Theory and Practice of Neurogenesis

Even though I’m finding my self-care regimen for seasonal depression pretty adequate these days, I’m always interested in more tools. One thing that caught my attention recently was an interview with Brant Cortright in which he talked about his book The Neurogenesis Diet and Lifestyle.

Cortright has a bunch of interesting things to say, one of which I already knew: that depression is not a disorder of serotonin deficiency. According to him—and this I did not know—the way SSRIs work is by promoting neurogenesis. In the interview he said that depression turns out to be caused by a lack of neurogenesis, as are several other disorders (e.g. Alzheimer’s).

I checked the local libraries for copies of his book without success, but in my searches I happened upon this article: Successful brain aging: plasticity, environmental enrichment, and lifestyle by Francisco Mora, which seems to cover pretty much the same ground.

People are looking very hard at drugs besides SSRIs to promote brain plasticity, but the whole idea sounds problematic to me, so I’m interested in the various non-drug interventions suggested by Cortright and Mora. Fortunately, it seems that neurogenesis is easy to increase, by doing the obvious things we already know about:

  • Environmental enrichment
  • Calorie restriction
  • Aerobic exercise
  • Adequate levels of certain nutrients (omega-3s, vitamin E).

I think of my artist dates in particular as environmental enrichment, but of course time spent in nature counts as well. The parkour I do probably counts double, because there’s learning how to execute the moves, but there’s also learning to see the environment as a place where those moves are useful.

My weight loss practices have been substantially motivated by the science around calorie restriction as a way to improve health generally, with additional neurogenesis just one factor.

My experience over the previous 30 years convinced me that approaching calorie restriction in a numerical, analytical fashion—tracking what I ate, estimating the calorie content, aiming for some target X% below maintenance—would be unsuccessful. Instead, I came at it from the other direction: If I’m losing weight, I must be restricting my calories.

The caloric deficit implied by my weight loss over the past five years is just about 100 calories per day. Maintenance for me is probably around 1800 calories per day, so I’ve averaged about 5.5% below. It would probably be more accurate to say that I’ve averaged about 10% below maintenance for about half that time, as I’ve generally lost weight during the summers while maintaining a stable weight through the winters. Either number is well shy of the “20% to 40%” reduction that’s been shown to decrease the rate of aging of the brain, but I rather suspect that the benefit exists even at these lower levels—with the added bonus of being sustainable over a much longer period of time. (I mean, how long can you maintain a 40% deficit below maintenance before you simply waste away?)

According to Mora, aerobic exercise seems to increase neurogenesis by the same chemical pathways as calorie restriction. According to Cortright, it has to be aerobic activity of substantial duration—some twenty minutes or more. In particular, the sort of HIIT workouts so beloved of the paleo/primal folks don’t seem to produce the same effect. That’s fine with me: Humans are much too well-adapted for endurance running for me to buy into the idea that primitive humans didn’t do marathon-distance runs when they needed to. Besides, I enjoy long runs.

Of course, neurogenesis is reduced by the obvious things:

  • Neurotoxins (mercury, lead, pesticides, etc.)
  • Traumatic brain injuries (concussions, etc.)
  • High blood glucose levels
  • Stress.

My parents made a considerable effort to keep me and my brother free of neurotoxins, and I have managed to avoid concussions so far. I’m sure I subjected myself to excessive blood glucose levels for years, but I think I’ve got that under control now. I also subjected myself to excessive levels of stress for years, due to the vicious circle of my seasonal depression making me unproductive, my lack of productivity making me stress about losing my job, and the stress no doubt worsening my depression. I’ve got that under control now as well.

Really then, this whole neurogenesis thing doesn’t so much give me new strategies for staving off depression, as provide a conceptual framework for organizing the strategies I’m already using.

Even just that seems worthwhile.

(The image at the top is of these great doors at the Environmental Education Center at Kennekuk County Park. The branching trees reminded me of neurons, a little.)

Fighting seasonal depression with woollies

I do a lot of things to stave off winter depression. I walk. I spend time in nature. I spend time walking in nature. I move in other ways—taiji, lifting, stretching, running, parkour. I use my HappyLight™. I take vitamin D. But probably most important is finding things to take delight in.

Jackie doesn’t suffer with the dark days of winter the way I do, which is probably a matter of brain chemistry, but perhaps another factor is that she is very good at taking delight in winter as an opportunity to wear her woollies.

