Science Behind Tiny Habits
Big things start small. The tiny daily routines and rituals that we repeat every day are not trivial. They are the building blocks of our present reality. Fixing the ones that have negative impact is essential because it is precisely these small, daily habits and tiny rituals that are taking us down. We must work on the little things that we repeat every day. We get up, brush our teeth, get ready for work. We may be running late and eat on our long commute. We may sit all day at work or have a late-night snack.
These are some examples, but everyone has their own little routines and rituals that they repeat every day. Well, those tiny routines represent more than 50% of our daily life. It is a great mistake to think that they are inconsequential. They are actually the key. It is the little things that we repeat every day that are the most important things we do when it comes to our health. Think about it. They are the building blocks of our present reality and they should be the place where we devote our energy and attention.
Habits are neither good or bad, but they can be healthy or unhealthy. Habits that we develop can pile up and give us any outcome we want. They are the difference between mediocre health and awesome biological fitness. I think I speak for all of us when I affirm that we all have the same goal: to be healthy, strong and happy. Unfortunately, for most of us, our tiny habits get in the way.
Why? Let's say that my goal is to lower my high levels of LDL cholesterol (the small cholesterol particles; the ones that cause heart disease). I could accomplish this goal in two different ways. One is by taking potentially dangerous prescription drugs. The other way is to do our 4-week Moncayo protocol. They both will help to lower my LDL cholesterol but in very different ways and the overall outcome of each is very different. Statins will block the HMG co-A reductase enzyme that will interfere with cholesterol production. But it is important to understand that at the same time, statins interfere with vitamin D, co-enzyme Q-10, testosterone and estrogen production. In contradistinction, with the Moncayo protocol, generalized inflammation is systematically reduced which equals lower cholesterol production in a way that benefits your whole body. But let's pause here. It is important to understand the fact that if I don't stop the preceding tiny habits that got my cholesterol to rise in the first place, then the disease will come back as soon as I stop taking the medications or start going back to unhealthy habits that got me sick. The biggest part of my own lasting cure is changing my habits. I may do every single diet out there or take every prescription medication, but until I change those tiny habits which were the true root of my disease, then I'm just playing yoyo with my health and with my life, and so are you. These same principle applies to most chronic diseases. And if you think about it, the same principle applies to pretty much everything in life. Don't you agree?
The sum of our tiny habits create powerful outcomes. For example, if I shorten my eating window by only 2 hours per day, this translates into 30 days or a whole month of fasting in 1 year! That's an amazing physiologic and metabolic accomplishment!!
What is a habit? A habit is the process by which the brain converts a sequence of actions into an automatic routine. Take the example of driving my car. The first time I drove, I had to really concentrate, pay close attention and consider every action. With practice, it became second nature to me. Now I can do it by instinct, without thinking about it. That's a habit. I like to give another example from a book. If you are in the habit of having a messy room and your goal is to have a nice clean and neat room, you can take a full day to clean your room and it will be spotless. But until you change the habits of a messy person, that bedroom will be back to messy as soon as next week. It goes the same with our health. We must use food as medicine to restore health and acquire the habits to maintain it.
Habits evolved. Scientists estimate that humans have existed for roughly 200 million years and from the start, habits have been a big part of our survival. Habits evolved as a result of the symbiotic relationship between our reptilian brain (limbic system) and our biochemistry and it is important to understand that our human biochemistry has remained unchanged since then. The main purpose of habits was to save as much energy as possible to allow for the survival of any given species, including us humans, so that we could live long enough to pass on our genes. Human habits have been vital to the formation of strong neural connections or synapses that we know as memories. Without those habits that create new memories, it would have been extremely difficult to survive. Habits allowed us to remember the best and easiest places to find food, water, shelter and to avoid danger. Habits helped us avoid enemy territories and helped us find our way back home. Habits are instincts. Habits are the copilot to our behavior. As you can see, humans evolved habits that were beneficial. Unfortunately, over the past 100 years, such a tiny segment of our human timeline, our modern lifestyle has led us to acquire habits very mismatched to our biology and physiology. Our new habits are making us sick.
