What does it mean to be healthy?

Think of the healthiest person you know. How would you describe them?

  • The absence of specific diseases or illness?
  • Healthy behaviours that they follow e.g. eating well or exercising?
  • Healthy appearance e.g. good skin or shiny hair?
  • Emotional stability i.e. happy and stress free?
  • A good social life or family network?

healthy couple

The World Health Organisation defines health as:

“A state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”

This is quite a holistic approach but still definitely brings up some questions!

Can someone with a disability be healthy? What about someone with a lifelong genetic condition? If someone has a chronic disease which can be managed and does not affect their quality of life, are they healthy? And what does complete well-being mean anyway and who can actually achieve it?!

The answer to these questions is that there is no answer. Defining health is actually a really difficult thing to do as it has various meanings depending on the individual. People tend to describe health based on their own situation and experiences. Someone with a chronic disease or disability that they are managing might be less likely to describe health as the absence of physical infirmity and focus on the emotional and social aspects instead. A shy person who might not have the most active social life can still feel healthy and happy and might describe health as fitness or the lack of disease.

Functional definitions of health include the ability to participate in and enjoy life. In this sense, it is also necessary to consider the influence of social, political and environmental factors on health as particular conditions may or may not impact the quality of a person’s life, depending on the systems which are in place to support them. Healthcare and medicine also plays a huge role as modern developments allow people to live much longer with chronic conditions and maintain a high standard of living.

Regardless of the specific definition, it is important that we see health as a resource for a fulfilling life, rather than the ultimate aim or achievement. A problem with the current health and wellness industry is that it abuses the use of “complete” health to keep people trapped and chasing an unattainable goal. Good health is a priority for many of us and we are willing to pay crazy sums of money for nutritional supplements, fitness programs and other products which promise to bring us closer to this panacea. We can quite easily revolve our life around “being healthy” but this obsession can take away from our emotional and social well-being.

I know for sure that my definition of health has changed over the last few years. I used to think I was healthy as I was slim, I looked reasonably well and exercised like a fiend. People around me thought so too and I was complimented for being the fit one! But looks aren’t everything and inside, my body wasn’t functioning like it should. I was stressed and anxious and my obsession with food and exercise was detracting from my social life. These days, I take a much more holistic approach to health and definitely focus more on keeping my stress levels down over everything else.

Good health is something many of us take for granted and we don’t think twice about neglecting our bodies until things start to go wrong. But a small amount of time and effort spent on learning how to look after ourselves and actually going out and practicing it can really make a difference. Think about how you would define health and what changes you could make to make the most of this valuable resource!

what the health

 

Resources:

http://www.who.int/about/mission/en/

https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/150999.php

Advertisements

Redefining public health

I watched a documentary on the BBC this week which focused on women suffering from  Diabulimia. This is a type of eating disorder where someone with Type 1 Diabetes reduces the amount of insulin they take in order to control their weight. Without enough insulin, sugar builds up in a diabetics blood and urine. Chronically high blood sugar, known as hyperglycemia, can cause irreversible damage to the eyes, kidneys and nervous tissue. If the body is starved of glucose for long enough, it will start to beak down muscle and organ tissue in a process called diabetic ketoacidosis which can be fatal if untreated.

I had never heard of the condition before but straight away I could relate to the women as I am well acquainted with that deep sense of inadequacy that could cause you harm yourself in this way. It was so sad to see these beautiful women causing such harm to their body in order to stay slim. It made me angry that as a society we have created such a fear of weight gain that people are willing to risk their lives to achieve the “ideal body”.

The lack of support for this complex condition reminded me so much of my own visits to my GP. Admitting that you have a problem can be so challenging and reaching out for help is often a shameful experience. To  then be told that there is nothing available because you don’t fit into the standard boxes of anorexia or bulimia is ridiculous. It is time for us to open up the definition of disordered eating to include all of those whose preoccupation with food and weight is subtracting from their quality of life. I think we would be shocked at the number of people, especially women, who would come forward.

There is a need for a general education on the harmful effects of dieting and support for building a healthy body image. Children are growing up surrounded by diet products and perfect insta-filtered bodies and they need to be prepared to avoid a generation of damaged self esteem. The focus needs to shift from focusing on weight to teaching people to eat well and move their bodies to improve their health and internal sense of well being. There are some great programs emerging in the NHS which are encouraging healthy habits but for some reason the scale always takes centre stage.

