Every week brings a flurry of health information, from the nutritional perks of the latest superfood to the perils of plastic. Keeping up with all the ideas about what to incorporate -- and what to banish -- from your lifestyle can be downright dizzying, not to mention stress-inducing.
It's time to relax, take a breath, and consider that creating and maintaining good health isn't an exercise in managing all the details. Instead, it's about committing to a few simple practices that help you feel grounded, whole, happy, and energetic.
"Our bodies are talking to us all the time, but unless we make an effort to listen, we don't hear them until they scream," says Tracy Gaudet, M.D., executive director of the Duke Integrative Medicine Center and author of "Consciously Female." Committing to a daily listening practice, ideally in the morning, can transform your health -- and might catch imbalances before they develop into illness.
Start by taking a breath and bringing your attention to the present, she says. "Then ask, 'How does my body feel? What does it need from me today? Do I have any discomfort or pain? How is my energy?' " This practice can shift the "me-versus-you attitude we often have toward our bodies, where we get mad when it's tired and frustrated when it's sick," says Gaudet. "Open a dialogue and you have a chance to form a real partnership. It's simple, it's fast, it's free -- and it will redefine how you think about your health."
Vitamin D is a true ounce of prevention, says Christiane Northrup, M.D., author of "Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom." "It boosts immunity and protects the heart, and those with the highest levels have the lowest rates of multiple sclerosis, diabetes, osteoporosis, and cancers of all sorts," says Northrup.
While 15 minutes of sunshine on exposed skin (no sunscreen) can provide a healthy dose of D during warmer months, Northrup also recommends taking 1,000 IU in supplement form (or potentially more; discuss with your doctor). You may feel the payoff immediately, she says, with more vitality, better sleep, and more resilience.
For better overall health, let go of the past, advises Brent Bauer, director of the Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program at the Mayo Clinic. "It's amazing how many studies are bearing out the benefits of forgiveness."
When we cling to regrets and resentments, we remain stuck in the lower limbic brain, the very basest part. "Every time you replay an offense, it's as if you live it again," he explains. "For better health, you want to be in the prefrontal cortex, where most of our higher functions take place, and where we can choose to cultivate love and compassion."
Practice forgiveness through ritual or meditation, or simply keep your attention focused on what's happening right now. "Mindfulness is counterintuitive to resentment," says Bauer.
Friendship is key to staying well, says Alice Domar, Ph.D., founder of the Domar Center for Mind/Body Health in Waltham, Massachusetts. "People who have inadequate social support are as likely to die early as people who smoke or who have high cholesterol."
She recommends keeping two kinds of relationships going. "You need your foxhole friends, who will be there for you at 2 a.m., and your party friends, who make you laugh," she says. What you don't need? Unhealthy relationships; these can prove as bad for you as total isolation. "If there are people in your life who suck you dry, break up with them," says Domar. "There's nothing wrong with that."
For naturopathic doctor Tori Hudson, daily exercise trumps all other habits. "There's nothing else you can do with so many benefits," from weight control to fending off high blood pressure, arthritis, and certain types of cancer. If her recommendation of an hour each day sounds daunting, keep working toward it. "It doesn't have to be fancy, formal, or done all at once," she says. "Walking is perfect."
"Practice deep breathing regularly, and you can lower blood pressure and heart rate, improve digestion, sleep better, and lower stress," says Andrew Weil, M.D., integrative-medicine pioneer and author of the forthcoming "Why Our Health Matters."
To reap these benefits, try Weil's 4-7-8 breath: Prepare by placing the tip of your tongue against the ridge behind your front teeth; keep it there throughout the exercise. Exhale through your mouth, making a "whoosh" sound. Then, for the exercise, inhale deeply and quietly through your nose (mouth closed) for a count of four, hold for a count of seven, and exhale audibly through your mouth for a count of eight. Repeat the exercise for a total of four breath cycles twice a day. After a month, if you're comfortable with it, increase to eight breaths each time.
To keep your energy up, improve your mood, and rev up your metabolism, eat protein for breakfast, says Mark Hyman, M.D., author of Ultra-Metabolism. "Most people start off in a way that sets them up for disaster. When you eat only carbs, you don't have the amino acids needed to feel focused, alert, and happy. You don't have the ability to modulate your blood sugar. Appetite increases, and you find yourself seeking out more sugar and coffee."
Skip the cereal and instead serve up a plate of eggs, whole-grain toast with nut butter, scrambled tofu, lean meat or fish, or a protein shake.
"In my years in medicine, I've seen a lot of people who are ill and unhappy because they don't know who they are, what they want, or where they're going," says Tieraona Low Dog, M.D., director of the Fellowship at the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine. With so much of our attention focused externally, we lose touch with our selves. The remedy? Make time to be alone with your thoughts. "You don't have to go to a mountaintop, a temple, or a meditation room. It can be your time in the shower," she says. "Enjoy the solitude and ask yourself, 'What do I need for me?' You'll be amazed at how much better you feel when you know your own heart and mind."