I’m trying to do the same.

It helps that I have new winter clothes, and old winter clothes that fit again. The photo on this page shows me walking in nature, wearing a purple sweater my mom knit for me years ago.

Besides my old sweaters and my new sweaters, I have a smashing wool vest that Jackie gave me, some wool pants that I bought as field pants (but that are perhaps too nice to wear in the field), and a vast collection of scarves that Jackie wove and knit for me. And that’s just the woollies. I also have a nice collection of moleskin and flannel garments perfect for winter, various fleecy things, and a range of jackets and coats to cover all possible temperatures from “slightly brisk” to “well north of the arctic circle.”

This year, I’ll try to take delight in my seasonally appropriate garments, especially the woollies, and see if that won’t carry me through to spring.

Collecting prairie seeds

As part of becoming a master naturalist, Jackie has been going on volunteer work days at local natural areas. A couple of times I’ve gone along as well, most recently on Saturday to Meadowbrook Park where we gathered prairie seeds.

Jackie is trying to learn to identify all the plants during all the seasons, so she made a point of gathering some of each of the prairie species that the organizers wanted.

I figured I’d just try and be productive, so I focused on a plant I knew I’d be able to identify, and just gathered baptisia aka wild indigo aka false indigo. Over the course of 90 minutes or so I manged to fill a big paper grocery bag about three-quarters full of seed pods. Apparently the crop is better this year than last year, when weevils consumed nearly every seed. (Although I did see a lot of weevils—kind of disturbing because their size and shape makes it easy to mistake them for ticks.)

It was pretty easy. I spotted a baptisia from the sidewalk and gathered its seeds (leaving about half behind, so that there will be some seeds to disperse naturally). Then I looked around, spotted another plant a few yards away, and moved to that one. They’re not very dense in the prairie, but I don’t think I ever harvested a plant without being able to spot at least one more to move to, and then another visible from that one.

The baptisia flowering stalks seemed to be a favorite of some medium-sized black wasp. I skipped those stalks. They are also a favorite of a large green and brown praying mantis, which blends in surprisingly well for such a large insect. I saw three of them, barely noticing two before I started harvesting, and not noticing the third until it scrambled off the stalk.

Such a handsome face

(That’s the same kind of mantis, although not taken in the prairie.)

These seeds are going to be used right in Meadowbrook Park. Over the winter, the mowed area in the southwest corner of the park will be turned into more prairie.

The workday shifts are nominally 2 hours, but they don’t work us very hard. Especially when we’re all off working in different locations, they start to try to get us rounded up again after just 90 minutes or so. (I think especially when it’s hot they keep the shifts short.)

This particular work day was in celebration of National Public Lands Day, and while the workers refreshed ourselves with water, lemonade, and snacks back at the starting point, one of the organizers read an excerpt from a proclamation by Barack Obama in recognition of the day.

Then they gave anyone who wanted one a certificate recognizing our participation, and let us go.

Humans evolved to see high-viz yellow

For years I was sure that blaze orange would be the most visible color—so sure that I bought all my shirts for bicycling in some approximation of that color. I simply couldn’t imagine that a greenish-yellow color would be more visible, especially against green backgrounds like corn and soybean fields.

Then one day while out riding in one of my orange shirts, I was passed by a pair of cyclists, one wearing just about the same color of blaze orange as I was, and the other wearing high-viz yellow.

They were riding quite a bit faster than I was, so over the course of the next few minutes they dwindled down to two small dots far ahead of me. And then they dwindled into one small dot: the high-viz yellow one. And that high-viz yellow shirt remained visible for a really long time after the orange-shirted guy riding right next to him had vanished in the distance.

After I thought about it, it made sense. Humans evolved as forest-edge creatures. Of course high-viz yellow stands out, even against a hundred different shades of leafy green. Picking critical detail out of dappled shade—where basically everything is a shade of yellow-green—is exactly what the human eye evolved to do.

All my new safety gear is high-viz yellow.

Original opulence via simple living

Just from her title I was pretty sure that Christa Whiteman’s post Living simply: reclaiming sanity + authenticity would be right in my sweet spot, and I was not surprised to find more than a little overlap with what I’ve been saying for years at Wise Bread. I’ve talked about living a life of “luxury and splendor,” but recovering our “original opulence” sounds good too.