The Health at Every Size movement focuses on encouraging positive lifestyle changes for people in all body shapes and sizes, reducing weight discrimination and improving bodily acceptance and self-confidence. This is an area that I am really interested in and going forward into a career in Public Health, I hope I can help raise awareness and be part of bringing these ideas into the mainstream. This change won’t happen overnight – diet culture is well established and we need a total reprogramming of our beliefs and values. But I do believe the shift has started and it is only a matter of time before people wake up and take back the power over their own health.

haes_trees

 

HA recovery diaries #11 It is ok to take a break

Just a quick update to let you know that I haven’t disappeared off the face of the earth. I am simply taking a break, easing off social media and the internet in general..

I know I am not alone in taking on too much. It is a common theme amongst women suffering from HA and disordered eating. That type A, constantly busy, doing everything for everyone and doing it PERFECTLY persona. This last year I have been working full time as an engineer plus studying part time at the College of Naturopathic Medicine and doing a foundation teacher training course with the British Wheel of Yoga. AND healing from HA along the way. So I have been very busy!

But right now I am at a point in my life where the opportunity to take a break has presented itself to me and I would be stupid not to take it. I recently left my job, moved house and my next adventure begins in September. I am coming to the end of my course at CNM so I have a few things to finish off for that but otherwise I am free to relax for a few weeks.

Recovery is hard. It sounds like the easiest thing in the world to stop exercising and eat food but it takes so. much. energy to do that. The constant mental battle is exhausting. But I am now at a point where the hardest work is done and I want to take some time to recharge.

So it might be a few weeks till my next post but I will be back 🙂

Remember that we are not machines. It is ok to be tired. It is ok to take a break. It is ok to rest and allow yourself some time out. In fact it is necessary every once in a while to destress, reevaluate and reprioritise.

Here is a great blog if you want to read some more

http://bewellplace.com/its-okay-to-take-a-break-when-youre-overwhelmed-and-reprioritize-whats-important/

HA recovery diaries #10 Liberation not limitation

A huge part of recovery from HA or any form of restrictive disorder is letting go of the rules.  It seems like it should be easy once we learn that our habits are responsible for our poor health to just stop exercising and start eating but it is very rarely so.  Often we have spent years beating ourselves into submission that it becomes almost impossible to disentangle ourselves.

So why do we place these rules on ourselves?

Almost always we begin with the best intentions in mind.  We want to get healthier, to be fitter, to look better, to create “the best version of ourselves”.  And how are we told to do this?  Eat less, move more, lose weight.  We are surrounded by these messages in society to the point that they become embedded into our psyche.  Almost everyone is living in the mindset of either trying to lose weight or not wanting to gain weight.  Dieting and exercise have become the social norms.

When we first set out on a health or weight loss journey, we do our research and arm ourselves with knowledge.  Which foods are low in calories or have the most nutrients? How many calories should we eat?  Which foods are more fattening?  How much exercise a day is needed for weight loss?  Which exercises burn the most fat?  All of this information is too much to carry around in our heads so we develop rules to follow to save hours of deliberation every time we need to eat or move our bodies.  Following a plan is so much easier as it takes the pressure of decision making away.   But this is not necessarily a good thing!

For example, take some common food rules:

I can only eat X calories a day

I shouldn’t eat chocolate

I can’t have dessert

If I go to a restaurant I have to have a salad

I am only allowed to eat X times a day

I must leave X hours between meals

Notice any similarities?

The words only, can’t, shouldn’t, must, allowed..  How do these words make you feel?  Ask most people to choose between oppression and liberation and I can almost guarantee they will choose freedom.  But living with words like this, we cannot be totally free.  For some reason we seem to enjoy creating a cage for ourselves to live in, placing restrictions and limitations on our own lives.

Why do we do this?

I don’t have the answer to that.  Maybe it is because we are scared.  So scared of our own power that we feel we have to reign ourselves in.  Scared that without the rules we will be totally out of control.  And ironically enough, rules create exactly the kind of environment for this kind of rebelling to occur.  If you are the kind of person that tends to spiral into chaos the minute you break a rule, think back to before you ever had any rules.  I am guessing that you were doing just fine.   As soon as we place restrictions on ourselves we ignite the deep desire to rebel and it becomes a viscous cycle.

