POEM: Ode to My Immune System [Day 8 NaPoMo: Ode]

I

Accused of failing to think about you,
I cannot deny that it’s true.
My lymph bristles with white blood cells
that make invading me treacherous hell.
And leucocytes are just a start,
marrow and spleen each play a part.
I can’t thank you all in this strophe,
but if I could I’d give you each a trophy.

 
II

I can’t say I recall each time I’ve been sick,
but my T-cells must surely have a nice trick
cause they’ve got them etched from first to last,
dating back fifty years in my past.
And if my thymus weren’t a taskmaster
I fear my life would end in disaster
for my body would self-cannibalize.
[And if that idea gives me teary eyes,
tears have antimicrobial enzymes.]
If I had to think about all the times
my NK-cells shivved a potential tumor,
I couldn’t maintain such good humor.

 
III

My ode is almost done, and many were left out.
The truth is there’s a lot that I don’t know about.
So, it’s not that I don’t love my antibodies.
Nor that I think their work is shoddy.
I just didn’t do well enough in Chemistry
to describe their heroism with rhymed brevity.
Skin, lung cilia, gut mucus, and macrophage
each deserve more words up on this page…

than have smarts to write.

BOOK REVIEW: The Immune System: A Very Short Introduction by Paul Klenerman

The Immune System: A Very Short IntroductionThe Immune System: A Very Short Introduction by Paul Klenerman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This is a volume in the “A Very Short Introduction” [AVSI] series put out by Oxford University Press on a wide variety of scholarly subjects. As the series title suggests, the central objective of AVSI books is to pack as much of the fundamentals of a topic into as slim a package as possible. I read quite a few of these to get the gist of a subject without a lot of extraneous information. In short, they are brief and provide a high caliber understanding of the topic, but they aren’t written to be entertaining and they assume a basic scientific literacy. They usually weigh in at between 100 and 200 pages. (In this case, 144 pp.)

I found the seven chapters were optimally arranged. Chapter 1 describes and delineates the immune system, which isn’t as easy as it might seem. Putting the immune system inside neat borders is hard. If you simply describe it as the body’s defensive system, you quickly run into problems at the edges of competing classification. Sure, B cells and T cells are clearly part of the immune system, but what about skin and mucus membranes? Where does the lymphatic system end and the immune system (which uses it extensively) begin?

Chapters two and three explore the two major divisions of the immune system: the innate and the adaptive. These days, with COVID-19 at the center of global attention, the distinction is probably clear to most. The innate system isn’t geared to take on specific invaders. It has the advantage of being able to fight almost any invader, but the disadvantage of not being able to keep up with invaders that grow rapidly, are good at disguise, or both. An adaptive system response is what we all lack for COVID-19 because it only recently jumped to our species (well not “all of us,” those who had it and are recovered have adaptive immunity and that’s why they don’t have to worry about getting it again [those who have properly working immune system, at least.]) The adaptive response recognizes specific invaders and can raise an army against them tremendously quickly. Vaccines train the adaptive system to build such a response (typically by injecting a weakened strain into the body, but more detail is provided in the final chapter.)

Chapter four is entitled “making memories,” and it is an extension of chapter three. It further investigates adaptive immunity by focusing on the question of how the body develops a memory of those invaders it’s crushed in the past (or that it learned to crush by way of vaccination.)

The next two chapters delve into the two opposing ways the immune system can fail. Chapter five is about immunological failure, or how and why the body sometimes isn’t up to defeating invading adversaries. Most famously this is seen in HIV / AIDS patients, but there are other ways that the system fails in its job as the body’s bouncer. Chapter six looks at what happens when the immune system is too aggressive. [It’s important to realize that not only does the immune system check out foreign bodies, it also checks the tags on the body’s own cells, killing those that don’t display a proper “tag.”] The two major categories of over-performance are: autoimmune disorders (when the body wrongly attacks its own cells) and allergies (when the body goes all “This is Sparta!” on relatively benign foreign objects.)

The last chapter looks briefly at what work is being done in medicine these days involving the immune system, including approaches to vaccines, immunotherapy, biological therapies, and work on inflammation and the how the immune system is linked to aging.

If there was one topic I wish was better (more extensively) handled it would be discussion of what is known about how and why lifestyle choices influence immune system operation. There was a mention of how smoking has been linked to a specific immune system deficiency, and a general comment on how diet and exercise appear to be linked to increased effectiveness of autophagy (the body’s process of self-consumption and recycling of cells,) but that’s pretty much it. As there is a lot to cover in a small space, it’s hard to be too critical about this, but it seems like a crucial topic (if not as scientifically sexy as vaccine research, which is discussed relatively extensively.)

