Posted July 23, 2014
Posted October 30, 2013
Caffeine is a drug. Because it is so astonishingly ubiquitous (somewhere around 90% of people in North America consume caffeine on a daily basis), and because use of caffeine generally comes with out stigma, it's easy to forget that we are regularly putting a substance in our bodies that has a huge and cascading impact on our bodies' systems. Far from being stigmatized, consistent caffeine consumption is socially reinforces and encouraged. But falling into this habit can be dangerous...
Here's why: Consistently consuming caffeine without managing its effects on the body will lead to lower energy levels, increased inflammation and diminished cognitive performance, among other undesirable effects.
Don't mistake me for a puritan - I love getting high on caffeine from time to time. Beyond that, caffeine can be of tremendous value when used strategically as a nootropic (brain-enhancer) or workout aid. The key is knowing how to use it strategically such that you maximize your benefits without falling into a habitual use cycle that is energy and performance-draining.
Why Caffeine Is Awesome
Used in specific circumstances, caffeine can have powerful beneficial effects. This will certainly be a case of stating the obvious for a lot of you, but it's worth saying again: caffeine can have a powerful effect on certain aspects of athletic performance. Studies have correlated caffeine with both increased endurance and increased muscular power output. This translates to higher-quality training sessions and, assuming proper recovery, greater gains in strength and fitness (and all of the energy, body composition and performance gains that come with it).
Unsurprisingly, caffeine also has been correlated with improved cognitive performance. Both short term memory and systems processing have been shown in studies to improve on low-to-moderate doses of caffeine.
My own opinion on caffeine's cognitive performance benefits is slightly more esoteric. My experience is that caffeine makes it easier to hop into "flow states" associated with organization and creativity. This isn't the right place for a full explanation on flow states, but I recommend checking out the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the pioneer of flow state theory. It is the best model I know of to understand the psychological states of high-performance (athletic, artistic, productive, etc.).
Finally, caffeine is also fun. What more really needs to be said here? When used properly, caffeine can be a great recreational drug with minimal negative impact.
So how do we maximize caffeine's benefit as a performance enhancer (or recreational drug) while minimizing it's negative effects? First we have to understand what caffeine is doing to our body when it works its magic.
How Caffeine Affects The Body
Essentially every process in our bodies is governed by a complex network of signaling chemicals. The most important among these are neurotransmitters (for the brain, nervous system) and hormones (essentially every other cell in the body).
Caffeine produces it's effects through specifically altering the action of a few of these hormones and neurotransmitters. First and foremost, caffeine binds to adenosine receptors throughout the brain and nervous system. Adenosine is an inhibitory neurotransmitter, meaning that it suppresses the level of activity of neurons it interacts with. As such, adenosine has been correlated with promoting sleep and relaxation and suppressing arousal. Caffeine binds to adenosine receptors, blocking them from performing this function. All the other biochemical, physiological and psychological effects of caffeine come as a result of this primary mechanism of action.
Once adenosine function is suppressed, it starts a cascade within the body in which the function of several other hormones and neurotransmitters is altered. Most significant here, is the effect on our adrenals, the glands that sit on top of our kidneys that produce and secrete the hormones epinephrine ("adrenaline") and cortisol. These are often referred to as the "fight or flight" hormones, as the are released in times of stress. When they are circulating in the body, heart rate and respiration rate increase and smooth muscle relaxes, preparing us for quick action. Caffeine stimulates the adrenals to dump large amounts of both of these hormones. Studies have found moderate caffeine doses to increase circulating epinephrine by more than 250%. Effectively, caffeine is simulating a stress response in our bodies.
Caffeine also increases circulating serotonin in certain parts of our nervous system, which accounts for part of the antidepressant and mood-elevating properties of caffeine.
It's important to note that the effects on adenosine, epinephrine and serotonin are just the three most prominent mechanisms of action for caffeine. Dozens of other hormones and neurotransmitters are effected by caffeine consumption.
Why This Can Be A Problem
When neurotransmitters or hormones are released, one of two things happens: they are taken up (for future re-use) by the types of cells that excreted them -or- they are broken down by enzymes that circulate in the blood plasma. How often each of these two things happens varies greatly depending on the chemical and circumstance, but one thing is always true: a significant amount of the neurotransmitter or hormone will be degraded by enzymes after release.
