Category Archives: Integrative Medicine

The Primacy of Human Connection

lonelinessAt the onset of his tenure at the Surgeon General of the United States, Dr. Vivek Murthy expected to tackle pressing health issues facing the nation, notably obesity, tobacco-related disease, mental health, and vaccine-preventable illness. To ensure that his focus reflected the needs to the people, he spent the first few months on the job touring the country and asking people, “How can we help?” A surprising theme emerged in those discussions – i.e., a pervasive experience of loneliness for which there are profound implications for our physical, mental, and emotional well-being. He chronicled his findings in Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World.

Human beings are wired for connection; it is our key to survival. Cooperative social groups pool their resources, gain efficiencies through a division of labor, incubate creative solutions to challenging problems, and provide for the security of the collective. We seek relationship on three levels:

  • Intimate partners, family members, and close friends who know and care for us deeply
  • Relational allies who form our core social group and provide social supports
  • Collective affiliations with people who provide a sense of belonging based on shared interests and values

According to reports issued by Kaiser, Cigna, and AARP, at least 20% of US adults feel persistently lonely. That figure skews upwards as a function of age. According to a large longitudinal study by Dr. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, poor social networks carry health risks akin to smoking 15 cigarettes per day. Chronically lonely people show increased rates of heart disease, hypertension, stroke, dementia, depression, anxiety, poor sleep quality, immune dysfunction, and impaired judgment. Low self-worth and shame conspire to keep the condition hidden. An elevated stress response in social contexts wreaks havoc on the body and makes it difficult to forge relationship.

The curse of loneliness extends beyond long-term risks to health. The sensory fibers that register physical and emotional pain coexist in our brains. The experience of loneliness, loss, and disappointment can be as agonizing as a physical blow or a gaping wound (as evidenced by fMRI scans). It’s why so many reach for alcohol and opioids to dull the pain.

How did we get into this predicament?

Our cultural bias toward individual freedom and rugged self-reliance thwarts our ability admit that we need people. We’re afraid to show weakness and put ourselves at a disadvantage in a highly competitive world. We’ve also moved away from our extended families while experiencing a gradual erosion in social networks and norms – e.g., religious participation, community clubs, dinner parties. We’ve lost casual social interaction as a function of telecommuting, home-based entertainment, home shopping, and grocery delivery. And many of us spend a great deal of time using social media rather than invest in the deep work of relationship building. To be sure, the latter can keep families spread across distances in touch and provide a forum for finding like-minded souls. But it can also foster false images of ourselves, unhealthy comparisons with others, and preoccupation with “likes” and followers.

So, what advice does Dr. Murthy offer?

Take time to connect with our truest self. Spend time reflecting on the interests, passions, and values that give life purpose and meaning. Rediscover self-worth and value to others. Find the wellspring of compassion and generosity toward ourselves and others. Follow the inner compass to be our most natural and authentic selves. A firm inner connection creates the foundation for establishing relationship with others.

Spend time each day with those you love. Suspend screen time and other distractions; be present, attentive, and caring. Listen as much as you talk. Mirror each other’s human value. Let the comfort, calm, and emotional energy we serve up strengthen our emotional core and give us more capacity to be present for others.

Create communities of people who lift each other up. Surround yourself with people who seek meaning and purpose based on positive, forwarding values. Demonstrate your interest and commitment by learning names and interesting anecdotes about them. Share meals. Cultivate mutuality and a sense of belonging. Promote two-way communication in response to thoughtful questions. Be particularly attentive to creating close neighbors if you have faraway relatives or live alone. Build intentional villages.

Model kindness especially in this climate of rancor and distrust. Focus on shared humanity. Set aside anger, fear, or hatred; be mindful of the fact that each person manifests a spark of the divine. Listen attentively with the goal of understanding. Speak from the heart. Stay in dialog. Be a giver and receiver of service. Be kind. Engage with strangers. You never know who may be struggling and benefit from your acts of kindness, smile, and encouraging word. (You’ll feel better, too!)

In sum: Build people-centered lives in a people-centered world.

Thinking Our Way to Good Health

A few years ago, I attended a talk by Dr. Lisa Rankin and found my way to her New York Times best-selling book Mind Over Medicine. She made the argument that we can heal ourselves by the power of thought and provided research to back it up. I’m taking a deeper dive on the subject through the aegis of Dr. Joe Dispenza’s You Are The Placebo: Making Your Mind Matter.

Dispenza tells us that our bodies are phenomenal apothecaries. They produce a wide array of substances that maintain our biological systems, remodel bones, heal wounds, respond to threat, avert pain, foster sleep, enhance immune function, elevate mood, and so on. This marvelous machinery can keep us in fine fettle without pharmaceuticals. However, to function at peak efficiency, we need to manifest the right physical, mental, and emotional energy.

