Life Balance and Longevity

Balance in life is the key to longevity. So why do we excessively stimulate and suppress our bodies and minds multiple times each day? Here are a few observations that we might consider in our personal health assessment.

Aerial Dancer After Avoiding Ankle Amputation

Pictured: Aerial dancer and ankle surgery patient Amy C. 

Homeostasis is a concept that describes the ability to maintain equilibrium and the balance between diverse stimulations. It was once thought that people are naturally homeostatic; later, it was realized that we need ongoing augmentation to counteract the negative effects of the fact that we are all aging and, ultimately, dying. In a small way, we play out this story each day. The generalities that follow apply to most of us, though not to all. 

The rollercoaster of our physical and mental chemistry starts upon awakening. We head for the coffee shop. And maybe a tall glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. The caffeine in the coffee revs up our metabolism. It raises our heart rate above its resting state and fine-tunes our mental acuity, clearing away the fog of sleep. The juice is loaded with natural sugars that create a glucose load so large that our pancreas releases insulin in response.

Hunger pains soon alert us to the need for more fuel. Hopefully, this urge is met mostly with protein, a far better source of prolonged energy and muscle building than fats and carbohydrates. Though we know this, we still dunk our pastries into our coffee and add coconut, oatmeal, or cows’ milk to our organic granola. All of this awakens our digestive tracts and launches us into the cycle of nutritional highs and lows we experience during the day ahead.

Our adrenaline level rises as we navigate our commute to work—and though this commute may soon be done in robotic cars, we could end up sitting in the back seat, cringing with fear. At work, we hit our second cup of caffeine, though we know we don’t really need it; the habit is both socially and psychologically soothing, even while it does just the opposite to our brains.

By 10:30 am, most of us are losing our carbohydrate loads from the morning infill and, just like the break for milk and cookies we had in 3rd grade, we reach for something to boost us up. While we intuitively know that ingesting protein will carry us through the day, none of the local coffee shops (nor our boss) has gotten that message. We ingest more carbs and a ridiculous amount of fat; somehow this “snack” goes down without thinking. The body and mind start up again, revving on the glucose load. An insulin release modulates the response. Our pancreas is always on call.

Lunchtime comes. Some of us ignore it. Others use it as an excuse for a break. What we eat here will determine our productivity through the afternoon. Fortunately, the two-martini lunches went out with the Madmen—but pizzas and sandwiches still fill our munchie urge. The fat load in these lunch choices slows the mind so much that an afternoon without a stimulant is unthinkable. One or two espressos, or at least a cup of black coffee, slide down easily. The rollercoaster of food lethargy, followed by chemical stimulation, makes homeostasis impossible.

Our workouts, whether we do them when we wake up or hit the gym on the way home from work, are a respite from the gluttony. They are also a clear measure of how well-fueled we are. While in the morning we are working off our overnight stored nutrients, in the afternoon we’re working off our ingested contaminants. Working out in the morning seems much more logical, but some of us just can’t do it. An optimal diet during the day would be one designed to fuel the workday, as well as the post-work exercise—which also drives up our adrenaline and testosterone and increases our metabolic rate.

Dinner is full of contrasts. When sitting down to a full meal with our friends or family, the ritual of an alcoholic beverage before the meal or at the bar on the way home is ingrained in our culture. Alcohol depresses the appetite while slowing metabolism and brain function. The structure of many dinners—with a first, second, and third course, or a main course followed by dessert—has us combining protein with large loads of carbohydrates and fats. The body slowly processes the food; depending on how close to bedtime dinner is eaten, the digestive process may go on for several hours. The dinner nutrient load often interrupts sleep. Many of us will wake up at 3 a.m. to pee or to hydrate, depending on the amount of fluid ingested and other factors. A sleeping medication, like melatonin, may be needed to quiet the stimulated mind and induce the needed rest. If sexual performance is desired, the entire process of calming down may need to be reversed for a few minutes (or longer if lucky).

This up-and-down cycling of stimulants and depressants defines most of our days. But what we are really hoping for is calmness, stability, thought time, care and concern for others, and making our contributions to the world. Figuring out how to smooth these cycles, while being acutely aware of the effects of our actions and ingestibles, may bring us closer to an ideal anabolic state at which we can be far stronger, more alert, and more productive—balanced—if only we could control our pitstops.

Medically authored by
Kevin R. Stone, MD
Orthopaedic surgeon, clinician, scientist, inventor, and founder of multiple companies. Dr. Stone was trained at Harvard University in internal medicine and orthopaedic surgery and at Stanford University in general surgery.