Although “losing weight” is a top New Year’s resolution, why not make self-care—taking better care of yourself—a priority in 2018? After all, a lack of self-care is often what leads to weight gain in the first place.
And, in an era of medical insurance with high deductibles…NOT making the time to care for yourself can cost you—in a big way. Keep reading if you answer “yes” to any of the following scenarios.
Do you have medical insurance with a high deductible for both “in-network” and “out-of-network” providers?
Do you put off scheduling your annual physical because you are “too busy” or you “feel fine”?
Do you shrug off chronic symptoms—such as low energy, anxiety, weight gain, an expanding waist line, yeast infections, brain fog or memory issues, an inability to sleep, joint pain, digestive distress (gas, bloating, constipation, diarrhea)—as a “normal” part of the aging process?
Do you assume that your doctor would surely alert you if you were headed toward a chronic health condition, like diabetes, or an autoimmune disease, such as Hashimoto’s?
Considering that more than 250,000 Americans die each year from medical errors—the third leading cause of death behind heart disease and cancer, according to a 2016 John Hopkins study1—it is to our detriment to rely solely on medical doctors to tell us what is wrong with our bodies and why we feel the way that we do, whether we feel depressed, panicked, overwhelmed or chronically fatigued.
A visit with a conventional medical doctor is often short (typically, between 9 and 13 minutes, depending on the reason for your visit.2). Only 11% see a patient for more than 25 minutes. And, more often than not, you will leave that visit with a prescription for a drug, birth control pills or an anti-depressant, which may temporarily relieve your symptoms, but will not address the underlying root cause.
When my client Scott thought he had appendicitis after waking up with excruciating abdominal pain last October, he headed to the hospital emergency room, where doctors performed a manual exam, ran some bloodwork and a urine test. They concluded that Scott did not have appendicitis and suggested more tests. Conscious of his high medical deductible, Scott declined. He did, however, show me a copy of the lab work that the doctors had run.
I’m not a doctor, but I noted that his liver enzymes were double what they had been just 3 months ago. Yet, according to the lab’s (liberal) reference range, his liver enzymes were still within “normal” range. I asked Scott if he had been drinking more alcohol, taking OTC pain relief medications (eg, Tylenol, aspirin, ibuprofen), antibiotics, or cholesterol-lowering drugs, all of which can contribute to elevated liver enzymes. He sheepishly admitted that, yes, because of work-related stress, he had been drinking more. I asked him to stop drinking alcohol for 30 days. He did, and almost immediately, his pain subsided.
Scott paid $1,500 out-of-pocket for that emergency room visit. But because he had invested in working with me on his nutrition and lifestyle habits, he likely saved time and money testing for a costly “condition” that could potentially be prevented by modifying his diet and /or lifestyle.
Unfortunately, you can’t expect your medical doctor to give you nutrition guidance. If you’ve ever had a doctor tell you to “lose weight”, and that’s the end of his or her advice…you’ll understand. Despite the connection between poor diet and many chronic diseases and conditions, most medical schools in the U.S. teach less than 25 hours of nutrition over 4 years—and less than 20 percent of medical schools have a single required course in nutrition, according to Dr. David Eisenberg, adjunct associate professor of nutrition at Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health.3
That’s why self-care is so important.
What exactly is ”self-care”? Self-care is about identifying what you need to feel your best mentally, emotionally and physically—and then taking steps to meet those needs. Think of your own body as a child assigned in your care. How would you treat yourself then? By establishing an intimate relationship with your body, you become more attuned to when it feels “off”, and can take proper steps to correct course. Good self-care can help reduce anxiety and depression, increase productivity, and improve the quality of relationships with yourself—and with others.
Here are 10 important ways to care for yourself:
1. Know your vital statistics.
Would you start investing in stocks and mutual funds without reconciling your checkbook? Same idea when it comes to your health. You cannot improve what you do not measure. This includes your blood pressure, HDL (good cholesterol), triglycerides, weight, waist measurement, BMI (Body Mass Index) and body fat percentage. I like this scale which measures both weight and body fat percentage. You can also use this hand-held fat-loss monitor to track BMI and body fat percentage. If you have a dysfunctional relationship with the scale, track your waist measurement.
Your waist size is significant. If most of your body fat is around the waist, you are at increased risk for heart disease and diabetes.4
You need to be pro-active about self-care if your waist size is:
–Greater than 35 inches (WOMEN)
–Greater than 40 inches (MEN)
2. Know your blood sugar numbers.
Type 2 diabetes (T2DM) is a modern-day epidemic. While being overweight or obese greatly increases your risk of diabetes, thin people can—and do—get diabetes.5, 6 That’s why it’s important to know your fasting blood glucose and your hemoglobin A1c.
Optimal fasting blood glucose: Less than 85 mg/dL
Optimal hemoglobin A1c: Less than 5.5%
3. Schedule regular health screenings.
Ignorance is not bliss. On a yearly basis, you want to schedule a comprehensive physical exam and a total-body skin check (for skin cancer). Men will want to regularly screen for prostate cancer (from age 40). Women can monitor their breast health with manual self-exams and thermography or mammogram screenings (from age 40; earlier if there is a family history of breast cancer). Colorectal cancer screening (for men and women) generally starts at age 50.
