everything in perspective.  One of the biggest causes of stress is that our expectations are not being met.

If we focus on the blessings we already have instead of what we lack we can help to drive chronic stress out of our lives. This is why my free healthy habit tracker app requires us to physically enter 3 things we are grateful for each day. If we focus on the blessings we already have, instead of what we lack, we can help to drive chronic stress out of our lives. 

3. Exercise and Log 10,000 Steps Each Day

Our ancestors did not have the same problems with stress that we do today.  They worked hard outside each day which caused their levels of cortisol, adrenalin, thyroid hormone, growth hormone, and insulin to return to normal levels.

It is next to impossible to get all of these hormones back to normal levels if we sit all day long. Our bodies were designed to help keep stress levels under control by daily physical activity.

This is why I encourage people to get a daily dose of exercise and to log 10,000 steps each day.  The exercise gets our hearts moving and the steps make sure we use our muscles through the day.

4. Spend At Least 20 Minutes Outside Daily

In our modern fast paced stress-filled lives we have forgotten what it is like to go outside each day.  Even our ancient ancestors did not sit in caves all day long.  

They knew the value of getting outside. Spending time outside has been shown to reduce stress and hunger hormones.  It also helps with sleep. 

5. Set a Bedtime Alarm Clock

Do you feel like there just is not enough time in the day? If so, you are not alone.

We try to catch up on things we need to get done or even just relax with the TV or the computer late at night. I have found that the number one reason why we are so sleep deprived is that we don’t have a consistent bedtime.

Rather than set the alarm clock in the morning try setting it at night. The rules are very simple.  Set the alarm clock for a time like 10 pm.  You cannot turn the alarm clock off until you are in bed with the lights out. With a goal of at least 7 hours of sleep each night it will allow us to help manage our stress.

6. Eat Real Food

When we are stressed out, we are generally driven to eat anything but Real Food.  The hormonal imbalance from stress drives us to eat sugar and processed foods.

If we can eat 9 servings of fruits and vegetables, at least 1 serving of nuts or seeds, and at least 1 serving of a legume (beans/lentils) each day it will give our bodies everything they need to counteract the dangerous effects of stress.  It can also give us the energy and clear thinking to get us out of our stressful situations. Indeed, everything seems to get better when we focus on Real Food!

7. Meditate

Let’s face it, our lives are chaotic and noisy.  We are too disconnected from the peace and calm of nature our ancestors once enjoyed.

We have to find a quiet place to help keep our stress in check. This could be meditation, prayer, or even something like yoga.  Studies have shown that meditation can restore all of the hormonal imbalances of stress.

8. Really Connect with People

For most of us, especially men, when we feel stressed we turn inward.  Under periods of stress, real connection with others is critically important.

No, Facebook and Twitter does not count as real human connection.  Seek out a close friend or family member and make sure you connect with these people each day.

9. Help Someone Daily

When we focus on ourselves our problems can look really big.  I know this is the case with me. The best way to get out of our own stress-filled head is to help someone else.

Make it intentional to reach out and be of service to someone each day.  This could be as simple as giving an old friend a call, sharing food with a neighbor, or writing a thank you note.

10. Go On a News Fast

The old saying “if it bleeds, it leads” really is true with media. Unfortunately, our brains then fixate on the fear based negative news. Negative news activates our stress hormones and reinitiates the negative spiral of stress.

I recommend going on a news fast.  Unless your job demands that you follow the headline news, it is best for our spiritual health to minimize our exposure to all of the fear and negativity from the news.

11. Manage Our Expectations

Sometimes we just cannot change the situation.  Learn to accept what it impossible to change.

One of the biggest causes of stress and unhappiness is when our expectations are not being met.  Sometimes we just have to change our expectations.

At the end of the day, there are just things that are beyond our control. We simply can’t fix everything.

To bring it all home, does stress cause weight gain?  The answer is definitely yes.  We must recognize the stress in our lives and actively do something each day to relieve stress. What have you found that works for stress relief?

#027 Do You Have Any of These 12 Magnesium Deficiency Symptoms?