As discussed in an earlier post on epigenetics, we are not held hostage by our genetic endowments. Environmental factors play a significant role in genetic expression. In fact, the overwhelming majority of our genes activate (or deactivate) based on what we think, feel, do, express, ingest, or experience. Of course, to the extent that we perceive our lives through a fixed lens and react to circumstances with the same neural architecture, we will head toward a very specific genetic destiny. But if we are willing to adjust our beliefs, perceptions, and interactions with the environment, we can chart a different course.

Dr. Dispenza provides a simple flow diagram to trace the connection between thoughts and bodily well-being. Let’s work through this flow with a concrete example.

changing the body through thought

Suppose I have an upcoming meeting with a co-worker who has consistently been a thorn in my side and whose behavior has proven disruptive to my team’s work. Based on past experience, my thoughts about the meeting trigger an expectation of conflict. My neural network releases chemical messengers (neuropeptides) that trigger the production of the stress hormone cortisol. With a hefty dose of cortisol coursing through my veins, cell receptor sites trigger intracellular environments that upregulate DNA expression in a way that mobilizes energy (glucose), elevates heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing, halts tissue growth and repair, boosts immune response, blunts pain receptors, and sharpens sensory perception. This state proves protective when induced by a bona fide threat of short duration. But it results in diminished health when sustained for an extended period of time.

Thoughts, emotions, and events act like epigenetic engineers. They control our physiological responses. And here’s the kicker: Our bodies cannot distinguish between having an experience and just thinking about one. A scary movie can get us just as juiced up as a physical threat. On the downside, it’s a call to avoid unnecessary stimulation in our entertainment choices. On the upside, it provides a mechanism to set an intention to be healthy, craft a mental picture of that state, and think our way into positive outcomes.

A new field called psychoneuroimmunology explores the effect of thoughts and emotions on the immune system. For example, laughter causes the production of chemical messengers that dock on the cellular wall. Receptors respond to the electromagnetic energy and stimulate the production of anti-inflammatory proteins epigenetically to quelch infection. Fancy that!

If we want to reap the benefits of forwarding thoughts, emotions, and actions, we may need to rewire our neural pathways. Neurons make and break connections in our brains dynamically. The more we repeat thoughts and behaviors, the stronger the neural connections, and the more automatic they become. As such, it should come as no great surprise that of the tens of thousands of thoughts that cross our minds daily, 90% are the same as the previous day. These recurrent thoughts drive the same behaviors which yield the same experiences, emotions, and biochemicals and give rise to the same health-affecting gene expression. If we want to establish new patterns, we need to break old habits.

Expectations play a powerful role in health outcomes. As noted in Dr. Rankin’s work, patients who believe that a drug or treatment will help them generally get positive results even if they’re given a placebo. Among other things, placebos can trigger the release of endorphins, the body’s natural pain killer. This phenomenon also works in reverse. Patients expecting bad results usually get them (a.k.a., the nocebo effect). In case studies of patients with terminal illness, those who refused to accept their grim prognoses and remained optimistic experienced better outcomes than those who surrendered to their diseases. Deep-seated positivity drove a new set of thoughts which opened up new possibilities. If we want to avail ourselves of this form of physiological programming, our belief in the power of thought must take root at a conscious and subconscious level.

We can also shape our destiny with the power of intention. By conscious choice, we can give our actions and experiences new meaning and thereby install new “wiring.” For example, when we engage in a daily recounting of things for which we are grateful, our minds tend to be on the lookout for things to add to our lists. As Bing Crosby told us in a hit song of 1945:

You’ve got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
Latch on to the affirmative
Don’t mess with Mister In-Between

Am I Truly Healthy?

physiciansI’ve been getting annual check-ups with my doctor for as long as I remember. They weigh me, check a few vital signs, and (perhaps) do some lab work to see if everything seems normal. With rare exception, I’m pronounced healthy and sent on my way.

I take my health seriously. I try to do my part to maintain my body in good working order. I wish I could take comfort in the send-off from my conventional doctor and assume that I really am AOK. But after watching Wondrium’s Hacking Your Healthcare with Dr. Mark Hyman, I’d call to question whether tradition medicine sets the “normal bar” too low. A leading expert in functional medicine, Dr. Hyman argues for a bit of discernment re: standard healthcare metrics.

According to Dr. Hyman, reference ranges for laboratory tests represent two standard deviations from the mean and capture ~95% of the population. With a generally healthy population, this approach rightly flags folks whose results fall outside the norms. However, when the population as a whole experiences declining health – as is the case in the United States – the ever-changing references ranges provide a false sense of security for those whose results seem normative. They simply tell you that you’re no more or less sick than most folks. We should be interested in markers for optimal health.

