One of my greatest challenges in life has been trying to balance my self with my family, my work, my goals, and my research. Something always loses. It is impossible to ignore. Several years ago I begin evaluate the important aspects of my life to prevent the pain of the loss. I knew the pain would always exist, but I knew a way had to exist to reduce the level.
The rank varied depending on what I attributed to each variable. I found my family and my research collided the most. My mind has to constantly be questioning and analyzing and the chaos of being a husband and daddy clashed into a person I did not want to be. I began removing the parts of my life where I did not foresee a positive benefit to my family and research. This allowed me to separate the two and begin removing the clash. It is ongoing, but the perspective gained also rolled into how I work with others.
My clients struggle with similar dilemmas. Do I summit today with the present risks or do I wait for the risks to reduce? My left leg is dragging a bit compared to my left. Do I push it to the top and risk possible issues on the way down? My breathing is shallow today. Do I work on my pulmonary recovery or skip and go run some trails in altitude?
These questions are difficult to answer without having a foundation of history. Typically, I am one to just get after and enjoy the full experience of reaching the destination, but if I have a history of related issues am I sacrificing my future opportunities to reach my goal destinations? It is quite possible I may be, but I must have the data to determine such equations. Otherwise, I am just shooting and hoping.
Nothing really jazzed me more than the apprehension of climbing a mountain. The mere mention of a peak with its rocky crags and treeless vistas creates a cascade of hormones and neurotransmitters I can feel in my fingers and toes. This is quickly followed by constant powerful heartbeats and an explosive development originating from deep within my soul. The odd experience is filled by joy, but physically seems to contain quite a bit of anxiety. Ultimately, my situation lead me to need a calming meditation period rather than pushing my resilient self up the side of a mountain or in this case my day's activities. Reducing my physical response allowed me to press forward, but not without negative ramifications in mental and physical performance.
Over time, the consistent symptoms became a bit of a hurdle, so I began exploring some potential causes leading to implications in my mind and body experience altitude without being at altitude. You know the psychosomatic stuff you have heard about, but did not really understand. When some pieces of the puzzle started to fit, my perspective on anything relating to performance in altitude endurance abruptly changed. I recorded my ideas on a whiteboard along with possible connections, then began testing each to determine potential outcomes and comparing them with other research studies. The number of variables in play overwhelmed my 8 foot by 4 foot whiteboard, so I began prioritizing each to determine which ones had the greatest effect for improvement without degrading the body I normally experienced.
Cardiovascular. Pulmonary. Endocrine. Lymphatic. Blood. Renal. GI. Hormones. Neurotransmitters. Enzymes. The sheer volume of base understanding is immense, then adding some major variables pushing the boundaries of what the human body is capable of adapting is expounds the mental processing capacities. However, there seemed to be a trend to a starting place. The control center of the human body. The autonomic nervous system continued to be the most prevalent variable in my schematic and haunted me creating an autonomic response within myself. These anxiety experiences are building. Argh!
Chronic anxious experiences can cause the body to take normal, every day events to become these jazzed feelings known as a sympathetic nervous system response. So far I have had two in just the four paragraphs I have written. Wait, you are probably asking yourself, "when was the first one?". Do you remember the first sentence about me being jazzed at the thought of climbing the mountain? Yes, the excited, stimulated, anxious, or jazzed state is a sympathetic nervous system response. They arrive in varying intensities. Some are minor, but others are major. Continued reactions or major emotional experiences can result in the minor to be a big deal. And the effect they are on the body. Well, temporarily you win, but long term you lose.
Why can you lose when you constantly are focused and feel fully energized? Well, in a simple answer: You do not recover. The body is always trying to maintain homeostasis by allowing the body to be excited when necessary, then pulling itself back to a normal state with recovery and rest protocols. This rest and recovery experience is the opposite of the sympathetic response. It is call the parasympathetic. Every cascade response in the sympathetic is directly negated by the parasympathetic if the control center, the hypothalamus, sends the signal to do so. Otherwise, we continue in the state of sympathetic or parasympathetic. You can see a bit of this in those who crave coffee or those who crave sleep. You pick which is which.
