Note from Andrew: We are privileged to have this guest post from Pat Davidson today. Over the past couple of months, I’ve gotten to know Pat and everything he does is next level. From training like a savage to integrating PRI concepts in the pursuit of Herculean strength, he is the real deal. This piece takes nutrition to the next level…Enjoy.
How to Think About Food
The main thing that I think about with food is the way it effects my autonomic nervous system.
The nervous system is the controller of the other organ systems. Electrical messages are sent along axons, which reach the terminal end of the wire, and then a chemical message is sent to a receiving structure. The chemical message, when sufficient to cause a voltage change inside the receiving cell causes the cell to open gates and to activate G protein second messaging cascades. When gates open or second messaging systems are put into action, cellular behavior changes in rate.
Cells typically alternate between exergonic and endergonic chemical reactions. If the cell is behaving in an exergonic manner it is giving energy off, and endergonic behavior involves the cell taking energy in. The electrical/chemical messages coming from nerves are a major player in determining whether cells are trending towards exergonic or endergonic function.
The nervous system can be divided into the somatic and autonomic divisions. The somatic nervous system controls the excitation of skeletal muscle. Every other organ system function in your body is under autonomic control. This means that digestion and absorption at the gut/endothelial lining, as well as circulation of foodstuff, and the movement of substrate across the cellular lining are all phenomena that fall under the domain of autonomic control.
This article, will explain two ways where we can respect the autonomic nervous system and honor the authentic functionality of each branch via proper nutrient timing and eating foods that do not promote an inflammatory/immune system activating state.
The autonomic nervous system is housed within the medulla in the brainstem. The brainstem is in the hindbrain, which is a primitive brain location from an evolutionary perspective. The forebrain is where conscious thought resides, and the hindbrain is where subconscious brain matters are located. This is fortuitous because it would be very demanding from a conscious thought perspective to have to regulate heart rate, the opening and closing of arterioles, determining the extent of liver action, kidney filtration and reabsorption, and the countless other organ actions that must take place on a constant basis to survive as an organism on this planet.
The autonomic nervous system is divided into the sympathetic and parasympathetic centers. Each branch effects the organs of our body in different ways, often times in a way where the two branches mirror one another. Finding balance between the two branches of the autonomic nervous system and being able to alternate from sympathetic to parasympathetic dominance is critical to the overall health and performance of the human organism.
Generally speaking, activation of the parasympathetic nervous system is essential to be able to digest food. The parasympathetic nervous system is also associated with the secretion of broken down food products into the blood stream, and it tends to promote the secretion of many of the anabolic hormones within the body. So to maximize the ability to absorb nutrients from food that you eat and to get those nutrients into cells where you can promote anabolic (endergonic) cellular reactions, shifting the body into a parasympathetic state is extremely desirable.
If we cannot escape from a sympathetic state, we cannot maximize digestion, absorption, and cellular uptake of nutrients. Furthermore, the sympathetic nervous system is also associated with activation of the immune system. When the immune system is activated, this tends to promote an inflammatory state within the body. Inflammation is associated with closure of blood vessels, which prevents nutrient rich blood flow from being able to reach tissues of the body.
Foods that promote an inflammatory state and an immune response prevent us from being able to shift solidly into parasympathetic dominance and being able to digest, absorb, and deliver nutrients to cells. Therefore, this is a relationship between food choices and autonomics. Since autonomics is the controller of every organ system of your body this means that to some degree the food choices you make determine everything about the function of your body and your overall health and wellness. In essence, you are what you eat.
My main focus from a dietary perspective is to respect my autonomic nervous system and to not insult the balance between the two divisions.
My sympathetic nervous system is my driver during waking hours. It excites me, fosters an exergonic state, helps promote my ability to perform mechanical work, and keeps me focused. My sympathetic nervous system is not my primary digestion, absorption, and cellular uptake driver. Based on this, I do not eat much food for breakfast and lunch on most days.
My parasympathetic nervous system is most dominant at night while I am asleep. Sleep is the greatest regeneration period for the human organism, and it is the time where we can really accomplish some good high quality digestion, absorption, and cellular uptake of nutrients. Based on this, I eat the majority of my calories at night before I go to bed.
This is of course the opposite of what most nutritional recommendations from government sources and registered dieticians say to do, but as a country we’ve been consistently getting fatter and fatter since we started following what those governing bodies had to say, so I naturally do exactly the opposite on principal alone. It’s nice that there is a very logical explanation that supports my nutrient timing beliefs that stems from authentic knowledge of anatomy and physiology as well.
The immune system responds to tissue trauma and to foreign invaders that can be found in the blood stream. When trauma or a foreign invader is detected, the immune system sets off a cascade of events that results in white blood cell proliferation, inflammation, vasoconstriction, and a host of other chemical responses. This chemical cascade is fairly stereotypical and reproducible. The immune system response is one that is initiated because a threat has been presented to the body. From an autonomics standpoint, the sympathetic nervous system is the division that is activated in response to threat. We must therefore ask the question, are there foods that create a threat to the body? The answer from an autonomics and immune system perspective is yes.
