By Dr. Mercola
Making a commitment to live healthier is an ongoing process. It's virtually impossible to make all the needed changes in one fell swoop. To assist you with this process, I've created a plan you can implement little by little, one step at a time.
Perhaps you made a New Year's resolution to live healthier. The following list consisting of nine general categories will give you an indication of how far you've actually come.
If you're still missing a few pieces, make the commitment to address one item at a time going forward. I've created a helpful Health Check Tip Sheet you can print out and post in a conspicuous location to keep you motivated.
For more in-depth information on any given topic, please follow the hyperlinks provided.
#1 Replace Soda With Water, Tea and Black Organic Coffee
Obesity, diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, liver damage, osteoporosis and acid reflux are just some of the health conditions linked to soda consumption.
Making the commitment to swap your soda for healthier beverages like water, sparkling water and the occasional cup of tea and/or organic black coffee can go a long way toward improving your health.
Remember, the only beverage your body really needs is clean, pure water. In fact, many common health complaints are simply due to dehydration, including tiredness, headache, irritability, confusion, constipation, dry skin and more.
Unfortunately, most water supplies are heavily polluted these days, even in the United States, so a high-quality water filtration system is a wise investment. Most water supplies contain a number of potentially hazardous contaminants, including fluoride, drugs and disinfection byproducts (DBPs), just to name a few.
How much water do you need each day for optimal health? While many still recommend drinking eight glasses of water a day, individual water needs vary so widely, your best bet is to:
- Use your thirst as a guide. Once your body has lost 1 to 2 percent of its water content, you will feel thirsty. This is a sign that you need to replenish the lost liquids
- Look at the color of your urine. Drink enough water to turn your urine a light-colored yellow (keep in mind certain vitamin supplements can affect the color of your urine)
- Monitor the frequency of urination. If your urine is scant or if you haven't urinated in several hours, that too is an indication you need to drink more
Besides water, tea and coffee also have their place if you enjoy them. According to the 2015 edition of Dietary Guidelines for Americans, you can safely consume up to five cups of coffee a day without detrimental effects.1
Recent research even suggests drinking up to six cups of coffee a day may actually be beneficial for your heart and cardiovascular health, and is inversely associated with premature death.2,3,4,5,6
Tea and Coffee Caveats
Both coffee and tea contain caffeine (provided it's not decaffeinated), which has been linked to adverse health effects such as elevated blood pressure, gastric upset and anxiety. However, both coffee and tea contain other health-promoting ingredients that appear to outweigh the drawbacks of caffeine.
Among them are beneficial antioxidants, and according to researchers, coffee, (because of the volume consumed, not because of its high amount) is the primary source of antioxidants in the American diet.7 As with water, quality and purity is not a given though. You need to use discernment with these beverages.
Most coffee is heavily contaminated with pesticides, so when we speak about the benefits of coffee, let it be understood that we're talking about coffee that is:
- Organic (ideally fair trade), to avoid pesticides
- Freshly ground. Once ground, coffee quickly goes stale and rancid, so for optimal freshness grind your own coffee beans
- Dark roast, such as French Roast, espresso or Turkish coffee tends to have the highest amounts of beneficial antioxidants. Dark roast coffee also produces more of a chemical that helps prevent the production of excess stomach acid, so it may be easier on your stomach8
- Served black, meaning without milk or sugar. Adding dairy may interfere with your body's absorption of beneficial chlorogenic acids, while the added sugar will contribute to insulin resistance, which is at the heart of most chronic disease
- Brewed with non-bleached filters to avoid chlorine and DBPs such as dioxin
As for tea, both black and green teas tend to be naturally high in fluoride, even if organically grown without pesticides. This is because the plant readily absorbs fluoride thorough its root system, including naturally occurring fluoride in the soil.
So, as with coffee, when selecting tea, opt for organic (to avoid pesticides), grown in a pristine environment (to avoid fluoride, heavy metals, and other toxins from contaminated soil and water).