Here are some of the standards to which Dr. Hyman and his associates adhere:

  • Resting heart rate between 60 and 80 beats per minute. Too high and the patient may be a risk for heart disease; too low and he or she may have a thyroid issue. That being said, a preferred metric is Heart Rate Variability (HRV) – i.e., a measurement of the time intervals between heartbeats – as it is highly correlated with longevity.
  • Blood pressure between 100/60 and 120/80. Too high and the patient is at risk for heart disease or stroke; too low and he or she may experience fatigue, brain fog, and/or dizziness.
  • Body temperature between 97.7–98.6°F. If too low, it might suggest a thyroid malfunction.
  • Waist-to-Hip measurement no greater than .9 for men and .8 for women. [Body Mass Index (BMI) isn’t useful for muscular athletes!]
  • Fasting Glucose between 70 and 80, not just <100 and Hemoglobin A1C <5.5 (i.e., average sugar over past 6 weeks) to assess risk for diabetes. [Note: Food fixes it!]
  • Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH) between 1 and 2, although the complete picture of thyroid function calls for examination of Free T3, Free T4, Anti-TPO antibodies, Anti-Thyroglobulin antibodies, and Reverse T3.
  • hsCRP (a marker of inflammation) should be <1.0 (ideally <0.7).

Dr. Hyman asserts that that there is no better drug than nutrition. Unfortunately, Americans have become overfed and undernourished due to disproportion consumption of process foods in lieu of whole foods. As a result, 90% of us are deficient in essential vitamins and minerals as defined by Recommended Daily Allowances (RDAs). A comprehensive micronutrient test tells us where we stand and provides guideposts for the necessary dietary adjustments.

With heart disease a major risk factor for long-term illness and death, Dr. Hyman takes a keen interest in cholesterol. Traditional panels set target ranges for HDL, LDL, and triglycerides; however, they provide zero insight regarding particle size or oxidation. It’s the tiny and/or damaged (rancid) particles that cause all the grief. These insights can be obtained via the NMR Test from LabCorp or the Cardio IQ test from Quest. If problems surface, lifestyle changes can be a good course of action. Per Dr. Hyman, commonly-prescribed statins have unpleasant side effects and confer little benefit for most people over 5 years.

Our bodies accumulate toxins through environmental exposure (e.g., paints, solvents, petrochemicals, pesticides, etc.), food sources (e.g., mercury-contaminated fish), dental repairs (e.g., mercury filings), and others. Fat tissues store toxins and may leech them out to excess during weight loss. High toxicity can manifest as fatigue, muscle/joint pain, troubled sleep, skin issues, and malodorous stools. An Organic Acids Test can provide insights into the body’s toxic load, among other things. A heathy diet, vigorous (sweaty!) exercise, saunas, and hot baths can prove effective for detoxification. The Environmental Working Group website provides lots of free resources to help minimize toxic exposure.

The class concludes with an 8-point prescription for optimal health:

  1. Eat wholesome foods
  2. Maintain a positive outlook
  3. Be proactive in the face of change
  4. Detox your mind to sustain emotional health
  5. Be in contribution to the world around you
  6. Take time to experience joy
  7. Make movement a daily routine
  8. Spend time with friends and loved ones

Four Keys to Reversing Chronic Disease

As the Founder of the Preventative Medicine Research Institute and a Clinical Professor of Medicine at the University of California San Francisco, Dr. Dean Ornish, MD has quite a lot to say about lifestyle medicine. Through treatment of tens of thousands of patients and publication of peer-reviewed research, he has demonstrated the body’s remarkable capacity for self-healing without prescription drugs or invasive medical procedures. The title of his latest book captures his seminal message: Undo It! – How Simple Lifestyle Changes Can Reverse Most Chronic Diseases.

What does his lifestyle medicine entail?

ornish health plan

When following these straight-forward guidelines (along with non-smoking!) studies showed that folks reduced their risk of chronic disease by 78%, broken down as follows:

  • 93% reduced risk of diabetes
  • 81% reduced risk of heart disease
  • 50% reduced risk of stroke
  • 36% reduced risk of all forms of cancer

Dr. Ornish reports that a Mutual of Omaha study found that 80% of the people eligible for heart bypass or stents avoided the procedure through adherence to lifestyle medicine guidelines. Further, a Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield study showed a 50% reduction in healthcare costs for lifestyle medicine participants.

Why does it work?

