Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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DNA Always Wins

DNA always wins.

In the fitness world, and sometimes even at that tiny intersection where fitness and health or healthcare cross paths, there is a recurring theme: you can’t out-train a bad diet. For whatever it’s worth, I think that’s true. Having said so there is a dangling little assumption that hangs off the back end of our axiom, that if you are fit and follow an evidence-based nutrition program that you will inevitably be healthy. Indeed, every worthwhile fitness program I’ve ever encountered pretty much says just that. “Fitness in 100 Words” on CrossFit.com was my first exposure to this as a mission statement. Loads of folks from the substantive (The Brand X Method) to the frivolous (The Biggest Loser) support this logic as the foundation of health-based fitness. For the most part it is true, and for most people the combination of general physical fitness and solid nutritional strategy results in health.

Except, you know, the whole Jim Fixx thing.

For all of you puppies and kittens out there Jim Fixx was the original running guru in the United States, the author of The Joy Of Running. You could make a case that only the late, great Jack Lalanne was a more influential historical figure when it comes to promoting health through exercise in the U.S. Jim Fixx was responsible for the surge in interest in running as both exercise and as sport, and his writing launched an era in which U.S. runners were competitive on the international stage in ALL distances from the mile all the way to the marathon.

As it turns out Jim Fixx may also be the single most influential non-medical individual in the history of the cholesterol theory of heart disease. You see, Fixx had hereditary hyperlipidemia. Despite his epic running history he was found one day in his running shorts at the side of the road, dead from a massive heart attack. Blood work at the time of his autopsy revealed a cholesterol of 750 or something like that, as well as other elevated serum lipids. His healthy diet, his outsized VO2 Max, and his prodigious training schedule were no match for his DNA. He died with epic fitness numbers, a single-digit bodyweight fat %, and coronary arteries that were so clogged red blood cells had to pass single-file. You can trace many of the USDA dietary guidelines and literally billions of dollars in research to the death of Jim Fixx.

Why bring up Jim Fixx now, in 2018, when we know that hyperlipidemia is a significant part of the cardiac risk story, albeit not the whole story? Well, we should harken back to the beginning of my thoughts: DNA always wins. While you can reduce your health risks by adopting a healthy, evidence-based diet and couple that with an exercise program that produces a comprehensive degree of fitness, you cannot escape genetics. Why at this particular moment? Yours truly just got all of his lab work back and despite 13+ years of a clean Zone diet and varying degrees of devotion to functional fitness, most of my serum lipid numbers have continued on their ever-upward march and have now reached a level where they simply must be addressed by modern medicine.

To do else wise would be madness.

I must confess that this is deeply disappointing. Quite frankly it feels like failure. At 58 I am relatively lean and strong, albeit a bit under-trained in the aerobic domain. Why didn’t this inoculate me from the need to take medication to lower my LDL? In the last couple of days I have chatted with my docs locally (both of whom are close friends who care about me) as well as really significant, nationally recognized experts in the science of health and cardiac risk mitigation. There is a consensus; nay, the voting was unanimous across the board. Don’t be stupid. Continue my program of fitness and nutrition and take the meds. We’ve now moved on the the minutia of choosing which one, a not-trivial discussion to be sure, but one that is less than earth-moving, you know?

Some years ago while proposing a unified theory of health on my personal blog I received an advance copy of Coach Greg Glassman’s definition: if fitness is WCABTMD then health is Fitness Over Time. As a physician and scientist I readily saw the value of this concept. However, I also saw and pointed out the deficiencies inherent in such a narrow definition. For example, any definition of health must explicitly address mental health. Over the years I have championed the term “well-being” and have suggested several metrics that can be used to measure this state of mental and emotional health. Mind you, I was openly mocked at the time for this, here and elsewhere. If you have followed the conversation in the CrossFit world since you will see an evolution of thought along this line, though. “Well-being” has been openly discussed in various ways as an integral part of health in most medical, health, and fitness communities. I like to think I played a small role in that.

I wrote before, then, and subsequently over the years that any definition of health must be more than a snapshot of how “healthy” you may be at any given moment. You may have a 2.5X body weight deadlift and squat, run a sub 5:00 mile and do “Fran” in under 3:00, but can you truly be declared “healthy” if you also harbor a malignant tumor in your gut or are running around with an LDL of 175? Like it or not, any comprehensive definition of health must be able to provide some degree of probability that you will remain healthy in the future. It must have some predictive value. Traditional health metrics–blood pressure, lipid levels, family history, etc.–added to a measurement of fitness and well-being do just that.

In practice such a value has proven elusive for a number of reasons, none the leasts of which is the difficulty in designing a truly measurable variable for fitness that would be accessible to the masses. Once such a measure exists the rest is just math, right? It will be necessary to determine the relative value of our three variables–fitness, well-being, and risk predictors–and then plug them into a formula to kick out something that we might call “True Health”. While this is still “pie-in-the-sky” stuff I am convinced that it is only a matter of time before it is a reality. To do my part I have tried to enlist new “partners” like my brother-in-law Pete, the cardiology savant, and others.