I found this book did as advertised, give me the immune system basics in a quick read. It has simple illustrations to support the text, and has a table of abbreviations — which can be beneficial given the hugely abbreviately nature of the immune system physiology. There is also a “further reading” section, but it’s heavily focused on textbooks – versus presenting popular science books that cover the material in a more light and entertaining manner.

I’d highly recommend this book if you have a basic scientific literacy and want just the facts on immunity without a lot of meandering narrative.

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BOOK REVIEW: Yoga for Sports by B.K.S. Iyengar

Yoga For Sports: A Journey Towards Health And HealingYoga For Sports: A Journey Towards Health And Healing by B.K.S. Iyengar
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This is a book by the renowned Pune yoga guru who passed away in 2014, B.K.S. Iyengar, on how athletes can use yoga to build general health, prevent injuries, and combat postural misalignments that result from sporting activities that are asymmetric or unbalanced. A book on yoga for athletes might address any number of topics from core strength and stability to meditations to prevent choking under pressure, but this one focuses heavily on asana (postural yoga) – particularly – for improving flexibility and postural alignment. (It does introduce pranayama, but only the practices of viloma and ujjayi breathing.)

Iyengar is most well-known for an approach to hatha yoga that uses props to allow anyone to achieve a properly aligned posture, regardless of whether one has a yogi-level contortionist body (and most athletes don’t because of the countervailing requirements for strength necessitated by their sports.) This prop-centric approach is seen heavily in the book’s second part, which describes and demonstrates a range of basic asana (postures) along with relevant variations. I mention this because through the first part of this book, I felt it was much more of a book for yoga practitioners who might also happen to be amateur athletes than it was for athletes looking to introduce yoga into their training regimen. By that I mean that the photos of recommended poses in Part I are unlikely to be useful for athletes who have tight muscles from intense physical activity. However, if you’re feeling that way about the book, too, you may find that the second part’s variations are more reasonable for a person who doesn’t have an extensive background in yoga or stretching.

The book is divided into four parts. The first part consists of ten chapters that cover the topic of yoga for sports with broad brush strokes, covering topics like skeleto-muscular anatomy, common sports complaints, yoga for warmup, yoga for prevention and for recovery. It also deals with specialty topics like maintaining a healthy body in retirement as well as issues for women athletes (women may find this section to be a bit menstruation-heavy, as if that were the predominant challenge facing women engaged in athletics. On the plus-side there’s none of the bizarre and / or offensive notions about menstruation that have been known to presented in the context of yoga.) As I mentioned, during this first part I thought the book would not be so useful for the problems of athletes, and some may find that still seems to be the case after reviewing part two. The gulf between what is recommended and what the average practitioner can physically do is a perennial difficulty with books on yoga.

The second part discusses asana in detail, providing pictures, text descriptions, and notes on benefits and – where applicable — other considerations (e.g. contra-indications.) Here one can find prop-based variations to allow individuals who may be stiff or in recovery to perform the asana. Mostly, there is just one photo of each posture in mid-pose. However, where special guidance is needed getting into or out of the pose (which can be the case with prop yoga) there are sometimes multiple photos demonstrating a progression of movement. My major gripe with this book is that it was littered with typos (at least the e-book edition that I read on Kindle.) The typos were most notable in this section. I can’t remember if I saw any in parts I, III, or IV, but the errors stuck out in part two because there is a lot of repetitive directions for the poses that seem to have been copy / pasted such that the same missing letter typos appear many places throughout the section.

The third part is much briefer than the first two, and it simply describes props that an athlete might consider acquiring. It starts with basic kit and moves to bigger items, though it doesn’t discuss all the huge equipment that one would find in a fully equipped studio teaching Iyengar-style yoga. It provides text discussions of critical considerations as well as photos.

The last part is just a couple pages of testimonials of famous athletes saying how much yoga (in general) and Iyengar’s teaching (specifically) helped them to improve their games. These brief testimonials are presented in text-boxes and look somewhat as one might see on the opening pages of a novel.

As would be expected of a book on sports published in India, most of the examples are cricket-centric. (Again, not surprising as cricket is the 800-pound gorilla of sports on the subcontinent.)

I found this book to be quite informative. If you can bear the typos (and they may have been exorcized from the print editions,) you’ll likely find the book to be informative and well-presented.

