Stress, incorrect posture, poor vision and not knowing how to relax may all contribute to neck and shoulder tension. More than 30% of all adults experience neck pain and 45% of girls and 19% of boys 18 year old, report back, neck and shoulder pain (Cohen, 2015; Côté, Cassidy, & Carroll, 2003; Hakala, Rimpelä, Salminen, Virtanen, & Rimpelä, 2002). Shoulder pain affects almost a quarter of adults in the Australian community (Hill et al, 2010). Most employees working at the computer experience neck and shoulder tenderness and pain (Brandt et al, 2014), more than 33% of European workers complained of back-ache (The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, 2004), more than 25% of Europeans experience work-related neck-shoulder pain, and 15% experience work-related arm pain (Blatter & De Kraker, 2005; Eijckelhof et al, 2013), and more than 90% of college students report some muscular discomfort at the end of the semester especially if they work on the computer (Peper & Harvey, 2008).
The stiffness in the neck and shoulders or the escalating headache at the end of the day may be the result of craning the head more and more forward or concentrating too long on the computer screen. Or, we are unaware that we unknowingly tighten muscles not necessary for the task performance—for example, hunching our shoulders or holding our breath. This misdirected effort is usually unconscious, and unfortunately, can lead to fatigue, soreness, and a buildup of additional muscle tension.
The stiffness in the neck and shoulders or the escalating headache at the end of the day may be the result of craning the head more and more forward or concentrating too long on the computer screen. Poor posture or compromised vision can contribute to discomfort; however, in many cases stress is major factor. Tightening the neck and shoulders is a protective biological response to danger. Danger that for thousands of years ago evoke a biological defense reaction so that we could run from or fight from the predator. The predator is now symbolic, a deadline to meet, having hurry up sickness with too many things to do, anticipating a conflict with your partner or co-worker, worrying how your child is doing in school, or struggling to have enough money to pay for the rent.
Mind-set also plays a role. When we’re anxious, angry, or frustrated most of us tighten the muscles at the back of the neck. We can also experience this when insecure, afraid or worrying about what will happen next. Although this is a normal pattern, anticipating the worst can make us stressed. Thus, implement self-care strategies to prevent the occurrence of discomfort.
What can you do to free up the neck and shoulder?
Become aware what factors precede the neck and shoulder tension. For a week monitor yourself, keep a log during the day and observe what situations occur that precede the neck and should discomfort. If the situation is mainly caused by:
- Immobility while sitting and being captured by the screen. Interrupt sitting every 15 to 20 minutes and move such as walking around while swinging your arms.
- Ergonomic factors such as looking down at the computer or laptop screen while working. Change your work environment to optimize the ergonomics such as using a detached keyboard and raising the laptop screen so that the top of the screen is at eyebrow level.
- Emotional factors. Learn strategies to let go of the negative emotions and do problem solving. Take a slow deep breath and as you exhale imagine the stressor to flow out and away from you. Be willing to explore and change ask yourself: “What do I have to have to lose to change?”, “Who or what is that pain in my neck?”, or “What am I protecting by being so rigid?”
Regardless of the cause, explore the following five relaxation and stretching exercises to free up the neck and shoulders. Be gentle, do not force and stop if your discomfort increases. When moving, continue to breathe.
1. WIGGLE. Wiggle and shake your body many times during the day. The movements can be done surreptitiously such as, moving your feet back and forth in circles or tapping feet to the beat of your favorite music, slightly arching or curling your spine, sifting the weight on your buttock from one to the other, dropping your hands along your side while moving and rotating your fingers and wrists, rotating your head and neck in small unpredictable circles, or gently bouncing your shoulders up and down as if you are giggling. Every ten minutes, wiggle to facilitate blood flow and muscle relaxation.
2. SHAKE AND BOUNCE. Stand up, bend your knees slightly, and let your arms hang along your trunk. Gently bounce your body up and down by bending and straightening your knees. Allow the whole body to shake and move for about one minute like a raggedy Ann doll. Then stop bouncing and alternately reach up with your hand and arm to the ceiling and then let the arm drop. Be sure to continue to breathe.
3. ROTATION MOVEMENT (Adapted from the work by Sue Wilson and reproduced by permission from: Gorter, R. & Peper, E. (2011). Fighting Cancer- A Nontoxic Approach to Treatment).
Pre-assessment: Stand up and give yourself enough space, so that when you lift your arms to shoulder level and rotate, you don’t touch anything. Continue to stand in the same spot during the exercise as shown in figures 1a and 1b.
Lift your arms and hold them out, so that they are at shoulder level, positioned like airplane wings. Gently rotate your arms to the left as far as you can without discomfort. Look along your left arm to your fingertips and beyond to a spot on the wall and remember that spot. Rotate back to center and drop your arms to your sides and relax.
Figures 1a and 1b. Rotating the arms as far as is comfortable (photos by Jana Asenbrennerova)
Movement practice. Again, lift your arms to the side so that they are like airplane wings pointing to the left and right. Gently rotate your trunk, keeping your arms fixed at a right angle to your body. Rotate your arms to the right and turn your head to the left. Then reverse the direction and rotate your arms in a fixed position to the left and turn your head to the right. Do not try to stretch or push yourself. Repeat the sequence three times in each direction and then drop your arms to your sides and relax.
