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 or just a few? And what about coffee and wine? 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 sleep hygiene, a partner can disrupt your sleep at night, but isn’t sleeping with your partner the most healthy thing to do?
Today, health experts walk more and more backwards and say things like; giving general health-advice doesn’t work because every person is different. We need to work on personalized diet/exercise/sleep advice. While others health experts say, yes too much of everything isn’t good but too little isn’t either. It is a balance somewhere in the middle. However, no one ever really understands why. In this blog, I will explain how both views fit in the same model and will give some tips to become healthy and old. I will take a weird angle 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 you have everything ordered; you have the black coffee that could be compared with a black “empty” universe, if 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 dissolves. 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 simple kids 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. We’ll 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).
Could we stay a complex being?
This analogy of pouring coffee doesn’t help us at all with the anti-aging, because we still end up becoming that brownish soup. 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 organisations 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 systems needs to be as complex as it can be but not too complex, where things become chaotic and unpredictable. If you can live exactly at the edge of chaos, you might thrive, grow old and healthy. There are multiple examples where humans, animals, or chemicals sustain each others existence. This is known as self-organization and is present in systems like human society, learning, ecosystems, and much more (read it here). A good example of self-organization is the balance between foxes and bunnies within an ecosystem, they both assist each other to live. Suppose, there are many foxes in a forest, the chances are likely that they 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 others existence. They are at the edge of chaos and could live on forever.
So how can I keep my system to be sustained?
One of the best things you can do is adaptation to the situation. If you are able to adapt to the constantly changing environment you are more likely to survive. By adaptation you respond 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 tries to learn 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.
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 what makes you 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 for a healthy diet. By implementing more variety to your food, 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 complexity to sustain the mental effort and to avoid boredom. But be aware, if work becomes too complex/chaotic for you, you might get fired. Sleep is more difficult but the basic are the same. For example, if you really have a stable sleep pattern, you wouldn’t be able to handle sudden disturbances (like a night out). But if you sleep to varied (like working in shifts) this is very unhealthy as well.
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 quit 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 every week an unknown ingredient to your usual diet, I think this can be quite healthy. 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, in the parts that can handle complexity, I think 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, 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. 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!