August 11th, 2014 by

Do you have any of these 12 magnesium deficiency symptoms?

You probably have no idea that you are currently suffering from magnesium deficiency. Indeed, studies show that up to 89% of Americans are magnesium deficient.  Read on to see if you have any of these 12 magnesium deficiency symptoms.

Jill’s Experience

Jill was a 45-year-old woman suffering from a heart condition known as atrial fibrillation. It made no sense why someone so young should develop this heart condition as she didn’t have any of the usual atrial fibrillation risk factors.

The only tip-off as to the cause of her atrial fibrillation was that she was taking Prilosec for acid reflux, Lasix occasionally for leg swelling, and she was eating the “Standard American Diet.” Even though her magnesium levels came back normal on her blood test, I suspected a magnesium deficiency as the cause of her heart problem.

Interestingly, once I convinced her to replace all added sugars and processed foods with real foods which included a massive salad every day, she immediately lost 20 pounds without even trying. In no time at all her acid reflux was gone and she was off the Prilosec. Also, with no added sugars or processed foods, her legs no longer swelled so there was no further need of diuretics.

Best of all, she felt better than she had ever felt and her atrial fibrillation went away. As she made many lifestyle changes, it was impossible to know what exactly drove her atrial fibrillation into remission.

However, in my mind, I’m sure replacing her magnesium stores played a role. Continue reading to figure out how she boosted her magnesium stores.

Can you test for magnesium deficiency?

While you can test for magnesium deficiency, you probably don’t want the test your doctor orders. The reason for this is because the standard magnesium test only measures the magnesium in your blood.

As 99% of your magnesium is not freely floating around in your blood but rather is inside of your cells and bones, you need a better test for magnesium deficiency. Of the various ways to test for magnesium deficiency, probably the best is the RBC magnesium test. The RBC magnesium test measures the amount of magnesium inside of your red blood cells.

Who is at risk for magnesium deficiency?

Many things contribute to magnesium deficiency. For example, if you are under a lot of stress, you likely are not absorbing much magnesium from your food.  Those who love drinking filtered or bottled water also aren’t getting much magnesium. And processed foods are notorious for being completely absent of magnesium.

Other conditions contributing to magnesium deficiency include being overweight, diabetic, or over age 60. Likewise, many prescription medications like diuretics or acid-blocking medications are also keeping your magnesium levels dangerously low.

Do you have any of these 12 magnesium deficiency symptoms?

1. Weight Gain/Diabetes

When you don’t get enough magnesium in your food and water, it can cause glucose and insulin levels to rise.  When insulin levels are high, you may suffer from food cravings.  Unfortunately, these food cravings are generally for sugar or processed carbohydrates which lead to further weight gain.

2. Fatigue and Muscle Weakness

Magnesium is a critical component of energy production in the body.  In fact, the body’s energy molecule, ATP, is created through magnesium dependent chemical reactions.

If you are tired all the time, you are probably magnesium deficient.  Likewise, if your muscles are weak, you may also not be getting enough magnesium.

3. Anxiety

People under high levels of mental or physical stress, poorly absorb magnesium from the gastrointestinal tract. Contributing to a downward spiral, magnesium deficiency is a significant cause of anxiety.  Fortunately, studies show that restoring the magnesium may help in the treatment of anxiety.

4. Insomnia

Having enough magnesium balances out your stress hormones.  Magnesium also helps the body maintain sufficient melatonin and other sleep hormones.  Indeed, magnesium supplementation has been shown to help with sleep.

5. Depression

Magnesium deficiency and depression go hand in hand.  Low magnesium stores lead to depression and people suffering from depression are more likely to eat a diet low in magnesium.

6. Dental Cavities or Osteoporosis

Dental cavities and osteoporosis are two more signs of magnesium deficiency.  Magnesium affects vitamin D metabolism and osteocalcin which play a vital role in bone turnover and formation.

Ironically, if you are taking calcium supplements for osteoporosis, you may be making matters worse. Calcium supplementation can throw off your calcium/magnesium balance.