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Thoughts of a Traveler Traveling Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic

I just returned from a week of traveling in Rajasthan and Punjab for Holi and Hola Mohalla, respectively. Because my trip involved only domestic travel within India, there were no formal disruptions, but evidence of concern about the virus was widespread.

The first thing one notices is that instead of a few East Asian tourists protecting themselves against the poor air quality of megalopolises, at least a third of those traveling were wearing masks. Some unknown percentage of these travelers presumably have sound, medically-directed reasons for donning the masks (e.g. they have some sort of infection, they have compromised immune systems, etc.) but for many they are merely a security blanket. I suspect the reason that “wear masks” isn’t a part of the advice of public health experts has to do with the two types of masks that one sees:

First, the type that are to keeping out virus as a chain-link fence is to keeping out mosquitos.

Second, the type that will keep out virus (if worn / changed as directed,) but which — because they are expensive and hard to come by — are worn far too long, such that they become a nice warm, moist petri-dish pressed up against one’s face.

I don’t begrudge anyone a security blanket. In fact, a lot of what I’m suggesting herein are ways to maintain a confident and positive attitude so your immune system can be its awesome self — whatever that takes. My worry about the mask phenomena is that some people seem to believe that if one little viral agent makes it inside their body they are doomed. That’s simply not the case. If a viral marauder gets into your body, its chances of being escorted right back out by your body’s mucosal bouncers, swallowed whole by a macrophage, dissolved in your stomach’s acid bath, or otherwise being discovered and destroyed by your body’s sentry force is quite good.

In short, a mask isn’t your last line of defense. It’s a first line of defense that’s followed by an immune response that is swift and deadly to foreign invaders. It should be noted that nose-breathers already have a kind of mask, in the form of the nose and nasal passages. When you breath through your nose, your natural filtration system is at work. If you tend to breath through your mouth (particularly during inhalation) you have a lessened defense.

If you have trouble maintaining nose-breathing under all circumstances, I’d recommend a pranayama (yogic breathing exercises) practice. I don’t know how well it’s established by study, but I’ve found that I breath much more effectively and consistently through my nose since I’ve regularly practiced pranayama. Another helpful yogic tool is kechari mudra, which has helped me to even run without mouth breathing. (Kechari mudra involves curling the tongue so that the bottom of the tongue rests against the soft palate at the back of the roof of one’s mouth. This seems to reduce turbulence that would be created by air swirling in one’s oral cavity, and makes more of a direct line of travel for the breath in and out through the nasal passageways. At a minimum, it focuses one’s attention on the area the breath is passing through, and makes one aware of the breath.)

All this talk about one’s immune system keeping one safe may seem a bit pollyannaish or over-optimistic. Don’t get me wrong, I follow and would recommend others follow all the basic precautions regarding washing one’s hands and minimizing hanging out in high density environments — particularly high density environments with high-risk individuals. (i.e. for the asymptomatic [or alternatively-symptomatic individuals, i.e. those who have something but probably not COVID-19] who think they absolutely must be tested to have peace of mind, realize that you are likely walking into a high-risk environment and increasing your chance of self-fulfilling prophecy. Just sayin’. If you are able to rest comfortably, you might want to consider doing so.)

Back to the issue of being irrationally optimistic or a Pollyanna. My response is: fair enough. But there is an upside to being overly optimistic (if cautious) but none-whatsoever to being a worrier. Again, by being “a worrier” I’m not talking about taking precautions, I’m talking about obsessing or being needlessly pessimistic about the bodily systems (e.g. your immune system, your lymphatic system, your digestive system, etc.) that are keeping you safe all day and everyday.

I’d say if there is an upside to the pandemic, it was in reminding me to practice gratitude toward my body, my immune system, my gut bacteria, etc. — all of which keep me feeling excellent 99.9% percent of the time. Does that mean I think I can’t catch infection? No, it doesn’t, but it does mean that if I catch one my body will be much more effective at defending itself.

So when people ask me why I’m not worried about traveling, it’s because my immune system is awesome and I’m thankful for it every day.

A couple of post-scripts:

– I’ve been seeing the swarm of memes about toilet paper shortage in the US. Having moved to a part of the world that recognizes that wiping one’s backside with dry paper isn’t the height of sanitary practice, all I can say is: “You might want to look into what most of the world does most of the time.”

– I understand that there is a desire to curtail a wider spread of the virus, but this easily tips into a form of xenophobia — “a your COVID-19 is worse than our COVID-19.”  If a person is without symptoms, being Chinese (or from any other country with many cases) doesn’t mean that they are Typhoid Mary.

