How Wild Alaskan Salmon Rocked My Locks (and Changed My Life)

It’s August, 1989. Something weird and wonderful is happening en route to Harvard Medical School.

My hair is astonishingly full, thick and shiny even though I haven’t used “product” on it for the entire summer. My nails are curiously strong. My skin? Radiant, and it’s not just from the young love I feel for my latest boyfriend, whom I met in the Alaskan “Bush.” (As you probably know, the “Bush” in Alaska is the term that Alaskans use to describe the vast regions of the state not connected to the US road network or ferry system, which happens to be the majority of land). I spent the previous summer in Bethel, Alaska, working on a research project for the Alaskan Department of Fish and Game.

That summer, I counted salmon for a living, as a way to regulate with SONAR technology the salmon hatcheries upstream from Bethel in the Kuskokwim River. We counted salmon twice per day by sweeping the river with a net, and compared that to data collected with SONAR. I was saving my money for medical school, because I didn’t come from a family of means.

And because I was frugal and we had fresh, wild Alaskan salmon that we caught twice a day, I ate large quantities for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Poor me, right?

From Salmon to Harvard
On the West Coast, the Seattle grunge scene was wildly popular, particularly the bands Nirvana and Pearl Jam, and the music made its way to the far reaches of Alaska. Even out in the Bush, we listened to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” while running boats and dragging nets, waving to Native Alaskans as they subsistence fished the same waters.

I was 22-years-old and, let’s be honest—a total geek. Flying from Anchorage to Boston, I glanced at Mount Rainier at the pilot’s suggestion. It was a rare clear day in Seattle and the view of the mountain took my breath away.

Granted, I may also have been breathless because I was en route to Harvard, and embarking on my career towards being a doctor, a mother, a yoga teacher, and so much more.

As I arrived at Logan Airport and took a deep breath, my mind replayed the familiar phrase coined by Alaskans about Tony Knowles, mayor of Anchorage from 1981 to 1987: “He went to Harvard, but he overcame it.”

Turns out that Tony went to Yale, but you get my point. In Alaska, Ivy League schools are a sign of snootiness and prestige—and that doesn’t sit well with most Alaskans. Tony had to go out of his way to show that he was an Alaskan who cared, and as an avid fly fisherman and cross-country skier, he showed it in droves. Alaskans rewarded him by electing him to be Governor. Yes, he was “Gov” before getting defeated by Sarah Palin, but that’s a story for another time.

I wanted that top-notch education, but I also wanted to stay the girl who could drag nets and sing along with every Pearl Jam song.

She’s overboard and self-assured
Oh, no, I know a dirty word
– Nirvana, Smells Like Teen Spirit

Vanquishing Vanderbilt
My mom and I drove up in a taxi to Harvard Medical School in Boston and parked outside the famous Med School dorm, called “Vanderbilt.”  In and around Vanderbilt Hall was a frenzy of activity: 175 earnest-looking twenty-somethings rushed around unpacking boxes, grabbing suitcases, throwing out quick introductions, and displaying a clear but unspoken sense of fear and anxiety that asked: “What have I gotten myself into?”

But I didn’t feel their anxiety or nerves; rather, I felt remarkably calm and collected.

As I stated before: weird. Could it be that the massive intake of wild Alaskan salmon had changed my biology?

Nothin’ really bothers her
She just wants to love herself
– Nirvana, You Know You’re Right

“We did Omega 3s before they were cool.”
Native Alaskans have known the health benefits of salmon for centuries. In the summer, they live off salmon and blueberries, and in the winter, dried salmon and moose meat. After just a few months following this food plan, I could see the amazing benefits of Omega 3s for my mental and physical health.

It took us centuries to realize what Natives knew all along: wild Alaskan salmon and its magical amounts of healthy Omega 3s uplevels your biology, especially your neuro-hormonal dashboard. This became the basis of how I approach health: give your body the fuel and nutrients needed to function at the highest possible level. Your health isn’t just determined by your DNA – it’s also how you manage that DNA, which is the realm of epigenetics.

Body, Heal Thyself
Fast forward to 2013, and Kurt Cobain has been gone for almost 20 years.  Courtney Love, his widow, is still getting into trouble. Meanwhile, I am still raving about the lessons I learned that summer in the Alaskan Bush.

Not surprisingly, we now know that fish oil or omega 3s do many lovely things to the body, whether you’re a man or woman. In one study, men and women who took 4,000 mg (4 grams) of fish oil a day for six weeks lowered morning cortisol levels to healthier levels and increased lean body mass. This study confirmed previous findings in men showing that fish oil lowered cortisol levels that were increased by mental stress. Here a recap of other benefits Omega 3s offer. They:
•       Lower cortisol, which I consider to be the “Bad Boyfriend” hormone – also known as the main stress hormone (Noreen, 2010)
•       Raise lean body mass, a key marker of longevity (Noreen, 2010)
•       Link to longer telomeres, the best marker of biological versus chronological aging
•       Reverse Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS), the most common endocrine problem facing US women
•       Raise testosterone in men (Meldrum, 2011).
•       Lower stress response in men (Delarue, 2003)

A Pill-Free Approach to Optimal Health
If something as simple as a plate of wild Alaskan salmon or a daily fish oil supplement can have all these positive effects, can you imagine how positively vital you’ll feel once all your hormones are balanced? The good news is that I’ve got more (oh, so many more) wonderful pieces of advice for men and women on how to balance their hormones. It’s possible to become that person you want to be. You know, the one who…

  • looks younger than they really are
  • appears to be de-aging
  • bounces out of bed in the morning, eager to take on the day after a restorative night of sleep
  • enjoys a satisfying sex life, and
  • fits in their skinny jeans

References

Delarue J, Matzinger O, Binnert C, Schneiter P, Chioléro R, Tappy L. Fish oil prevents the adrenal activation elicited by mental stress in healthy men. Diabetes and Metabolism 29 (3) (2003): 289-95.
Janice K. Kiecolt-Glaser, Martha A. Belury, Rebecca Andridge, William B. Malarkey, Beom Seuk Hwang, Ronald Glaser. Omega-3 supplementation lowers inflammation in healthy middle-aged and older adults: A randomized controlled trial. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, 2012; 26 (6): 988 DOI: 10.1016/j.bbi.2012.05.011

Meldrum DR, Gambone JC, Morris MA, Esposito K, Giugliano D, Ignarro LJ. “Lifestyle and metabolic approaches to maximizing erectile and vascular health.”
Int J Impot Res. 2012 Mar-Apr;24(2):61-8. doi: 10.1038/ijir.2011.51. Epub 2011 Nov 10. Review.

Noreen EE, Sass MJ, Crowe ML, Pabon VA, Brandauer J, Averill LK. Effects of supplemental fish oil on resting metabolic rate, body composition, and salivary cortisol in healthy adults. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 7 (31) (2010).

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