Clean Eating Can Clean Up Your Life!

What does a diet mean to you?  Does it mean cutting out dessert, or carbs, or just eating less volume?  I challenge you, as I’ve challenged myself, to aim to eat cleaner rather than adopting a diet.  So many diets such as juice cleanses, keto diets, and specific weight loss programs may help you lose weight, but won’t help you keep the weight off.  More importantly, they won’t contribute to your long term health in other beneficial ways.

Clean eating isn’t about when you eat or how much, but the quality of what you’re eating.  In a way, it goes back to what humans were originally meant to be eating; sustenance without pesticides, hormones, GMOs, etc.  Clean eating involves avoiding highly processed foods and choosing high-quality organic foods instead.  It nourishes your body in every way necessary and more, and has many benefits.

Eating clean may seem daunting at first, but it is easier with three steps from Vitamix’s article “What is Clean Eating and Why is it Important?”.  The first step instructs you to shop the perimeter of the store, as most clean and organic foods are actually found along the outer perimeter of the store.  The second step is to read food labels.  A common trick is to look at the ingredients list and if you see any ingredients you’re not familiar with or can’t pronounce, then it isn’t organic and simple enough.  With number of ingredients, less is more for clean eating.  Also make sure to look out for excessive added sugars.  The third step is to cook your own food, because it is far easier to ensure that you’re eating clean when you know everything that’s going into your food.  Cooking may seem daunting at first if you haven’t had much practice, but it gets easier very quickly.  There are so many fun, easy online resources for following healthy recipes—my favorite is Tasty videos.

Besides shopping for clean foods and cooking your own meals, there are other ways in which you can supplement your nutrition with clean foods.  I recently went to a juice bar in Dallas that is “100% certified organic,” which is surprisingly rare considering how many juice bars there are, especially in California.  Another great option is the products from Orgain, a certified organic company that aims to deliver the cleanest nutrition products possible.  There are already many options for a clean diet, and they will only grow in number.

Other resources on clean eating claim that adopting the lifestyle will make you smarter and happier and make you live longer, save money, have better relationships, and help save the Earth.  Obviously some of this has to be taken as exaggeration, but I’m sure there are truthful aspects to each point.  The benefits to your health are surely worth it.

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Treat Yourself, Treat Your Skin

Did you know our skin is our largest organ?  It serves as the body’s first defense and is important for so many reasons.  We tend to forget how instrumental the wellbeing of our skin is to our health, and how painful skin problems can be.  Even aside from healthcare, taking care of your skin is essential to self care and self-esteem.  Everyone’s skin is unique and responds somewhat differently to different treatments (although of course we all share some common ground).  In this post, I will discuss my journey with skincare and what has worked for my specific skin type thus far.

The moral of the story for my skin is less is more.  I’ve always had very sensitive skin, ever since I was a baby.  I can’t even use scented lotion on my legs without itching for hours afterward.  I used to have terrible eczema on my arms; it was incredibly painful and annoying for a young child to deal with.  The medicine I had to put on it stung because of how deep my scratches were, and my parents’ constant reminders to stop scratching were no less annoying.  I’m so thankful that it’s gotten better over the years, but when it acts up I know that I just need to use my cortisone anti-itch cream and it will be better by the morning.

The next most problematic area of skincare that I had to navigate was shaving.  For years, any razor and/or shaving cream would give me painful rashes and hives for the next five days after shaving.  Some might tell me I should wax my legs, but regardless of the money, time, and pain that causes, I can’t because I had adverse reactions to getting my eyebrows waxed.  Years later, I have found what works for me: Gillette Satin Care Ultra Sensitive Women’s Shave Gel, and Schick Hydro Silk 3 sensitive razors.  I swear by this combo now, and whenever I run out, my old problems return.

