Personal Organismic Resiliency: -or how to stay healthy while the world goes to hell -Part 1

-updated with some hyperlinks

From the very beginning of this blog, I have addressed a spectrum of concerns that can now be grouped under the heading of collapse and resiliency.  I’m not afraid to say I helped introduce peak oil and economic upheaval into a particular corner of the culture, back before oil hit 100$ a barrel and before the economy tanked in 2008. I was talking about the implosion of government before Katrina, before the Tea Party, and before Barack turned fecklessness and moral cowardice into a spectator sport.  The point is not to feather my nest, but to acknowledge I am no longer a prophet crying the wildness. I am part of a movement. My prior speculations are now the mainstream of discourse. Peak Oil is now just part of the landscape, everyone knows the economy is screwed, and government is approaching a singularity of uselessness. There are now transition towns, conferences, blogs to the heavens, and really really smart/dedicated people giving these problems their whole minds and hearts. So when my hunger strike drew me into the orbit of people like Vinay Gupta and his circle of collaborators, I was moved to think what sort of contribution I might make to this community, however loosely that might be defined.

What I have noticed, is a potentially disastrous blindspot in the conversation about ‘resiliency’, by which I mean that range of adaptations that make one more resistant to shocks and disruptions, along a socio/politco/economic/resource spectrum of possibilities. In short, while there is certainly an awareness of needing reliable sources of food, water and shelter in a crisis, the question of ‘health’ appears to have gone missing. There is more to staying alive and being physically/mentally able to keep society going through your efforts, than simply eating enough rice and drinking enough water and keeping your core temperature in a safe range. Especially when the people I’m talking to are often high-performing obsessives and fringe characters who are prone to ignore the less obvious elements of their long term well being.  It occurs to me that those who are trying to save the world from its self-destructive tendencies, will often have self destructive tendencies of their own, which ought not to be ignored. So: a crash course in staying physically and mentally healthy, both before shit hits the fan, and after.

Who am I, and why you should listen to me:

First of all, I was raised in a family of doctors and nurses. I actually had textbooks of medical pathology in the living room when I was a kid. I’ve had to cook for myself since I was 12 or 13, and been healthy and active my entire life. I’ve suffered a number of chronic injuries to my neck, back and other joints and completely rehabilitated all of them. I can run miles in hot weather. I’ve done over a decade of martial arts training of a fairly high impact variety, and have managed to bounce back from all kinds of physical abuse. I have conducted long periods of fasting on nothing but water. I’ve taken years of courses in chemistry and biology, supplemented by my own reading and interest. Most importantly, I have been schooled the last ten years or so in a comprehensive system of buddhist medicine that goes back 2500 years, and is sourced in ayurvedic traditions that go back thousands more years before that. I have worked in a massage/physio/chinese medicine clinic for a couple years and successfully addressed dozens of unique problems, from headaches and muscle injuries, all the way up to chronic diabetes where the guy’s limbs were practically rotting off.

I am a long term meditator, and have proven year in year out on this blog that I know something about the mind and how it works, and how to sort yourself out on a number of levels. I have, documented on this blog, gone about as close to the edge of nervous breakdown from anxiety and paranoia, as anyone you are likely to encounter, and I pulled myself back to being, not just happy and healthy, but functioning in a higher register of psychological stability than most humans on earth. I wish it weren’t true, but I am probably saner than most of the human race, by almost every metric there is.

That said, I am NOT a medical professional of any stripe, and I am NOT dispensing  professional advice. I cannot be responsible for knowing what is or is not safe for you in particular, I can only speak from my own experience, and in generalities drawn from the literature and received wisdom.  You must take responsibility for your own decisions, and check my facts to whatever degree makes sense to you. Good enough? Good enough.

Ok. Getting healthy and staying that way… We’ll break this down into a few broad categories. Within each, we’ll talk both about how to build yourself up in good times, and how to keep it going when things get bad.

