Health and Wellbeing Top Tips- ‘Lifestyle Medicine’
Today’s blog will focus on changes to our modern lifestyles and provide some top tips to optimise our Health and Wellbeing. What if I told you we have the ability to change the expression of our genes? Now before you get carried away and think ‘I’ve always wanted to be Captain America!’, the science is not quite there yet! However, we do have the power to express our genes in a way that will increase our healthspan, so for now, I’ll settle for Captain Conexus!
Have you ever heard the phrase ‘genetics load the gun, lifestyle pulls the trigger’? Our lifestyles have a huge role to play in keeping us free from chronic disease. So, this blog is going to focus on the pillars of lifestyle medicine and provide some top tips in each area!
The Pillars of Lifestyle Medicine
Lifestyle Medicine can be described as care that supports behaviour change through person-centred techniques to improve mental wellbeing, social connection, healthy eating, physical activity, sleep and minimisation of harmful substances and behaviours. These changes are based around the 6 pillars of lifestyle medicine; Nutrition, Community/Relationships, Movement, Stress, Sleep, and Environment.
Food has the power to heal and enhance our physiology. However, modern day convenience has driven the unhealthy choice as the easy choice. Now it’s not about being perfect. The 21st Century has given us an array of amazing treats- I will never give up Ben & Jerry’s. But making these treats the exception and not the rule can have a huge impact. So, a few top tips include:
- Eat real food: By real food, I mean ‘Whole food’. The simplest way of describing whole foods, and what I tell my patients- ‘does it have an ingredients list? No? Then it’s likely a whole food!’. g. A Banana vs Banana Chips.
- Fill 70% + of shopping trolley with Whole Food
- Eat more plants: you do not need to go fully plant-based. But eating more plants, and specifically, more fibre and increasing the diversity of plants in your diet, will optimise the diversity of your gut microbes. This in turn, will improve your digestion, immune function, reduce risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease.
- Eat the rainbow: The bright colours in plants are a good indication of a healthy compound known as Polyphenols. These polyphenols (exclusively found in plants) help cool of inflammation and protect against disease. So, eat the rainbow- not skittles!
Community & Relationships
If the past two years has taught us anything it’s that as a species, we need social interaction- even if it’s through a zoom quiz! Social isolation is associated with an increased all-cause mortality. This doesn’t mean you now need to join a big group if you’re an introvert. But surrounding yourself with people who can support you make positive health changes makes a massive difference. This is why alcohol support groups are so successful, it’s empowerment and peer support! Community & Relationship top tips:
- Focus on quality social interaction, not the quantity: A few close, supportive friends will always trump a large number of people not supporting your goals.
- Find a group doing something you enjoy (Find your tribe): Enjoy cycling? Is there a cycling group? Enjoy reading? A book club? I promise, if you put yourself out there to meet likeminded people, you’ll be surprised how it affects your mood.
- Eat food at the table: My favourite thing about food is its incredible power to bring people together- use it and share food together! This provides us with opportunity to connect, catch up and be present with friends and family.
- Call someone you care about: I want you to call the first person you thought of when reading that tip and have a quick 5 min catch up!
Movement and exercise are foundational to our long-term health. If the benefits of exercise where in the form of a pill it would be worth trillions. In terms of longevity, the benefits of exercise are huge. It helps us maintain our functional strength, independence and reduces the risks of falls. Whatever form of exercise you can do, sustain, and enjoy is the best type of exercise. Movement isn’t just exercise and doesn’t have to be structured. We all must make that conscious effort to reduce sedentary time as much as possible, especially if we’re working in an office/sat down. Movement top tips:
- Move every 30 minutes: Now I don’t care what you do or how you do it. If you’ve been still for 30 minutes, get up and move. Walk around a room, do a few squats, do a lap of the surgery, whatever it is, move! Your health and wellbeing will thank you.
- Exercise for functional strength: As we age, we lose our strength, this is called sarcopenia. By resistance training two times a week with day-to-day movements patterns, we delay the loss of muscle mass. Resistance training doesn’t just mean weights! Body weight is also resistance training! Push ups, squats, sit ups, sit to standing, carrying heavy shopping are all fantastic at maintaining and building strength.
- Do something you enjoy: Whatever you do, do something you enjoy! If you’re not sure- do something new and with someone else.