The next, and possibly most common, skin problem is acne.  I took doxycycline for years, and now I use topical medications such as clindamycin and tretinoin.  All three have worked very well for me, almost fully eliminating acne, but they leave my skin dry, vulnerable, and more sensitive than before.  I have found through trial and error that the fewer products I use in addition, the better my skin fares.  I don’t wear makeup often, and my skin definitely thanks me for it.  I wash my face in the morning and evening, but only with an extremely gentle cleanser as my skin can’t handle much more.  My skin tends to be on the greasier end, and I used to wash it more often to fix that, but the truth is that the more you wash it, the more oil your skin will produce to try to compensate (just like with your hair!).  Moisturizer is essential, but it’s another area in which I found that less is more.  I used Olay anti-aging cream as my moisturizer for a long time, but last fall my friend gave me her very expensive, high-end moisturizer that she wasn’t using.  I’m sure it’s a great product, but I was allergic to something in it because my skin broke out in a rash that lasted for months and turned into a skin condition called contact dermatitis.  Since then, it’s become even more important to treat my skin well and use only the most natural, simple products on it.  Hint: check out 100 Percent Pure for the kind of healthy skin products I’m talking about!  As I’ve clearly learned over the years, putting the time and effort into your skin is something you won’t regret.

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Reflections

Before I left for Africa, many adults in my life were anxious for my safety and somewhat disapproving of my choice to go.  My grandparents had no idea why I wanted to go there in the first place, and some family friends told me that they prayed for my safety every day.  This was highly frustrating because not only did they refuse to understand that I would be safe with my organization, but also it was clear that they had made snap judgements without knowing ANYTHING about the country and city where I would be living.  Their anxiety reflected a very real and ingrained issue of prejudice.  I was excited to have the most amazing experience and prove them wrong; unfortunately, this wouldn’t turn out to be the full story.

Mombasa, Kenya has a high rate of violence and crime.  However, I was living in the nicest residential area of the city, with 24/7 guards and security measures protecting the house.  I trusted the people I was with and the Kenyans working in the house.  Of course, you never want to expect that anything bad will happen to you.  On my 7th night there, however, someone broke into our rooms and stole from all of the girls’ rooms while we were sleeping.  My phone was stolen, and collectively there were 2 phones, 3 pairs of expensive sunglasses, and over $800 taken without anyone in the house of 13 people waking up.  Everything was done in a very systematic and detailed way that led us and the police to believe it was definitely an inside job, whether that meant a worker, friend of a worker, or fellow intern inside the house.  This was a traumatic experience for me for several reasons.  First, having your phone taken in a foreign country and losing everything on it is very upsetting and hard to deal with in a practical sense.  Second, if people entered the house from outside, they entered through the balcony door which was right next to my head as a slept.  Third, with how much time the robbers took and the horrifically violent things we had seen at the hospital, we were terrified to think of all of the worse things that could have happened to us.

Enjoying Kenya in the same way I had before became a little harder after that night.  I was too scared to sleep in my room for the nights following the robbery, and my roommate almost decided to go home three weeks early because she didn’t feel safe.  However, my organization and the police dealt with the issue in the most prompt and thorough way they could.  Although I was still scared, I knew they were doing everything possible to keep us safe.  They hired new security, installed new cameras, got a guard dog, installed a better electric fence, changed all the locks, and more.  Some interns started to point fingers at the staff working in the house, but all of us who had been there long enough knew it would not be them, and each member of the staff apologized to us personally because they were so shocked that it had happened.

Even though I had a harder time feeling safe at night, this event did not change my experience of Kenya and my desire to make the most of my trip.  I worked at the hospital with a new sense of understanding and purpose, and I remained open to friendship with everyone I met.  Although I took new measures to keep myself and my belongings safe, I recognized that being distrustful and doubtful of the people around me would get me nowhere.  On my safari the next weekend, I got to fully experience the beauty and wonder of Kenya and its wildlife.  In the end, one of the interns in the house was sent home due to an unrelated incident where she stole another intern’s headphones.  Many of us think she was the original thief, and even if she wasn’t, the incident showed that immediately blaming the workers for a robbery would be a mistake.

