Most advice about improving your health centres around making meaningful and sustainable changes to your daily habits over the long term. However, there are a few hacks you can use to improve your health almost immediately…
Go cold turkey on sugar
Added and processed sugar has been dubbed the heroin of the food world and for good reason. First and foremost, sugar is highly addictive and it also does immense damage to your body, with excessive sugar intake linked to serious health conditions such as chronic systemic inflammation, hormonal imbalances, metabolic syndrome, various cancers, numerous cognitive diseases including Alzheimer’s disease, high cholesterol and fatty liver disease, and just about every other lifestyle-related disease that plagues man today.
In his book, The Case Against Sugar, author, science journalist and proponent of low-carb eating Gary Taubes asserts that sugar is toxic to the body, placing the substance in the same league as other harmful vices such as cigarettes or alcohol. And it’s worth taking notice of the growing outcry against sugar, because it is not only making you fat and unhealthy, it is slowly killing you.
Thankfully it seems that the negative effects of sugar abuse can be reversed and that a significant effect can be experienced almost immediately.
For instance, a study conducted at the University of Michigan found “improvements in evening postprandial high blood glucose, and compensatory insulin response” (albeit in post-menopausal women) after just three low-carbohydrate meals over a 24-hour period, compared with those who ate the recommended higher-carb meals.
In another study, conducted to show the effects that cutting sugar from a child’s diet would have, a team of researchers from the University of California, San Francisco, led by Dr. Robert Lustig, found that after just 10 days the children who participated in the study dramatically reduced their risk of developing type 2 diabetes, while their triglyceride and ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol levels decreased (by an average of 33 and 5 points on average, respectively). Their diastolic blood pressure also decreased, which is an indicator that cardiovascular health, particularly the elasticity of blood vessels, improved.
Other short-term benefits reported by people who quit sugar include better sleep and more stable energy throughout the day, enhanced cognitive function and a lifting of ‘brain fog’, and better skin health.
Once the sugar withdrawal subsides, you should also experience fewer cravings and will start to regain a sharpness in your taste buds that an overconsumption of sugar usually blunts.
When it comes to sugar, not even the old mantra of “everything in moderation” should be entertained. You need to cut added sugar from your diet immediately. To do so, stop adding sugar to your meals or during the cooking process, cut out all sugar-sweetened beverages, and read food labels to determine how much sugar is in the packaged and manufactured foods you buy, then buy options with lower sugar contents.
Get a good night’s sleep
Inadequate sleep has been directly linked to host of health-related issues, including weight gain, insulin resistance, elevated cortisol levels (which breaks down muscle, increases fat storage, hardens arteries causing hypertension, accelerates bone loss and can also cause depression), a decrease in leptin levels which stifles various metabolic processes and increases food cravings (which increases total calorie intake), and blunts our immune response.
Despite the multitude of evidence, a growing number of people do not get the minimum amount of sleep a night needed for optimal health. In fact, one of the largest consumer sleep studies ever conducted, which reviewed data from 1.5 million nights of sleep, showed that 79% of people in the U.S. get less than the minimum recommendation of seven hours of sleep a night.
The study also shined light on steps that we can take to get more beneficial shut-eye. For instance, just 30 minutes of exercise correlated with 14 extra minutes of sleep per night. Increasing your exposure to sunlight during the day and reducing exposure to blue light from screens at night also helps people to fall asleep faster, as does reducing your sugar intake.
Naps are also a beneficial (and immediate) way to help mitigate the effects of cumulative sleep debt. A small study led by Brice Faraut of the Universite Paris Descartes-Sorbonne Paris Cite in France, and published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, determined that a 30-minute day-time nap was able to restore hormonal function and raise levels of proteins involved in stress management and immune system function back to normal following two nights of severe sleep deprivation.
In November 2016 the American Journal of Human Biology published the findings of a study conducted by Daniel Lieberman, a biological anthropologist at Harvard University, which researched the daily activity and exercise habits of the Hadza people of Tanzania in East Africa, who are one of the last remaining hunter-gatherer societies on the planet.
Lieberman and his team found that the Hadza’s subsistence lifestyle, which requires that the men hunt for fresh meat and that the women gather plant-based food sources, were active for an average of 75 minutes per day, engaging in what scientists classify as moderate-to-vigorous physical activity. This volume and intensity of daily ‘exercise’ positively correlated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease in the Hadza studied as they had exceptionally low levels of hypertension.
There was very little high-intensity activity witnessed by the researchers, but the cumulative activity amounted to 14 times as much as the the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’s guidelines, which recommend 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity physical activity (about 30 minutes a day, five times a week) or 75 minutes per week of vigorous-intensity physical activity.
As such, it can be beneficial to your health to do more less-intense exercise, more often. This could include going for walks during your lunch break, taking the stairs instead of the lift, or parking at the far end of the parking lot when you go shopping, as examples.
Manage all forms of stress
Our body’s response to stress is the same, whether it’s work stress, emotional stress, physical trauma, environmental stress, exercise stress or psychological stress. When we overload our system with multiple forms of stress over prolonged periods of time, something will eventually give and that’s normally our health.
Burning the candle at both ends, figuratively speaking, will have serious implications, yet this is becoming more prevalent in modern society. Leaving your stress unchecked can lead to hypertension, a chronically elevated heart rate, irritability, anxiety, depression, indigestion and heart burn, insomnia, erectile dysfunction, a suppressed immune system and hormonal imbalances, to name just a few.
Consider your total, cumulative stress to determine whether or not you should, for instance, head out for a hard training session, or if you need to consider more aggressive ways of managing skyrocketing stress levels.
Ideal ways to manage stress is to find outlets to process it, as well as activities that can help your body manage the impact thereof. In terms of processing stress, it is helpful to develop coping mechanisms to deal with and manage daily life and work-related stressors, because these are inevitable.
It is also important to unwind and quieten the mind, which can be done with meditation or yoga, or some light exercise, particularly cardiovascular exercise. In severe cases it is also helpful to speak to a professional who can offer advice and practical solutions for dealing with your stress. A healthful diet devoid of (yes, you guessed it) sugar and processed foods, adequate sleep, and the limited consumption of stimulants and alcohol are also important elements of a holistic stress management plan.
Change your eating habits
Research shows that intermittent fasting (IF) helps fight obesity and type 2 diabetes, both of which are risk factors for high blood pressure, by positively impacting on powerful hormones such as insulin and leptin. After a period of fasting, even as short as eight hours, our body becomes more sensitive to these hormones, offering an immediate health benefit.
Supporters of IF also propose that cutting calories can reduce levels of another powerful hormone called insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1), a reduction of which seems to protect us against cancer, heart disease and other serious illnesses by turning on cellular repair mechanisms, according to available research. Also, when IGF-1 levels are reduced it allows your body to burn body fat at a higher rate and regulates blood sugar to normal levels.
In addition, a review of IF diets by Dr Joseph Mercola evaluated the various approaches to this way of eating, particularly the advantages and limitations for its use in fighting obesity and type-2 diabetes. The research found that overweight or obese individuals with type-2 diabetes who fasted on consecutive or alternate days lost more weight, while also experiencing enhanced heart health and cardio-protective benefits. Studies included in the review showed a broad range of therapeutic potential, even when total calorie intake per day did not change or was only slightly reduced.