#2 Eat 2 Meals a Day Within an 8-Hour Window
Your body probably only needs two meals a day, and eating this way has a number of health benefits, including weight loss, disease prevention, resolving insulin resistance, optimizing your mitochondrial function and preventing cellular damage from occurring.
As long as you restrict your eating to a six- to eight-hour window each day, and avoid eating for at least three hours before bed, you can choose between having breakfast and lunch, or lunch and dinner, but avoid having both breakfast and dinner.
Which two meals you prefer are up to you; let your body, and your lifestyle, be your guide. There are also a number of other intermittent fasting plans to choose from, should this daily eating schedule not appeal to you.
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EFT Can Increase Your Intermittent Fasting Success
Compliance is a critical factor for any intermittent fasting plan, and stress about fasting can sabotage your success. The Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) can be a helpful ally here, allowing you to tap away your anxiety about fasting. It's one of the most powerful tools for reducing stress and anxiety I know of.
In 2012, a triple blind study9 found that EFT reduced cortisol levels and symptoms of psychological distress by 24 percent — more than any other intervention tested. Do you worry you'll be hungry all the time? Are you afraid you'll feel deprived or suffer unbearable cravings? Are you worried it won't work for you? EFT practitioner Julie Schiffman covers all of these issues in her video — and more.
The first few weeks of fasting are typically the most challenging, while your body is making the necessary biochemical adjustments to its metabolic engine. Tapping can be extraordinarily beneficial for eliminating anxiety and cravings during this time. EFT is easy to learn and once you do, it's always at your fingertips — whenever and wherever you need it.
#3 Clean Up Your Diet
As for what to eat when you do eat, the most basic of recommendations is to simply eat REAL FOOD. With that foundation in mind, I also recommend you:
✓ Replace net carbs with healthy fats
Replace net carbs (total carbohydrates minus fiber; think sugars and grains) with high-quality healthy fats. Fats are a "cleaner" type of fuel for your body compared to carbs, and most would benefit getting anywhere from 50 to 85 percent of daily calories from healthy fats, such as that from avocados, butter made from raw grass-fed organic milk, raw dairy, organic pastured eggs, coconuts, coconut oil, organic nut oils, raw nuts (especially macadamias and pecans), seeds, and grass-fed meats.
Dietary fats can be generally classified as saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated (PUFA). A "saturated" fat means that all carbon atoms have their bonds filled with hydrogen atoms and as a result they are far less likely to oxidize and go rancid. Fats in foods contain a mixture of fats, but in foods of animal origin a large proportion are saturated.
Research shows avoiding saturated fat does NOT help prevent heart disease or improve longevity. In fact, saturated fats have protective effects. The benefits of saturated fat are many, and some appear to be uniquely traceable to saturated fat. For example, you need saturated fats for brain and immune system health.
Another argument is that animal foods in general, including meat cheese, butter, dairy, and eggs, contain high amounts of vitamins. Vitamins A, D, E, and K are fat soluble, and you have to have the fat that comes naturally in animal foods along with the vitamins in order to absorb those vitamins.
The fats you need to avoid to protect your heart health are trans fats and processed vegetables oils, which are high in damaged omega-6 fats and PUFAs.
✓ Eat more fiber
You can have virtually unlimited amounts of high-fiber vegetables, which are low in net carbs, Several studies have shown a 10 percent drop in risk for any cause of death with each 10-gram-per-day increase in fiber intake.
Soluble fiber helps nourish beneficial bacteria that assist with digestion and absorption of your food, and play a significant role in your immune function. Studies have also linked a high-fiber diet to beneficial reductions in cholesterol and blood pressure, improved insulin sensitivity, and reduced inflammation — all of which can influence your mortality risk.
✓ Vegetable juicing
Vegetable juicing is an easy way to boost your vegetable intake, providing your body with important nutrients in an easily digestible form. The bulk of your juice should come from organic, green veggies – spinach, celery, kale, Swiss chard, etc. — not fruits, which are too high in fructose.
