Have you ever considered the definition of health? What does it actually mean? We throw the word around like play money during a game of Monopoly. The word means so many different things to so many different people that we started using wellness in conjunction to further define it. But why did we need to add another word to the confusion? Is being healthy synonymous with being thin? Is there such a thing as being too thin? (Yes) Is being healthy synonymous with only eating one type of food? Well, again I would question: is leaning towards the extreme of a spectrum ever really the goal? Allow me to offer a definition of health that might get overlooked, but I contend can really help our situation.
“A state of optimal physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease and infirmity” is how Dorland’s medical dictionary defined health in 1994. This definition offers a balanced approach to the idea of health and has within it concepts that can be measured and tested, thereby giving us the ability to answer the question, “Am I healthy?” This definition might be the outcome measure of health. Measurable goals when trying to achieve optimal health are essential, but I don’t think this definition addresses the root of health. I think that the list in this definition can be fulfilled and yet a person can still not have optimal health.
I submit that true optimal-health is firmly rooted in the body’s ability to adapt to its environment, both internal and external. Research has shown that the system that controls the body’s ability to adapt is the autonomic nervous system (ANS). This two part system is divided into the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) which controls, heart rate, blood pressure, sweat glands, and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which controls digestion, bowel movement, and liver function. (Please note these two lists are in no way exhaustive, but merely offer some examples) The distinction is important in this discussion because the activation of one decreases the activity of the other. The balance of these two systems gives the body the ability to maintain a healthy internal environment.
So the question then becomes how do the choices we make on the outside affect the internal environment, specifically the ANS? Allow me to illustrate. Caffeine stimulates the SNS, and according to the research, when the SNS is stimulated the PNS is inhibited neurologically. Therefore, someone who drinks gallons of coffee all-day everyday has now thrown their internal environment completely out of balance and out of optimal health. The important idea to understand here is that anything that interferes with autonomic balance will directly result in the loss of maximal health. Our culture lives in a constant state of the over active SNS – this is very dangerous.
Everything that we experience has a direct affect on homeostasis. What we eat, our daily movement, our sleep, and even how we think can have effects on our ability to adapt. Most of the negative effects on our ANS results in over activation of the sympathetic nervous system. Disease processes such as high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, stroke, diabetes, obesity and a long list of others have been linked to ANS imbalance.
These are serious health problems that our society deals with regularly. My questions are: “Are we focusing on the wrong target when treating these disease processes?” “Would it not be better to understand the root of the issue and prevent these diseases rather than waiting until they happen and trying to overcome a losing battle?”
There are actions that we can take to keep our autonomic balance thereby resulting in an increased ability and increased optimal health.
Allow me to offer some suggestions that you will find consistent in most of my posts. First, the primary step to homeostasis is sleep. The proper amount of sleep is grossly unstated in our high stimulated society. You should be sleeping when it’s dark and awake when it’s light. Second, eat a clean diet with mostly a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables and less clean meats. Avoid highly processed grains and cereals. These types of food are highly inflammatory and are a detriment to ANS balance (more on this in my next post). Third, get your exercise. Go for a walk, ride a bike, get your heart rate up everyday. All of this will lead to ANS balance and to those measurable goals set by the Dorland Medical Dictionary.
- Krassioukov AV, Weaver LC. Anatomy of the Autonomic Nervous System. Phys Med Rehab-State of the Art Reviews; 1996; 10(1):1-14
- Porges S. The polyvagal theory: new insights into the adaptive reactions of the autonomic nervous system.ClevelandClinical Journal of Medicine, April 2009; S86-S90
- Grassi G, Arenare F, Pieruzzi F, Brambilla G, Mancia G. Sympathetic activation in cardiovascular and renal disease. JN Ephrol. 2009; 22: 190-195