Last week I introduced and discussed why movement, nutrition, hydration, and sleep are vital as foundations of wellness and wholeness. This week I will talk about a few more determinants of health. What do you think they are? The answers might surprise you!
Sunshine is a fundamental aspect of our existence. Our circadian rhythms that dictate our sleep-wake cycles are closely tied to the sun. Getting daily exposure to the sun can help to increase melatonin production later at night. This is good news for people who have trouble sleeping at night, as melatonin is a hormone that tells the body that it is time to sleep. Early morning sun exposure, in particular, can help the body release melatonin earlier in the night, so that people can slip into sleep sooner.
The precursor to melatonin is a hormone called serotonin. You might know it as the “happy hormone” because moderately high levels of serotonin are associated with a more positive mood and mental focus. Research has revealed that mammalian skin can produce serotonin and convert it into melatonin, and some skin cells have receptors for both serotonin and melatonin. The researchers therefore stress the importance of getting outside periodically since so many of us live our lives indoors.
Sun exposure is most notably known to increase blood levels of Vitamin D. Vitamin D is a key nutrient to our existence. Low levels of Vitamin D have been associated with increased risk of developing different kinds of cancer, MS, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and metabolic disorders. It is also important to note that too much exposure to sunlight can also put people at risk for getting skin cancer. Balancing the two can be seem tricky, so feel free to check out this video or read this review to learn more about what a few professionals think about the matter.
We are social creatures by nature. We all want and need to be loved. The quantity and the quality of our relationships with others have huge consequences for our overall physical, mental, and emotional health.
Did you know that strong social relationships are correlated with increased lifespan? The researchers of this meta-analysis state that their “findings indicate that the influence of social relationships on the risk of death are comparable with well-established risk factors for mortality such as smoking and alcohol consumption and exceed the influence of other risk factors such as physical inactivity and obesity.”
It appears that the quantity of our relationships matters. This study found that people with the fewest number of social ties had twice the risk of dying compared to those with the most social ties. This finding held true even after controlling for socioeconomic status and health behaviors, among other variables. People that are the most socially connected, despite documented medical conditions, like coronary heart disease, may live longer as well.
As you might imagine, having positive and negative social ties appears to play a large role in our wellness. For example, stress in relationships seems to contribute to poor health habits in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. This review states, “Relationship stress also undermines a sense of personal control and mental health, both of which are, in turn, associated with poorer physical health.”
If you’re curious to learn more about how our social relationships affect our health, I highly recommend checking out that review. It goes into great depth and even proposes a few mechanisms to explain the association between wellness and socialization. I also enjoyed that it discusses social variation within the association.
In my opinion, this may be the determinant of health that is overlooked the most. I myself am guilty of not always incorporating some kind of mindfulness or spiritual practice in my daily routine. Spirituality here does not necessarily mean that you subscribe to any one religion, although it does not necessarily mean that you do not. In this sense, I am talking about a practice that connects you to something greater than yourself, whether that be some kind of religious figure(s), the universe, nature, or simply the human race. It is about taking time throughout the day to be mindful and present since so much of our days are spent thinking about the past or the future. When was the last time you found yourself totally experiencing the present moment?
An excellent introduction to spiritual practice is mediation. Neuroscientists have uncovered that meditation affects processes in the brain involved in self-regulation including emotional regulation, attention control, and self-awareness. Meditation has has not only been shown to reduce stress, but can also to help people connect their awareness to the present moment. Some research suggests that meditation may also help to reduce anxiety, depressive symptoms, and pain in adolescents.
You do not need to meditate in order to incorporate mindfulness into your life. Having a mindfulness practice as a part of your daily routine can be be as simple as taking time each morning to make a cup of tea and truly experience every aspect of it as you drink it and inhale its pleasurable aroma. Taking a walk through the woods while disconnecting from technology, your worries, and your to-do list, and instead focusing your attention on the present moment, including the sounds you hear, the sights you see, the smell of the forest, and the feeling of the ground beneath your feet (walking barefoot can really help this) could also be a way that you incorporate a mindfulness activity as a part of your daily life. As you walk, connect to the fact that you are one entity that is part of the greater ecosystem that is directly around you, while also being connected to the human race and all of nature.
Disclaimer: I am a naturopathic medical student, not a licensed physician. The opinions expressed are my own, and do not reflect the opinions of the entire naturopathic doctor community. Nothing on my blog is intended to be taken as medical advice. Always consult a licensed physician before making any lifestyle or dietary changes.