Oura-ringing out the old year

For a couple of years now, I’ve been having some trouble sleeping. It’s not a constant problem, but it has become more frequent than the rare thing it used to be.

I think the problem is just a string of one-off instances of stress. During this period I had one older relative begin having cognitive difficulties and have to move to a facility that could provide additional care, my cat got sick and eventually died, had some personality clashes related to volunteer work I’m doing grow into a problem that eventually involved lawyers, and had another older relative began showing signs of cognitive difficulties.

Each of these resulted in a pattern where I’d fall asleep just fine, but then wake up in the middle of the night and start ruminating about the issue of the day and be unable to fall back to sleep for an hour or three.

In the past when I had problems of this sort they tended to be short-lived. I’d stress out about something for a night or two or three, but the issue would be resolved soon enough and I go back to sleeping fine.

Here the issues have stacked up, new ones following the old ones.  Further, some of them don’t go away. They linger on.

As I say, I think that’s what’s happening here. Ordinary life stresses have simply come at me a little too hard and a little too fast, with the result that my sleep has been impacted.

However, maybe that’s not all that’s going on. Maybe there’s more to it. I know there are some other issues. For example, if I don’t keep my carb intake down my nasal congestion returns, and that dramatically interferes with my sleep.

Given that I’m not sure what all might be wrong, I thought it might make sense to investigate further—gather some data, and see if I couldn’t find some patterns in my sleep problems. To that end, I bought an Oura ring, a tracking device along the lines of an Apple watch or a Fitbit, but with its focus specifically on gathering and analyzing data about sleep.

I’ve only had it for a week so far, and I’m really just getting started at looking for trends in the data. For example, three nights ago I slept poorly (awake for almost 2.5 hours of the almost 9 hours I was in bed).

One possible reason was a too-large meal too late in the day. (It was the Winfield Village holiday party.) One piece of data that suggests that possibility is that my body temperature was elevated by 0.3℃ during the night—perhaps because of increased metabolic activity digesting all that food.

Interestingly, I got more deep sleep than I had all week up to now, perhaps because I went for a long run the day before. (Deep sleep is where you get the physical recovery from things like heavy weight-lifting sessions and long runs. Maybe the first few nights had less deep sleep simply because I didn’t need more than that, because I hadn’t had the hard workouts that require deep sleep for recovery.)

Here’s the next night, where I spent less time awake and almost as much time in deep sleep:

My body temperature was still up, though, even without the big meal. We had turned the thermostat down one more degree, but that’s about as low as we want it, so last night I rearranged the covers, removing the down comforter, going with just the wool blanket. I don’t know if that was a key change, but I slept very well last night:

Not only were my quantities of total sleep and deep sleep good, some of the other metrics were good as well. My temperature deviation was -0.3℃, which suggests that maybe I’ve got the covers and thermostat thing balanced just about right. My resting heart rate was down to 47, which suggests that I’ve recovered completely from the long run I took three days ago.

My hope is that by paying attention to this sort of thing, I can gradually eliminate these sorts of problems affecting my sleep. Of course that will leave me with the stress-related problems, but I think I know how to handle those—fixing the ones that can be fixed, accepting the ones that can’t be fixed, and engaging in appropriate self-care to help myself handle the stress better. And, of course, get enough sleep.

Bone broth (or, as we call it, broth)

I have been amused to see “bone broth” trending of late, as I can’t remember the last time our household cooked anything with a bone in it and then failed to make broth out of it. It has been decades, at least.

(If something just has a bit of bone, like a serving of ribs or a bone-in steak or chop, we put the bone in the freezer and then throw it in with the next carcass we boil down for broth.)

Still, with broth showing up so much in the media lately, I keep wanting more of it (due merely to the power of suggestion), and although we eat plenty of meat, our roasting of carcasses hasn’t quite kept up with our broth needs.

So Thursday I swung by the butcher and got something over 4 pounds of frozen chicken necks. (They freeze them in a big trough-shaped container from which they can saw off a block of about three inches high by 4 inches deep by as long as someone wants.)

I put the block in a roasting pan and put it in the oven at 325℉ until it started being possible to pull off individual necks. Then I turned it up to 400℉ so I could get a bit of browning of the skin and pick up some nice roasty flavor. Once I had the necks a little bit roasted, I divided them between two big soup pots, added a little cider vinegar, a roughly quartered onion, some celery tops, and water. Then I boiled them for 3 or 4 hours, which wasn’t as long as would be ideal, but thawing the big block had taken longer than I’d expected and it was getting on to bedtime. Yield: about 12 cups of broth.

The butcher also sells cow femurs to use for broth, but that’s crazy. The good stuff in broth comes at least as much from the associated connective tissue as it does from the bones themselves. What you want is something like a tail or a back or a neck—something with lots of cartilage, ligaments, and tendons along with the bones. Skin is nice too.

