Go Wild : Free Your Body and Mind From The Afflictions of Civilization by John Ratey and Richard Manning, 2014.

I wanted to review John Ratey’s 2014 book, Go Wild, after reading parts of his previous book, Spark, The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.  Ratey, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, has written five books on the brain, specifically on the brain-body connection.  

Ratey’s book, which has the subtitle Eat fat, run free, be social, and follow evolution’s other rules for total health and well-being is based on scientific studies and supplemented with personal experiences from the two authors and other guests.  The idea began when his dog was diagnosed with ADHD. Rather than put poochie on Ritalin, he researched the published studies, interviewed people, and in the process, along with journalist, Richard Manning, wrote Go Wild.  

Ratey makes the case that our lifestyle – civilization – is making us not only sick, and reducing our quality of life, but contributing to our early mortality.  Is it possible, he asks, that autism could be “a disease of civilization?”  What about other mental illnesses?  We’ve known about the mind-body connection forever, but it wasn’t until a few years ago, that researchers began seriously studying and documenting the connection.  As white papers in the journals skyrocketed, researchers, practitioners and schools began applying the ideas.  This is a book about ideas, and strategies that have worked for people aspiring to overcome physical and mental ailments and thus live more satisfying and fulfilling lives.  

A concept that runs through the book is the power of connection. “One of the realizations we hope to deliver is how everything – how you eat, move, sleep, think and live – is connected.”  Depression, for instance, “is not solely a condition of mind and is not isolated in the brain.”  Neither is obesity: the bacteria in your gut, and lack of sleep are factors that contribute to weight gain.  

The key mind-body topics that Ratey investigated include diet, movement, sleep, mindfulness, tribe, biophilia.  

Let’s start with diet.  The dominant fuel of our muscles and our brain is glucose — the end product of digestion, derived from food.  But glucose is toxic.  “It is a poison and the body regards it just that way.  We have spent generations now in a search for a toxin that sponsors the diseases that ail us… but the supreme irony in all of this is that the obvious toxin hid in plain sight….  We have become carbovores as a result of our domestication by grain (grain is transformed through digestion into glucose) . . . we exist for the most part on a substance that our bloodstream treats as a toxin.” In large doses in the blood stream, glucose is a toxin: glucose triggers the pancreas, which secretes insulin, and sends signals throughout the body to remove the glucose. Muscles can convert the glucose to glycogen, but muscles have limited capacity to do this, thus, excess glucose goes into fat storage.  Ratey recommends eating fewer carbs (more meat, veggies, fats) and eat them mixed with a variety of foods.

The worst way to saturate your blood with glucose is to drink sugar water – e.g., Coke, “juice”, even the expensive so-called natural juices.  “If you come away from this book with one rule,” Ratey says, “and one rule only, it is: don’t drink sugar water. In any form.  This fat that we build and store around our mid-section, the hormonal signals that become crossed and facilitates a metabolic syndrome that leads to obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes stroke and cancer.  “This is the core of the emerging argument that sugar is toxic and sugar is responsible for what ails us.  Carbs are responsible too, because … carbohydrates are reduced to sugar.”

When Ratey began eating a low –carb diet:  vegetables, fruit, fat, meat, nuts — he noticed a significant change in his energy and mood.  He lost weight and that mid-afternoon slump.  He does advocate eating meat and fat, and especially fish, which concentrates micronutrients that the body needs.

Next topic: the brain.  Fairly recent studies have shown that the brain does rewire itself and “repurpose bits and pieces.”  It adapts, and it grows.  This neuroplasticity is due to the fact that our brain is a muscle, and like any muscle, the more you exercise it, the stronger it becomes. We build our brains by “balancing between comfort and exploration of the unknowns.”  With support from those we trust, we are more likely to explore the unknowns.  

When you physically move, you place demands on the brain, and when this happens, the brain releases BDNF, brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which “triggers the growth of cells to meet the increased mental demands of movement.  But BDNF floods throughout the brain, not just the parts engaged in movement, thus the whole brain flourishes as a result of movement.“  Sedentary behavior actually “causes brain impairment by depriving the brain of the neurochemicals necessary for brain growth.”  Studies have shown that a sedentary lifestyle is associated with lower cognitive skills.”  In fact older people who exercised had “significantly larger hippocampal volumes” , thus improved memory and smaller overall gray matter loss. . “Cognitive impairment,” he asserts, “is not so much a consequence of aging as it is a consequence of our sedentary lives.”