✓ Grow (and eat) sprouts
Sprouts allow you to get the most benefit out of a plant in its most biologically concentrated form. When you sprout foods, you increase proteolytic enzymes that make both carbohydrates and proteins digestible. Sprouts are not only an excellent source of fiber, they also offer some of the highest levels of nutrition available, including vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that help protect against free radical damage, plus various plant chemicals unique to any given sprout.
Sunflower seed and pea shoots are both typically about 30 times more nutritious than organic vegetables, and are among the highest in protein. Sprouts are one of the easiest foods to grow at home, even in small spaces, allowing you to improve your diet at a low cost. You can find sprout starter kits and different kinds of sprouting seeds in my online shop.
✓ Optimize your omega-3 to omega-6 ratio
It's important to understand the difference between plant- and animal-based omega-3 fats. Many believe plant-based omega-3 is preferable to animal-based omega-3, but they're not really interchangeable. Ideally, you want both, but animal-based omega-3 is particularly important for optimal health and many are deficient in it.
Part of the problem is not eating enough omega-3 rich foods, like wild-caught Alaskan salmon and small fatty fish like sardines. The other side of the equation is eating far too many processed vegetable oils like corn, soy, and canola, which are high in damaged omega-6 oils. Ideally, you want an omega-3 to omega-6 ratio of about 1:1. To achieve that, you likely need to increase your animal-based omega-3 and decrease your omega-6.
Barring high consumption of fatty fish, your next best option is to take a high-quality omega-3 supplement. I prefer krill oil, as it's both superior in its activity to fish oil, and more environmentally sustainable.
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✓ Moderate your protein consumption and choose quality over quantity
Eating too much protein may be more hazardous to your health, than eating too much sugar. I recommend eating a moderate amount of high-quality protein (think grass-fed meats and eggs, for example), based on a formula of one-half gram of protein per pound of lean body mass (or 1 gram per kilo of lean body mass).
✓ Eat fermented vegetables
In the U.S., the preparation of fermented foods is a largely lost art. I'm trying to change that, as fermented vegetables are such an inexpensive and effective way to optimize your gut microbiome and improve both your physical and mental health. When your GI tract is not properly balanced, a wide range of health problems can appear, including allergies and autoimmune diseases.
In fact, over the past several years, research has revealed that microbes of all kinds — bacteria, fungi, and even viruses — play instrumental roles in the functioning of your body, influencing everything from vitamin production and detoxification, to your affecting your weight and mood.
Fermented foods are packed with beneficial microorganisms that most people do not get elsewhere. Just one-quarter to one-half cup of fermented vegetables, eaten with one to three meals per day, can have a dramatically beneficial impact on your health.
To learn how to make your own, please review the video below and read through my previous article, "Tips for Fermenting at Home." Aside from your choice of vegetables, all you need are some wide-mouth glass jars with lids. There are other accessories that can be helpful, such as pounders, weights and carbon filter jar lids that help reduce odors, but they're not essential.
One addition you may want to consider though is a starter culture. Besides speeding up the fermentation process, some can provide additional benefits. I like using a starter culture specifically designed to optimize vitamin K2. My research team found we could get 400 to 500 micrograms of vitamin K2 in a 2-ounce serving of fermented vegetables using such a starter culture, which is a clinically therapeutic dose for K2.
✓ Clean up your condiments
Commercially prepared condiments are typically a mixture of low-quality, genetically engineered ingredients, chemical preservatives, fillers and taste and texture enhancers that have potential health risks. Fortunately, making your own isn't as difficult as you might imagine. Recipes for homemade mayonnaise, sour cream, salad dressing, ketchup and barbeque sauce can be found in my article, "What's in Your Condiments?"
#4 Get 8 Hours of Restful Sleep Each Night
Research shows most adults really need about eight hours of sleep every night for optimal health. What makes sleep deprivation so detrimental is that it doesn't just impact one aspect of your health; it impacts many. It has the same effect on your immune system as physical stress or illness, which may help explain why lack of sleep is tied to an increased risk of numerous chronic diseases.
