Saturday, February 13, 2016

How I lowered my cholesterol, in four easy steps

Here's how science can kick cholesterol's butt.

I'd had my cholesterol checked a few times before last year, and it was a bit high, but I wasn't really concerned. True, I'd started the high fat "paleo/primal" diet in 2012, and I'd been wondering if all that meat and fat might affect my heart, but I also knew the research was mixed (see here and here, for example). So, I ignored it and kept eating as much bacon as I could.

Then, in July 2015, my total cholesterol was up to 218, and my doctor mentioned the unmentionable: "We should probably take a look at statins," he said, "or if you want, you could try changing your diet first."

I didn't want to change my diet, which had lost me 30 pounds and had me feeling very good, but I also didn't want to take statins, with their potential muscle and liver damage.

I decided to do my own experiments.

I found It's a site where you can order blood tests, get your blood drawn at Quest Diagnostics, and get the results the next day online.

My plan: Get baseline data, and then every month change one variable (diet, lifestyle, etc.), and see if it changed my cholesterol.

I began last October. My baseline LDL (the bad cholesterol) was 163 mg/dL--in the "high risk" category. Since then, I've done four separate, controlled experiments on my body--one per month.

The experiments

November: Reduced saturated fats. I quit coconut milk (used in my smoothies and curries), bacon, and bacon grease (used for cooking).

December:  Supplements. I decided to start taking my old supplement regime, which included some supplements that I thought might help lower my cholesterol (Phosphatidyl choline and EPA/DHA complex). I added back the coconut milk and bacon so I could be sure I knew exactly which change had the effect.

January: Wine. I quit the supplements, kept the fats, and increased my wine intake to every day instead of just the weekends. I know, it was tough, but my health was worth it. :-) But seriously, red wine has been shown to have a beneficial effect on LDL and HDL (see here and here).

February: Exercise. Cut back to weekends-only with the wine, keep the fats, and add more exercise. For this, I started doing CrossFit at CrossFit Storrs three times a week for a month (in addition to my normal, much milder workout regime).

The results

The graphs speak for themselves.

(Data is beautiful, and science is so awesome!)

Reducing saturated fat  lowered my LDL.

Supplements had no beneficial effect.

And wine... wow! This is your HDL on wine:

After a month of a couple of glasses of home made Cabernet per night (with beer on my Saturday cheat days), my HDL went from 51 mg/dL to a whopping 60, and LDL went down as well!

And then there was CrossFit... Boom! After a month of CrossFit, my LDL was a full 24 mg lower than baseline--almost out of the red zone, and HDL was up again.

But to see the real power of these last two experiments, let's take a look at the total to HDL ratio. Because HDL counteracts LDL, this ratio may be the best way to assess risk, and the CrossFit drove the ratio down to 3.4, a full unit below the highest it had been.

This month, I didn't want to stop CrossFit, but I'm doubling down on the saturated fat reduction--cutting out coconut and bacon again and reducing red meat and eggs.

Finally, next month I'll put it all together: reduced fats, increased wine, and CrossFit. I'm hoping to push that LDL into the orange zone, that ratio right through the floor of that graph, and those statins right out of the realm of possibilities!

It's been so much fun doing science again, especially on my own body! It's a great example of the power of the scientific method for solving real problems.

Avoiding statins is huge, but discovering CrossFit has been a major added bonus! The people are awesome, the workouts kick my butt, I feel great, I'm learning all sorts of new skills, and I'm getting stronger.

Meanwhile, keep calm and science on!

PS: Obviously this is not a replicated study, so all these effects could be random. It would be great to replicate this, but that would take a long time. What the heck. Maybe I'll do it. But I'm also hoping that by adding all the beneficial factors together at the end, I can increase confidence in the effects.

Friday, February 5, 2016

This week started rough, but then I remembered...

Depot students making fund raising muffins.
I knew I was in trouble when I felt tired before the students even came in.

I really knew I was in trouble when they started coming in, and there weren't many smiles. Negative vibes seemed to be rippling out of them (or were they coming from me?).

There weren't any more crises than usual, just a vague feeling of weight.

Maybe it was just a sort of regression to the mean: Friday was so cool, the new week had to be a bit of a let down. Or maybe it was the effect of a weekend of stewing on all of the troubles of my students. Or maybe I had fixated on my own recent failures to reach them. Whatever it was, it weighed on me... until I remembered.

I knew that constant crucial conversations are needed, but I also knew they drain energy. They're heavy. And that's all I felt coming into this week--the weight.

By the time Tuesday rolled around, things were brightening a bit--I had some great convos with students as they cleaned and baked (part of their Depot Tier 2 Internship work), and a powerful conversation with another student about strategies for dealing with stress and relationships.