HYDRATION:

Arguably the biggest survival issue, apart from keeping your core temperature stable so are aren’t dying of exposure, is getting sufficient water. Humans are mostly water. Your body needs it for everything. You lose it from exhaling vapor, moistening your mucus membranes, urinating and defecating, regulating your body temperature through sweating, and transpiration in dry climates. The eight glasses of water a day people are often told to drink is not usually enough, even if you were using it well, which you often aren’t, or actually drinking that much, which you often aren’t. Losing as little as 2% of your weight in water will be massively detrimental to your physical and mental abilities. So for a 160lb person, about 4lbs of water loss is crippling. No water for more than a couple days, and you are entering the danger zone, but ongoing low grade dehydration will debilitate you physically and mentally just as surely. One of the things that causes long term impairment to alcoholics, for example, is prolonged dehydration that damages the brain. If your lips chap, or your urine is significantly darker than the water you drink,  you are dehydrated. If you are unambiguously thirsty, you are dehydrated. If you are hungry, chances are you are actually thirsty, because your brain doesn’t differentiate the signals of hunger and thirst very well. If you are getting muscle cramps, constipation, headaches, lethargy, or  severe hangovers after imbibing, chances are you need to drink more water.

The short version is most people don’t drink enough water, period, and what they drink, they often don’t absorb very well. The reason for this lack of absorption is electrolyte deficiency. When they give people IV fluids in the hospital, it is never just plain water, but what they call saline, which is basically a weak solution of water and table salt. This is because your body is heavily composed of  ionic solutions and requires salts and other minerals to work properly. Your blood has a certain concentration of salt in it, and if the water you drink isn’t a little bit saline, or made so by your body, you can’t take it up into your blood from the intestine very well, or do much with it, so your body pees it out. Most people get around this by just drinking a lot of water, but it’s not very efficient. You can only absorb about eight swallows of water every fifteen minutes, give or take, so  just chugging is of limited use.

In the normal course of events, this is an easy fix. Get a water bottle, keep it full, sip at it constantly. A liter size is probably ideal. Each liter of water should have a pinch of table salt added to it, so your body can take it in better. You probably won’t even taste it, but you might have to play around to get the amount exactly right. Aim for 2-3 liters a day. You can add fruit juices to the fluid total or even non caffeinated pop, if you must, but nothing like coffee, caffeinated tea, or alcohol, as these are diuretics that will take water out of your body, not add it back. Each cup of something like that you drink requires another cup of water to break even. Gatorade and powerade are decent electrolyte drinks, but the food coloring and excess sugar are not desirable, long term. You probably won’t get to 2-3 liters right away, but you won’t be dehydrated anymore, at least. Again, it might take a while to find the right amount for your size and activity level, but if you take a drink every time you think you feel hungry, and every half hour or so, you’ll probably lose some excess weight and feel better in general.

If you’re really gung ho, buy some off the shelf electrolyte mix from a health food store and use it. You’ll probably reach a good equilibrium pretty fast, and won’t have to use them very often after that. It’s relatively cheap for what it does, and stores well. There’s nothing quite like rehydrating with electrolyte solution when you’ve been out of whack for awhile. It’s worth just experiencing how your body reacts to fluids it can really use, as this will help reset your awareness of what water is actually for.

When things get crazy, just make sure you have access to lots of clean water and some table salt. A pinch/liter. Drink a little bit all the time. Carry it with you. If we’re working on the assumption that a post collapse lifestyle is going to be more physically intensive, you can’t afford to dehydrate, or you’re in trouble. Without water and electrolytes in something close to the right amounts, your muscle function and ability to work will suffer greatly before long. With water, you can live a long time without food. Without it, you’re wrecked in a couple days, and dead in less than a week.

NUTRITION:

From an evolutionary biology perspective the basic dilemma of ‘resilient human nutrition’ is the same as it’s always been:

We have to play the calorie game to live. That is, if we don’t get at least as many calories from food, as we burn just staying alive and doing stuff, we lose excess weight and then go into rapid catabolysis of our own body tissue, leading to degeneration of vital functions and eventual death. In a survival situation ( ie; 99% of human history on earth) we can’t afford to ignore this fact, and long term balance of nutrients is not something we can make top priority. The problem is, we live a lot longer now ( usually) and just stuffing yourself with calories in any form that tastes good, is not really the same as keeping yourself healthy.We’re evolved to crave salt, sugar, and fats, because our evolutionary history had a relative lack of those things, which agriculture rapidly changed.  Now, it’s actually easier to get a diet that’s composed entirely of salt, sugar ( in the form of processed flour, or corn syrup) and fats, rather than foraging for roots, nuts, berries, succulent leaves, or hunting wild game, which is what we’re built for, and is more likely to give you a good balance of vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and various micronutrients that will regulate your body functions in a healthy way, especially with the accumulated herbalistic knowledge of most traditional cultures, which is largely gone now.

