Dr. Erica Volk is a licensed naturopathic doctor with the British Columbia Naturopathic Association (BCNA) and the Canadian Association of Naturopathic Doctors (CAND).
In this article she discusses about the 7 Pillars of a Healthy Life which serves as an overview of some of the things that she do with people in her practice.
What is a healthy life?
We see a lot of people on social media who post about weight loss. There is a huge emphasis on weight loss and people posting before and after pictures. There’s no doubt that it is really important and we want to have a healthy weight, but there are certainly plenty of other aspects to health that are more important than weight itself.
What are the seven pillars of health aside from healthy weight? Some of the things that we will be discussing are food and nutrition, sleep and rest, the importance of play and having fun, a healthy mindset and positive attitude, a sense of connection, our environment, and movement.
1. Food and Nutrition
As naturopathic doctor people come to see me because they don't know what to eat. There is conflicting information regarding nutrition and people are lost and often confused. Generally speaking, to have a healthy life, we need to have met certain food groups. Those are vegetable and fruits, healthy fats, whole grains, proteins. People aren’t sure exactly which diet is best for them because there's plenty of diets out there – Paleo Diet, Ketogenic Diet, Vegan diet. Remember, we have certain requirements in each of these food groups in order to be healthy. Protein is an important food group that we have certain daily requirement for intake. People who are vegetarian or vegan may have trouble meeting those protein requirements so it is helpful to know what your body weight is and what your actual requirements are. Oftentimes, when we break it down and actually look at what we’re eating and ask ourselves if we’re getting our requirements met, we find that we’re actually not meeting our body’s nutritional requirements. Especially if you’re vegan or vegetarian, we need to increase our sources of protein intake.
Whole grain, on the other hand, is a nutritional category but does everyone require greens? The answer is No. In fact, many people actually struggle with greens. They can cause trouble in our G.I. tract (Gastrointestinal Tract). Greens are part of the carbohydrate family and carbohydrates are important as we also need them in our diet, but how many carbs versus proteins and fats are needed? It varies from person to person and with our health goals and our ability to digest certain nutrients.
2. Sleep and Rest
Sleep and rest is another really important pillar for health. Many of us sleep at night but the question is, what is the quality of our sleep and what is the quality of our rest during the day? There is a difference between sleeping and restorative rest. This is something that if we’re not getting quality sleep or restorative rest during the day, that can really affect our health in major ways. Maybe we are getting 10 hours of sleep at night but maybe it’s not the best quality sleep, so how can we know?
Good Signs of Quality Sleep:
- Waking up in the morning and feeling refreshed
We are bouncing out of bed, ready to go and start our day. If this doesn’t sound like you then it might be the case that there are some room of improvement with your sleep.
- Quality of sleep improves our cognitive function, our energy, our mood, our ability to heal and repair damage tissues.
Our body breaks and rebuild tissue. That is simply part of our natural physiology. Whether we’re doing that well or not could vary depending on the quality of our sleep.
Signs of Poor Sleep Quality:
- Waking up tired or needing to take naps during the day.
This is a sign that your sleep quality maybe isn't as restorative as it could be.
- Snoring or waking with a dry throat.
People who snore at night often can have lower level of oxygenation during the night which can lead to fatigue and difficulty with mental focus.
- Tossing and turning through the night.
A lot of people wake up every 30 minutes or so to turn their pillow.
- Waking frequently to use the bathroom in the night.
A lot of us also constantly go through the day without taking the time off ourselves. We need to remember that we should also be taking a rest even in our waking hours. Taking a time out from our work, taking that lunch break, taking that 15 minutes to just take a moment and breathe. These are really conducive to help our health as well.
3. Play and Fun
We have busy lives, we got our families, we have our jobs that keep us very busy. It’s really important to prioritize some space to have some fun and play. Find ways to incorporate play and fun into your life. Picking up a new hobby, or spending time with a friend whom you really enjoy spending time with, these are really important things that you can do for your health. There was this one study where they looked at unemployed people and they found out that just having a structured leisure activities increase mental health because it help people to perceive that they are spending their time more effectively. Having a sense that there’s been a structured time in a day that we did something productive improves our mental health.