After being robbed, I didn’t tell many people.  However, word got out through my parents and friends, and it’s not like I was going to lie about it.  The reactions that I got were extremely disappointing.  Everyone who had been anxious for me to go had their beliefs confirmed, or so they thought.  My grandparents and others keep telling me “I’m sorry you had such a horrible time over there!” while I desperately try to explain that I had an amazing time, despite an unfortunate event.  I hate that when they think of Africa, the memory of me being robbed will be added as a reason to be scared.  Going forward, I will continue to show them the beauty of Kenya and all of the lessons I learned there from the amazing people I met.

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Healthcare Across the World (part 3)

For my third post about experiences with healthcare in Africa, I thought I would journey outside of the hospital.  As well all know, health is much more than what happens in emergencies or hospital stays.  It’s much bigger than that.  Our health is determined by our daily behaviors and decisions.

Even with all the resources available to us, many people struggle to make good choices for their health.  In extreme poverty, people have less ability to choose to live healthy lives.  I witnessed extreme and system poverty all throughout Kenya.  I’m so thankful that I didn’t have to sit back and watch; my organization gave me the power to do something, even if it was minimal.

During my second week in Kenya, we were all told in the morning that after we got back from the hospital that day we’d go to a school in the slums to teach a hygiene clinic.  I had no idea what that meant; where exactly were the slums, and how do they expect us to teach hygiene?  In my mind, it was something that would never be explicitly taught in a school because it seemed too basic and like something you grow up learning.  Even these thoughts show that I am privileged in ways I never would have realized.

The first part of the experience was our drive to the “slums.”  I had two conflicting thoughts; on one hand, poverty is so widespread in Mombasa that I didn’t understand how one part could be designated as the slums specifically.  On the other hand, I was aware that the house that myself and the other volunteers were staying in was in the nicest residential part of the city.  Therefore, I figured that if there is a designated slum, it must be pretty far from where we lived.  Imagine my surprise when after a less than 10 minute drive, we turned onto a muddy street and ended up in what looked like a different universe.  There were people everywhere, and their living situations were atrocious.  We drove down the road to a school, where we got out of the car to greet hundreds of children, who were all ecstatic to see visitors.

At the school, we introduced ourselves to all of the children and told them that we would be teaching them some important lessons, or refreshers for the older children.  We then had our pre-dental students teach them how to brush their teeth.  After the demonstration, we called up a student to show us how it was done.  We also taught them a song about how to do it.  I understood the need to teach them how and when to brush their teeth; when you don’t have enough to eat, spending money on dental hygiene obviously isn’t a priority.  The lack of clean water is an issue as well.  Additionally, kids not wanting to brush their teeth is a universal issue; I’ve witnessed it with both of my siblings.

Hand washing was the portion that I thought was self-explanatory, but I saw how important it is to reinforce it.  We had them practice and tell us exactly when they should be washing their hands.  At the end, we gave them all toothbrushes and toothpaste, and I’ve never seen anyone so excited to receive those things!  We also gave dietary supplements to the children who needed them.

Little things like proper handwashing techniques and dietary supplements can do so much to change your health.  For example, Thorne Research creates dietary supplements with a focus on purity and precision.  If we all valued our health products as much as these Kenyan children appreciated theirs, the world would look different.

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Healthcare Across the World (part 2)

In my last post, I wrote a little bit about my experience with healthcare in Kenya.  I only touched the tip of the iceberg and I’d love to continue in this post!

I worked in the county hospital in Mombasa, a coastal town, for three weeks total.  I spent the first week in the Gender Based Violence Recovery Center, the second in surgery, and the third in OB/Gyn.  I also did an overnight shift in emergency.  Each department was eye opening in a different way, and overall the experience has made me so much more determined to go into the medical field.

