Why Europe isn't as fat as us (IMO) - Part Three


Community and Good Coffee!!!

I saved the best for last. Who doesn’t love coffee, especially great coffee!? And if you don’t, well, then I’ve got to wonder where your priorities are (and how you survive..I mean really, tell me). I’m only kidding (except, I am kind of judging:-). Whether you like coffee or not, the health benefits are well researched and have been fairly decisively determined. Long story short, a cup of joe or two is good for you. Europeans do not shy away from their coffee. If you’re not a fan of espresso, you may not like your options though. I didn’t find many, if any typical Mr. Coffee slow drip cups of coffee. Standard was an espresso, occasionally a latte, americano, or cappuccino. Prior to being there I could count on two hands the number of espresso’s I’d had (I'm a snob, I like to make mine at home). After a google search (what is the difference between…) I became quite the aficionado. The point to all this coffee talk is that it’s simple, not over thought, and enjoyed in moderation all day everyday. Take coffee out of that, sub in most other things that have proven health benefits, approach with the same attitude and we have a pretty nice equation for health and wellness over the long term.

Lastly, and this goes very nicely with coffee, food, what have you, and that is community. When is the last time you got together with friends for a meal and didn’t feel relaxed? Have you ever met a friend or a date for coffee or drinks or food or all three, and not felt a sense of peace and contentment? Picture the last time you and a group of friends got together for a beer after playing a rec flag football game or sideout at the beach? You’re stress level is most likely fairly low, life is good! 

Those feelings of being relaxed, happy, feeling connected to others puts you in what is called a Parasympathetic state (think rest and digest...also known as Thanksgiving). The opposite is the Fight or Flight feeling (Sympathetic state). The benefits of being in a parasympathetic nervous system state are an increased ability to repair and regenerate, more optimal concentration and memory, better digestion (mentioned earlier) and most importantly a lower level of cortisol. What is cortisol? It's known throughout the general public as "the stress hormone." While that's true, cortisol is not all bad, except like many substances, when we are chronically overexposed to it. If, for example we live in a state of constant stress, hair on fire, can't ever catch our breath, world is falling down type of existence - chances are we are living in a sympathetic nervous system state. Assuming that's true, cortisol is most likely elevated chronically. Where it can negatively affect us most is in the case of the hormone Insulin and weight gain. See, cortisol is produced by the adrenal gland and controlled by the hypothalamus and responds to stress-good stress (exercise) and bad stress (mental and emotional). At the onset of exercise, the hypothalamus releases cortisol so that it can up regulate the concentration of glucose (sugar) in the blood so that it is available for your working muscles. However, too much of a good thing...becomes a bad thing. Long term exposure to cortisol elevates blood sugar even when we're not working out. When bloods sugar is elevated the pancreas has to work harder to release insulin to remove the excess glucose from our bloodstream. Two things happen, if the blood sugar is not shuttled to working muscles, it's either delivered to the liver or to fat cells.  However, if blood sugar is chronically elevated, the receptors become insensitive to insulin and that is what Diabetes is. Not good! It doesn't stop at what we put in our pie hole either. Emotional stress, perceived or otherwise can also raise cortisol, which can raise blood glucose levels - As we learned earlier, it's natural in an acute state, but chronically (i.e. you're constantly stressed out or believe the world is out to get you) it's no bueno. Stress taken a step further can begin to disrupt sleep. Just one nights worth of sleep deprivation and the stress associated with it can cause insulin resistance equal to six months on a junk food diet (see earlier posts about the importance of sleep!) (Credit to Dr. Rangan Chatterjee for that nugget). Our sleep and emotions are closely tied together. Ever been in a great mood following a crummy nights sleep? Me neither. Chronic emotional stress can morph into depression. As many as 1 in 5 Americans will experience depression in their lifetimes. The final layer, in a Kings College study, depression patients with high levels of inflammation due to poor diet (see earlier posts on better food choices) did not respond to anti-depressant drugs...It seems everything is important!

There's good news though. As i alluded to earlier, community breeds feelings of goodwill. Those feelings of togetherness stem an environment of lower stress (perceived or real) which lowers cortisol, which helps to control insulin resistance, which ultimately can lower the incidence of Type 2 Diabetes. So, it would seem as i cited in the previous two posts that proper sleep, high quality food, everything in moderation (including moderation), great coffee, and a great sense of community can yield some impressive long and short term health benefits. I think it's not a mistake nor should it be a surprise that our friends across the pond, while not perfect, have a few things figured out that may be allowing them to avoid some of the health and wellness pitfalls that have befallen us. 

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