Christa suggests three starting places: food, movement, and stuff—adding that the proper course to take is a spiral, coming around to the same points over and over. She is right—where you start means little—and yet, her course is so completely different from my own I thought it might be worth pondering those differences to see if they told me something useful about what I’ve been doing, and about how I’ve been writing about it.

As anyone who has read my work at Wise Bread knows, I’m all about the power of frugality as a tool for living a life of full of exactly what you most want: Basically, I started with the “stuff” piece. I probably have a hundred articles on various aspects of figuring out the difference between needs and wants, covering your actual needs, identifying and focusing on those few wants that matter most deeply to you, and dealing with others who care how you satisfy your wants.

I wrote quite a bit about food, too—about how to eat at the intersection of cheap and healthy. I’ve just now reread a few of those posts and I’m pretty pleased with them, even if I’d write them differently now.

Christa’s third piece is about movement, and that is where my writing at Wise Bread falls short. In fact, I’ve really got exactly one post that’s right on topic. The editors gave it the unfortunate title of Get a Great Workout for Free With 11 Simple Moves, but it’s straight-up natural movement advocacy. Before that, I had some good stuff on how walking and bicycling for transportation were frugal and healthy, but it had a pretty limited perspective.

I think I need to write some more pieces on both food and movement for Wise Bread. I can certainly write a new Wise Bread post on how to eat paleo on the cheap. (Not that I eat a paleo diet, but there’s a lot of overlap between what’s expensive in my diet and what’s expensive in the paleo diet.) Maybe I can also write some more movement pieces. What should be the focus, I wonder. The frugality of natural movement for exercise? The frugality of staying healthy? Or the luxury and splendor of being a fully capable human? I guess I’ve done that first one. Hmm.

Anybody who talks about natural movement needs a picture of themselves squatting on a fallen tree in the forest.
Anybody who talks about natural movement needs a picture of themselves squatting on a fallen tree in the forest.

Huge spider

Well shy of Shelobian proportions, but still I think the largest spider I’ve ever seen in the wild.

Spotted in the prairie, along the lower path. I put my hand in there for scale, but really didn’t want to get it quite close enough for that to work.

Updated to add: A bit of quick googling reveals that this is a yellow garden spider Argiope aurantia.

Walking on the beach

Lake Michigan isn’t great for swimming—the water is still pretty cold even in August, it’s kind of polluted, it lacks the extra buoyancy that comes from the salt in ocean water, and there’s no coral. But if what you want is a beach, Lake Michigan has a great one.

Eight years ago my brother convinced me to come to St. Croix for a family reunion sort of thing. We stayed at Cottages by the Sea. The meticulously kept grounds invited barefoot walking, and I was surprised to discover that a week walking barefoot in the grass and the sand cured my plantar fasciitis. (I’d been keeping it under control with Birkenstocks, supportive shoes, rationing the amount of standing I did on hard floors, and strictly limiting the amount of barefoot walking I did. Discovering that barefoot walking on natural surfaces helped rather than hurt was a key early step in my move toward natural movement.)

lake-michigan-beach-2_29188771842_oThe Lake Michigan beach has some rocks right down in the surf, but they’re not an obstacle to comfortable walking, because they’re resting on sand and push right down when you step on them (unlike the rocky beach in St. Croix, which seems to be exposed bedrock with a little sand on top). And anyway, just a few feet up the beach from the surf, it’s just sand.

looking up a duneRather a lot of sand, actually. Whole dunes of it. It’s beautiful along the lake.

Champaign-Urbana is a great place to live, but it is lacking in beach, so I was glad to get a chance to visit the beach while visiting my dad last week. We drove to South Haven, visited a small nature preserve, and then went to the Van Buren State Park just south of the preserve. I did some beach walking both places.

I loved walking in the sand—soft, comfortable, hot (up where the sand is dry), cool (down by the water), and mildly abrasive. My feet enjoyed it even though my plantar fasciitis is long gone, cured by the taiji practice (standing meditation turns out to be a great way to learn how to stand), and by plenty of barefoot walking on natural surfaces.

feet-in-the-sand_29219114001_oIt only occurred to me recently that my feet being shoe-shaped (rather than foot-shaped) was a bad thing. I’d some years ago started down the path of “barefoot” running (that is, running in minimalist running shoes), but I’d been focusing on improve my running gait, rather than the shape of my foot.

