Sometimes, in the course of my writing life, I interview chefs, talk to government officials, and even visit Indy Race car drivers at their homes, all in the name of food journalism. I’ve eaten biscuits five ways, learned about school lunch requirements, and eaten avocados shipped from the family farm for articles I’ve written. And once, because I was just lucky enough, I met a flock of chickens owned by a former NFL player.
Of course the chickens weren’t nearly as impressed as I was by their owner’s record of tackles and interceptions. They were, however, delighted by their expansive coop, with its brightly painted hen house, and the opportunity to eat freely the worms and grubs in their owners’ lawn. As far as chicken lives go, these hens really had it all. And the proof was in the laying boxes, with 13 layers producing as many eggs almost every day.
In Chapter 3 of Farmacology, physician and author Daphne Miller talks about two much bigger egg operations owned by one family: Heartland Egg and Arkansas Egg. Both businesses have moved beyond conventional caged-chicken egg operations, but the differences are still stark.
Arkansas Egg raises cage-free organic chickens, in five hen houses filled with 15,000 hens each. In conventional operations, a hen house might have 75,000 chickens living in cages from floor to ceiling, but at Arkansas Egg, the chickens are free to roam around. Of course, that might sound more verdant than it actually is. Restricted to the henhouse, the 15,000 hens move around on the packed floor pecking at whatever they can find. According to Miller, the stench of ammonia was so strong in the barn it made her eyes water, and the sound was “a continuous high-pitched cackle.” A low-lying electrified wire gave the hens a constant buzz to keep them from laying eggs on the floor, and most had their beaks trimmed to keep them from pecking each others’ eyes out.
Meanwhile, at Heartland Egg, about five thousand hens share the same space that 15,000 do at Arkansas Egg, and then only overnight. Around 8 a.m. each morning, the doors are opened and the hens head out into the green pastures where they spend their days playing tag, dust bathing, rooting for worms and seeds, and clucking to each other. Like the small flock of hens I recently met, these chickens seemed happier and healthier than their cage-free but overcrowded counterparts. But even free-range chickens are not without their risks. At least two hens from the flock I visited had been killed by hawks. At Heartland Egg, a bobcat had eaten two hundred hens in the course of a month. Then there are the risks of thunderstorms, parasites, even falls for hens that roost and roam so freely.
Miller used the word stress to talk about the two flocks: one experienced a state of continuous low-level stress that came with living in a packed hen house, while the other was mostly subjected to occasional but intense levels of stress that arose from living a mostly free-range life. The two flocks reminded Miller of two patients who came to her about the same time in 2009, both diagnosed with swine flu.
Mike told Miller he thought he was dying, the flu had struck him so hard. When Miller began to look deeper into Mike’s life, she discovered why: he lived with the same kind of continuous low-level stress that the Arkansas chickens did. He worked a high-stress, low-satisfaction job. When he wasn’t stuck behind his desk, he traveled a lot, rarely exercising and usually eating at his desk. He felt his position was constantly threatened by younger executives coming up behind him, and even his home life, with a wife who always wanted him to do something and a teenage daughter with a newly formed bad attitude, left much to be desired. Under the hum of constant stress, Mike’s like sounded a lot like the Arkansas Egg chickens, crammed together in the giant hen house.
Carl, on the other hand, received the same diagnosis, but didn’t feel the effects of the flu nearly as badly. He also worked in a high stakes job, but his stress came and went depending on an important client meeting or a public speaking opportunity. Generally, he felt valued by his team and could leave work behind at the end of the day when he went home to his family. He and his boss had a mutually supportive relationship and even worked out together over lunch some days. Carl’s life sounded more like the hens at Heartland.
To try to understand the connection between the two flocks of chickens and her two patients, Miller talked with Bruce McEwen, a stress researcher and senior scientist at Rockefeller University in New York City. He talked about the process of allostasis in our bodies that allow us to adapt physiologically to stress, the ability to “achieve stability through change.” He used the example of cortisol response, which according to Miller, “can change radically through the day depending on whether the individual is sitting or standing, thinking about a problem, running, or sleeping.”
McEwen explained that allostatic response is supposed to periodically turn on and off, “without leaving a trace” on the body, as in the case of pasture-raised chickens, who have occasional but intense encounters with a thunderstorm, or Carl, who feels the occasional but intense pressure of public speaking. But when the allostatic process occurs “too frequently or [is] not turned on or off efficiently, well, then you have something called ‘allostatic overload.’” Which sounds a lot like the lives of our confined chickens above, or even Mike.
The great thing about stress and its effects on the body, even chicken bodies, is that once the stress is over and the allostatic response can return to normal, the body and its systems, including the brain, can recover. For Mike, things got worse before they got better, but eventually, he stood up for himself at work and began to travel less and take more time off. He started eating better and exercising more, which led to better sleep and even some unexpected weight loss. Even though he was working less, he told Dr. Miller he’d never felt as productive. The same is true for the chickens. Generally, after 63 weeks in a henhouse, the layers are considered “spent” and are sent off to be processed as pet food. But when these hens are instead transferred to a pasture setting like Heartland Egg, something miraculous happens.
“With a little sunshine, outdoor play, and socializing, these hens can get back up to 80 percent productivity for at least another thirty weeks,” said Matt Ohayer, of Vital Farms Egg Cooperative, which Heartland Eggs is part of.
When the constant stress of modern life leaves us feeling the allostatic overload of a crowded henhouse, how do we transform our lives to mimic the benefits of a free range life, like the hens at Heartland Egg, or better yet, like the chickens I met in the backyard of a former NFL player? Miller has a few suggestions: develop meaningful relationships, exercise, eat a healthy diet, and get a good night’s sleep. But the option I like the best is this: take charge of your life.
“Even in the most toxic environment there are steps you can take to optimize your situation,” Miller writes. “Set realistic goals for yourself and communicate them to others, exercise daily, and take time to care for and pamper yourself.”
Write It Out
What areas of your life feel most stressful? Does stress come to you in occasional spurts that feel manageable, like the free-range chickens we talked about? Or do you feel the constant strain of continual stress? Write about what’s been stressing you out lately.
Which of Miller’s suggestions feel most in reach for you? Which feel out of reach? In what ways can you exert some control over your own life, even on a small scale? Jot down a few ideas to get a handle on your stress.
Now think about your writing life? Where’s the stress there? What’s one step you could take to exert a little control there?
Read With Us
This month, we’re reading Farmacology: Total Health from the Ground Up together.
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