For example, sleeping less than six hours per night more than triples your risk of high blood pressure, and women who get less than four hours of shut-eye per night double their chances of dying from heart disease.10 Sleep is also intricately tied to important hormone levels, including melatonin, production of which is disturbed by lack of sleep. This is extremely problematic, as melatonin inhibits the proliferation of a wide range of cancer cell types, as well as triggers cancer cell apoptosis (self-destruction).
Lack of sleep also decreases levels of your fat-regulating hormone leptin, while increasing the hunger hormone ghrelin. The resulting increase in appetite can easily lead to overeating and weight gain. Poor or insufficient sleep is also the strongest predictor for pain in adults over 50.11
Small adjustments to your daily routine and sleeping area can go a long way to ensure uninterrupted, restful sleep. If you're not sure how much sleep you're getting, a fitness tracker can be beneficial for helping you keep track of the actual time you're asleep (as opposed to the time spent in bed). If you need more sleep, I suggest you read through my full set of 33 healthy sleep guidelines for details on proper sleep hygiene. You can also find useful tips in my "Top 5 Natural Sleep Aids" article.
Key recommendations for improving the amount and quality of your sleep include getting plenty of natural sunlight exposure in the early morning and mid-day, and avoiding blue light exposure in the evening. This includes avoiding electronic screens, which emit blue light unless you've installed light-altering software like f.lux. Another alternative is to use amber-colored glasses that block blue light, which can be purchased for about $10 on Amazon.
This is an ideal solution if you don't want to change out your light bulbs and skip watching television before going to bed. Also make sure your sleeping quarter is dark to prevent melatonin suppression, which will make it difficult to fall asleep. I recommend installing thick drapes for this reason, but a far cheaper alternative is to use a sleep mask. An eye mask filled with lavender can be particularly soothing.
#5 Mind Your Oral Health
Poor oral health can contribute to systemic inflammation, raising your risk for bad breath, dementia, pneumonia, erectile dysfunction, kidney disease and head and neck cancers. So make it a habit to brush twice a day and floss daily. Oil pulling with coconut oil is another strategy that can help improve both your oral and general health by deep-cleaning your mouth and drawing out toxins. It also helps promote microbiome homeostasis, which is important for oral health.
Personally, this technique has significantly reduced my plaque buildup, allowing me to go longer between visits to the dental hygienist. How is it done? Simply rinse your mouth with 1 tablespoon of coconut oil, much like you would using a mouthwash. Work the oil around your mouth by pushing, pulling, and drawing it through your teeth for about 15 minutes.
When done, spit out the oil (do NOT swallow it) and rinse your mouth with water. I typically spit mine out on the soil outside of my house, being careful to avoid any plants, to avoid clogging up my sink. If you want, you could dissolve a pinch of Himalayan salt in the water and rinse with that. Himalayan salt contains more than 85 different minerals that can also help promote strong, healthy teeth and gums.
#6 Sit Less, Walk More and Work on Your Flexibility
The average American adult spends nine to 10 hours each day sitting, which is so much inactivity that even a 30- or 60-minute workout cannot counteract its adverse effects on your health. While it might seem natural to sit this long since you've probably grown used to it (physically and mentally), it's actually quite contrary to nature.
Studies looking at life in agriculture environments show that people in agrarian villages sit for about three hours a day. Your body is designed to move around and be active the majority of the day, and significant negative changes occur when you spend the majority of the day sedentary instead. To get more movement into your daily life, consider implementing the following:
• Set a goal to walk about 7,000 to 10,000 steps a day (which is just over three to five U.S. miles, or six to nine kilometers). This should be over and above any exercise regimen you may have. Daily walking has been shown to provide anti-aging benefits that could add an additional three to seven years to your life.
• Walk barefoot more often. Your body is finely tuned to "work" with the Earth in the sense that there's a constant flow of energy between your body and the Earth. When you put your feet on the ground, you absorb large amounts of negative electrons through the soles of your feet.