It turns out that our lifestyles have a much greater impact on our health than our genes. When we care for our bodies in accordance with Dr. Ornish’s recommendations, we:

  • Minimize inflammation, thereby avoiding chronic activation of our immune systems
  • Minimize oxidative stress, thereby preventing damage to our tissues, blood vessels, cells, and DNA by free radicals
  • Downregulate harmful DNA expression (e.g., genes that give rise to cancer or atherosclerosis) and upregulate protective gene expression
  • Enhance our microbiome for improved digestion, immune response, and metabolic function
  • Avoid overstimulation of the sympathetic nervous system caused by chronic stress (a.k.a., the fight-or-flight response)
  • Keep blood flowing for a sharper brain, healthy skin, healthy heart, improved sensory response, and optimal sexual function
  • Keep our telomeres nice and long!

What are keys to success?

Dr. Ornish notes that fear-based strategies have proven ineffective in encouraging folks to adopt healthy lifestyles. The program must be pleasurable, meaningful, and enjoyable. It must illumine a pathway to a life that can be savored. To that end, Dr. Ornish recommends making big changes for the sake of reaping the benefits of improved healthy as quickly as possible. Moderate changes just don’t make folks feel good enough fast enough to have a lasting impact.

Dr. Ornish and his team had good results. Ninety-four percent of participants complete the 9-week program. Over eight-five percent still follow the program a year later.

Undo It! has LOTS of great information along with concrete suggestions for implementing the program. In particular, it provides a host of delicious recipes, illustrated examples of useful exercises, and practical guides for de-stressing. It’s well worth a place on the bookshelf.

How To Be – And Age – Well

exercise class

“There’s no magic pill for health and immunity. There’s a lifestyle that makes your immune system – and all other systems in the body – stronger.” – Dr. Frank Lipman, MD

My latest reads on well-being came courtesy of Dr. Frank Lipman, MD in three books: The New Health Rules, How to Be Well, and The New Rules of Aging Well.

Lipman characterizes the three major goals of medicine in terms of proper organ and systems function, synergy among organs and systems, and resiliency in the face of adversity. To that end, he looks at six areas in which we can all contribute to attaining these goals.

EAT: Prior posts document what to eat to produce good health outcomes. In a nutshell: Eat lots of fresh, organic fruit and vegetables. Boost gut health with prebiotics (garlic, onions, leeks) and probiotics (fermented food). Cut out sugar and processed foods. Drink alcohol sparingly (if at all). Lipman also talks about when to eat. In particular, he advocates consuming the largest meal at mid-day, when the body’s temperature and metabolic rate are at their peak. He further advocates confining one’s daily consumption to an 8-hour period, thereby giving our bodies a full 16 hours without outside sustenance. (While the absolute minimum daily fast should be 12 hours, Lipman says we can work our way up to 16 hours per day.) This schedule boosts a cellular process referred to as autophagy, from the Greek meaning self-devouring. It’s the means by which the body recycles useful cellular material to create new, healthy cells and disposes of dysfunctional elements and toxic waste. When we boost autophagy, we optimize mitochondrial function, dampen inflammation, retard aging, and stave off disease (e.g., cancer).

SLEEP: Adult human beings need high quality sleep every night – i.e., sufficient time in the sack during which we experience the full range of sleep cycles. When we shortchange sleep, the glymphatic system has insufficient time to clear neurological byproducts that accumulate in the brain. Toxic build-up sets the stage for loss of function and, eventually, dementia. One way to promote restorative sleep calls for aligning our schedules with our natural biorhythms. In particular, we should look for exposure to bright sunlight during the day and relative darkness at night. While most of us are unlikely to opt for candle lit evenings, we can minimize our exposure to the energizing blue rays in artificial light by wearing blue blocker glasses after hours.

MOVE: Our bodies are made for movement. We need stretching to maintain good skeletal alignment and prevent injury. We need aerobic exercise to promote a healthy heart and lungs. And we need strength training to build healthy bones. High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) followed by a hot shower and cold rinse can be especially beneficial, invigorating, and fun! Lipman also encourages us to identify opportunities to move in the natural course of the day. For example: Alternate between sitting and standing at a desk. Walk around during phone calls. Sit on an exercise ball instead of a chair to improve fine muscle movement and balance. Take 5-10 minute workout breaks every hour. Cook. Garden. Dance!

PROTECT: Beyond following a healthy diet, we minimize inflammation and improve mitochondrial function by steering clear of toxins. Drink filtered water as the beverage of choice. Use glass (not plastic) storage containers. Avoid toxic cleaners for the home. Stay away from pesticides and herbicides for the garden. Work up a sweat to help the body get rid of its toxins.

UNWIND: Give yourself permission to be unproductive. Carve out time to clear your mind and simply rest and relax. Just say “no” to would-be intrusions on your space. Practice meditation or mindfulness. Listen to southing music. Take a walk in nature. Get a massage. Smile. Laugh. Repeat.

CONNECT: Community consistently proves healthy for body and soul. Live purposefully in service of others. Find your tribe and invest in friendship. Gathering great experiences matters far more than accumulating things! Consider forging relationship with a pet. It has been associated with elevated oxytocin (the “love” hormone), improved household feng shui (positive energy), and longer lives.