Forming habits. We form habits through repetitive cycles that involve our body and brain; cue->action->reward. If I have a sitting down all day habit or an eating chocolate cake habit, the cake that I know is in the fridge is the cue that triggers an instinctive action from my reptilian brain (limbic system) and two minutes later I find myself taking an action, eating cake. Sugar hits my brain and I feel the surge of dopamine which is my instant reward. Over time, this loop becomes very automatic and in the case of eating chocolate cake, that bad habit will eventually become metabolic syndrome. Cue, action and reward become seriously intertwined with our physiology, leading to a powerful sense of anticipation and powerful cravings that some call addictions.
When a habit emerges, our neocortex (our mathematical brain; the part of the brain that makes the logical decisions) stops fully participating in decision making. The habit circumvents our logical brain and goes directly to enjoying the chocolate cake. So, unless you deliberately evaluate and nurture those habits that improve your health, unless you find new, healthier routines, the pattern will unfold automatically and repeatedly.
For those of you who want to hear about the latest science of habits and addiction, we will delve further into the brain and see how habits and addictions form...
The nucleus accumbens is a small part of the brain that is important in motivation, pleasure, and addiction. It is the brain's pleasure center. It contains a cluster of neurons that modulate the effects of the neurotransmitters dopamine, serotonin. The nucleus accumbens is also linked to the brain pathways that cause addiction and depression. Damage to this region of the brain causes a lack of motivation and inhibits addictive behavior. The nucleus accumbens modulates strong emotional reactions and habits and is believed to mediate communication between the amygdala and the various motors responses that accompany habit formation and behavior-reward pathways. linked to other parts of the brain that modulates cycles of reward for behavior
The nucleus accumbens is part of a set of neural pathways that facilitate learning new behaviors which result in pleasurable reinforcement. When our brain processes something that merits a reward such as sugar, nicotine or an opioid (and the brain has receptors for each of these), that event releases dopamine or serotonin. The neurotransmitter dopamine produces a feeling of pleasure while serotonin has a calming influence on the nearby nerve fibers. The ventral tegmental area produces dopamine and sends it to the nucleus accumbens. The latest studies on the relationship between addiction and the release of serotonin and dopamine in the nucleus accumbens suggest that these neurotransmitters triggers neural activity correlating with the individual's prior strong sensation of reward on which addiction depends. Basically, just by craving a substance like a cigarette or sugar, increases neural activity in anticipation of the future pleasure.
The nucleus accumbens is the epicenter for major additions. When we have our first taste of sugar, it quickly activates the reward system in our brain. Science tells us that sugar is very addictive (as addictive as opioids, nicotine etc.). Sugar and insulin are a good way to understand the connection between habits, addiction and chronic disease. Every time I consume added sugar in my diet, my brain must orchestrate a biochemical communication via key hormones inside my body. Proper balance of hormones like insulin and leptin among others, strive to maintain my blood sugar at a constant, safe, homeostatic levels. My good health and well-being depends on the success of that communication. If my habit is to eat two or more snacks between meals and to avoid exercise, then it becomes a matter of time before these habits will cause my blood sugar and blood pressure to rise. In the case of sugary snacks, these habits will become my addiction. If my goal is to lower my high blood sugar and high blood pressure, then the true way to lower it is by identifying the preceding small actions that got my blood sugar and pressure to rise in the first place. In this case, it would involve moving more and discontinuing the two daily snacks. These are small habits and addictions are triggering tiny but constant inflammation to my body's chemistry. Once I identify them, I can get rid of them. If my intention is to restore my health from the burden of metabolic syndrome and to lose 20 pounds, I will use the same strategies. I will get rid of the tiny habits that got me to gain those extra 20 pounds in the first place. This is the only effective way you fix my metabolism and habits. It is the only way to make my success sustainable.
Repetition of tiny habits can lead to addiction. Let's remember that the addiction of one person may affect many more. Think about the individual as a pebble that falls into a pond. As the pebble falls into the pond, it produce circular waves that spread outward and that impact has direct effects on that person's family and on their friends. As the waves propagate outward, they begin to impact the community. Let's stop making waves :)