What You’ll Learn
- What is “minimalism” and how can we use it for health?
- How does stress impact our body?
- What can we do to change the way we practice optimal health?
- By managing our diet and including healthy, happier habits we can greatly improve our healing capabilities.
“Perfection is not achieved when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”– Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Are you feeling overwhelmed by information overload trying to find the right answers for your health?
Our society has a tendency to promote the need for more even when it comes to health – “what to add to your diet to improve your health,” “try this new diet,” “add this to your exercise routine…” It can be exhausting to navigate through all of the things that you read or hear that you “should” do and overwhelming to juggle new diets, exercise plans, etc.
Feeling overwhelmed when you are searching for answers puts your body into a state of stress which has many negative effects on your body and your body’s organ systems, and can aggravate your symptoms.
So, what should you do?
Keep it simple.
If any of the above questions resonate with you, we recommend you take a step back, and take a minimalist approach to health right now.
What is Minimalism?
Minimalism is a trending lifestyle approach recently re-popularized by Marie Kondo and her method of eliminating all the things from your life that don’t “spark joy.” This method can be applied to optimizing health and healing with the goal of getting the body back to its “rest and digest” state instead of its stress-induced “fight or flight” state. The emphasis, then, should be on how to make things simpler – what can I remove from my life, my diet, my health practices, etc. in order to optimize my body’s ability to self-heal?
“Keep only those things that speak to your heart. Then take the plunge and discard all the rest. By doing this, you can reset your life and embark on a new lifestyle.”– Marie Kondo
Read on to discover the simple but essential ways in which you can bring your body back to its normal state in order to optimize healing.
The Negative Effects of Stress
Your body’s “rest and digest” state is controlled by the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). This is the ideal state for healing. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is responsible for the “fight or flight” response in your body – it responds by increasing your heart rate and blood pressure, increasing alertness and awareness, and by shunting blood to the essential systems; the brain, the heart, and the lungs; at the expense of the digestive and immune systems. This is also a state that, if left enabled to become chronic, promotes inflammation – a major player in chronic illnesses.
Chronic stress means that your immune system is less responsive, and this contributes to many chronic health conditions such as metabolic disorders and chronic fatigue syndrome.
The hormone cortisol is secreted in response to stress. What does cortisol do? It increases the amount of fuel (glucose and fatty acids) available to produce energy for what your body perceives as an oncoming fight. This can be problematic outside of brief, acute stress events. Cortisol is part of a class of hormones called glucocorticoids – otherwise known as corticosteroids. These hormones tamper the immune response and reduce inflammation which is important to the stress response because it prevents your immune system from activating. But chronic stress means that your immune system is less responsive, and this contributes to many chronic health conditions such as metabolic disorders and chronic fatigue syndrome.
Stress affects the body in the following ways:
The sympathetic “fight-or-flight” response has a huge impact on the heart and circulatory system. When activated, the SNS effects on your cardiac system increase heart rate, dilate the blood vessels feeding itself and going to the lungs, brain, and muscles to increase blood flow; and constrict the vessels for non-essential systems (such as the digestive tract and urinary system).
Rapid breathing and shortness of breath result from your body’s stress response. This can lead to hyperventilation and can bring on panic attacks. Especially in those with already compromised respiratory systems, this can be detrimental.
The reduction of blood flow to the GI tract causes slowed-down digestion leading to abdominal cramps, bloating, pain, and nausea. In acute stress, vomiting and diarrhea can occur. In chronic stress, these symptoms become part of your baseline and can complicate already present digestive issues.
Increased blood flow to your muscles gets them to tense up – they brace for impact. Once the stressful event is over, the muscles relax back to their baseline. Chronic stress, however, keeps your muscles tense for an extended period of time – an example of this is tension headaches and migraines are caused by long-term tension in the neck, shoulders, and head.
How to Use the Minimalist Approach Toward Healing
There are three important things that impact your health and your body’s ability to heal itself: what you eat, how you sleep/rest, and how you move your body. These three areas play a huge role in your everyday life, but they don’t (and shouldn’t) have to take up a lot of your time and energy causing you stress.
Minimalism and Diet
What to Eat, and What to Avoid:
Eating organic, plant-based foods is ideal for setting up your body for optimal healing, but let’s focus on what you should take away from your diet in order to achieve this. Remember that real food has no ingredients! When grocery shopping, remember to keep it simple – if you pick up a product and it has a long list of ingredients, many of which you can’t pronounce, put it back on the shelf. Most importantly, eliminate the following:
- Sugar & High-fructose Corn Syrup – sugar causes an inflammatory response in your body and has been shown to counteract the anti-inflammatory effects of omega-3.