But then on Wednesday that same student crashed again.

And then my Quantitative Reasoning group went into meltdown mode--angry, hurting students rebelling against math.

That was the low point, and turning point, of my week. As I reflected on the meltdown later, I realized it would have been a great opportunity to talk about anger and social skills. I made a note for a future lesson adjustment strategy. We emphasize basic life competencies here at the Depot, and my plan is to change gears as needed during lessons to address them explicitly: "Soooo, what's happening with your mood right now, and how is that affecting the rest of us?" It's about explicitly teaching things like social/emotional skills, goal setting, organization, and self-control. (I'm so fortunate to have a teacher on staff, Shannon, who is a master at this sort of thing, so I can learn from her.)

This principle was driven home again on Thursday. As I talked with one student in the morning about the career skills rubric and setting goals for productivity, we set a goal for him of two job shadow letters by noon. He frowned and hung his head, not believing he could do it. He ended up sending out five job shadow letters.

A tough conversation later that morning with another student led to questions about depression, and later, there were conversations with students about sharing food they'd received while volunteering--all great opportunities to mentor kids and help them develop the key skills they need.

As Thursday wrapped up, I had remembered something. While talking with a staff member about issues she was having with student motivation, I remembered that this is a process. We can't expect instant success, either from ourselves or our students.

This work is heavy, and sometimes pretty rough, but it also has tremendous meaning, and it's more than worth it. Every little success is a reminder of that.

I'm not sure how I lost sight of those successes coming into this week, how I lost sight of that progress, the slowness of the growth process, or how I lost my patience, but it doesn't matter. What matters is these young people and their success, not mine.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

A beautiful day at a different kind of school

A beautiful day in the life of the Depot. A picture of digging deep to build a real support structure and real community.

The student kitchen crew ran like clockwork. They must have set a new personal speed record serving up their popular Texas-sized French toast.

After breakfast, we gathered in the Communtiy Room for "Pick-me-Up," a daily whole-school lesson. Not everyone was engaged in Part 3 of my lesson on "Community/Human Ecology," but most were busy offering up examples of win-win, win-lose, and lose-lose situations in human relationships--answering the questions on the slides, like:
Which is better?
A) You gain, your competitor loses
B) You both lose
C) You both gain
It was interesting to see them apply this to how they played the "prisoner's dilemma" game two weeks ago and whether they played with a win-win or lose-lose strategy. It stirred up some emotions.

And I'm pretty happy with the little poem/rap we started it all off with:
that branch of biology
that’s about the dependency
of one living entity
on just about every
living thing,
either productively
or destructively,
in animosity
or harmony.
We're digging deep here--asking questions that get to the heart of what it means to be human and live in a community, and I'm psyched to continue this lesson by exploring "The Chimpanzee and our family tree"--a lesson in human origins and what it means for human relationships.

After Pick-Me-Up, a student was in my office for one-on-one support and quiet study, part of our new Tier 2 support system at the Depot. He was focused, productive, wrote some amazing things, and completed an assignment that he'd been stuck on for months.

At 10:00, I headed down to the kitchen to supervise two kitchen crew members as they cooked a pot of home made ramen for their classmates, complete with fresh ginger and green onions. It was so cool when one of them came up to my office afterwards to offer me a cup. It was worth cheating on my grain-free diet.

Later, it was just as powerful to sit with our two psychology and counselling interns and talk about their work with our students. Many of our students struggle with the effects of very difficult histories and home lives, and the compassion and professionalism of these two people is awesome. It reminded me of Geoffrey Canada's approach of doing "whatever it takes" to make sure kids succeed.

After lunch we have "Book Teams." In my group, we're reading Ender's Game (love that book--Ender is so hard core). We share our thoughts after every chapter of silent reading.

Then comes the read aloud. For that, we're reading Arthurian legend--very challenging to read, with awkward, old-fashioned words and sentence structures. I told the group that we are going to approach this like CrossFit. It's tough stuff, so we'll scale the "workouts" until they can handle them--they can read aloud a sentence or a page, depending on how difficult it is for them, but they all have to read something as we pass the book around.

Next, we transitioned into our weekly "Friday Fitness" block. Students can choose from a variety of activities, including yoga, a hike on a local trail, ping-pong, and Dance Dance Revolution (those last two are new offerings for the winter). It was so beautiful to see these young people having such a good time and getting active. There were smiles on faces that haven't seen a whole lot of smiles lately.

Shannon, one of our advisors, wrapped up the day with her weekly "Kick-Me-Out" presentation. Students gave each other "shout-outs" and then reflected on what they were doing in the pictures of the week's activities that flashed across the screen and anonymous quotes of their classmates, like "My internship is the best thing that's ever happened to me." We ended by watching this cool video of one human making another very happy (definitely worth a few minutes if you haven't seen it).