BOOK REVIEW: Pain: Considering Complementary Approaches by NCCIH

Pain: Considering Complementary ApproachesPain: Considering Complementary Approaches by National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Online here

 

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) has put out a new edition (dated 2019) of its pamphlet (about 50 pages) about how useful various complementary practices are in helping patients reduce, or cope with, pain. The NCCIH is a center in the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that serves as a clearinghouse for information about how alternative and complementary practices perform in treatment of various ailments. While alternative (instead of mainstream medicine) and complementary (in conjunction with mainstream medicine) are quite different, in almost all cases this work herein is reporting on the latter basis. The complementary practices in question include: yoga, taiji, meditation and mindfulness, massage, acupuncture, chiropractic manipulation, relaxation methods, and others.

Complementary approaches to treatment of pain is a particularly salient topic these days as the mainstream medical approach (giving patients pills to gobble down) has resulted in what many have called a “crisis” of opiate addiction. So, if it’s possible to reduce the grip of pain with practices that at best have numerous other health benefits and at worst do no harm, than that’s a pretty good outcome.

Chapters three through eleven form the pamphlet’s core, and all but the last of those look at one complementary practice each, including (in order): acupuncture, massage, meditation, relaxation techniques, spinal manipulation, taiji (a.k.a. tai chi, or tai chi chuan), yoga, and dietary supplements and herbs. Chapter 11 discusses a few additional (less popular) practices. These chapters follow a three-prong approach: 1.) is it safe? 2.) does it help mitigate pain? and 3.) where can I find more information? [Spoiler alert: In almost all cases the answer to #1 is roughly “Yes, for most people, but possibly not for you. Check with your doctor,” and to #2 is usually something like: “there is some preliminary evidence that in certain cases certain people may have benefited.”] The chapters before (ch. 1 & 2) and after (ch. 12 to 14) provide background context and additional information.

On the positive side, it’s great that this information has been gathered together and packaged into a readable format with pictures and easy to read text.

On the down side, this was clearly a document put together by a committee of bureaucrats in consultation with lawyers. It is so laden with qualifiers and spongy speak that it’s impossible to discern how strong the evidence is for the various practices or how one compares to another. I felt that they could have given the same information in a three-column table in which the first column is the practice, the second column is “can’t hurt to try*” [*provided your physician concurs,] and the third column would be “nah, this stuff is fake.” [Spoiler alert: almost everything besides homeopathy would have the first column checked, but the consensus seems to be that homeopathy is pseudo-scientific quackery designed to sell water at medicinal prices.]

This booklet is available on the web for free, so if you’re interested, check it out. But don’t expect to come away with any profound insights. It’s not that kind of booklet.

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An App for That: Profound Yogic Practices You May Not See in Class

To the average person, yoga consists of a series of poses that stretch the muscles and strengthen the core.  In truth, often the most profound and life-altering experiences had by yoga practitioners involve only a seated or lying posture. If you practice yoga, you’re probably aware that postural practice, or asana, is just only one element of yoga, and perhaps you’ve experienced some of the other elements of yogic practice. However, it’s not always easy to access such training at the local studio.

 

These days there’s another way. These practices can be accessed through apps such as EKA.

 

Below are five powerful yogic practices that you might not find taught at your local yoga studio, but that you’ll find on EKA.

 

5.) Yoga Nidra: Yoga Nidra translates to “yogic sleep.” It’s a practice in which one stays in the mind-state between wakefulness and sleep, i.e. hypnagogia, for an extended period while working through a sequence of practices. Yoga nidra is extremely relaxing, but also allows one to access the subconscious in a manner similar to that of self-hypnosis. This makes the practice useful both for people who have trouble with sleep or settling into rest, but it also allows one to influence the subconscious so that one can make changes in areas where subconscious influence is strong.

 

For example, a person seeking to lose weight understands that they need to be careful about what they eat. However, the subconscious isn’t always on the same page as the conscious mind, and cravings for sugary or fatty foods may win the battle. In yoga nidra, we use sankalpa — a resolution, to help win the subconscious over. We also use practices like visualizations to gain insight into what is happening outside the bounds of conscious thought, and to exercise influence over it.

 

4.) Kaya Sthairyam: Kaya Sthairyam translates to bodily stillness, or steadiness. If you’ve done any meditation, you were probably taught to adopt a position in which you could be as still as possible throughout the practice. The reason for this is that even subtle movements can distract one, weaken one’s concentration, or have a stimulating effect. In yoga, kaya sthairyam is used to achieve a state of maximum stillness. If one wishes to increase one’s ability to concentrate for extended periods, one must build one’s capacity to remain still. That said, kaya sthairyam need not be thought of as only a prelude to meditation. The tranquility that arises from these practices make them worthwhile in their own right.