7. Constipation

If you suffer from constipation you probably are magnesium deficient.  Magnesium in any form is an excellent laxative.

8. Muscle Cramps or Migraine Headaches

Do you suffer from leg cramps, eye twitches, or muscle spasms?  Do you get frequent headaches? These may all be magnesium deficiency symptoms.

9. Inflammation, Arthritis, or Autoimmune Diseases

If you suffer from chronic inflammatory conditions, such as arthritis or autoimmune diseases, you may be magnesium deficient.  Studies have linked magnesium deficiency to arthritis and elevated C-reactive protein (CRP) blood tests.

10. Palpitations, Heart Attacks, Heart Failure, or Cardiac Arrest

Most forms of heart disease are linked to magnesium deficiency.  This mineral is critical to optimal cardiac function.

11. Thyroid Problems

Thyroid problems are widespread in the U.S.  Research suggests that many thyroid issues may be due to magnesium deficiency.

12. Cancer

Cancer may be a wake-up call that magnesium levels are low. Magnesium is a critical nutrient for many DNA repair mechanisms.   As new cancer cells are created every day in your body, you need your DNA repair mechanism functioning optimally.

Magnesium in Our Water

Our ancestors used to get large amounts of magnesium just from their drinking water.  Mountain spring water is naturally high in magnesium.  Unfortunately, many municipalities remove magnesium as part of their water treatment process.

If you want to see how much magnesium is in your drinking water, click here.  In general, the “harder” your water, the more magnesium you are getting.

Interestingly, drinking hard water may lower your risk of heart disease.  If you happen to live in a city with naturally hard water, you can get up to 30% of the magnesium you need each day from water.

Unfortunately, water softeners, water filters, reverse osmosis devices, and bottled water are generally all depleted of magnesium.  If you drink any of these magnesium depleted water types, you have to get 100% of your magnesium from food.

Magnesium in Our Food

Once upon a time, our soil contained much more magnesium.  Unfortunately, modern agriculture has stripped this essential mineral from the ground.  Processed foods are even worse when it comes to magnesium content.

Fortunately, organically grown produce has been shown to have up to 29% more magnesium.  To get enough magnesium in your diet, make sure you eat plenty of green leafy vegetables, especially spinach, nuts, seeds, and legumes every day.  To see a breakdown of which foods contain the most magnesium click here.

Can you get too much magnesium?

In general, it is very tough to get too much magnesium from your food and water unless you have kidney disease.  Certainly, it is possible to get too much magnesium if you are taking supplements.

How much magnesium do you need each day?

The recommended daily amount of magnesium varies depending on your gender and age. Assuming there are no problems with magnesium absorption, you need about 400 mg of magnesium each day. If you can get at least 400 mg of magnesium daily from your water and food, you can start to enjoy the health benefits of magnesium.

Magnesium in China’s Longevity Village

As you know, we have been studying the residents of China’s Longevity Village for many years.  We have found that these people do not suffer from magnesium deficiency symptoms.

The mountain spring water they drink is extremely hard and packed full of essential minerals.  Researchers suggest that these people get up to 50% of their magnesium just from the water.

Also, modern agriculture has yet to put a stake in the ground in this rural area of China.  Thus, the soil is extremely high in magnesium and other minerals.

Their diet, which is very high in vegetables, nuts, seeds, and beans, only further augments the magnesium they are getting every day.  We suspect that the magnesium in their food and water may be a major reason why heart disease is very uncommon, and people live to old ages free of chronic medical conditions.

To learn more about why China’s Longevity Village has the highest known concentration of centenarians in the world, please be sure to pick up a copy of our new book, The Longevity Plan.

How can you correct magnesium deficiency?

Let me give you five simple steps to correct magnesium deficiency.

1. Drink hard or mineral water.

2. Eat a heaping salad with spinach, nuts, seeds, and legumes daily. 

3. Embrace the stress in your life.

4. Talk with your doctor about magnesium supplements.

5. Talk with your doctor about medications that may be contributing to your magnesium deficiency like diuretics, acid reducing medications, or calcium supplements.