Today I used three cups of my fresh broth and three cups of frozen broth from a recent smoked chicken carcass to make some lentil soup (with red lentils and red carrots, but foolishly not red onions or red potatoes, even though I had some of each).

It came out a little neutral in flavor—it had some dried red pepper as well, but turned out not to be as spicy as I’d expected. I added extra salt and black pepper and vinegar at the table, and it was yummy. I figure slightly neutral will be great for leftovers, as we can mix up the spices however we want.

Minimally processed food

Eating low-carb has been a useful tactic for me—when I watch my carbs, my allergy symptoms are greatly eased—but that doesn’t change the more fundamental truth of Michael Pollan’s basic rules: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

That first rule is the most important, and would be very nearly enough all by itself, if followed strictly. Probably the way in which “low-carb” helps me as a tactic is that it eliminates whole categories of “foods” which fall short of being food, but which were in my diet for so long, and which I enjoy so much, that I’m otherwise inclined to eat them anyway.

By “food,” I’m referring to industrially produced food-like substances. And, of course, it’s not so simple as that. Twinkies and Doritos are out at the far end of the “ultra-processed” spectrum, but what about the near end? I used to eat a lot of children’s breakfast cereals—which with all the fiber removed and large amounts of sugar added are clearly ultra-processed. But what about more grown up breakfast cereals—processed, but made from whole grains, maybe with a bit of fruit or nuts added? What about granola?

Really it’s just about impossible to eat food without processing. A green salad is pretty minimally processed, but I like my lettuce picked, washed, cut or shredded into bite-sized pieces, and drizzled with a bit of olive oil and vinegar (each of those latter two somewhat processed in its own right). Maybe if you get down on the ground and chomp down on a live lettuce plant you could say you were eating unprocessed food.

I started thinking about this when I saw a pair of lists—processed foods and unprocessed foods—in “Nutrition Action,” a publication which aims to be evidence-based, but which has some striking idées fixes, particularly as relates to low-fat, as illustrated in these lists: generally unremarkable, except that they bizarrely included 2% milk as an “unprocessed” food.

Now, raw milk from a single cow is arguably unprocessed. Mix it with the milk of another hundred cows, pasteurize it, and homogenize it and I think it’s already a bit of a stretch to call it just minimally processed. But to then remove half the milk fat and call that “unprocessed” to me is a bridge too far.

With ragweed season in full swing, my allergy symptoms have clicked into high gear. I’ve belatedly gotten back on very low-carb diet and am already (after just one day) feeling much better.

This time I’m trying to keep more of an “eat food” perspective on the whole thing. I don’t want to fear fruits, just because they’ve got carbs. (I am staying away from fruit juice, at least until I’m sure I’ve got the inflammation fully back under control.) I’m being even more cautious of grains, but not hesitating to include a little rice. I haven’t eaten any lentils yet, but I won’t hesitate to include them either.

I don’t want to say it’s not the carbs, because it is. But with a very few exceptions (like honey and potatoes) it’s only with ultra processing that it becomes at all appealing to eat excess carbs. If I eat food, I’m not going to have to worry about the carbs.

Here’s a photo of Jackie minimally processing some okra for the gumbo pictured at the top of this post

Saturated fats may or may not kill us all

I am daunted by stuff like this recent article in Paleo Magazine: Does Coconut Oil Really Cause Heart Attacks? which makes the case that polyunsaturated vegetable oil is dangerous stuff to eat, and that the statistical associations that seemed to suggest that it was safer than saturated fat were an artifact of other dietary changes going on at the same time that the public was being pushed to switch to vegetable oils:

Though saturated-fat-intake data used in these trials are absent from most of the publications, historical data do show that the average person’s diet was higher in margarine and shortening than it was in butter, lard, and tallow. One must consider that most, or possibly all, of the 1970s-era studies showing a supposed benefit of adding PUFAs are actually evidencing the benefit of cutting out trans fat.

It is annoying that the research studies done to date do not seem to have been constructed to resolve this question, leaving us stuck trying to figure out statistical correlations and hypothesize about cause and effect based on how different fatty acids are metabolized in the body.

Lacking the skills with either statistics on the one hand and biochemistry on the other, I can’t figure this out for myself. And yet, it is literally a matter of life or death.

However, there is another way to get at the question, the strategy suggested by Michael Pollan in In Defense of Food. There are many traditional diets that have been eaten all over the world by millions of people for thousands of years, and the people who have eaten them have thrived.

There are also diets that were eaten by people who did not thrive—the standard American diet for one, but also many others. (In particular, it seems that many early agricultural societies go through a period when agriculture starts producing enough calories through a single staple crop to push the population high enough that it’s not possible to get the full range of necessary nutrients from other available foods. In the archeological record you see people shrinking and signs of various degenerative diseases not present in other populations.)

