Reflecting on Better Health: Five Pillars
There is a multitude of factors that one has to consider when it comes to optimising health. As a health care practitioner, I need to consider the whole context of someone’s life. Health means different things to different people, and each individual’s needs will vary depending on numerous factors.
Although there are limitations to placing health in such generalities, one could argue that health and wellbeing aren’t ‘one size fits all’ and that it is essential to cater to the unique individual to be truly effective. Nevertheless, introducing awareness and understanding some of the basic concepts surrounding the importance of these five pillars of health and exploring and deepening your practice, will have a significant effect on your quality of life and overall wellbeing. While this article isn’t a piece on how to, it acts to bring awareness to some basic guiding principles.
While we may not always be able to get the right amount of sleep, most of us can acknowledge that a good night’s sleep makes us feel better. Sleep is so important, and it is something I work on getting right with my clients. It doesn’t matter how “good” your lifestyle is. If you don’t get enough sleep, a lot of your other work will be in vain. We can’t speak about energy, focus, motivation, mood, physical performance and overall health and wellbeing without talking about sleep.
Sleep affects so many vital processes in the body. The re-wiring of synapses in the brain occurs during deep sleep, essential to learning and cognition. It provides an opportunity for the body to restore and rejuvenate itself, muscle growth, tissue repair, protein synthesis, and growth hormone release occur mostly, or in some cases only, during sleep. A lack of sleep is associated with a large number of chronic diseases. There are many adverse effects related to poor sleep.
Sleep can be positively affected by sunlight exposure, particularly in the morning and in the early evening. Research suggests when the sun is lower in the sky, it is beneficial to your sleep and wake cycle (circadian and ultradian) to expose the eyes (retinal ganglion cells) to natural light. Getting outside where possible works best. Going to bed and waking consistently at the same time, Yoga Nidra, mindfulness meditation, and deep breathing techniques also seem to have positive effects on sleep.
There are four different sleep stages. How long you spend in each of these different stages will determine the overall quality of a night’s sleep. Sleep is an umbrella term for all four stages. I am working under the assumption that if you positively affect overall sleep, this can positively impact each stage of sleep and how long is spent in that particular stage.
Sleep can also be negatively affected by light exposure, particularly between 11 pm and 4 am. The timing of food intake, caffeine consumption, drugs, supplements and alcohol, room temperature and mattress firmness can all play a role in disrupting sleep patterns, with the level of impact varying from person to person. (For a more detailed look at sleep, I suggest you read Matthew Walker’s book, Why We Sleep or listen to Dr Andrew Huberman’s podcast on YouTube, in which he details some great neuroscience on sleep.)
“Let food be thy medicine” by Hippocrates.
There is a lot of often confusing and conflicting information regarding nutrition circling the planet these days. It is a hotbed for fad diets and falsehood marketing. Simultaneously, some demonise individual food groups, take extremes, or offer the next “superfood” miracle cure for instant weight loss. The popular press touts confusing “modern” diets today like Keto, plant-based, paleo, vegan, Mediterranean, Alkaline, immune-boosting, etc.
Although their core principles significantly differ and may be seen by some through an extremist lens, they share a common thread. Each diet generally emphasises “whole” foods in the context of a plant-based diet. (This is, of course, a significant generalisation based on the assumption that people who follow one particular diet do so with a certain conscientiousness.)
A reason why people who switch to one of these “diets” feel the immediate benefits, later becoming advocates of that particular diet, is that they are probably simply getting a wider variety of whole foods.
Having researched and studied diet and nutrition closely over the years, I can honestly say there is no such thing as a perfect diet. What works for one person will not necessarily work for another. We are all different with different needs, goals and beliefs. Good nutrition is relevant in the context of every individual’s life. If we remove context from the picture, we fail to recognise the importance of the individual’s needs at any given moment in time.
If you want to dig deep into the science of nutrition, it can get complicated. Still, good eating doesn’t have to be overly complicated. A good question to ask is: is it whole (no ingredient lists), natural food? Look for food that flourishes in the same natural conditions as we do. Variety is key to a balanced diet, colourful fruits and vegetables, nuts seeds, whole grains and legumes (beans, lentils), preferably free-range meat, fish and eggs. There is clear evidence that eating until feeling 80 percent full is beneficial while reducing refined carbohydrates, refined sugar and trans-hydrogenated fats.
Poor diet is linked to a whole array of health conditions, many beyond this article’s scope. However, good-quality food can bolster the immune system and support longevity.
“When you are wholehearted about something …..when you are where you want to be and are participating fully at the moment you are in –sometimes enthusiastic, sometimes mellow — you will experience a new sense of aliveness. You will experience a surge of energy, renewed vigour. This is not because there is actually an increase in energy, but because you are not constricting it quite so much”. – Erich Schiffman in ‘Yoga: the spirit and practice of moving into stillness.’
To some degree, most people understand the importance of exercise and its impact on our health.
The term exercise will undoubtedly mean different things to different people. What we want and expect from the experience and our physical ability will arouse various reasons as to why we exercise. For this article’s purpose, I want to talk about exercise in terms of fun, play, movement exploration and getting outside. I believe the benefits of exercise come from being in the moment and not necessarily the results, outcomes or external validations we tend to pursue.