- Trans Fats – these are the unhealthiest of fats, and while there has been a big push in labeling products as “trans-fat free,” always read the labels – trans fats will always be listed as hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils. These oils have been found to significantly increase inflammation and are linked to high levels of C-reactive proteins (CRP), an inflammatory marker found in the blood.
- Refined Carbohydrates – not all carbs are bad. In fact, whole-grain foods are promoted in many dietary lifestyles such as the Mediterranean diet, the DASH diet, and the Innovative Medicine diet plan. The problem with refined carbohydrates is that most of their fiber content has been removed. These types of carbs promote inflammation and have a high glycemic index which means that they raise your blood sugar.
- Too Much Caffeine – caffeine is a stimulant that activates the sympathetic system response.
- Dairy Products – milk products increase mucus production which impacts your body’s ability to heal properly.
How to Eat: Mindful Eating
Did you know that it can take from 5 to 20 minutes for your brain to register that you are full? When you eat quickly, your body hasn’t had a chance to register that you are full, and you end up eating more than you should. Slow it down! Give your body the time it needs to register the food that you are eating.
Here are some tips on how to eat mindfully:
- Chew – take the time to chew your food properly, count if it helps. Digestion actually starts in the mouth with the breaking up of food particles and secretion of saliva.
- Focus – remove distractions while you eat. If you eat while watching tv or reading, you are distracted from what you are eating. This means that you can overeat and miss your body’s signals that you are full. Sit down, relax, think about the texture and taste of your food and enjoy it!
- Be Grateful – take the time to enjoy what you are eating and savor it.
Minimalism and Sleep
Many people living with chronic illnesses have problems with insomnia (not sleeping) or hypersomnia (too much sleeping). These conditions may be a symptom of your disease process or can be secondary to stress, anxiety, or depression (or all of the above!).
While there may be some complex physiologic issues impacting your sleep, there are things that you can eliminate from your bedtime routine to help you fall asleep and have a better sleep.
What to Eliminate:
- Any and all sources of light in the bedroom. Use black-out curtains or but a blanket over your blinds to block out streetlights. If you use a fan, diffuser, or humidifier, in your bedroom, turn its display off or cover it up. Place your alarm clock/phone/watch away from the bed and cover the display if the light is visible. Just make sure that you can still hear it. Added bonus: you will have to get out of bed to turn your alarm off which means you won’t be pressing snooze and falling back asleep. Use an eye shield if there are sources of light that you can’t control.
- Turn off your screens at least 1 hour before bed – this includes your tv, tablet, computer, and phone. Even if these electronics have a nighttime mode or app to adjust its brightness in the evening, it can still over-stimulate your mind.“Exposure to light stimulates a nerve pathway from the eye to parts of the brain that control hormones, body temperature and other functions that play a role in making us feel sleepy or wide-awake.” What to do instead? Listen to music, read, color, meditate, or take a bath or shower (the process of cooling down after a bath or shower helps to promote sleep). This also means that if you have a tv in your bedroom, you should remove it.
- Eliminate excessive heat in the bedroom – a cool room is better for promoting sleep.
It is also important for the regulation of your circadian rhythm to ensure that you get enough (natural) light during the day. This can be difficult during the winter months when you are going to work and coming home in the dark. Try and find time during the day to find some sunlight. Use a SAD lamp in the morning while you eat breakfast or at your desk while you work – just ensure that you turn it off in the afternoon.
“Exposure to light stimulates a nerve pathway from the eye to parts of the brain that control hormones, body temperature and other functions that play a role in making us feel sleepy or wide-awake.”
Why is Sleep Quality So Crucial for Your Healing?
Sleep is like a reset button for your body, and certain processes work best while you sleep, like:
- Your cerebrospinal fluid acts like a dishwasher while you sleep, circulating faster to clean out the waste products from your brain cells’ daily activities.
- Your body releases growth hormones while you sleep to repair muscles and joints.
- Heart rate, respiratory rate, and blood pressure decrease and regulate while you sleep; giving your heart and lungs a much-deserved break as well.
- Cytokines, a protein essential to the immune response, are produced and secreted while you sleep, so less sleep means fewer cytokines and an impaired immune response.
So Practice Simplicity
We live in a society of excess. We are surrounded by constant messages telling us that we need MORE – this is overwhelming when you are trying to navigate through the compendium of, sometimes contradictory, health information on how to manage your condition, heal your body, and recover your health.
Enter Minimalism! Eliminate what does not bring you joy and go back to the basics to promote optimal health.
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