Health, as many define it, is the absence of disease. Health is also commonly thought of as a prescription from a doctor or a yearly checkup. The truth is, health is all around us. Factors in our environment and daily lifestyle can either support health or undermine it. Unlike the obvious doctor’s visits, exercising, or eating healthy, these “hidden” factors are typically not at the forefront of the mind when we think of ways to support health. However, they can be some of the most impactful elements that drive short- and long-term health.
We all know what “healthy” looks like, in simple terms. Eating right, moving the body daily, avoiding smoking or drug use, or taking medications or supplements as prescribed by a healthcare provider. However, there are several somewhat elusive elements that can seem unrelated to physical health. Where we live, who we connect with, and what we do for work are just a few examples of factors that can have a direct impact on mental and physical health. A lot of times, these conditions are determined by what public health practitioners call “social determinants of health” or external, often uncontrollable, conditions that influence health. These are largely factors in which individuals are “born, grow, work, live, and age, and the wider set of forces and systems shaping the conditions of daily life.” This can put many at risk for exposure to a set of factors that may not support overall health.
In order to grasp a comprehensive and integrative perspective on what actually affects health, it is important to look past the obvious health-related behaviors like eating well, not smoking, and exercising. Our environment, our sense of social connection and our relationship to our careers can also impact overall health in substantial ways.
The physical environment that surrounds an individual can either support health or be a detriment to health. One obvious example is the environment where an individual lives or spends a majority of their time. Does an individual have access to clean air, nature, healthy food, and safe areas that promote physical activity? Another environmental factor that can affect health is the body’s direct exposure to harmful elements. The human body is constantly exposed to its surroundings and works to maintain a level of homeostasis that allows for proper functioning. The liver, kidneys, lungs, and lymphatic system are the primary supporters of detoxification that help rid the body of waste at a cellular level and cleanse the blood supply. Toxins in the air, water, plastic goods, food supply, personal products, and even chemicals on clothes can disrupt healthy cellular activity and lead to an overworked detoxification system. It is important to be aware of the potential for exposure to toxins and eliminate sources of toxicity where you can. Filter your water and air in your household, be conscious about plastic use and screen for chemicals in personal products that can negatively affect health, such as parabens and phthalates. Support the body by eating cruciferous vegetables, dry brushing, and sweating through physical activity or using a sauna.
Social Networks & Support
As a species, we are social animals. We require social interaction and community to thrive. In fact, it is a relatively new phenomenon in the history of humankind for families and generations to live in separate dwellings. Scientifically speaking, health has been shown to improve with consistent exposure to positive social support. Social relationships have been associated with lower risk of mortality: a 2019 review of studies indicates that “individuals with adequate social relationships have a 50% greater likelihood of survival compared to those with poor or insufficient social relationships.” Also, the social network in which an individual is positioned has a significant effect on health due to its influence on health-related behaviors such as smoking, physical activity and healthy food consumption. Recently, many experts have coined the phrase “loneliness is an epidemic” in reference to the isolation many individuals face and the impact this has on overall health. While it may not be intuitive that too much time alone can lead to negative health consequences, a lack of social interaction over the long-term has been shown to increase morbidity and mortality from cancer, cardiovascular disease, and can affect both endocrine and immune system functioning. Building and maintaining relationships and participating in positive social interaction daily can help support overall long-term heath, even if it’s not obvious in the moment.
In modern-day society in our country, work dominates most of an individual’s day. Most working adults spend upwards of 14 hours a day working, and many may need multiple jobs to make ends meet. The experience and time dedicated to making a living can impact health in profound ways. Work can either bring a sense of fulfillment and purpose or be a source of extreme stress (and sometimes, both can exist). The uncertainties in financial security alone can cause constant worry, which can have a lasting effect on mental health. Chronic stress, regardless of the cause, is associated with a host of health issues. Long-term exposure to the stress response system in the body can lead to an overexposure to cortisol and “increased risk for a variety of physical and mental health problems, including anxiety, depression, digestive issues, headaches, muscle tension and pain, heart disease, heart attack, high blood pressure, stroke, sleep problems, weight gain, and memory and concentration impairment.” Chronic stress can also lead to Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) Axis Dysfunction, previously known as adrenal fatigue. While the source of stress may not be easy to control, whether it is the work environment or home environment, there are tools to help manage stress daily that can help support the body’s natural healing processes. Meditation, breathwork, yoga, exercise and connecting with loved ones are just a few activities that can help reduce stress. Supplements and lifestyle factors can also help heal the body from HPA Axis dysfunction and other implications that come with overexposure to stress. Allowing time outside of work to pursue other passions can also help cultivate as larger sense of purpose and connection that can help the mind and body feel more balanced.
Health is more than fitness, exercise, and the occasional doctor’s appointment. Where we live, what we are exposed to, who we connect with, and how we are affected by our work life impacts health equally, if not more, than the obvious health-related behaviors. As a part of an integrative lens of care, Essential Health providers assess environmental, social and fulfillment factors alongside healthy behaviors in order to support a patient’s pathway to optimal health. Oftentimes, a prescription to connect, meditate, or reduce toxic load can be as significant in improving health as a pill or procedure.
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