A Code Blue for Healthcare

According to the Center for Disease Control, chronic disease is the leading driver of the nation’s $3.5 trillion annual healthcare costs. Such conditions include heart disease, cancer, chronic lung disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, chronic kidney disease, and others. Six in 10 adults have a chronic disease; four in 10 have two or more. Risk factors include tobacco use (and exposure to secondhand smoke), poor nutrition, a sedentary lifestyle, and alcohol or drug abuse.

hospital roomToday’s healthcare system largely treats these conditions with procedures and prescriptions. Unfortunately, it’s not really working. As a society, we keep getting sicker and sicker while we continue expanding our waistlines. Today, two-thirds of Americans are either overweight or obese. Excess body fat is another risk factor for chronic disease.

A new documentary sounds the alarm for our “misguided healthcare system” and “antiquated medical education model.” It’s entitled Code Blue: What Your Doctor Doesn’t Know Will SHOCK You.

The film’s producer and principal narrator has a vested interest in overhauling our medical care model. Dr. Satay Stancic was a third year resident when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. It’s a disease for which there is no cure; doctors simply hope to slow its progression. With a prognosis of life in a wheelchair within 20 years, Dr. Stancic started a nightly regimen of injections along with up to 12 prescription drugs. She felt lousy and had flu-like symptoms. She decided to pursue lifestyle changes to quell the disease. She adopted a whole food, plant-based diet in 2003 and started exercising. She was able to get off her medications entirely by 2010. In a follow-up visit 21 years into the disease process, she remained asymptomatic, and her MRIs showed no material progression of the disease.

An avalanche of scientific evidence makes the connection between lifestyle choices and disease. In the 1950s, Dr. T. Colin Campbell’s China Study explored the dietary habits of 6,500 Chinese citizens across 130 villages. They consumed 1/10th the animal protein of their U.S. counterparts, and heart disease was almost non-existent. In the 1960s, North Karelia Finland had the highest incidence of heart disease in the world. They changed their dietary patterns. From 1972 to 2012, they saw an 82% reduction in coronary death and a 10-year extension to their lives. Dr. Michael Greger, MD has dedicated an entire website to the presentation of scientific data on nutrition. It overwhelming extols the virtues of a whole food, plant-based diet supplemented with exercise and avoidance of tobacco, alcohol, and drugs.

And yet, we aren’t listening. Every decade since the 1950s, we’re been eating more fat, more sugar, more meat, and more calories. Most Americans get twice the protein that they really need. Moreover, 65% of our food is processed, robbing us of vital nutrients to sustain healthy bodies. In fact, the World Health Organization declared processed meats a carcinogen in 2015!

open heart surgeryUnfortunately, the institutions that could take a stand for our health haven’t taken up that mantle. The USDA promotes the health and well-being of American agriculture – that is, the business side of the equation. So, they are hardly anxious to point the finger at the deleterious impact of our current food production. Big Pharma makes gazillions of dollars selling prescription drugs and channels its profits into the kind of medical research and practice that perpetuates the status quo. While cardiovascular disease has been the #1 killer for years, open heart surgery remains one of the most profitable procedures in modern hospitals. That’s a strong financial disincentive to effect a cure! Medical schools continue to train physicians in the identification of disease and the procedures and prescription drugs used to treat them. The filmmakers tell us that:

  • Only 1 in 4 medical schools has a dedicated nutrition course.
  • 73% of medical schools fail to meet the minimum recommended education in nutrition – 25 hours over 4 years.
  • 72% of first year medical students think nutrition is important; by graduation, that figure drops to 46%. It’s as if medical school washes away common sense!

Fortunately, physicians like Dr. Stancic are endeavoring to turn the tide. They’re all about prevention before chronic disease has the chance to take root. Their mission: To change medical culture for doctors, patients, and academia. A few medical schools are also starting to get with the program. The University of South Carolina teaches Lifestyle Medicine across all 4 years. Rutgers has a Lifestyle Medicine Interest Group. Stanford offers a non-credit course. And a medical practice in the Lone Star State – Houston Cardiac Associates – provides a course on “culinary medicine”!

I’m on board with the practice of lifestyle medicine as mediated through my naturopath and the gaggle of books that I’ve been reading. We exercise, and our diet is predominantly whole food, plant based. But it has not been a cake walk to sustain it. I spend a lot of time cooking, and I’ve had to teach myself how to create savory meals without meat, poultry, or fish. But the proof is in the proverbial pudding: we’re in great shape with stellar blood work and no disabling conditions. So, we’ll stick with it!