Practical Tips

As 89% of Americans are magnesium deficient, there is a high likelihood that you may be one of them. Fortunately, magnesium deficiency is easy to correct.

I know I used to be one of these people. Before my health transformation, I required Prilosec daily for acid reflux, ate the Standard American Diet, and was always stressed. These three things alone probably put me also into a state of magnesium deficiency.

Now, in addition to eating a diet very high in magnesium, I have found that taking a magnesium supplement before bed helps me to sleep. Indeed, medical studies show that magnesium supplementation is an effective treatment for insomnia.

If you suspect you may have a magnesium deficiency as well, correct anything that can be fixed to boost your magnesium stores. Also, speak with your physician about whether a magnesium supplement might be right for you.

If you enjoyed this article, please be sure to subscribe to our free weekly newsletter and podcast. Also, to learn the secret to fantastic health at any age, please be sure to read our new book, The Longevity Plan.

#022 Can the Cookie You Just Ate Cause Your Unborn Child to Become Overweight? Behaviors are Contagious and We Can Change Our Genes

July 28th, 2014 by

There was a time when I could not imagine a day without a chocolate chip cookie or a donut. Who doesn’t love a fresh warm chocolate chip cookie?

As a cardiologist, I would generally go to the hospital cafeteria during off hours, when I knew not many people would be there, to buy my cheeseburger, fries and cookie.

I hated it when people would look at my white lab coat stating “cardiologist” and then the tray of food and sarcastically jab, “that’s a healthy meal for a cardiologist.” It’s like they somehow expected me to be able to resist because I was a doctor, but I’m no different than anyone else.

The scary thing is that the only person I thought I was hurting with my “sweet tooth” addiction was me.  At the time, I had no idea that behaviors are contagious or that my poor food choices could cause my children to inherit a gene for, say, diabetes or obesity.

Even though it has been more than three years since I have had a cheeseburger, fries, cookie or donut, I still crave these items. What has helped me to stay strong? Not only does what I eat make me feel better, but studies now show that what I eat can change my genes and can also affect the health of the generations that follow me.  This gives me the purpose and resolve to shift my habits to healthier ones for myself and for my posterity.

The Obesity Numbers

How has the obesity rate gone from approximately 10% in 1970 to 36% in 2010?  That is nearly a four-fold increase!  Now, more than 2 in 3 Americans is overweight or obese (69% of the U.S. population).   For men it is even worse, as 3 in 4 adult men in the U.S. are overweight or obese.

What is Driving Everyone to Gain So Much Weight?

Why are we eating 500 more calories each day now than what we ate in 1970?  Traditional wisdom, based on Darwinian evolution theories, tells us it is impossible for our genes to have changed that much in the last 40 years.  Thus, it must be our lack of willpower that is driving most of us to gain the weight.

Behaviors Are Contagious

Could gaining weight be as contagious as catching the common cold?  Indeed, this is the argument set forth in a landmark study published in the most prestigious medical journal in 2007.

In this study, researchers from Harvard and U.C. San Diego evaluated 12,067 people from 1971 to 2003 living in Framingham, Massachusetts as part of the Framingham Heart Study.

These researchers found the following:

1. If your friend gains weight, you are 57% more likely to gain weight too

2. If your sibling gains weight, you are 40% more likely to gain weight too

3. If your spouse gains weight, you are 37% more likely to gain weight too

How can this be?  The argument is that we tend to follow the behaviors we see around us.  The good news is that these same researchers found that if a friend or family member “gets healthy” you will probably “get healthy” as well.

One easy solution to take advantage of these scientific findings?  Identify and start hanging out with people who strive to live healthy lifestyles.    It just might be what finally enables you to more effortlessly lose weight, enjoy exercising more regularly, and feel better.  Experiment and see if you find that it is possible to catch this contagious “healthy bug.”

Genetic Predestination?

Just this past week I had several patients tell me that they were “destined” to be overweight, diabetic, and have heart disease because that is what happens to everyone in their family.  One patient even went on to tell me, “we all get the same gene and there is nothing we can do about it.”

