The standard American lifestyle

This is an adapted summary of a talk I gave at the Foundry Treatment Center in Steamboat Springs, CO, on 5/11/18. This essay is intended to summarize some of biological processes that were discussed in an attempt to give a general idea of how our lifestyle affects our mental health.

If you’re like the average American, you spend most of your day inside, hunched over, surrounded by people you’d rather avoid; eating the standard American diet: a diet that is high in calories, low in fermentable fiber, and exceeds the recommended sugar and grain intakes [1]. After work or school, you mindlessly commute home to finally enjoy the day; to then spend it glued to your handheld looking glass later than you should; to only wake up dreading having to repeat the cycle, like you’re Sisyphus reincarnated [2].

The current narrative on mental health leads us to believe that we are physiologically broken, and we need the help of a professional to properly function as a human again. We are told to blame genetics like it’s the new God of the gaps cursing us with a neurotransmitter imbalance for bad karma in a past life — probably because blaming ourselves make us feel even worse [3–6]. Perhaps it’s not genetics. Maybe it’s our lifestyle that we should blame first and start to rebuttal.

In an attempt to break the cycle. I challenge you to a six week challenge.

6 week challenge

· Sunshine — 30 mins/day

· Sugar/processed food — 0 grams/day

· Physical activity — 1 hr/day

· Vegetables — 1 large smoothie/day

· Cold shower — 3mins/day

· Sleep — 7.5 hrs/day

· Water — 1 L/day

Let’s get into the science.

Photo by Zac Durant on Unsplash

Sunlight is a natural source for Vitamin D. Since we spend so much of our day inside, we’re fairly deficient in vitamin-D7. Moreover, Vitamin-D is a steroid hormone that controls the expression of over 900 genes in our body [8]. One of its primary roles in our mental health is the conversion of tryptophan to serotonin (neurotransmitter), and subsequently melatonin. Melatonin is a neurohormone that is converted from serotonin and initiate our sleep. In other words, our lack of sun exposure negatively affects our mood and our sleep.

Thankfully our standard American diet has bequeathed us with compromised gut barriers [9–11]. Without this barrier, our gut cells are exposed to and attacked by the bacteria we’re housing from our diet. This causes the body to signal a stress signal that redirects tryptophan to immune cell production. We’re already starving for serotonin, and now we have even less tryptophan to make serotonin.

Staphylococcus aureus bacteria (colored green) interacting with a human immune cell. Credit: NIAID; CC-BY Source

Cholesterol is needed for all cell repair, so our body uses LDL cholesterol (“bad” cholesterol) to transport cholesterol from the liver to the damaged gut cells. On their way back to the liver, this smaller LDL particle (“small dense LDL cholesterol”) easily absorbs endotoxins that the bacteria release when they are killed. Endo: meaning internal or within. Toxin: poison to an organism. The only way to remove the endotoxin is to form it into a foam cell, a precursor to plaque. We also end up with an extra neurotoxin [12]. Not only are we starving for serotonin, but now we have a reduction of dopamine as a result of this neurotoxin.

The only way we know to combat some of this brain inflammation is by having sufficient sleep. But the light from our devices delays release of our naturally produced melatonin and the emotional stress from the day releases cortisol. Cortisol is a hormone that suppresses our immune system and affects how we process the food we eat. Consequently, we are suppressing the stress signal to fight the bacterial attack on our gut cells and further disturbing our sleep.

Don’t act like this isn’t you at night. I hate when I drop my phone and it hits me in the face; Photo by Sayo Garcia on Unsplash

Poor sleep can reduce cognitive and physical performance up to 30%, effectively age a man’s testosterone levels by 10 years, and disturb the balance of “hunger hormones” (leptin and ghrelin) [13]. When sleep deprived, we’re more likely to reach for the refined carbohydrates, which was part of how we got into this mess. This is why poor sleep quality, typical of 3rd shift work, is being labeled as a probable carcinogen [14].

Fortunately, there is a way to right the wrong. Getting sufficient sun exposure will help to improve our mood and support our sleep. Exercise helps to soak up that nasty neurotoxin that we spoke about and it reduces visceral fat. Visceral fat isn’t the fat you can pinch. It’s the fat that forms around our major organs and is best reduced with exercise and proper nutrition. So, we need to reduce our refined sugar levels and increase our fermentable fibers such as those from fruits and vegetables.

Fruits and vegetables are great sources of fermentable fiber. Dark, leafy greens are important for gut health and nutrition; Photo by ja ma on Unsplash

The fermentable fibers that we’re getting from our vegetable smoothie support the health of our gut barrier and promote the health of the “good” bacteria in our gut. And, our gut is where 95% of our body’s serotonin is produced — better brain function [15]. In fact, it’s now believed that inflammation plays a major role in many mental illnesses including Alzheimer’s, depression, and potentially addiction [16].

Scientists have recently found direct communication between the gut and the brain via the vagus nerve [17–19]. It’s believe that the communication works in both directions, which would how our emotional stress and thoughts can trigger an inflammatory response in our gut (see above discussion). Moreover, it’s been known that triggering the vagus nerve can attenuate the autonomic inflammatory response that the body generates when exposed to endotoxins20. However, it’s been thought that the autonomic nervous system is beyond our conscious control; hence the “auto” prefix.

Wim “Iceman” Hof; Source: Twitter profile pic.

Wim “Iceman” Hof has been working with scientists to show that we can also use our mind to influence our autonomic nervous system [21–25]. Hof’s method uses breathing exercises and cold exposure as a form of mindfulness training to build a person’s ability to influence their own autonomic system. Check out the video below.