 

3.) Bija Mantra: In India, chanting is a very popular practice among yoga practitioners, and many have found great clarity in it. In one of my early classes teaching yoga to children, I found that as soon as the kids sat in a cross-legged pose many of the younger children spontaneously started softly reciting the gayatri mantra. That’s how intense was their association between sitting down cross-legged and chanting.

 

In the West, mantra chanting is less familiar. The six bija mantra, or seed mantra, are a beautiful way to introduce oneself to mantra chanting because of their simplicity. Because the bija mantra (LAM, VAM, RAM, YAM, HUM, and AUM) are all monosyllabic, easily pronounced, and are related sounds, they can be picked up quickly and easily.

 

2.) Witnessing Meditations: The yogic teaching that has had the most life-changing effect on me has been dispassionate witnessing. While it’s not a complex idea, it requires some explanation.

 

Let’s first consider what minds usually do in the face of a problem. There are two common responses that are not particularly healthy.

 

The first is to distract oneself from the problem. In some cases, this distraction can be an unhealthy activity — such as drug abuse, but it might also be something neutral like watching television. However, even if you distract yourself with a wholesome activity like volunteering at a soup kitchen, the problem is still there and it will have its say. If not directly, then indirectly through nightmares, indigestion, or a stress-induced illness.

 

The second option is obsessing. The brain tries to lessen the sting by anticipating the worst possible scenario. The trouble with this obsession is that to find our worst case scenario — we have to hang toxic labels on all possible events and invent possibilities that are so unlikely as to be nearly impossible. And having invented such dire cases, we often give them too much weight. As Mark Twain put it, “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.”  The negativity piles up and causes stress and anxiety to balloon out of control.

 

In dispassionate witnessing, we don’t ignore or distract ourselves, but we also don’t strap on value judgements or build worst cases. We simply recognize what we are feeling, acknowledge it, but don’t feed our anxieties.

 

One of the most basic witnessing practices involves watching sensations in the body. Imagine you’re doing this practice and you feel an ache in your back. If you try to ignore the sensation, the mind may turn up the intensity to get your attention.  If you obsess, you’ll soon convince yourself that this sensation is really an ache… no, a pain… no, it’s agony… oh no, could there be a tumor growing on my spine? [That may be exaggerating a bit, but you see the point.] However, if you focus your attention on the sensation without labeling it, you’ll probably find that the sensation passes. In essence, the body says, “Hmm, the brain examined this sensation and didn’t think it was anything to be concerned about, let’s move on.”

 

1.) Pranayama: Probably the most under-rated yogic practice is pranayama, or breathing exercises. By controlling one’s breath, one can influence one’s emotional state, one’s physiological processes, and the state of agitation in one’s mind. Breath practices are the most direct means to counteracting the stress response. However, despite constantly breathing — day in and day out — most people remain unaware of the incredible power of consciously controlling the breath.

 

There are a variety of types of breath exercises. There are breaths that have a stimulating effect on the body and mind, and those that have a calming effect. Scientific evidence has accumulated that there are benefits to practicing slower and deeper breathing, and pranayama offers a systematic approach to building this capacity. No matter what kind of pranayama one is doing, there is a side benefit from holding one’s focus on one point, the breath.

 

Pranayama is a great lead-in to meditative practices. It helps achieve a state of mind which is neither drowsy nor agitated. That said, pranayama is also beneficial on its own.

 

If you’re interested in exploring any of these practices, the EKA app is a great place to start.

 

BOOK REVIEW: Prescriptive Stretching by Kristian Berg

Prescriptive StretchingPrescriptive Stretching by Kristian Berg
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

Many people have problems that they are only aware of through symptoms like head aches or back pain that result from imbalances in muscle tightness. This book explores stretching, systematically.

The book is divided into four parts. The first, entitled “Stretching Fundamentals,” presents fundamental principles and background information. Besides basic guidelines for stretching, it also discusses anatomy and physiology of the muscular system at a rudimentary level.

The second part is about targeted stretches, and it forms the heart of the book. This section, literally, goes from head to toe (and then back to the arms) explaining techniques for stretching major skeletal muscles. For some muscles, there is more than one stretch shown, but for others there is just one. Each entry on a muscle is divided into two parts. The first, “Muscle Facts,” describes the muscle, the causes of tightness, the symptoms of tightness, tests to gauge how tight the muscle is, and any precautions that should be considered when stretching the muscle. The second presents the stretching technique with a line drawing and mention of any mistakes to avoid. There are a mix of solo and partner stretches, as well as those using a ball.

