These basic foundations of health set the stage for your overall health. Unfortunately, folks often don’t pay enough attention to these, choosing to focus on “trendier” aspects of health. I get it, it’s easy to be distracted by the endless number of flashy websites, books, and methods all claiming to provide the magic bullet that can solve all your health problems. They claim to have the missing, super-secret key that will deliver unrivaled health if you eat this food from a remote location, take this exotic, “newly discovered!” supplement, or follow a complicated and restrictive dietary program. With often conflicting information and approaches, it can be confusing to decide which approach is not only effective but right for you.
The reality is that maximizing your health can be much more simple. Focusing on and addressing dysfunction in just six key areas can help support your body’s innate ability to heal and thrive.
What are the foundations of health?
You are what you eat.
Optimal health isn’t possible without eating a nutrient-dense diet comprised of properly prepared, whole foods. Eating a wide variety of in-season produce not only provides your body with the fuel it needs to function efficiently, but also ensures your cells get the nutrients they need for proper growth, maintenance, and repair.
In addition to quality carbs, protein, and fats, your body requires about 30 different minerals and vitamins to function properly—most of which must be obtained from your diet. Eating a nutrient-dense diet supplies your body with the macro-and micro-nutrients it needs, in a synergistic format it can best utilize. This sustains steady energy levels, lowers your risk for chronic diseases, and helps your body’s systems function properly.
It’s important to include both animal and plant foods in your diet as they each contain different essential nutrients. Plant foods are excellent sources of nutrients such as vitamin C, fiber, carotenoids, polyphenols, and flavonoids. Animal foods are rich in others like protein, vitamin B12, iron, zinc, and fatty acids. To maximize the nutrients you’re getting, it’s important that plant foods are raised in nutrient-rich soil using organic methods and that animals are raised eating a species-appropriate diet.
But to utilize all those beneficial nutrients, you need to be able to properly break them down.
You are what you
If your digestive system isn’t functioning properly, optimal health is impossible. Dysfunction anywhere along the digestive tract—from the brain down to the colon—can prevent us from getting the nutrients we need to stay healthy. This inability to properly process our food can be caused by physical issues such as low stomach acid, pancreatic insufficiency, and imbalances in our microbiome. It can also be a result of cognitive issues like stress, depression, and anxiety. Any of these can cause a disruption in our digestive process that can have a downstream effect resulting in vulnerability to pathogens, nutrient deficiencies, dysbiosis, leaky gut, and more.
To help avoid these issues, it’s absolutely vital to support your digestive health. There are a number of ways to do this, including:
- Practicing mindfulness and deep breathing at mealtime to activate your parasympathetic nervous system.
- Thoroughly chewing your food before swallowing to make it easier to digest.
- Eating bitter foods with meals (or using products like Digestive Bitters) to help prime your digestive tract.
- Calming inflammation to help support a healthy gut lining.
- Regularly eating foods that provide natural enzymes like pineapple, papaya, and fermented foods to help break down carbs, protein, and fats.
- Eating sufficient amounts of fiber and prebiotic foods to fuel healthy gut bacteria.
Prioritizing strategies to improve your digestion helps provide your body with the nutrients it needs to function and grow. It also sets the stage for the next foundation of health—blood sugar regulation.
What goes up, must come down.
Once the food you eat has been broken down, your cells are able to convert these carbs, proteins, and fats into energy. When things are working smoothly, your body has the flexibility to produce energy (ATP) from all three of these macronutrients. This helps ensure you have an even, steady supply of energy—ie, no afternoon crashes. You’re also able to efficiently store any surplus energy produced to use later. And more importantly, effectively tap into that stored energy (ie, fat) when you need it.
Your central nervous system, pancreas, adrenals, adipose tissue, liver, and muscles (PAALS) all work diligently to keep your blood sugar levels in a tight range. Once it rises or falls outside of this, these organs work together to bring it back in line. Unfortunately, a diet high in refined carbs and sugar, and chronic stress can wreak havoc on this beautiful orchestra—resulting in super-high highs and super-low lows. In the short term, this can exhaust and tax the PAALS, making them less efficient and effective at their job. In the long term, this blood sugar rollercoaster can lead to much more serious issues like obesity, heart disease, cancer, and type-2 diabetes.