The effect is sufficient to maintain your body at the same negatively charged electrical potential as the Earth. This simple process of grounding is one of the most potent antioxidants we know of. Grounding has been shown to relieve pain, reduce inflammation, improve sleep, enhance well being and much more
• Stand up at work if you can, rather than sitting at your desk. A stand-up desk is certainly a worthwhile investment if you have an office job.
• Work on your flexibility. Also make it a point to gain flexibility, which will help keep you functional well into old age. Pilates, yoga, and whole body vibration training are just some of your options.
#7 Get Your Vitamin D Level Tested
I recommend testing your vitamin D twice a year: around January, when your level will be at its lowest, and June or July, when it'll be at its peak. This will help guide you as to how much vitamin D you may need to take in order to maintain a clinically relevant level of 40 to 60 nanograms per milliliter year-round. Testing your vitamin D is easy. You don't even need a doctor's prescription.
As a service that is part of GrassrootsHealth's vitamin D education efforts, I offer vitamin D testing kits in my online shop. I make no profit from these kits. It's the same price you would pay were you to enroll in the GrassrootsHealth D*Action project.
#8 Make Stress Reduction a Daily Priority
Stress-related problems, including back pain, insomnia, acid reflux and exacerbations to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) may account for up to 70 percent of the average American physician's caseload.12 Such health-care expenditures are the third highest in the U.S. after heart disease and cancer. Research suggests these costs could be drastically cut simply by learning how to relax.13
There are many options here, so try a few to determine which works best. Here are just a few suggestions. For more tips and tricks, check out my "23 (Scientific) Happiness Hacks" article:
• Daily meditation or mindfulness training: both are excellent for stress relief and relaxation. One simple way to incorporate these techniques into your life is to meditate for five or 10 minutes first thing in the morning, even before you get out of bed, to take advantage of your mind being in a quiet zone.
• Yoga: regular yoga practice has been shown to have a positive effect on both sleep and stress. It's also been shown to alleviate mental health problems such as depression, anxiety and attention-deficit, hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
• Keep a gratitude journal: people who are thankful for what they have are better able to cope with stress, are happier, and better able to reach their goals, and studies show that those who keep a gratitude journal typically end up exercising more and have fewer health complaints. Studies have also linked gratitude to improved sleep, reduced stress, enhanced well-being, improved heart health.
• Learn EFT: one of the most effective tools against anxiety is EFT, which helps correct the biochemical short-circuiting that occurs with chronic anxiety. You can think of EFT as a tool for "reprogramming" your circuitry, and it works on both real and imagined stressors.
• Start a garden: gardening is an excellent "blues buster," helping relieve acute stress and attention fatigue associated with a fast-paced life. Many gardeners start out gardening because they want to sample some homegrown food but end up sticking with gardening because of how it feeds their mind and soul.
That said, anyone who's really serious about improving their health will eventually conclude that growing your own food is an important part of the answer. For helpful tips on making your garden a success, please review my previous articles on using wood chips and biochar to optimize your soil quality.
#9 Help Others and Be Active in Your Community
Volunteering is a simple way to help others, but it's also a powerful way to help yourself. Beyond the good feelings you'll get from donating your time, and the potential to develop new, meaningful relationships with people in your community, volunteering has a significant impact on your physical health, including a boost to your heart health.
In one study, people who volunteered for at least 200 hours a year were 40 percent less likely to develop high blood pressure than those who didn't.14 People who volunteer for altruistic reasons, i.e. to help others rather than themselves, may even live longer than those who volunteer for more self-centered reasons.15
The benefits of being active in your community are particularly pronounced among older adults, a population that tends to slow down once retirement hits. There's a definite social aspect, as if you're socially isolated you may experience poorer health and a shorter lifespan.
Volunteering also gives you a sense of purpose and can even lead to a so-called "helper's high," which may occur because doing good releases feel-good hormones like oxytocin in your body while lowering levels of stress hormones like cortisol. Giving back is about so much more than even that, though, as it will help you to connect with your community and contribute your time and/or talents to promoting the greater good.