The third part presents programs for pain relief. There’s a useful section that discusses morning aches and pains, and the ways in which one is sleeping might be leading to a crick in the neck or shoulder pain. This section not only lists the muscles that one should stretch to address various issues, but it gives little anatomical drawings in the context of the stretch that both help show what one is stretching and gives a reminder of the stretch.

I came to this book from the perspective of a yoga practitioner and teacher. If you’re wondering how these stretches differ from yoga, a major factor is that balance is taken out of the equation. The stretches in the book are done in a stable position. The downside of this is two-fold. First, if you want to build and maintain balance, you need to do an entirely separate set of exercises for that (depending upon the condition of the individual that could be necessary or a waste of time.) Second, one needs access to a wide range of equipment such as tables, adjustable benches, etc. (not to mention a partner, in some cases) to make these exercises work. The upside is that the individual is in a safe and stable position, so if they have poor balance they are at minimal risk.

The last section is one assessing flexibility and muscle balance. People think more about the former than the latter, but for most people, how balanced opposing muscle groups are probably contributes more to painful problems in the body. Because some muscles are easier to stretch than others, a book that shows how to get to the more challenging muscles is a great thing to have.

The ancillary matter includes a variety of graphics (mostly line drawings and anatomical drawings), a section upfront on the major components of the muscular and skeletal systems, and a references section in back.

I found this book to be useful and informative. I’d recommend it for individuals such as trainers, yoga teachers, athletes, and others who want to understand stretching at a level beyond technique.

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BOOK REVIEW: Sound Medicine by Kulreet Chaudhary

Sound Medicine: How to Harness the Power of Sound to Heal the Mind and BodySound Medicine: How to Harness the Power of Sound to Heal the Mind and Body by Kulreet Chaudhary
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

The Longfellow poem “There Was a Little Girl” has a line that says, “…When she was good, She was very good indeed, But when she was bad she was horrid.” That’s kind of how I felt about this book. At its best, it reports findings about how practices involving sound (i.e. mantra chanting) effect health and well-being, and lends insight into why sound sooths. At its worst, it tries to sledgehammer the square peg religious / spiritual practices into the round hole of quantum physics and foundational physics, often engaging in leaps that are at best wildly speculative, while presenting them as though they are as likely as not.

My favorite professor from undergraduate studies was a folksy Religious Studies Professor who cautioned against two opposing fallacies. The first he called “the outhouse fallacy.” This is assuming that because people of the past didn’t have indoor plumbing that they were complete idiots. Let me first say that, until recently, yoga (and other complementary health practices) suffered its fair share from this fallacy among doctors and the scientific community who felt that it couldn’t possibly help with health and well-being because it wasn’t rooted in the latest scientific findings. However, there is an opposing fallacy that my teacher called the “firstest-is-bestest” fallacy, which assumes the ancients figured it all out and we are just bumbling around in the dark hoping to stumble back into what they once knew. Scientists are prone to the first fallacy and the second is rife among religious folk. As a medical doctor who turned to siddha yoga (a form that puts a great deal of belief in superpowers and magic), Chaudhary had a rough road to not fall into one of these fallacies and, in my opinion, she falls more into the second — sounding at times like the ancient yogis knew more about the subatomic world and consciousness than science ever will. Most of the time, she words statements so that a careful reader can recognize what is well-supported and what is speculative, but she’s rarely explicit about the degree to which speculations are such, and I don’t remember an instance in which she presented an alternative that would undermine her argument. (i.e. The unstated argument seems to be that mantra is special among practices, that its usefulness is embedded in the fundamental physical laws of the universe, and, therefore, that it works by mechanisms unlike other meditative / complementary health practices [i.e. by engaging the parasympathetic nervous system so the body can make repairs using established biological mechanisms.])

In a nutshell, there is a “god in the gaps” approach to the book that says, look we don’t understand consciousness or all the “whys” of quantum mechanics, ergo there must be supernatural explanations. I don’t think that because we’ve used EEG since the 1920’s and fMRIs since the 1990’s and still haven’t yet unraveled the hard problem of consciousness that we need to say that god / supernatural forces are where we must look for explanation. The gap is ever closing, slowly but surely, and there’s no reason to believe it’s reasonable or useful to cram commentary from Vedas (or any other scriptures) to fill the gap.

