In this final part to the 3-part article on Self-care I focus primarily on physical and lifestyle Self-care. In many of my past articles I’ve touched upon the importance of bio-chronology and Circadian cycles, of supporting the adrenals and the thyroid during stress and adaptive events, and of the importance of the digestive system, the microbiome (gut flora), the liver and the pancreas for optimal health. Of course these areas all need to be taken into account but here we are primarily concerned with the basic high-level “cornerstones” that should become, if they are not already, a part of everyone’s philosophy for a healthy life.

These aspects of Self-care are, at least on paper, the most essential since they come down to ensuring that you minimise stress, and that your body is properly nourished and healthy. In my opinion, there are four primary and one “bonus” aspect of physical and lifestyle Self-care that are quite essential. They are as follows:

  1. Diet – which includes food, drink and supplementation (when necessary). It seems pretty basic to state that the right diet is a form of Self-care but our relationship to food can be quite complex. Let’s remember though that “you are what you eat”. These aren’t just idle words – what you take in is actually used to sustain physiological function and emotional wellness, and helps your body renew itself on a cellular level – food and drink are the building blocks of your body. However, eating is intimately linked to nurturing in the broadest sense. So how you eat and what you choose to eat is directly related to your willingness to nurture yourself. Learning and choosing to eat a healthy diet including what you drink, is choosing to care about yourself. As we say in the world of herbal medicine, “food is the first medicine”. It is the starting point for optimal health and prevention. What you eat impacts on everything from the most basic physiological functions to mood to energy levels to everything in between. Of course in this day and age, making the right choices isn’t always the easiest thing to do with so many different and sometimes contrary opinions about what to eat. However, there is certainly lots of evidence that at least certain things generally support health across the board. These are as follows:
    • whole-foods, with an emphasis on a plant-based diet, organic when possible, aiming for variety (think a “rainbow” of colours when choosing fruits and vegetables); my personal add here is to make friends with bitter greens in particular!
    • foods as close to their natural form as possible – in other words, avoid refined and processed foods, particularly inflammatory, sugar-spiking foods
    • avoid sweets and candy, fizzy drinks, fruit juices (these are highly concentrated in sugar with often no fibre), cakes, biscuits etc.
    • when choosing carbohydrates, choose ancient whole-food grains and if you have a sensitive digestive system, prefer gluten-free varieties
    • choose lean proteins (chicken, fish, vegetable) over red meat
    • include plenty of healthy fats, such as avocados, eggs, olive oil, organic butter, nuts and seeds, nut and seed oils, etc.
    • limit the amounts of milk products you eat, favouring organic and goat and ewe’s milk products when possible
    • unless you have a high metabolism or another need for more constant eating, avoid snacking, have regular eating hours and try not to eat too late at night
    • don’t forget to drink water
  2. Sleep. I’ve written before on the importance of regular sleep with regular hours and why it is essential for optimal health. Sleep allows your body to rest, restore, rebuild and the hormonal system to “reboot”  which is essential for physiological function. The hours of 23:30-3:30 are particularly important for hormonal function, including pancreatic function and insulin management. Sleep deprivation affects brain function, increases the body’s stress response, and can contribute to depression and anxiety. To optimise both falling asleep and uninterrupted sleep, get into a short, easy bedtime routine which doesn’t include any cell phones, tablets, computers or TV. In addition, avoid alcohol or other stimulants near bedtime which have been shown to interfere with sleep, and are a common cause of nighttime or early-morning awakening. If you have trouble sleeping, get help early on since chronic insomnia can be much harder to nip in the bud than when it first begins.
  3. Movement. I recently saw a sign say “Exercise is optional, Movement is essential”. This is really the gist of it when it comes to Self-care! Movement isn’t about being an exercise buff but rather about maintaining your body in movement regularly. We are not made to be sedentary beings, and our body suffers if it isn’t moving. Regular moderate-intensity physical activity – such as walking (briskly), cycling, or swimming – significantly improves health, fitness and mood. Physical activity helps control weight and reduces the risk of metabolic and other illnesses such as such as cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, colon and breast cancer and dementia. It also helps reduced stress, increase mental health, improve sleep and strengthen bones, particularly in older people. Get moving – it is never too early or too late to start incorporating physical activity into your daily life!
  4. Relaxation/Leisure/Fun – don’t forget it! This is essential to help your body let go of stress. In particular regular laughter and time in nature have been shown to help maintain optimal health and deal with stress more effectively. Fun and relaxation can include so many things – socialising with friends, spending time pampering yourself, hobbies, doing “things that make your heart sing”, spending time in Nature, sex and (good) relationships, meditation, even simply enjoying a good meal mindfully. In our day and age, learning to unplug from the “net” is more essential than ever for relaxation. And if you are saying you don’t have time for this – begin by scheduling the time in your diary and sticking to it. Even a scheduled 5 minutes of play or net-free time per day will get you started in the right direction. Having fun and relaxing should be seen as a health priority and not a (guilty) reward!
  5. Creating a “revitalising” space. Creating a cozy and welcoming environment, preferably free of clutter, can help you revitalise and restore after busy days or stressful moments. The environment we keep (as well as the people we surround ourselves with) has a big impact on our well-being. I’ve added this element to the other four because I really feel it helps promote and facilitate the other four elements in your life. There is nothing better than feeling safe, cozy and peaceful in one’s own space to help motivate you to give space to other aspects of your life.
And with that, you probably have all the basic tools for incorporating Self-care into your life. There are also many many other resources out there on how you can go about doing that practically. I will however, end by touching on the two common beliefs that tend to get in the way of Self-care. These are that Self-care:
  • is a selfish act (which I briefly touched upon in my first article), and
  • requires lots of work and time, and therefore is an unrealistic goal for busy people.
In terms of Self-care being a selfish act, the first point is the obvious fact that if you are physically and emotionally healthy, “happy in your skin” and with the direction your life is taking, you are more able to be available authentically for others. The second point is that just like it’s important to be honest with oneself about how an illness can serve to meet a personal need, people who often spend all of their time in service to others (that includes those who put their work ahead of themselves), need to look at what that service to others/work to the detriment of self is actually hiding. Could it be for instance a question of self-worth, where subconsciously there is a belief that the value of another or of a job is more important than you or your health? Or could it be that service or work maintains a sense of identity that you have adopted because of internalised beliefs or values that actually don’t really square with your authentic self or your dreams? In some instances, your level of health can be a knock on the door (in some instances a big kick) whose purpose is to let you know that it is really time to reassess these issues.

In terms of the second point above, sure it may seem difficult or even impossible to make time for Self-care when one is trying to juggle a job, children (or care-taking of someone else) and home life/admin. However, in my experience both personal and with patients, I find that the real issue goes back to point 1 above as well as our innate difficulty with change. I do admit it does require some organisation. However, implementing Self-care into your life is just a question of regular little steps and a medium/long-term view. Think of it like an investment in yourself – you may need to push a bit in the short-term, but once the system is set up you will start to reap the benefits in the medium and long-term without even noticing. And for those of you who are output minded especially in a work context, remember that there is plenty of evidence that Self-care actually improves efficiency, concentration, well-being and resilience.

Maybe you can’t do all of these things every day. But if you make Self-care an objective, and try to address as many of these factors as regularly as possible, then you will feel better and go a long-way towards disease-prevention and optimal health. And the healthier and happier you are, the more you will be able to give to the people and things you care about. On that note, I leave you with a quote I recently saw, that sums up the priority Self-care should have in your life: “if you don’t make time for your wellness, you will be forced to make time for your illness“. Now go out there and give yourself the time, care and love you deserve!

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