By looking at the vast range of diets that lead to thriving, I am convinced that it’s not that hard to eat a healthy diet, and that simply going for whole foods gets one most of the way there.

I am convinced enough that, despite being a picky eater from way back, I have been expanding the range of things I eat more and more, trying to add whole foods and delete processed foods. I give a nod to paleo eating—speculating about what cavemen ate and how they prepared it is at least fun and may even offer some useful guidance on how to eat, especially for people who have dietary issues that they’ve been unable to resolve with simpler strategies—but I have not given up dairy or grains or legumes.

Trying to eat whole foods has significantly increased the amount of saturated fat in my diet. I just about don’t use polyunsaturated vegetable oil in my own cooking—it is, after all, a quintessentially processed food—and I eat very little food cooked by other people (except Jackie).

I suppose the fats I do eat and cook with—olive oil, butter, and lard—are all “processed,” but those processes (pressing, churning, rendering) are processes that people have been using for a very long time indeed. The number of people who have eaten those fats and thrived over the past 5000 years (that we know of, and probably a multiple of that in fact) is large enough to give me some confidence that these foods are safe to eat.

So far that’s the best I’ve been able to come up with.

Heart rate training and this morning’s run

Another quick experiment with WP-GPX-Maps, but also a quick report of using my heart rate in my running training.

First, here’s this morning’s run:

Total distance: 2.83 mi
Total Time: 00:37:44

Roughly the same route as last time, except that instead of running back past the woods the same way I ran out I ran back on a path through the woods itself, and then I added another out-and-back through the prairie, out on the path we call the Low Road and then back on the Middle Way, adding a half mile or so.

(By the way, my heart rate ought to be showing up and isn’t. Part of the reason it’s not there is that it’s not being included in the GPX file that I’m getting from Polar. I was able to get a GPX file that included the heart rate, by exporting a TCX file from Polar and then converting it using TCX Converter, but that still didn’t work. The result was actually worse, in that it lost the altitude data as well. The map above is generated from the straight GPX file from Polar.)

I’m trying to train at my MAF heart rate, which I calculate at 127.

The theory here is that training at this intensity is best for improving your ability burn fat (rather than glucose) for energy. At higher heart rates you end up using a great deal of glucose, so you end up glycogen depleted and then have to eat carbs to replenish your stores. At this lower intensity your consumption of glucose is modest and easily replenished with even a low-carb diet.

With regular training, you gradually get faster at this low intensity (for a while, anyway), which means that you’re automatically training for both speed and endurance at the same time.

I have a heart rate monitor from Polar which works great, except that (incomprehensibly) the Polar app doesn’t have alerts to let you know when you go outside your target range. I’ve been trying to learn through trial and error to feel the intensity level that gets me to the target HR.

This time I got it just about exactly right.

Polar has its own idea of target range, and the closest they have to the zone I want (which is 117 to 127 according to MAF) is what Polar calls Zone 3 and pegs (for me) at 115 to 131. I did 92% of this run in that zone. And, judging from eyeballing the graph, a lot of it was just under 127, right where I want it.

I also squeezed in a 20 minute lifting session after my run. The HR data from that is also kind of interesting, but also doesn’t display with the WP-GPX-Maps plugin.

Off all meds

For years I took drugs for high blood pressure, and for almost as long for allergy symptoms. This post is just to mention that going low-carb has gotten me off all of them.

I got off the allergy meds first. I got on them gradually. For years I said I didn’t have allergies. Then for years after that I said, “Well, for a couple of weeks in the spring and a couple of weeks in the fall, I get a little snuffly.” Then I started being snuffly all spring and all fall. At some point I started taking antihistamines (Claritin seemed to provide the most symptom relief with the least amount of drowsiness), and then at some point I started taking Nasacort as well, to manage congestion that otherwise made it impossible to breathe through my nose.

I initially went low-carb specifically to get off the allergy meds. Without the Nasacort I often had to breathe through my mouth—unpleasant, but also a genuine safety hazard while eating.

It worked, and it worked very quickly—in about three days I was off the allergy meds.

Getting off the blood pressure meds (lisinopril) took a while longer, although I saw improvement almost as quickly. Just a few weeks after going low-carb, prompted by some postural hypotension, I cut the dose I was taking first by half, and then by half again.

I remained on that one-quarter dose for about a year. But two months ago the postural hypotension returned. So, in consultation with my doctor, went ahead and stopped taking the bp meds altogether.

I’m especially glad to be off the Nasacort, which although supposedly a topical steroid is known to have systemic effects in at least some people. Claritin is probably not associated with Alzheimer’s (because it is non-drowsy), but people haven’t been taking it long enough to be sure. I’m sure glad I took the lisinopril—I don’t want to think about the shape my heart and kidneys would be in now if I’d had uncontrolled high blood pressure for the past 25 years—but I’m glad to be off it now.

