Health and wellness evolve with the release of every new study, pill or power to enter the market. While fads come and go, there are a few tried and true habits that never lose their potency in helping to maintain the basics of a healthy lifestyle.
1. Make Sleep a Priority.
It’s no secret that most Americans are not getting enough sleep. According to Dr. Qanta A. Ahmed, Attending Sleep Disorders Medicine at Winthrop University Hospital and Associate Professor of Medicine at SUNY Stony Brook, “we’re all trying to cram too much into our lives…most people are operating sleep deprived.” Bad news first: Most of us will never know exactly how much sleep we need at night. Ahmed says the only way you’ll find out is to let yourself fall asleep as soon as you start feeling sleepy (rather than push it off until the movie ends) and sleep until you wake without an alarm clock. After a few nights of that, a natural sleep rhythm occurs. Although most lifestyles don’t allow for this sort of discovery, the good news is there are things we can do to help encourage good sleep habits. “Create a time to prepare for sleep, that you plan for sleep.” Switch off all devices earlier at night and allow 40-60 minutes for brushing teeth, (un)dressing for bed, praying, stretching and mentally preparing for sleep. The doctor also advises avoiding all non-sleep activity in the bed—the tv doesn’t help, neither does snacking or smoking. Once you start feeling lazy or actually getting drowsy, don’t indulge in activities that delay going to bed. Sleep is “not a luxury, it’s a biological necessity.” Also, pay attention to the quality of the sleep. Are you waking during sleep? Are you making sounds or snoring? Is your breathing audible or not normal in pace or depth? Dr. Ahmed says these are all indicators of a sleep disorder. The best thing to do is consult your doctor about whether or not a sleep specialist should be seen. Those who battle with high blood pressure, weight gain, memory impairment and irritability should certainly look at both the quality and quantity of their slumber. Chances are there’s room for improvement—these are all side effects of insufficient sleep.
Sleep No-No: Alcohol may help you unwind but too much is detrimental to sleep. Caffeine and over-eating, especially close to bedtime, contribute to erratic sleep.
2. Straighten Up.
“80 percent of the population is going to have back pain at one point in their lives,” states Dr. Alexandre de Moura, Cervical Lumbar Spine Specialist, Director of the New York Spine Institute and Assistant Clinical Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery NYU School of Medicine. Sedentary lives can be just as stressful on the back as those who carry tons of bricks for a living. “Sitting puts the greatest stress on the lower spine,” said de Moura. When sitting at their desks, many are prone to slouching, which fatigues the muscles. “It’s important to maintain an ergonomically sound work environment,” Dr. de Moura cautions. The correct posture is to pull the shoulders back in alignment with the pelvis. (Go ahead, do it now.) Maintain a nice curve in the lower spine and tight abdominal muscles. (Take a deep breath. Nice, right?) Don’t reach above the horizon line for too long and keep the monitor at eye height. There are two ways to “test” posture for correctness: Put your arm behind your back, straight out, parallel to the floor. This will create an indent you should have. Or, roll up a towel and place it at the lower spine as lumbar support. Don’t forget to periodically take a walk during the day to break the monotony of sitting for too long. Stretching is a big help, too. Dr. de Moura recommends morning, midday and nighttime routines to help shake out the stress and the day’s misalignment. “Back pain affects your moods…maintain strong muscles, flexibility, good calcium and vitamin D intake,” de Moura advises. “Stress likes the bones, it lives there.” If prolonged pain and/or spasms occur, see a doctor to treat it then work with a physical therapist to develop strong muscles and better habits to thwart future trouble.
Get a good mattress. A firm one. If your mattress sags, leaves an impression after you get out of it or offers little or no resistance to your back, it’s not doing you any good.
3. Take Care of Your Teeth.
Those with good, clean teeth and gums tend to be happier and not just because they spend less time in the dental chair. “The mouth is the gateway to the body,” asserts Dr. Barbara Jurim, Prosthodontist and Dentist at Jurim Dental Group, adding, “many diseases manifest interorally.” Diabetes, for one, has been known to rear its signs in the mouth. “Gum disease goes hand in hand with diabetes,” said Jurim. Terrible gum health and dental infections, like a lot of bleeding when brushing, a chronic smell or bad taste in the mouth and/or the teeth feeling loose are all indications of periodontal problems. And while there are no hard facts, there have been known to be correlations between heart disease and gum disease. Similarly, problems in the mouth could be indicators of systemic overall health issues like stroke, pre-term and low birth weight pregnancies. She points out that high oral bacteria could be an indication of higher levels of artery clogging and “people with gum disease are at a higher risk of cardiovascular disease.” Jurim suggests that as many of the following be done regularly:
1. Make an appointment to see your dentist. Right now. Go ahead, we’ll wait.
2. Use a fluoride toothpaste.
3. Go with a soft bristle toothbrush. It’s just as effective on teeth, but gentler on gums.
4. Brush twice a day, two minutes each time.
5. Floss. Floss. Floss. Improving your gums improves your overall body health and reduces bad breath. You wouldn’t leave dirt under your nails, would you?
