Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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Posts Tagged ‘measure’

Evaluating and Treating Stress

Let’s talk about stress, shall we? It’s the Holiday Season in North America after all. Frankly, it’s been on my mind pretty much all day, every day, for a couple of years now. Probably because it appears to have taken up permanent residence in my body and soul for that same couple of years. Lots and lots of talk about stress around me, too. Everybody is talking about “having stress” in their lives, especially as the holidays roll around, so let’s talk.

First of all, as in all things it’s important that we lay some ground rules, establish some definitions so that we are sure to be talking about the same thing. Stress is what appears in your body in response to stressors; stressors are what you have in your life that produce stress, like serving dinner to family on Christmas Eve. I know, I know, it’s a pretty fine point, but bear with me because I think it will make a bit more sense in a moment.

In my day job I am constantly asked if various and sundry ailments are caused by stress. The most accurate and honest answer, from a strictly medical/scientific standpoint, is “yes”. What people are actually asking me, though, is: are the ailments that they have a direct result of the stressors in their lives? Again, perhaps a bit of a fine point, but it will matter. Everyone routinely conflates “stress” with “stressors”.

You can reduce the stress in your body; you may or may not be able to effectively reduce the stressors that cause it.

Think about that for a moment. You can do quite a few things that will reduce the ailments you may have because stress has been induced in your body. The simple science is that chronic stress throws your neuro-endocrine “fight or flight” response out of whack. Our bodies secrete cortisol when faced with acute stress. This is in turn associated with a release of adrenaline. Your pupils dilate, your BP and heart rate go up, and you shunt blood to skeletal muscle in preparation to do battle or to flee.

Chronic stress, on the other hand, causes an increase in both the basal cortisol secretion and a blunting of the normal daily secretion pattern of more in the AM and less in the PM. You have a flatter curve over the day, and the whole curve is elevated. In time you have a chronically elevated BP, and your state of chronic “readiness” begins to affect all manner of the rest of your systems. Stress then becomes a stressor itself, a repeating negative feedback loop. For example, your sleep pattern gets fried. Heck you may not sleep very much at all. That makes stress worse. That “lump in your throat” feeling when you are just pre-panic”? Yeah, that can be there all the time. It even has a name: globus.

Rather ominous word, that. Globus. Stresses me out just typing it.

Here’s the rub: if you could avoid stress—the adverse affect on your body—who wouldn’t do so? When people talk about trying to have less stress in their lives what they are actually saying is that they wish they had fewer and less powerful stressors causing that stress. Work issues, illness, family strife, money issues…life would just be better if we didn’t have them. Pretty simple. Get rid of stressors, get rid of stress. Sadly, our ability to excise stressors from our lives, or even insulate ourselves from them, is somewhere beyond inadequate and approaches impossible.

What to do then? If we cannot avoid the root causes of our stress, how can we relieve it? It turns out that both the magnitude and particular variety of stress can often be measured. Specific symptoms (sleep abnormalities, globus) will point toward equally specific interventions. There are laboratory tests that can be ordered given your particular stress (e.g. midline fat deposition); nutrition adjustments can be made in response (elevated cortisol reduces insulin sensitivity->consume carbohydrates during periods of lower daily cortisol levels).

For me the bottom line is this: we likely have little to no ability to control stressors, those exogenous factors that incite stress. Further, left to its own devices, our body will respond with stress. We can manage that stress by acknowledging it, evaluating it, and then proactively going about counteracting it. You are a Black Box experiment with an n=1.

Attack stress in exactly the way you attack fitness or nutrition. Weigh it, measure it, analyze it, and then attack it.

Measuring Health Part 1: Rationale, Definitions and Background

In 2010 I had a bit of an epiphany. At the time I was a bit over 4 years into my CrossFit journey. It became painfully obvious that the genius that Greg Glassman had applied to physical fitness–a definition of fitness that invited measurement, and in turn the critical evaluation of the efficacy of different fitness programs–was nowhere to be seen in the fields of health and medicine. Indeed, an informal survey carried out in person by my friend Dr. Kathy Weesner and I made it clear that the majority of physicians couldn’t come up with an actionable definition for health despite the fact that we are charged as professionals with helping our patients become “healthy”.

At around this time Coach Glassman published a theory that health was precisely defined as “fitness over time”. In CrossFit Fitness is work capacity across broad time and modal domains. Fitness over years could be depicted as a 3-dimensional graph with axes time, work, and years. As I thought about his thesis, that a backward looking view of an individual’s fitness as defined by CrossFit was a proxy for health, I found myself with the feeling that the definition was intriguing but incomplete. In response I took it upon myself to develop a broader definition of health, one in which fitness was a primary, but not the sole marker or metric. That April I submitted a draft of my definition of health along with a new, broader base of proposed tests that would generate the data that could be used to measure an individual’s health. Over the years it has become clear that Greg and I are more in agreement than not, but a key CrossFit employee at the time had a fundamental disagreement with my thesis, and consequently the article was rejected by the CrossFit Journal. I published my draft here on Random Thoughts later that year.

