Well being is a game of balance. We are asked to provide ourselves with, resilience (how we deal with stress), nurturing, rest, movement and connection with family, friends and spirit. Quite frequently we fall short and if left unchecked the outcome is burnout, health decline and depression. Making well-being a priority, one that is easily observed and assessed will give you greater equanimity, peace and allow for a better contribution to your world at large.
I’d like to give you a roadmap to evaluate your own wellness routine, along with some substantial resources to take that effort to the next level. It is my belief that when you invest in your health and well-being you are investing in your greatest asset. When you have a body that serves you, you can serve the world.
It is easy to get out of balance and balance is one of the Universal principles that sustains our health. It turns out there are a few essential needs we have as human beings to function on all cylinders. Most of these we probably learned in kindergarten, forgot in our 30’s and have been running on fumes ever since. We will be talking in depth today about these 5 essential pillars: Stress Resilience, Nutritional Deficits, Sleep, Movement/Alignment, and last but not least our Relationships with other Human Beings and Spirit.
When Dan Buenter, author of the Blue Zones surveyed the 5 regions of the world where people lived the longest he found they all had a few similar characteristics.
1. Although not all vegetarians, they ate mostly plants. 80% of their plate was full of leafy greens and other vegetables, the remaining was for grains and proteins. If they ate meat, it was as a condiment and not the main portion of their plate.
2. They had frequent periods of rest. Either down time in the afternoon in the form of a siesta or socializing or an entire day every week set aside for recouping.
3. They lived in community and socialized often.
4. They moved every day with either physical labor or walking
5. Although not all the same religion they maintained a belief in a higher power, and lived with a sense of purpose.
This may be a good time to give a glimpse into what a health crisis can look like. It was about 2013 and I was running 4 physical therapy clinics and 2 hospital rehab contracts in Austin, TX. I had poor sleep, inadequate nutrition (despite my kale smoothies), and a ridiculous amount of stress. My husband, an ER physician, was unfortunately cut from the same cloth and we battled really to see who could fit more into 24 hours. About that time, he was working on a fellowship in anti-aging medicine and began doing wellness profiles for fortune 500 executives. These companies knew that their CEO’s were their best asset’s and that their health mattered to the success of the company. They hired Alan to do advanced testing and determine what life style changes, supplements and recommendations would decrease their odds of coming down with cancer, neurodegenerative diseases and other chronic diseases. This is called preventative medicine, and is not part of our regular insurance/health care model. For about 2 years, Alan recommended that I do the same assessment. A proud vegetarian, routine attendee of spin class and meditator, I didn’t see the need. I eventually acquiesced and that’s where my awakening started, by looking at my blood work. I had to deal with data, and I couldn’t explain away by stress – it actually had a physiological impact on my blood work.
Stress, shows up in your blood work. Cortisol is our stress hormone, it is also our get up and go hormone. When we have a natural release of cortisol throughout the day high in the morning and gently sloping off in the evening, it is a very healthy pattern. In fact, one of the data points that determines a person’s longevity. When cortisol is imbalanced, either excessively high or low it leaves us with a multitude of issues, some of which include fatigue, mood swings, weight gain and difficulty falling asleep. When we are under sustained stress our body creates more cortisol, and then in an attempt to have you rest – it lowers the cortisol drastically. It is actually the bodies innate wisdom that is forcing the person into a state of rest and repair. This, as you may have guessed, is where I was and it is a condition often referred to as adrenal fatigue. Irregular release of cortisol can leave feeling both “wired” and “tired”. I definitely was feeling both. This can happen at any age.
Remember when I talked about balance being a universal principle of health? Well this applies to our bodies innate system of stress management – our nervous system. We have 2 main components of this system, a sympathetic nervous system and a parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for “Fight or Flight” and the parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for “Rest and Digest”. In western society we spend more time in the “Fight or Flight” system, allowing our body little time to actually recover. This imbalance is making us sick a showing up in the form of auto-immune disorders, hormonal imbalances, cancers, and metabolic issues. It is also a precursor to the cortisol imbalance I previously described along with a cascade of other health concerns. Simple acts of restoration hourly, daily and weekly lead to a more balanced nervous system and a body that has the reserve to fight illness, disease and hormone imbalance. Becoming a skilled “relaxer” has major benefits into aging well and optimal health.
To date we have been an achievement society, an imbalanced schedule was like a medal of honor and the prize went to those who were willing to burn the candle at both ends, and give up their health for the sake of the job, the promotion or the good of the organization. The problem is now being that in record number, organizations are made up of unhealthy and imbalanced individuals and it is time we begin to shift this, one life at a time.
Nutritional Deficits are inherent in our modern lifestyle and worsened when we are under periods of intense stress. Common nutritional deficits for women include: B12 and B vitamins, Magnesium, Omega 3’s, Vitamin D and Iron. Deficiencies that are increased under stress include Vitamin C, B vitamins, Omega 3’s (essential fatty acids that are anti-inflammatory and calming to the nervous system) and Magnesium.