The part that is freshest in my mind is my time in OB/Gyn, so I’ll start there.  First of all, I’d like to mention that this was the part that aligned least with my interests.  When thinking about possible careers in medicine, obstetrics and gynecology is nowhere on my list.  I love babies, but I know it’s not for me.  However, I thought it would be interesting to work in OB in Kenya because I knew that their extremely high birth rate would mean that much of the hospital’s resources would be allocated there.  I was right—there are about 40 births in that hospital a day, although there are only 16 beds in the labor ward.  They take the mother in when she’s dilated enough, deliver the baby, and get her walking or wheeling out of the ward only about an hour later.

Many of my experiences in Kenya served to prove something I already knew in a very new way, and that is just how strong women really are.  I saw countless women, young and old, in labor pains without any kind of medication.   In this hospital they don’t even let the husband or any family members be present for the delivery.  Whether or not I’ll want pain medication when I’m giving birth, I absolutely cannot imagine having the strength to do it without my loved ones there to support me.  The cleanliness of the beds and instruments is so minimal that it terrified me, and the lack of medication puts the mothers at risk as well.  The amazing doctors (who are mostly female as well) make up for this deficit as much as possible.

My time in the OB/Gyn unit was eye-opening and unforgettable.  It made me more appreciative/aware of the beginning of life, the strength of women, and the resources of Western medicine.  There are so many mundane things that can become deadly in countries with less resources.  At the same time, pains and problems that are mountains for us are only molehills for them.  We are so lucky to have access to new and evolving brands such as New Chapter supplements and so many other vitamins and supplements that allow us to live longer and healthier lives.  It is our job to appreciate the life we have been given, especially when all of the necessary tools are at our disposal.

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Healthcare Across the World (part 1)

This month, I’m lucky enough to have the opportunity to travel to Africa to work in a hospital.  I’m in the middle of my stay in Mombasa, Kenya and what I’ve done and seen here has already changed my life.  Kenya is a beautiful country, but to the Western eye it appears to be stuck in the past.  A closer evaluation of life and the availability of resources here reveals the bigger picture.

Life in Kenya is beautiful; the people are the best thing about it.  The food is amazing too—as the fruit lover that I am, I’ve been eating as much mango and passionfruit as possible!  The people are so incredibly nice and welcoming.  There isn’t a time where you walk past someone and they don’t say “jambo” (hello) or “karibu” (welcome).  There are so many babies as well, because Kenya still has one of the highest population growth rates in the world.  Mombasa is a coastal town, and it is mostly Muslim.  The main language is Swahili although luckily almost everyone speaks English!  The language barrier can still be a problem, and I find that even if we’re both speaking English, pronunciations can be so different that it’s impossible to understand each other.   This is just one of the challenges that I appreciate having to adjust to in a foreign country.

I spend most of my time at the county hospital with the 20 or so interns from the US that are doing the program with me.  So far I’ve seen many things that shocked me.  Last week I worked in the Gender Based Violence Recovery Center, where survivors of sexual assault or other kinds of violence come to be medically examined and tell their story.  This was shocking because of the prevalence of rape, and the attitude towards it.  Culturally, Americans and Kenyans deal with things very differently.  Not only does time move in a much slower, circular fashion here, but issues such as rape are sometimes not treated with the gravity that I feel they would be in America.  We have heard some horrible stories, and it’s heartbreaking to know that the police will probably never be able to do anything about many cases.

This week, I’m working in the surgery wards.  I would say that the most shocking thing is the amount of flies and the lack of basic resources.  The hospital is open-air, and in general there are constantly flies plaguing every piece of food and thing you do.  It’s scarring to see horrible open wounds covered in flies.  We noticed that only some beds had mosquito nets to protect from malaria, and we learned that this was because very few patients could afford to pay for the mosquito net service.  The doctors do not have enough gloves, towels, or anything that is needed in any hospital in the Western world.  Every single thing is written on paper—there is NO computer database whatsoever, so each patient has a paper booklet that they bring with them, full of various doctors notes and a full medical history.  Even in the offices or wards that have computers, they are rarely used because of the frequency of power outages.  Yesterday I was watching an open heart surgery, and the power went out TWICE in the 45 minutes I was there.  Luckily the operating rooms are much nicer than the rest of the hospital, so they had a backup generator that worked well.  Still, I can’t imagine how bad that could have been and how bad it could be in any other ward.