Finally, get good sleep and stay hydrated! Sleep helps restore balance to our hormones, repairs brain damage, and improves alertness and physical performance. Dr. Mathew Walker, author of Why We Sleep and director of director of the Center for Human Sleep Science, recommends 7.5 hours minimum per night. He also recommends turning off lights, no food, and no screens at least 1 hour before bed. You can also help your cause by taking a hot shower, which causes your blood vessels to dilate and expel heat more rapidly. Reduction of core body temperature plays an important role in initiating sleep. So, take your regular hot shower but finish with some cooler water to help transfer heat — water can transfer heat 40% faster than air — and lower your core body temperature.

Checkout these additional resources

  • Checkout Robert Whitaker’s book Anatomy of an Epidemic for a unique narrative on the history of our current magic pill approach to mental health. Goodreads review
  • Checkout Moshe Feldenkrais’ book Awareness Through Movement for a different approach to body awareness if you’re not ready for the cold exposure or just want to expand your movement practices. Goodreads review
  • Checkout Own the Day by Aubrey Marcus for a casual discussion about all of the ways he has found to optimize human potential. After all, his business ONNIT is aimed at optimizing human performance. Goodreads review


  1. Current Eating Patterns in the United States — 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines — Available at: (Accessed: 24th May 2018)

2. Camus, A. The Myth of Sisyphus. J. Am. Coll. Radiol. 4, 868 (2007).

3. Wray, N. R. et al. Genome-wide association analyses identify 44 risk variants and refine the genetic architecture of major depression. Nat. Genet. 50, 668–681 (2018).

4. Holden, C. Behavioral genetics. Getting the short end of the allele. Science 301, 291–3 (2003).

5. Ford, B. Q., Lam, P., John, O. P. & Mauss, I. B. The psychological health benefits of accepting negative emotions and thoughts: Laboratory, diary, and longitudinal evidence. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. (2017). doi:10.1037/pspp0000157

6. Sad News for "Depression Gene" | Science | AAAS. Available at: (Accessed: 24th May 2018)

7. Hanley, D. A. & Davison, K. S. Symposium: Vitamin D Insufficiency: A Significant Risk Factor in Chronic Diseases and Potential Disease-Specific Biomarkers of Vitamin D Sufficiency Vitamin D Insufficiency in North America 1. J. Nutr 135, 332–337 (2005).

8. Patrick, R. P. & Ames, B. N. Vitamin D and the omega-3 fatty acids control serotonin synthesis and action, part 2: Relevance for ADHD, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and impulsive behavior. FASEB J. 29, 2207–2222 (2015).

9. Yano, J. M. et al. Indigenous Bacteria from the Gut Microbiota Regulate Host Serotonin Biosynthesis. Cell 161, 264–276 (2015).

10. Menni, C. et al. Gut microbiome diversity and high-fibre intake are related to lower long-term weight gain. Int. J. Obes. 41, 1099–1105 (2017).

11. Hansson, G. C. Role of mucus layers in gut infection and inflammation. Curr. Opin. Microbiol. 15, 57–62 (2012).

12. E. Leonard, B. The Concept of Depression as a Dysfunction of the Immune System. Curr. Immunol. Rev. 6, 205–212 (2010).

13. Leproult, R. Effect of 1 Week of Sleep Restriction on Testosterone Levels in Young Healthy Men. JAMA 305, 2173 (2011).

14. Erren, T. C. et al. Shift work and cancer: the evidence and the challenge. Dtsch. Arztebl. Int. 107, 657–662 (2010).

15. Burnet, P. W. J. Gut bacteria and brain function: The challenges of a growing field. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 109, E175–E175 (2012).

16. Wyss-Coray, T. & Rogers, J. Inflammation in Alzheimer disease-A brief review of the basic science and clinical literature. Cold Spring Harb. Perspect. Med. 2, 1–23 (2012).

17. Bonaz, B., Bazin, T. & Pellissier, S. The vagus nerve at the interface of the microbiota-gut-brain axis. Front. Neurosci. 12, 1–9 (2018).

18. Stakenborg, N., Di Giovangiulio, M., Boeckxstaens, G. E. & Matteoli, G. The versatile role of the vagus nerve in the gastrointestinal tract. Cit. EMJ Gastroenterol 1, 106–114 (2013).

19. Breit, S., Kupferberg, A., Rogler, G. & Hasler, G. Vagus nerve as modulator of the brain-gut axis in psychiatric and inflammatory disorders. Front. Psychiatry 9, (2018).

20. Borovikova, L. V. et al. Vagus nerve stimulation attenuates the systemic inflammatory response to endotoxin. Nature 405, 458–462 (2000).

21. Kox, M. et al. Voluntary activation of the sympathetic nervous system and attenuation of the innate immune response in humans. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 111, 7379–7384 (2014).

22. Kox, M. et al. The Influence of Concentration/meditation on Autonomic Nervous System Activity and the Innate Immune Response: A Case Study. Psychosom. Med. 74, 489–494 (2012).

23. Buijze, G. A. & Hopman, M. T. Controlled Hyperventilation After Training May Accelerate Altitude Acclimatization. Wilderness Environ. Med. 25, 484–486 (2014).

24. Vosselman, M. J., Vijgen, G. H. E. J., Kingma, B. R. M., Brans, B. & Van Marken Lichtenbelt, W. D. Frequent extreme cold exposure and brown fat and cold-induced thermogenesis: A study in a monozygotic twin. PLoS One 9, 1–8 (2014).

25. Van Middendorp, H., Kox, M., Pickkers, P. & Evers, A. W. M. The role of outcome expectancies for a training program consisting of meditation, breathing exercises, and cold exposure on the response to endotoxin administration: A proof-of-principle study. Clin. Rheumatol. 35, 1081–1085 (2016).

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