Mind-Body Health: Tune In and Take Charge

Mind-Body Health: Tune In and Take Charge

Photo by Jessica McDaniel

Photo by Jessica McDaniel

Nearly half of all Americans suffer from at least one chronic disease and the number is growing. Why are we getting sicker by the day? Even though we have access to modern science, technology and powerful medications, our medical model is focused on treating disease rather than on prevention. And this isn’t enough. We need a new strategy.

The definition of health in Ayurveda, the world’s oldest known healthcare system originating in India, starts with the premise of being “situated in oneself.” To know oneself deeply and to create a life accordingly is a practice. The body, the container for our intuition, sends us subtle yet powerful cues, telling us precisely what it needs to provide stability and strength.

But tuning in to these cues is challenging since we are often overwhelmed and dissociated from the body’s communication. Most of us weren’t taught to tune in or even know that we should. In modern life, we “push through” without making adjustments, fighting urges to slow down even when crashing. We rarely turn off phones that jar our nervous system or limit exposure to violence in the media.

There are countless modern-day challenges to becoming aware of the body’s individual needs. But doing so ­is a skill worth honing and requires careful attention. Mind-body approaches— mindfulness, meditation, yoga, and other contemplative practices—give us tools to connect with and become grounded in our healthiest selves. Research now supports a growing number of these approaches, like mindfulness-based stress reduction. This kind of inwardness has been emphasized for thousands of years in traditional medicine.

When we focus inward, our individual needs determined by our specific constitution, age, and environment become clearer. Tuning in to these needs requires, among other things, that we wake up to nature’s rhythms and how they affect us. Our energy level varies depending on the seasons as do our nutritional requirements.

Ayurveda recognizes the impact of these shifts. For example, as we transition to colder, drier weather, our diets should include warm moist foods like stews and healthy fats, cooked with warming spices (many of my go-to recipes are in The Everyday Ayurveda Cookbook). These serve to lubricate our digestive tracts and can reduce gas, bloating, and constipation, which for some, can be more prevalent in the colder seasons.

Ayurveda also considers how sensory input affects us physically. We know how energizing it is to see a great film, listen to a powerful piece of music, or stand in nature’s grandeur.  On the other hand, when exposed to stress and negativity, many experience chest tightness and indigestion. Becoming aware of this mind-body connection and, when possible, actively choosing what we expose ourselves to, helps prevent these acute symptoms from becoming chronic problems.

Truly a preventive approach to medicine, Ayurveda explains that we can reverse the impact of negative influences on our health. It tells us there are six stages of disease and that the first three stages can be reversed. We are all familiar with stage one—when we just don’t feel quite right for a day, a week, a month, or year. This is thought of as “dis-ease.” If we make corrections, we can prevent the progression to stages four, five, and six, when disease ensues. 

This notion is supported by Epigenetics, the study of how gene expression is modifiable. Our environment and lifestyle—our diets, exercise routines, and relationships—can lead to biological changes that turn off or on genes. These genes directly influence how we make proteins, which help fight off disease.

Modern science will continue to validate Ayurveda’s wisdom, which is now finding traction in the US. An integrated health model that focuses on understanding the self, along with research-based self-care practices can pave the road to healthier living. There are reasons to have hope. We just need to incorporate the time-tested wisdom found in eastern approaches into our current medical model and our very busy lives.

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