Focusing on nutrient-dense, whole foods, reducing stress, getting enough rest, and moving regularly can support your body’s natural ability to maintain optimal blood sugar levels, tap into fat stores, and improve your ability to efficiently produce energy from all three macronutrients. All without the scary rollercoaster ride.
Fat is phat.
Of all the foundations of health, fats get the bad rap. The low-fat craze that began in the 1980s, led to the demonizing of all fats and significantly reduced our overall intake of this essential nutrient. On one hand, this cutting of unhealthy fats such as trans fats has been beneficial to our health. On the other, the avoidance of healthy fats, like essential fatty acids, has had a considerably negative impact.
Including an adequate balance of saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fats in your diet is absolutely crucial for overall health. In addition to providing a steady source of energy, these fats also play a key role in maintaining the integrity of your cells, balancing hormones, helping you absorb fat-soluble vitamins, regulating the inflammatory response, and increasing satiety.
Two of these fatty acids—linoleic acid (omega-6) and alpha-linolenic acid (omega-3)—can’t be produced by the body and must be obtained through diet. Not getting enough of these key fats can result in serious health issues such as cardiovascular disease, immune dysfunction, allergies, and an increase in mental health disorders like depression and anxiety.
Eating low-fat or no-fat is not the way to optimize your health. Including a balanced ratio of these fats in your daily diet, provides your body with the components it needs to keep inflammation low, reduce the risk of developing serious health issues, and keep your body’s systems functioning smoothly.
Life is about balance.
While macronutrients such as fats, carbs, and protein are certainly important when it comes to optimizing health, it’s important to recognize the key role micronutrients, such as minerals, play as well.
As a matter of fact, minerals are so important to your health that life wouldn’t even be possible without minerals like calcium, potassium, sodium, iron, magnesium, and roughly a dozen or so others. They act as sparkplugs, enabling the firing of countless enzyme reactions that are constantly happening in your body. They also facilitate the transfer of nutrients across cell membranes, regulate tissue growth, maintain proper nerve function, and provide structural and functional support.
You can’t synthesize minerals and must obtain them from your diet. Because of the complex connection between the various minerals, it’s important that you eat a wide variety of colorful, nutrient-dense, whole foods to help ensure you maintain a healthy mineral balance. Too much or too little of any one mineral can result in a loss of balance. This can have a negative chain reaction, resulting in dysfunction, and serious health issues such as osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, certain cancers, and other life-threatening complications. For this reason, it’s important to get minerals from whole foods, rather than isolated supplements.
Water is life.
While we can live for 45-60 days without food, we can only live for about 3 days without water. Adequate water is required for regulating body temp, lubricating joints, proper kidney function, bringing nutrients to cells, removing waste, aiding in digestion, and keeping every system in your body functioning properly. Water is arguably the most important nutrient for optimizing human health.
Unfortunately, with an average daily intake of just over 31 ounces of water per day, it’s no surprise that 20-30% of older adults in the US are chronically dehydrated. This results in common issues like heartburn, joint pain, kidney stones, constipation, anxiety, and colitis.
Regardless of your age, it’s important to pay attention to the amount of water you drink. Due to the wide variations in need, environment, and bio-individuality, there’s no RDA for water. There are, however, some strategies to help optimize your hydration:
- Pay attention to your urine color. While no strict relationship exists, in general, the lighter your urine, the more hydrated you are.
- Limit diuretics such as alcohol and caffeinated beverages. These can cause you to lose sodium and increase water elimination.
- Adult males should aim for 100 oz of total water intake each day, and 77 oz for adult females. This is the total combination of plain water, other beverages, and food.
- Don’t only rely on feelings of thirst—especially if you’re older. Thirst signals decline with age.
When it comes to optimizing your health and keeping your body functioning properly, adequate hydration is non-negotiable. It’s important to remember that all the other foundations on this list require proper hydration to perform properly.
Balance creates a strong body.
Good health doesn’t have to be confusing or complicated. These six foundations of health work synergistically to support the proper functions of your body and addressing dysfunction in each of them can dramatically improve your overall health. Working with someone like an NTP can help you identify and address any imbalances through a whole-food nutritional approach while balancing other healthy lifestyle factors. By developing a simple, individualized strategy to harmonize these six areas you can improve your health, feel better, and thrive.