In creating rules, we hand over our power to adapt and change.  Life is not constant – in fact its common to hear that the only constant thing about it is change.  And rules don’t account for this.  We are constantly evolving as humans and the world is in a state of continuous flux.  Just because something works for us today does not mean it will work tomorrow.  But often we cling to the rules we make, far beyond the point where they no longer serve us.  The habits and beliefs we have built become so deeply embedded that it is difficult to consider any other option.

This is why going “all in” works can be so challenging.  Although the fundamentals are non-negotiable there is a lot of room for individualisation.

We know that we need to exercise less but how much is too much?  Can we carry on with what we usually do but less frequently?  How about lifting weights?  Is walking ok?  If so for how long?  What about yoga?

We know we need to nourish our bodies but how much do we need?  Is 2000 calories enough?  3000?  Should we be eating junk foods or focus on nutrition?  Is eating a lot at night ok or should we be spacing things out throughout the day?

These are all questions that come up frequently and there simply is no answer.  Everybody is different and it is up to you to find what works best for your body.  And this can be scary if we are coming from a place where we had a set rule book to help us make our decisions.  We knew what was ok and not ok.  We had external guides to tell us what to do.  And now we are supposed to just let ourselves loose in the world?!

Again, most people want to live a life where they feel free.  In the western world, we are lucky to have abundance available to us every day and yet we choose to turn away from it.  Partly this is because we are made to believe that we can only have certain things if we do as we are told.  If we deprive ourselves in the short term we will receive the rewards of health, beauty and happiness in the long term.  No pain, no gain.  But this simply isn’t true.  We can have all of these things without punishing or depriving ourselves.

What we aren’t told is that there is a shortcut.  Welcoming the abundance in our lives with gratitude will bring us all of these things.  Getting in touch with our needs on both a physical and emotional level and focusing on the things that mean the most to us will bring a deep, sustainable joy which no health or fitness plan can ever promise.  You are the most powerful person in your own life and unlocking this power and using it is so rewarding.  And by power I don’t mean will-power, the ability to stick to external or self-imposed rules but the power to live your life the way you want to.  The power to go against the grain, to make mistakes, to change your mind.. what ever you need to do.

When it comes to food, give yourself the freedom to choose what, when, how much.  If you feel compelled to exercise, give yourself permission to rest.  If your body wants to move then explore that gently.  Take away all numbers, measurements, times and go with whatever feels right.  It might be scary at first but once you get to know your body and your intuition, this will become your safe place.  And when you are stuck or unsure about a decision in your healing journey, maybe try approaching it with a question.

Will this bring me closer to liberation or limitation?

 

Thoughts on Fitspo

This morning a friend posted this image on Facebook.

fitspo

I know she had the best intentions behind the post but it really got me thinking about the “Fitspo” trend and its affects on body image.  The Urban Dictionary definition of the word is:

“Images of active, strong, and fit women that promote proper exercise and diet. May also include images healthy foods. Much like thinspo (images of dangerously thin women used by people with eating disorders to motivate) but healthier.”

From the definition it sounds like a great thing. Replacing the horrible trend of “thinspo” and encouraging women to be healthy and active.. both of those things get a great big TICK from me.

However, what can’t be escaped is the fact that images like this still encourage women to focus on their body shape and size. They still provide a body ideal, a goal for women to aim for. They still encourage women to base their self-worth on their appearance and attach morality to food and exercise. And this results in the same feelings of unworthiness and disappointment for those women who don’t follow the rules and don’t look like the picture-perfect instagram babes.

The image above does an amazing job at showing us that the number on the scale is, well only that really. A number. The point here is that body weight and BMI are pretty meaningless and bodies of the same weight can have completely different body shape and composition. That’s all well and good, but what does the image imply? That we should be focusing on getting lean and toned instead of skinny? That it’s much better to be heavier and look like the photo on the right? Yes it may be successful in shifting the focus away from the scale but to what… the mirror?

Lots of women (myself included) are falling into the trap of shifting goals from trying to weigh as little as possible to eating clean and looking lean. What the images above don’t show is how the woman is feeling in each photo and what her life really looks like. What kind of behaviours is she engaging in to maintain her body? What is her overall health like? How are her relationships and social life? Is she following her passions?

There could be a whole range of things going on behind the scenes. We often assume that just because someone looks “normal” that they are not suffering and this is not always the case. Disordered eating can take on so many shapes and sizes. Bulimia and exercise bulimia, orthorexia, food fears, laxative abuse, binge eating. All of these can often go unnoticed as people can maintain a normal BMI and not end up looking like the skeletal eating disorder stereotype. I am not saying by any means that the girl in the photos is suffering from any of these issues but what I am trying to say is not to take photos like this at face value. Images mean nothing unless we know the story behind them.