This dramatic lack of resources, which I’ve barely scratched the surfaces of, obviously makes receiving good health care at the county hospital much more difficult.  However, it also results in the doctors being more versatile, adapted, and strong than I could have ever expected.  The creativity and resilience they show each day inspires me to want to be a doctor even more than I did already.

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Man’s Best Friend

What would we do without our pets?  Whether you have a pet or not, everyone can attest to the joy that animals bring to the lives of so many people.  Personally, I aspire to be as happy as my dogs are when I or any of my family members comes home to greet them.  Whether it’s a dog, cat, bird, or snake, pets can be wonderful companions and will always love you unconditionally.   You may think it takes a ton of work to keep an animal healthy and happy, but have you considered the ways in which they can benefit your health as well?

There’s a reason that therapy dogs are so successful and widely used—animals can lower your stress levels substantially.  Many sources emphasize the long list of health benefits that can come from having pets.  For example, people who own pets tend to have significantly lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels.  A lot of this is because pets like dogs need to be walked, so taking care of your dog gives you the chance to exercise and keep yourself healthy as well.  At the same time, the evidence of better cholesterol is more wide spread than just people who walk their pets frequently, making the finding more significant.

Another way in which pets help your health are by helping you deal with pain.  It isn’t clear why, but pets’ ability to reduce anxiety extends to reducing chronic pain such as migraines or arthritis.  According to a study from Loyola University, people who use pet therapy while recovering from surgery may need significantly less pain medication than those who do not.  That’s an amazing result, and is not surprising when you consider how frequently dogs are present in hospitals, especially in children’s wards.  They have a real effect on mood and anxiety, and on healing as a result.

Pets also have the potential to lower blood pressure, especially in hypertensive or high-risk patients (CDC).  This finding especially stresses the fact that even if you think you may not have room in your life for a furry friend, you should consider how it will help you in the long run, even putting the “unconditional love and companionship” piece aside.

With that being said, of course it’s important to keep the animal’s wellbeing in mind at all times.  You should not adopt a pet unless you have the time and means to give it the love it deserves.  It’s important to take your pets to regular checkups, get their shots, and make a real effort to train them.  I recently saw a tweet that said “My husband has been filling my dog’s water bowls with expensive, reverse osmosis water.  When I asked him what I was doing, he said ‘They would do the same for me!’”  This man has the right idea—your pets deserve the best.  A company called Pet Wellbeing has exactly the right idea as well; they make natural products for over 120 issues affecting cats and dogs.  Their mantra is “when your pet is healthy, you’re happy,” and that’s exactly my point!  Many people want to adopt pets in college to reduce stress, but if you have a full class load and not much free time, it can be unfair and even cruel to the animal.  When you adopt at the right time, you’ll gain a new best friend!

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The Power of Genetics

The numbers of processes and intricacies contained in the workings of the human body are completely unfathomable.  Every structure, and every change in energy, has a purpose.  What’s even more amazing is that the instructions for every single one of these are contained in DNA.  This fact should lead to the assumption that DNA must be extremely complex; in fact, when scientists were trying to figure out the source of genetic material, they thought that proteins were the carriers of genetic information because of their complexity and variability.  It is the opposite with DNA, which is made up only of repeating units of a phosphate group, a sugar group, and a pair of two out of four nucleotide bases.  It is the unique combination of these bases that leads to all genetic diversity on Earth, and this fact is absolutely mind-blowing.

It is crazy to think that all of the diversity on Earth comes from differences in the sequence of genetic code.  However, it is even more unbelievable when you consider the fact that of the human genome (all of our genetic information), only 1% of all of our genes are protein-coding genes.  Protein-coding genes are the ones that undergo transcription and translation to make proteins and essentially to allow for every structure and process in our body.  If only 1% of our genes lead to this, then what does the other 99% do?