This means that when caffeine stimulates higher circulating levels of epinephrine or serotonin, a portion of it will be broken down and the body will be forced to produce more to replace it.
For a healthy body this isn't an issue when it happens infrequently. Occasional, isolated dumps (and resulting losses) of hormones are not a big deal. The body will have plenty of surplus hormones in reserve until it can replace what was lost. It is when we force our endocrine (hormone) system into this cycle of release-breakdown-production on a daily basis that system can fall behind and create problems such as fatigue or dependency.
How Caffeine Compounds These Problems
Consistently using caffeine to provoke dumps of epinephrine and serotonin means the body will constantly need to be producing new hormones and neurotransmitters to maintain proper functioning of these systems. The production of hormones is a complex process involving a number of base materials, enzymes and coenzymes. If any of these components is limited in supply, hormone production will be suppressed.
Caffeine negatively impacts this process in two ways. Iron absorption is suppressed and circulating levels of certain B-vitamins are decreased. Both iron and B-vitamins act as coenzymes at certain steps in the synthesis of several hormones and neurotransmitters (including serotonin and epinephrine). Having less of these two nutrients available makes it harder for your body to replace the hormones lost to degradation during a caffeine high.
This topic goes to the core of theory behind the Synchro Life Design system. It's my belief (and a well supported one) that the body feels and performs best when the system is stable and consistently well supported. Any time we ingest something that causes a dramatic change in metabolic, hormonal or neurological activity, our body has to adapt to that change - and more importantly, adapt to the cessation of that effect. A healthy body is resilient and can adapt to an isolated dramatic change quite well and return to equilibrium. When we ask our bodies to consistently enter these cycles of metabolic (or other) activity, it will become taxing.
This is the same core theory behind using high-quality fats as the body's primary fuel source instead of carbohydrates (as I wrote about in SLD #9). Fats convert into energy much more stably and consistently than carbohydrates, and as a result the metabolism benefits from not having to constantly adapt to spikes and falls in blood sugar (and thus, usable energy) characteristic of a carb-dominant diet.
The same principle applies to caffeine. Repeated spikes and falls in serotonin and epinephrine (and other chemicals) as a result of caffeine consumption is taxing for the body over time.
The deficits in hormone production explains part of this taxing effect, but I don't believe it explains all of it. My opinion is that the more meaningful impact is a psychological one. Cycles of physiological highs and lows take a toll on us mentally and emotionally as much as they do physically. This relates to the well-known tendency for people to be several times more likely to remember a negative experience at a restaurant than a positive one. For whatever reason, most people tend to calibrate their overall sense of well-being more with the lows than the highs. This can become a negative-feedback cycle of sorts, as when we perceive ourselves as being less well, that has a negative impact on our actual physiological well being. Keeping your metabolic and psychological systems stable makes this discrepancy in reality and perception less likely and less dramatic. As a result, we experience our bodies as being in a better state of well-being.
Maximize The Benefits And Minimize The Harm
- Don't Use Caffeine Every Day - This really should be #'s 1, 2 and 3 on this list. Giving your body days off to replenish depleted hormone and neurotransmitter levels is key to making sure you don't get into a cycle of hormone debt. Exactly how often you personally should ideally consume caffeine is for you to determine, but the idea is to never feel like you need it just to achieve some acceptable level of performance. If this is the case, you're in too deep.
- Find Your Dose - The idea here is to find the minimum amount of caffeine you can consume to achieve the performance enhancing effects. At higher doses, the beneficial effects tend to reach a point of diminishing returns, but the effects on your hormones and neurotransmitters tend to become more severe. Finding the minimal effective dose will keep you from hitting this point.
If you're a daily caffeine drinker, this dose is likely a lot lower than you think. In a world where double-shots of espresso and 16oz coffee are the standard, caffeine doses have gotten unnecessarily high. To find your perfect dose, I recommend taking a few days off to let your system reset and then incrementally consuming small amounts every 20 minutes over the course of an hour to find the point where you get the effects you want from coffee (and be honest!). For reference, my perfect, performance-enhancing dose is between 30 and 50mg (about 1/3 to 1/2 12oz drip coffee).
