Sustainable Health Nutshell: Treat fish as a treat- eat it at most 1-2 times a week, and to keep fishermen in business, the oceans full of fish, and yourself healthiest, choose your seafood carefully from the Seafood Watch guide every time!
I realize I’m pole-vaulting over the topic of the health of the oceans in general, but for today, I’m covering two important things: 1. The seafood we eat is animal muscle and therefore susceptible to the things discussed in The Meat Issue, and 2. Increased popularity and marketing of seafood as a “healthy” alternative to “meat” has decimated fish stocks (see this great article) and the commercial fishing industry’s unrestrained harvesting to take advantage of the popularity has hurt small fishermen’s livelihoods. This is an unsustainable situation for more than just our (the U.S.’s) new seafood cravings. First, though, I’ll list the best choices to eat and not to eat in case you’re strapped for time.
Healthiest options for you and the ocean: wild-caught Alaskan salmon, Pacific sardines, farmed oysters and mussels, troll or pole-caught albacore tuna from B.C. or US, wild-caught Dungeness crab from US west coast, wild-caught Atlantic longfin squid, and tank-farmed rainbow trout, barramundi, and Arctic char. Check this great company for fish they’ll ship to you and info about their sustainable practices! No, I’m not paid for advertising for them. Yet.
Please don’t buy or eat these!: Farmed salmon, orange roughy, sharks, Chilean seabass, grouper, and most imported seafood including shrimp, swordfish, and mahi mahi. Tuna is difficult because of the popularity and processing issues involved- check where and how it’s caught- this page is helpful but still confusing- and at least avoid tuna caught by long-line and purse-seine (the most commonly used type of fishing gear), and avoid the bluefin variety entirely. Oh. And NEVER eat GMO seafood like the salmon that bypassed any safety studies at all…
Now this may seem obvious but here it is: the animals we consider ‘seafood’ and fish are animals. We often forget this since we’re land creatures ourselves and more used to categorizing animals as things that walk or fly. A huge number of vegetarians even consider fish not to be ‘meat’ and eat it along with dairy and vegetables (sometimes eggs are included there too). But in the realms of ecology and physical health, since most animals that are considered seafood consume plants and concentrate the plant energy into their more mobile forms, animal protein from the ocean must also be considered “meat.” (and for the remainder of the post I’ll say fish instead of seafood because really I’m too lazy to deal with grammatical/language issues involved there!)
Ok, so at different stages in the ocean’s food chain (sizes of fish basically), there are differences in the issues of sustainability of each population, scarcity in general of each species, concentration of pollutants and heavy metals in each fish caught, as well as differing percentage of omega-3 fatty acids and healthy nutrients like calcium and vitamin D in each species (which also depends on their diet- especially regarding farmed fish). The bigger and older the fish, the more plants and/or smaller fish it has eaten, the more energy and ‘extras’ (for instance, mercury, pesticides from runoff, plastics and its hormone-mimicking chemicals etc) will be concentrated into its body. [For articles on ocean plastic and the animals that eat it check this and this out.] For a more readily accessible correlation, you can think of the difference between a cow and a chicken (in terms of how much they have to eat to grow that size and how long their natural life spans are) being similar to a tuna and a tilapia.
One of the latest nutrition fads that’s caused a huge surge in fish consumption is the issue of omega-3 fatty acids, which is actually not super straightforward. The “American diet” involves way too many omega 6 and 9 fats, and not enough omega 3s, which our bodies can’t make for themselves even from the other types of omegas. Some fish can be a great source of these ‘good’ fats, and so have been promoted extensively recently, even to the point of popularizing taking supplements of fish oil. The thing is, just like any other ‘single nutrient,’ omega 3s haven’t worked as well as eating actual fish (and not fried fish!) as far as general health benefits. It may be an issue of oxidation (fried fish increase heart disease and stroke likely for that reason, but also most fish oil is purified by distilling up to 450 degrees F which, while removing mercury etc, would also cause significant oxidization), or an issue of the type of fish from which the oil is obtained (for instance, whale or seal blubber is a common source of ‘fish oil’ according to WebMD! that is not ok. they are also not fish.), or really, and more likely, as with most single nutrients our western ‘health science’ tends to focus on, that the whole food itself (in moderation) is the best way to obtain its health benefits!