I am a keen runner and enjoy tackling mountain treks. However, my love for running and trekking doesn’t come from running on a treadmill or thinking about how many miles I will cover. It simply comes from being outside in the elements at the moment. For me, this approach offers a vast ocean of possibilities and opportunities to move and feel connected to myself and my surroundings. I started running because I wanted to get outside, and I enjoy the simple fact that I can. This appreciation and love for the great outdoors and my ability to move has led me through many great adventures, including running and walking marathon and ultra-marathon distances. These accomplishments came unintentionally as a result of joy, wonder and a sense of discovery.
For me, external validation methods such as muscle gain or weight loss can dilute one’s practice and impede training progress. Don’t get me wrong; it’s good to have “fitness” goals. However, suppose the motivation for exercise gains is solely on projected outcomes. In that case, it is possible to become fixated on the result. In that path lies a risk of numbing the senses, leading to feeling more like a chore, leading to a tendency to associate exercise with something that is supposed to be difficult or hurt.
Don’t get me wrong, sometimes one has to struggle to reach the top of that mountain, and out of struggle, new possibilities can emerge. However, thinking exclusively about reaching the top will cause us to rush through the whole experience, not noticing how we got there if we do get there. Rather than resting to admire the view or find an alternate approach, people can tend to keep climbing the same way because their perception is it’s good for them. The danger lies in that if we only associate exercise with pain and suffering, one forgets the pure joy and good feeling from simply moving and being present.
Being in the present moment is how we can improve our sense of self and enhance our movement potential. It is essential to pay attention to what we are doing and how we are doing it. Over time, I believe this causes us to feel less obligated to exercise in the first place when we lose that sense of exploration and child-like play, which is crucial to learning. The benefits of merely being in your body, listening and moving in ways that feel good to you will increase the likelihood of continuation and help uncover a greater sense of self—enhancing movement possibilities, therefore enhancing ability.
Power doesn’t necessarily come from sheer willpower and hard work. It comes from finding new and less predictable ways to reorganise oneself. It’s this efficient organisation that can generate coordination, timing, and ease. If you feel you are exercising habitually or having to, slow down and listen to how you truly feel. Perhaps go for a walk, take in your surroundings and see where it takes you.
We could all do with laughing more, even if you laugh a lot. The longer I practice, the more I value and consciously emphasise the power of laughter. While this is a relatively new research area for me, it seems that science is also catching up and starting to take the power of laugher seriously. Although the number of scientific publications is relatively low compared to that of sleep, nutrition or exercise, laughter has shown to have different physiological and psychological benefits on health. Generating positive effects in managing stress, particularly in the parasympathetic nervous system’s stimulation, translating as a non-threatening, more comfortable and calm state of being.
While there are clear benefits that come from laughing more, I aim to bring awareness that actively seeking out more laughter in your life is right for your health. If you pay more attention to things in your life that influence your mood, you can learn how to find more laughter. A good start is spending more time with people who make you laugh. We are social creatures, after all, and it is excellent for bonding and building relationships. The body can interpret even the simple physical act of smiling as the beginnings of laughter. Watch more comedies, be grateful, embody it.
Thoughts and emotions
We’re not our bodies. It’s so clear. You’re not that infant body. You’re not your middle-aged body. Then you get an aged body. That’s not who you are. It’s always changing. You’re not your emotions because they’re always changing. You’re not your thoughts, I hope, that would be really tragic for many of us in some way where there’s good thoughts, but it’s pretty chaotic in there. Who you are is consciousness itself. It’s this consciousness, this awareness that was born into this body.” – Jack Kornfield in ‘Finding Mastery’ podcast on the art of mindfulness.
There is a reason why sports and performance psychologists’ demand has grown exponentially in the past few years, partly due to the science surrounding neuroplasticity. Science has a more precise understanding that our brains are continually changing and evidence suggests that we can train our minds.
To our brains, what we think, observe and imagine is “real”. We use the same brain centres regardless of whether it’s an imagined thought or a real-life situation. Our thoughts have physical effects on our bodies as if we were experiencing them. Getting to grips with your thoughts and emotions can be a tricky business. My aim is not to underestimate mental health’s complexity and the trauma and difficulties people encounter every day (beyond my scope of practice). It is to highlight that the narrative we carry around about ourselves influences how we feel.
Science points out a direct correlation between how negative we are about ourselves and anxiety and depression. Practising compassionate self-talk and mindfulness meditation, and breathwork can be good starting points to help down-regulate the autonomic nervous system. There is some exciting research emerging around visualisation, specifically around the focus. Seeing in panoramic view (i.e., taking in the horizon) instead of a narrow, more focused perspective (for example, your phone, computer, etc.) can effectively manage stress. Allowing the eye to see further and broader mitigates the level of threat perceived by the brain.
This article highlights a few (of the many) components that I think are important when considering overall health. None are absolute remedies or promise some miracle cure. Still, they make a solid foundation and general framework for anyone. They help guide my practice and my own life. They are fundamental to improving the overall quality of life, feeling well in one’s (whole) self, and being ready and able to tackle the world in all its unpredictability and splendour. Explore these pillars with an open mind, patience and curiosity, and you’ll find they can act as a catalyst for a more truthful, long-lasting health experience.
Here’s a great Ted talk on the power of mindfulness and our brains.
Here is a good ted talk on blue zones. How to live to be 100+
Blue zones are places around the world that have the most naturally occurring centurions.
Finding Mastery Jack Kornfield: on the art of mindfulness
Why we sleep – Matthew Walker
Slowing down to run faster – Edward Yu
Complementary therapies in medicine vol 19 issue 3
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