It’s not only the science where Chaudhary presents a belief as though it is established truth without alternative explanations. Early on, she states that colonization is the reason for the decline of meditation in India. Don’t get me wrong, I’m as accepting that colonization resulted in a great number of evils as anyone, but it’s a leap to say that – therefore – every negative a society faces is because of its colonizer. I would point to Thailand, a society that was never colonized (except a brief period by the Burmese) and which is primarily made up of Theravadan Buddhists (a system for which meditative practice is considered central,) most of whom also do not meditate regularly today. I suspect a more logical explanation for the fact that most Indians don’t meditate today is that: a.) it’s hard work and time consuming (as a productive endeavor it’s not bread-winning and as a leisure time activity it’s laborious,) and b.) the majority of Indians (like the majority of Thais) probably never mediated. (When we look back in time, we often want to create this wholesome and uniform image that what we have writings about was how everyone lived, and that probably never reflects the truth.)

So now that my rant is over, I should say that I didn’t think this book was horrible, by any means. It has a lot of good information, and some of the speculative bits offer interesting food for thought. As long as one reads it carefully and with a healthy dose of skepticism, it’s a beneficial consideration of sound and vibration in health and well-being. It’s just that when I compare it to, say, Davidson and Goleman’s “The Science of Meditation” (which I reviewed recently) this book is far less careful about presenting the science, eliminating pseudo-science, and letting the reader know what is controversial and speculative versus what is well-supported by sound and rigorous investigation.

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BOOK REVIEW: Understanding Mental Illness by Carlin Barnes and Marketa Wills

Understanding Mental Illness: A Comprehensive Guide to Mental Health Disorders for Family and FriendsUnderstanding Mental Illness: A Comprehensive Guide to Mental Health Disorders for Family and Friends by Carlin Barnes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book is a concise overview of mental illness for individuals who don’t know much about the subject, and who may hold misunderstandings about mental illness and the mentally ill. If that’s what you’re looking for, you’re in the right place. If you’d like to know more about the variations in particular disorders or about relatively obscure conditions, you’ll probably find this book doesn’t meet your needs. The book advocates for doing away with the stigma associated with mental illness and having a better idea of the nature of mental disorders.

The book has fourteen chapters that are mostly logically organized. I say “mostly,” because chapters three, ten, thirteen, and fourteen deal in unique situations facing specific demographics (children / teens, the elderly, women, and professional athletes, respectively.) I’m not sure why these are spread out with topics that have a tighter logic interspersed in between them. I also am not sure why there is a chapter specifically dealing with professional athletes. Mind you, I understand the author’s argument about the unique mental health risks afflicting professional athletes and retired pro athletes. However, it seems like there are other careers that create unique problems (e.g. air traffic controllers) that touch more lives. Given the fact that an important part of the author’s message is about how those with mental health issues are frequently misunderstood and stigmatized, it seems like if one had to pick one career group to represent in the book, one would find one that is bigger and more relatable (e.g. military personnel, cops, social workers, therapists, or even poor / unemployed people.) If it was done to appeal to the general readership’s interest in celebrity, it’s a fail.

Chapters 1 and 2 set the stage by discussing what exactly a mental illness is, how it can be distinguished from the quirks that we all have in varying ways and degrees, and what the various causes are. Chapters 4 through 9 are the heart of the book, and present information on various mental illnesses by type (i.e. mood disorders, anxiety disorders, psychotic disorders, personality disorders, eating disorders, and substance abuse, respectively.) Chapters 11 and 12 discuss suicide and mass shootings, both are worthy inclusions.

The chapters discuss the clinical criteria for various ailments (which often seem arbitrary, but that’s part of the need for such a book – to give readers an understanding of the difficulty of diagnosing the mentally ill.) There are brief case examples included throughout to help the reader recognize the signs. That said, there isn’t a lot of room to deal in the tremendous levels of variation seen within given disorders.

There is an appendix with resources and links. Otherwise, there isn’t much ancillary matter in the book.

I would recommend this book if you are looking for a quick overview of mental illness with some presentation of typical examples. Particularly if you want a handy convenient guide without a lot of searching about. [Which is to say, I don’t think there’s a great deal that one would get from this book that one wouldn’t find doing some internet research.]