The implications in altitude endurance is short term massive focus and accomplishment, but for long term recovery and consistent activity not so much. Being active on a mountain requires focus over a long period of time while the body is being rocked with a large physiological demand. In a nutshell, the sympathetic and parasympathetic autonomic systems need to maintain near a homeostasis balance as possible. To disregard how your body is responding to its internal and external environment greatly reduces your short term and potentially long term success. By ignoring symptoms such as a faster or slower heart rate, short or longer respiration rate, diarrhea or constipation, or simply stimulated or relaxed, you can miss out on important cues in your ability to achieve your current goals.
Knowing my bias and when these symptoms should exist in my activity and daily routine have been vital to my normal physical activity, but something is missing. A big inquiry. The ultimate question concluded as: Could I be training my mind and body to prep its ability to adapt faster for higher altitudes while being at lower altitudes? The answer eluded me until I met the right people with the right perspective in several disciplines.
Following my morning clients today, I began chatting with my colleagues about nutrition. It was an impromptu discussion, but it definitely reinforced some recurring challenges in the nutrition world today. The main issues continued to revolved around diets and meal plans. Everyone wants to know what to eat, but telling them does not magically make it happen. If they do follow the plan, then magic still does not happen. Then the search for another answer is in full effect. Paleo. Keto. Rhino. Whatever. There are a bunch of political nutrition parties trying to get you to buy into what they feel is best because of their experience. What is never discussed is why? Or how? Or when? It occurred to me instantly we are not thinking scientifically about nutrition.
To put it into perspective, I am often asked how I feel about certain diets. My response is usually a long pause because I know who is asking me really has either had a horrible or amazing experience with said diet. I then resort to my question what is your goal? Knowing the goal allows me to have an idea whether it fits with what they are trying to accomplish. The challenge I always encounter shortly thereafter is one of two things: "I feel better, but I cannot do what I did before" or "I feel worse, but I can do what I could not before". If their goal was met, then my response is, "Well, then it sounds like your plan is working." Shortly after, their retort is but I lost this. Ah, now we have to talk science because we must ask "Why?". May hypotheses abound, and the testing of these begin. Now we are in science nutrition. Follow?
Political nutrition has its fit, but there can be a cost-benefit we forget to calculate or ignore. In order to really achieve greatness, we must look deeper at your individual needs and create hypotheses on what would be best and develop it from there. If you are interested in learning more about some base principles in the science realm, register for my upcoming Foundation Lessons at the left of your screen or use the menu toggle at the top left of your mobile device. See you there.
Jerry arrived into my office during a Wednesday morning rainstorm following his breakfast meeting with a fellow mountaineer. While I was watching him through my large bay window, I noticed immediately his tension as he lacked that typical relaxed flowing gait. His arms were not swinging at their normal rate while his chin was dropped a bit. There was obviously a concern that was atypical for this lean climbing machine.
When I walked in I said, "You look like you just fought a Yeti, what's going on?" They just finished an intense discussion on a study released that included the latest on the performance effects caffeine and alcohol could have on their high altitude success. He had read the review the previous evening, and immediately sent it to me later that night with the following phrase, "What the deuce?". Thankfully, I am up on the latest mechanisms of such issues especially since mountaineering is one of my favorites areas of study.
He brought to my attention his worry about the amounts. He really enjoyed his bourbon and dark roast coffees while he acclimatized. This had potentially been an issue in the past on some summit bids, but I kept them to myself since there were other variables that may have lead to the physical fatigue. At 46, he was in his later years of his trade, but still in fantastic fitness to achieve his goals. Coffee and alcohol were part of his routine and often a religion for their culture. His buddy, John, followed the sciences to the letter and made decisions that correlated with what would achieve optimally success, so he told Jerry he needed to quit both.
Jerry immediately refused and for the first time he and John were having their first big disagreement. I felt like a mediator for the first few minutes, but the opposite side was not there. Being a science nerd myself, I understood where John was coming from, but also knew that there are always limits to work in as well as timing. We needed to dig into the details of the study while I maintained a visible concern and understanding for Jerry.
