Smart Doctors Speak Plainly
We are not generally purveyors of health advice, but when we get some we share. What we learned recently from two doctors, one an eminent preventive cardiologist (Dr. Holly Andersen) and the other a sleep expert (Dr. Ana Krieger), was that our mothers were right: get a good night’s sleep, eat your vegetables, exercise, and have nice friends. You will likely live a little longer, and you surely will live happier, following these rules, which are now being confirmed by epigenetics, the science about how genes are altered externally.
Here is what we heard.
Sleep. How much you need varies from person to person and by age, but generally seven to eight hours is best, all at one time. (Naps don’t count.) Everyone, however, wakes up in the middle of the night. The question is how to get back to sleep. Turn off the lights and your cellphone. Deep breaths can help--four seconds in, hold for seven, exhale for eight, four or five repetitions. But if you can’t fall back to sleep, get out of bed. Bed should be for sex and sleeping, and nothing else.
Sleep hygiene, the habits you put in place to optimize sleep, can have long term benefits. Don't rely on sleep drugs. They are not good for you, and usually the reason you started taking them is not the reason you keep taking them. Synthetic melatonin (not the organic kind from cows), in small doses, can help.
Interestingly, if you are sleep deprived you can’t lose weight. Sleep affects the way you process food. Sleep deprivation makes you crave carbs. Periodic modified fasting (say from 6 pm to 1 pm the next day) can be helpful for overall health. Though you are also supposed to have protein in the morning.
Eat. What you put in your body is crucial. It’s not about what you weigh (within reason of course), but about your health. Fat isn’t as bad as we thought it was, but sugar is far worse, causing brain disease, heart attacks and cancer. Sugar is an inflammatory, and inflammation is a precursor to damage and disease. Red meat is pretty bad too.
The Mediterranean diet is still best for brain and heart. Fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, olive oil and fish.
Caffeine is probably good for you. Caffeine in tea is best, but coffee is OK. A little wine a day, red or white, doesn’t hurt, though a lot might.
There is little or no proof that supplements do anything at all, unless you have a specific known deficiency. And some may do harm, especially if used in excess. Having said that, it may be reasonable to take a daily multivitamin. Probiotics can be good for digestion, whether from a pill like Align or from yogurt, but generally the market is way ahead of the science. As for calcium and fish oil, it’s far better to get them from food than pills. And tastier. B12 is also not good--it causes anemia. Other than multis, we should be emptying our medicine cabinets.
Move. How much is enough? Nobody seems to know, but moving (at least 150 minutes per week) is good, sitting is bad, weight bearing exercises protect bones, and getting heart rates up for 20 minutes a day reduces death rates. The longer you walk, the longer you live. Be mindful of what your body can and cannot do. Extreme exercise might seem like a shortcut, but if you break something you will stop altogether.
Good posture (ears over shoulders, shoulders over hips) helps long term health. Deep breathing is good. Transcendental meditation also improves longevity. But if you can’t do that, try Herbert Benson’s deep breathing exercises--the “relaxation response”. They might change your life.
Be Happy. Finally, it is apparently actually true, again as our mothers said, that happy people live longer healthier lives than unhappy people. And people are more important than stuff. People who are happy giving to other people, and being with people who make them happy, have healthier brains than people whose happiness depends more on things. So, do your best to see the glass half full as you drink with your friends. (Especially if it is your single glass of wine for the day.) (No, we don't follow that rule religiously.)
When you aren’t sure, assume whatever someone said to you was positive. Concentrate on what you are grateful for, especially before you go to sleep. Spend less time with those who cause you stress. When you worked at your career, you often had no choice about this one. Now that you have entered a new phase, you do. Be thankful.