Redefining Health

When asked what it means to be healthy, we often think of factors like eating a healthy diet, exercising, moderating alcohol and eliminating tobacco or drugs.  And it has indeed been proven scientifically that these factors play a major role in living a healthy lifestyle.  But, what if there was more to it than that? How can we explain instances, like the one below, where this definition of a “healthy lifestyle” seems to be defied?

A little story:

“Once upon a time, a tribe of Italian immigrants crossed the Atlantic and settled in Roseto, Pennsylvania, where they didn’t exactly live the most “healthy” lifestyle. They ate meatballs fried in lard, smoked like chimneys, boozed it up every night, and pigged out on pasta and pizza. Yet, shockingly, they had half the rate of heart disease and much lower rates of many other illnesses than the national average. It wasn’t the water they drank, the hospital they went to, or their DNA. And clearly, it wasn’t their stellar diet. So what was it that made the people of Roseto so resistant to heart disease?”

It turns out that the key to this tribe’s health seemed to lie in their ability to alleviate loneliness.  Their closely knit community and the love and support they gave to each other alleviated stress and loneliness, thus reducing cortisol levels.  Cortisol is known for activating the sympathetic nervous system, increasing heart rate, blood pressure, inhibiting the immune system and increasing the risk of heart disease.  Because the people of Roseto never felt alone, they rarely died of heart disease even though their lifestyle would not be classified as “healthy”.

Scientific data suggests that loneliness is a stronger risk factor for illness than smoking or failure to exercise.

One doctor named Lissa Rankin, encountered many similar puzzling situations with her patients, in which some of them had unhealthy lifestyles, yet were able to outlive some of her other health nut patients on raw, vegan diets, running marathons and taking various vitamins and supplements.

In Dr. Rankin’s opinion, “your health is affected not only by relationships, but also work stress, financial stress, mental health issues like depression and anxiety, whether you’re optimistic or pessimistic, and whether or not you’re actively engaging in potentially stress reducing activities like creative expression, sex, and spiritual activities like prayer, attending religious services, or meditation.”  She believes these things may be even more important for maintaining health than just eating and exercising properly.

Dr. Rankin gave a TedX talk about this topic of redefining health and it is certainly interesting to see how profoundly we can be affected by our mental health.

Here’s the TedX talk:

And her site:

So bottom line?

It has been scientifically proven that a person who eats poorly, smokes, and never exercises, but who enjoys an incredible marriage, family, friends, a rewarding job, a sense of life purpose, a healthy spiritual and sex life has BETTER HEALTH than a person with a healthy diet and rigorous exercise plan who is miserable in all other facets of life.

It seems that being happy with these aspects of your life are effective at reducing cortisol in the body, which is major cause of many of the illnesses we face in our society today.

It certainly makes me feel a bit better about not always having the greatest diet and for skipping all those workouts during midterm season, but I’ll definitely be trying to keep those cortisol levels low!

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