Here’s to hoping that you and yours are staying healthy and sane; as the Romans said at the start of their letters, Si vales, valeo.
If you are well, I am well.
Heading into the holidays, if you’re looking for some health-related reads for yourself or a friend, I’ve compiled a 7-book list to get traction on your mind, emotions, behavior, immune system, brain function and nutrition.
Light fireside reading, when the internet is down.
1. For insight into how we really think
Living in the DEEP BRAIN: Connecting with Your Intuition by Rory Miller.
Miller is a former corrections officer who usually writes about self-defense. His little book addresses developing your intuition: that “gut” sense largely ignored in modern urban existence, despite continuously processing every piece of information about the world around us (kind of like the immune system). Along the way, he describes how differently we actually behave compared to how we think we do, which leads to a whole host of problems unless you’re careful.
Most people think the conscious mind is who they are, the subconscious a shadowy supporting player. Important, but not as real as consciousness. That’s almost completely backward… Your subconscious mind is you. Your conscious mind is largely the story you make up to fill the emptiness in your life… When we talk about training any part of the subconscious, we are really talking about three things. First, getting the conscious mind out of the way. Second, feeding your intuition good information. And finally, cleaning out toxicity… Intuition is how you perceive and assess when your conscious mind and your social conditioning and your weird little insecurities aren’t f—ing with you. Intuition is what your brain and senses are already doing ALL THE TIME.
It’s a primer on How You Don’t Know Yourself As Well As You Think You Do. Realizing this is essential for change. It’s hard to make good health decisions when you’re convinced the flawed way you think is OK-fine.
2. How to change your personal behavior
Atomic Habits by James Clear.
Every day I sit across from folks in the exam room, and every day it feels like I’m talking to 3 brains at once: what Miller describes as the higher Human brain that is narrating the show, and the Monkey and Lizard brains that are actually running it.
Nearly everyone knows what healthy choices are, but people go ahead and make poor choices anyway, exactly as if some evil twin is nodding at the advice and then taking over and ignoring it.
What’s happening is that we’re running afoul of bad habits, or struggling to create better ones. We are habit creating machines: constantly and unconsciously creating shortcuts for “better” solutions to problems we encounter, like driving on the freeway without thinking turn/ brake/accelerate, getting dressed in the morning without considering each item of clothing, or drinking scotch when getting home after a stressful day. The brain is wired to create these shortcuts — habits — as a time-saving survival mechanism, whether they help us in other times and places.
Habit science has defined how the brain creates habits. It basically explains what’s happening when we struggle to apply a positive course correction to our lives.
Read that again.
Once you know how your brain creates habitual behaviors, you can use these learnings to create lasting positive habits and to quickly extinguish negative ones. This is incredibly useful when creating lifestyle changes that gather momentum over time, like adopting a new diet or creating an exercise program.
…we will see time and again how the four stages of cue, craving, response, and reward influence nearly everything we do each day. But before we do that, we need to transform these four steps into a practical framework that we can use to design good habits and eliminate bad ones. I refer to this framework as the Four Laws of Behavior Change, and it provides a simple set of rules for creating good habits and breaking bad ones. You can think of each law as a lever that influences human behavior. When the levers are in the right positions, creating good habits is effortless. When they are in the wrong positions, it is nearly impossible.
3. To get a more forgiving grip on our emotional turmoil
How To Do The Work by Dr. Nicole LePera.
To paraphrase Jim Morrison, No one here gets out alive without doing some deep inner work. Habit science gives you a nuclear-powered Swiss Army knife to change your personal habits, but you’ll get further by extending compassion inward. And that requires a more profound understanding of your conscious and subconscious mind (overlapping with Miller’s material), your formative childhood years, and how to correct deficiencies and traumas that continue to shape your emotional struggles.
It is only when you are conscious that you are able to see yourself, a process of self-awareness that can suddenly reveal so many of the previously hidden forces constantly at work molding you, manipulating you, and holding you back. You can’t eat better, stop drinking, love your partner, or improve yourself in any way until you become transparent to yourself. Because if you intuitively know what you need to do to change for the better, why don’t you do it?