As chairman of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, Walter Willett, M.D., has seen health trends come and go. Asked to make sense of it all, he hews to a simple message: "One of the most important things you can do? Put more whole foods in your diet," he says. The more vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and nuts you eat, the less room there is for processed foods and beverages -- which undermine your health.
"The biggest health problem Americans face may be too many refined carbohydrates," says Willett. "They add empty calories and contribute to the risk of diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome." The more slowly absorbed carbohydrates in whole foods, as well as the many minerals and vitamins, have the opposite effect on your physiology, he explains. "They'll reduce your health risks."
Because it counters the stress cycle, "meditation is the most transformative thing you can do for your health," says Woodson Merrell, M.D., chairman of the Department of Integrative Medicine at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York. And there's no need to overcomplicate things, either: "Just pick a single point of focus -- like your breath, an image, or a mantra -- and keep your mind trained on it as you sit erect," advises Merrell. "A million thoughts will come; that's OK. Just let them go, and come back to your focal point." Fifteen minutes first thing in the morning will transform your day, he promises, and, over time, your entire life. "Don't worry if some days you can only do a few minutes. The key is daily practice."
Shifting away from negative emotional patterns can directly benefit your health, says practicing cardiologist Mimi Guarneri, M.D., medical director at the Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine. Anger, for instance, floods the system with stress hormones that suppress the immune system, raise blood pressure, create arrhythmia, and even increase the risk of cancer.
Changing your ways isn't simple -- "the hardest journey to make is the 18 inches from your head to your heart," notes Gaurneri -- but it's easier when you let gratitude be your guide. "Every night before bed, list 10 things that you have to be thankful for," she says. "You'll quickly realize that though your life is not perfect, you have a lot. And you'll gain a real sense of wellness."
Whether you are trying to eat better, exercise more, or connect with loved ones, be sure to prioritize enjoyment, says Joan Borysenko, Ph.D., author of "Inner Peace for Busy Women." "When I'm forming a new health habit, it doesn't work for me unless it brings me pleasure," she says. "If it feels like a duty, I just let it go after a while. So I try to find a way to have fun getting healthy. To get exercise, I go outside and romp around with my dogs. I cook with my husband, and we make a game out of eating healthy, searching for recipes."
Simple generosity can boost your well-being, says James Gordon, M.D., founder and director of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine. "When we're stressed, we tend to hunker down," he explains. "That may be necessary for a while, but you'll feel better when you reach out to others. Listen to your own better angels when they prompt you to call a friend, help a homeless person, praise a coworker, or have neighbors over to dinner."
Even in the best of times, the news often serves as a stress-inducing time vacuum. In troubled times, it can grow into an addiction that undermines your health, contends Jacob Teitelbaum, M.D., director of the national Fibromyalgia and Fatigue Centers. "The networks cycle through the same bad news over and over again," he says. "They hook you in by turning everything into a crisis. I call it 'The Lassie Effect' -- only Timmy is falling in the well 20 times a day." The problem, Teitelbaum explains, is that the body doesn't differentiate between real problems and sensationalized ones. The stress response is exactly the same -- as are the potential health consequences.
"Pay close attention to how you're feeling while watching the news," he says. "It might feel good for a while, but when it starts to feel bad, change the channel or shut off the TV, and turn your attention to what feels good."
This TV metaphor works well for the rest of your life, too. "Really, life is like a whole lot of channels, and we always get to choose what we pay attention to," he notes. "It may be watching TV, or it may be playing with the kids, or reading a good book, or going for a walk. It doesn't have to be wholesome -- if you are really angry, it could be sticking pins in a voodoo doll. Whatever it is, your life will work better if you're honest with yourself about how you are feeling in the moment, and find the next step toward feeling better."
According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, the secret to living a long, healthy life lies in never eating more than 80 percent of your capacity. "Always stop when you feel satisfied, but could eat a little more," says practitioner Efrem Korngold, founder of San Francisco's Chinese Medicine Works.
You'll be healthier, above and below the shoulders, if you tackle your fears, says energy-medicine guru Judith Orloff, M.D., author of "Emotional Freedom." "Fear binds your energy," she says, and can lead to a cascade of health woes, including depression. Try taking her lead: "Every morning, I take Child's Pose and pray that I can have my fear lifted so that I may be of service." The powerful combination of stretching and prayer, she says, "clears my mind so I can move ahead not driven by fear, not filled with negativity. I'm making a choice to come from a positive place."
"Thoreau said that nature is a tonic for the soul," says renowned herbalist Rosemary Gladstar, author of "Rosemary Gladstar's Herbal Recipes for Vibrant Health," and it's equally nourishing for the body. "I think disconnection from the natural world is the cause of most of our health problems. We need nature to feel whole." Taking a daily walk "offers a dose of the best medicine," says Gladstar. "Get out in the woods if you can, but even a city park will do the trick -- anywhere there's earth and sky and plants and maybe a little water. Let the wind wash your troubles away. You'll feel great. Your soul will eat it up."