With your arms at your sides, lift your shoulders toward your ears while you keep your neck relaxed. Feel the tension in your shoulders, and hold your shoulder up for five seconds. Let your shoulders drop and relax. Then relax even more. Stay relaxed for ten seconds.
Repeat this sequence, lifting, dropping, and relaxing your shoulders two more times. Remember to keep breathing; and each time you drop your shoulders, relax even more after they have dropped.
Repeat the same sequence, but this time, very slowly lift your shoulders so that it takes five seconds to raise them to your ears while you continue to breathe. Keep relaxing your neck and feel the tension just in your shoulders. Then hold the tension for a count of three. Now relax your shoulders very slowly so that it takes five seconds to lower them. Once they are lowered, relax them even more and stay relaxed for five seconds. Repeat this sequence two more times.
Now raise your shoulders quickly toward your ears, feel the tension in your upper shoulders, and hold it for the count of five. Let the tension go and relax. Just let your shoulders drop. Relax, and then relax even more.
Post-assessment. Lift your arms up to the side so that they are at shoulder level and are positioned like airplane wings. Gently rotate without discomfort to the left as far as you can while you look along your left arm to your fingers and beyond to a spot on the wall.
Almost everyone reports that when they rotate the last time, they rotated significantly further than the first time. The increased flexibility is the result of loosening your shoulder muscles.
4. TAPPING FEET (adapted from the work of Servaas Mes)
Diagonal movements underlie human coordination and if your coordination is in sync, this will happen as a reflex without thought. There are many examples of these basic reflexes, all based on diagonal coordination such as arm and leg movement while walking. To restore this coordination, we use exercises that emphasize diagonal movements. This will help you reverse unnecessary tension and use your body more efficiently and thereby reducing “sensory motor amnesia” and dysponesis (Hanna, 2004). Remember to do the practices without straining, with a sense of freedom, while you continue relaxed breathing. If you feel pain, you have gone too far, and you’ll want to ease up a bit. This practice offers brief, simple practices to avoid and reverse dysfunctional patterns of bracing and tension and reduce discomfort. Practicing healthy patterns of movement can reestablish normal tone and reduce tension and pain. This is a light series of movements that involve tapping your feet and turning your head. You’ll be able to do the entire exercise in less than twenty seconds.
Pre-assessment. Sit erect at the edge of the chair with your hands on your lap and your feet shoulders’ width apart, with your heels beneath your knees.
First, notice your flexibility by gently rotating your head to the right as far as you can. Now look at a spot on the wall as a measure of how far you can comfortably turn your head and remember that spot. Then rotate back to the center.
Practicing rotating feet and head. Become familiar with the feet movement, lift the balls of your feet so your feet are resting on your heels. Lightly pivot the balls of your feet to the right, tap the floor, and then stop and relax your feet for just a second. Now lift the balls of your feet, pivot your feet to the left, tap, relax, and pivot back to the right.
Just let your knees follow the movement naturally. This is a series of ten light, quick, relaxed pivoting movements—each pivot and tap takes only about one or two seconds.
Add head rotation. Turn your head in the opposite direction of your feet. This series of movements provides effortless stretches that you can do in less than half a minute as shown in figures 2a and 2b.
Figures 2a and 2b. Rotating the feet and head in opposite directions (photos by Gary Palmer)
When you’re facing right, move your feet to the left and lightly tap. Then face left and move your feet to the right and tap.
- Continue the tapping movement, but each time pivot your head in the opposite direction. Don’t try to stretch or force the movement.
- Do this sequence ten times. Now stop, face straight head, relax your legs, and just keep breathing.
Post assessment. Rotate your head to the right as far as you can see and look at a spot on the wall. Notice how much more flexibility/rotation you have achieved.
Almost everyone reports being able to rotate significantly farther after the exercise than before. They also report that they have less stiffness in their neck and shoulders.
5. SHOULDER AWARENESS PRACTICE. Sit comfortably with your hands on your lap. Allow your jaw to hang loose and breathe diaphragmatically. Continue to breathe slowly as you do the following:
- Shrug, raising your shoulders towards your ears to 70% of maximum effort and hold them up for about 10 seconds (note the sensations of tension).
- Let your shoulders drop and relax for 10 to 20 seconds
- Shrug, raising your shoulders towards your ears to 50% of maximum effort and hold them up for about 10 seconds (note the sensations of tension).
- Let your shoulders drop and relax for 10 to 20 seconds
- Shrug, raising your shoulders towards your ears to 25% of maximum effort and hold them up for about 10 seconds (note the sensations of tension).
- Let your shoulders drop and relax for 10 to 20 seconds
- Shrug, raising your shoulders towards ears to 5% of maximum effort and hold them up for about 10 seconds (note the sensations of tension).