But for now there are lessons to be learned from Jim Fixx, and yes, once again there is a teachable moment in my little epiphany and “Sunday musings” this week. You can’t out-train a poor diet. A healthy diet of any type combined with a program of functional fitness meant to produce general physical preparedness that includes both strength and metabolic conditioning is the optimal strategy. Even here, though, you cannot escape genetics. DNA always wins. Good, bad, or in between, your DNA talks to you in the language of traditional health risk metrics.

Your DNA doesn’t care how fast you can run a mile or how much you can bench. I start my new meds tomorrow.


Emotional Well-Being: Mental Health Deserves Equal Footing

Some time ago I wrote about creating a way to measure health. Real health. Health that encompasses every aspect of what it means to be alive and well. As a CrossFitter I definitely included Coach Glassman’s Disease -> Health -> Wellness continuum, and I also acknowledged the critical importance of his concept of “Fitness over Time”. As a classically trained physician/scientist there is clearly a place for more traditional metrics like blood pressure, serum lipids and the like, although they may, indeed, be an variable that is ultimately tied to fitness.

Where my thoughts on defining and measuring health seem to depart from most current trends is in the recognition that mental health–emotional wellbeing—is as much a part of being healthy as any other thing we might examine.

Think about it for just a moment. Most of what we would classify as mental illness has as many outward signs that we can see as diabetes and hypertension. Which is to say, none. Yet we—all of us, not just CrossFitters—see nothing but the good in treating diseases like diabetes openly and aggressively. There is no stigma attached to seeking care for your hypertension or your elevated LDL. To the contrary, if someone who loves you discovers you quit measuring your glucose before you bolus your insulin, they are for sure gonna get in your grill.

For whatever reason, mental illnesses, including addiction, are looked at quite differently. No one is asking the person with chronic depression whether she is taking her life-saving medication, for example. We might notice an insulin pump on a friend or family member, but then it’s quickly forgotten. Everyone seems to be very uncomfortable around the young man who has very obvious hand tremors from the life-saving medication he takes for his Bipolar disease. We all seem to be so much more understanding when we have to wait for a response from someone suffering from Parkinson’s Disease than from the young women who has the same symptoms as a side-effect from the medicine that quiets the dangerous thoughts in her head from Schizophrenia.

It’s not even necessary to look only at these kinds of severe mental illnesses when we are examining the importance of mental or emotional wellbeing as an integral part of being healthy. What good does it do to have a 5:00 mile, a 500 lb. deadlift, and a 1:59 “Fran” if it was self-loathing that drove you in the gym to get there? You may be quite accomplished, the envy of your peers, at the peak of whatever life mountain you wished to climb, and yet you cannot feel joy. How is it possible to be healthy without joy? I look at Usain Bolt and what I see is quite possibly the healthiest man alive. My friend Tim, the writer, tells me that Justin Gatlin has nearly everything that Bolt has—youth, fitness, wealth—but the combination of failure to knock off Bolt, and the public disapproval reigned on him as boos from the Rio stands has left him emotionally broken. It’s subtle, but if you look at his face in the blocks of the 100M Final it’s there.

Our complex and conflicted attitudes and feelings about mental illness are especially evident when the topic of suicide comes up. Just typing the word makes me uncomfortable. Even how we describe suicide is fraught with hidden meaning that reflects our discomfort: someone has “committed suicide”. Right? Someone committed an act that we simply cannot fathom, one that leaves the survivors completely without any understanding whatsoever. How could someone DO that? It’s as if every suicide is the same as the suicide of the crooked prison warden in The Shawshank Redemption when he looks out the window and sees his fate arrive in the front seat of a State Trooper’s car.

In reality most of the time it’s simply not like that at all. Nothing about it is simple at all.

The outer walls at the periphery of my world have been breeched by suicide twice in the last couple of months. One of them actually does feel a bit like that prison warden. Frankly, I am too conflicted, too aware of the external circumstances and not enough aware of the internal life of the deceased to offer much right now. The other one, however, just stopped me in my tracks when I heard. The loss was profound.It has also introduced to me a new vocabulary that I truly believe provides a starting line from which we can change how we think about not only suicide, but all of mental illness. A friendly acquaintance lost his wife when she was killed by suicide.

We don’t need to know all of the details of the story. Suffice it to say that in the face of a child’s illness she suffered quietly. Too quietly to be noticed. Perhaps she didn’t realize how badly she was suffering, or maybe she was like so many of us and couldn’t bring herself to see her illness for the life-threatening entity that it was. No one will ever know. What is clear, though, is that this was not anything about commitment. Kidney failure may be cause of death in a diabetic, but it is diabetes that kills him. There is no difference here. The cause of death was suicide. Her disease, her depression is what killed this young woman.

Each of us has a very few moments in our lifetimes that forever change us. On the second Tuesday of July in 2006, unbeknownst to me, one of those moments was transpiring in a lonely, dark corner. Joyfully, the moment was a beginning, not an ending. Regardless, once learning of the moment I was changed forever. Now I knew. You cannot see any marks from mental illness, no swollen appendage or insulin pump. But it is there all the same, and it must be acknowledged and accorded the same degree of care as any other disease that may take our loved ones from us. Mental illnesses are real, and they can be deadly. There ought not be any conflict or discomfort in treating them.