The problem is, the easy diet will imbalance your body chemistry and kill you early. The healthy diet is harder to do, doesn’t always taste as good, is often more energy intensive to acquire, is less dense in easy calories, and takes time you may or may not have. But in the larger perspective, you will live longer, and function better. You need to balance these two things to be truly resilient. You gotta win the calorie game and stay alive in tough times, but in a way that gets you all the often neglected little things in the right balance so you can function at a high level if you need to, and live a long productive life.

First of all, forget those stupid food pyramids, and forget most of what you are told about healthy diets. Most people eat too much, and what they do eat is garbage. Even mainstream middle of the road groceries are mostly crap. The resiliency demographic probably skews towards vegetarianism/veganism, organics, whole foods, raw foods, and other niche considerations. Most of these are luxuries that you’ll have to forget about in a crisis, and all distorted in their utility by the fact that people are just flat out eating TOO MUCH to be sustainable and doing TOO LITTLE to reflect the real energy demands of crisis survival.  A vegetarian diet is only really viable in a crisis if you’ve access to large quantities of fruits, legumes, grains, and root veggies like potatoes. If you need to walk around a lot, work hard, and regulate your temperature in varied climates, heal the occasional minor injury quickly, and not get rickets, scurvy, or contract endless rounds of flu and colds, or become riddled with parasites due to a weak immune system, you need dense sources of calories containing vitamins/minerals. Growing cucumbers and kale in your garden is nice, but not really going to cut it in terms of density. Ever notice how a lot of vegetarians are either fat, or sickly looking? There are exceptions, but this is generally because of three things: lack of vitamins and minerals, lack of protein, and overload of processed /high glycemic index carbohydrates.

There is a case to be made that things like diabetes, heart disease, and obesity didn’t really exist before intensive farming of grains in asia and the fertile crescent was developed. The reason is, we are not adapted, genetically speaking, to a diet composed primarily of dense carbohydrates. When they form the backbone of your three meals a day lifestyle, they screw up your insulin levels and put you on a roller coaster of snacking, getting hungry, and snacking again. You get a short boost of energy, then crash, then need to eat again. Long term, this leads to all kinds of problems, not least of which is, you end up a fat lethargic slob, because you’re biochemically kicking yourself in the teeth.

This is tricky, because those dense carbohydrate sources are necessary in a crisis. You will probably need that 50lb bag of rice at some point, yes…BUT they suck if you’re going to live like that right now, and will not form the basis of good long term health. You are not an agricultural laborer. You can’t afford to live on bread and rice. Even the people who are living on bread and rice, because that’s all there is, CAN’T AFFORD TO LIVE ON BREAD AND RICE. You are not working hard enough to burn that effectively without messing yourself up. Even if you were, you’re probably a bit vitamin and mineral deficient from processing all that nutrient-devoid flour and sugar and white rice, which is part of the reason you’re hungry all the time. The harder you’re working, the more your body can tolerate this kind of diet, but unless you’re training for a marathon, back away slowly.

Conversely, for the vegan holiness contingent, your quinoa salad and organic rice chips are okay if you’re just at the keyboard all day, and hitting the yoga studio twice a week. But when it’s really cold, really hot, you need to build or repair stuff with your own hands, things are getting stressful, and grocery stores are emptying out, you’re gonna have to let go of the luxury foods and embrace a healthy staple diet.

Either way, certain adjustments are in order. I’m going to assume you’ll want to switch to something that you can maintain all the way through, and be in optimal health. This will be a general framework. Your mileage may vary.

