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By Lucy Danziger Regan / May 6, 2021
What if we told you that to boost your immunity, lower your risk of disease, and be healthier, there is one simple thing you can do, and that is to be happier? It turns out that to be healthier, all you need to do is to be happier.
Before you dismiss this, there is actually a formula to help yourself become happier, according to a Harvard study, which tracked people for 75 years. All you need to do is practice a blend of these three things: 1. Doing good for others, 2. Doing things you are good at, and 3. Doing good for yourself
The first one is centered around relationships, since being in a meaningful relationship involves thinking of the other person. Any meaningful relationship counts, as long as you prioritize the happiness of the other person. The second point is to express your own individual strengths whether you are great at your job, being a parent, doing a sport that you excel at, or an instrument in a fun setting (think of the joy of being in your high school band or on a team).
That last one sounds circular, but it is also important: By taking care of yourself (such as by eating a mostly plant-based diet or regularly exercising), it makes you happier. If you go for a run because you are stressed or want to get outside, that leads to improved fitness, but the reason it makes you healthier is also that it makes you happier! If you love to take a long bike ride, the health benefits are in the joy as much as the cardio you gain pumping the pedals. The same is true of choosing to eat a healthy salad, which is great for you, and lowers blood sugar, adds healthy fiber, but it also adds to your health because it makes you happier to do things that are good for you.
The research suggests that having healthy, close relationships is a major part of happiness, as is giving back to your community, being good at what you do, and taking care of yourself physically and emotionally. The study found that as people aged, those who were happier were also healthier.
They achieved happiness because they “choose to be happy” in what they do, and reported being happy in their choices, so if happiness feels elusive right now, tell yourself that being happy with the choices you make will help you to achieve total wellbeing.
The happiness-health connection is real, according to this doctor
The health happiness connection is an area known to doctors as integrative medicine, treating the whole person and not each symptom or emotion as separate and discreet. Helping people create “vibrant” health from within and prevent chronic disease and recover from illness naturally has been the life work of Dr. Stacie Stephenson, CNS and author of Vibrant: Your Ultimate Self Care and Wellness Book. Dr. Stephenson was a practicing physician for 15 years before becoming Chair of Functional Medicine for Cancer Treatment Centers of America and a board member of The Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists. She has partnered with the American Heart Association for nutritional outreach.
How can you use your emotional health to benefit physical health?
There is truly no separation between emotional and physical health, according to Dr. Stephenson. “Those who separate the mind from the body may also separate happiness from health, but that separation is completely artificial,” she explains. “Our minds and our bodies are one and the same.”
The connection between stress, inflammation, and your immune system
When the body is stressed, it releases stress hormones (such as cortisol) that drive up inflammation, which leads to a temporary state of alarm that can help us when we are in danger, but when these stressors stick around, it can wear down the immune system and allow diseases such as cardiovascular disease and cancer to take hold.
Stress causes inflammation in the body, which weakens your immune system, studies show, and the best way to strengthen the immune system is to lower stress, through a healthy diet (such as whole foods, fruits, and vegetables), daily exercise, as well as positive emotional wellbeing.
“Stress affects inflammation because of the communication between the immune system and the brain,” Dr. Stephenson explains. “Chronic stress activates the HPA axis (the hypothalamic/pituitary/adrenal axis), which triggers the release of hormones that we used to believe were anti-inflammatory but which, as it turns out, also have a pro-inflammatory effect.”
To lower your inflammation, you need to lower your stress
Not all stress is damaging. The worst stress is the lingering feelings that sit like a cloud over you for long periods. Short-term stress can actually be motivating and create the impetus for positive outcomes, such as getting that deadline project finished, or crushing that workout.
“The difference seems to be in the type of stress. Acute stress, like in the case of an accident, mobilizes the immune system quickly, resulting in a quick inflammatory response that resolves itself as injuries heal and the crisis passes. Chronic stress, however, seems to be more confusing to the body, resulting in an inflammatory response that doesn’t resolve, probably because the body isn’t getting the signal that the stressor itself has resolved.”