- Let your shoulders drop and relax for 10 to 20 seconds
- Pull your shoulders down to 25% of maximum effort and hold them up for about 10 seconds (note the sensations of tension).
- Allow your shoulders to come back up and relax for 10 to 20 seconds
Remember to relax your shoulders completely after each incremental tightening. If you tend to hold your breath while raising your shoulders, gently exhale and continue to breathe. When you return to work, check in occasionally with your shoulders and ask yourself if you can feel any of the sensations of tension. If so, drop your shoulders and relax for a few seconds before resuming your tasks.
In summary, when employees and students change their environment and integrate many movements during the day, they report a significant decrease in neck and shoulder discomfort and an increase in energy and health. As one employee reported, after taking many short movement breaks while working at the computer, that he no longer felt tired at the end of the day, “Now, there is life after five”.
To explore how prevent and reverse the automatic somatic stress reactions, read Thomas Hanna‘s book, Somatics: Reawakening The Mind’s Control of Movement, Flexibility, and Health. For easy to do neck and shoulder guided instructions stretches, see the following ebsite: http://greatist.com/move/stretches-for-tight-shoulders
Brandt, M., Sundstrup, E., Jakobsen, M. D., Jay, K., Colado, J. C., Wang, Y., … & Andersen, L. L. (2014). Association between neck/shoulder pain and trapezius muscle tenderness in office workers. Pain research and treatment, 2014.
Côté, P., Cassidy, J. D., & Carroll, L. (2003). The epidemiology of neck pain: what we have learned from our population-based studies. The Journal of the Canadian Chiropractic Association, 47(4), 284. http://www.pain-initiative-un.org/doc-
Eijckelhof, B. H. W., Huysmans, M. A., Garza, J. B., Blatter, B. M., Van Dieën, J. H., Dennerlein, J. T., & Van Der Beek, A. J. (2013). The effects of workplace stressors on muscle activity in the neck-shoulder and forearm muscles during computer work: A systematic review and meta-analysis. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 113(12), 2897-2912.
Hill, C. L., Gill, T. K., Shanahan, E. M., & Taylor, A. W. (2010). Prevalence and correlates of shoulder pain and stiffness in a population‐based study: the North West Adelaide Health Study. International journal of rheumatic diseases, 13(3), 215-222.
Paoli, P., Merllié, D., & Fundação Europeia para a Melhoria das Condições de Vida e de Trabalho. (2001). Troisième enquête européenne sur les conditions de travail, 2000.
*I thank Sue Wilson and Servaas Mes for teaching me these somatic practices.
“After two and a half years of trying, ups and downs, and a long period of thinking it will never happen, it did happen. I followed your advice by only applying pressure with the cones while inhaling and at the same time relaxing the pelvic floor. We succeeded! we had “real” sex in the first time.”
Millions of women experience involuntary contraction of the musculature of the outer third of the vagina (vaginismus) interfering with intercourse, causing distress and interpersonal difficulty (ter Kuile et, 2010) or pain during intercourse (dyspareunia). It is estimated that 1 to 6% of women have vaginismus (Lewis et al, 2004) and 6.5% to 45.0% in older women and from 14% to 34% in younger women experience dyspareunia (Van Lankveld et al, 2010). The most common treatment for vaginismus is sequential dilation of the vaginal opening with progressively larger cones, psychotherapy and medications to reduce the pain and anxiety. At times clients and health care professionals may be unaware of the biological processes that influence the muscle contraction and relaxation of the pelvic floor. Success is more likely if the client works in harmony with the biological processes while practicing self-healing and treatment protocols. These biological processes, described at the end of the blog significantly affects the opening of vestibule and vagina are: 1) feeling safe, 2) inhale during insertion to relax the pelvic floor, 3) stretch very, very slowly to avoid triggering the stretch reflex, and 4) being sexual aroused.
Successful case report: There is hope to resolve pain and vaginismus
Yesterday my husband and I had sex in the first time, after two and a half years of “trying”. Why did it take so long? Well, the doctor said “vaginismus”, the psychologist said “fear”, the physiotherapist said “constricted muscles”, and friends said “just relax, drink some wine and it will happen”.
Sex was always a weird, scary, complicated – and above all, painful – world to me. It may have started in high school: like many other teens, I thought a lot about sex and masturbated almost every night. Masturbation was a good feeling followed by tons of bad feelings – guilt, shame, and feeling disgusting. One of the ideas I had to accept, later in my progress, is that ‘feeling good is a good thing’. It is normal, permitted and even important and healthy.
My first experience, at age 20, was short, very painful, and without any love or even affection. He was…. well, not for me. And I was…. well, naive and with very little knowledge about my body. The experiences that came after that, with other guys, were frustrating. Neither of them knew how to handle the pain that sex caused me, and I didn’t know what to do.
The first gynecologist said that everything is fine and I just need to relax. No need to say I left her clinic very angry and in pain. The second gynecologist was the first one to give it a name: “vaginismus”. He said that there are some solutions to the problem: anesthetic ointment, physiotherapy (“which is rarely helps”, according to his optimistic view..), and if these won’t work “we will start thinking of surgery, which is very painful and you don’t want to go there”. Oh, I certainly didn’t want to go there.
