When Biology Fails: Coping With Health Setbacks

Of all the books I’ve read on nutrition, Healthy at 100 by John Robbins was the one that really brought it all together.  This book is about how to extend your lifespan at any age by adopting a lifestyle that encompasses lots of movement, social ties, mental stimulation, and a healthy diet (lower in calories, saturated fats, dairy, and animal based protein and higher in fresh vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, and whole grains).  You can find more details on this amazing book in prior post Aging Joyfully: A Lesson from the Oldsters.

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You may have heard the phrase, genetics load the gun, lifestyle pulls the trigger and I think it’s easy to feel by adopting a healthy lifestyle we are immune to illness or things going awry with our health.  If I eat well and exercise diligently, my heart will be protected and I won’t have to worry about Type II Diabetes.  By meditating, I can relieve stress, anxiety, and depression and keep my mind sharp.  By maintaining social ties strong, I will enhance my sense of community and feel supported.

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It can be extremely hard to reconcile when something goes wrong even though great strides are being made to ensure that health is being maintained.  I was having a discussion about this very topic with a close friend and she had some wise words on the matter and she stated that “we are human beings, vulnerable to all the mysterious forces out there…that’s all….we can eat right, be fit, but we cannot control the many things about our anatomy and biology that confront us with.”  In that sense, our biology and anatomy can seem a little abstract.

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So, how do we bounce back from either short or longterm health setbacks?  In Healthy at 100, Robbins describes this despair many feel when faced with such a situation and reflects upon a letter he received from a woman who became sick despite following a healthy diet and lifestyle.  Robbins responded to his reader and said:

“I hope in time she would be able to see that it is possible to make healthy choices, not in the belief that by doing so she would never be ill or die, but because she knows that suffering occurs in every human life, and she wants to prevent as much illness as she can and alleviate as much suffering as she is able”.

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When faced with a health set back, it may be useful to consider productive coping mechanisms. Coping is best defined as “what people do to alleviate the hurt, stress or suffering caused by a negative situation or event”.  There are a few coping mechanisms that are thought to be healthy such as; mindfulness/cognitive techniques, exercise, and dietary practices.

Stress Reaction

In mindfulness, the idea is to try to stay in the present moment which helps prevent ruminating over the past and worrying about the future.  Mindfulness is practiced through breathing exercises, body scans, yoga, and sitting meditations.  The idea is to allow thoughts to pass without judgement through our mind.  Instead of attaching value to thoughts, we just let them pass.  The topic of mindfulness is quite expansive, but a great place to start is with a book called “Full Catastrophe Living” by Jon Kabat-Zinn who brought this technique into the mainstream.  Kabat-Zinn explores the idea that mindfulness can allow one to avoid a typical stress reaction and adopt a less harmful, stress response.  In the diagram above, you can see that the implications of reacting to stress, such is the case when dealing with illness, can in of itself cause health problem.  For some free online mindfulness exercises, check out this site from UCLA.

CBT Model

In cognitive behaviour therapy, the model outlines that thoughts, mood, behaviours, and physical reactions are all connected within the scope of our current environment.  By challenging distorted or unrealistic thoughts, we can improve our mood, behaviour, and physical health.  A great book on this topic is called “Mind Over Mood” by Dennis Greenberger and Christine Padesky.  This site has a complete toolkit if you want more information on CBT.

Exercise

Depending on what your health setback is, you may or may not be able to exercise.  If you’re able to even walk, this is probably going to help you feel better from a mental standpoint.  excercise causes endorphins and neurotransmitters that makes us feel happy to be released and simultaneously boosts the immune system.  It’s a great way to release energy and get your mind off your stressors, including illness and disease.  Workout out 2-3 times per week for at least 35 minutes at 60% of your max heart rate seems to offer the most immediate benefits.  Check with your doctor to see what type and intensity of activity is safe for you.

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And finally, when you’re dealing with an illness or healing from a health related event, it’s crucial to give your body the fuel it needs for recovery.  Making sure you eat a balanced diet with lots of fruits and veggies, lean quality protein, and slow releasing carbohydrates is key.  One specific nutrient you want to look for at healing agents including Omega-3 (fish, flax seeds) which is very anti-inflammatory.  You’ll also want to load up on methyl donors which essentially help our body balance stress.  These include B Vitamins (folate, B6, and B12 especially which are found in large amounts in green leafy veggies), SAMe (must be taken in supplement form), and DHEA (also comes in supplement form only.  Check with your medical professional before taking any supplements to ensure their safety.

THE DAILY DL (Dalai Lama)

“Healing is a matter of time, but it is sometimes also a matter of opportunity.”
– Hippocrates
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