‘If we could give every individual the right amount of nourishment and exercise, not too little and not too much, we would have the safest way to health’ Hippocrates.
These are some of the wisest words ever spoken as a guiding philosophy for health. This week I have been reflecting on movement in particular as I have been travelling and I always find that when I’m travelling the step count goes up without thinking about it. This is especially so in London when just jumping from tube to tube and walking those long distances between the various underground lines, often up and down stairs, you find yourself getting quite a workout.
On Saturday after travelling to Oxford circus then walking to the conference centre, then on to Covent Garden to meet my daughter, then back to the hotel in Canary Wharf, back to Covent Garden for the theatre and back to the hotel, my step count was 17000 in the blink of an eye! I had spent a significant amount of time that day on my bottom attending lectures and also at the theatre in the evening but I had also spent a significant amount of time moving my body, much more than I normally do. All of this got me thinking about movement and how we really need to consciously plan to move every day and build a lifestyle that involves movement.
Our ancestors didn’t have to think about moving as moving was a default position in a lifestyle that involved hunting for food and foraging. Nowadays we can see the stark contrast with that as we don’t even need to leave our homes for food with online shopping becoming the norm, a situation that has only worsened since lockdown and has led to the closure of many businesses. Something else we noticed during lockdown was an increase in weight, mental health challenges and an exacerbation of chronic health across the board.
The interesting thing about inactivity is that everything gets worse when we don’t move our bodies. This is because inactivity leads to insulin resistance, loss of muscle mass, our stress hormones become dysregulated, our immune system becomes depressed. In fact our risk factors for everything from heart disease, cancer, diabetes, fatty liver, dementia and osteoporosis all soar. This mismatch between our genes and our biology and the current lifestyle and environmental factors which are washing over those genes is a cocktail for disaster.
So what do we do? Well, the answer to that realistically involves making choices around movement which we can build into our day with ease. For me, my favourite forms of exercise are walking and dancing. They’re also free and very freeing as walking is a great way to calm the mind and be at one with nature while dancing brings us into contact with our own souls and we can select the music to fit the mood and lose ourselves while at the same time boosting our neurotransmitters. Did you know that exercise boosts our dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine levels ultimately making us feel mentally uplifted? If you think about people in your family or friendship circles who have lived long and well, even sometimes despite some health challenges, they are always people who are active. I had a relative who was walking daily, attending keep fit classes several times a week and loved a family party so she could get on the dance floor well into her eighties! I have another friend who still works full time at 86 years old and can walk 5 miles daily at a pace which would challenge me!
The next question which is the key one is when do we exercise? A dear old friend of mine always says, ‘fail to plan, plan to fail’. For me, I like to walk at night after my meal as I know that walking after a meal will boost my insulin sensitivity, helping to keep my blood glucose stable. It will also calm those stress hormones and will help me sleep better. It’s a routine which I can easily keep (weather permitting!) It also allows me to catch up with a podcast but sometimes I just like to listen to the sounds of nature. Did you know that listening to birdsong can activate our parasympathetic nervous system? This extraordinary fact is also why when we go for a walk in nature even when we don’t necessarily feel like it we always feel better. Equally if you are feeling low in energy, just sitting on a seat outside or taking a drive somewhere and simply opening the windows can be so restorative. I often recommend this simple but powerful life hack to clients who are feeling very low in energy and don’t know where to start when it comes to movement. But just getting outside can literally be the first step as taking deep breaths and feeling the sun on your skin or the wind in your hair can bring instant healing.
Dancing can be done literally any time, any place, anywhere. Music is so accessible and you could play a couple of songs in your lunch break or follow an exercise routine or yoga session on youtube. It’s good to have some rainy day options but the real key to success is back to the planning. When are you going to exercise? My own plan means altering my work schedule a little so I can exercise more and also so that I can consciously bring in more movement between clients since my job is sedentary. I have already started doing this as I’m so aware that I am sitting in my chair literally inflammaging! That’s a great word isn’t it? But ageing in our world is very much related to inflammation and that arises from the food choices we make to how we manage stress and how we move our bodies . I’m pretty good at the food side as I know that food is either inflammatory or anti-inflammatory and as my hubby does a lot of the cooking, I’m very blessed as I know I’m going to eat a home cooked meal with whole fresh ingredients. I’m also better at the stress side although that one is always a work in progress as we never know what life has in store for us. But what I do know is that my morning routine includes a meditation practice and I never budge from that. I also include meditation at lunchtime and have a 20 minute practice which has been a game changer for me over the last 6 months. I have occasionally fallen asleep for a few minutes doing it which has done me the power of good and then gone back to work. But exercise is the one I feel I need to work on the most on with some simple but strategic moves. I have to say I find it so much easier in the summer when the weather is warmer!
