Picture the last time you saw an advertisement with imagery similar to this: a couple frolics on the beach; his teeth are way too white, she puts on her best “come hither” look. Or, she stands alone, smiling with closed eyes and arms outstretched towards the sunny skies with her swimsuit wrap billowing out behind her in the breeze. This is the ad template used to sell any number of interchangeable medications and supplements: male enhancement pills, female hormones, antidepressants, you name it- all in the name of wellness.
What bothers me is that the concept of “wellness” sells a lot of things, as if it is a nirvana that can be reached and inhabited indefinitely; if only you would buy this “very important product”. One that did not even exist a short while ago. One that (by the way) will immediately be followed with whole screens or magazine pages full of unpleasant and downright frightening potential side effects in tiny, unreadable print.
But we want to feel like this, we want to be well, so we buy into it. The problem is, “wellness” is no cookie-cutter place where you can reside indefinitely. It is a process that cannot be substituted by a product. Life has its highs and lows, and nothing will stop that. But movement between and within these poles is essential. Much of what we know to be static “wellness” is based upon a template that is marketed to us, and this is a problem. What I’d like to do here is to dispel some modern myths about wellness, based upon my education as a naturopathic doctor and from what I have learned over the years from working with my patients.
Myth #1: A calorie is calorie. the “Big Soda” industry has been pushing this agenda with bazillions of dollars in marketing campaigns, and they will continue in the hope that you will not just simply drink water, tea or coffee. They are even heading up major government incentives to design wellness programs for our schools and our military, that will conveniently help keep sweet drinks as a necessary part of daily life. Fewer people drink classic soda now, but they still need your dollars so the same makers that brought you soda now ALSO bring you… Water soda! (water infused with sugar or sugar substitute, vitamins and flavorings), Coffee and Tea soda! (it looks like coffee or tea, but they add a bunch of sugar/sugar substitute and flavorings. Oh, and there might be a little tea or coffee in there, too), and Sport drink soda! (caffeine, sugar or sugar substitutes, flavorings.) Don’t be fooled, it is still just soda. But, you say, it uses non-caloric sweeteners, that is better for me, right? Wrong. People who drink non caloric sweetened beverages actually gain more weight and have more health issues with these beverages than even regular soda. The reason is that when your taste buds register the overpowering sweetness in these beverages, it prepares for the onslaught of easy calories coming its way. When they don’t immediately materialize- your body will prompt you to over-consume later in the day to make up for the deficit in what was expected. And you’ll feel more tired and irritable when your body discovers this little ruse. And you’ll need more sweety-sweetness later to make it feel better- now you’re hooked! This is becoming a particular problem with our young people, and can contribute to the severity of #2 below (especially when you widen to include fruit juices, chocolate milk, coffee milk(?!), and others):
Myth #2: Children who do not behave as expected in school need to be medicated. I will be writing on this topic in greater depth over the summer with a friend who is a counselor. Whether for ADD/ADHD or autism spectrum disorders, or other behavioral issues, medication is often the first line of therapy that is discussed between doctors and parents. While these interventions have their place and can be beneficial with careful considerations, we also have to recognize that they often involve medications tested mostly in adult populations as single drug therapies, and for relatively short periods of time. We don’t really understand how these things affect a developing brain, over many years of use and in combination with other psychoactive drugs. Natural therapies and cognitive/behavioral strategies can work well for many children, without side effects, and should be considered as a first line far more often than they currently are.
Myth #3: You need to have 8+ nonstop, uninterrupted, consecutive hours of sleep per night. This one causes a lot of stress with my patients. We like to think that a good night sleep requires zonking out completely and waking up to stretch 8 hours later to bound out of bed. Sure, this is great! But, healthy sleep patterns don’t have to be like this. Your body will go through several cycles of deep and lighter sleep during an average night, ranging from 70 minutes to 2 hours each. Important things happen regarding repair of tissues, hormone release, and other biological functions during different phases of sleep. During light phases, we might even wake up for a while- this is completely normal! You might wake up, change positions, use the bathroom, or even just be awake for a little while before falling back asleep. This does not generally interrupt a good night’s sleep. For more reading about the science of sleep cycles, here is a good article from Harvard Medical School. Historian Roger Ekirch has some very interesting research regarding how people slept at different times in history; the idea of segmented sleep used to be more the norm versus our modern and relatively recent idea of what it should be. In the past, people were accustomed to use the times that they were awake at night to read by candlelight, have creative inspirations, have sex, and perhaps meditate on philosophical subjects.
Myth #4: Napping means you are lazy.
This might be more of a generational issue. I find that many adults, especially those over middle aged, believe that napping somehow means that they are lazy and not pulling their share. However, napping is a natural part of our evolution and still practiced daily in many other parts of the world. Napping is a great way to refresh and recoup energy, boost memory skills and learning, and let’s face it- it just feels good. We need to especially encourage our seniors that it is OK to nap! Here is a really great blog article all about napping, and a cool chart helping to answer the question, How Long Should You Nap?
Myth#5: Fevers need to be reduced with medication. It is always a good idea to discuss this with your doctor to understand the threshold for bringing a fever down and what signs to watch out for. But here’s the problem, fevers are a way that your body helps boost metabolism to fight off infections. Optimal immune function can require this to happen. Unnecessarily bringing down a fever can actually prolong illness, and possibly make the body less efficient at recognizing and dealing with other similar illnesses in the future. Plus, it brings more infectious people to work or school to spread to others. The vast majority of the time, healthy people with fevers and no complications simply need rest, and fluids, and light foods if they can tolerate them. And time. Being “well” means that you can get sick sometimes- consider it a drill exercise for your immune system. Here is a classic naturopathic for helping reduce the pain and congestion that can accompany a fever- to promote better sleep, for kids and adults: the much loved wet sock treatment.
Myth#6: Grief is an illness that needs to be treated with medication. If we are lucky enough to live a long life with friends and family we love, then grief and sadness are inevitable. These are not medical conditions, but an important way that we must transition to a life without, an unwanted but nonetheless forced change in life. Some could need help for while, especially if the tasks of living cannot be completed without the help of medication temporarily. However, I think more acceptance and support of grief as a necessary step is essential to a return to wellness. Those who are allowed to grieve deeply and fully as needed from the beginning, generally have a better outcome than others who are persuaded to try to relieve it and delay it to some degree. Feeling sick, feeling grief, and going through hard times is an inevitable part of life- but facing this head on, when possible, is often the quicker and better solution (in the long run) to return to wellness.
Myth#7: If you take the right multivitamin, goji berries, acai, whatever- you will be well. For general nutrition, nothing beats food. Real food. If your great grandmother walked with you in the grocery store, she should be able to recognize everything you pick up. You should be able to recognize all the ingredients that you read on a label. Even if t is natural but it has been harvested and then dried, dessicated and stuffed into a capsule or powdered mix, it is going to lose much of its potency. Now, there are times when people need to supplement with one thing or other for a period of time- natural supplement or drug, but there should be a clear reason why and a plan, monitoring and an endpoint. And if that endpoint is a picture of a woman on a beach with a billowing wrap in the sunshine- run away!
*Warning: reading this blog might cause side effects including but not limited to: more napping, less money spent on useless and/or harmful products, and more time spent in food preparation.