8 Strategies for a Healing Self

A healthy immune system is essential for a healthy life. It defends against viral and bacterial incursions and equips us to resist future infectious or toxic exposures. A healthy body has adequate reserves of antibodies and sensitized white blood cells. Hopefully, these resources are not called upon too often.

body, mind, emotionsIn The Healing Self: A Revolutionary New Plan to Supercharge Your Immunity and Stay Well for Life, Drs. Deepak Chopra and Rudolph Tanzi provide eight strategies for maintaining a healthy immune system. They also call for an expanded definition of immunity that draws attention to the body-mind-emotion connection. They’re not alone.

The field of psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) studies how our mental and emotional states impact the immune system. For example, research demonstrates that protracted stress suppresses the immune response. Likewise, chronic conditions are worsened by stress, depression, and anxiety, and may be improved by positive feelings. As a case in point, physician, social activist, and comedian “Patch” Adams demonstrated that laughter promotes healing in clinical settings.

Not surprisingly, the strategies in Dr. Chopra and Tanzi’s book focus on establishing a healthy body, healthy mind, and healthy emotional life. It places responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the individual. You can’t pick and choose which strategies you apply if you want the best results. You can’t rely on medical doctors or prescription drugs to the work. Self-care demands conscious choice, day-in and day-out.

ONE: Get adequate rest. Adopt healthy sleep habits to ensure 7-8 hours of restorative sleep every night. Take time every day to be alone and quiet. Breathe deeply!

TWO: Pursue an anti-inflammation diet: Consider the Mediterranean Diet for its emphasis on whole organic produce (fruits and vegetables), legumes, whole grains, and cold water fish (e.g., salmon). Get plenty of fiber and eliminate excess sugar, salt, and fat. Get rid of stale foods.

THREE: Manage stress. Approach everyday challenges with a state of alertness while remaining centered. Be mindful of what you can fix, what you can tolerate, and what you should leave. Learn to bend. Take time to meditate or do yoga. Seek positive outlets. Spend time in nature. Cultivate a support network. (NOTE: The number and diversity of interpersonal networks promote a strong immune system!)

FOUR: Stimulate your mind. There’s no expiration date on our ability to generate new neurons and forge new neural networks. Knowledge builds synapses and adds to our memory warehouse. The bigger our mental reserves, the more time we’ll have in advanced age before naturally occurring losses become debilitating. So, take up challenging mental activities. Explore new interests. Solve interesting problems.

FIVE: Move. A sedentary lifestyle is a risk factor for disease and premature aging. Get ~150 minutes of moderate to intense aerobic training weekly with 2 or more weight training sessions. If working at a desk job, stand up and move around every hour. Use stairs. Spend time with physically active friends.

SIX: Establish health-promoting core beliefs. Beliefs turn into thoughts, words, and actions. Forwarding beliefs have the following characteristics: optimistic, flexible, tolerant, open to change, loving, kind, happiness-promoting, self-assuring, relationship-building. Use these beliefs to create a vision of your best life.

SEVEN: Minimize struggle. Adopt an allowing attitude. Approach situations without attachment or resistance. Seek harmony by setting the example, not controlling others. Act gracefully. Share responsibility. Accept life as a smooth, self-directed stream of events.

EIGHT: Evolve. Enjoy being a work-in-progress and set a goal to grow every day. Change your daily narrative for the better. Look for opportunities to be compassionate, generous, loving, and grateful. Catch negativity early. Get sticky emotions to move by walking, going outside, breathing, sighing. Resist the voice of fear. Develop a supportive inner dialog. Keep company with positive, optimistic, inspirational people.

Ayurveda: A Holistic Model of Health

“Ayurveda is not about adding years to your life, it’s about adding life to your years.”
– Deepak Chopra, MD

For thousands of years, medical practitioners in India have counseled their patients to make choices that bring forth well-being from the inside out. They’ve empowered people to take charge of their health through diet, lifestyle, seasonal and daily routines, herbal medicine, touch therapy, detoxification, energy work, and spiritual practice. Numerous Western physicians and health counsellors leverage this ancient wisdom in their practices.

balanced healthMichelle S. Fondin offers an introduction to Ayurvedic medicine in her book, The Wheel of Healing with Ayurveda: An Easy Guide to a Healthy Lifestyle. Her work centers on balance – i.e., a healthy integration of life purpose, body, spirit, emotions, memories, relationships, vocations, finances, and environment. If any one element is out of balance, all elements are out of balance.

Life Purpose: Our dharma (i.e., righteous duty or virtuous path) creates an inner drive that prompts us to live a full life. When living in harmony with our dharma, we feel a glowing sensation upon awakening and experience lightness in our bodies and live in harmony with the cosmos. We revel in the present moment doing what we’re meant to do while faithfully dispatching our duties and obligations. If we lack clarity on our purpose, we owe it to ourselves and others to launch the journey of discovery.

