In my forthcoming book Food Shaman: The Art of Quantum Food,[1] I explore the gamut of the food experience and the role it plays in connecting us as a society, to the world at large, and to each other. This examination goes beyond the traditional view of what we eat in terms of vice or vigor; although such discussions are of course, included.  

Copyright Red Tail Productions, LLC
Source: Copyright Red Tail Productions, LLC

The food experience is the epitome of the interconnectedness of all things, from intimate and sublime to bold and pan-cultural. While we laser focus on simply the what of the things we choose to consume, we ignore the how, when, and where (and often with whom) that transform an exercise in subsistence into the food experience.

We ignore at our own peril. If you are of the mind that our environment only impacts us in the setting of extremes like disasters, natural or man-made; think again. While we far too often only view ourselves in the context of how we impact the world (the endless litany of selfies comes to mind), the world impacts us in a never ceasing duality of exchanges.

Those interactions can influence us for the better or the worse. We exist in that interface of environmental interactions. It is a boundary alive with multiple contacts. They are dynamic, relentless, and almost never neutral in their effects. A recent study on the effects of environmental noise hollers those facts home.

As the researchers observe, “Noise has been found associated with annoyance, stress, sleep disturbance, and impaired cognitive performance. Furthermore, epidemiological studies have found that environmental noise is associated with an increased incidence of arterial hypertension, myocardial infarction, heart failure, and stroke.”[2]  Other studies indicate that, especially nighttime, noise increases levels of stress hormones and causes vascular oxidative stress. This can lead to a number of pathologies like increased blood pressure.

As discussed many times in this column, and particularly in The Fallacy of The Calorie and the forthcoming Food Shaman, what we choose to eat is a critical contributor to whether we develop disability and disease or remain hale and hearty. At the root is chronic, continuous low-level inflammation. An unfavorable environment also causes a similar physiologic reaction to poor food choices. Indeed, within the last decade, several studies have found a negative environment like exposure to traffic noise (road, aircraft, and railway noise) is associated with increased risk of cardiovascular and metabolic diseases; just like the modern Western diet.

Although the exact mechanism is unknown, thoughts are that unpleasant noise is annoying (pretty much a given if the state of modern music is any measure). Chronic exposure causes chronic stress. This activates the autonomic nervous and endocrine systems increasing cortisol. Along with a resulting lack of sleep, over time these alterations cause pathophysiologic vascular changes; including increased: blood pressure, glucose levels, blood viscosity, and blood lipids. There is increased activation of blood coagulation. This can ultimately lead to cardiovascular and metabolic disease, like diabetes.

In addition, high levels of environmental noise have been associated with mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety, conditions that are known to adversely affect cardiovascular function. An observational study, the HYENA (HYpertension and Exposure to Noise near Airports) study, found a statistically significant association between nighttime aircraft noise and blood pressure. Other studies suggest that nighttime noise–induced sleep deprivation and other causes of sleep deprivation and loss may be an important link between noise exposure and cardiovascular disease (CVD).

Adapted from Münzel et al. with permission. Copyright  2017, Oxford University Press. WHO; World Health Organization.
Source: Adapted from Münzel et al. with permission. Copyright 2017, Oxford University Press. WHO; World Health Organization.

Studies examining chronic noise exposure of animals at levels ranging from 85 dB[A] to 100 dB[A] significantly increased blood pressure by as much as 37 mm Hg, significantly impaired endothelium-dependent vasodilation, increased the sensitivity to the vasoconstrictor serotonin, decreased the lumen sizes of microvessels, and increased circulating markers of oxidative stress; all detrimental changes. Such noise regimens were also associated with increased levels of stress hormones, lipid peroxidation, and morphological changes in the heart of rats.

Chronic white noise exposure at 100 dB[A] also induced an intestinal inflammatory response in rats, with a persistent elevation of IgA, interleukin-1b, and tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-α) levels. Thus, chronic noise exposure may directly or indirectly unfavorably alter the gut microbiome; causing leaky gut and widespread, chronic inflammation. Aortic tissues from animals exposed to aircraft noise, displayed significant changes of the genes involved in the regulation of vascular function, vascular remodeling, and cell death. There is additional data suggesting that the characteristics of the noise; the pattern, frequency, exposure time, and intensity are important.

In studies of human populations, “more and more large studies of high quality find that traffic noise is associated with coronary heart disease and stroke, as well as with major risk factors for CVD, most importantly hypertension and metabolic disease.”[3] It is proposed that noise induces a stress response in human beings. This activates our sympathetic nervous system and thus increases levels of catecholamines, cortisone, and angiotensin-II. Oxidative stress follows. Ultimately, as oxidative stress goes hand in hand with increased inflammation; chronic, continuous low-level inflammation with disability and disease are the end result.

The only thing worse than existing in an unhealthy environment, is combining it with the modern Western diet. Such toxicity is the exact opposite of the food experience, as Nature designed it. As science continues to reveal the untoward effects we have manufactured, there is solace in this dirge. For if environment and diet have delivered us the wound, they may heal it as well. A positive food experience feeds us in ways far in excess of caloric values and RDAs. Next time you sit to sup, ask yourself the question according to the incomparable Hendrix; “Are you Experienced? Have you ever been experienced?”

[1] For an audio reading of the first chapter, Why A Food Shaman, download the free podcast here

[2] (Münzel, et al., 2018)

[3] (Münzel, et al., 2018)


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