A few years ago, I went to the optometrist to have a regular check up. I needed new contacts because my old ones weren’t working too well. After my exam, the doctor asked “How long have you been wearing glasses?” I told him since my teens. His responsed with amazement. “You don’t need glasses at all, Dr. Winkelman. At your age, your eyes shouldn’t be improving they should be getting worse! What are you doing to get optimal health?” In fact, my follow-up recently showed not only had my eyes remained great but several cholesterol deposits that had been there were gone!
Optimal Health is something that almost everyone wishes to have. But what is it and how does one get there? In this article, I want to give my definition of optimal health and what impedes it. In a future article, I’ll go through how trauma plays a role in interfering with optimal health.
Optimal health represents a total balance and homeostasis in the body. How do you know things are right, though? If you don’t get sick, does that mean you’re healthy? Not necessarily. I’ve seen many patients who never were sick get serious illnesses later in life. Colds and flus give our body an opportunity to tune up our immune system and remove toxins. (More on that later.) Can we use tests? Blood tests only measure a moment in time. Most blood tests do not give us a long-term picture of what is happening in the body. Hair and urine tests can give us the long-term picture but can sometimes be misleading. For example, I’ve seen hair mineral analysis that shows the body has not mercury, but all the signs are there in other ways. Plus, you can’t run tests every week. It would be too expensive. So how can we self-evaluate to determine how we are doing?
What is Optimal Health?
I like to use a simple system called SEAMMS to measure how patients are doing. It’s not a complete examination or touches on every system in the body. But it’s a simple system for self-evaluation without the need of a physical examination, tests, or imaging. The first S stands for sleep. Sleep is a key component of optimal health. Good sleep requires 7-12 hours (depending upon one’s age), of deep sleep at night, preferably uninterrupted. If you struggle to fall asleep or stay asleep, you likely have an imbalance somewhere that requires some intervention. One of the best treatments for sleep is Cognitive-behavioral therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I.) There are definitely supplements and medications one can take to help sleep, but not all of them work for everyone. Melatonin, for example, is great to help one fall asleep but not stay asleep. (And most people take too high of a dosage.) Furthermore, some people don’t do well with hops, valerian, or other herbs that help with sleep. Knowing what to take is a topic that I need to save for another article.
Good sleep leads to the next factor, which is energy. One should be able to function throughout the day without brain fog, lethargy, or crashes. The occasional nap is fine. I should clarify that if one works out extremely hard, the day is hot, or something out of the ordinary. Many activities can sap energy, but baring any of those, you get through the day easily. If your energy is off though, there is likely something out of balance in the body.
Appetite, which includes digestion, is the next important aspect of optimal health. Studies from the Blue Zones show that people who live the longest tend to not overeat. They eat until they are around 80% full and stop. People in the blue zones eat all the colors of the rainbow, limit dairy and meat, and are mostly plant-based. Furthermore, good digestion means you are absorbing the nutrients you’ve taken in. (Chewing is an important factor.) Gas and bloating are not an issue. And you have well-formed and regular bowel movements. Constipation and diarrhea are rare.
Menses are regular in terms of length of cycle and the number of days bleeding. Cramping, headaches, premenstrual tension, and other symptoms are minimal though occur from time to time.
The musculoskeletal system is the next area that is important to look at. Do you wake with aches and pains? Or do you jump out of bed? Does doing the slightest bit of exercise hurt? If you’re in good shape, you can do things without consequences. Though I do recommend stretching before and after exercise. When I was younger, I had aches and pains every morning. But as I worked with my doctor on optimal health, that went away. Now when I get out of bed, it is rare that my body hurts at all.
The last S is a sense of wellbeing. This is harder to definite as it varies for everyone. But there’s a sense of minimal stress, feeling fulfilled, having purpose, and being part of a community. What intrigues me about the Blue Zone research is how social networks and spirituality are so important for longevity. It may be why the one-two drinks a day helps some people live longer. It’s not the alcohol, but rather the socialization that increases life span. As you’ll see in other articles, this may be the key link to chronic health problems.
What Impedes Health?
Now, having a sense of what optimal health is, how does one get there? In some ways, it is the easiest thing to do and in other ways, it is extremely challenging. Why? Optimal health is something the body naturally works towards. We have mechanisms in place that, when properly functioning, allow us to remove toxins from our system. Our bowels, liver, kidneys, lungs, and lymphatic systems all remove toxins from the body. What are some of those toxins? Some factors that can harm our health include nutrient depleted foods, air pollution, and toxic emotions. But sometimes the body gets overwhelmed and struggles to remove these things. Poor diet, lack of exercise, microbiome imbalance, and a lack of elimination can cause problems. That’s why these are some things naturopathic doctors emphasize in their practices. It is important to have the basics of proper health to encourage the body to heal, recharge, and eliminate toxins. Sleep, for example, is the time that our body removes many toxic components and melatonin may activate the enzymes that does this.
Much of the research is in cellular senescence, the phenomenon of the cessation of cell division. When stressed or damaged, cells stop dividing to allow for healing. For example, when we are cut, the cells around the wound stop dividing to staunch the injury. In a healthy organism, other cells come after the wound heals and removes them from the body. But when the stress or insult is chronic, the body doesn’t remove these cells. Senescent cells are called zombie cells in some of the literature. They produce hormones that attempt to turn other cells into zombies. What causes this chronicity? Inflammation!
In my next article, I’ll go into more detail about how inflammation reduction is critical for optimal health. But this give us a way to self-evaluate on a regular basis how we are doing towards that optimal health. Remember that optimal health is not something achieved and forgotten. It requires ongoing effort and vigiliance. If you want to work towards that goal, make an appointment with me to discuss.