What was most impactful for Jessica was physical movement, especially yoga. For many people, physical movement is useful in honing the attention muscle that is so key to consciousness. The attentional control she developed in her yoga practice helped her to begin to take a second before reacting (emphasis mine — pbk). This helped her create a space for her to begin to consciously witness more fully what was going on for her. It was from this foundation of consciousness that she would create future change.
4. To understand the complexities of the immune system with pretty pictures
Immune by Philipp Dettmer.
Have I mentioned how learnings about the immune system can fill the brain?
Unfortunately, the immune system is very complicated, although that is not strong enough a word. The immune system is complicated in the sense that climbing Mount Everest is a nice stroll through nature. It is intuitive like reading the Chinese translation of the tax code of Germany is a fun Sunday afternoon. The immune system is the most complex biological system known to humanity, other than the human brain… I want this book to make it possible for everybody to understand their own immune system and have a bit of fun doing so. And since this complexity and beauty are deeply connected to your health and survival, you might actually learn something useful.
How old and central is the immune system? We’ve basically had one for as long as we’ve been multicellular organisms. Before we had brains, nerves, or 2 cells to rub together, we had an immune system.
In the animal world, sponges, the most basic and oldest of all animals… possess something that was probably the first primitive immune response in animals. It is called humoral immunity… very tiny stuff, made of proteins, that flows through the bodily fluids outside of the cells of an animal. These proteins hunt and kill microorganisms that have no business being there. This type of defense was so successful and useful that virtually all animals around today have it, including you, so evolution did not phase the system out, but rather, made it crucial to any immune defense. In principle, it hasn’t changed in half a billion years.
5/6. And how to preserve your brain function
The Angel and the Assassin by Donna Jackson Nakazawa
The End of Alzheimer’s Program by Dr. Dale Bredesen
Ernest Rutherford won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1908, for the discovery of the nucleus after a stunning experimental result that changed the understanding of the atomic world: “It was quite the most incredible event that has ever happened to me in my life. It was almost as incredible as if you fired a 15-inch shell at a piece of tissue paper and it came back and hit you.”
We have learned about similar breakthroughs in brain physiology and health in the last 10 years. Nakazawa’s The Angel and the Assassin relates the story of microglial cells in the brain: an immune system where it was previously believed there could be no immune system, and how it going sideways explains many of the neurologic and mental health conditions we had blamed on bad luck or “we just don’t know.”
These deceptively minuscule cells, called microglia, had never been seen as significant in determining mental and cognitive health. Then, in 2012, groundbreaking research showed that, contrary to scientific dogma, these microglia cells held enormous power to protect, repair, and re-populate the brain’s billions of neurons and trillions of synapses, or to cripple and destroy them, leaving wildfire-like devastation in their wake… scientists also unveiled that these microglia cells in the brain were chatting with the body’s immune cells in direct and indirect ways. If there was inflammation in the body, there would almost inevitably be immune changes within the brain.
The End of Alzheimer’s Program, written by a neuroscientist and physician, explains both the current state of knowledge about this most concerning and widespread neurodegenerative disease, while giving explicit actionable items to reduce your risk of dementia, and to reduce the risk of progression should you already have the diagnosis. No cute quotes, the book is all marching orders.
7. Finally, how and why to start dialing in your nutrition
There are a number of Paleo nutrition resources out there, but I repeatedly turn to The Paleo Cure by Chris Kresser as my go-to book recommendation. He hits the sweet spot between explaining what the diet is, why it’s useful from a health, wellness, and functional medicine perspective — different enough to get the job done, not so incredibly different that it’s impossible — and how to start it.
Give yourself the gift of health
I know it’s a very human thing, to say “I know I should be doing more ABC and stopping XYZ, but I just can’t.” These books do a pretty good job at explaining the A through Z of what to do, but more importantly, the 123 of why we can’t seem to do it and how to turn that around.