Sarah’s Rap: This is the third part in my series on what I feel are contributing causes behind the high numbers of disease and illness which so many Americans, and others around the world, are suffering from. If you missed them, check out my first two posts on the Standard American Diet and the “disabling” U.S. healthcare system. It likely will not come as a surprise that unhealthy lifestyle choices are also key factors to the prevalence of disease, but sometimes what constitutes “unhealthy” may be less obvious.
I’m no saint myself when it comes to some of my own habits. In fact, I know that several are contributing factors to my own health issues in recent years. But if I don’t acknowledge the destructive behaviors and their negative impacts, I won’t continue to make (and keep) the changes necessary to get to a healthier me. I’m hoping this post can help you to do the same and take the right step towards better health.
Unhealthy lifestyle choices can have a huge negative impact on both physical and mental health. These items can contribute greatly to obesity, depression, gut imbalances, heart disease and more. As I’ve already discussed the health impact of poor dietary choices in the SAD post, I won’t go into specific foods here, but rather habits and behaviors that contribute to the rise and prevalence of disease. Here are some such lifestyle choices that can make people ill:
- Drug use
- High alcohol consumption
- Poor sleep patterns
- Lack of exercise
- No downtime
- Overly large meals
- Over-snacking (constant grazing)
- Eating too fast or on-the-go
- Too much stress
- Lack of stress management techniques
- High exposure to stressful media, social media, people or situations
- Constant worrying
- Unhealthy relationships
Depending on the person, some of these habits can be easier to curb than others. Firstly, it is because any habit is ingrained in our psyche. That’s what makes it a habit. It’s something we just do, often without thinking about because it’s been a part of our lifestyle, likely for awhile. Some of these habits are truly addictive (smoking, drugs, alcohol), while others can just be really difficult holes to dig ourselves out of (being always on the go, not sleeping well, negativity, stress).
But each and every one of these can have very severe impacts on our health. Some can lead to illness on their own, others build up to create a toxic environment for our bodies and minds. I don’t think I need to expound on why smoking, drugs and too much alcohol are bad for our health, but I will dive a bit into the others.
Poor sleep patterns
Don’t underestimate the importance of a good night sleep. While we slumber, there are many important activities going on without our even realizing it – cell repair and growth, cleansing of toxic byproducts in our brain, drop in heart rate and blood pressure and balancing of hunger-regulating hormones (1). In addition, our fight-or-flight mechanism shuts off, enabling your rest-and-digest system to kick in.
If you are sleep deprived, some of the effects on your health according to Healthline.com (2) can include:
- trouble with focus and thinking
- lack of coordination, increasing chance of injury
- weakened immunity
- increased risk of heart disease
- high blood pressure
- weight gain
- increased risk of diabetes
- reduced sex drive
- increased risk of early death by an estimate 12%
- suicidal thoughts
If you have trouble getting to sleep or wake with a rapid heartbeat, get checked out for adrenal, hormonal, thyroid or parasitic problems, all of which can cause these conditions, in addition to other conditions. This was something I struggled with and overcome with adrenal support, proper nutrition, reduction in caffeine during the day, supplementation, regular routine and low light, calming activities before bedtime.
Other good resources to check out are:
We’ve all heard of the placebo effect and how just the thought that you’re taking something that will heal you CAN have a positive affect on one’s health. This and other studies, have shown that negativity can have the inverse effect – it can make you sicker. In Mind Over Medicine by Lissa Rankin, she talks about how negativity puts your body into a flight-of-fight response and can lead to increased illness, and another study on longevity revealed that those who lived the longest were those who believed they would (3). I find this topic fascinating and definitely believe this.
My earlier post on The Loving Diet is along the same line – adopt an attitude of acceptance and positive thinking for better health. This includes your attitude for other things too, not just your health. If a person is negative and grumpy all day, their health may suffer as a result.
Tips for improving a negative attitude include:
- practicing gratitude
- daily affirmations
- surround yourself with happy, positive people
- reframe a situation with a positive spin – look for the silver lining
- exercise daily
- get enough sleep
- address food sensitivities and other health issues (parasites, hormonal imbalances, etc)
You might think this last one is odd on this list, but I will tell you that I have severe problems with irritability, anxiety and depression when I am eating things that I am intolerant to due to my Leaky Gut or suffering from SIBO, candidate and/or parasite flare-ups.
Poor eating habits
In addition to consuming too much of a Standard-American Diet, eating overly large meals, constantly grazing, eating too fast and eating on-the-go all can contribute to the onset and advancement of disease, obesity, and more. This is definitely where I struggle the most. I can eat well all day, but then I get out of work and I want to snack, have a large dinner, then snack some more. This makes me feel terrible, not want to workout and makes it difficult for me to lose weight. Did you know that sumo wrestlers gain weight by eating a large lunch and dinner and sleeping after each meal to slow down their metabolism and let the calories work their magic on their waistline? It’s no wonder that we non-sumo humans also gain weight when we follow similar eating patterns. We may not eat as much as a sumo wrestler, but when we have a large dinner, pack on some late night snacks and then go to bed, we put ourselves at greater risk for weight gain and higher blood sugar levels (and all the health issues they bring).