The other 99% of our genome is important for genetic regulation, or for controlling what genes are expressed and how.  Much is still unknown about the mass of regulatory genes, but it is clear that their presence must be essential due to the mass of DNA that they take up.  An example of genes that regulate gene expression are Hox genes, or a group of related genes that specify regions of the body plan of an embryo along the head-tail axis of animals.  Although they may be expressed differently, they are present in every single animal with bilateral symmetry.  They are then expressed specifically to create the animal and to give it its predetermined body plan.  Aspects of life like Hox genes show just how related all organisms are.  When any animal egg is fertilized, a cluster of cells called a blastula is produced.  After it has grown enough, it reaches gastrulation, where it divides itself into three separate layers: the ectoderm (outside layer), the mesoderm (middle layer), and the endoderm (inner layer).  These initial divisions then go on to create not only the skin, nervous system, skeletal system, and inner organs, but they lead to specialization of an organism, both as a specific kind of animal and a unique being within its species.

These processes should impart a sense of wonder and appreciation in us for the power of our genes.  We are just now beginning to understand the makeup of our genomes and how to use its power to improve our health, avoid deadly genetic mutations, and more.  The best example of this is the amazing and controversial system of Crispr-Cas9, which allows us to make specific cuts and changes in genetic material.  However, harnessing the power of genetics can be much more commonplace than this—companies like Metagenics intelligently aim to help you realize your genetic potential through nutrition.  It is tailored health efforts like these than will allow us to tailor or health to our genetic capabilities, and achieve what nature intended for us.  We are miracles just because we were born, and it is essential that we treat ourselves and each other as such!

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Club Sports: It Doesn’t End After High School

First and foremost, we are at college to be students.  However, each of us arrived at college by being more than students.  Having outside activities is what allows us to prosper—more than that, it’s what inspires our passions and interests.  In my class at Notre Dame, 89% ranked in the top 10% of their graduating class.  In other words, we’re all good students.  It’s our activities outside of our schoolwork that sets us apart!

Notre Dame is an extremely athletic school—as I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, we’re much more than football.  In all honesty, our other sports do better than football.  I’ve also written about the various tiers of sports at Notre Dame in the past.  In this post, I’d like to focus on my favorite of those tiers: club sports.  I’m on the club volleyball team, and it’s been the best decision of my life.  I believe that my experiences show the importance of not only participating in outside activities, but especially in those that provide a team environment and physical exercise!

I played volleyball throughout high school in an extreme way.  I had tournaments every week, traveled with my high school and club teams, and spent many hours a week at practice.  I thought I would end up playing on a varsity team in college, as many of my club teammates did too.  However, when it came down to applying to colleges, I decided that I didn’t want the commitment of a varsity sport when I knew my focus was pre-medicine and academics in general.  In this regard, I had to choose my identity as a student over my life as a volleyball player.

I was enjoying my first ever extended break from volleyball when I went to the Notre Dame club fair and met the club volleyball team’s captains, who begged me to try out because they needed girls who play my position.  I wasn’t sure about it, but I figured I owed it to myself to give it a shot.  I had my parents ship my court shoes and gear out to Indiana, and from there there was no turning back.

Joining the club volleyball team has undoubtedly been the best decision I’ve made in my college career, for so many reasons.  A big one is the health benefit; although I love working out on my own, nothing beats a hard practice playing my favorite sport with the teammates who I love dearly.  It’s the best stress reliever, and a perfect amount of commitment to give me a break from my studies without detracting from them.  Volleyball is such a dynamic, active sport, and that kind of exercise is so important.  Although club is a serious step down from varsity, the competition is very real.  My team is at the top of Division 1, and we’re probably better than my high school and club teams were.  I guarantee that every girl on my team could have played on a varsity team, but fate brought us together at Notre Dame.

Another way club volleyball has changed my college experience has been through the bonds with my teammates.  We all come from different backgrounds and areas of the country, and even from different majors and friend groups at Notre Dame.  However, throughout the year, we become so close through the uniting factor of volleyball that we are all each others’ sisters by the end.  We have plenty of parties and bonding events with the men’s team, and it culminates at nationals with the men’s team being the loudest people in the convention center, cheering on their Irish women.  Overall, we create an amazing community bonded in hard work, dedication, and love for our sport and each other.