So what are these benefits? Well, it’s still fuzzy too. One study by JAMA says overall mortality is 17% lower in fish-eaters. In an IOM study, for pregnant women, fish seem to promote healthy vision and brain development and prevent pre-term low birth-weight babies. (see the old summary article from the Washington Post here.) The most recent searches on UpToDate and WebMD list definite reductions in triglycerides, less chance of death from coronary artery disease, and then they get more vague. Maybe more fish (but not fried fish or fish cooked at high temperatures) or maybe more fish oil means less chance of atrial fibrillation, artery disease in general, osteoporosis, and inflammation, a slight reduction in blood pressure, and it might be helpful for some psychiatric and neurologic illnesses.
Honestly? It’s like any other animal. Raising pastured chicken and cows and such increases their amounts of omega 3s and nutrition profiles compared to corn-fed animals. Feeding corn to salmon or any other fish (yes, they do that in fish farms. it’s insane.) increases their ratio of ‘bad’ fats and makes them sick just like it does in cows (should we discuss antibiotics again? eh, nah. maybe read the eggs post again if you like. they have to do it to farmed fish too). Eating less animal protein (as compared to the typical American diet which includes meat in 2-3 meals per day) in general is better for you. Replacing corn-fed animal products with pastured animals, or with sustainable fish a couple times a week will likely improve your overall health. Cutting down to eating animal protein twice a week (or less, if at all) will very likely help you lose weight, improve your blood pressure and cholesterol, and reduce overall body inflammation and susceptibility to disease.
Paying attention to how the animals you eat grow up, including making sure their habitats are healthy (i.e. free of pesticides, fertilizers, and human waste like plastic!), and eating moderate amounts of locally caught/produced and sustainably caught/produced food from someone you actually know will help ensure the next generations grow up healthy and also that they’ll know how very tasty fish is. And doing these simple sustainably healthy things might allow you the chance to get to know those next generations, and to know them in a cleaner and more peaceful environment!
Sustainable Health Nutshell: To become more in sync with your body’s natural rhythms, aim for getting to sleep before 10pm, save energy and your brain by turning off the TV and computer by 8pm, and if you wake up in the middle of the night or if you hurt when you wake up, see below for sustainable solutions!
Before I dive in: Are you a ‘night person’? Are you a ‘morning person’? Do you feel amazing at 11pm and get your ‘best thinking done’ then? If you really enjoy one of those labels or feel like it is important for you to be one of those things, this post might not suit your fancy, but no worries- I would like to ask you to keep an open mind about this information and about your own routines, and perhaps experiment with yourself to see if anything here does work better for you or help you feel better. I bring this up now because I had a friend this week get a bit defensive when I was asked by someone else about optimal sleep and gave a brief answer, so I want to make sure everyone knows these posts are suggestions, and if they aren’t true for you, that’s totally ok! Onward!
I’ll start with a couple of pretty much universal truths: Everyone would like to be well-rested and leap out of bed refreshed, and everyone knows how awful it feels to be sleep deprived and out of sync with your body’s natural rhythms (especially those of us who have done 30+ hour hospital calls or night shifts!). That said, your body can adjust to almost anything, including the torture of sleep deprivation or crazy schedules, but after a while it takes its toll. Your entire body depends on getting enough rest- during sleep, information you’ve learned during the day gets organized, nervous system stress is let go so it doesn’t get stored in your body somewhere painful, your immune system and digestion clean up damage done during the day, get rid of toxins (everything from wine to pesticides to the extra ice cream that seemed like a good idea) and invaders (colds, flus, bacteria, etc), and rebuild and strengthen your structure. Without proper sleep all those systems don’t have quite enough time to take care of you, and illness can result, especially if your sleep is off for an extended time.
