NICE LIFE PROBLEMS
With so much information available in the world of wellness, Modupe Oloruntoba asks: why are we rejecting the basics?
why are we rejecting the basics?
Our health is built on four pillars – nutrition, sleep, exercise and stress management – according to Dr Maurits Kruger. As an experienced homeopath, nutraceutical consultant and an expert in integrative and functional medicine, he would know. His statement refreshes a thought that’s been on my mind for months. Our lives are more automated than ever before, as technology and packaged convenience products save us time in everything from communication to cooking, but we’re still not getting enough sleep. People who can afford to eat well, and do, are still undernourished. Two of the most important pillars of basic health are crumbling en masse and in another layer of irony, somehow nothing seems critical – wilful deprivation is our new normal. The medical science field has been paying attention and counting the cost, and it’s greater than we realise. Our casual neglect is a recipe for disaster. We asked some questions about the health dangers our new normal makes us vulnerable to and found answers we didn’t expect.
Stress is the capital offender: ‘Modern city life has certainly increased our stress levels significantly and stress management has become a very important lifestyle factor not only for healthy sleep, but for our health in general,’ says Dr Kruger of Sleep Renewal South Africa. The Renewal Institute dedicated a part of their offering to healthy sleep in 2016. The Sleep Renewal Clinic probably knows more about how South Africans sleep (or don’t sleep) than anyone else, having conducted numerous home and campus studies on the subject around the country. The truth about healthy sleep: If it were just about the hours, playing catchup on weekends might actually work, but it’s not. It’s about getting complete sleep cycles every night, with no interruptions to the all-important third phase: deep sleep. ‘Many important things happen during deep sleep which are essential to health. The body goes through processes of tissue repair, detoxification, balancing of hormones, consolidation of memory and more. A lack of deep sleep will have a very negative impact on these processes and affect health, even when you’re getting enough hours of sleep,’ Kruger adds. Yes, our phones are also to blame: ‘Electronic screens emit a frequency of light which interferes with the production of melatonin, our sleep hormone. This drastically affects the quality of our deep-sleep stages,’ explains Kruger. You may have a breathing disorder – and you should take it seriously: Sleep Renewal names insomnia and sleep breathing disorders like obstructive sleep apnoea or upper airways resistance syndrome among the most common problems it treats – conditions to which we don’t pay enough attention. ‘If left untreated, sleep breathing disorders can have a devastating effect on health. Heavy snoring is a sign of sleep breathing disorders, but is often dismissed when it should be investigated and taken seriously,’ says Kruger. You still need a bedtime: ‘Unhealthy sleep habits are also a very big factor in sleep disturbance. We get different types of deep sleep before and after midnight, and both are very important. Consistently going to bed too late has a negative impact on deep sleep.’ Pay attention or pay the price: My father, a doctor with over 30 years’ experience, has told me one thing all my life: when it comes to your health, nature simply won’t be cheated – it will fight its way back to balance. The truth is that there’s no revolutionary substitute for a disciplined, healthy routine when it comes to sleep. We have to re-engage on a daily basis to see an improvement. ‘If I could change one thing, it would be to get all patients to pay more attention to the four pillars of health,’ says Kruger.
The problem is everywhere: The spread of the modern American diet (and its popular processed foods) has transformed the way the world eats. Nutrition no longer drives our food choices – instead, convenience, taste and price do, due in large part to the American diet’s influence. ‘It’s been one of America’s most ubiquitous exports and we find it throughout Africa,’ says Dr Caroline Leaf, a world-renowned cognitive neuroscientist who studied the relationship between thinking and eating for one of her many books, Think & Eat Yourself Smart. What she describes is alarming: there are remote areas of Africa where babies are weaned off breast milk and onto Coca-Cola, because it’s cheaper than a nutritionrich alternative. ‘You can eat just as cheaply on healthy food, but people need to know how to do it. It’s a huge issue across the country and across the world… there’s a problem with our global food system.’
“Orange juice, pomegranates and kale are what they are today not because of exemplary nutritional value, but because the people who grow them spent money on good PR
Ditch the trendy wellness diets: Leaf doesn’t endorse any particular approach to eating well. ‘I don’t teach diets. I’m not going to tell you to go paleo, go Banting, go vegan or eat walnuts for your brain… I give one rule for eating and that’s to eat real food, mindfully, so that you’re aware and your thinking’s involved.’ What is ‘real food’, you ask? ‘Local, fresh, sustainable, non-GMO, no pesticides, animals that are pasture-raised, eggs from chickens that are pastureraised, all things organic – that’s real food. So [with that], if you want to eat paleo or vegan or vegetarian, do whatever suits you.’ Eating is 80% thinking: Leaf’s book explains the complicated relationship between your brain, your body and what you feed both. Believe it or not, your thoughts before, during and after eating are directly affecting your food choices and how that food gets processed by your body. ‘Your digestive system is totally controlled by how you’re thinking,’ she says. ‘I even tell people: “If you can’t find the right food, don’t eat until you do and if you’re worked up, don’t eat until you’re calm.”’ A toxic mindset can contribute to nutrition loss: Leaf posits that nutritional intake can be lost to anxiety and worry in staggering proportions, instead of being absorbed and used. “If it’s good nutrition, you’re still losing 80-90% of that nutrition and if it’s bad nutrition, there’s nothing to get from it anyway.’ It goes both ways: Just as food with low nutritional value is bad for your body and brain, so toxic thinking, schedules and habits are as bad for your digestive system as they are for your mind. ‘Let’s say you’re happy. Your digestive system, every part of it, will work better – your pancreas, stomach, gallbladder and intestines. But if you’re irritated, or you’ve just had an argument, or you’re upset about something, then your digestive system almost shuts down, to about a 20% level, which people don’t realise. Then they wonder why they have a sore stomach or they’re feeling sick – it’s the mind. The mind drives the digestive system.’ Eating should be simple: ‘If we need a nutritional expert to tell us what to eat, something’s very wrong with our food system,’ observes Leaf. ‘Eating is the second most natural thing we do. We need to get back to basics.’ THE END OF CONSCIOUSNESS Looking at the lifestyle decisions that lead to our sleep and nutrition deficiencies, a pattern emerges: detachment is the real issue, bred by an over-full lifestyle out of which we constantly feel the need to tap. ‘The biggest thing is a lack of mindfulness,’ says Leaf, when asked why we seem to care so little if the danger’s so serious. ‘We’ve become almost lazy about how we analyse the knowledge. We love to be told: “These are the five steps to achieving that perfect body.” The way things are marketed is also almost diabolical… be very careful of marketing.’ It’s jarring to realise that so much of the available knowledge – including articles like this one – is published not with the goal of informing and inspiring, but with the goal of landing a sale. We invite it, too, in our obsession with instant gratification, whether in the form of a sleeping pill or a superfood. The fact is that marketing campaigns are behind a number of wellness trends and even some dietary staples. Orange juice, pomegranates and kale are what they are today not because of exemplary nutritional value, but because the people who grow them spent money on good PR. Knowing that puts a pretty low cap on how much you can trust your favourite website or influencer to lead you in the right direction. Both Kruger and Leaf make one thing immediately clear: your health is your job. We’ve automated so much of our lives that we’ve developed passive relationships with everything in them, including our bodies. Fixing the problem means showing up. ‘We rely too much on medication to solve the problems caused by poor lifestyle choices,’ says Kruger. ‘Changing the “quick-fix” mentality is the biggest step you can take to improving your health. Real health takes work and constant attention – and no pill can substitute a healthy lifestyle.’