Common Sense Health: Happy, Healthy Aging
Maureen McDonnell, RN
Although we don’t see these 3 words (happy, healthy and aging) together too often, the phrase has become my mantra! Since most of us now understand and accept the concept that our thoughts and attitudes determine a great deal about our reality, I’ve decided that the typical negative belief system regarding aging (namely physical and mental decline) is no longer a part of my mindset. “Isn’t that just being naïve?” you might ask. Not really … I am keenly aware of the indisputable fact that: no one gets out of this life—alive! However, studies are now showing that individuals who live long, healthy lives are typically ones who have a positive view on aging, have worked at minimizing stress, eat and live close to nature and make a conscious decision to be happy! (1)
Since we do not have the option to change the fact that we are all going to age and eventually pass, the choice we do have is clear: which path will we take to the finish line? Will it be one of worry, chronic illness, stress and obsessing about getting older? Or, will it be a path of excitement, abundant energy, good health and fun?
If we just looked to the media, celebrities and those poor housewives on the reality TV shows (who in their manic attempt to look younger undergo multiple surgeries and receive injections of foreign substance to create their larger-than-life lips, perky breasts and paralyzed facial muscles), I think we’d be in deep trouble. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing to do what you can to look and feel younger than your age, I certainly work at. But going to extreme measures, obsessing about looking young while being fearful of the natural process of aging binds us to the falsehood that our value as human beings (and especially as women) lies in our external appearance. “Aging”, as Betty Davis once said “is not for sissies”, and I agree. I believe it takes a certain boldness to turn from the externally focused fear of aging mentality that dominates our culture, and instead embrace the positive aspects of aging. When we choose to focus our attention on loving ourselves at any age, optimizing our health with whole foods and exercise and creating positive thoughts and attitudes, the wisdom, self-love and grace that can only come with age become our rewards.
After listening closely to the advice of healthy-aging experts such as Christiane Northrup, MD and Andrew Weil, MD and applying some of the tips conveyed by the much admired 84 year old successful, happy and healthy author Louise Hay, I’ve compiled the following list of suggestions to help us all feel our best as we move healthfully and gracefully through the aging process.
Tips for Happy-Healthy Aging:
• Quieting the Mind: As an advocate of healthy eating and exercise, you would think that listing health- promoting, whole foods and supplements would top my list of happy, healthy aging tips. However, I have seen people consume the most nutritious food in the world and take the best supplements and still be unhealthy and miserable. When self-defeating or destructive thoughts run rampant in our minds, our bodies feel the impact. The long and short term stress caused by our negative thought patterns contribute to disease and various illnesses. Excess cortisol, a hormone released from the adrenal glands in response to mental or physical stress causes elevated blood sugar, deposits of fat in our lower abdomen, raises cholesterol, elevates blood pressure and can contribute to hormone imbalance.
Whether it’s a formal spiritual practice or just a few minutes set aside each day to “follow the breath,” slowing down our thoughts and experiencing the calmness of a still mind has proven to have tremendous physical and mental health benefits. (2)
• Practice Happiness: Many believe that just a lucky few are born happy. I subscribe to the idea that happiness is a choice and must be practiced. To see the bright side of a situation or to view the glass as half full are frequently used metaphors that have great value. “Pain is part of life, suffering is optional” are words that remind us that although we all will undoubtedly experience multiple challenges and endure pain and grief in our lives, learning to let go and not carrying those burdens and hardships with us is an incredibly helpful exercise. In addition to practicing the art of letting go, when I find myself feeling negative, lost or down, I remind myself that I can replace my current thought patterns with more positive ones. For instance, the simple act of listing all the people, situations and things in my life that I am grateful for tends to elevate my emotions to more positive ones. It’s empowering to know that we do have a choice as to which thoughts (and people) we give our attention to.
Whole Foods and Supplements
• Eating a high quality plant-based diet that contains 4-5 cups of organic vegetables and fruit per day as well as lean organic protein sources (eggs, cold water salmon, chicken, soaked nuts and seeds, grass fed beef, etc.) provides our bodies with the nutrient support and antioxidants necessary for optimal health and longevity. Europeans spend 16% of their income on food and have much lower incidences of chronic illness as they age. In the US, where up to 60% of the population suffers from one or more chronic illness, we spend 6% of our income on food. Investing in a nutritious diet is one of the wisest ways to spend our money and protect our health. Eat well to age well! (3)
• Water: Consume plenty (6-8 glasses) of pure water (improve your health and save money by getting a good water filter and drink from stainless steel or glass bottles instead of plastic).
• Intestinal Health: “the road to good health is paved with good intestines.” Consider …
* Taking in adequate fiber (at least 25gms, preferably 40gms per day). Good sources are: ground organic flax seed, soaked nuts and seeds (especially pumpkin seeds), fresh veggies, whole fruit etc.