When I heard this I was so saddened.  He felt he was a victim and with this thought process he too had become overweight, diabetic, and had a heart condition.

Could it be that this was a learned behavior and had nothing to do with his genes at all?  Or could it be possible that even if it was “genetics,” we can change our genes through our lifestyle choices?

According to the exciting new science of epigenetics, the encouraging news is that, yes, we can change our genes.


“Epi” means outside or on top of.  Thus, epigenetics refers to the science of how “tags” are put on the outer portion of our genes.  What we eat and how we live determines which of our genes are turned on or off based on these “tags” or our epigenome.

Healthy Lifestyles Change Our Own Genes

It is not just us that will benefit from us modifying our own genes but our posterity will benefit as well.  In the groundbreaking research of Dr. Dean Ornish of men with early prostate cancer, he found that a healthy lifestyle consisting of the following resulted in over 500 positive gene changes.

1. Plant-based diet

2. Daily exercise

3. Daily stress reducing activities

4. Weekly support groups

Depending on how you look at it, epigenetics could be really exciting or really scary.  If we eat real foods and live a healthy lifestyle, this can put tags on our genes which turn off bad genes and turn on good genes.  This can benefit us now and reverse chronic medical conditions.

In some cases, these new genetic tags, can be passed on to our children and grandchildren.  Thus, your healthy lifestyle can give you and your children and grandchildren a genetic advantage for generations to come.  Alternatively, your bad habits can genetically handicap you, your children and grandchildren.

So, getting back to the question, why then has there been nearly a four-fold rise in diabetes and obesity in the last 40 years?  Could learned behavior and epigenetics explain this rapid rise?

Can Foods Change the Genes We Pass to Our Children?

Not only are our kids and grandchildren “destined” by the behaviors they see in us but it is also possible that we are passing on new genes that can predestine them to being overweight and diabetic.

Parent Diets and Children/Grandchildren Health

There was a fascinating study showing this phenomenon in action.  The northern most point of Sweden, Norrbotten, is a very isolated cold corner of the world.  During winters when food was scarce, people were very lean.  Conversely, during years of plenty, people ate much more food than was needed.

Surprisingly, researchers found that children born during famine years, when their parents did not overeat, were not only healthier but also lived 32 years longer.  Not only did these famine year children enjoy remarkable health but their grandchildren did as well.  Conversely, children born during “plenty years,” when people overate, had more health problems and died much younger.

Dr. Randy Jirtle from Duke University pioneered this groundbreaking research.  From his research, he found that what types of foods mice mothers were fed prior to conception could genetically play a large role as to whether her babies would have diabetes or obesity.  He followed up this research in humans by showing that if a man was overweight at the time of conception it was likely that his child would genetically have the “obesity gene” turned on.

The science of epigenetics completely overturns the concept of Darwinian Evolution.  In other words, species slowly evolve over time.  Rather, with epigenetics, species can change rapidly when exposed to certain environmental factors.

Parental Guilt

Naturally, one downside of epigenetics could be more parental guilt.  I know this is the case for me.

I was overweight and ate my fair share of processed, chemical-laden, sugary foods when each of my three children was born and I suffered myself with many unnecessary medical conditions.

Jane and I are now doing our best to model healthier food behaviors while our kids are still young.  I now live free of several medical conditions and medications that previously held me back. With the right supportive environment, perhaps any epigenetic tags that I may have passed on to our children could be reversed.

We are emphasizing real food first in our home.  In other words, we encourage our children to eat real food first at every meal (vegetables, fruit, healthy fat, and a healthy protein) before they eat anything else.  The goal here is that they will be satisfied after eating the real foods and desire fewer “hunger carbs” like sweets. I am seeing this approach work wonders for my patients and colleagues. Time will tell, and we’ll let you know how it goes with our kids!

What do you think?  Are healthy or unhealthy behaviors contagious?  Through our lifestyle choices, can we impact the helpful or harmful genes we pass on to our children and grandchildren? You can leave a comment by clicking here.