For me personally, looking lean came at a great cost. I did all of the right things. I worked out daily. I ate clean. I drank plenty of water. But I didn’t feel good and I didn’t know WHY. I wasn’t healthy. My periods were totally absent. I started to wake up in the early hours of the morning for no reason. I felt fatigued all of the time and had to rely on caffeine more and more. I know not everybody will have the same experience but I am sure I am not the only one. It took a lot of effort to unlearn all of the so-called healthy habits I had developed and get back to focusing on feeling good.

For those of us in the health and fitness world, food and exercise and shaping our body can easily become the focus of our life. Yes it is fun to experiment with food and of course moving our bodies feels great. But it doesn’t have to be our sole purpose. It is very easy to get caught up in the bubble and forget that there is an outside world. Real life social connections and meaningful relationships where you can be yourself can do so much more for your health and wellbeing than following some online fitness guru and feeling connected to others by the restraints of whatever lifestyle they preach.

We all want to be healthy and lead a long and happy life but there is more to life than health than working out and eating salads. Having a passion and following your dreams gives you vitality and a sparkle in your eyes that no workout can ever bring. Getting in touch with your true values and finding a purpose in life will make you feel amazing . You don’t have to eat a certain way or look like a fitness model to feel valuable and do good in the world. And chances are you will want to look after yourself in whatever way feels right for you in order to achieve what you want in life. If that means working out a few times a week and feeling strong, great. If that means eating chocolate every day, also great 🙂

Calling all health freaks on birth control

Are you taking the contraceptive pill?

Are you into “health and fitness”?

Do you exercise a lot?

Do you watch what you eat?

Are you underweight or at the lower end of an average BMI?

Are you under a lot of emotional stress?

If the answer to any of the above questions is yes, then listen up.

Your hormonal health may be suffering and be masked by taking the pill.

In my HA Recovery Diaries series I wrote about my struggles with Hypothalamic Amenorrhea. This is when women stop having their natural menstrual cycle due to physical or emotional stress on the body, including over-exercise, under-eating and being at a low body weight (and by low body weight I mean below our bodies’ happy point, not what is defined by the media or fitness industry).

The hypothalamus is like the control centre of our brain. It sends out hormonal signals which regulate all our important bodily functions, including metabolism, body temperature and reproduction. When the hypothalamus detects a stressful situation, in particular an “energy crisis” which can arise from exercising too much and moving too little, it shuts down any unnecessary functions. This can result in symptoms such as feeling cold, brittle hair and nails and, of course, loss of our menstrual cycle.

For women who are on the pill, this huge sign that something is wrong can easily be missed. The pill introduces synthetic hormones into the body in order to trick the body into thinking it is pregnant, thereby preventing ovulation. In order to induce a monthly bleed, 7 days of sugar pills replace these hormones every 4 weeks. The “period” that we get when on the pill is in fact a withdrawal bleed from the sudden drop in hormones. This means that we assume everything is fine with our hormonal system when actually things could be going very wrong!

In today’s body conscious society, I think this is a much more common problem than we realise. It has become fashionable to hang out at the gym, living in leggings and sports bras, striving to achieve the perfect, toned body. We are told that exercise is important to maintain a healthy body, which is true to a certain extent, however it is not the full story. Moving our body is of course good for our health, however exercising too intensely or frequently is perceived by the body as a physical stress and can cause our metabolic and reproductive systems to shut down.

I was lucky that I came off birth control after only 12 months and after a few years of being fobbed off my doctors that my “post-pill amenorrhea” was normal I realised that something else was going on. However, it still took me another 6 years to actually get to the bottom of the issue and to regain my cycles. During my recovery process, I have met so many women who have come off birth control to try and get pregnant and found that their cycles just didn’t come back. I can only imagine the disappointment and frustration at wanting a child and your body simply not being ready.

And the recovery process is not always quick or easy. Depending on the extent of the damage done, not so much in terms of physical damage to your body but more in how ingrained the thought patterns have become, it can take months or even years to recover. For many who have built their life around nutrition and exercise and may be known by their friends and family as “the fit one” or “the skinny one”, habits can be extremely hard to break. Even once you start treating your body right, it may be months before it feels safe enough to grow a child. I am not saying all of this to scare you, I am just being honest.