The study review "The effects of caffeine, nicotine, ethanol, and tetrahydrocannabinol on exercise performance" by Pesta, Domink H, et al, broke down the mechanisms of actions of the four variables with their effects on performance. The key concepts that relate to Jerry's situation are caffeine's role in glycogen recovery and endurance performance via lipolysis and alcohol's role as detriment to motor function and recovery.
As we dive into the discussion, I lean toward him with my elbows across my knees as he sits nearly erect in his chair with the rain beating down behind him. Some variables just need to be tweaked a bit I told him. "We can figure out what is optimal for you during each climb. Let's look further into the study to see what fits best. How does that work for you?" He agreed.
Two variables for the caffeine that could benefit are amounts per day and timing per day. The first is to maintain near 6 milligrams per kilogram of body mass. This is the general consensus across the board. The second is to focus on drinking the most following the day's climb along with carbohydrates. Now, the challenging topic. At this moment, I knew we would have to remove or greatly limit one of his all time favorite pleasures on the mountain - bourbon. My face grew naturally nervous as I had to break the news. I refrained from mentioning the alcohol-motor issue since I knew he was intelligent enough to understand that component. Instead, I discussed the reduction in protein synthesis which could have long-term challenges in his ability to recover at high altitude. Telling him the implications of lost recovery could reduce muscle tissue over long periods thus reducing force output in his climbs. "Drinking alcohol is akin to putting acid in your muscles." This lit his eyes up immediately.
"So you are telling me, I could be getting even weaker than I normally do?".
"Yes, Jerry that is what I am telling you."
"Yes. Done. No, more bourbon on the mountain. I can celebrate when I get back down to base camp. That will just make it taste that much better."
"So, let's recap. Small amounts of coffee throughout the day and the largest portion at the end of the day with carbohydrates for a total of your body mass times 6 milligrams. And no more bourbon until you return from the summit?"
"That's it. I love what I do more than what I drink."
"Are you and John going to be ok?"
"I think this will make him happy. He will still get some coffee."
Pesta, Dominik H., Angadi, Siddhartha S., Burtscher, Martin, and Roberts, Christina K., The effects of caffeine, nicotine, ethanol, and tetrahydrocannabinol on exercise performance. PubMed, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24330705
There is nothing worse than nearly crapping yourself while traversing an icy forty degree mountain pitch. I remember a climb recently that caused a member of my team major issues on his way up. His bowels would not stop releasing which in some moments endangered our four man tope team. He is a humble, yet a little prideful man who pushed on and completed his summit bid in absolutely pristine outdoor conditions. Had there been any external environmental challenges, we could have failed in our attempt or possible failed in staying safe.
Not to say the situation was completely dire, but it is a big issue for many mountain climbers of any elevation. There are many factors that play into this issue; however, two variables are most likely the major culprits: pre-existing conditions within the body or a poor choice in diet in recent days. Both serve equally in nearly any digestive stress, but when they encounter the stress of elevation conditions they become intensified.
Generally, everyone has a challenge in breaking down one of the three major nutrient (proteins, fats and carbohydrates) into usable constituents. If any exists, then eating a food high in any of them could lead to an issue pretty quickly, aka runny, brown ooze (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) or complete stoppage (Constipation). Fiber and water do not always do the trick, and the prior tends to be the major issue here. Being backed up is majorly uncomfortable, while uncontrollable poopage just shuts down normal function.
Determining which issue is the issue can take time, but with consistency it can change your world. First thing is remove one of the three major nutrients for a few days to see if any of the symptoms change. If you notice a change, look into potentially adding a corresponding digestive enzyme that breaks down the protein (protease), fat (lipase) or carbohydrate (amylase). These two actions can greatly improve the break down and give your body the opportunity to recover form trying to do the work itself. This is not always the simple answer. Actually most of the time it is not, but the basics work sometimes. Specific situations do exist where more specific assessments are needed to determine if other variables could be playing a factor. Visit with a digestive specialist (Me) to learn more.
Note: I am not a medical physician, and I do not prescribe or diagnose illnesses or diseases. My scope is limited to the function of the digestive system as it relates to food and digestive enzymes.