Yes, the lifestyle you live impacts your health!
As dietitians, you may think that all we do is talk about food with our clients when in reality diet is just one piece of the puzzle in reaching optimal health and wellness. We find many clients make changes to their diet to support and nourish their bodies and still come to us not feeling their best. Often, this is because one’s lifestyle concerning work-life, family-life, stress levels, and general lifestyle practices have yet to be addressed. This post lays out our favorite (and, in our opinion, most effective and easy) ways to maximize your health and wellness (with an emphasis on gut health, hormones, and mood) through lifestyle practices.
Meditation is 100% worth your while… keep reading (I know, it may not be your favorite thing). I start most of my mornings off with meditation and have noticed profound shifts in my mood and stress levels, specifically surrounding the way I react to life’s stressors. There’s some pretty awesome science surrounding meditation as well.
Meditation may decrease cortisol, increase dopamine, increase DHEA (a hormone involved in the stress response by reducing inflammation), alternatively boosting mood, balancing hormones and even improving gut health.
A primary reason I recommend meditation to my clients is to help improve their GI symptoms. Our gut is sensitive and responds to emotion thanks to the gut-brain axis (the communication pathway between the gut and the brain). If you are feeling stressed out, your gut is too. Likely, you have experienced this in one way or another when you were super nervous or stressed out and found yourself making a b-line to the bathroom or felt a wave of nausea overtake you. To a lesser extreme, if you are feeling any emotion (think: anger, sadness, stress, or even happiness), your gut responds. For many, this manifests as sporadic bloating and changes in bowel movements. In contrast, when you are in a good mood (like on vacation), you may find your GI symptoms resolve or lessen. This is why we believe incorporating meditation as a primary mode of emotion and stress management can really help manage your GI symptoms.
My favorite (and non-negotiable) part of my day is moving my body. For me, there is no better feeling than being able to take a step back from whatever I am doing, tune the world out, break a sweat, and move my body (especially if it is outside!). Moving my body looks different day to day depending on what my body needs; sometimes, it is a long walk with my dogs, a run through Central Park, pilates at solid-core, or a ride on my peloton. People often think of exercising as a chore – when in reality they should think of it as a privilege and opportunity to feel good!
Moving your body has been associated with improved mood, energy, sleep, sex drive and is a key component in gut health and hormone balance. For instance, some research shows that people who exercise actually have more diverse gut microbiomes (which is what we all want!). Plus, generally, keeping active helps keep things moving (if you know what I mean), which is critical for a healthy gut.
Additionally, exercising may help balance hormones (think: cortisol, estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, serotonin). The best exercise to balance hormones depends on the person. However, I find most people tend to be burned out, and adding a HIIT workout on top of that can add fuel to the fire. Tune into your body to see what feels best – often, this looks like more gentle movement like pilates and strength-training with some cardio sprinkled in!
Sleep quality is SO important; I said it once, and I will say it again. Sleep quality is SO important. While sleeping, your body is busy detoxing, balancing hormones, boosting immunity and brain plasticity, among other critical functions. We know that people who sleep well have better weight management, mental health, brain health, fertility, productivity, as well as reduced disease and cancer risk, and even signs of aging.
Have you ever noticed after a poor night’s sleep that you wake up bloated and constipated, but when you get a great night’s sleep, you wake up, have a bowel movement, and feel ready to go? This scenario makes sense, given your body likely did not have enough time to rest and digest. Additionally, sleep deprivation may result in an imbalance of good and bad bacteria leading to gut dysbiosis and a host of unfavorable GI symptoms.
Sleep disturbances also negatively impact hormone health, likely resulting in increased cortisol and ghrelin (hunger hormone) and decreased leptin (satiety hormone), leaving you feeling on edge and ravenous throughout the day.
Other Lifestyle Practices and Tips
I would consider meditation (or other mindfulness practices), movement, and sleep to be the three pillars (aside from diet) of living a happy and healthy lifestyle. However, there are many other practices and tips that I have accumulated over the years that can also be very impactful in improving overall health and wellness.
- Schedule self-care in your calendar – This one has been a game-changer for me! Scheduling and literally blocking off the time in my calendar to go on a walk, meditate, take a bath, or put down my phone ensures that I make the time to take care of myself. It is so easy to tell ourselves we will step away and go for a quick walk (or whatever it may be), but let’s be real, things pop up. Blocking off the time in your calendar helps hold you accountable and gives you the time you need. Hint: This applies for scheduling in a morning and nighttime routine as well!
- Have a morning and nighttime routine – Our body craves routine. While we may not have much control over what happens during our day, the morning and night are the perfect time to have a routine in place that promotes a good mood, decreased stress, quality sleep, and therefore gut health and hormone balance well.
- Find a hobby/activity that makes you happy – So many of us are so caught up in work that by the end of the day or when the weekend comes, all we want to do is lay on the couch and binge-watch the latest Netflix show. While this does bring us happiness, it is important to find an activity or hobby that you look forward to doing. Bonus if it is without a screen!
- Setting boundaries in your work, personal life, and with yourself – This one can go a long way! Sitting down and evaluating what/who is bringing you joy and what/who is draining you and then setting boundaries in your life to ensure more joy and less negativity can do wonders for your mental and physical health.
- Focus on your mindset – At the end of the day, it comes down to mindset – especially when healing your body. If your mind is constantly thinking negative thoughts, it is likely going to have a very hard time healing – the truth is our body listens! Some clients that feel stuck and have lost hope in their body’s ability to heal fail to progress in their healing journey until they start believing they can. Some ways to improve your mindset include journaling, practicing gratitude, and saying affirmations.
- Get outside in nature – There are so many health benefits to getting outside. It can boost satisfaction, help us get some much needed Vitamin D, lower blood pressure, and improve our sleep just to name a few. Not to mention, sometimes you just need a little fresh air.
- Make time for friends and family – This can be so important to our healing journey, especially if they help bring you joy. Spending time with friends and family has been shown to improve mental health, boost self-confidence, improve resilience (or response to stress), and enhance physical health.
- Give acupuncture or a chiropractor a try – These practices stimulate and “reset” the central nervous system which may help in a variety of GI conditions, improve emotional well-being and even balance hormones.
The Bottom Line
Healing and health, in general, takes a holistic approach in that one’s diet, lifestyle, physical, mental, and emotional self must be addressed. We get it; living this lifestyle and incorporating these practices may seem overwhelming, time-consuming, and just not doable. However, once you add one in and notice how good your body starts to feel, you will be tempted to layer more in and be excited to engage in these activities daily.
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Written by Alison Richman MS, RDN