* Adding a high-potency probiotic (which is a source of good friendly bacteria that keeps our intestines healthy, keeps the bad pathogenic organisms at bay and creates B vitamins). It is also critical to have a good bowel movement at least once, preferably twice per day.
* Digestive enzymes contained in food are destroyed when food is heated beyond 118 degrees. Additionally, our body’s production of digestive enzymes declines as we age. To minimize digestive issues such as gas and bloating, its important to sit and relax when eating, chew food well, not consume liquids with a meal and consider taking a high quality digestive enzyme to assist in the breakdown and absorption of nutrients.
• Fats are a concentrated source of energy, necessary for the absorption of Vitamins A, D and E and building blocks for our cell membranes and hormones and because the brain is composed of 70% fat, be sure to consume adequate amounts of healthy sources such as: organic coconut oil (great for cooking at high temperatures), coldpressed olive oil soaked nuts such as almonds and walnuts, avocados and flax oil. Avoid trans fats that are in most processed foods.
• Get off the blood sugar/insulin roller coaster ride by eating foods that have a low-glycemic index (meaning they raise your blood sugar gradually instead of causing a surge of insulin which causes weight gain and leads to inflammation-an underlying cause of many chronic illnesses.) Foods such as nuts, seeds, veggies, protein and whole grains have a low-glycemic index and tend to balance and maintain blood sugar levels, which in turn stabilize our moods and energy levels.
• Minimize the intake of acid-forming foods and drink such as: meat, soda, coffee and sugar. When the body becomes too acidic (from these foods as well as from stress), it is more prone toward illness. Additionally it leaches calcium from the bones to balance the PH of the blood making women more vulnerable to conditions such as osteopenia and osteoporosis. Alkalizing foods are: green leafy vegetables, lentils, Kambucha, citrus fruits etc.
• Consume some super-foods such as: Acai, organic or wild blueberries, and pomegranate as these colorful, antioxidant rich foods help ward off chronic illness. That’s right, that’d be the green light for small amounts of organic dark chocolate and red wine!
• Enjoy at least two cups of green tea per day (a new study shows in addition to all other health perks associated with green tea, it can also help protect against glaucoma and other eye disease). (4)
• Spice up your foods and decrease inflammation by adding pinches of cayenne, turmeric and other anti-inflammatory herbs.
• Take a good comprehensive multi (with adequate amounts of the B vitamins and the proper balance between magnesium and calcium). My favorite can be found at NutritionistsChoice.com. Consider additional nutrients such as high quality, mercury free, fish oil as a source of anti-inflammatory Omega 3, Coenzyme Q 10 which helps improve cardiovascular health and improves energy at a cellular level.
• Get your Vitamin D blood level checked and take enough of this important vitamin to maintain a healthy heart, brain, immune function and bones. Since many of us aren’t outside enough (and when we do go out we lather up with sunscreen), it’s common to test low in Vitamin D. Recent studies have shown that those of us with Vitamin D levels above 50 have decreased incidence of dementia, heart disease and cancer.
• Balance your hormones: Bioidentical hormone replacement therapy done correctly can be tremendously helpful in increasing energy, stabilizing moods and improving overall health. See the article “Has Anyone Seen My Hormones?” in our January 2013 issue.
• B12 is one of the most common vitamin deficiencies we develop as we age. This is due to the fact that it is a difficult vitamin to absorb as it requires stomach acid (which diminishes with age and is blocked by acid-blocking medications). It also requires a special protein called Intrinsic Factor which is made in the stomach and absorbed in the small intestines. Blood testing is not always a reliable indicator of need.
* Have an exercise routine that includes some cardio, stretching like yoga, and some resistance work. (Researchers at the Aging Research Center in Sweden found that those who exercise at least twice per week reduced their risk of dementia by more than 50% and of Alzheimer’s’ by 60%)
* Perform brain stimulating activities. Learning challenging new dance steps or a new language are fun ways to keep the mind sharp.
* Get a good night’s sleep (7-9 hours). (5)
* Maintain and enjoy social connections with family and community.
Healthy, happy aging is not about looking 40 when you are 60 or 60 when you’re 80. It’s more about applying common sense strategies in order to stay sharp, minimize one’s chances for developing heart disease and cancer and doing what we can to keep our bones and immune system strong. More importantly, it’s about feeling vital, having fun and enjoying life! Contrary to what most of us have been conditioned to believe, now more than ever, healthy aging is a real possibility!
So, while we practice positive thinking, meditate, exercise, pop our vitamins and eat our colorful veggies, it’s also good to remember that laughing (even at ourselves trying to stay young) is definitely the best way to be happy and healthy at any age!
Maureen McDonnell has been a holistic, nutritionally-oriented registered nurse for 35 years. On Thursday March 7th at 7 p.m. she will present a six-week series entitled “30 Days to Feeling Fit” at the new Wysteria Inn in Weaverville (formerly the Secret Garden Inn and Spa). Call 609-240-1315 or email Maureen at MauraHealth@aol.com to reserve your seat at this free program.