Happy New Year! Do you have a health-related New Year resolution this year? It is estimated that 75% percent of most New Year resolutions made by Americans involves a health goal – whether it is a vow to lose weight, start a new exercise regimen, eat a healthier diet, or quit smoking. Unfortunately, it is estimated only 8% of health related resolutions are successfully achieved. It is no wonder why we are desperate to be healthier. But how do we define and effectively meet our health goals in 2015? And how do we motivate ourselves to stick to it?
What the Human Genome Project Has Taught Us About Our Health
The massive international research effort to sequence and map all of the genes of our species – together known as the genome – was completed in April 2003. The HGP gave us the ability, for the first time, to read nature’s complete genetic blueprint for building a human being. The expectation that we were hoping for when the human genome was being deciphered is that it would tell us exactly how specific diseases are mapped in our genes. What has been found is quite the opposite. We have discovered that genes only constitute about 25% to 30% of the hard-wiring to certain diseases and don’t necessarily code for specific diseases. The other 75% is related to things what we can change and do that’s personalized to our specific needs and constitution – more of a blueprint for how we function and evolve within our environment. Nothing is static.
We have also learned that we each have unique characteristics that give rise to how we respond to our environment, our lifestyles and so forth. What our genes are there to do is respond to how we live, how we eat, how we think, how we breathe, what we drink, how we move around the world, what environment we’re in.
While this may not have been such a welcome story for those seeking to continue to eradicate “disease” it is nonetheless a very empowering discovery in that we have confirmed that we do have more power over how we lead our lives and seek to lead the healthiest ones we can. We have also learned that we have much more to understand about how and when specific genes are expressed to animate our health history. There is a multitude of health stories that can be created with an individual’s genetic code. What story is ultimately told is still a mystery but very much in our power.
More and more studies are proving how a compromise in function that we experience in our daily lives left unaddressed can be a precursor to something more serious down the road. We also understand that we need to pay more attention to early signs of disruption in function whether physical, physiological, cognitive or emotional and work to restore normal functioning as much and as early as possible.
Thus our new year health resolutions matter. And so we need to figure out what it means to optimize our health. Health is no longer understood as the absence of disease. Health is something we continually strive to improve. True health means that you are functioning at your highest possible level. You are sleeping well, digesting well, eating well, and well managing your stress. Your body is in harmony, your mind is alert, and your spirit is calm. You have the energy you need to get the most out of life.
In this information age health advice and guidance are continually flung at us from every corner and we seem to always be obsessing about the latest health fad. During the last few weeks of 2014 I sat back and thought about what I thought should be the overriding simplified philosophy that could guide one on this journey to becoming healthier human beings. I boiled it down to two practices that we need to start with: 1) Defining and finding connectedness; and 2) Mindfulness in our actions.
Defining and Finding Connectedness
I truly believe that at the root of our “dis”eases is our increasing disconnectedness from the world/nature around us and to each other. One fundamental principle underpinning Eastern philosophy and medicine is our connection to the whole. The microcosm reflects the macrocosm. For instance, our health is a direct reflection of the health of our earth. Daverick Leggett in his book “Recipes for Self-Healing” expressed it this way — “the erosion of soil and the gases of the upper atmosphere, the deforestation, the over-consumption of resources, all resonate within our bodies…The modern phenomena of deficiencies in the immune system have their parallel in the thinning of the earth’s protective layer, the increase in lung condition has its parallel in the destruction of forest, and candida in human intestines has its parallel in the overgrowth of yeast and fungus in much of the earth’s soil. “
Such realizations might seem overwhelming to the average person just trying to stay healthy but it is relevant to the choices we make everyday. For instance, we all know that we are what we eat. The quality of the nutrients we put in our body depends on the relationship we have with the earth that produces it. Thus the word “organic” becomes more than a label that we blindly run after but should be something we actively seek by reestablishing a beneficial relationship with the earth.