You might think that because you are not trying to get pregnant, then it isn’t all that important to have a period. Certainly the whole point of the birth control pill is to shut it down. But like I said earlier, not having a period is a clear signal from your body that it is not happy and that things need to change. Think of it like your monthly report, indicating how well your body is functioning. Menstrual cycle disruptions, including PMS as well as amenorrhea, indicate the health of your bones, thyroid and metabolism. This beautiful, complex hormonal cycle also regulates our emotions, sex drive and even how much we enjoy sex. These days everyone is using fitbits and health and fitness apps, but we have our own built in tool to inform our health decisions and we are simply not using it!

467289-best-fitness-app-round-up

So to summarise, if you are on the contraceptive pill and there is a chance you fall into the category of “health freak”, “fitness fanatic” or “stress head” then I strongly advise you to do some research on Hypothalamic Amenorrhea. Read my HA Recovery Diaries series, check out this link and see what you think. If you think you are someone who could be affected by this then it may be a good idea to come off the pill for a while and see what happens. The first stage of solving any problem is awareness and you now have that after reading this post so you are already on the journey to recovery. Next comes acceptance and hopefully it won’t take you 6 years to get to this stage like it did for me.

Finally comes action! And if you get to this point you are in great company. I have met so many amazing women online going through this healing journey. I have discovered Intuitive Eating, Health at Every Size and Life Unrestricted communities which have helped to totally reprogram my brain. So for that I am thankful!

If you have any questions please contact me and I will be happy to help 🙂

 

HA Recovery Diaries #7 Progress Update

It has been two months since my last post so I thought it was time for an update on my recovery process.

I had my first period at the beginning of March and my next cycle came right on time after 28 days. I was amazed and thought it was too good to be true!

And it was.

On day 17 of my third cycle, just a few days past when I should have ovulated I had a random two day bleed.  And nothing since..

It was quite disappointing as it had felt like a miracle had occurred and things had just fallen back into place but looking back, it was actually a great thing. A big STOP sign which led me to pause and reflect on my life and recovery process. I felt like things hadn’t changed so I went back to the book (Nicola Rinaldi’s No Period Now What book that is for those who haven’t been following my posts) and reminded myself of what can send our cycles out of whack.

Cycle

The first point is a tough one. I definitely have not been eating as much lately as during my peak HA recovery efforts. This hasn’t been on purpose but more because my focus has shifted towards other things and I simply don’t feel like sitting around eating biscuits and chocolate in the evenings.  I have gravitated back towards a whole foods plant based diet simply because this is what makes me feel good! I am still eating a ton of food and I am definitely not in a calorie deficit but maybe I do need to think about introducing some more “fun foods” back into my life.

I am still keeping away from the gym and all cardio activity. Since the weather is getting warmer I am probably walking more than I was but nothing extreme. I am still focusing on yoga and trying to slowly build my strength back. I don’t feel like my current activity level is enough to stress out my body but if I am not seeing any positive signs in the next few weeks I may have to rethink things and give my body more time to rest and heal. This is pretty frustrating as I love cycling and I was hoping that I would be able to spend the summer exploring on my bike but maybe this is not a good idea for me right now.

My weight has stopped increasing and has remained pretty stable since my period returned. How do I know that you might ask? Well if I am honest, I have got back into the habit of weighing myself every once in a while “just to check up on things”. This is something that absolutely needs to stop. I am so past the point of feeling that my weight defines my health, happiness or value as a human being but old habits die hard. So from now on, I am enforcing a scale ban for a minimum of 30 days.

Now to the big one: stress! I have had a lot of stress in my life this month. I have decided to leave the safety of my job and venture into the unknown. I will write more about this in another post but to summarise, my anxiety levels sky-rocketed when I had to make that decision and again when I had to actually make it happen and tell people at work that I am leaving. Now that stress is over I have the dull, underlying worry of wondering what I am going to do next, when I will find another job and whether I will be able to pursue my passions and find a new career that I love.

So really, looking at the bigger picture, it is no surprise that my cycle went a bit wonky this month. Recovery is not a linear path and I expect the future to be full of ups and downs in the road. But this is ok. Even being aware of this is all amazing progress. My advice for those who are still working towards recovery is to be patient  with yourself. Treat yourself with kindness and compassion and celebrate the small victories. Don’t dwell on the setbacks, learn from them and move on. Never stay stuck in your comfort zone, keep trying, keep challenging yourself and facing your fears. I promise it will be worth it!