It is said that with our modern diet we are over fed, but undernourished. A close look at a nutritional blood test will reveal this to be true for both women and men. Eating a diet that is nutrient dense, low in processed foods, high in healthy fats and with adequate protein is at the foundation of any wellness routine. A well fed body will have a healthy metabolism, good hormone balance and adequate energy. A healthy diet will be primarily plant-based. I love author Michael Pollen’s quote, “If it came from a plant – eat it. If it was made in a plant- don’t. That sums it up quite nicely.
Excessive amounts of sugar are also slowing down the metabolism of modern America. The world health organization estimates that by 2050 that 1/3 of Americans will be pre-diabetic. This is a self-induced disease caused completely by an overdose of sugar into our modern diet. The world health organization also reports that our bodies are able to metabolize @25 grams of sugar safely a day. The average American consumes well over 150 grams. This excessive loads leads to a multitude of health conditions including diabetes, increased inflammation, decreased nutrition, and hormone imbalance.
Sleep is one of the ancient elixirs. Deep sleep is restorative to our brain cells, prevents build up between the nerve cells in our brain, is thought to prevent Alzheimer’s, build the immune system, burn fat and help heal the body. One of the biggest mistakes we see with clients on the path to better health is sacrificing sleep for working out. I would place getting 8 hours sleep at a higher priority than getting up early to exercise. Winding down before 10 is ideal for the bodies circadian rhythms.
Supporting melatonin production plays an important role in achieving states of deep sleep and rest. The body needs the proper wind down and nutritional components to put itself to sleep. Depletion in magnesium, vitamin d, and precursors to GABA can make it difficult for us to sleep.
Screen time and LED lights give the body mixed messages. Our ancestors depended on the changing colors of the sky to signal melatonin production. Moving from blue sky at high noon to amber in the evening and reduced light at night allowed the human organism to shut down. Modern life leaves us with this same high stimulus light throughout the day and into the night via the wonder of screens. Screen time leaves us with “blue light” exposure and our pineal gland doesn’t get the message that melatonin is required. Blue blocking glasses can be especially helpful for those who require screen time late into the evening hours. They help restore a normal balance of light, protect the eyes, and allow the body to slip into a more relaxed state with greater ease once the screen time is complete. Winding down screen time 2-hours before bed is ideal, when that is not available, blue-blockers are a good bio-hacking tool.
According to Harvard Medical School, exercising starts a biological cascade of events that results in many health benefits, such as protecting against heart disease and diabetes, improving sleep, and lowering blood pressure. High-intensity exercise release the body’s feel-good chemicals called endorphins, resulting in the “runner’s high” that joggers report. But for most of us, the real value is in low-intensity exercise sustained over time. That kind of activity spurs the release of proteins called neurotrophic or growth factors, which cause nerve cells to grow and make new connections. The improvement in brain function makes you feel better. “In people who are depressed, neuroscientists have noticed that the hippocampus in the brain—the region that helps regulate mood—is smaller. Exercise supports nerve cell growth in the hippocampus, improving nerve cell connections, which helps relieve depression,”
A good exercise program is also balanced or well-rounded. It will include aerobic exercise, strengthening, balance and flexibility. It takes just 10 minutes of exercise a day to change your genetic expression for the day, so if your schedule it tight – a little goes a long way. HIIT training can be done in as little as 10-20 minutes a day, so hours in the gym are not required to be healthy.
Muscle and skeletal alignment is key to a pain-free body. Sitting for hours a day is challenging not only for your cardio-vascular symptoms, but for your muscles and joints as well. Standing desks, taking frequent breaks to walk around, proper ergonomics at your desk and stretching can pay huge dividends. Sitting with good posture takes endurance, strength and energy. Strengthening postural muscles as a part of an exercise routine can allow sitting to be more comfortable and keep issues like slipped discs and nerve pain from becoming an issue as we work.
Another quick and easy habit found amongst the people who live in the Blue Zones is an evening walk. Walking after dinner can help burn off those evening calories and ready the body for a good night’s rest.
Time to Connect to Friends and Our Purpose
Researchers found the link between loneliness and a premature death was as great as that of obesity while the effect on health was the equivalent of being an alcoholic or smoking 15 cigarettes a day.(*) This was also another characteristic in the Blue Zones, where time to socialize is built into the daily fabric of life.
Women are by nature social creatures. With the modern demands of work and family, time for re-creation and connection can easily be put aside.
If you are taking a serious look at your health, know that the neurotransmitter oxytocin of love and bonding can reduce the impact of stress. Conversely if you are running on adrenaline, your oxytocin levels will lower making friendship or intimate relationships chemically more difficult to nurture.
Another consistent characteristic amongst those in the 5 Blues Zones around the world was a belief in a higher power. They were not all of the same religion, but all believed in a benevolent force working on their behalf. This allowed them to trust in times of trial and look for the good in every situation. Nurturing our connection to spirit and to others is without a doubt a contribution to our health and survival.
RESOURCES: Schedule one -two social events that you consider restorative vs obligatory. Schedule time each day to connect with friends and family. Don’t be afraid to prioritize down time especially when going through a hard time.
Burn-out and fatigue is about giving more than you have to give. It can happen when we listen more to the demands of others than to our own body. Being depressed can really highlight the need for deep rest. Your body is a storehouse of wisdom that when honored maximizes your potential.