After talking to a friend whose sister had the same problem, I started seeing a great physiotherapist who was an expert in these problems. She used a vaginal biofeedback sensor, that measured muscles’ tonus inside the vagina. My homework were 30 constrictions every day, plus working with “dilators” – plastic cones comes in 6 sizes, starting from a size of a small finger, to a size of a penis.
At this point I was already in a relationship with my husband, who was understanding, calm and most important – very patient. To be honest, we both never thought it would take so long. Practicing was annoying and painful, and I found myself thinking a lot “is it worth it?”. After a while, I felt that the physical practice is not enough, and I need a “psychological breakthrough”. So I stopped practicing and started seeing a psychologist, for about a half a year. We processed my past experiences, examined the thoughts and beliefs I had about sex, and that way we released some of the tension that was shrinking my body.
The next step was to continue practicing with the dilators, but honestly – I had no motivation. My husband and I had great sex without the actual penetration, and I didn’t want the painful practice again. Fortunately, I participated in a short course given by Professor Erik Peper, about biofeedback therapy. In his lecture he described a young woman, who suffered from vulvodynia, a problem that is a bit similar to vaginismus (Peper et al, 2015; See: https://peperperspective.com/2015/09/25/resolving-pelvic-floor-pain-a-case-report/). She learned how to relax her body and deal with the pain, and finally she had sex – and even enjoyed it! I was inspired.
Erik Peper gave me a very important advice: breathing in. Apparently, we can relax the muscles and open the vagina better while inhaling, instead of exhaling – as I tried before. During exhalation the pelvic floor tightens and goes upward while during inhalation the pelvic floor descends and relaxes especially when sitting up (Peper et al, 2016). He advised me to give myself a few minutes with the dilator, and in every inhale – imagine the area opening and insert the dilator a few millimeters. I started practicing again, but in a sitting position, which I found more comfortable and less painful. I advanced to the biggest dilator within a few weeks, and had a just little pain – sometimes without any pain at all. The most important thing I understood was not to be afraid of the pain. The fear is what made me even more tensed, and tension brings pain. Then, my husband and I started practicing with “the real thing”, very slowly and gently, trying to find the best position and angle for us. Finally, we did it. And it was a great feeling.
The biological factors that affect the relaxation/contraction of the pelvic floor and vaginal opening are:
Feeling safe and hopeful. When threatened, scared, anticipate pain, and worry, our body triggers a defense reaction. In this flexor response, labeled by Thomas Hanna as the Red Light Reflex, the body curls up in defense to protect itself which includes the shoulders to round, the chest to be depressed, the legs pressing together, the pelvic floor to tighten and the head to jut forward (Hanna, 2004). This is the natural response of fear, anxiety, prolonged stress or negative depressive thinking.
Before beginning to work on vaginismus, feel safe. This means accepting what is, accepting that it is not your fault, and that there are no demands for performance. It also means not anticipating that it will be again painful because with each anticipation the pelvic floor tends to tightens. Read the chapter on vaginismus in Dr. Lonnie Barbach’s book, For each other: Sharing sexual intimacy (Barbach, 1983).
Inhale during insertion to relax the pelvic floor and vaginal opening. This instruction is seldom taught because in most instances, we have been taught to exhale while relaxing. Exhaling while relaxing is true for most muscles; however, it is different for the pelvic floor. When inhalation occurs, the pelvic floor descends and relaxes. During exhalation the pelvic floor tightens and ascends to support breathing and push the diaphragm upward to exhale the air. Be sure to allow the abdomen to expand during inhalation without lifting the chest and allow the abdomen to constrict during exhalation as if inhalation fills the balloon in the abdomen and exhalation deflates the balloon (for detailed instructions see Peper et al, 2016). Do not inhale by lifting and expanding your chest which often occurs during gasping and and fear. It tends to tighten and lift the pelvic floor.
Experience the connection between diaphragmatic breathing and pelvic floor movement in the following practice.
While sitting upright make a hissing noise as the air escapes with pressure between your lips. As you are exhaling feel, your abdomen and your anus tightening. During the inhalation let your abdomen expand and feel how your anus descends and pelvic floor relaxes. With practice this will become easier.
Stretch very, very slowly to avoid triggering the stretch reflex. When a muscle is rapidly stretched, it triggers an automatic stretch reflex which causes the muscle to contract. This innate response occurs to avoid damaging the muscle by over stretching. The stretch reflex is also triggered by pain and puts a brake on the stretching. Always use a lubricant when practicing by yourself or with a partner. Practice inserting larger and larger diameter dilaters into the vagina. Start with a very small diameter and progress to a larger diameter. These can be different diameter cones, your finger, or other objects. Remember to inhale and feel the pelvic floor descending as you insert the probe or finger. If you feel discomfort/pain, stop pushing, keep breathing, relax your shoulders, relax your hips, legs, and toes and do not push inward and upward again until the discomfort has faded out.