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BOOK REVIEW: Plant-Based Sports Nutrition by D. Enette Larson-Meyer & Matt Ruscigno

Plant-Based Sports Nutrition: Expert Fueling Strategies for Training, Recovery, and PerformancePlant-Based Sports Nutrition: Expert Fueling Strategies for Training, Recovery, and Performance by D Enette Larson-Meyer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is an updated and revised edition of a book previously called “Vegetarian Sports Nutrition.” The name change not only reflects the rise of veganism and other more restrictive diets, but also an increase in “flexitarianism” — or the reduction (but not elimination) of animal-based foods that is driven by health factors, by environmental concerns, or by a combination of both. One of the things I like about this book is that it offers a balanced discussion of how to meet the nutritional needs of athletics through a diet that is mostly or entirely plant-based. That is to say, it’s not trying to sell the reader on a particular dietary approach, and, therefore, doesn’t fall into the trap of pretending that the move is purely upside. Those trying to persuade readers of a given diet tend to overemphasize the studies showing the benefits of plant-based diets while neglecting to discuss the challenges to meeting dietary needs without animal-based foods – particularly if one has the substantial needs incurred by athletes. [Which isn’t to say there aren’t health benefits — and even performance benefits — to be gained, but thinking that one can make the switch without giving thought to the details is a bit naive.]

The book consists of fifteen chapters that take one from an introduction to the various forms of plant-based diets through specific dietary considerations (i.e. meeting caloric requirements, macro-nutrient needs, and micro-nutrient needs) and – finally – to practical matters of what to eat and how to prepare it. After an opening chapter that lays forth background information, chapters two and three deal in the related topics of getting adequate calories and getting enough carbs. Vegetables, after all, aren’t typically calorically dense, and so salad and steamed vegetables – while a beneficial part of a diet — aren’t going to meet the needs of an athlete.

Chapter four delves into meeting fat requirements. While carbs have come to be wrongly villainized in current fitness environment, there are some who are still working under the old “fat is the enemy” paradigm. In truth, one needs a diet that includes all three macro-nutrients: carbohydrates, fats, and protein. Those on plant-based diets who don’t (or can’t) eat nuts and legumes can run into problems with getting enough fat. Chapter five rounds out the chapters focusing on macro-nutrients by exploring protein needs. This is the chapter many readers will be prone to make a beeline toward. Athletes who are considering a plant-based diet are most likely to be concerned that they can’t get enough protein. This is a contentious topic because vegan and vegetarian athletes often want to pull their hair out over what they feel is a great misconception. They say it’s no problem hitting protein targets on a plant-based diet, and — depending upon one’s sport and one’s body — that can be true. But for some it takes planning. (e.g. It’s true that one can get a complete protein by eating rice and lentils. The challenge is that if you do go about getting the 2 gms of protein per kg of body weight that some athletes require by just eating rice and lentils you are likely to find yourself becoming obese because those high-protein foods are even higher in carbs.)

Chapters six and seven shift into critical micro-nutrient considerations. Chapter six is about bone health, which is a greater concern with respect to some forms of plant-based diet than others. Chapter seven is about iron intake and absorption. One thing that I found very important and interesting in this book is the discussion of how foods and nutrients that one might think of only in terms of their positive effect can also have a negative effect. That is, some nutrients that we need in a given quantity will block the absorption of other nutrients if taken in excess quantities. Chapters eight and ten are about eliminating the need for multivitamins or other vitamin and mineral supplements. Another thing that I appreciate about this book is its emphasis on getting all of one’s nutritional needs through food. While it doesn’t take an iron-clad opposition to supplements, it suggests that one should first make great efforts to meet needs with food before considering any supplement.

Chapter nine is about timing of food and fluid intake for optimal performance. It’s one thing to know what to eat, but one must also know when to eat and when not to eat. Chapter eleven investigates common problems that are often attributed to food and fluid intake, namely cramps and inflammation. The part dealing with cramps was particularly informative, as I learned that much of what I’ve heard on the subject (and / or that is commonly believed) is either not well-established in the literature or is plain old poppycock.

Chapters twelve and thirteen are about building a meal plan to meet one’s requirements, and modifying the plan to cut or gain weight as necessary, respectively.

The last two chapters are about preparing meals to meet an athlete’s needs with plant-based foods. The penultimate chapter is more about the quick meals and snacks, and the last chapter provides a collection of recipes.

There are several appendices containing information about nutritional information and various approaches to building a balanced diet. There are also graphics including photographs, tables, and diagrams. I can’t speak to how effective these are as I read a review copy that was unformatted, but I do know they are frequent throughout the book.

I’d highly recommend this book for athletes, trainers, or coaches who are considering moving to a plant-based diet or who work with clients or athletes who are vegetarian, vegan, or otherwise eat a predominantly plant-based diet.

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