-Minimize Grains, Starches and Processed Carbohydrates in general(rice, bread, pasta, potatoes, sugar, flours of any type) as much as possible and replace them with green vegetables  first and fruits second. Keep the dense carbs in reserve if you really need them, but greens will give you the fiber, vitamins and minerals, you are missing, and fruits will give you a better source of quick energy. Both will also give you water. If you want to grow something, grow green beans, broccoli, peas, and whatever fruits will take to your area, like strawberries, blueberries, tomatoes etc. Leafy things like spinach or lettuce are not much for calories, but they’re kinda like taking vitamins. If you have space left over that won’t work for anything else, grow some potatoes, but you can always store those and some rice in a dry place for awhile. If your area just isn’t made for growing, buy fruits and veggies fresh and look into canning and jarring. In a lot of areas you can forage for wild berries like blackberries and they will be common as dirt, and mostly neglected in urban areas. Just rinse em really well to get rid of particulates that might be landing on them. You can also plant things like carrots and just eat the greens poking out of the ground. This is not as calorie rich as eating the carrot itself, but the real micro nutrient value is in the green part, and better yet, it will keeps growing back. You can also, in a real pinch, simply chew up most forms of green grass stems/leaves and spit out the indigestible fibre, swallowing  the chlorophyll and other cool stuff your body likes (wash it first- you don’t want to get toxoplasmosis from cat droppings or something). It’s not much for calories, but it will give you vitamins and minerals you need, then you can bust out the emergency kraft dinner and kool aid.

-Lean Protein and Good Fats. You want them. Chicken and fish are probably best, but you can fudge with mixing rice and beans to synthesize proteins if you really must. Wild game is a good idea if you can get your head around it. A deer, moose or elk can see a couple people through the winter, depending on the size of the animal.  If you’re in a coastal region, there are probably places you can buy whole fish off the dock. Learn how to clean them, and freeze for long term use. Fish oils are an example of good fat, so are olive and flax oils. You need the omega fats from fish or flax for all kinds of things. You need protein to keep your energy levels up and keep your brain clear and working. If your total volume of food is going to go down, which it probably will if things get sketchy, you need to have protein to keep things going effectively. Fats and proteins will also help you build muscle mass and strength, and regulate your appetite on a hormonal level, in a way that carbs just don’t. Try becoming obese by eating just meat, and oil. It won’t work. You’ll puke first. Keep the greens for minerals and vitamins, but the animals are where it’s at, when it comes to staying alive and strong , as long as you think it through a bit, and don’t abuse your fellow creatures in a way that is unconscionable to you. Life feeds on life. That’s just how it is.

-Strongly consider introducing a good quality multivitamin. Pick one that doesn’t have the waxy coating on it, that your digestion can’t break down very well. A brand that has chelated minerals your body can absorb better is also good. Should say on the label. Most people in fast food cultures are vitamin and mineral deficient, and suffering the symptoms accordingly.  Dealing with this ahead of time will save you grief in a crisis situation. Stocking up and keeping them in a dry place will save you chewing up a lot of grass later.

Finally, consider cutting some things out completely:

*Milk – is generally problematic for all kinds of health reasons.  It’s another one of those things some ethnicities have evolved a genetic tolerance for, but in general we just aren’t made for drinking milk beyond childhood, and certainly not the milk of another species. Certain things like fermentation can help this, but it’s often more trouble than it’s worth, and broccoli is a better source of calcium anyway. Diabetics should definitely stay away from the milk, as the proteins possibly interfere with the normal function of your pancreas. If you have a cow, then go ahead and milk the thing, otherwise, let it go.

*Caffeine- is a bad bad way to boost energy and alertness. It has all kinds of problematic side effects, and causes withdrawals when you come off it. It’s also a kind of diuretic, which will mess with your hydration. Ginseng and ginseng-like herbs are a better and healthier way to get the same results, with little or no comedown, no side effects to speak of, and significant boosts to stress adaptation and recovery speed. Buy it in tablet form or maybe in herbal teas if you have draconian supplement laws that keep you from getting it in the bottle. The kind of crap that is in energy drinks like red bull is often outright poison or just excessive sugar and caffeine.  It’s another one of those things that come into our culture to mask the fact you’re over-stressed, under-nourished, and not getting the rest you need. Time to get real.

Next: posture, exercise, breathing, and psychology

Loose Threads

Just a couple odds and ends left from the hunger strike, then I’ll have something new in a couple days. promise.

first my skype  sit down with resiliency and disaster swami Vinay Gupta. a little wooly for the straight activist crowd, but quite fine here.

second, a pretty extensive audio interview with a local volunteer journalist, who despite being overworked, and sincerely inept, at least gave me free reign to speak my mind. very comprehensive.

and lastly, the laugh riot that was my appearance at a chilean torture ship in the local harbor, and ensuing podcast interview. I  got invited to submit to a local ‘street’ newspaper off the back of this, so turned out okay.

things will make more sense having digested all that.