Gluten and Inflammation
The gluten protein is a casing that surrounds the sex organs of wheat based plants.
Plants do not have any desire to provide other animals with nutrition. Plants are trying to survive and pass their genes off to the next generation to keep their species alive on this planet. Plants have developed defensive strategies to be able to prevent their sex organs from being destroyed when an animal eats them. The gluten protein is one such evolutionary plant based defense strategy.
The human digestive processes are not capable of breaking down the gluten protein during digestion in the gut. This means that when we absorb foods with the gluten protein, the gluten casing is still intact when it enters the blood stream. Gluten is something that the human body perceives as being a foreign invader, and as a result, the immune system is activated, and a sympathetic state ensues. Some of the signs and symptoms of an activated immune system include leaky gut syndrome, an increased prevalence of auto-immune conditions, inflammation, swelling, gas, and bloating.
The medical community as well as many nutritionists seem to only focus on Celiac disease when it comes to gluten. This is a mistake because anything that is activating the sympathetic nervous system and the immune system can exert effects on any organ system in the body, and which organ system is most effected will be a highly individualistic experience. Gluten is probably the most insulting inflammatory and immune system activating food choice for most humans; however, it is certainly not the only food choice that can set off this cascade. Dairy, legumes, and nightshades are also high up on the list of offending agents.
What I Do
So what do I do from a food choice perspective and a nutrient timing perspective to maximize my autonomic responses on a daily basis?
First, I go with the bulletproof coffee (BPC) in the morning. Caffeine stimulates the sympathetic nervous system which gets me going. The sympathetic nervous system, with its release of epinephrine and norepinephrine is a powerful agent for causing fat burning because these adrenaline based hormones activate hormone sensitive lipase which liberates fat from fat cells.
In addition to the fat mobilization properties coming from caffeine ingestion, the medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) that go into the BPC are optimal for cellular uptake at working cells that can burn fats. MCTs do not oxidize within the blood vessel (and therefore do not promote endothelial lining inflammation), and they readily cross the plasma membrane and can be quickly broken down to Acetyl CoA to enter the Krebs Cycle via Beta Oxidation inside the cell. The protein that is added to the BPC provides an amino acid influx into cells for protein synthesis, which is nice for a strength athlete, and the ingestion of protein has a powerful satiety effect for preventing extreme food cravings during the course of the day. I also add cinnamon to my BPC due to the fact that this substance has been shown to have outstanding effects on sustaining appropriate blood glucose levels.
The second thing I do is I wait until late in the day to have a big meal, and this is the time when I deliver carbohydrates to my body.
Typically I train during the middle of the day. I don’t worry about post workout supplementation or anything like that. Yes, the research shows that there is a tremendous uptake of amino acids post workout within the anabolic window, but it also shows that there is a big drop off in amino acid uptake and protein synthesis later on.
So, in my mind it all evens out, and worrying about getting food in during the mysterious and elusive anabolic window is something that could be stressful for people to have to worry about, which could ultimately do more harm than good for some people from an autonomics perspective.
The exercise bout during the day does something really fantastic for me though, it dramatically increases my insulin sensitivity. The primary function of insulin is to promote the cellular uptake of blood glucose. Delivering glucose into cells is a very valuable action because it can promote increasing stores of glycogen, which is a powerful energy substrate for high intensity exercise bouts, and glycogen stores must remain high to prevent the release of high levels of cortisol.
If I wait until later in the day to eat my carbohydrates, particularly if I perform exercise prior to carbohydrate ingestion, I will maximize the binding of insulin to its receptor on the plasma membrane, and this will drive a powerful response of cellular uptake of sugar and protein…the two primary ingredients for promoting muscle growth, and muscular performance. In addition to these responses, it seems that glucose and insulin also promote a parasympathetic shift in the autonomic nervous system as well. If I can drive this shift later on in the day, this will be a nice way to prepare my body for sleep, which is the most important regenerative activity for the human body.
It seems that we are inundated with dietary recommendations on a daily basis in the United States. Every expert seems to have some kind of plan for you.
How many of these people ever really trace their recommendations all the way down to the most fundamental levels of anatomy and physiology though? Very few from what I’ve seen. Most so called experts regarding food still focus on calories in vs. calories out, which is a nice concept from a superficial perspective, but ever since our country really bought in on that concept we’ve done nothing but get fatter and more diseased.
In truth, the laws of thermodynamics are unavoidable, and calories in/calories out still is king; however, if you’re counting the calories going into your mouth as the critical ones, your perspective is all wrong. The only calories in/calories out counting that matters are the ones entering and exiting your cells. This calories in/calories out concept is an endergonic/exergonic matter, which is an electrical/chemical matter, which is a sympathetic/parasympathetic manner. Food equals autonomics and autonomics equals organ regulation. Organ regulation equals health. Health equals feeling great, looking your best, and performing at a high level. Respect the hindbrain.