“Wellness is ease, illness is dis-ease.” I first heard this phrase early in my medical training and it had a profound impact on me. I’ve often thought of my role as an integrative medicine doctor as one of bringing people back to a state of ease. For some patients, this bringing into balance has meant medications, but for nearly all patients, my wellness prescription has included these five fundamentals: Eat, Sleep, Move, Bond, and Chill.
Food isn’t just fuel, its information. Our cellular processing changes depending on what we eat. My guiding principle when it comes to food is to eat as close to the ground as possible- minimize boxed food and aim to consume food resembling its natural state. We can do this by shopping around the periphery of a grocery store. Visit each wall (that’s where the produce, grain, dairy and protein is kept) and avoid the middle aisles (the territory of processed, boxed food).
While what we eat is critically important to preventing dis-ease, how much we eat is just as vital. As Americans, our perception of portions isn’t very accurate. To recalibrate our built-in satiety center, I recommend practicing the ancient Japanese custom of Hara Hachi Bu. It literally means “stop eating when you’re 80% full.” I remember this expression as I take my first bite. It’s a good gauge to stop yourself from eating when you’re no longer hungry, rather than when you’re stuffed (there’s a difference!)
Sleep is restorative for nearly every organ in the body. It’s therapeutic in the truest sense (our immune system is most active at night while we sleep). Most adults need 7-9 hours of sleep per night. While there’s a lot of great information out there on sleep hygiene, the most helpful tip I’ve learned from my sleep doctor colleagues is to focus on what we do 2 hours before bedtime and limit this activity. (For many of us, it is spent in front of a TV, computer or smartphone.) Limiting our screen time could be the difference between a 10pm bedtime versus a midnight bedtime. This simple fix could considerably help our chronic state of sleep deprivation.
If we could bottle up the benefits of exercise, it would be one of the most potent drugs on the market. Exercise has benefits for heart disease, brain health, immunity, insomnia, depression, and has even been linked to longevity. So why doesn’t everyone do it? Motivation (or lack thereof) is a big reason. Even star athletes don’t always want to exercise. As one record-holding, marathoning patient once told me, “Exercise is like brushing your teeth. Do you ask yourself if you feel like brushing your teeth? No, you just do it.” I loved his matter-of-fact, non-negotiable approach to exercise. And he’s right. As Edward Stanley famously said in the 1800s, “Those who think they have no time for bodily exercise now, will sooner or later have to find time for illness.” While an exercise prescription of 150 minutes per week is ideal, any amount of exercise is better than 0 minutes.
Social connectedness isn’t something that’s often discussed in the medical context, but increasingly, we’re learning that your sense of belonging can have a profound impact on your health and well-being. In his book, The Blue Zones, Dan Buettner travelled to the world’s areas with the greatest concentration of centenarians (people over the age of 100). In all these societies, the common denominator predicting longevity was social connectedness. The power of social networks on our health has also been extensively studied in the US by researchers. In one recent study, social connectedness was found to be as vital for health as a good diet and adequate exercise. Conversely, the lack of social connectedness in the US has become so pronounced that it’s been dubbed a “loneliness epidemic.” Increasingly, we’re learning that social ties aren’t mere nice-to-haves, they’re vital, non-negotiable components to our health and well-being.
While spending time with others can be a huge boon for your health, so can time spent in quiet reflection. Mind-body activities like meditation, yoga, and tai chi reduce stress, which has been linked to everything from heart disease to the common cold. Studies also show that by engaging in a mind-body practice regularly, we improve our emotional regulation, and our sense of resiliency and optimism. And recent research has found that meditation, in particular, can alter our brain structure, and even our genes.
These five fundamentals- Eat, Sleep, Move, Bond and Chill– are the essence of good health in a nutshell. To live a life of ease rather than dis-ease, focus your efforts on these five essentials. And share your wins along the way with those invested in your success- your family, your doctor, and your friends… Because, as one ancient proverb wisely points out, “When the ‘I’ is replaced by ‘we,’ even illness can become wellness.”
Aditi Nerurkar is an integrative medicine physician, health correspondent, author & yogi. (This piece was originally published in The Patch in 2013.)