16/01/2019 by Dr. Lewis
How Functionally Healthy Are You? My 10 Systems that Reveal Optimal Health
What’s your definition of health? Think about it. Do you define health as a lack of “symptoms”? Does health to you mean being “pain free”? “Disease free”? Or do you picture health as a thriving physical body, capable of keeping up with the goals you have for it? Is health to you defined by feeling optimal? Or feeling fine?
To me, health means feeling awesome, both mentally and physically. It means having enough energy in your mind and body to do the things you want to do in life, whatever that might be. In my opinion, health is not just the absence of disease, and health care is not the same thing as disease care. The incredible part about naturopathic medicine is being able to focus on both disease care (treating symptoms of disease) and health care (optimizing health), and it’s the main reason I chose to become a naturopathic doctor.
Often in my initial visits, I let patients know that I’ll focus not only on their health complaints, but also ask about foundational areas of health that cue me into how their body is behaving functionally. And often I’m met with a shrug and “sure, sounds good”. Eventually as we work together my patients come to understand that this focus on functional areas of health are directly related to my definition of health being more comprehensive than simply the absence of disease.
And that’s why I decided to write this blog post. In my six years of practice, I’ve found that there are certain systems that act as a barometer to help gauge the overall health of the body, and I’ve accumulated this list of 10.
These 10 health systems help tell the story of your body’s level of health from a functional perspective. You may find some areas are working more optimally than others, and that’s okay (and quite common). We may never achieve perfect balance and harmony in all of these systems, but we certainly can work towards improving their function and performance. If we do have areas of weakness, it simply signals that preventative measures may be needed in order to support and strengthen our health overall.
I ask everyone about their energy. Everyone! Why? It tells me so much, so quickly. You will feel a drop in your energy as one of the first signals that your body is taxed, whether that’s mentally or physically. It may be a subtle shift, but it’s an important one to pay attention to. Do you feel like you’re having to push yourself more than you normally do? If so, think about what preceded this change and start to correct it. If you’re not sure, come see me, because it’s one of my favourite symptoms to see improve.
I wrote a whole blog post about this last month and it was just the tip of the iceberg, because there are so many things that we know about the importance of sleep on our health and also the ways to impact restful sleep. You just know that having a poor night’s sleep is going to cause a ripple effect to how you feel for the rest of your day, but if you’re chronically under sleeping, this can have profound negative impact on your health.
3. Mental Function
How mentally sharp do you feel? Are you able to focus and concentrate for the majority of the day? How’s your memory? Are you forgetting things on your to-do list or walking into a room and forgetting what you went there for? Many menopausal women complain about brain fog, and describe it as an overall slowing down of their mental function, which can be incredibly frustrating for high performers. These types of symptoms can point to an underlying metabolic or hormonal imbalance, and in more severe cases a neurologic concern.
4. Emotional State
I separate out mental and emotional symptoms intentionally, in order to help spotlight an area of health that many people are quite disconnected from. We often look at dysfunction in emotional health as something to simply muscle through. I often hear “I’m not depressed”, or “I don’t have anxiety” when I ask about emotional health, which is great, but not what I’m typically getting at. Are you connected to your emotions? Can you name the emotions you’re actually feeling when you’re feeling them? Are your emotions appropriate for the trigger, or are you experiencing emotions that are inappropriate? For example, if someone cuts you off in traffic, does this set off an avalanche of curse words and unexplained anger? If someone criticizes your work, do you go into a shame spiral of “I’m not good enough”? These are important concepts to reflect on and work through.
As a naturopathic doctor, digestion is stereotypically, yet truthfully one of my all time favourite topics, and as many of my patients know, I can talk about it for the entirety of even lengthy appointments (beware)! In my defense, there is just so much to learn about a person’s health through assessing their digestive function. From the regularity of bowel movements, to the presence of persistent gas, bloating, discomfort, appetite and heartburn, no topic is taboo in my office. If any of the above is happening on a recurrent basis, let’s talk.
Have you ever looked at someone and thought, “wow, they’re glowing”, or on the flip side “they do not look good” and known instinctively that you were basically commenting on their internal health? That’s because you were. Our skin is often a direct reflection of our body’s state of health, and in some people, it truly cannot lie. Vibrant, glowing and youthful skin tends to prevail in people who are well nourished and rested, whereas a dull complexion reveals a stressed or poorly nourished system.
7. Immune System
Tis the season for colds and flu-like illnesses, so it’s a great time of year to assess your body’s immune function. Do you get sick often? If you’re around sick people at work or at home, will you definitely catch the virus or are you able to stave it off? And if you do get sick, does your body fight it off in a few days or does it linger for weeks or months? These are very telling signs to indicate the strength of your immune system.
8. Body weight
Another hot topic this time of year is weight, and it’s probably one of the top 5 goals that patients have when they consult with me. What I am most curious about regarding this topic is not specifically weight itself, but rather body composition and your ability to reach and maintain a healthy ratio of body fat:muscle. Your body should want to reach a healthy weight. If it’s resistant to changing your body composition (for example shedding fat and gaining healthy muscle), it points to an underlying imbalance that needs to be solved first. Imbalances in hormones, neurotransmitters, insulin, inflammation, metabolism, emotional state, or nutrition and exercise may all play a role.
9. Sex Hormones
Hormonal health can encompass so many different systems, some of which are captured above, so I’ve specifically separated out sex hormones (male and female) to help distinguish certain physiological actions. In women, the circulation of hormones like estrogen and progesterone influences a regular menstrual cycle, supports healthy fertility and pregnancy, and is eventually implicated in having a comfortable menopausal experience. In men, androgens like testosterone and DHEA influence mood, sexual function, body composition, and eventually andropause (the male equivalent to menopause).
I saved the best for last on purpose. And no, connection is not referring to Wifi. We’re talking about human connection, people! As children, we may be fortunate enough to have a family unit, but as we break off into adulthood, and especially in later adulthood, human connection can become more and more challenging. In our increasingly technological age, we are technically more connected than ever, but experiencing record numbers of loneliness even in younger generations. The importance of having a community that you feel a sense of belonging to cannot be overstated. Reflect on what this means for you and begin to enrich your life with deeper, more meaningful connection.
How do you fare on these 10 systems? Do you have room to improve? Are there areas of your health that you would like to work on together? I hope this has sparked some self reflection and curiosity to delve a bit deeper into your personal definition of health. Is something on your list that I haven’t mentioned? I’d love to hear about it.
Wishing you wellness and optimal health,