Is it possible to avoid heart attacks, ulcers, headaches, cancer, and other poor health events? YES! It is true that we don't have complete control over the universe, and sometimes, "shit happens," but it is very clear that negative health triggers increase our risk for poor health events. Knowing what they are and avoiding them just might save your life.
1. Bad stress
What, you ask, is bad stress? Stress that causes an ongoing and damaging adrenaline response in the body, accompanied by high cortisol, high blood sugar, high blood pressure, and immune, tissue, and blood vessel damage. In other words, bad things that make you sick.
Not all stress is bad. Good stress, for example, includes situations that are invigorating, challenging, and leave you stronger. An example would be a new job that is pushing you to the limits of your abilities and creativity and has your heart pumping, accompanied by a prevailing sense that you are going to get this done. Or the stress of training for a triathlon or learning a new sport, with your efforts rewarded by your gradual improvement.
How can you tell the difference? Bad stress is stress that leaves you more terrified than stimulated, feeling hopeless and a victim of your circumstances, such as a verbally or physically abusive relationship with a partner or a boss. Good stress leaves you feeling challenged. Bad stress leaves you fearing for your life or your livelihood. Notice which you might be feeling in your life and in the situations you find yourself in.
Can you sometimes turn bad stress into good stress? Sure. For example, when you are afraid you may fail at a task set for you at work, take a moment and breathe. Find the calm within you. Get the help or inspiration you may need from colleagues or friends. And turn that task into a challenge. What does not kill you only makes you stronger (thank you Nietzsche and Kanye).
2. Unconscious eating
Unconscious eating includes the automatic hand dip into the candy bowl or popcorn bowl. It also includes all categories of eating that are not due to actual hunger. If you find yourself looking into the freezer in search of ice cream because it's finals week and you're pulling an all-nighter, or because your girlfriend just dumped you, or because you're under the influence, this is unconscious eating. You're not actually hungry; you're upset or anxious or under the influence.
In general, you want to be aware of what you're putting into your body. Almost all processed food is harmful to our bodies. As is all fast food. And packaged food. And we can pretty much blame packaged, processed and "fast food" for being the primary cause of all chronic diseases in the United States. Seriously. Heart disease, stroke, cancer, arthritis, and autoimmune disease are just a few of the issues made worse by processed and packaged foods.
Be a conscious eater. If you're paying any attention to whether you're actually hungry, and to what your body truly wants to eat, you are far less likely to reach for the Cheetos.
3. Skipping sleep
Lack of sleep causes weight gain, which can then cause diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and exacerbate arthritis. This weight gain is related to the fact that lack of sleep reduces our natural appetite suppressant (leptin) and increases our appetite driver (ghrelin). Lack of sleep also exacerbates anxiety, depression, fatigue, irritability, and reduces concentration and productivity. Want to be healthy and successful? Sleep until you're feeling well-rested.
4. Not brushing and flossing
Periodontal disease from not flossing, brushing, and seeing the dentist regularly almost doubles the risk of heart disease because unhealthy gums allow bacteria and plaque to enter the bloodstream and increase inflammation. Isn't that crazy? Periodontal disease may also increase the risk of dementia. And the loss of teeth from poor dental care contributes to a less healthy diet—exacerbating all chronic health issues.
Turns out that increased hours of sitting are associated with higher rates of high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, and obesity, independent of any other risk factors. Scary stuff. Almost enough to get you off the couch. Sitting also increases your risk of dying from any cause.
So no matter what kind of work you do, get off your ass and find a new position to do it in. Stand at your desk, stroll during meetings, limit your time in the car. And when you're home? Try to find something else to do besides sit. Exercise bike and Netflix anyone?
If you can avoid most of these triggers most of the time, you will be well on your way to a healthier, happier, and longer life!