Famously, you "can't have it all." This particular bit of conventional wisdom ostensibly admonishes against overreaching, self-aggrandizing, expecting too much, or getting carried away with either ambition or entitlement.
Just as famously, the anklebone is connected to the shinbone. This simple, if anatomically inexact truism, has oft-neglected implications from head to toe, and from cosmesis to cognition. Things really get interesting when these two tidbits of time-honored truth are juxtaposed, and applied to health.
I do one or more interviews for newspapers and/or magazines on health topics almost every day: health magazines for women, for men, for children, for older people, for vegans, for veterinarians, for frequent flyers, for people with second toes noticeably longer than the first. Well, maybe not that last one. Across these diverse audiences, one of the reliably frequent topics is what foods to eat, or activities to do, to promote the health (or beauty) of some body part.
The brain, being just about everybody's second favorite organ, is a popular choice. The topics tend to be: What foods should we eat to promote brain health? Is what we've heard about fish, or blueberries, true? What exercises are especially good for the brain?
The heart is another perennial favorite. What foods are best for the heart? What exercises?
There is the whole area of detox. Is fasting a good idea? If so, how often and for how long? How about juicing?
An especially popular selection for women is radiant skin -- and we might as well throw in silky hair. What nutrients provide skin that warm glow, hair that je ne sais quoi? What foods contain those nutrients in highest concentrations? Is it true if we eat more of those foods we'll see the difference in the mirror?
Bone health comes along from time to time. Should we eat dairy, and if so, how much, what kind, how often? Do calcium supplements help? What other nutrients or foods are most helpful?
What foods are best for sexual function -- and, for that matter, seduction -- tends to be a recurring annual topic on or about each Valentine's Day.
Men, it seems, are forever in pursuit of new and magical means of acquiring a six-pack, and so questions about nutrition and exercise to that end arise with regularity. What foods best mobilize belly fat to reveal the sculpted six-pack lurking beneath?
If the women's magazines are a reliable source on the matter, legions of women are desperately seeking, each month, a new and better way to tone their buns. What exercises and foods are best for perfect bun tone?
The more mature women reading such magazines also take an interest in how to prevent the glowing skin on the back of their upper arm from... jiggling.
And there are analogous interviews about sleep, mood, athletic performance, productivity, cancer prevention, cellulite prevention, cold prevention, allergy prevention, wound healing, fall prevention, reducing inflammation, combating oxidation, and... well, the selective prevention or amelioration of just about any crummy thing you can think of, and the optimization of just about anything we like.
And then, to put icing on this cake, there is the whole issue of aging. Which nutrients, foods, exercises, and activities work best to delay the aging process? Here, I can't help but note the thriving cottage industry devoted to marketing anti-aging lotions, potions, pills, books, and banter to adults -- even as we condone the marketing of products to our children that, for all intents and purposes, accelerate their aging. This bit of cultural diplopia is a hypocritical travesty -- but I digress.
Time for the punchline: The answer to every one of these questions is exactly the same.
You really want glowing skin wherever your epidermis is showing? You need nice, clean blood vessels delivering nutrient- and oxygen-rich blood to your dermis. So you have to eat and exercise to take care of your blood vessels to take care of your skin. And, into the bargain, you have to take comparably good care of your heart -- which is pumping that blood.
You want a healthy heart? Well, then, you need to attend to the basic care and feeding of healthy kidneys. Along with filtering the blood of toxins, the kidneys regulate blood volume and pressure, and exert an enormous influence on heart health.
Those healthy kidneys will serve your detox aspirations better than any juice or fast -- but they can't do it alone; they specialize in water-soluble toxins. If you want to get rid of all the rest, too, you need a healthy liver, healthy intestines, and while we're at it, healthy spleen, lungs, and skin.
Which is just as well, because you need all of that for a healthy brain, too. What's good for the heart, and blood vessels, and kidneys, liver, and intestines is good for the brain -- which of course depends on the quantity and quality of its blood supply for its performance. So much so, in fact, that what best defends against cardiovascular disease goes a long way toward defending against Alzheimer's disease as well.
You want strong bones? Yes, vitamin D and calcium can help -- but you also need strong muscles, a strong heart, good blood flow, and a healthful hormonal balance.
You want to mobilize belly fat? You need to reduce inflammation, balance hormones, and of course, control calories. Which is just as well, because all of these help slow the aging process in the bargain.
Are blueberries really good for the brain? Yes, because they are good for health in general. Ditto for fish.
I presume you've caught my drift. No organ is an island; every organ is a piece of the organism, a part of the body. The health of each depends on the health of all.
And so there is no one food, or nutrient, or exercise that can optimize or beautify any one organ or aspect of health. There is, however, a short list of priorities that redounds to the benefit of them all. There is eating well (and yes, we know what that means); there is routine exercise; there is adequate attention to sleep, stress, love and the avoidance of toxins. I won't belabor these topics further -- I have addressed each before, repeatedly and at length.
Our popular culture acts as if it would make sense to optimize one wing of a plane. The plane is either fit to fly -- or not. You can't fly half a plane. Selectively cultivating the health of favored organs or body parts is a comparable flight of fancy.
I suppose it's true that, generally, we can't "have it all." But it's also true that the anklebone is connected to the shinbone, and that the status and performance of every organ system in the body affects every other. So with regard to health, whether or not we can have it all, the only reasonable way to have as much as possible -- is to try for exactly that.
For more by David Katz, M.D., click here.
For more on personal health, click here.