7 Steps to Creating Health Optimization and Becoming Your Own Health Advocate
Many of us believe health is created at the doctor’s office. When we consider the way our medical insurance premiums and benefits are structured, this idea seems reasonable. However, while the conventional medical field is very well trained at treating disease and acute care illnesses (which is important and must be utilized when necessary), it unfortunately is not the most effective at understanding underlying causes (ie: poor nutrition, stress, nutrient deficiencies, etc.) and improving health without the use of pharmaceuticals and surgery. This is one of the many reasons why a client seeks my services. Before starting to work with me — my clients suffer from symptoms that top experts have not been able to resolve.
Healthcare Starts in the Fridge
In our culture that places such trust in our medical system, it’s sometimes hard to believe that our refrigerator, community and mindset could play a larger role in creating long-term sustainable health outcomes than the average annual physical. One of the greatest investments that you can make is to take the time to learn how your body works, identify your unique nutrition and health needs that can increase your body’s capacity for healing, and conduct more in depth lab testing to understand your bio individuality. This is often a key step to decreasing the use of pharmaceutical treatments that are often driven by your lifestyle choices.
The lack of acknowledgment of health creation has led to the US government continuously spending more on healthcare and pharmaceutical drugs each year. In 2019, the US spent $3.8 trillion dollars on healthcare, of which $369.7 billion went to pharmaceuticals that attempt to conceal the inflammatory consequences of highly processed foods, poorly managed stress, industrialized farming practices and more. Healthcare expenses increase by approximately 5% each year but it’s difficult to understand the return on investment when it comes to health outcomes.
The Fish Bowl Analogy by Ryan Carter illustrates the idea that focusing on optimizing our environment is a critical part of truly optimizing health. If your goldfish is living in a dirty fish bowl with dirty water, there are two choices: medicate the fish or clean the tank. The US conventional medicine field thrives on option 1: medicate the fish. But no matter how many pharmaceuticals you take, you cannot see the best results until you clean out the fish bowl. It does not mean don’t take pharmaceuticals, it means clean your fish bowl first! Health creation is similar to cleaning your fish bowl. In our culture, it’s something that you, as your own personal health advocate, must do for yourself.
Here are my 7 tips for getting started on the path for using your refrigerator, community and mindset to develop the best possible health for yourself
1-Take Ownership of Your Health
Health starts within you. Pursuing your health and focusing on resilience is a choice that you have the blessing of making on a daily basis. You have the ability to come from a place of deep love and self-respect for your body to better understand how you, the owner, can take care of it. Becoming your own health advocate means being willing to make changes that can optimize your physiology, acting as a partner with your doctor rather than a top-down approach and understanding that you know more about your body than anyone else.
2-Start Using Food as a Vehicle to Create Health
As the writer Wendell Berry once famously said: “People are fed by the food industry, which pays no attention to health, and are treated by the health industry, which pays no attention to food.” The US conventional medical system as a whole dismisses the notion that nutrition and lifestyle choices play a key role in health creation. Medical schools in the United States provide an average of 19 hours of nutrition education to future doctors.
And yet a Harvard study published in 2019 PLOS Medicine found that poor diet was linked to $50 billion in US healthcare costs attributed to heart disease, stroke and diabetes. If you factor in the diet-related costs for autoimmune diseases, gastrointestinal diseases and more, this number would be much higher.
The food industry and diet industry want you to believe that food is just calories. This approach keeps you hooked on ultra processed foods and leaves you blaming yourself for having no willpower. The necessary shift is to start eating whole, real, minimally processed foods. When used appropriately, food can change your physiology. A growing body of scientific evidence shows optimal nutrition has the ability to modulate underlying inflammatory processes, feed healthy strains of bacteria in your gut microbiome, support your mitochondrial function, reverse disease, promote daily bowel movements, lessen anxiety, improve brain function, decrease joint pain and so much more
3-Listen to the Clues Your Body Sends You
Being a health advocate means thinking about how your food and lifestyle choices make you feel. Do you feel tired, bloated, anxious, brain fogged or inflamed after eating meals or sleeping poorly the night before? What foods or choices may be contributing to these feelings?
