It feels like an onslaught. Health and wellness information coming at us from all directions. Eat this way, do this workout, try this product. A country done with being unhealthy, tired of our obesity crisis and fatiguing with the traditional biomarkers of "healthy," Americans are no longer taking their health for granted. You can feel the hunger, the thirst for the right information and the right plan. From Capitol Hill to the hospital bed, we are in agreement that health and being healthy should be an unrelenting pursuit.
What and who is healthy? Is it simply low cholesterol, low blood pressure and the right BMI (basal metabolic rate)? Or is it a bit deeper, defined by both medical benchmarks and life quotients like happiness, satisfaction, and energy? I think we can all agree that the definition of healthy is up for grabs. Having had the privilege of working with so many patients, I have learned that healthy is both -- a continuum of both tangible and intangible factors, both of which merge to create health, wellness, brilliance and more. Here are my prerequisites for being "healthy" this year.
The Happy Belly
The flood of research continues to prove a concept the oldest systems of medicine already understood: There is no health without digestive health. Ayurveda, Chinese medicine and folk medicine stressed the importance of gut health in overall health. An unhealthy digestive system, as we understand today, is the trigger for inflammation, obesity, disease progression and mood instability. The "microbiome" is becoming a household term as the interaction between what lives in our bellies and our health becomes clearer. Symptoms like reflux, constipation and irritable bowel syndrome can no longer be dismissed but need to be tackled, understanding and finding the root cause. (1)
A restless mind is a gateway to poor health as stress, anxiety and depression give way to chronic poor choices in food, movement and lifestyle. A mind, instead, that can focus, adapt to stressors and maintain resilience are signs of health -- and a guarantee that being healthy is not an elusive goal. Achieving a peaceful and serene mind may be one of the biggest public health challenges of this century, as the electronic explosion allows us to be connected but not invested, creating only more stress and anxiety. Sharpening the mind, building resilience and creating stress buffers are now the new prescriptions to be written by doctors. After a healthy gut, there is no healthy without a healthy mind. (2)
Energy is a goal for many of us and for a society that is so sedentary, seeking energy has become a priority. We have energy drinks, energy shots, energy pills but still need energy. While we may not be doing manual labor, much of our energy is mentally, emotionally or technologically drained. The constant exposure to electronics drains our energy and the multitasking can make the most sedentary job, the most laborious. The new physician will have to help patients create energy -- directing them to nourishing food, outdoor activity, movement and connection. We will have to measure energy, assess it just as we do a blood count, heart disease risk or cholesterol.
Movement is a sign of health and the inability to move a sign of disease or at a minimum, inflammation. Tender joints, tight muscles and early arthritic changes are not to be ignored -- they are disease in progress and need attention. Looking for causes of poor mobility and adding in strategies to combat inflammation and weight reduction are a part of redefining healthy. (3)
Sleep is the universal healer and without it, a tip in favor of being unhealthy. Maintaining sleep in a connected world is a challenge and patients continually complain of sleep disturbances and sleep issues. Guarding and protecting a consistent sleep cycle should be a health goal for without sleep a host of other unhealthy behaviors and needs often follow.
The Right Palate and Food Palette
Your palate may be dictated by culture, genetics and your gut health but can be manipulated to crave and seek the right foods or food palette. A high sugar diet makes you crave more sugar, while a craving for salt is often a sign of adrenal stress. Fatty foods are often a source of emotional comfort while bland foods may be the only choice for a sensitive stomach. Bottom line -- your palate is a sign of your overall health and your food palette a reflection of what you crave. Change both to reflect more whole fruits and vegetables, less sugar and minimal salt to get a little closer to healthy. (4)
Connected but not invested is the theme for our current society. We are connected but our devices allow a superficial connection that does not really satisfy our needs for family, community and society. A part of our health is our need to know and feel that we are connected to something larger than ourselves, that we are a part of a whole, not a momentary Instagram picture or passing tweet. Creating meaningful connection is a core health value -- without it expect disease to follow.
I know, we still need to talk about how to measure these new "healthy" markers of 2016. Is it a blood test, a survey, a body scan or just a feeling? As we physicians continue to work that part out, use my seven principles of healthy to gauge your own health and redefine your "healthy" in 2016. Happy New Year!