4. Healthy Mindset and Positive Attitude
We know that having a positive mindset has mental health benefits versus having a negative outlook on life. There are lots of studies that show that positive mindset makes us less vulnerable to mental disorders. Looking on the bright side of life makes us less at risk to having depression or anxiety. Optimism, in studies, has also shown that it improves our coping strategies. When we are dealing with the stresses in our everyday life, we are able to cope better if we have a positive outlook. Optimism also promotes healthy lifestyle. When we are in a positive state of mind, we tend to want to take care of our bodies and our mental wellbeing, which naturally leads to better health outcome. We also tend to have greater flexibility and better problem solving capacities.
5. Sense of Connection
Connection or Social Connection is really important. There are plenty of studies that show being lonely or isolated lead to increase cardiovascular disease or depression. We certainly want to always work to keep our social networks alive and well. Social network can be anything from having one friend whom we value and spend time with; it can be a part of our church group, or having close connections with our family. Volunteer organizations are also another great way for us to be connected with other people. A lot of people who are lonely or isolated just get involved in something in a volunteer capacity and this can already do amazing benefits for your health. We can also have social connection in your workplace.
What is the benefit of having a pet?
There are a lot of research studies on how having a pet can increase health outcomes.
- Having a pet increases our physical activity.
- Having a pet also shown in research help decrease depression, anxiety, and it reduces our sense of social isolation.
- Owning a pet increases our oxytocin level. Oxytocin is the love hormones. Oxytocin in higher levels give us a sense of bonding and connection which is conducive to good feeling, good vibes.
- Having a pet tends to lower our cortisol level. Cortisols are stress hormones. When we are chronically stressed, we have a high level of cortisol and having a pet lowers our cortisol levels.
- Having a pet has also been associated with higher levels of Alpha-amylase. Alpha-amylase is a pancreatic enzyme that helps in breaking down starches. When we think about the increase rate of diabetes, getting a higher rate of Alpha-amylase by just having a pet helps in breaking down our sugars better.
6. Healthy Environment
Healthy environment means healthy water, healthy products on our bodies, healthy air quality and exposures. Some of the issues that we run up against in terms of our environment are poor quality water or not drinking enough water. There are a lot of reasons why water is not as pure. Many people opt for water purification systems in their homes and there are plenty of chemicals and agents added to water that we may want to avoid.
If you will also look into the cosmetics industry, there are a lot of chemicals that are unregulated, meaning that we don’t have any safety data on those chemicals and we’re using them in our cosmetics products all the time. When we put a product on our skin, it’s absorbed through the skin and becomes a part of us, just as if we are taking them orally. We should be mindful of the products that we are using and demand those companies to only use safe chemicals.
Air quality is also a very important factor for our healthy life. Cleaning products in our homes like laundry or dish detergents, air fresheners and the like also contain harmful
chemicals. Chemicals and pollutants in the external environment obviously will be problematic in our health. A lot of us also have seasonal allergies to environmental dust or smoke and these are also considered aspects of air quality that can affect our health.
Mold is a big problem to a lot of people. If you have that musty mildewy smell in your home or if you have known any water damage in your home, you may have a mold issue. Mold is a very serious problem because it puts out spores and if we breathe in those spores, we get all kinds of health trouble. In fact mold is a risk factor of cancer development if not properly dealt with.
Movement means adequate cardiovascular exercise, strengthening exercises and stretching. Why do we care about movement? Most especially with our aging population, our number one goal is to prevent falls and fractures. Those are two of the biggest issues of our aging population. Falling is a major setback for people because once they got a broken hip, a broken part of the spinal column, or even a broken knee, one can already start having health complications as a result. How we prevent those from happening is by keeping people strong, flexible, moving around, lots of core strength, and keeping a healthy balance. These are the things to work on if you are the person who is getting older in years. You may start working on balance and core strengthening in particular.