Many of us don't realize it, but our bodies are constantly organizing and carrying out complex operations to maintain our health. Nearly all our internal functions occur outside our awareness. For instance, we don't put in much effort to digest our food, or filter our blood. And under most circumstances our bodies easily manage blood clots, fight infections, repair organs and kill cancer cells using their own natural chemicals. In fact, the world's best 'pharmacy' exists inside each and every one of us. Taking full advantage of this internal 'pharmacy' is the most effective way to care for our health.
It doesn't require us to make a lot of complex decisions, but our 'pharmacy' does have some caveats for operating well.
First and foremost, a well functioning 'pharmacy' requires sensible nutrition. That can look slightly different for each person, but it basically involves eating foods as close to their natural sources as possible.
Sensible nutrition ensures our bodies get the right ingredients, in the right amounts to make the chemicals we need. We have a saying in medicine, "the dose makes the poison." Anything at a high enough dose can cause harm. The same is true for food, which is why a varied diet, avoiding extra calories is the best way to make certain our bodies operate at their highest potentials.
Foods can contain compounds that our bodies can't make (or make inefficiently), but processed foods have often removed these beneficial molecules for one reason or another. This is why so many health professionals recommend eating a "whole foods diet." (It's not a suggestion that we need to shop at the grocery chain by the same name.)
Along those same lines, adequate hydration can make a world of difference. Many of us (maybe most of us) are not drinking enough plain water throughout the day. I often have a tough time remembering this one too, especially when my schedule is very busy. Our notion of 64oz. (1.9L) of water a day is even a bit below what's considered 'adequate' intake by a publication from the Institute of Medicine.
Water affects our bodies in so many ways, that even mild dehydration can have drastic effects. A study done in athletes showed even a 1.8 percent loss of water from our body had significant effects on their performance.
Regular exercise is important too, ensuring we use our organs and calories in the ways nature intended. Exercise affects nearly every organ in our bodies, from our muscles and bones, to our hearts, lungs and even our immune systems.
In recent years, we've discovered that exercise also undoubtedly affects our moods, though we're not exactly sure how it works. There's a hypothesis it may stimulate the growth of new brain cells, which would also explain why it has been observed to improve our overall mental functioning.
If you've read any of my previous articles, you know I'm a big fan of exploring the science behind meditation. In relation to our internal 'pharmacy,' meditation has been found to influence a number of compounds in our bodies, the most prominent being dopamine, the reward molecule.
In recent years we've also come to appreciate that our brains are actually connected to the rest of our body (shocker, I know). For instance, it's now well accepted in the medical community that our nervous and immune systems communicate and influence each other.
Sleep is the last big part of optimal functioning of our internal pharmacy. While we're asleep, our bodies are still hard at work taking care of vital functions. Much of our bodies' repair mechanisms and hormonal controls happen while we sleep. So it follows that regularly getting adequate amounts of sleep can have profound effects on our bodies self-regulation.
These basics of lifestyle medicine are at the heart of my practice as a primary care doctor. Often times my patients are unaware of imbalances in one or more of these areas, and therein lies the crux of changing their health. So we usually start with the basics. The changes can take a little time, but in the long run we come to realize that if we take care of our bodies, our bodies take care of us.
Dr. Michael Stanclift
Naturopathic Doctor in Edinburgh, Scotland
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