Feel sexually aroused by allowing enough foreplay. When sexually aroused the tissue is more lubricated and may stretch easier. Continue to use a good lubricant.
Putting it all together.
When you feel safe, practice slow diaphragmatic breathing and be aware of the pelvic floor relaxing and descending during inhalation and contracting and going up during exhalation. When practicing stretching the opening with cones or your finger, go very, very slow. Only apply pressure of insertion during the mid-phase of inhalation, then wait during exhalation and then again insert slight more during the next inhalation. When you experience pain, relax your shoulders, keep breathing for four or five breaths till the pain subsides, then push very little during the next inhalation. Go much slower and with more tenderness.
Be patient. Explain to your partner that your body and mind need time to adjust to new feelings. However, don’t stop having sex – you can have great sex without penetration. Practice both alone and with your partner; together find the best angle and rate. Use different lubricants to check out what is best for you. Any little progress is getting you closer to having an enjoyable sex. I recommend watching this TED video of Emily Nagoski explaining the “dual control model” and practicing as she suggests: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HILY0wWBlBM
Finally, practice the exercises developed by Dr. Lonnie Barbach, who as one of the first co-directors of clinical training at the University of California San Francisco, Human Sexuality Program, created the women’s pre-orgasmic group treatment program. They are superbly described in her two books, For each other: Sharing sexual intimacy, and For yourself: The fulfillment of female sexuality, and are a must read for anyone desiring to increase sexual fulfillment and joy (Barbach, 2000; 1983).
Barbach, L. (1983). For each other: Sharing sexual intimacy. New York: Anchor
Barbach, L. (2000). For yourself: The fulfillment of female sexuality. New York: Berkley.
BarLewis, R. W., Fugl‐Meyer, K. S., Bosch, R., Fugl‐Meyer, A. R., Laumann, E. O., Lizza, E., & Martin‐Morales, A. (2004). Epidemiology/risk factors of sexual dysfunction. The journal of sexual medicine, 1(1), 35-39. http://www.jsm.jsexmed.org/article/S1743-6095(15)30062-X/fulltext
Hanna, T. (2004). Somatics: Reawakening the mind’s control of movement, flexibility, and health. Boston: Da Capo Press.
Martinez Aranda, P. & Peper, E. (2015). The healing of vulvodynia from a client’s perspective. https://biofeedbackhealth.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/a-healing-of-vulvodynia-from-the-client-perspective-2015-06-15.pdf
Peper, E., Booiman, A., Lin, I-M, Harvey, R., & Mitose, J. (2016). Abdominal SEMG Feedback for Diaphragmatic Breathing: A Methodological Note. Biofeedback. 44(1), 42-49. https://biofeedbackhealth.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/1-abdominal-semg-feedback-published.pdf
Peper, E., Martinez Aranda, P., & Moss, E. (2015). Vulvodynia treated successfully with breathing biofeedback and integrated stress reduction: A case report. Biofeedback. 43(2), 103-109. https://biofeedbackhealth.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/a-vulvodynia-treated-with-biofeedback-published.pdf
Ter Kuile, M. M., Both, S., & van Lankveld, J. J. (2010). Cognitive behavioral therapy for sexual dysfunctions in women. Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 33(3), 595-610. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/45090259_Cognitive_Behavioral_Therapy_for_Sexual_Dysfunctions_in_Women
Van Lankveld, J. J., Granot, M., Weijmar Schultz, W., Binik, Y. M., Wesselmann, U., Pukall, C. F., . Achtrari, C. (2010). Women’s sexual pain disorders. The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 7(1pt2), 615-631. http://www.jsm.jsexmed.org/article/S1743-6095(15)32867-8/fulltext
*We thank Dr. Lonnie Barbach for her helpful feedback and support. Written collaboratively with Tal Cohen, biofeedback therapist (Israel) and Erik Peper.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Albert Schweitzer began working in equatorial lowlands of West Africa in 1913. He was astonished to encounter no cases of cancer among the thousands of native patients he saw each year. However, as the natives [took to] living more and more after the manner of the whites, cancer in his patient population became ever more frequent (Taubes, 2016, pp 257).
Wise elders, grand parents or statesmen have been traditional roles for aging adults. Wisdom transforming into Alzheimer’s disease does not compute (Peper, 2014).
In 1960’s Surgeon Captain T. L. Cleave proposed that common western diseases (diabetes, colon cancer, ischemic heart disease, gallstones, obesity, diverticulosis, and dental carries), to which I would add Alzheimer’s disease, autoimmune diseases and allergies, could not be due primarily to genetic factors but to new factors in the environment to which man had not yet had time to adapt (Cleaves et al, 1969). As he states, “One such factor was the processing of food which resulted in the consumption of large quantities of pure sugar and starch. This led to disease because man was evolutionary adjusted to eating smaller amounts of carbohydrates intimately mixed with fiber and protein.”
Clinicians and epidemiologist have consistently reported that none western cultures, whether the Masai in Africa, the Inuit in Northern Canada, the Japanese in Japan, or the Native American, had very low incidences of these western diseases. Yet, when these people adapted a western diet of highly refined carbohydrates and sugar the prevalence of these diseases increased and approached the incidence in western cultures (Burkitt & Trowell, 1975; Taubes, 2016).