Maybe this smoothly-running and awesome day was just a fluke, but I'm hopeful. I'm hopeful it's the fruit of our increased structure and support. And I'm hopeful that as we continue to build strong support structures, we can increase the productivity and harmony of this little community.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Bees, rubrics and teacher evaluation

My hives this morning
The new teacher evaluation (TEVAL) system is the source of tons of anxiety, conflict, and even anger among teachers here in CT. I've seen excellent veteran teachers crying at staff meetings when discussing the new system of formal observations, rubrics and ratings. Obviously, something's wrong with the system, or is it? What if it's all in the way we look at it?

I've been through the new TEVAL process twice as a teacher, but as a new administrator this year, I've been experiencing the system for the first time from the other side. As I've been conducting formal observations of my teachers and writing them up, I watched myself go through a shift in thinking.

I can be a bit overly critical, and in my own life I am always trying to push myself harder to improve (though I know I've got plenty of blind spots), and I'm afraid this was coming through in my write-ups and conversations with my staff about the process. In fact, I was worried about tensions and conflicts developing.

Then I realized the problem: I've been looking at this all wrong. I am not the driver of this process--I am just part of a structure.

I firmly believe that with the right structure in place, everything else falls into place. That's why we're working on building a structure at the Depot that will allow every student to thrive. That's why last year, I spent tons of time building a framework that would allow my biology students to thrive. As humans, we need the right structure of societal rules, relationships, health, and other systems if we are going to flourish. But the right structure is not about authority and hierarchies. That's not how humans work. That's not how anything works.

Bees are a great example. A lot of people think bees are ruled by the queen--that she somehow directs the activities of the hive, but that's not true at all. The whole colony is guided by a complex system of hormones and rules built into their tiny brains that determine how they interact with each other and the environment. The seemingly intelligent behaviour of the hive just emerges naturally from this set of rules.

Nature uses structures like that, not hierarchies. Humans don't function best in authority structures, but in collaborative communities.

That's how I'm seeing my new role within the TEVAL system. I'm not at the top at all. I'm just part of the structure--a structure designed to improve our schools. We're all interacting with it--its rules, rubrics and reviews of practice. We're also interacting with the rules that govern human behavior in general--rules about relationships and what makes humans thrive.

It's not about, "Here's how you need to improve." It's about, "How can we use this structure to improve together?"

Sunday, January 17, 2016

The real work is the conversations

They were trying to come to an agreement about how their teams would play their next moves in our simulation of the "prisoner's dilemma." His reply was put to music, and they agreed to abandon their selfish, cut-throat strategies and start cooperating. It was a fun example of what Kerry Patterson and his colleagues call a "crucial conversation."

According to Patterson and his team, "Any time you find yourself stuck in some area of performance or improvement that's important to you, what is keeping you stuck is very often one or two crucial conversations that you're not holding or not holding well."

Lately, I feel like my life has become one big string of crucial, and difficult,  conversations. It's been like CrossFit for my relationship skills. And that's OK. In fact, maybe that's how it should be.

If my job as an educator is to do whatever it takes to see every one of my students succeed, then it's going to take lots of intentional, intensive one-on-one conversations.

It's going to take difficult conversations with a student about her depression, another about her difficult home life, another about behaviors that need to change. It's going to mean conversations about a student's need to improve his social skills or manage his anger, or another's failure to progress and need for extra support, or whether this school is the right place for him.

It's going to mean uncomfortable conversations about teacher evaluations, fundamental beliefs, and facing facts about ourselves and our relationships--conversations that create what the authors of Crucial Conversations call "a common pool of meaning." They are conversations about compromise. They are relational negotiations.

If my job as a human is to maximize every one of my relationships, it's going to take the same kind of effort, at home and at work. It's going to be messy, but good, and this is a big part of my philosophy of life: I want to immerse myself in it, pain and all, difficulty and all.

In our game, both teams had been using a destructive and selfish strategy. Their negotiation was an effort to change that, but in the next round, his team betrayed her trust, and maintained their destructive strategy in order to win the game. I guess his team had realized how difficult their side of the bargain would be and wasn't willing to follow through.

Of course, I'm hoping for better results from my crucial conversations, but I'm also realistic. They're not all going to fix all the problems. When I do a poor job of getting all the meaning on the table, when difficulties arise, conflicts are still unresolved, conditions still haven't improved, or one of us does something else to hurt the other, all is not lost. We begin a new conversation.

What we don't want to do is avoid these conversations. They are the real work of life. Shying away may save us some difficulty now, but we'll also miss out on the benefits later: improvement and the kind of relationships humans are built for.