How do we individually go about this without abandoning our modern lifestyle? We reconnect with the farms that have made that decision to engage in sustainable farming practices, we make the decision to join a CSA this year, we try to eat as simply as possible with the freshest ingredients possible, we get reacquainted with traditional diets that make use of all types of plants to nourish our bodies.
We have all heard Michael Pollan’s mantra, “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” Simply said but so difficult to implement in this age. Eating food has become a forensic exercise for most Americans because we have become so far removed from “real food”. Today there are too many middlemen in the food chain that have caused us to be nutritionally deficient. In addition – in the midst of this confusion, we are bombarded with experts telling us what nutrients we should be taking as if those nutrients could exist and have effect in and of itself without respect for the ecology and synergies that created these nutrients in the first place.
What I tell my patients all the time is that if we want a good quality of life we should only be eating what gives us “life”. Any food that can survive days on a shelf or that needs a marketing budget to tell us what nutrients it has been enriched with is most probably what we should not be eating. If your food does not rot it does not have life.
Understanding and the implementation of this simple philosophy is very difficult in our modern world. Michael Pollan also speaks about the number of ingredients in food having an indirect correlation with how healthy the item is. Thus in 2015 we need to continually strive to avoid the industrial middlemen, be mindful of how we can reconnect with the earth and traditional based diets that rely on simple ingredients that come straight from the earth.
If you are still overwhelmed by the state of the earth’s ecology remember that what you decide to put in your mouth to nurture yourself is the most powerful activist statement you can make to begin to move things on a global level as well.
Which brings me to the other contemplation over not only our connection to this earth that we are a part of but those we share the earth with. Whether we want to face it or not our fate on this earth is bound inextricably with everyone who inhabits it. But human connection is more directly linked to our ability to keep our health-related new year resolutions as well. For instance, studies have shown that most diet and exercise resolutions fail because people try to do them alone. Studies also show that when people feel lonely, they give up on tasks more quickly. Connection reduces loneliness and increases perseverance, which is essential for completing mentally tough challenges like losing weight.
Connection is also a contributing factor to health in general. Research shows that feelings of connection affect neurotransmitters (chemical messengers in the brain, including serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine), hormones (chemical messengers that travel throughout the body including adrenaline, cortisol, oxytocin, and vasopressin), and enzymes that affect chromosomes (such as telomerase). These biochemicals help us thrive and live longer. People who are connected handle stress better too, making it less likely that you’ll devour that bag of chips or cookies as a stress-reducer at the end of a long day.
So achieving your health-related resolutions can be supported by seeking a group, an accountability partner, a health practitioner who can provide you with the encouragement and support you need to persevere.
Mindful Lifestyle Modifications – One Day at a Time
Which brings me to another element which I feel should underscore any resolutions you make this year. Setting meaningful intentions and goals is very important if we want to achieve them; but it is the little steps we consciously and consistently take every day along the way that really helps us to achieve them.
Often just a simple and consistent change in a lifestyle habit is enough to start the boulder rolling that will help build momentum to achieve the greater goals. A friend of mine, Melissa Rapoport, who is a nutritional health & wellness coach in Harlem, ran a 30-day challenge (“30 Days of Transformation”) where she coached her blog followers to make one simple lifestyle modification a day. The tasks were very simple — like consciously setting the table to sit down to have a meal, to getting rid of clutter in your immediate work environment. She also introduced small achievable nutritional changes that did not involve changing your entire diet over a short period of time. After the challenge many who were skeptical but took the challenge anyway were amazed at the impact the mindful modifications had on their lives. Surprisingly, many reported shedding some pounds though that was never the intent of the challenge. So little changes matter and cumulative changes matter a great deal. It suffices to be mindful about the changes we need to make in our present moment and take it small steps at a time. With mindful consistency you will be surprised where you will find yourself 1 year from now.
Thus here is to a Mindful Connected Healthy New Year!