Once I started walking actually barefoot, I quickly developed an odd callus on the pad of my left index toe. And, looking at my feet, you can see why. Just the bit of barefoot walking I’ve done over the past couple of years has almost normalized my right big toe, which now comes out almost straight from my foot. My left big toe is still canted over at an angle so that it presses up against my left index toe. No wonder I use the toe oddly in a way that produces the odd callus.

Well, something to continue working on.

Clothes that fit

One of the great luxuries of losing weight is that you can buy clothes that fit.

If you’re fat, you don’t get to buy clothes that fit. All you can do is buy “the right size,” defined as “the smallest size that goes all the way around you.” This will not (except by pure happenstance) be a size that fits correctly. The same size XXL t-shirt will be considered “the right size” for the bodybuilder, the basketball player, the linebacker, and the powerlifter, as well as the fat guy. At most it will fit one of those people well. Very likely, it will fit none of them well.

Still, things are better than they were.

Back in the early 1980s there were companies that simply didn’t make pants in waist sizes above 34, because they thought the sight of fat men wearing their clothes would taint their brand. Even brands that didn’t refuse to sell clothes in ordinary large sizes had very little for people fatter than that. I remember a comedy routine from about the same time with a fat comedian complaining that they quit making normal pants a couple of inches before they got to his size. Gesturing toward the plaid pants he was wearing, he said, “It’s not bad enough that I’m fat? I also have to dress like a clown?”

Twenty years ago, waist sizes in men’s pants went up in one-inch increments until you hit 34, then they went to two-inch increments. So, if the right size for you was 35, you either wore a 36 and cinched your belt to keep them up, or else you wore a 34 and got it to go around you by wearing it under your waist and letting your belly sag over the front of your pants. About fifteen years ago companies started selling pants with a 35-inch waist. Not long after they started selling pants with a 37-inch waist. The companies figured out there was a big market for big people.

During the five years or so that I’ve been losing weight, I’ve been making the smallest possible investments in my wardrobe, figuring that I’d wait until I was at a stable weight before buying more new clothes than the minimum needed to keep myself dressed until laundry day. I bought about two new t-shirts when I hit size L, and then three more when size M started fitting.

Finally, just in the last few weeks, I’ve started buying a significant amount of new clothes that actually fit.

Which brings me back to my starting point: The luxury of being able to buy clothes that fit.

Last week I went to the nearby Goodwill store and spent half an hour going through the men’s shirts. Short-sleeve men’s shirts in size M pretty routinely just fit. (The exception was a very nice Brooks Brothers shirt that was way too big. It was so nice I was sorely tempted to go through the size S men’s shirts to see if I could find something from Brooks Brothers.) Long sleeve shirts are trickier because I have short arms, but even so I found two shirts that fit—one in the exact right size, another in a size that should have had sleeves a little too long, but that must have been altered by the previous owner.

Here’s my Goodwill haul:

Five shirts from Goodwill at half the cost of one dress shirt from Lands End.
Five shirts from Goodwill at half the cost of one dress shirt from Lands End. The blue short sleeve shirt on top is mostly linen. The green one behind it is 100% silk. The two long-sleeve shirts and the black t-shirt are all 100% cotton.

It would not have been so easy if I still wore XL or XXL. Except by pure luck (like the white shirt whose sleeves had been shortened to my size), nothing would have fit well. The neck would be too tight, unless the shoulders were way too big, and the sleeves would all be too long.

Clothes that fit: One more convenience for thin people.

Ankle dorsiflexion turns out to be useful

For going on two years now, I’ve been working on recovering the ability to squat. I’m not talking about the exercise called the squat, although I do that too. I’m talking about the ordinary human resting posture of lowering your butt down near your heels and relaxing there.

The reason I’ve been working on it for two years is that I haven’t been flexible enough to get into a proper squat. My flexibility has been improving pretty slowly, but it has been improving—I can now get down into a pretty good squat if I have a bit of heel support.

The change that’s been driving the improvement, but (as needing heel support shows) the area where I still need to improve, is ankle dorsiflexion. (Dorsiflexion is pulling your toes up toward your knees. It’s the opposite of plantarflexion, which is pointing your toes away from your knees.) To improve my ankle dorsiflexion I’ve been doing a variety of calf stretches with both straight and bent knees.