It’s well known that exercise, especially weight bearing exercise is key to prevention of osteoporosis. But managing those stress hormones is also key to prevention and the beauty of exercise is that it’s great at doing both! Something else exercise does is boost something called BDNF or brain derived neurotrophic factor. In Nutritional psychiatry BDNF is being talked about more and more as low levels of BDNF is associated with a range of psychiatric and neurological conditions from depression and schizophrenia to parkinsons, MND and dementia. Exercise boosts BDNF significantly so once again we really need to find as many ways as possible to increase movement. So next time you plan to meet a friend for coffee, how about meeting for a walk instead!? Better yet make that a regular part of your exercise programme even if it means by phone.
''A walk in nature walks the soul back home.' Mary Davis
So for my second blog reflecting on the ageing process, I’m jumping straight in with both feet to the world of functional medicine. When I turned 50, my mantra was ‘50 is the new 21’ and just as well since I graduated at 51 as a clinically trained Nutritional Therapist! But the interesting thing about functional medicine is that it doesn’t matter when you start as straight away you embark on an eye opening journey into the real subject of health. From then on there is no turning back and I can’t tell you what a privilege that is, as it really puts us in the driving seat of our own health.
The first penny drop for me was that illness or pathology doesn’t just happen out of the blue, nor is it down to just bad luck or genetics. It is in fact often years in the making. So for this topic I want to introduce the wonderful world of epigenetics. In functional medicine we have a fabulous saying which is ‘the genes load the gun, but the environment pulls the trigger’. Just read that again for a moment and have a think about it. It really is quite extraordinary and one of the most empowering statements in the world of health or it should be! Imagine if we lived in a world where this was the mantra of all public health policy but sadly it isn’t and of course there’s no money to be made in being well, at least if we continue to follow the current paradigm of the ‘pill for an ill’.
Fortunately, when we’re in the know we can influence our own epigenetic expression by the choices we make. Each and every second of every day we influence our gene expression positively or negatively by how we live, where we live, who we live with, the food we eat, where we shop, how we cook, how we move our bodies, how we manage stress, how we sleep, the environmental toxins we are exposed to at home and in the workplace and drugs of all sorts; tobacco, medications and so the list goes on.
So a question to ponder on is how are you influencing your gene expression today? Have a look at the list above and think about the areas that you would like to address if you were to give yourselves a quick audit. In a world where chronic health problems dominate, especially as we age we need to understand that pathological ‘processes’ happen long before pathology ensues and we get a diagnosis or an entire shopping list of diagnoses! I love that scene in ‘City Slickers’ where the brilliant Billy Crystal in character as Mitch talked about what he has to look forward to after 40. He says...
“Your forties, you get a little pot belly, you grow another chin. The music starts to get too loud and one of your old girlfriends from high school becomes a grandmother. Your fifties you have a minor surgery. You’ll call it a procedure but it’s a surgery. Your sixties you have a major surgery, the music is still too loud but it doesn’t matter because you can’t hear it anyway. Seventies you move to Fort Lauderdale, start eating dinner at two…breakfast the night before and spend your time wandering around malls looking for the ultimate in soft yoghurt and muttering “how come the kinds don’t call?” Your eighties you’ve had a major stroke and end up babbling to some Jamaican nurse who your wife can’t stand, but who you call mama.”
That scene always makes me laugh but the reason we laugh is because we identify with it so much and even if we don’t see ourselves in it, we recognise so many of our friends and family in that timeline. In the western world the last 20 years of our lives are typically spent in poor health on a frightening amount of medications. Currently 80% of people over 65 have one or more chronic illnesses and it’s getting worse not better. Heart disease, cancer, diabetes, dementia and autoimmune disease dominate more than ever and until we address root cause they will continue to do so.
