Chronic disease has skyrocketed in the last 50 years and continues to rise. In the 2000’s conditions like diabetes, childhood obesity, allergies, asthma and autoimmune diseases such as psoriasis, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis are becoming common. So what is the reason behind the decline in our health? This health crisis is no coincidence, increases in these conditions rise in direct association with changes in our diet and lifestyle. Some of things we grow up to think are perfectly normal and healthy are in fact contributing to poor genetics, increased susceptibility to illness and inflammation, which ultimately leads to earlier death.
1. The ‘modern’ diet
The modern diet is unfortunately driven not by what is good for us, but is the result of years of wrong teachings, wrong food choices and media and governmental influences. The modern diet includes foods which have little nutritional value, being so highly processed that the goodness that the foods contained no longer is there. When we eat foods like this, it draws on our own nutrient banks in order to break it down. Food without nutritional value drains us of energy that is not replaced, leading to an extra burden on our system.
The first error of the modern diet is the foods we eat have less nutrition, but the second is the added things that we get in our foods. An average person will consume over the day a swathe of pesticides, herbicides, preservatives, food additives (colourings, flavourings, extenders, anti-caking agents etc), non-food residues from packaging and even heavy metals. The body is simply not made to process these things on a daily basis.
The third issue with the modern diet is that the amount of different food groups we eat has changed dramatically. We are now eating more refined carbohydrates, sugars and trans fats than ever, which is associated with the increase in diabetes, obesity and heart disease.
So we are left with a diet that is:
a) low in essential nutrients and antioxidants
b) laden with chemicals
c) excessive in carbohydrates and low in good fats
This type of diet does not support optimal body function, and contributes to poor genetic integrity, inflammation and tissue damage.
Eating a diet that is rich in fresh, organic produce, whole grains and legumes with minimal amounts of additives helps improve health. Try to avoid eating too many foods out of packages, instead preparing your own meals from organic fresh ingredients.
2. Environmental toxins
Environmental toxins are everywhere. We touched on toxins in our food above, but you also absorb toxins from the air you breathe, things that we put on our skin, our water supply and even everyday household items and our cars. Our body has a sophisticated system to remove toxins and heavy metals from our bodies but due to the large amounts in our environment today most people can’t keep up, leading to accumulation of these toxins in body tissues.
A common toxin source that has a growing amount of research to show its effects are plastics. Plastics are a man made chemical compound, usually based on petroleum products. Some of the more widely studied toxins in plastics are phythaltes and Bisphenol-A (BPA). Both of these compounds are xenoestrogenic, meaning that they are environmental oestrogens that can affect the way that our hormones function. These toxins have been associated with infertility, endometriosis, asthma and certain cancers. BPA is found in plastic drinking bottles and kitchen wear (including some baby bottles in Australia), whereas phythalates tend to be found in skin care, flooring, furniture, our cars (that new car smell) and anything made from PVC. Studies have shown that just about everyone has detectable levels of these toxins in their bodies.
Other toxins include heavy metals, which can be found in many everyday items. Aluminium is found in deodorant, makeup, antacids and medications.
Lead is still used in some makeup and levels have been found in nearly all suburban areas in the soil. Mercury toxicity is still common with mercury being a component of vaccinations (flu shot anyone?), amalgam fillings, fluorescent light bulbs (including energy saving) and fish and seafood and a result of mercury being present in our food chain. Heavy metal toxicity is associated with many conditions and can cause serious neurological and tissue damage.
The other large cause of toxin absorption is through skin and hair care, cleaning products and perfume. The average woman uses over 400 chemicals on her skin every day! These chemicals are absorbed through the skin and end up circulating through your body. Chemicals which have been indentified to be harmful are phythalates, parabens, petrochemicals, propeline glycol, sodium lauryl sulphate (which also increases the penetration of other toxins), coal tar, formaldehyde (a common preservative), fragrance, DEA and 1-4 Dioxane. Unless you use natural and organic products, you will likely find several of these ingredients on the back of your products. Many of these compounds have been shown to be carcinogens, meaning that they can increase your risk of cancer.
It is worth noting that although some data exists for each individual chemical there is currently no study that shows the effect when they are put together. There is a very real chance that these chemicals are more detrimental when combined then on their own then in isolation.
Some environmental toxins are hard to avoid, like those that you breathe in. You can however switch your skin and hair care to a natural or organic brand to minimise exposure. Use only naturally based cleaning products and especially never use heavy duty shower and oven cleaners. Unless you live in an area with clean air and use tank water, then a water filter is essential. Pure water is one of the foundations to good health, so aim for one that removes toxins, re-mineralises and alkalises your water. When renovating, consider using natural materials and naturally based paints. Good ventilation is also important at this time. Partake in a detox program with your naturopath at least every 12 months to assist your body in eliminating every day toxins.
Stress can be defined two ways – the stress that we feel when we are under pressure and the physiological occurrence that happens in the body when we experience any type of stress. Without a doubt, stress contributes to more illness then both smoking and alcoholism combined. Nearly every single health problem can be caused or exacerbated by stress. When you are under stress your body secretes stress hormones to help you deal with it internally. These hormones are great in the short term as they help to deal with the stress at hand. The problem is that we are experiencing stressors in a chronic way, so these hormones are pumping out far more frequently than they should be. The result of this is that it causes inflammation, our immune systems get depleted or driven to excess (autoimmune disease), our digestion is disrupted and our sleep can get disturbed. All of these situations can lead to more and more stress. This vicious cycle is making us sicker than we realise.