- Support Your Hormones! - Even is you follow the two techniques above, you'll still be placing higher-than-normal demands on your hormone and neurotransmitter systems. So support them! a. Micronutrients - As I mentioned above, synthesis of hormones involves a huge number of nutrients. Making sure your body has more-than-adequate levels of these nutrients available will help make sure your body replenishes hormones and neurotransmitters as fast as possible. This comes in-part from eating nutrient-dense foods, but as I've written about previously, it's my opinion that we need to supplement our diets to achieve optimal levels of many nutrients. See Part 3 of the supplementation series for more on this.
b. Detoxifiers - Perhaps the single biggest impediment to optimal hormone production and function for most people is exposure to toxins that disrupt these processes. Keeping these toxins out of your body is obviously step #1, but neutralizing the toxins that make it into your body is even more important. Eating foods that are powerful toxin-neutralizers will protect your endocrine system from disruption. Of course, Synchro Genesis was formulated for exactly this purpose. Combining exceptional loads of antioxidants and active detoxifiers with the blood-flow-stimulating power of raw cacao means Synchro Genesis detoxifies deeper and more powerfully than almost anything else on the planet.
c. Endocrine Supporters - Some functional plant foods contain phytonutrients that have been shown to support the endocrine system in producing and regulating hormone function. Maca Root is the best studied and most widely used of these natural hormone supporters (which is why we've included it in Synchro Genesis).
- Caffeine Alternatives - Cacao (unprocessed chocolate) contains a compound related to caffeine known as theobromine. Where caffeine works primarily on the central nervous system (via it's action on adenosine receptors), theobromine is a cardiovascular stimulant. Theobromine stimulates blood flow throughout the body, including to the brain. Because increased blood flow is delivering more nutrients and oxygen to the brain, alertness will increase. The stimulation from theobromine is far less demanding on the hormones and neurotransmitters, and thus more sustainable. It is Raw Cacao that gives Synchro Genesis its stimulating and mood-lifting power.
Posted July 14, 2014
Eating fish these days is a complicated proposition. One the one hand, certain fish have the potential to be quite nutritionally valuable.
High-quality fish are a great source of clean, easily-digestible, amino-complete protein. They can also be great sources of inflammation-fighting Omega-3 fatty acids and fat-soluble vitamins (like A and D) as well as countless valuable dietary minerals.
Unfortunately, most fish available on the market today are saturated with toxins to the point of being legitimately hazardous to our health. A huge percentage of common wild-caught fish show dangerously high levels of multiple environmental toxins (like mercury and PCB's).
You'd hope farmed fish would be safer than wild fish, but disappointingly the opposite is true. Fish farming is a dirty, problematic industry and the fish produced by aquaculture operations are often even more contaminated than wild fish.
Problems With Wild-Caught Fish
The problems with wild-caught fish are fundamentally problems with our oceans. Decades of relatively-unchecked environmental pollution have left our oceans dangerously polluted by a number of toxic industrial byproducts. While regulations in developed nations have tightened considerably, it's quite unclear what the level of environmental pollution is in upcoming industrial powers like China and India.
There's a long list of industrial chemicals we find commonly in wild-caught fish, but a few of these are particularly problematic:
Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCB's) haven't been used in the developed world since the 1970's, but they continue to persist in our environment. PCB's have been shown to be teratogenic (interfere with fetus development), suppress immune function and disrupt thyroid balance. 
Heavy metals (mercury is the most common) are released into our environment through a number of industrial processes, coal-burning power plants being the #1 source. Even in low concentrations (levels equivalent to eating contaminated fish), mercury has been shown to have neurotoxic effects. Children exposed to EPA-determined "safe" levels of mercury show measurably impaired motor development. 
Choosing Safe Wild-Caught Fish
There are a few characteristics to consider when choosing a wild-caught fish species that will minimize your exposure to these troublesome toxins.
First is the trophic level of the species. This effectively means "how high on the food chain" a given species of fish is. As we all know, small fish are eaten by medium-sized fish, which are eaten by larger fish which are eaten by even larger fish, and so on.
Through a process referred to as bioaccumulation, any toxins in the ocean water accumulate the higher a species is on the food chain. This is why small fish (like anchovies) will always have lower levels of toxins (by weight) than large fish (like tuna) harvested from the same waters.
The second characteristic to be aware of is the average age of a species at time of harvest. The longer a fish is alive, the more time it has to accumulate toxins. Migratory fish like salmon have relatively short lifespans, while open-ocean fish like marlin can be decades-old when they are caught.
