The Physiological Needs

The four pillars of our Persistent Needs – Physiological, Safety, Community, and Esteem Needs – rise and fall. The degree to which our needs are secure or insecure – or our perception of their security or insecurity – establishes how “solid” we feel about these needs being met.

Each pillar is made up of a variety of inputs. For our Physiological Needs the inputs I focus on as critical are Air, Water, Sleep, Food, and Fitness. Each of these inputs can be thought of as having Universal (minimum survival thresholds), General (a range where humans thrive), and Particular (a level *I* need to be my best) values. While we can specify the Universal needs (as they are attached to survival minimums) there is variability in the General and Particular values that requires examining particular contexts to understand. However, we can broadly represent each of these values as a series of “blocks” that we can stack up.1

TL:DR You need to be able to secure your Acute Needs; securing your Physiological Needs helps to secure your Acute Needs; if your Physiological Needs are secure your overall capacity is improved; you must have access to clean air, fresh water, good sleep, real food, and have the fitness level to perform in the real world or you are in trouble.

If my Acute Needs are secure, but my Persistent Needs are insecure (example: I have food right now but I may not have enough or my access to food is limited enough where I cannot be sure that I am going to eat three meals a day without fail) I get to stack one block on top of my Acute Needs. Continuing with my example of food, If I have a steady source of calories but it is of poor quality (I’m living on sugar and boxed foods) I get a second block. I’m not going to die, I’m not going to worry about going hungry, but I will not come close to having the performance I would if my diet consisted on real foods. Boxed Mac and Cheese may be a tasty treat but it isn’t real food. Conversely chickens, cows, broccoli or beans are all real food. It’s only when I have access to REAL FOOD – i.e. It exists in nature in a state where with minimal preparation (cleaning and cooking) that I get to add that third box. 2

Our Physiological Needs also include access to breathable air, clean water, sleep and fitness. For each of these aspects there is a minimum threshold which, if unmet can lead to life and limb threatening conditions; the Universal qualities. Beyond the minimum threshold there are more General qualities that impact our Physiological security. The General qualities can vary based on genetic heritage and cultural norms. For example – returning to food for a moment – people who come from equatorial regions (statistically) experience less inflammation from diets rich in sugars (because of fruit being plentiful more regularly) than someone whose genetic line is made up of indigenous people from Tundra and Sub-Arctic regions where diets are primarily composed of meat and fat.

I prioritize our Physiological Needs as :
1. Air – I need clean air to breath all the time. This means air that is a minimum of 19.5% Oxygen. Below that level and I can expect Physiological and Cognitive deficits to begin. If you are at 19.5% Oxygen, or in a normal range but with significant particulate contamination in the air you get one block. As air quality improves into a normal range of 21% oxygen and particulate contamination is reduced to near zero you get a second block. To get three blocks the above conditions need to be met and you need to be removed from exposure to pollution (good luck). How can you tell if you a breathing clean air? If at rest your breathing is normal (approximately 12 times per minute) and your heart rate is normal (around 80 beats per minute) the air is PROBABLY good. There is no certain way to know without using some kind of calibrated measuring/metering device. If you want to go to that end the cheapest method is a finger-tip pulse oximeter. If your O2 saturation is above 95% the air is PROBABLY good. If you are feeling lightheaded or breathing difficultly when in a low activity state step one ought to be getting yourself outdoors or to another building as soon as possible.

2. Water – If you are consuming less than 1.5 liters of water a day you are at a high risk of dehydration. This doesn’t mean coffee, or tea, or soda type beverages. It means water. While there is water in many drinks (including those above) the amount of water your body can effectively absorb is less than from pure water. Sticking with our building block metaphor if you are drinking less than a liter and a half of water each day you get one block. You are one bad illness or day without access to water away from becoming dehydrated to the point that you may be unable to secure your accute needs. If you are drinking two liters of water (about 64oz) you get two blocks. If you are consuming three liters a day you get three blocks. All of these numbers are based on a moderate level of activity and generally temperate climate. Increase your activity or the temperature gets above 90 degrees and you need to add 1 liter to the minimum and a half a liter for blocks two and three.

3. Sleep3 – I once lived my life with “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” as a motto. I would often operate on four hours of sleep a night (or less) and it was not uncommon for me to be up for 24 to 48 hours with less then two hours sleep if we were particularly busy at the firehouse. However, I also lived in a chronicle sleep deprived state and saw the resultant Cognitive and Physiological effects. I was cranky, I made bad decisions, I had difficulty focusing. Here’s the real deal, if you are getting less than 7.5 hours of sleep a night you are suffering from some level of sleep deprivation. However, you can live on less so for our method of accounting anything less than 6 hours a night and you don’t even get a block. At 6 hours a night or less you have the same level of cognitive imparement as if you had a Blood Alcohol Content approaching 0.08 – which is the legal limit for DUI in most states. Six to 7.5 hours a night gets you one block – you are absolutely running at a deficit and you are more prone to illness and injury but you aren’t overly dangerous. Seven and a half to 9 hours and you get two blocks – you have a secure amount of sleep based on all the research done. More than 9 hours and you get three blocks – you are well rested and your brain is running optimally.

4. Food – I gave some solid points about food in introducing this concept so I’m going to be brief here. If you are consuming fewer calories than you are expending for an extended period of time you will (eventually) lose weight. If you restrict caloric intake sufficiently for an extended period of time you will starve to death. However, beyond mere survival food quality plays a very significant role in your ability to thrive. But, to put some numbers to this if you are consuming less than 1200 calories per day you don’t get a block. 1200-1500 calories gets you one block. 1500 – 2000 calories gets you two blocks. If you want three blocks you need to be calculating your individual caloric needs based on activity and performance goals, and tracking your caloric and macronutrient (fat, protein, and carbohydrate) intake. Shoveling 4000 calories of ice cream in your mouth is a near religious experience (Jesus will ask for a bite someplace around 3000 calories) but it is in no way healthy.4

5. Fitness – What constitutes fitness? This is another one of those topics that makes people start taking sides and prepping the pitchforks and torches. For the sake of simplicity I offer this: Being “Fit” is the ability to perform physical actions in the real world to secure your Acute and Persistent Needs. “That’s great, Chris,” I can hear you say, “but what does that mean? How do I earn my blocks?!” I knew this block concept was going to bite me in the ass. But, you have asked and I will offer. If you are physically unable to swim, float, or tread water, defend yourself against violence, and build a shelter you don’t get a block. If you can accomplish those tasks you get one block. If you are physically capable of crossing a long distance course (a 1/2 mile open water swim or a 15 mile hike) without assistance, climbing rough terrain (non-technical climbing), and hunting and gathering food without becoming fatigued you get two blocks. If you are capable of performing all the above as well as heavy manual labor (building stone walls by hand, carrying sandbags etc.) for a full day with minimal breaks and are able to do it day after day you get three blocks.

This has been a long post. Thanks for sticking with me. As we get into the Persistent Needs it will take more time to outline all that is involved.

  1. The “block” is not a part of the model, it’s just a tool of language to help paint a picture. There is a temptation to try and make the model very specific by sub-dividing each column into sub-columns and then using this block analogy to show relative security. I’m avoiding this temptation to maintain the plasticity of the model and to avoid the trap that we can scientifically measure the security of these needs. Individual and societal variability is a real thing and must be examined within its own context.
  2. Modern humans have lived at least 200,000 years and new evidence points to a lineage that may stretch back as far as 300,000 years. During all but the last 15,000 years we subsisted as Hunter-Gatherers. As such agricultural foods (wheat, corn, etc) are a relatively new thing in our evolutionary record. As a result for a percentage of people items like sugar and refined carbohydrates cause immune system responses – like increased inflammation. Optimizing how you eat is a multi-billion dollar industry made up of lots of Charlatans, even more people with very small Data Sets to “validate” their hypothesizes, and some really intelligent folks who acknowledge that this is an issue that has a lot of individual variability. I can’t treat this fully here but I will be offing resources in the future.
  3. Sleep is an issue nearly as contentious as religion or politics. I recommend the book Lights Out: Sleep, Sugar, and Survival as a great primer on the issue.
  4. At a Chicago White Sox game you can purchase a 3 pound Sunday. It’s 12 scoops of ice cream covered in toppings and it is glorious.

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