Chronic inflammation is linked to every major disease, says this doctor
“Many studies have linked inflammation with multiple chronic diseases, and researchers have determined that inflammation is a likely precursor to most chronic diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, insulin resistance, depression, dementia, Parkinson’s disease, and some types of cancer, including pancreatic, leukemia, breast, lung, and liver cancer,” explains Dr. Stephenson, who serves on the Board of Directors for the Gateway For Cancer Research.
“All of these diseases have an inflammatory component and genetic predispositions to these conditions may get triggered in response to chronic inflammation.”
To lower inflammation, you need to first work on your stress levels
Working on lowering stress and getting healthier, boosting immunity, and lowering the risk of disease can be as simple as consciously adding positive emotions throughout your day, which goes back to that list of what makes people happy: Doing good for others, doing something you’re good at, and taking care of yourself. Be giving, rock a project, or belt out a song (if you can sing) and eat a healthy plant-based dinner, or go for a walk or meditate, to take care of yourself.
Three ways to take care of yourself every day, Dr. Stephenson advises, are: “Eat more vegetables, walk for at least 30 minutes every day, and prioritize your supportive relationships. These are the foundations of health. Until you get these three basics down, you won’t benefit much from more advanced health interventions like supplements or special diets.”
Make self-care a habit to lower stress and control inflammation
“Learning how to reverse the stress response in your own body is a valuable skill that might even prevent chronic disease,” explains Dr. Stephenson. “I am a firm believer in self-care to manage stress for better health now and in the future.”
“Like anything else, self-care is a habit, and the easiest and most reliable way to build a habit is to start small. Assess where you are right now with stress management, then make small steps in the right direction, even if that means just 5 minutes of deep breathing or meditation in the morning or at night to start.”
“I also think it’s very important to build in time just for yourself every day, even if you don’t do anything more than stare out the window and daydream. Most of us need just a little bit of downtime at the beginning or end of a busy day so our bodies can recalibrate and switch from go-go-go reactive mode (with the sympathetic nervous system in control) to that rest-and-digest restorative mode (with the parasympathetic nervous system in control). The body needs that restorative period for a break from stress.”
When you start to feel better, it also makes you happier
Dr. Stephenson says the pathways work in both directions, and when you are healthier you also feel happier, so taking care of yourself (number three on the list of creating happiness, in the Harvard study) works because when you feel good it helps you physically and emotionally. So eating a healthy diet, exercising, and lowering stress benefits your body and mind. “The good feeling that comes from glowing health is a major predictor and influencer of that subjective sense of personal happiness.
Even when someone suffers a loss, being healthier helps them to be emotionally resilient, Dr. Stephenson explains: “There are always those saddled with great suffering who seem to remain happy anyway, which may be influenced by both genetics and personality, but the truth is that happiness is much easier when you feel good, and health is what creates those good feelings.”
How can we all take better take care of our physical and mental health
“One of the most powerful ways to take better care of yourself is to guard your sleep. Start winding down and switching into self-care mode two hours before bedtime. Limit stressful interactions and input.”
“Think calm. quiet relaxation, affectionate non-confrontational interactions with family and friends, and stress-releasing activities like a leisurely evening stroll, a warm bath, reading, meditation or prayer, and journaling. Using a sleep tracker can help you monitor how well, you are sleeping, but avoid them if they will stress you out even more!
To be healthier and happier, add more plant-based foods to your plate
Whatever your eating philosophy, you can always add more vegetables, adds Dr. Stephenson. “Vegetables are the best foods nature has to offer and most of us don’t eat enough of them. They should make up at least half your plate. The more variety you eat, the more nutrients you get, so try to mix it up and try new vegetables and preparation techniques as often as possible (other than frying, which causes the development of carcinogenic acrylamides in foods). Fresh and raw, steamed, baked, roasted, with or without an olive oil drizzle, in all shapes, colors, and textures—vegetables are the key to a vibrant diet.”
How else can people take care of themselves — short-term and long-term?
“Manage your stress, go outside more often, sleep seven to nine hours a night, and don’t isolate yourself. Keep in touch with family and friends, and work on your relationships because they will sustain you throughout life. Whenever I’m tempted to skip a workout or eating something I know I don’t really want, I repeat my favorite no-nonsense mantra: “Why not be vibrant?” I can never think of a good reason not to do what I know will make me feel better.”