6. Choose alcohol free mouthwash. Alcohol has been thought to increase the risk of cancer, but there is no added benefit to the mouth.
7. Chew a sugarless gum with xylitol, an agent that helps prevent cavities.
8. Eat your sweets quickly. Sugar creates an acidic environment in the mouth. Better to have one quick sweet than a sugary latté over the course of an hour.
9. Keriostatic foods prevent cavities. Choose cheese instead of carbs and make nuts a snack of choice.
10. Get an oral cancer screening at least once a year.
4. Get Your Freak On.
Finding the freedom to abandon inhibitions and vulnerabilities can affect self-esteem in multitude ways. Ian Kerner, sex therapist and author, says many external factors can influence sexuality. In current economic times, men are losing their libidos along with their jobs because “self-esteem in both men and woman plays a large role in sexual desire…men get a lot of their self-esteem from their jobs…women do too, but they also get a lot of their self-esteem from where they are in the relationship.” Vulnerabilities have a way of flowing between the bedroom and other areas of a relationship. The subtlest statement or gesture from a partner can grossly affect desirability. Kerner says that just as a partner can make you feel sexy, something in the relationship could also have happened to make you feel humiliated or insecure. In other words, it’s possible a person can feel great outside the relationship but not within it and vice versa. Good: Authenticity. Bad: Anxiety. Relax, don’t fake it. Keep the analysis out of the bedroom, but stay open to communicating it. Engage the fantasy. Don’t force it. Attractiveness and chemistry are strictly personal. Tap into it and go for it, but you can’t make what isn’t there. Compatibility can be very nuanced, beyond just a level of attraction. Physical effusiveness, communication styles and even experience with opposite sex parents can parlay into how we see ourselves and how we respond to the other person. “In a long term relationship, there ends up being a lot of predictability and dependability. And it’s hard to balance those two opposite poles.” But they are not mutually exclusive—sometimes you have to just close your eyes and jump. For singles, “There are so many vulnerabilities when you date. And it is all the more important to make efforts to feel sexy, feel your best and look your best, but also surround yourself with people who reinforce your self-esteem… Most studies show: Positive interaction has a tendency to outweigh negative interaction.” Fill your life with positive people who reinforce your better self and who impress you socially, professionally and intellectually. Family and friends who are reassuring are very important. But ultimately, “romantic and sexual experiences create a sexual disposition.” Try to let go of the noise and enjoy the moment.
Spectatoring: The feeling of watching yourself in bed or seeing yourself through the eyes of your lover and analyzing every action, performance and part of the body.
5. Just Do It.
You’ve been promising yourself to quit smoking and/or get to a healthy weight for a long time. This is your chance (or reason) to make good on at least one of them: They are two of the biggest causes of death in this country. These culprits put a lot of stress on the brain and spine, both of which are key to the central nervous system. “Degenerative changes can cause nerve compression which can result in significant pain, weakness, numbness, etc.,” so it’s crucial to keep a healthy nervous system, said Dr. Zachariah George, neurosurgeon at Neurological Surgery, PC (NSPC).
Dr. George is a spine specialist, but indicates that everything ties back to nutrition. Maintaining a healthy, active lifestyle and Body Mass Index (BMI) is key. “The body is made for a certain frame and when you exceed the limits of the frame, you put unusual stresses on every part of your body including your spine, your hips, your knees, your ankles… All those structures bear weight and share the load. Exceeding that really accelerates arthritis and other damaging changes to the body. Staying within the accepted value of BMI is very important, for many reasons. Including the health of the nervous system and the spine in particular.” Dr. Michael Brisman, his fellow neurologist at NSPC who focuses on the brain, concurs, “Get to a normal weight. That affects the health of the brain, spine and everything. And if you have to operate, the risks are much higher.” Brisman is less concerned about how a patient does it than the end result. Don’t smoke, he also affirms. “Smoking affects everything. It ages a person 15 years. It is also the number one cause of brain tumors: Most brain tumors are metastasized from other places. The main place they come from is lung cancer, which 95 percent of lung cancer is from smoking.”
BMI is a generally accepted value of the Body Mass Index, a measurement of healthy body weight based on height and mass:
Under 20: Underweight. Not getting enough nutrition.
Over 25: Overweight
Over 30: Obese
At 50: Morbidly obese, or “super obese”
Five other things to make your life better right now:
1. Stop whining.
2. Try to be a little less negative.
3. Learn to talk—conversationalists make everything better.
4. Say please and thank you.
5. Take it easy, man.