Historically these illness were initially observed in the ruling class. The affluent class was privileged and tended to eat more refined carbohydrates and sugars (white bread, cakes, pastries and sugar in coffee and tea). It is only recently that this class effect is reversed. Lower economic classes tend have a higher prevalence of these western diseases. Affluent people can afford and often eat low processed organic foods while economically disadvantaged people cannot afford low processed foods and instead eat predominantly highly processed carbohydrate and refined foods.
Highly refined processed foods and sugar–not fats–are significant risk factors for the development diabetes and cardiovascular disease and mortality (Imamura et al, 2015; Taubes, 2016; Yang et al, 2014) . What is not as well known is that some cancers and Alzheimer’s disease also correlates with the increase intake of refined carbohydrates and sugar (Das, 2015; Kandimalla et al, 2016; Peper, 2014).
It is highly likely that the increase in beta-amyloid protein plagues in the brain is not the cause of the Alzheimer’s but the brain’s defense mechanism to protect it from the fluctuating high insulin and glucose levels. A high sugar and simple carbohydrate diet are risk factors for inflammatory diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and metabolic syndrome. These inflammatory diseases are recognized as a precursor for Alzheimer’s. Alzheimer’s is sometimes described as Type 3 diabetes (Kandimalla et al, 2016; Steen et al, 2005).
Taking the perspective that foods are significant risk factors for the development of these western diseases, the focus should be on prevention and less on treatment. The research to develop drugs to treat Alzheimer’s have up till now been unsuccessful despite that the billions spent on attempting to develop new drugs. For example, the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly has spent 3.7 billion dollars over the last decade while the National Institutes of Health spends more than half a billion dollars a year on pursuit of treatment (Coghlan, 2017).
The treatments cost of these western diseases, which at best ameliorate the disorders, is overwhelming. In the USA, we spent $147 billion to treat obesity and $116 billion to treat diabetes. While the medical costs to treat diabetes for a single patient is about $6000/year or $400,000/lifetime (Pollan, 2009).
As a refined carbohydrates and high sugar diet is a risk factor for western diseases, the focus should be on prevention. Thus, reduce sugar and refined carbohydrates intake and increase high fiber vegetable. To implement such a simple preventative measure means:
- Educate the public about the harm of sugars and refined carbohydrate foods.
- Ban advertising of foods that are high in sugar and refined carbohydrates.
- Reward companies to produce foods low in sugar and refined carbohydrates.
- Tax food products high in sugar and refined carbohydrates just as tobacco has been taxed.
I am positive that in the future when we look back at the 20th and early 21st century, we will be appalled that the government allowed people to poison themselves with sugar and highly refined carbohydrates. Just as we now warn against the harm of tobacco, limit the sales to minors, and have ongoing public health stop smoking campaigns.
Burkitt, D.P. & Trowell, H.C. (1975). Refined carbohydrate foods and disease: Some implications of dietary fibre. York: Academic Press.
Cleave, T.L., Campbell, G.D., & Painter, N.S. (1969). Diabetes, coronary thrombosis and the saccharine disease, 2nd ed. Bristol, UK: John Wright.
Coghlan, A. 2017). The Alzheimer’s problem. New Scientist, 233(3110), 22-23.
Das, U. N. (2015). Sucrose, fructose, glucose, and their link to metabolic syndrome and cancer. Nutrition, 31(1), 249-257.
Imamura, F., O’Connor, L., Ye, Z., Mursu, J., Hayashino, Y., Bhupathiraju, S. N., & Forouhi, N. G. (2015). Consumption of sugar sweetened beverages, artificially sweetened beverages, and fruit juice and incidence of type 2 diabetes: systematic review, meta-analysis, and estimation of population attributable fraction. Bmj, 351, h3576.
Kandimalla, R., Thirumala, V., & Reddy, P. H. (2016). Is Alzheimer’s disease a Type 3 Diabetes? A critical appraisal. Biochimica et Biophysica Acta (BBA)-Molecular Basis of Disease.
Peper, E. (2014). Affluenza: Transforming Wisdom into Alzheimer’s Disease with Affluent Malnutrition and Immobility. Neuroconnections, 9(2), 32-35.
Pollan, M. (2009). Big food vs. big insurance. New York Times, September 10, A29.
Steen, E., Terry, B.M. Rivera, E.J., Cannon, J.L., Neely, T.R., Tavares, R., Xu, X. J., Wands, J.R., & de al Monte, S. M. (2005). Impaired insulin and insulin-like growth factor expression and signaling mechanisms in Alzheimer’s disease-is this type 3 diabetes? Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, 7(1), 53-80.
Taubes, G. (2016). The case against sugar. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Yang, Q., Zhang, Z., Gregg, E. W., Flanders, W. D., Merritt, R., & Hu, F. B. (2014). Added sugar intake and cardiovascular diseases mortality among US adults. JAMA internal medicine, 174(4), 516-524.