We may stop losing so many of our loved ones when start to see emotional wellbeing as part of being healthy.


Measuring Health Part 2:The Traditional Metric ‘M’

Any measurement of health must provide some sort of predictive value with regard to the likelihood that one will remain healthy. While the entire idea of screening tests is fraught with controversy–both false positives and false negatives bring with them real risks–there are still a number of health measurements in the realm of traditional medical care that have a proven value when trying to predict downstream adverse health events. The trick, of course, is to decide which ones matter, filter that group to come up with tests that are as close to universally available as possible, and then decide how much weight each particular test in the group of survivors should receive in the single cumulative metric that is then created. This measurement, call it “M”, will be one of the variables in our calculated health measurement.

Let’s start with the simplest of all medical inquiries, a medical history. More specifically, let’s include a brief family history in our calculation of M. While it is becoming increasingly easy to obtain a very accurate genetic profile that identifies very specific health risks, these genetic tests are both controversial and expensive. Until the very real societal issues of knowing your exact genome and the risks it includes have been worked out by both ethicists and elected government, we should take a simpler and more narrow approach and ask two very simple questions: Has anyone in your family died from heart disease? Has anyone in your family died from cancer? Equally simple follow-up questions (How young were they? What kind of cancer) would allow us to add risk (reduce M) or ignore the historical note since the disease is not hereditary.

From here we move to an equally spartan individual medical history. Again, just two questions in this part: Do you smoke? Do you drink alcohol? The negative effect of smoking on an individual’s health, both in the present and future tense, must be accounted for in any measurement of health. It weighs so heavily on what we know about future risks that we will see it as a negative integer in M. Too many studies to count exist pointing out the deleterious effect of excess alcohol consumption to count. One compelling study, The Eight Americas Study in PloS One, found alcoholism to be the single most powerful lifestyle variant after smoking when predicting the life expectancy of groups studied. A recently published study of Harvard men found that alcoholism was the greatest second greatest influence on the happiness of the men studied, just behind the presence of loving friendships. Unlike smoking, however, there is a volume component to alcohol consumption. Indeed, a modest intake actually INCREASES longevity, while no intake DECREASES longevity. So M will see a small bump from moderated alcohol intake, an equally small decrease for teetotalers, and a dramatic negative effect from heavy alcohol intake.

So far we’ve managed to obtain some variables underlying M through the use of simple inquiry, costing only the time it takes a subject to fill out a questionnaire. At least two other variables are as accessible and inexpensive: blood pressure (BP) and a measurement of body habits. Once upon a time you had to visit a doctor or hospital to get your blood pressure checked. Now? Heck, for $20 you can buy a reasonable accurate BP monitor and take your BP at home! Minute Clinics in pharmacies, health clinics in the workplace, and coin-operated machines in the local Mall now make it easy to get a BP without visiting a doctor. While there is ongoing controversy in the medical world about what constitutes Hypertension it is safe to say that health risks are higher with a systolic pressure >140 and a diastolic >90. Above or below these levels is our toggle for M, positive or more healthy for lower and the opposite for higher BP.

Using body habitus is controversial, mostly because the measurement that is routinely utilized is so inadequate. The Body Mass Index, or BMI, is wildly inaccurate when it is applied to the fit. 4-time winner of the CrossFit Games Rich Froning, arguably the fittest man on the planet, would be deemed obese at 5′ 10″ and roughly 195 pounds with a % body weight fat of around 4%. Ridiculous, huh? The temptation, of course, is to use % BW fat as the preferred method of measuring body composition risk, but measurements that are accurate enough to be useful tend to be very expensive and difficult to access. On the other hand, all you need to determine the waist/hip ratio is an 89 cent paper tape measure and a calculator. A waist/hip ratio of >1.0 is associated with an increased risk to health from myriad metabolic illnesses including diabetes and heart disease, especially in men. Greater health in M for measurements under 1.0, and progressively less as that number increases.

It is impossible to utilize all that modern medicine has to offer when it comes to measuring health without spending a little bit of money. Several simple blood tests can be obtained with or without the input of a physician. The presence or control of diabetes can be ascertained with a HbA1c and a fasting glucose level. In the presence of a normal HbA1c an elevated fasting glucose may indicate a problem with insulin sensitivity, so it is important to include both. While it is far from settled whether or not it is cholesterol itself which is responsible for heart disease there is simply too much evidence that serum lipids can help predict cardiac events to leave them out of any health measurement. Our basic health index should therefore include the basic measurement of total cholesterol, HDL, LDL, and triglycerides, and M should reflect the negative effect of elevated Total Cholesterol, LDL and triglycerides and the positive effect of a high HDL.

How should we put all of these together to come up with our traditional health variable, M? This one is fairly simple; there are a number of “risk factor” measurements online that are good models. I envision a rather simple form on which one would add up weighted values for the measurements above, arriving at a straight forward mathematical sum. The final formula is being developed with the assistance of cardiologists at my medical school alma mater, the University of Vermont.