As Wayne Fields said in his nursery rhyme, “the best six doctors anywhere and no one can deny it, are sunshine, water, rest, and air, exercise and diet. These six will gladly you attend, if only you are willing, your mind they’ll ease, your will they’ll mend, and charge you not a shilling”.
There is a lot of truth to the above quote. Let’s break it down further.
- Sunshine – plan to get in both some morning and midday sun; as little as 3-15 minutes of sunshine per day has been shown to have benefit for certain populations.
Research has shown sunshine has a positive effect on mood and sleep and is critical for producing vitamin D in our bodies. The primary way to get vitamin D is by exposing your bare skin to sunlight; the secondary method is to take vitamin D supplements. You can’t get the right amount of vitamin D your body needs from food alone. Recent studies have found that vitamin D helps you make serotonin, one of our bodies feel good hormones. Healthy serotonin levels result in a more positive mood and a calm yet focused mental outlook. Studies have also found that when people are exposed to sunlight (or very bright artificial light) in the morning, their nocturnal melatonin production occurs sooner, and they enter into sleep more easily at night.
Beyond the obvious improvements in wellbeing with improved mood and sleep, optimal vitamin D levels have been found to be of clinical benefit against cancer, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, obesity, type 2 diabetes, cognitive impairment, Parkinson’s disease, fractures and falls, autoimmune disease, influenza, and more.
The exact amount of sunshine needed per day to maintain optimal vitamin D levels depends on many factors, including where you live, the time of day, the color of your skin, and the amount of skin you expose. For the best, individualized recommendations see your local Naturopathic Doctor. They can test your vitamin D levels (vitamin D insufficiency affects almost 50% of the population worldwide) and complete a thorough health history to determine what is the best and safest plan of action for you in terms of sun exposure and vitamin D supplementation.
- Water – drink at least 2L/day or take your body weight (in pounds), divide it in ½, and drink that many ounces each day.
There may be too many benefits to list! Everyone has heard by now that 70% of our body is made up of water. Your body truly needs water to function properly. It is one of the simplest health habits you can follow to improve energy, flush out toxins, improve skin, aid digestion, promote weight loss, prevent headaches, and more.
Once you are thirsty, you are already dehydrated. Many mistake this for hunger as well. I recommend to patients that they drink 250-500mL of warm or room temp water upon first rising to help kick start the healthy habit all day. Adding ¼ to ½ of a fresh lemon juiced will promote greater detox (when implementing this into daily routine, I suggest using a straw to avoid damage of the tooth enamel).
- Rest – make sleep a priority, not a luxury; get a minimum 7-8.5 hours of sleep per night.
Under strict experimental conditions, short-term restriction of sleep results in a variety of adverse physiologic effects, including activation of the sympathetic nervous system (our ‘flight or fight’ or ‘stress’ response), high blood pressure, impairment of blood sugar control, increased inflammation, depressed immunity, and poor cognitive performance. Imagine what it can do over a lifetime. Just one night of poor sleep has been shown to have a significant impact on affect/mood, anxiety levels, and emotional reactivity. Your body actually remembers all the sleep it should have gotten but didn’t – something called sleep debt – and the more in sleep debt you are, the less capable you are of recognizing it. When fatigue, irritability, and brain fog have set it, we can hardly recall what it is like to feel truly rested.
If you have an issue with sleep beyond prioritizing its hours, speak with your local ND to devise a plan on how to get you sleeping better. An ND can discuss with you the importance of sleep hygiene (bedtime routine and environment) and what else may be getting in the way (for example, hormones – elevated stress hormones, fluctuations in sex hormones, or melatonin).
- Air – practice deep breathing each day or for at least 90 minutes each week.
Deep breathing has now been confirmed to improve mood and reduce stress. It actually reduces objective measures of stress such as elevated heart rate and cortisol (stress hormone) levels in the body. I often suggest patients incorporate yoga or Pilates into their weekly routine along side daily deep breathing exercises.
- Exercise – plan at least 150 minutes of moderate paced exercise into each week; that means breaking a sweat and getting your heart rate up.
The benefits of exercise are numerous – stress relief, improved mood, it is protective against depression, stronger muscles and bones, a more robust immune system, healthier weight and a higher metabolism, keeps blood sugars in check and insulin working well, lowers blood pressure and cholesterol, helps the body detox, and so on.
Something is always better than nothing – start small, with attainable goals, and work up from there, as you get stronger. Don’t let an all-or-nothing mentality rob you of doing what you can manage each day or week, starting now.
- Diet – eat whole foods wherever possible; think 80:20 rule – you can still eat well without feeling deprived!
As a Naturopathic Doctor, I could speak on diet for ages. But one truth rings true across almost all diet interventions for most any indication – we need to eat more whole foods (i.e. as close to their natural form as possible, unprocessed, no boxed or packaged foods). This looks like eating more veggies, fruits (but more veggies than fruits), lean protein, and healthy fats like fish, avocado, nuts and seeds, and coconut. Limit white or refined foods like white potatoes, breads, and pastas. A good way to think about it is adding healthier options, rather than “taking away” less healthy options. For example, incorporating more sweet potato or yam in place of white potato or choosing brown rice over white rice. With a whole foods diet, not only are you maximizing micronutrient intake (vitamins and minerals), you are reducing inflammation in the body, which contributes to many chronic diseases.
Mood wise, diet is very important. Balancing your blood sugars (via proper intake of complex carbs and fiber) can reduce anxiety and keep energy consistent throughout the day. Protein is crucial to a healthy mood as it is the building blocks of all of our hormones. Healthy fats are critical for proper brain function that impacts mood and performance.
All of this and I have not begun to discuss digestion – if you have signs of poor digestion such as gas, bloating, abdominal pain, constipation or diarrhea, seek out an ND who can get to the bottom of this with you. Something termed “leaky gut” (aka intestinal hyper-permeability) has been associated with anxiety, depression, OCD, ADD/ADHD as well as many other chronic symptoms and conditions.
Of course, this is a brief overview of the above topics, but reinforces what most of us already know – that these 6 “doctors” can have a huge impact on our health and for very little in terms of financial burden. In my initial visits with patients, I always go over what I call the foundations of health – diet and digestion, stress management, sleep, and movement. We always work to build these 6 doctors into their daily routines. Often, those seeing me do need some extra support. I may suggest certain nutrients or herbs to increase their body’s resilience to stress and improve energy and mood while we work to get the foundations in place. Acupuncture is another great tool for stress management and mood support; I practice Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) acupuncture, an ancient technique to connect mind and body.
If you are curious to learn more about what you can do each day to improve your overall wellbeing, and have someone to help keep you accountable, consider a visit to your local ND.
Dr. Willow Langille
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