The third characteristic that determines toxin levels in a given fish is the ocean from which it is caught. Fish caught in the Atlantic Ocean generally show higher levels of PCB's and mercury than Pacific fish (although this is not always the case). Arctic waters are among the cleanest on the planet, which is why Alaskan and other Arctic fish species are often quite low in environmental toxins. 
This is a fairly complicated list of characteristics - and chances are your server or the dude behind the grocery store fish counter are not going to know detailed information about where a specific fish came from. If you're going to eat fish, the only safe strategy is to educate yourself. Stick with fish species you know to be safe (see the list below), or at least to some quick iPhone google-searching before you place an order.
Why Farmed Fish Is NEVER Safe To Eat
Intuitively, it seems as though aquaculture (farming fish) might circumvent the issue of toxin accumulation that plagues so many wild-caught fish species. Unfortunately, aquaculture is a dirty industry and toxin accumulation is often exacerbated while other new problems unique to farmed fish are added to the equation.
Farmed fish are generally fed cheap "feed pellets" of which discarded fish byproducts are a primary ingredient. The fish byproducts used in feed pellets often come from larger fish than the farmed fish would eat in the wild, so the farmed fish are effectively eating above their "natural" trophic level. The result is an increased accumulation of toxins compared to wild fish of the same species.
Studies have repeatedly shown that farmed salmon has significantly higher levels of PCB's and PBDE's (another environmental toxin) than wild-caught salmon. 
The bigger problem with farm-raised fish is that these fundamentally are not healthy animals. They're fed low quality feed and kept in relatively close quarters, making spread of disease among farmed fish quite common.
Highlighting this issue is that more antibiotics are used in fish farming than in any other type of livestock operation. Whereas antibiotic use in livestock and poultry production is regulated (albeit poorly), it is wholly unregulated in aquaculture operations.  Antibiotics are used widely and carelessly, creating a number of issues including new strains of antibiotic-resistant pathogenic bacteria (salmonella is the most notable).
As with livestock production, the antibiotics used in fish-farming accumulate in the fish themselves and remain there when the fish arrives on your dinner table. Put simply, if you eat farm-raised fish, you will also be eating some level of industrial antibiotics.
Antibiotics in our food is a HUGE issue that I'm sure will garner a lot more attention over the next 3-5 years. Why? We're learned so much over the past decade about just how integral our gut microbiome is to our health, and this field of study continues to grow at a remarkable rate. Our gut microbiome plays an indispensable role in a huge variety of processes in the body, from digestion to immune function to hormone regulation.
Any sustained disruption of the bacteria living in our guts is likely to have very real negative impacts on our health. The low-level intake of antibiotics from livestock or farmed fish certainly qualifies as such a disruption.
While it is hypothetically possible to run an aquaculture operation that addresses these issues and produces legitimately clean fish, the reality is that we can't give any farmed fish the benefit of the doubt, regardless of how convincing their marketing may be - it's simply too dirty and unregulated of an industry.
It is for this reason, that I recommend to NEVER eat farmed fish - the risks are simply too great, particularly when there are plenty of safe wild-caught options out there. (see below)
It's useful to know what unless a fish is specifically labeled as "wild" or "wild-caught", you can be 100% sure that fish was farm-raised.
Safe Fish To Eat: THE LIST
I've done a good deal of research, and if a fish is not on this list, I can't recommend eating it.
It's possible there are some exotics that I've missed, so if you want to try something not on this list, you should do some research before ordering. A good way to determine if a species is a risk is to do a google search for "<species name> mercury". If anything comes up in the search indicating mercury is an issue with that species, you should take a pass. If a fish has even moderate levels of mercury, it likely will also have PCB's and PBDE's.
Of course, the species listed below apply only to WILD fish. Several of these species are commonly farm raised (like salmon and tilapia), so be sure to make sure your fish is specifically advertised to be wild-caught before ordering.
Location of catch matters too. In general, Arctic/Alaskan will be cleaner than Pacific which is cleaner than N. American Atlantic which is cleaner than European Atlantic. Freshwater species are generally clean, but it's a good idea to do a quick google search on the specific river/lake to see if there are any issues with contamination.
- Mackerel (N. Atlantic, Chub)
- Perch (Ocean)
- Sockeye Salmon
- Coho Salmon
- King Salmon
- Shad (American)
- Sole (Pacific)
- Trout (Freshwater)
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