There is so much confusion about everything that has to do with healthy living and getting old. Exercising is great, but too much exercise is bad. And what kind of exercise is healthy? Running, walking, power-training, sports? And what about diet, some people swear by the Paleo-diet, others insist to avoid any meat. Carbs, fats, proteins? Lots of fruit? And what about coffee and wine, are they healthy? And there are so many trade-offs, social interaction is good for me but when I am with my friends I often eat and drink quite unhealthy. And I shouldn’t diet while exercising right, but how much should I eat? And what about sleeping habits, a partner can disrupt your sleep at night, but isn’t sleeping with your partner the healthiest thing to do?
Today, health experts walk don’t have a general health-advice anymore. Nothing is just healthy or isn’t healthy. One of the reasons for that is the fact that every person is different. While the second thing what health experts say is things like: “Well, too much of everything isn’t good but too little isn’t either, it is a balance somewhere in the middle”. Nevertheless, there is no real general theory behind these statements. In this blog, I will explain how both views fit in the same model and I will give some tips to become healthy and old. This blogs is written from a complex dynamical systems perspective, and therefore I will take a weird metaphor to start my blog; “the existence of the universe”.
14 billions years ago the universe was all order, it was just one big black nothing. Until there was the Big bang. The Big bang made the universe disordered and complex. You can compare the big bang with pouring milk into a cup of coffee. The American Chemical Society and PBS Digital Studios made this comparison in this video (see below). So, first everything is ordered; the black coffee could be compared with a black “empty” universe. But once you pour the milk into it, a mushroom cloud appears and complexity increases. Many patterns emerge and spirals are swirling. If you look closely, a lot of interesting stuff is happening there. After a while the milk diffuses into the coffee and the patterns and complexity dissolve. The coffee becomes one “soup” of brownish milk-coffee. Now, I am going to use this analogy for the aging of humans. At first, we are innocent babies who are being poured into a strange world (like the milk in the coffee). Over our first 20-30 years complexity emerges, we start to grow, to learn, and become complex humans thriving with knowledge. Until we reach our 50’s, then we degenerate slowly and become disordered, we lose our complexity and entropy spreads (source). Our complex patterns diffuse until we reach a critical point of dying where we become that brownish milk-coffee. This might be the circle of life, we are simple baby’s, become complex adults, and end as “baby-like” simple old-adults close to our death (putting it cruelly and exaggerated). Where we become one with earth.
Could we stay a complex being?
This analogy of pouring coffee doesn’t help us at all with the anti-aging, because we will still die at the end. However, what if we could stay the complex swirl of milk within the coffee that keeps on swirling? Here we would be exactly between order and disorder. This perfect place where there is “dynamic balance” between order and disorder, is known as the edge of chaos. It is believed that evolution, modern day society, and healthy organizations all thrive at the edge of chaos. At the edge of chaos, complexity is maximal for the system. Here, the system uses both order and disorder to sustain itself. Thus, a system needs to be as complex as it can be but not too complex, where things become chaotic and unpredictable. If you can live close to the edge of chaos, you might thrive, grow old and healthy.
Through self-organization complexity can be increased over time to the point of the edge of chaos (source). Self-organization, is a process where some form of overall order arises from local interactions between parts of an initially disordered system. Self-organization is present in systems like human society, learning, ecosystems, and much more. A good example of self-organization is the balance between foxes and bunnies within an ecosystem. Suppose, there are many foxes and bunny’s in a forest. The chances are likely that the foxes try to kill and eat the bunnies in the area. Because of the lack of bunnies, the foxes will die and the fox-population will decline. This makes it feasible for the bunnies (who are left over) to repopulate, which in turn makes it more feasible for the fox-population to repopulate, because they can eat bunnies again. As a result; we are back at our start; the foxes are plenty in the forest, and they start to eat the bunnies (figure). These two populations are in a continuous ongoing non-equilibrium balance with each other and sustain each other’s existence. They pull each other to the boundaries of their existence. They increase complexity by competing with each other for existence. Thus, they are close to the edge of chaos and could live on forever (as a species). Great, but how does that apply to myself as an individual? Well, you can view yourself as a system as well!