Dr. Mark Hyman explains that “symptoms are the body’s homeodynamic response to underlying functional imbalances. Symptoms are the body’s attempt to reestablish balance and restore function and health…answers to the questions of what are the root causes (toxins, allergens, stress, poor diet) and what is lacking for optimal function (food, nutrients, air, water, light, sleep, movement, connection, love, meaning, and purpose) guide both diagnosis and therapy.”
It’s hard to know the answer when you are not programmed to think about health in this way or when you have low grade underlying inflammation that makes it difficult to pinpoint one particular food that is driving your symptoms. If paying attention to your body does not come naturally, use my free Food Symptom Journal to help you learn to read the signals your body is constantly sending. This is a seven day fillable PDF that allows you to track your food, timing, symptoms, and lifestyle so that you can start to be a health detective and uncover any patterns.
4-Leverage Personalized Nutrition
Personalized nutrition is the idea that no diet is right for everyone. Biochemical individuality means that your body has its own complex blueprint, making your nutrient needs different from your spouse, sister and/or best friend. When it comes to specifics about your micro and macro nutrient needs, timing of meals, supplement needs and more, it will vary from person to person. You have so many complex systems working together including your genetics, microbes, immune cells, neurotransmitters, hormones and a lot of other variables that influence what you need to thrive. In other words, a fad diet that seems to have helped a colleague most likely will not deliver the same results for you.
5-Think About your Health Holistically
Nutrition is the cornerstone of your health but it is not everything. You cannot simply eat your way to better health if you do not address the need to optimize sleep, improve stress resilience, increase joy, move your body, surround yourself with a like minded health tribe and more. They are all connected.
Stress reduction is especially key! Poorly managed stress commonly disturbs homeostasis and can act as a neurotoxin, digestive disruptor, immune system suppressor, weight gain accelerator and blood sugar spiker. Most of my clients report that they are not stressed. But when we review their lab results such as cortisol levels and heart rate variability (HRV), we see a different story. This is why my Food Symptom Journal includes the ability to track your sleep, stress, hydration, movement, bowel movements and supplements. It allows you to think about your health holistically and identify patterns in how you are feeling.
6-Seek Additional Data Points
Historically, the most common tool used to measure nutrition success has been the scale. But the number on the scale is only one data point. This would be like trying to improve your finances and only looking at your income without exploring expenses, debt, taxes and more. When changing your lifestyle, consider other data points that can identify core clinical imbalances and patterns of dysfunction. These can include qualitative measurements like more energy, less pain, fewer cravings, less bloating. This also includes regular quantitative measurements such as blood pressure, cholesterol, NMR lipid profile, fasting glucose, fasting insulin, hs-CRP, heart rate variability, nutrient deficiencies, gut microbiome testing and more.
7-More Is Not Always Better
When people become interested in the field of health optimization, functional medicine and biohacking, it can lead to thinking that more intensity, tracking and effort is always better. This could not be further from the truth. When it comes to focusing on your health, there is a point of diminishing return. Swinging the pendulum too far can lead to disordered living, anxiety, obsession, depression, and orthorexia nervosa. Just because you are capable of being more rigid does not mean it’s in your best interest to do so. For example, when you see a benefit from 14 hours of intermittent fasting, that does not necessarily mean that progressively longer windows of intermittent fasting will be exponentially better. When you remove gluten and dairy from your diet and notice benefits, that does not necessarily mean that removing other foods will lead to better health results. When you lose weight from 2-3 days of intense exercise, that does not mean greater reward for 6-7 days per week.
Being your own health advocate means finding the middle ground that leads to the most health benefit without sacrificing your quality of life, mental health and relationships with others. It means loving yourself into change rather than white knuckling your way through the journey. It means accepting when you will benefit from medical intervention or prescription medications without feelings of shame or guilt.
It also means knowing that you will never be perfect because perfect does not exist.