Physical Health: Ayurveda deems 95% of diseases preventable when individuals adhere to healthy diets, daily routines, and exercise programs. Eat freshly prepared, organic, locally grown produce and grains whenever possible. The fresher the ingredients, the more nutrients they offer. Eliminate processed foods, sugars, sweeteners, and unhealthy oils; minimize frozen and canned foods. Eat only when hungry in a calm and pleasant environment. Establish routines that allow for optimal rest and sleep. Combine 30 minutes of daily cardio exercise with strength and flexibility training.

Spiritual Health: Practice right action to facilitate a sense of wonder, connectedness, compassion, trust, surrender, gratitude, and flow. Establish a daily meditation practice to calm the mind, separate useful from useless thoughts, and promote a more peaceful and harmonious life. Meditation lowers blood pressure, normalizes heart rate, increases immune capacity, decreases stress hormones, and improves sleep.

Emotional Health: Toxic emotions give rise to diseased bodies. We must heal our emotional wounds to generate optimal health. Through a daily practice of meditation, we can learn to treat emotions like thoughts – a series of sensations that come and go. We recognize what we feel, take responsibility for our feelings, and choose what we do about them.

Healing the Past: Our experiences shape the people we become. We can choose the stories that we tell about our histories in such a way that they are empowering. Some of the questions that Ms. Fondin suggests we consider are:

  • What are these relationships (or situations) trying to teach me?
  • What do I need to learn about my patterns of behavior that I attract these individuals (or situations)?
  • What do I need to assert verbally or nonverbally to become stronger?
  • How do I step out of the victim role and into an empowered role?
  • Where am I “stuck,” and what do I need to do to get “un-stuck”?
    (Note: Doing energy work with the seven chakras can help.)

Relationship Health: Relationship starts with the self – with awareness, knowledge, love, and acceptance. As social beings, we are meant to be in relationship with others; we are not in balance without them. That being said, we need to focus on relationships that are mutually nourishing and minimize contact with those who carry negative energy.

Occupational Health: Do what you love, and love what you do. Re-write the narrative regarding work to make it more meaningful. If it does not reflect dharma (i.e., God-given purpose), then find ways to pursue dharma outside of paid employment.

Financial Health: Money problems create stress which releases stress hormones which manifests in health problems. Adjust your circumstances to live comfortably within your means, taking proper account of future needs. Establish a healthy relationship with money. (“You can have little money but feel rich, and an abundance and feel poor.”)

Environmental Health: Reduce your carbon footprint and live sustainably. Surround yourself with pleasing sights, smells, sounds, tastes, and tactile sensations.

Timeless Strategies for Creating Health

For the past quarter century, Dr. Deepak Chopra, MD has been one of the leading voices in alternative medicine. In addition to authoring numerous best-selling books, he offers professional training, coaching, retreats, and various products and services through the aegis of The Chopra Center.

For my latest foray into Dr. Chopra’s work, I read Creating Health: How To Wake Up the Body’s Intelligence. Its basic premise is that our bodies know what’s good for them. All we need do is cultivate the proper habits (and eliminate the wrong ones) to maximize our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being.

body, mind, heart, soulThe mind-body connection is a cornerstone of the alternative medicine movement. For every state of consciousness, there is a corresponding state of physiology. For example, happiness induces biochemical changes that usher in a host of beneficial effects on the body. By contrast, anger and hostility elevates heart rate and blood pressure, upsets the digestive track, brings on a cold sweat, and weakens immune function. Even the mere absence of a definitive life purpose can result in higher levels of fatigue.

Because our minds and bodies work together to create health, Dr. Chopra offers the following strategies to maximize well-being:

  1. Self-Awareness: That to which we pay attention grows. Focus on life-giving, other-centered goals. Maintain a serene inner emotional landscape that does not get pushed around by the crisis of the day. Let life be a partner in delivering on goals.
  2. Living in the Present: We cannot change the past nor control the future. In fact, if we fixate on something that we don’t want to happen, our attention may give it the power to happen. Rather, stay in the moment and allow the present to grow into its fullness.
  3. Ego Gratification: Find healthy ways to fulfill our basic human need for love, appreciation, praise, and meaning.
  4. Job Satisfaction: We all spend a large part of our lives at work. Those who find ways to grow and prosper – either in their paid employment or their off hours – tend to live longer, healthier lives. Mature individuals find creative solutions to make meaning of even routine work and direct their attention toward the positive aspects of their professional lives.
  5. Channeling the Unconscious Mind: Acquire good habits through repetition, guided by a positive frame of mind. The force of habit becomes a tidal wave on which the conscious mind surfs.
  6. Diet and Destiny: Respect the body’s intelligence by delivering the proper nutrients within a framework of gratitude. As Dr. Wayne Dyer says: “First, be a good animal.” Dr. Chopra promotes a predominantly vegetarian diet.
  7. Rhythms, Rest, and Activity: The body functions best when our cycles of activity and rest align with nature’s rhythms. Ideally, we’d rise with the sun and retire shortly after it sets. At a minimum, we should avoid exposure to stimuli prior to bedtime to allow for the onset of restful sleep.
  8. Having an Open Mind: Chopra tells us that intelligence is like water; it needs to keep flowing freely to stay pure.
  9. Wonder and Belief: All of life is open to adventure. Stay open to the possibilities and hold fast to a belief in what could yet be accomplished.
  10. The Way of Compassion: Express kindness to all living organisms. It restores and refreshes the giver as well as the receiver. Compassionate souls are among the healthiest and happiest people in the world.