Exercise and movement build the brain.  Remember, the brain is a muscle.  And when muscles don;t move, they atrophy.  This is one reason why isolation in a house or a  room is so detrimental to a mentally ill person.   Ratey documents several studies of regular exercise – movement — and its positive impact on the brain in Spark.  

Sleep, the next topic, is an act of social engagement. “… it is a dynamic state important to brain function and where some of our most important work” is done.  A sense of safety is critical for a good night’s sleep–  that’s why the sound of a dog snoring or rain on a rooftop can lull us into sleep.  We feel safe.

Sleep is also adaptable, and it is fluid.  “And with most other cases of our adaptability, we need to practice adapting to strengthen that skill, to modulate, to read the signals and cues that attach us to our physical and social environment.“  In other words, sleep when you are tired.  Naps and irregular sleep patterns are okay but sleep deprivation is not; sleep deprivation “looks like stress.  It increases cortisol, it increases appetite, it decreases satiety, increases blood glucose level.”  A certain amount of stress is beneficial because by adapting to the stress, we become stronger, and build neural connections, however, If the stress becomes chronic we produce more cortisol and inflammation and we become in fact, “fat, sick and stupid.”   

One or two hours of stress “does remarkable things for the brain because more oxygen and glucose are delivered to the brain, and the hippocampus, involved in memory , works better, and the brain releases more dopamine … it feels wonderful , and your brain works better.”  Studies involving monkeys and rewards showed that in a setting perceived as “malevolent and threatening, “ lack of control became a terrible stressor, however, “lack of control …  in a setting perceived as benign and safe, lack of control feels wonderful.”

Another factor important for good sleep is light type and timing. Melatonin, the hormone that regulates sleep and our circadian rhythms, is produced by the pineal gland behind the eye.  Sunlight triggers this gland, but it can also be triggered by artificial light.  Research suggests that engaging in activities that involve TVs, cell phones and computers close to bed time can be a factor in disruptive sleep because the artificial light triggers the pineal gland and makes us think that it is daylight. “Studies have linked the disruptive effects of artificial light at night to depression, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity and even ADD.”  

Meditation is another good thing to do.  It can be described as “the attention and awareness of the here and now.”  Studies of brain patterns of people who had been taught meditation in short courses found “clear and readable patterns in brain activation and reduction in anxiety and depression.” When given meditators vs non-meditators a flu vaccine, they “found a better response among the meditators.”  Meditators undergoing treatment for psoriasis healed at four times the rate that the control group did.  Another benchmark of mediation appears to be improved perception.  “The meditative state is characterized by synchronized gamma waves throughout the brain.  . .  Imagine that each neuron or cell as a radio that can be tuned to receive certain frequencies, to respond to a certain wavelength generated somewhere else in the brain.  Synchronous waves recruit bigger neural networks because more cells are tuned to that “station.”  

Non-synchronous brain waves tend to create “rumble, chatter and static in the backdrop of the brain…. This is implicated in problems including schizophrenia, manic-depressive disorder, autism, mental retardation and brain damage.  People afflicted with these problems are often unable to control the rush of stimuli, to still the lake.” Achieving meditation’s state of awareness (a state of here and now) serves to calm the storm or ‘quiet and tune” the mind.  

Ratey says that “Everything effects a reshaping of the brain, especially our relationships with one another.  This brings us to biophilia.  Biophilia is the “innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other organisms” and by extension to nature.  Deprived of connection to other organisms and nature has been shown to alter cortisol (remember? the stress hormones) levels in the body.  Take-away from this?  Go on those walks through the forest, swim in a pond, pick apples at an orchard, and ask if you can pet that friendly-looking dog with the tongue handing out.

Ratey also describes his visit to the Center for Discovery in Harris, New York where 360 adolescents with autism have had their lives turned around by following a good diet, living outside in a significant way, limiting the time they spend doing virtual activities and spending up to 65 percent of the day moving.

In conclusion, these are not solutions, but rather supports to build your life.  Manning says, “ I began to think very differently about the whole business , and this was the key shift in attitude, the foundation, the core idea that I hope you can take from this book.  I abandoned the notion that I was correcting a deficit or fixing a fault.  Take the pill and good to go.  It occurred to me that I had taken a small step and felt better, so how much “better” was there, how much better could I feel?”  

Both authors suggest to start “building a healthy foundation” take a hard look at the food you eat.  Get rid of the sugar and processed food.  Then move – moving is important.  Find something that you will do every day whether it is walking, soccer, biking.  And do it.  Start today.  The rest will come.