So back to epigenetics! Isn’t it interesting that there are places and peoples in our world who don’t experience the seemingly age related decline that we do in the west? In the much researched blue zones people live long and vital lives into their 90’s and even 100’s! Shouldn't we be looking at why?
Firstly in the blue zones the diet is based around real, fresh whole foods, grown organically. Very little sugar and zero processed foods. So if we want to replicate this fundamental strategy we have to make wiser choices with our shopping trolley and avoid most of the aisles in the supermarket. Since I did my training, I've always said that we should basically grab our fruit and veg, meat and fish, nuts and seeds, pulses, wholegrains, olive oil, coconut oil, grass fed butter, dark chocolate and some other (eco friendly non toxic) household necessities and then leave! If we just did this we would begin to influence our epigenetics positively.
As a practitioner in clinical practice I know that what I have said above is highly challenging. Processed food is designed to be majorly delicious, addictive and advertising reminds us how cool, sexy and popular we will be if we eat certain foods or drinks. It’s also against our cultural norms and it’s so difficult to swim against the tide. Phrases like ‘go on have another one’ ‘one more won’t hurt you’ ‘I think you’re becoming a bit too healthy these days’ abound in offices and families and add to the real discomfort in making any positive change. The phrase which always makes me cringe the most is ‘everything is moderation’. First of all how do we define ‘everything’ and second of all what is ‘moderation’? The bottom line is food is meant to be enjoyed but we can still make food delicious and pleasurable by doing one of the most important things we can do for our health and that is to learn to cook. When we learn to combine herbs and spices and to blend flavours we are on a roll. I eat foods now which I never would’ve eaten years ago or even heard of and I am so grateful to have this knowledge and confidence with cooking and foods as I know it takes me a little closer to the blue zone way of living.
Other reasons why changing our lifestyle is so challenging is due to our own health status. Many of the clients I see are struggling with fatigue, chronic pain, mental health challenges, poor concentration, food cravings, binge eating, blood sugar imbalance, multiple nutrient deficiencies and so much more. But the trouble is when you feel rubbish and someone offers you a carrot stick you want to punch them! You want an iced bun or a bar of chocolate (or is that just me?!) and you want it now! We all have those feelings as when we are running from the proverbial tiger we need quick energy and then we’re off.
We also have problems with sleep nowadays and between binge watching netflix and scrolling our phones we are suppressing our melatonin and our poor sleep affects our hunger hormones causing insulin resistance and adds to the physiological mess. So where do we start? Interestingly in blue zones they sleep well and this is key. Always when I am working with a client I start with sleep and get that under control because I know that the domino effect from poor sleep makes any hope of positive change nigh on impossible. From personal experience, I know how stress can impact sleep quality and I can tell you how hangry I feel when I have had a terrible night’s sleep. My personal tips are avoiding caffeine and always top up on magnesium via epsom salt baths and supplementing. I’ll let you into a little secret, magnesium is my desert island supplement and the one I wouldn’t be without as it helps me sleep and calms those stress hormones.
Another thought to end this introduction to epigenetics is that community powerfully influences gene expression and guess what? Those blue zones are very good at it! Loneliness is such a dangerous thing and in terms of health risks, loneliness is the equivalent of smoking 2 packets of cigarettes a day. What a sobering thought. I alluded to the power of community in part 1 and the importance of sharing with others. Instead of sending an empty text, pick up the phone, share your voice and your heart with others with love and sincerity.
And finally, cuddling improves epigenetic expression! Who knew?! That is mind blowing and brings us beautifully back to the power of community.
In City Slickers the wise philosopher and cowboy extraordinaire known as Curly remind the confused Mitch who is in search of the meaning of life that all he needs to do in life is to find this and he holds up one finger in the air and says you need to find that ‘one thing, just one thing.’ It takes Mitch to the end of the movie by which time he has come face to face with life and death as he sadly loses the wise Curly and brings the gorgeous calf Normal into the world as well as experiencing the joy of bringing the cattle in. But finally he realised his one thing was his family and love.