4. Water yourself.
Many clients in my practice tell me they “forget” to drink water. In our fast-paced lives, drinking water can seem like a no-big-deal oversight. The consequences of dehydration are not trivial, however: fatigue, headaches, constipation, muscle cramping, irritability and/or mental confusion, rapid heartbeat and rapid breathing, among other symptoms. Chronic dehydration can lead to kidney stones and liver and muscle damage. Aim to drink half your body weight in ounces. I like this easy-to-tote 22 ounce BPA-free glass water bottle for hydrating on-the-go.
5. Swap out a high-sugar breakfast for a protein-rich first meal.
A “high sugar” breakfast can look like a bagel, toast, cereal, muffins, fruit smoothie, commercial green juices, fat-free yogurt with fruit, or flavored instant oatmeal. Whether you eat your first meal at 6am or 10:30am, include protein to help stabilize blood sugar and ward off afternoon sugar cravings. Some ways to work in protein: Hard-boiled eggs, a zucchini-tarragon frittata, coconut flour pancakes, hot quinoa porridge, or ground turkey tacos, using lettuce wraps—not store-bought taco shells. I personally like sardines and avocado, poached salmon, or cast-iron skillet cardamom-spiced chicken tenderloins, paired with leafy greens, for breakfast.
6. Cook for yourself and/or your family.
Preparing home-cooked meals is a nourishing act of self-love and an expression of love. Here’s why I cook—even when I feel dead tired at day’s end. Start with one home-cooked meal a week and work your way up. Having a slow cooker and a cast-iron skillet makes it easy to batch-cook in advance or prepare quick and healthy meals on the fly.
Do you sit at work all day? Then, go home and “relax” by binge-watching Netflix, posting to social media, or surfing the Internet past midnight? Consider getting up off the couch. Humans are designed to move. Our bodies crave movement. I’m not talking about spending hours at the gym or training for a marathon. Our ancestors were in constant motion—walking, sprinting, carrying (food, wares, their children), chopping and gathering wood, and preparing food. Excessive sitting (8 to 9 hours a day) is associated with a slower metabolism, higher blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, reduced insulin sensitivity, increased risk of heart disease and weakens the bones.7 Studies suggest that 30 to 60 minute of vigorous exercise alone doesn’t eliminate the health risks of prolonged sitting.8.9 Simply choosing to walk more confers excellent health benefits.
8. Choose to buy and eat organic foods.
Feed your body quality food. Organic foods contain more nutrients, such as antioxidants and other beneficial compounds, than conventionally grown.
A meta-analysis published in the British Journal of Nutrition found pesticide residue to be four times higher in conventional crops, which also contained a significantly higher concentration of cadmium, a toxic metal and known carcinogen.10 Unfortunately, pesticides are absorbed by plants and cannot be “washed off”. Characterized as endocrine (hormone) disruptors and obesogens, pesticides have been linked to decreased sperm count, erectile dysfunction, male infertility, ovarian disorders, thyroid problems, decreased fertility in women, low birthweight, obesity and diabetes. The good news? Today, affordably priced fresh and frozen organic produce can be found everywhere, from Whole Foods and Amazon, to Target and Wal-Mart.
Shortchanging yourself on sleep means that you’re cheating yourself out of good health. If you’re doing everything right—in terms of diet and daily movement—yet still struggle with losing weight or healing from an autoimmune disease or chronic health condition, look at your sleep. Studies link regular, insufficient sleep (less than 6 hours per night) with weight gain, higher body mass index (BMI), obesity and diabetes. Chronic sleep deficiency can affect mood, weaken your immune system, elevate blood pressure and increase risk of heart disease.11
For many people, alcohol—a glass of wine or a nightcap—is a go-to sedative. Yes, alcohol can make you feel relaxed and drowsy. But…in addition to contributing excess sugar calories and placing additional burden on your liver to process it, alcohol disrupts sleep by exacerbating sleep apnea and breathing disorders, and by causing fragmented sleep, decreasing the amount of REM sleep you get. REM is important for memory and processing learning.12 Women absorb more alcohol and are especially vulnerable to the sleep-robbing effects of alcohol. Aim for 7 to 8 hours of quality sleep.
10. Cultivate healthy ways to express or release your emotions.
Too often we stuff down uncomfortable feelings—anxiety, depression, grief, anger, even boredom—with food, alcohol and/or sugar. Connecting with your emotions is an important part of self-care. Repressing emotions takes a physical toll on your body, manifesting as aches and pains, weight gain, hormonal imbalances, fatigue and anxiety.
You can address your emotional well-being by working with a therapist who feels right for you. In my own health journey, I worked through a deep sense of unrelenting grief with a holistic therapist and reiki practitioner to release and heal that emotion. You can also express or release your emotions through dance, photography, painting, music, writing or meditation. Since the age of 12, I have been journaling, which, as it turns out, can have quantifiable health benefits. In his research, Dr. James Pennebaker, Chair of the Psychology Department at the University of Texas at Austin, found that “expressive writing”—writing your thoughts and feelings about emotionally challenging or traumatic experiences—can help boost immune function, lower blood pressure, reduce symptoms of asthma and arthritis, and improve sleep in cancer patients.13
1 BMJ 2016; 353:i2139
2 Statista.com 2017
3 Harvard School of Public Health, 2017
4 NIH, National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute
5 Indian Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism, Jul 15, 2011
6 World Journal of Diabetes, May 15, 2015
7, 8 Chris Kresser, The Paleo Cure, 2014
9 American College of Cardiology, Cardiosmart.org
10 British Journal of Nutrition 2014 Sep 14;112(5):794-811
11 Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School
12 Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research
13 American Psychological Association, Monitor on Psychology, June 2002