Finally, club volleyball has benefited me by giving me the opportunity to have so many new experiences in new places.  With my team, I’ve traveled to Berkeley, Milwaukee, Columbus, St. Louis, Ann Arbor, Denver, and more.  We were at Nationals this past weekend in Denver, and it was the greatest volleyball travel experience I’ve had.  It’s mind-blowing to consider how I thought my volleyball career was over after high school, not knowing that it would continue in the most gratifying way possible.  It is a constant reminder that pursuing your passions should always be a priority.

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The Importance of Primary Producers

Hopefully, everyone is aware by now that not only are plants far more abundant than us, but we would not be alive without them.  The Earth is covered in plants and has been for many eons. They produce oxygen, and are a main source of food for not only us, but countless groups of animals.  In my biology class, we’ve learned a lot about the importance of plants and the rarity of large animals. Apart from being very interesting on its own, there were surprising health implications that I would love to share!

Trophic levels represent an organism’s level in their ecosystem and specifically in the food chain.  The first level is primary producers, which in a nutshell is everything that becomes food for some other kind of organism, but feeds on no organisms itself.  The biggest group of primary producers is obviously plants. The next tropic levels are consumers, including primary, secondary, and tertiary consumers where primary are herbivores, secondary are omnivores, and tertiary are carnivores.  The highest level is the decomposers, which feed on dead organic material after the producers and consumers die. There are countless types of relationships between and within the levels that make the system that is the Earth run as it does today.

Most people know that there are far more plants than herbivores, more herbivores than omnivores, and more omnivores than carnivores.  These distinctions also include size. Essentially, the bigger an animal, the more rare it is. Why is this? You may come up with a simple, obvious answer—as the levels of prey get bigger, the predators themselves need to be bigger in order to be able to physically consume their prey.  But then what about a herbivore, which feeds on plants much larger than itself, or big animals that feed on tiny things. For instance, take the baleen whale, which feeds on phytoplankton so small that they can’t be seen; surely the whale is not as large as it is as a result of its diet!

The answer to the question of why higher trophic levels have smaller numbers lies in the concept of energy flow.  The first law of thermodynamics says that energy is conserved. However, when plants receive energy from the sun, they only take in 1-2% of the overall energy to conduct photosynthesis.  When the next trophic level consumes the plants, they only absorb less than 10% of the energy contained by the plant. As each trophic level consumes the one below it, less than 10% of the remaining energy is consumed.  With this process, we can see that energy transfer is highly inefficient. Therefore, by the time it gets up to the level of tertiary consumers, there is not nearly enough energy to support as many organisms as are contained in the levels below.  Additionally, because larger animals require more energy to move and live, the effect of energy inefficiency is compounded. Not that this is a problem; everything is organized perfectly in nature, and if this was not so, then predators could theoretically increase and deplete more of Earth’s resources.

How does this relate to health, you ask?   Well, it has important implications for diet.  We can see through energy transfer that the most energy is actually contained in plants, rather than meats higher up the food chain.  Therefore, this knowledge is almost like a hit back at people who say that vegetarians are missing essential nutrients by not eating meat, or that a vegetarian diet is not sustainable.  I’m not a vegetarian, but this lesson showed the wonders of plants and the powers and variation they possess. There are social implications as well—could harnessing the energy from plants and making farming more efficient stop the mistreatment of animals?  Or contribute to an end to world hunger? Obviously the problem has many more scientific complexities that I did not delve into here, but it is something to consider nonetheless.

In another health tangent, my interest was piqued by the discovery of the brand Gaia Herbs, which preaches “a living laboratory” and a celebration of the symbiotic relationship between people and plants, represented by the production of organic herbs, health supplements, and homeopathic products.  What if all producers of food and medication viewed plants as a “living laboratory?” How would our health and society be different today?

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