Book Review: What Doesn’t Kill Us

This book has been on my list for some time. I finally got round to reading “What Doesn’t Kill Us” by Scott Carney. Carney is a writer and journalist and by his own standards, was neither a fit nor unfit man, just “normal”. Carney accepted the trapping of his mid-thirties; stomach, not as flat as it had been, back pain, just one of those things. Then he saw a photo of a man called Wim Hof, 20 years his senior, sitting in the artic in nothing but his swimming togs.

Seeing this photo of Wim Hof sends Carney on a journey to learn the Wim Hofs methods of controlled breathing and cold exposure that seem to give practitioners of Hofs methods super human abilities. Hofs teachings and Scotts own journey of exploration leads him to comes up with the three pillars of physical fitness. Diet and exercise are pillars one and two, and this is something I’ve always focused on, and the third pillar is environmental stress, like exposure to cold and hot temperatures, something I’ve never considered. The book argues that this third pillar is needed if we’re to reach our full potential.

Humans are more capable and adaptable than you might think, and this book is full of examples. The body can adapt to environmental stress very quickly. In high altitude for example, you’ll produce more red blood cells, in hot temperatures, you’ll sweat less salt and produce less urine. Carney gives accounts of people using Hofs methods to manage the symptoms of Parkinsons and autoimmune problems, and even to speed up recovery after surgery. Carney does allow for some influence from the placebo effect, which is also powerful, but this only reinforces a key theme of this book, the power for the human body and mind.

Carney shows how the invention of technology often correlates with a general weakening of our species. GPS for example has reduced our ability to navigate the way our ancestors could. Carney gives the example of Tupaia, a Polynesian navigator in the 18th century who helped guide European explorers by his ability to read the waves of the sea to pinpoint himself. Is Tupaia a superhuman, or is this something that is innate in everyone and we’ve just lost touch.

To me the most amazing thing about Carneys journey and Hofs methods is how simple it appears to be. All that it takes is routinely practiced controlled breathing and exposure to the elements. Carney does warn that every person has their own limits, and if you cross that line it gives nature an opportunity to take a fatal toll. But in general, exercising the stress response through cold exposure allows a person to assert a measure of control when the environment gets challenging and helps reconfigure the cardiovascular system and combat autoimmune malfunctions.

The book is a narrative of Carneys journey, its not a guide book in how to achieve these results, but thats a good thing. I wanted an entertaining read, not a guide book, and this book delivered. Where the reader goes from here it up to them.

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Carbs

I’ve known a few people to cut out carbs as way to get healthier. Although I’d be skeptical if the goal is to get healthier or to look better. Carb molecules encourage your body to store water, so by eliminating them, you’re essentially wringing your body like a sponge. So the pounds will fall off pretty quickly on a no-carb diet. Quick and easy weight loss success on a no carb diet is just dehydrating yourself and its just water weight you’ve lost.

On a slightly longer term view, a low carb intake means less muscle mass. Without the glucose found in carbs to burn off, your famished body turns to precious amino acids instead, causing you muscles to catabolise. And with this quick reduction in lean mass, your metabolism starts to stall, burning fewer calories, making real weight loss harder still.

And its not just your body, its your brain too. Your brain uses up over half of your bodies glucose stores. A few days into a low-carb diet and you’ll struggle understand all the subplots in the latest Fantastic Beasts movie.

Its true not all carbs are created equal. Refined carbs have been associated with obesity. I recently heard a phrase I like and it went something like this, “don’t ask if its good for me, ask when its good for me.” If you’re a professional athlete, you can handle a lot of carbs. If you spend most of your time watching Netflix, you should limit your intake.  Foods don’t exist in a vacuum, you have to look at your carbs in the context of everything else you eat and do. Its all about balance, and some days that means a pasta.

Eat to fuel your body for performance, not to look good.

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Pasta and broccoli – thats lunch sorted for a few days

How much fruit and veg?

I recently read that the Japanese government gifts their citizens a silver sake cup when they reach 100 years of age, and that the policy is being reviewed because last year it cost the Japanese government $2 million. In Okinawa, Japan, you’ll find the world’s highest prevalence of proven centenarians. Not only do they have the highest life expectancy in the world, but also the highest health expectancy, they remain vigorous and healthy into old age. I’m sure there are many reasons for this longevity, and diet must be one.

In Britain and Ireland we’re all familiar with the “five-a-day” maxim. The Japanese government recommends up to 13 portions of vegetables a day, plus four portions of fruit. A spokeswoman from the British Department of Health (I assume Ireland just copied these guys) said of the five-a-day campaign, “There must be a balance between what is healthy for the British public and what is feasible”. In other words, 5 was chosen because its a sufficiently low, unthreatening number.

Below is my attempt at an Asian style meal: rice, egg, spinach, and steak. Delicious yes, but a very Western slant on Asian cuisine, with just one portion of veg. It doesn’t help that the variety of interesting fruit and vegetables that grow in Ireland is low.

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There are many ways in which eating fruits and vegetables is beneficial for health. Both are high in fibre, which makes you feel fuller for longer, which can help reduce unhealthy snacking. Fruit and vegetables are also a natural source of numerous vitamins and minerals that are essential for maintaining good all-round health. I eat a lot of fruit, but I’m not so good with vegetables (the better of the two). If I want to live to see the year 2086 and beyond, I’ll have to add more veg to my diet. More fruit and veg, good advice for all.

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