Born on 26 November 1911, Mr Robert Marchand and 105 years old, managed cycling 22.55 km (14 miles) at the national velodrome and set a new record for the furthest distance cycled in one hour for riders over 105. (Reynolds, 2017).
Meet 105-year-old Robert Marchand, the centenarian cyclist chasing a new record: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ey48j6dDNEo
As people age there is an increase in Western Diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, gout, cancer, dementia and decreases in physical fitness (Milanović et al, 2013; Tauber, 2016). To assume that the cause of these illnesses is the natural process of aging may be too simplistic. Although aging does affect physiology, there are other factors that contribute to the increase in “Western Diseases” such as diet, lifestyle and genetics.
A significant contributing factor of Western Diseases is diet especially the increase in sugar and simple carbohydrates. Whether you are Pima, Tohono O’odham, and Navajo American Indian Tribes in Arizona, Intuits in Northern Canada, Japanese Americans, or indigenous populations of Kenya, when these people stopped eating their traditional diet and adapted the western high glucose/fructose/simple carbohydrate diet, the degenerative Western Diseases exploded (Bjerregaard et al, 2004; Burkitt & Trowell, 1975; Knowler et al, 1990; Tauber, 2016). Diabetes, hypertension, and cancer which were previously rare skyrocketed within one generation after adapting the Western life style diet. In some of these populations, 30% or more of the adults have diabetes and a significant increase in breast cancer.
The reduction of episodic high intensity physical activity and being sedentary are additional risk factors for the onset of diabetes and cardiovascular disease (Dulloo et al, 2017). As Mensing & Mekel (2015) state, “Sitting is the new smoking.” Sitting encourages more sitting which leads to nonuse of muscles and causes neural and muscle atrophy. Our physiology is efficient and will prune/eliminate what is redundant. This is reflected in the popular phrase, “Use it or lose it.” As we sit for hours in front of digital devices, use escalators, elevators, or drive cars, we are not using the muscles involved in dynamic movement. We are usually unaware of this degenerative process. Instead, we may experience difficulty walking up the stairs which encourages us to take the escalator or elevator. When we do not use the muscles or are limited in movement by discomfort and pain, we move less. As we move less, we become weaker which is often labeled as aging instead of non use.
Just, because most people loose fitness, it may not represent what is possible or optimum. Instead, we may want to emulate the diet and fitness program of Mr. Robert Marchand who at age 103 set a new world record and improved the distance bicycled in one hour from 24.25 km at the age of 101 to 26.92 km at the age of 103. A 11% improvement! As New York Times science writer Gretchen Reynolds reports, “Lifestyle may also matter. Mr. Marchand is “very optimistic and sociable,” The researcher who did the study, Dr. Billat says, “with many friends,” and numerous studies suggest that strong social ties are linked to a longer life. His diet is also simple, focusing on yogurt, soup, cheese, chicken and a glass of red wine at dinner (Reynolds, 2017).
The improvement in bicycling performance and physiological indicators such as ⩒O2max increased (31 to 35 ml.kg-1min-1; +13%), appeared to be due to a change in his training regimen (Billat et al 2016). At age 101 he changed his bicycling training program from riding at a steady speed for one hour to riding 80% at an easy pace and 20% at high intensity. This is a type of interval training and includes enough recovery allows the body the recover and strengthen. This analogous to our evolutionary movement pattern of walking interspersed with short distance high intensity running.
As a hunter and gather we often moved steadily and then had to run very fast to escape a predator or catch an animal. After extreme exertion, we would rest and regenerate (if we did not escape we would be lunch for the predator). Thus episodic high intensity activity with significant rest/regenerative periods is the movement pattern that allowed our species to survive and thrive. Research studies have confirmed that high intensity interval training offers more physiological benefits–increases cardiorespiratory fitness which is a strong determinant of morbidity and mortality– than moderate intensity continuous training (Weston et al, 2014).
Thus when Mr. Marchard changed his exercise pattern from moderate intensity continuous training to high intensity interval training with enough recovery time he set a new world record at age 103. Two years later he set a new world record at age 105.
Exercise improves brain function and interval training appears to improve brain function most. When rats had prolonged exercise, the brain’s stores of energy is significantly lowered in the frontal cortex and hippocampus all areas which area involved in thinking and memory. If on the other hand, the animals had a single intense bout of exercise and were allowed to rest and feed than the brain levels of glycogen was 60% high in the frontal and hippocampus areas. This suggest that the brain can then function better (Matsui et al, 2012).
This perspective is supported by the evolutionary hypothesis discussed by Neuroscientist Daniel Wolpert who points out that brains evolved, not to think or feel, but to direct movement. When movement is no longer needed the brain shrinks and gets reabsorbed which is illustrated by the sea squirt. This animal swims as a juvenile and then anchors on a rock and is passively moved by the currents. Once anchored, it no longer needed to coordinate movement and reabsorb its own nervous system. See Daniel Wolpert’s remarkable TED talk, The real reasons for brains.