I don’t really have a before picture, but my ankle flexion used to be just about zero. That is, my ankle would bend 90° (as in standing up straight) no problem, but bending it up further simply didn’t happen. I used to think that was normal, and didn’t really try to stretch my calf to go beyond that range.

Now that I’ve been doing my stretches for a while, I can manage a bit of dorsiflexion:

Ankle dorsiflexion while walking uphill
Ankle dorsiflexion while walking uphill

The thing that prompted me to write this post, though, is not that I’m a few degrees closer to being able to squat, but that this added range of motion turns out to be useful for other stuff. In particular, as demonstrated in this picture, walking uphill.

There’s not a lot of call for walking uphill in east-central Illinois, but you can find places where it’s possible to go up a hill. Jackie and I visited one a couple of weeks ago, and I found myself putting my new range of motion to good use.

See, if you can dorsiflex your ankle, then the heel of your back foot can stay on the ground as you stride uphill. This lets you use your glutes to drive yourself forward and upward.

If you can’t dorsiflex your ankle, then your back heel comes off the ground as soon as your front foot goes forward. Now you’re stuck pushing yourself up with your relatively wimpy quads and calf muscles.

I’m not surprised, I just hadn’t though of it. This natural movement stuff turns out to have all kinds of side benefits.

First very long walk in a very long while

Last summer we were doing lots of very long walks, getting ready for our day hike of the Kal-Haven Trail. This year, without that motivating event, we haven’t done nearly as many.

We’ve done plenty of walking, of course. We’ve even taken some long walks. But since our big hike last summer, we’d only done one very long walk, back in October last year. (A very long walk is one longer than 14 miles. That post includes the explanation of how I picked that distance.)

With this lack of very long walks in mind, a couple of days ago I suggested to Jackie that we should go for a 15-mile hike, and we agreed that Saturday looked like a good day for it.

Jackie has signed up to be a Master Naturalist, and because it’s an endeavor of the Urbana Park District (among other groups), she wanted to visit some Urbana parks. So, we made a point of hitting a few as we walked, including Carle Park, Crystal Lake Park, Busey Woods, and Meadowbrook Park. We’d thought to hit the newish Weaver Park, but to do so we’d have had to go a long way along one of two rather uninspiring, somewhat busy streets. We decided to save it for a day when we were out in the car.

We did some casual route planning, but basically we figured we’d just walk to (and around) parks until we hit our 15 mile goal, and then catch a bus to home. And that would have worked great, except that we really wanted to visit Meadowbrook Park, where we had volunteered in a stewardship work day last week. And that would have been fine, except that the Sunday bus service to Meadowbrook is pretty limited.

Once we’d seen the parts of Meadowbrook that we particularly wanted to see, we’d hit our 15 mile goal (or nearly), and I sat down to check the bus timings. Asked for the best way home by bus, Google Maps suggested that we just walk home—about 3 miles, along Race Street and Curtis Road. I suggested to Google Maps that we might want to walk to First and Gerty, where we could catch the Yellow bus home, but that would be almost as far as just walking home—and end up taking longer, because we’d still have the bus ride ahead of us.

In the end, we just walked home. It was okay, even though there aren’t any sidewalks along Race or Curtis. A good bit of the way we had wide swaths of recently mowed grass along the side of the road, which gave us a nice place to walk well away from the traffic. Other places we had to walk right on the edge of the road, but the drivers were all good about steering clear of us (and we had a ditch we could have bailed out into if necessary).

Some of the stretches were pretty weedy, which made for some harder walking, and some places the weeds hid uneven bits in the ground. Those might have been a problem last year, when nearly every long walk we took was further than we’d ever walked before, meaning that our feet and ankles tended to be tired and sore for the last few miles, which is no good for walking over uneven ground.

This year, it turned out to be no big deal. Despite this being our first very long walk since October, our feet and ankles were totally up to it. We were glad to get out boots off and sit down at the end of it, but we could have walked several more miles if that had been necessary.

The total walk came in at 17.78 miles, rather longer than I’d intended, but comfortably over the threshold for a very long walk. And we got to see some very nice parks.

I neglected to get any pictures along the walk, with one exception: I took a picture of the house where Chuck used to live in Urbana so I could send it to him. And, since that’s the only picture I took on this walk, it’s all I’ve got to illustrate this post.

Here you go: