Pillars of Health, Part I: The Basics of Living Well
Since it’s the beginning of a new year, I’d like to review the elements that make up something I call the Pillars of Health. These are eight lifestyle choices that provide the foundation of good health, which include:
- Being active
- Managing stress
- Detoxifying your body
- Sleeping long and well
- Eating nutritious, whole foods
- Drinking pure, filtered water
- Balancing your pH
- Taking targeted supplements
At first glance, making changes in so many areas may seem overwhelming. Even covering the basics on these eight pillars takes too long to put in one newsletter! This week we’re going to cover the kinds of behavior that are the foundation of a healthy lifestyle, and next week we’ll talk about what you should (and shouldn’t) be putting in your body to support your health.
I’ve found that the secret to success when making these alterations is to start small and focus on one area at a time. So, for example, you may want to work on getting more sleep, since you can do that starting tonight, and you should feel the benefits tomorrow. Then after you’ve changed your routine so you’re well-rested more days than not, you can continue working on the other pillars, one by one, until your lifestyle overhaul is complete.
If I told you something was available that could make tremendous improvements in your health — both physically and emotionally — you would want to know more, right? Then I would tell you about the thousands of studies showing its impressive benefits. In a nutshell, here are several advantages provided by this miraculous remedy:
- It burns calories.
- It brings much-needed oxygen and nutrients to cells throughout your body, including your brain.
- It improves circulation.
- It helps dispose of the body’s toxic substances and waste material.
- It improves sleep and mood.
- It strengthens the heart and immune system.
- It reduces the risk of cancer and other ailments.
- It relieves stress.
- It counteracts the effects of aging.
- It powers up joints, strengthens muscles and bones, and reduces the risk of falls.
By now, you must be wondering where you can buy this marvelous product. Unfortunately, it’s not for sale. But you can still get all these exceptional benefits without buying anything. That’s because the health-promoting miracle in question is … exercise.
If you’re tempted to stop reading, please don’t. Humans are designed to move, so don’t be intimidated by the idea of exercise. It does not have to be grueling or painful. Just being moderately active, like going for a stroll, and not sitting for long periods helps, as two recent clinical trials show. In separate studies, researchers in England and Australia reached similar conclusions: The more time spent sitting, regardless of whether that involves watching television, working on the computer, or simply lounging on the sofa, the worse for your health.
In one study, English scientists observed a nearly 150 percent increase in the risk of heart disease, a 112 percent increase in risk of developing diabetes, and close to a 50 percent increase in premature death for those individuals who spent the most time sitting — even if they exercised regularly! The Australian researchers, meanwhile, found that watching the tube for six hours a day shortened lives by nearly five whole years, making prolonged sitting similar to obesity in terms of its effect on health. I think it’s safe to say that it was continual sitting — not television, per se — that took years off peoples’ lives. Fortunately, you may be able to get those years back just by being more active, like going for a drink of water during commercials.
Bottom Line: Staying active has major pay-offs for your health and longevity. If you’ve been avoiding exercise, check with your physician before beginning an exercise program.
Whenever someone complains of weight gain, carbohydrate and sweet cravings, irritability, fatigue, repeated colds, difficulty sleeping, high blood pressure, and memory problems, my stress detector shifts into high gear. Few patients complain about being stressed out; instead, they have a laundry list of symptoms that appear unrelated on the surface. But there is one thing that unites all these different symptoms – cortisol.
Your adrenal glands produce the hormone cortisol during stressful events. Cortisol raises your blood sugar and speeds up digestion, repairing your body after fight or flight. For our earliest ancestors, cortisol was a life saver. But these days, the threats we face are complex and rarely involve running from a hungry saber-tooth tiger. If your emotions never slow down from metaphorical fight or flight, the cortisol accumulates and erodes our health, impairing healing, raising blood sugar, and interfering with proper digestion. Fortunately, there are some excellent stress management techniques available. Exercise and meditation, for example, have repeatedly been shown to reduce stress.
Deep breathing is another way to minimize stress. But it’s important to do it correctly. Breathing from your abdomen – sometimes called “belly breathing” – is the goal.
In belly breathing, the abdomen expands, like a balloon being filled with air. (Put your hand on your tummy and try it right now! It may be a bit difficult at first, but you’ll get the hang of it.) Stretching the abdomen means the lungs have more space for oxygen. To exhale, simply contract the same abdominal muscles, forcing air out of the lungs.
Belly breathing helps calm the body and interrupts the cascade of cortisol before it can wreak havoc. Practice for a few minutes, three, four or five times a day, or whenever you feel overwhelmed.
Bottom Line: Chronic stress can undermine your health, so take steps to learn simple stress management techniques.
Detoxifying Your Body
A few years ago, researchers tested a group of individuals to see how environmental pollutants had affected them. Some of the participants lived in areas that you might think would be pollution free, far from big cities. Other participants had eaten primarily organic foods for decades before the testing. Despite that, researchers found an average of 91 different pollutants in blood samples. More than half of those substances are recognized as cancer-causing agents, like heavy metals, insecticides, pesticides, phthalates, dioxins, and PCBs.
Your body is designed to eliminate these types of toxins. One of the liver’s many jobs, for example, is assisting the body in toxin removal. Additionally, we eliminate toxins through sweating, urination, and bowel movements. Considering the current toxic overload, though, we should be doing everything in our power to support the process.
One effective way of detoxing is to build meals around “clean” foods (i.e. organic and whole foods, especially vegetables). Hundreds of clinical trials have shown the benefits of eating from Mother Nature’s pantry, especially organic produce. Vegetables and fruits contain substances known as phytochemicals, which are recognized for their ability to protect us from cancer, one of the most commonly occurring diseases linked to environmental toxins, as well as heart disease.
Simply adding more raw and/or cooked cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kale, bok choy, and cabbage) to meals can help with detoxification. Research has shown that substances in these vegetables reduce the risk of developing cancer by stimulating production of detoxification enzymes.
Here’s another reason to eat your veggies – fiber! More fiber in your diet means better elimination, a real “must have” for healthy detox. Finally, my personal favorite is green foods. I start every day with a hearty portion of juiced greens, including kale, spinach, cucumber, celery, cilantro, and parsley – with a little organic coconut cream and raw honey. For another option, you may want to consider supplemental greens.
Bottom Line: Helping your body eliminate toxic overload only requires a few simple changes, but it can make a huge difference in your health.
Sleeping Long and Well
Deep, restful sleep gives our bodies a chance to renew, starting at the cellular level. When that process is interrupted, health issues are inevitable. In fact, researchers now know that insufficient sleep is even more harmful to our health than lack of exercise.
Hormone imbalances, lack of exercise, and what you eat and drink can also lead to restless nights. So can sleeping in a room with artificial light. Too much light can lead to low production of melatonin, a hormone that influences sleep. Melatonin production is highest between the hours of 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. But that only happens if you’re asleep in a dark room. If you don’t go to bed until 1 a.m., or nod off with the television on, getting eight hours of sleep is not going to make up for the fact that you’ve missed the prime melatonin-producing portion of the night. In other words, the phrase “early to bed, early to rise” popularized by Benjamin Franklin is actually very good advice!
Long before pharmaceutical companies started selling sleep aids, Mother Nature created her own. Herbs and naturally occurring compounds have helped relieve insomnia for centuries. When a patient reports sleep problems connected to a “racing mind” or a similar stress-related issue, combination herbal products are often a good bet for resolving the situation. Some of my favorite ingredients include: valerian, hops, lemon balm, chamomile, passionflower, and lavender. These are sometimes combined with an amino acid, such as 5-HTP or a neurotransmitter, like GABA, to amplify their effect.
The best way to find the right product for you is to choose one and take it as directed. If, after a few days, you’re still having sleep problems, try a different product. I have a few that work well for me, including melatonin, 5HTP, and valerian extract. I alternate them through the week to avoid building up a tolerance to any one herb.
Bottom Line: Your body repairs itself while you sleep, so getting lots of rest is essential for good health. If you’re having sleep problems, herbal remedies and supplemental melatonin can help.