“Once you feel that you are part of the whole, that you belong to the whole, and the world belongs to you, that very feeling makes you love, and that very love brings forth healing.”
– Swami Satchidananda

Dr. Chopra defines the “soul” as the thinker of thoughts which finds expression through the body and mind. Meditation can connect us to that ground of being. As he says:

“Meditation ushers in a silent self-awareness in which brain activity is fully coherent and effortlessly coordinated with the body to produce a flow of pure intelligence… It brings about the higher plane of consciousness and physiology. It coordinates body and mind to the utmost.”

How the Healthiest, Longest-Lived People Live

In 2009, National Geographic Fellow Dan Buettner published findings from his quest to find the world’s longest-lived, healthiest human beings and identify common threads that unite them. Dubbed the Blue Zones®, he found these exemplary communities in California (a Seventh Day Adventist community), Costa Rica, Greece, Sardinia, and Japan.

blue zone communities

In The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest, he shares nine secrets to their success:

  1. Sustained movement through acts of daily living – walking, preparing meals using whole foods, doing chores, gardening
  2. Purpose – a reason outside of work that makes life worth living
  3. Daily routines through which they relax and relieve stress
  4. Leisurely meals during which they eat to ~80% capacity (leaving ample room for digestion)
  5. One or two glasses of wine daily with good friends
  6. Primarily plant-based diets with small, intermittent servings of meat, poultry, and fish
  7. Social circles that encourage and reinforce their healthy behaviors
  8. Participation in faith-based communities
  9. Focus on family as witnessed by committed marriages, attentive parenting, care and concern for the elderly

Unlike the average American, these folks do not obsess over the latest health fad. They don’t count calories or worry about the optimal ratio of protein, carbohydrates, and fats. They simply live the way their parents and parents’ parents lived without the specter of heart disease, obesity, cancer, diabetes, and dementia looming in their advanced years.

In The Blue Zones Solution: Eating and Living Like the World’s Healthiest People, Buettner takes a closer look at food choices in the 5 communities. While the composition of their diets vary according to tradition and available raw materials, all 5 communities place little emphasis on fish, meat, poultry, and eggs. Here are their average daily intakes by food group:

CA CR GR IT JP
Vegetables 33% 14% 46% 12% 32%
Fruits 27% 9% 16% 1%
Legumes 12% 7% 11% 4% 16%
Grains, Rice, Pasta 7% 26% 6% 47% 23%
Fish, Meat, Poultry, Eggs 6% 7% 11% 5% 15%
Dairy (e.g., goat’s milk) 10% 24% 26% 8%
Oils 2% 2% 6% 2%
Sweets 1% 11% 4% 3%
Other 2% 6%

Based on his research, Buettner suggests the following practices:

  • Make your first meal of the day the largest, lunch the second largest, and dinner the smallest; add one light snack, as needed.
  • Cook at home using fresh, high quality ingredients (e.g., organic produce, free range poultry, grass fed meats).
  • Don’t eat while standing, driving, watching TV, reading, or using electronic devices. Rather, invite family and friends to dine with you.
  • Stop eating when you are 80% full. Either pre-plate the food, or eat slowly enough that the body can register its food consumption and signal when full.
  • Make meal time a celebration!

He also recommends food choices for longevity. Based on his experience and a confluence of nutritional research, 95% of the diet should come from a whole plant. Meat, poultry, and fish should make occasional appearances in small portions – i.e., servings roughly the size of a deck of cards. Eat at least one-half cup beans daily as they’re high in protein and fiber. Minimize dairy as we don’t digest it well (although fermented goat’s milk seems to be OK). Replace common bread with sourdough or whole wheat. Snack on nuts. Slash sugar.

Note: Blue Zones® is a registered trademark of Blue Zones, LLC. Blue Zones is dedicated to creating healthy communities across the United States. Visit their website at https://bluezones.com/.