So how can I keep my system to be sustained?
You can see yourself as a system who lives in an environment with which it cooperates. You need to sustain yourself, between your friends, within your work, and within the economy and within the climate. One of the best things you can do as a system, is adaptation to the environment. If you are able to adapt to the constantly changing environment you are more likely to survive. By adaptation you anticipate to the “disorder” that is thrown at you. If you learn how to handle this disorder, you increase in complexity and stay at the edge of chaos. Adaptation to technology is a good example. For some elderly, technology is pure disorder. They don’t have a clue how to handle it. Today, if you can’t use technology you have many risks like social isolation, exclusion, and so on. If a senior anticipates and learns to use technology he adapts to an external system and makes himself more complex. By continuously learning, experimenting, and having an open mind you are more likely to adapt to systems that bring disorder. This makes it possible for you to handle unknown (new) things as complex instead of pure disorder. More complexity gives you more opportunities what eventually makes you more likely to survive and live longer. However, too much complexity can also be bad.
Why you should apply variety in lifestyle
Through our lifestyle, we achieve the main gains towards a longer life. Sleep, diet, work/school, and leisure are the main activities that keep us busy during the day. In order to live healthy, you should add complexity to life at the edge of chaos. For example, you should have a varied diet. If you always eat the same thing, your colons, stomach and your mind become so used to your usual diet that they couldn’t handle a challenge. Your metabolism becomes so stable/simple that it loses its resilience. Having a varied diet is also (coincidentally?) one of the main recommendations. By implementing more variety to your food, your microbiome variety increases, you ingest more types of vitamins and minerals, thus the complexity of your diet increases. Nevertheless, when variety becomes too complex/chaotic from your usual diet (if you eat in a foreign country for example) you are likely to become sick, which isn’t good for you either. For exercise, it is also recommended to implement variety by doing both cardio-, and power-training. Varying within your running-scheme is often recommended. If you only go running the same distance each day, you’ll get no significant results. Variety, and thus complexity is needed to gain more effects. With your daily work you also want to increase complexity to sustain the mental effort, and to handle future challenges. Because most of all, we always, with no exception, need to able to live and adapt to the environment we live in. If the future is changing, we need to change with it. Sleep is more difficult but the basics are the same. For example, if you really have a stable sleep pattern, you wouldn’t be able to handle sudden disturbances, to the point that you need to recover a few days because of one night out. But on the other side, sleeping to varied (like working in shifts) is quite unhealthy as well (source).
Why lifestyle is personal
The variety of a diet, exercise schedule, working activities, is exclusively related to your own personal patterns. If you only eat hamburgers all day, a cheeseburger is already a variety to your diet. This cheeseburger gives you more complexity to your diet. If you already eat quite varied, a fried scorpion might be the only thing left to increase complexity. I believe that this is one of the reasons that general diet advice is so difficult, variety depends on the individual. Personal diet advice is much better than general diet advice. However, I think that if you add an unknown ingredient regularly to your usual diet to increase complexity, you will increase your health. Nevertheless, while applying variety in your lifestyle you should start slow to avoid total chaos in your life, diet, and routines. If you suddenly change everything, this makes it way too complex, and could be a large burden. For example, you shouldn’t start with a different diet while starting a new exercise-program. But again, variety is very personal.
Variety in your life is important to be resilient against external disturbance. Nevertheless, variety is very personal. Therefore, I really encourage the personalized lifestyle approach. However, it is still difficult to find the right balance between stability and variety; the edge of chaos. If you take little steps towards more complexity, you can gain health. Over time, you will adapt to the new complexity and find stability again. If this happens, you can start applying variety again, and so on. Nevertheless, until today, the only one who can say something about being on the “edge of chaos”, is you. So I can’t tell you where to start and where to stop. What I can say now, as long as you are on your own, my advice is to listen to feedback from your body to see if you can cope with complexity. This is very meaningful to understand your health and yourself, to determine whether you are close to the edge of chaos. I’ll hope you live just as long as the universe, good luck!