I no longer have to deal with the common side effects (or worry about the rare side effects). I no longer need to make the monthly trip to the pharmacy. It’s going to make things like traveling easier—not to have to carefully pack up the necessary doses for each day of travel, not to have to worry about getting separated from my meds.

It’s a really nice feeling.

 

Low-carb double-gratitude 2017-04-24

Since going low-carb a year ago, omelettes have been a breakfast mainstay. To provide some variety (besides mixing up the fillings—a lot of onion, peppers of various colors and hotnesses, sometimes a little smoked meat), I’ve taken to adding various spices: most often paprika, turmeric, and black pepper.

Yesterday the turmeric wasn’t in its spot in the spice rack, but I saw a spice jar out on the counter and had already added some to my omelette before realized that it was not turmeric, but rather nutmeg.

So, my gratitude for yesterday was that an omelette with nutmeg turns out to be delicious. (Who would have thought?)

My gratitude for today is that, having gotten my carb consumption back down after letting it creep up while we had visitors and then again after Jackie’s big walk, I’ve once again got my allergy symptoms under control, and have my weight (which had crept up as well) back down to exactly where I want it.

Past mid-winter

Some time in October every year I quit being able to get enough sun to make my own vitamin D. Eventually it gets too chilly to go out with enough skin exposed, and even if it stays warm late into the fall, eventually the implacable reality of the earth’s axial tilt means there simply aren’t enough minutes of the day when the appropriate frequencies of UV light shine down where I live.

As a practical matter, this period runs about six months. By early March there’s probably enough UV available, but it’s usually early April before the stars align such that we can take full advantage. We need days when it gets warm fairly early, because the UV is only available for a few hours right around solar noon. (Warmth at 3:00 PM is great, but doesn’t help with the UV until later in the year when the sun is even higher.) We need to get at least two or three of those days each week. (Just two days would probably be enough, if one never had schedule conflicts that kept one out of the sun around solar noon.)

My experience has been this all works out to mean that I need to rely on supplements for my vitamin D needs for right around 180 days per year. With that in mind, I’ve taken to buying two 90-pill bottles of vitamin D each fall.

When I notice—as I say, usually sometime in October—that it has been several days since I managed to get enough sun, I start taking the pills.

Just a few days ago, I finished my first bottle and opened my second.

That means I’ve made it halfway through! Another 85 or 87 days and I’ll be done with the pills and able to make my own vitamin D!

The last few years I was taking 1000 IU pills. This year I upped it to 2000 IU each day. (Not quite as big a change it sounds—I used to eat a lot of children’s breakfast cereals, often supplemented with vitamin D, but since I went low-carb I’m eating a lot less of those.)

It’s still a somewhat higher dose, which I think may be helping. So far this year I’ve only had a couple of days when I found myself glum for no good reason, a bit better than average, I think.

Steven always warns me against imagining that spring starts before April. But soon—less than 90 days now—I’ll once again be able to make my own vitamin D.

Walking past the UofI’s solar farm

There’s a dearth of good walking routes from Winfield Village to Champaign and Urbana.

From west to east, the choices are Prospect, Lyndhurst/Fox Drive, Neil/Route 45, First Street, and Race Street. The first two are okay if we’re heading to western or central Champaign, but are pretty out-of-the-way if we’re headed to campus or to Urbana. The latter two lack sidewalks and entail long walks along busy roads, which makes them pretty unsatisfactory.

A few weeks ago, I saw a pack of cross-country runners turn up a rather faint double-track on this side of the railroad, which alerted me to the fact that it’s possible to go that way.

img_20160409_132552803_25726287304_oI was doubly interested in going that way, both as a possible alternative route north, and because about one mile north of us there’s a large installation of photovoltaic panels that the University has been calling its “solar farm,” and this bit of double-track leads right to it.

The track runs along the west side of what seems to be research crop fields for the University, although that bit of it may be an easement to provide access to a recently constructed line of pylons for some high-tension power lines.

The solar farm seems to producing quite a bit of electricity on sunny days like today.

Having walked to the solar farm we turned east. Having come that far instead of having to walk a mile along First Street, we only had a quarter of that distance to cover before we reached Windsor and were able to get on a proper sidewalk.

We took a nice tour around the more obscure corners of the research park, including a little diversion past the Fire Service Institute’s training facilities. Then we crossed Route 45 and made our way down to Schnuck’s to pick up a couple of groceries and head on home.

Total walking was 7.7 miles, in my case added to a 3.5-mile morning run.

I had not done much running since settling into the low-carb thing. Together with the walk, it’s a bit of a test of whether I’m seeing any of the endurance benefits I’m hoping to see. (Answer: Maybe. I certainly didn’t get hungry or feel a need to fuel up during the walk. But then, neither did Jackie.)