For almost 6 years I have been mulling this over, threatening to return to the problem of defining and then measuring health in much the same way that Coach Glassman defined and then measured fitness. The quest was derailed by all of the usual time sinks of mid-life. In a humorous irony, the majority of my real, true free time was consumed by the task of helping my sons run their CrossFit Affiliate gym. It is time, now, for me to finish what I started in 2010 if for no other reason than to establish the provenance of the theory.

In order to effectively address any issue whatsoever it is first necessary to have a clear understanding of the definition of terms that may be important to the discussion. I made a similar statement in one of my earliest posts on the importance of understanding the difference between health, healthcare delivery (medicine), and healthcare finance. Here again I fall back on the genius of Greg Glassman: just as one cannot evaluate either fitness or fitness programs without first defining what it is that you are discussing when you say “fitness”, one must first have a definition of “health” before one can begin to measure it. What exactly is “health”? What does it mean to be healthy?

Let’s return for a moment to the physician survey that Dr. Weesner and I did in early 2010. During face-to-face meetings we asked groups of physician colleagues to give us their definition of “health” or “healthy”. The majority of the answers couldn’t have been less inspiring or more disappointing. Indeed, the most common answer was “I don’t know”! Not very comforting, that. The second most common answer was as anticipated: health is the absence of disease. In our American medical system of “disease care” this is an understandable response, of course, but as the basis for the development of a true measurement of “health” it is obvious on its face that this definition has never translated into any actionable metric. Why? Well for one it fails entirely to take into account the very real importance of “fitness”, the expression of health. More specifically, like fitness as a proxy for health, “absence of disease” also fails to address a key requirement for any measurement of health: there is no forward-looking predictive value to simply stating that you have no disease today.

A measurable, actionable definition of health is one that takes into account the degree that disease is present or absent at any given time. It must address physical fitness; to be without a named disease but to be unable to walk up a flight of stairs should not ever be construed as “healthy”. Of equal importance to these factors, any definition of “health” that will generate a meaningful metric must have a predictive value. Your Health Value should provide some measurement of your future likelihood of being disease free and fit. Our little survey of our physician peers did produce just such definitions. Given these requirements I propose that the following are actionable definitions that can be used in healthcare to create measurements in precisely the same way that Greg Glassman’s definition of fitness is used in that realm:

HEALTH: The state in which no infirmity of any kind suppresses, or has the possibility of suppressing the ability to express the full extant of an individual’s potential capacities.

HEALTHY: Able to perform in all ways at the farthest limits of one’s potential capabilities.

With these definitions we can move on to developing a “health metric”, one that can not only assess our present degree of health, but can also predict to some degree our ability to remain healthy. I believe this metric has three component parts: physical fitness as defined by CrossFit, well-being or emotional health, and a factor that addresses traditional or standard medical factors such as blood pressure, cholesterol, genetics and the like. Furthermore, I predict that these three variables are as evident and as logical for “health” as Coach Glassman’s definition is for fitness.

One can have an otherworldly degree of fitness as defined by CrossFit, but what good is it to have a 500 pound deadlift and the ability to run a 4:00 mile if your physical achievement is driven by self-loathing? By the same token, in addition to having a normal result in every conceivable medical test your countenance is as sunny as an 8 year old on vacation, your disposition so Zen-like that the Dali Lama himself wishes he were as happy and serene, but you can’t walk a mile. This surely cannot equal healthy. You are a world-champion long-distance runner, and yet you drop dead from a heart attack, unaware that you have a cholesterol of 800. Fit for sure, but hardly healthy. Fitness, well being, and modern health metrics all have a role in an actionable Health Measurement. Vigorous debate will be necessary to parse the relative weight given to each of these factors, but as I first proposed and wrote in April 2010,all three are clearly necessary components.

In short order I will offer follow-up posts that delve more deeply into each of these three components. I will include suggestions for what and how to measure them. I will conclude with a re-statement of my proposal for a single measurement of health with my suggestion as to the relative weight of the three variables, hopefully inciting the above-mentioned vigorous debate. By doing so I wish to document the originality and timeline of my proposal, acknowledge the intellectual debt owed to Greg Glassman for inspiring me, and reassert my contention that healthcare cannot reach its fullest potential without first agreeing on both a definition of health and how to measure it.