The causes of stress are not always obvious. Stress can arise from work pressures, lack of sleep, emotional issues, pain and discomfort, poor diet or excess coffee/alcohol, living situations and much more. Some people will feel the effects of stress, others will not ‘feel’ stressed as such but will still have the detrimental effects happening in their body.
In today’s age the average person is overworked, underslept and has little time to stop and recharge. Stress is often seen as a normal part of life, however to avoid disease and keep your body healthy stress must be kept to a minimum.
The stress cycle needs to be switched off. The best way to do this (short of an extended holiday) is to replenish the adrenal glands and support nervous system function. Naturopathy and acupuncture are both great tools for helping your body to manage stress. Herbal adaptogens help your body deal with stress more effectively, leading to more energy, better sleep and a better state of wellbeing. Time management is important so that you can be productive while at work and spend more time at home. Consider the things that you like to do to relax. Make time for these activities every week. Deep breathing is another way to deal with stress as it comes along, helping to slow your heart rate and reduce the release of stress hormones. Exercise also helps us beat stress, choose a type that is right for you.
4. Excess alcohol, coffee or soft drink
Excessive amounts of coffee, alcohol and soft drink have all been shown to be linked to numerous chronic diseases. Excessive alcohol can damage the liver, leading to an impaired ability to process other toxins. This is a recipe for chronic disease. Alcohol reduces your levels of zinc, vitamin C and B vitamins, leading to a decreased ability to heal damage that occurs in the body, and increased inflammation. A few glasses of red wine or ac couple of beers a few times a week is not a huge issue (and in some studies has shown to have benefits), however binge drinking or drinking alcohol on a daily basis can cause problems.
Coffee is a substance that can be good or bad for your health. Studies show that one to two cups a day of brewed coffee can help to prevent cardiovascular disease, reduce the risk of certain cancers and may protect against parkinson’s disease. On the flip side, more than 2 cups (that’s standard cups not double shots) a day has been associated with increased cholesterol and inflammatory conditions. Coffee stimulates the adrenal glands – which is great for that pick me up in the short term but over time this can lead to adrenal depletion, meaning that your adrenals can be chronically stressed and contribute to the effects of stress mentioned above. Caffeine needs to be processed through the liver, so too much coffee can impact on the way your liver functions, leading to problems with processing toxins. Instant coffee should be avoided as it can contain chemicals harmful to your health.
Soft drinks are possibly the worst offender, with easy accessibility to both adults and children alike. There is absolutely nothing good to say about soft drinks, they are laden with sugar, artificial colours, flavours and preservatives and are detrimental to your health. Drinking soft drinks regularly will significantly increase your risk of diabetes, high cholesterol, heart disease, obesity and anything else that has to do with inflammation. Diet soft drinks are not a healthy alternative and in fact may even be a worse choice as artificial sweeteners have been associated with an increased risk of cancer, and there have been studies that show that drinking diet soda also increases your risk of diabetes.
Moderate consumption of alcohol (except when mixed with soft drink) and coffee should be fine as part of a balanced diet. Soft drinks should be consumed very rarely and preferably never. If you are craving the sweetness of the soft drink then consult with your naturopath as this may be due to a blood sugar imbalance.
That’s right, something as simple as not drinking enough water can reduce your lifespan. Why? Water is essential to every part of your health. When you are dehydrated so are your cells, which means that they are under stress. Cellular stress leads to premature ageing, and premature ageing leads to, well death.
Over 80% of people do not drink an adequate amount of water. Dehydration means your elimination pathways are not working well, as water helps you excrete toxins through the kidneys and bowel. Dehydration causes constipation, which means that the toxins destined for the toilet get reabsorbed into your bloodstream. Water keeps our joints mobile preventing joint inflammation, keeps our brains hydrated and working well and allows the lymphatic system to function properly, which helps remove toxins from tissues and supports your immune system. Studies have shown that a low water intake is associated with weight gain, independent of diet.
Water needs to be a part of your daily life. The excuse that you don’t like the taste of it is simply not good enough. Carry a water bottle (stainless steel not plastic) with you and monitor the amount of water that you drink every day. Soda water and herbal teas (not green or black) are hydrating, whereas coffee, alcohol and soft drinks are dehydrating, meaning you will need to up your water if you are consuming these. How much water do you need? A basic formula is your weight in kg x .033 = the amount of water in litres you need to drink every day.
A word on genetics
Genetic factors also play a role in your long term health and the chance you have of developing chronic diseases. The health of your mother and father in the months before your conception has been shown to have a major role in your health. Poor genetic health is contributed to by the 5 factors outlined above. By controlling these variables you can improve your genetic health and therefore the health of your future generations, helping to prevent these genetically caused conditions.
A new field called epigenetics has emerged. Science has now shown that although we are born with these ‘bad’ genes from our parents, they can be switched on and off. A healthy body means that you have less chance of these genes expressing themselves, reducing your risk of developing certain diseases. A poor diet, high stress and inflammation in the body means that these genes are much more likely to switch on and express themselves as chronic disease.
Changing your diet and lifestyle is never easy and takes time and patience. Put your health in perspective when making dietary and lifestyle choices, thinking about your health once you are ageing. Do you want to live a long and active life? Start making the right choices for your body today for healthier tomorrow.