Fight or Flight (sympathetic nervous system) vs Rest and Digest (parasympathetic nervous system), in other words – Fighting a giant brown bear vs beach in Hawaii. Your body responds to these completely differently. Too much stress over a long period can have a negative effect on our physical and mental wellbeing. We may not have the power to avoid stress completely, but we can certainly build resilience to it and seek to calm it. Stress top tips:
- Breathe through the nose: Breathing through the nose produces nitric oxide, which can help vasodilate your blood vessels, helping reduce blood pressure. Mouth breathing is also related to the stress response and poor health. Disclaimer, this isn’t an excuse to tape your partners mouth shut!
- Breathe deeply: Try practise diaphragmatic breathing and avoid shallow breaths using just the chest. Deep breathing sends calming signals via the Vagus nerve, helping relax the body and mind, reducing heart rate and blood pressure- one step closer to the beach in Hawaii.
- Seek out positive stress- Hormesis: This describes ‘what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger’. There are different types of hormetic stressors, sunlight, exercise, temperature. Try a cold shower? Sauna? HIIT workout? A small dose of each of these will help build resilience to stress.
- Try Yoga or meditation: If this isn’t your thing then that’s ok. But if you want to stimulate the parasympathetic response, yoga and meditation are a great tool! If your new to meditation, try a guided meditation or focus-attention meditation, focusing on the breath. I find these the easiest to pick up when starting a meditation practise.
Sleep is vital for our long-term health and influences our stress levels and behaviours the next day. Its recommended adults get 7-9 hours of sleep per night. Ask yourself, are you consistently hitting that target? We go through different cycles of sleep, which can broadly be split into rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and 3 stages of non-REM (NREM) sleep. NREM stage 1 is when we transition from wakefulness into sleep. NREM stage 2, known as ‘light sleep’, is where our body temperature, breathing rate and heart rate decreases. NREM stage 3, known as ‘slow wave’ or ‘deep sleep’, is where physical restoration happens as growth hormone is released which helps repair tissue. REM sleep is where we have our funky dreams as brain wave activity is increased! As you guessed it, we have rapid eye movement during this stage. During REM sleep breathing rate and heart rate increase, and memory, learning and emotions are stored and processed. Sleep top tips:
- Get 30 mins natural light as early as possible after waking: This will help align and set your circadian rhythm and sleep-wake cycle, helping you feel sleepy later in the day. A good sleep starts in the morning!
- Avoid caffeinated drinks after 3pm: Due to coffee’s half-life of around 5 hours, if you had a double espresso at 4pm, it’s like going to bed with a single espresso…that ain’t gonna help you sleep!
- Have a cool room: In order to have good quality sleep, our body temperature needs to decrease. Having a cool room can help drift into the stages of sleep more easily.
- Avoid blue light (artificial light) a couple of hours before sleep: Bright blue (artificial) light sends signals to our brain that it is daytime, this can suppress the production of a helpful hormone, melatonin, which helps us feel sleepy.
If I have a standing desk at work, would I be less sedentary? Yes. Our environment helps shape behaviour. Modern day, comfortable living is great, but it’s not been built with optimal health in mind. We must have a think around how we can shape our environment to support healthy lifestyle choices. What we do in our environment has a role to play with our health too. So, avoiding harmful toxins is vital to longevity i.e. smoking, drinking, substance misuse. Environment top tips:
- Create an environment that encourages movement: Can you stand and work? Use books to raise your computer/laptop for a standing desk? Can you deliver a message in person instead of over the phone?
- Have a water bottle in view: Hydration is key, having a water bottle simply in your eyeline will increase the chances you’ll drink.
- Consider quitting smoking and reducing alcohol: Quitting smoking would be one of the best decisions in terms of your long-term health. Make sure to surround yourself with people that support this change. We all probably know about dry January, but what about the rest of the year. Not only will reducing alcohol intake be beneficial for your gut health and cardiovascular health, reducing intake will reduce calories, helping you lose weight!
By making small positive changes to each of these areas of your lifestyle, you will drastically improve your overall health and wellbeing! Can we support each other make these positive changes better? I think we can!
Author: Paul Rudd, Health and Wellbeing Coach at Trinity Health Group PCN