The remarkable feat of Mr. Marchand offers suggestions for our own health. Enjoy healthy movement and exercise and incorporate our evolutionary movement patterns: episodic high intensity followed by regeneration. At the same time include a healthy diet by reducing sugars and simple carbohydrates. Finally, it helps to have the right genes.
Billat, V. L., Dhonneur, G., Mille-Hamard, L., Le Moyec, L., Momken, I., Launay, T., & Besse, S. (2016). Case Studies in Physiology: Maximal Oxygen Consumption and Performance in a Centenarian Cyclist. Journal of Applied Physiology, jap-00569. http://jap.physiology.org/content/jap/early/2016/12/29/japplphysiol.00569.2016.full.pdf
Bjerregaard, P., Kue Young, T., Dewailly, E., & Ebbesson, S. O. (2004). Review Article: Indigenous health in the Arctic: an overview of the circumpolar Inuit population. Scandinavian Journal of Social Medicine, 32(5), 390-395. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/51366099_Indigenous_Health_in_the_Arctic_An_Overview_of_the_Circumpolar_Inuit_Population
Burkitt, D.P. & Trowell, H.C. eds. (1975). Refined carbohydrate foods and disease: Some implications of dietary fibre. New York: Academic Press.
Dulloo, A. G., Miles‐Chan, J. L., & Montani, J. P. (2017). Nutrition, movement and sleep behaviours: their interactions in pathways to obesity and cardiometabolic diseases. Obesity Reviews, 18(S1), 3-6.
Knowler, W. C., Pettitt, D. J., Saad, M. F., & Bennett, P. H. (1990). Diabetes mellitus in the Pima Indians: incidence, risk factors and pathogenesis. Diabetes/metabolism reviews, 6(1), 1-27.
Matsui, T., Ishikawa, T., Ito, H., Okamoto, M., Inoue, K., Lee, M. C., … & Soya, H. (2012). Brain glycogen supercompensation following exhaustive exercise. The Journal of physiology, 590(3), 607-616.
Mensing, M., & Mekel, O. C. L. (2015). Sitting is the new smoking-Modelling physical activity interventions in North Rhine-Westphalia. The European Journal of Public Health, 25(suppl 3), ckv171-037.
Milanović, Z., Pantelić, S., Trajković, N., Sporiš, G., Kostić, R., & James, N. (2013). Age-related decrease in physical activity and functional fitness among elderly men and women. Clinical interventions in aging, 8, 549-556.
Reynolds, G. (2017, February 8). Lessons on Aging Well, From a 105-Year-Old Cyclist. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/08/well/move/lessons-on-aging-well-from-a-105-year-old-cyclist.html?rref=collection%2Fsectioncollection%2Fhealth&action=click&contentCollection=health®ion=rank&module=package&version=highlights&contentPlacement=5&pgtype=sectionfront
Taubes, G. (2016). The Case Against Sugar. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Weston, K. S., Wisløff, U., & Coombes, J. S. (2014). High-intensity interval training in patients with lifestyle-induced cardiometabolic disease: a systematic review and meta-analysis. British journal of sports medicine, 48(16), 1227-1234. http://www.rcsi.ie/files/facultyofsportsexercise/20141201122758_High-intensity%20interval%20traini.pdf
Wolpert, D. (2011) The Real Reason for Brains. http://www..com/tatedlks/daniel_wolpert_the_real_reason_for_brains.html
Youtube video: Meet 105-year-old Robert Marchand, the centenarian cyclist chasing a new record: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ey48j6dDNEo
The short three minute video Three Beautiful Human Minutes by Asger Leth is a reminder that we are more alike than we sometimes would like to think. Enjoy.
As the New Year begins, I wish you the courage to follow your dreams. May the New Year bring health, happiness and joy. Enjoy the video and make each moment count.
Best wishes for the New Year.
Was taking sleeping medication really your choice or the outcome of subtle over the counter advertising even though the research evidence suggests that it will cause long term harm?
Was the evidence presented at the congressional hearing that contributed to Congress to authorize the first Gulf war based upon actual data or manufactured fake news orchestrated by the Kuwait Government?
How come so many people claim that Trump won the election overwhelmingly even though he actually lost the popular vote by 2.8 million?
How come we make impulsive choices which upon reflection did not work out?
Do we really make well informed choices or are they the result of being covertly nudged or manipulated? Before you vote, before you buy a product, before you undergo a medical procedure or take medication, before you share a Facebook post, or before you talk to your boss, be aware that your choices may not really be yours but instead the result of being influenced and manipulated. From voting to the sales of pharmaceuticals and cars, we act because we feel it is correct; however, in many cases our choices were not achieved through reason and deliberation. They were the result of being nudged, anchored, incentivized, manipulated and influenced by fake/false news-a process that significantly affects how we interact with each other
Before acting on information, read the superb book, The persuaders: The hidden industry that wants to change your mind, by philosopher James Garvey. This book describes in detail the strategies that persuaders use to have you act as they would like you to act which impacts all facets of your life As the cover of the book states: “You are no longer reasoned with–Instead your opinions and behaviors are manipulated by covert means.”