Useful information time: your body wants to be asleep when it’s dark. It’s true! Your internal clock (‘circadian rhythm’) is based on light, which signals your pineal gland‘s melatonin and seratonin production directly, then, in a cascade-y sort of way, affects your thyroid and adrenals’ 24h cycles that keep your metabolism going and give you extra boosts if needed. Around 8pm, your body starts winding down and prepares for its nighttime routines and cleanup crews… If you ate a late dinner, drank alcohol, or are stimulating your nervous system with light from TV or computer, this part is not so routine for your body and the messages aren’t so clear as to what time it is or what its current job is. Around 10pm, if you keep yourself up, you’ve told your body, “just kidding it isn’t nighttime- we need to be awake!” Unfortunately, you body hears “We need adrenaline and cortisol to be on alert! Stop repairs and digestion! Survival time!”
The issue is really that your body, like most things in nature, just do better with routine. If you ‘cry wolf’ by asking it to give you adrenaline and cortisol boosts at non-essential times, especially if those times vary wildly, eventually that extra stimulation can disturb not just sleep but other nervous system functions as well as your immune system, and metabolism in general- like blood sugar and fat storage.
There are a few related things I’ve noticed that you might have also: first and most obvious, waking up tired just plain sucks. Second, sleep is necessary when you’re not well: if I got sick when I was little, my mom and gramma always told me to go to bed earlier and sleep more. In general, people get more frequent illnesses when they are sleep deprived, and colds and flus last much longer and are more likely to turn into bacterial illnesses if the immune system isn’t given the rest it needs to repair damage and fight infection. Injuries also don’t heal well without adequate rest- most of my patients with chronic pain (aside from the smokers, that’s a different issue) also report poor sleep, which usually predates the pain!
Now for some suggestions. Try an experiment with yourself. For two weeks (and you can do anything for two weeks, promise), go to bed at 945pm as a routine, even if you can’t fall asleep right away. Eat dinner around 6, then around 8pm turn off your computers and TVs and listen to music, make some hot milk with nutmeg and spices or some fennel tea, call a friend, take a bath, but definitely relax on purpose. If you can, turn off your alarm clock and see when you wake up. I did this a while ago and slept for 14 hours for a few days. It was crazy. I felt awful and exhausted at first as I allowed myself to relax, and then, at the end of the week, I was sleeping only 10 hours, and feeling amazing when I woke up. Granted, there were some diet and meditation things I did at the same time, but the sleep made a gigantic difference.
Three caveats to the suggestions: Many many people have what we call “EMA” or early morning awakenings. This is usually due to a particular imbalance that’s very common in the US- basically the intensity/stress of the day hasn’t been dealt with yet and pushes through during the lightest sleep time (2-5am), disturbing REM sleep, which makes you even more tired than you’d be if you just went to bed late. “DFA,” or difficulty falling asleep, is another common sleep issue, that is more related to having trouble ‘turning off’ thoughts or worries from the day. Several things can help both of these, but to figure out your particular issue it’s better to see your Ayurvedic practitioner and get personal recommendations if just sleeping more and routine doesn’t start to fix it over a few weeks. Another issue people have frequently is pain keeping them awake or waking up in pain. Part of it can be helped with more sleep, but again, if simply getting more sleep doesn’t help, see your doctor or practitioner to help you figure out what’s causing the pain to be able to heal it instead of cover it up. Now if you wake up in more pain than when you went to bed, your mattress might be the issue! That we can fix: check out these site links (there are lots more, these could start you off) to learn about sustainable mattresses, and memory foam toppers and mattresses if they’re right for you.
Start to learn to listen to your body’s rhythms and help it out with healthy routines as much as possible, cut back on energy use at night and go to bed earlier, and sleep on something that is comfy for you and easier on the environment- your body and the planet will thank you!