"Count your age by friends, not years. Count your life by smiles, not tears." - John Lennon
I love this quote from John Lennon not just because It’s a beautiful sentiment but also because the Beatles were of course being played constantly when I was born and my first song was apparently ‘She loves you’ with me joining in for the yeah yeah bits! I grew up with the Beatles and as a teenager would play their songs on the guitar and perform them along with other songs in a singing group with my sister and two friends.
Music has always been a big part of my life. I love to sing and have been in many choirs. In fact I love a road trip as it means I can have a good sing along and usually pick out the harmonies. I was also a dancer as a child and one thing most of you don’t know is that I used to teach drama and dance when my girls were growing up in Caithness. I wrote lots of panto’s and plays for children and did all the choreography. Twice yearly I entered children for exams in ballet, tap and modern dance and I absolutely loved it.
When I was thinking of writing a wee series on ‘Turning 60..’ I started thinking of all the usual things people worry about with age, their health, their wrinkles, their bones and their brains and I will come back to those in the series and share some of my personal tips. But I wanted to start with what I believe to be the most important medicine for health and the best antidote for ageing and it’s finding joy!
The quotation above fits perfectly with this because what matters most in life is love and community, laughter and sharing. During lockdown we saw the damaging effects of loneliness and watched our nearest and dearest age overnight in some cases. We don’t need many friends and in fact we only need a small handful of really close friends to share our good days and bad, our joys and our worries. But as we go through life we meet many people who touch our lives in so many ways, they encourage us, they guide us and they remind us what it is to be human as we share our vulnerability. More importantly they make us laugh. Isn’t it interesting when we think of old friends we tend to think of funny occasions. And as soon as we meet them even decades later it's those funny memories which resurface, celebrated in fits of hilarity as fresh as the day they first happened.
For me finding joy also comes in playing with my granddaughter Heidi and her partner in crime Molly the cutest jack russell ever! And did you know that spending time with your grandchildren keeps you young and is good for your health? No surprises there! I also find joy in country walks and having grown up by the seaside of Whitley Bay, I am very drawn to the sea which always makes me feel alive, even more so when it is the Cote’d’azur in the South of France! My job is also a source of great joy as there is nothing better than being able to help someone find their way to optimal health. I’m very blessed to have married my bestie and he always makes me smile. While we have shared 37 years together and many tears, health challenges, redundancies and financial worries we have also shared many more smiles and he is still my bestie. As I reflect on my life, I always say life is less about the challenges and more about who we face them with and how we face them.
It’s interesting when you are in business as the gurus out there will suggest that we should be aiming high, earning loads of money and climbing to the top of an invisible mountain. We live in a culture which still defines success in life in monetary terms and the trappings of materialism that come with that. While we all need to pay our bills and to be warm and well fed and comfortable, that concept of ‘success’ doesn’t bring joy. Joy comes from living in the present and enjoying the simple things in life, a beautiful sunset, birds singing, a nice cup of tea and in my favourite season which is summer, life doesn’t get better than feeling the sand between your toes!
Last year when we faced uncertainty and embarked on so many big changes in our lives and ultimately had to sell our house, the thoughts I share above are the things which always gave me comfort. You see, our friends out there don’t change and nor do the things we love, they remain the same and they will always be there as long as we search for them. The birds don’t sing a different song in Richard Branson’s world, nor do the sunsets share a different colour. Indeed, the natural world is one of the constants in life which always reassures and affirms and it is there for all of us to enjoy even if just from a window.
Finding joy is also about sharing it with others. So if you do have a funny memory or a happy time you’d love to share, phone that friend or relative who would just love to share it with you. Laugh together, cry together, but just share. We all have those days when we don't feel so great or even pretty awful and out of the blue we get a call from someone special, bang on cue. It's almost as if they knew we needed a friend. But somewhere out there right now is someone who’d love to hear from you and that moment when they recognise your voice is just priceless. There isn’t a pill for that or a supplement, just do it….
So to keep ourselves young, we need to find our joy and to keep doing it and sharing it as long as we are privileged to be here.
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