According to this article in The Washington Post, “Studies tend to show that when food is consumed late at night — anywhere from after dinner to outside a person’s typical sleep/wake cycle — the body is more likely to store those calories as fat and gain weight rather than burn it as energy, says Kelly Allison of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine’s Center for Weight and Eating Disorders.”
Similarly, not spacing meals apart makes it difficult for our bodies to digest the food we ate previously and doesn’t allow time for our migrating motor complex to clean out the intestines properly. This can lead to bacterial overgrowth, weight gain and other health issues.
Some tips for addressing these habits include:
- Replace late night snacking habit with something else – a walk, a game of Mario Kart with the kids, reading a book, workout video, or pretty much anything that’s not on this list of unhealthy lifestyle behaviors. Distraction is key here I’ve found!
- Pay attention to when you are most prone to go to “snacktown”. Is it when you’re tired? Stressed? Browsing the internet? Watching TV? Whatever it is, you may need to change those behaviors to break the snacking pattern that goes with it
- Look into intermittent fasting as a way to space meals. It is important to work with a doctor (ideally a knowledgeable functional medicine or naturopathic doc) to ensure that you space meals safely for your conditions
- Avoid eating after dinner
- Eat slower to let food reach your stomach
- Stop when satisfied, but not full
- Take a 5 minute break once you are satisfied, including standing up and walking around (good time for a bathroom break maybe). I find that once I stand up a bit and move away from the plate for a bit, I don’t want anything more when I get back.
- Eat off a smaller plate to reduce portion size or use a system like Beachbody, Weight Watchers or other program that helps you to properly portion your food for your weight and weight loss or maintenance goals
- Keep a food log
- Don’t keep trigger foods in the house
- Get checked out for and treat bacterial, parasitic and/or candida overgrowth, blood sugar imbalances, adrenal issues, thyroid problems, food sensitivities and other conditions that can cause excessive food cravings
Stress, worrying, negative media/social-media, unhealthy relationships and lack of downtime
These things all fall into a related category – mental and emotional stressors that lead to physical stress responses. We all know the negative effects that stress can have on our health. Did you know that excessive worrying and non-stop activity are other forms of stress? As well as high exposure to stressful media, social media, people or situations? Well, your body’s response to these scenarios is the same as if you have a stressful situation at work or home.
If we are constantly on the go, worrying, stressed or surrounded by negative vibes, our body’s sympathetic (fight-or-flight) system is activated and our parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) system is turned off. In this state, we produce too much of the stress hormone, cortisol, leading to adrenal fatigue and other diseases. For more on these parts of the autonomic response system, this is a good post.
Often we feel that controlling our stress levels is out of our hands and a pure result of the environment in which we live. This is partially true, but there are many things we can do to help reduce the stress in our lives as well as our response to it. The negative impact of stress on our health is a key contributing factor to most diseases.
According to the Mayo Clinic, “The long-term activation of the stress-response system — and the subsequent overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones — can disrupt almost all your body’s processes. This puts you at increased risk of numerous health problems, including:
- Digestive problems
- Heart disease
- Sleep problems
- Weight gain
- Memory and concentration impairment” (4)
We’ll never be able to have a life without stress. It can come at us from so many angles and in so many ways. Even pleasurable activities can sometimes seem stressful if we have too many of them. It is very important to reduce the amount of things we do in a day and plan time for ourselves. It’s also vital to ensure that the way we react to stressful circumstances is in such a way that we acknowledge it and then let it go. Some of the below techniques can help with this.
There are many stress reduction techniques out there, but here are a few:
- progressive relaxation
- pet therapy
- learning to say no
- tai chi
- take a class on mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR)
- reducing your obligations
- go easy on yourself
- and other forms of self-care
So what’s a person to do?
This is all a bit overwhelming, I know. I struggle daily with some of these. None of us are perfect. But I do know, I need to change my unhealthy behaviors if I hope to ever heal my gut.
If you have any of the above unhealthy lifestyle habits or behaviors, take a step back and ask yourself if those negative habits are worth making yourself sick over. If you’re ready to get started on a healthier lifestyle, see the steps above in italics for ideas and check out our Healthy Habits post to try to get on a better track!
Personally, I’ve found progressive relaxation, yoga and meditation essential to my healing program, along with working with a natural healthcare provider to heal my Leaky Gut, identify food intolerances and eliminating parasitic, fungal and bacterial infections. In addition, I work hard to avoid depressive/stressful situations, including negative people, unhealthy relationships, sensational media reports and incessant worrying, while at the same time embracing positivity. These have been crucial to reducing the barrage of negative emotions and influences in my life. I also work to get out and walk as much as possible and plan fun activities into my week! Finally, I am very strict with my bedtime routine – striving for at least 7 hours sleep, avoiding TV and social media at least an hour before and laying in my dark bedroom with a a digital book (using a black screen and dim lighting) about 30 minutes before I want to go to sleep. Now if only I can get a handle on my snacking, portion control and late-night food binges!
Would love to hear from you on what works and what your daily lifestyle struggles are. Let’s help to motivate each other! I do so much better when I have to be accountable to others and I have others to gain strength from, and maybe you do to.
Cheers to making healthy lifestyle changes!