Although we’ve already discussed a number of ideas to improve your health in previous articles, this contains most of all. In a traditional sense, health might have been considered the absence of disease, illness and injury. Despite us already having established that this isn’t nearly inclusive enough, it is certainly still an area worthy of some consideration, and the one to which this article is dedicated.
We can consider, for our purposes, biological health to refer to numerous systems of the body, and their ability to function at least normally, and at best, optimally. These systems include, but are not limited to:
Whilst each of these systems can be, with some accuracy, isolated for the purposes of discussion, analysis and functional checks, it is important to remember that not only are they interdependent across a myriad of functions, but that they almost always operate in unison with other systems, with all of them coherently maintaining all human function.
In order to assess common issues with each of the systems listed above, and suggest methods to prevent failure at some level of one or more of them, we shall first briefly examine what each is and does.
The circulatory system
The circulatory system comprises the heart, blood vessels, and the blood itself. Between the pulmonary and systemic circuits, the circulatory system, among other things, transports oxygenated blood to the body, removes waste products from the body, and takes blood to the lungs to be oxygenated.
The digestive system
The digestive system consists of the pancreas and salivary glands, the stomach, the liver, and the small and large intestines. It is the system through which we exchange substances with the environment; predominantly food and water on the way in, and urine and faeces on the way out.
The endocrine system
The endocrine system is all of the glands of the body and the reproductive organs. These secrete hormones which control the body’s growth, metabolism and sexual development and function. In line with the recurring theme, whilst these hormones can be segregated for the purpose of analysis, they have multiple functions and work in harmony with, or opposition to other hormones. For example, insulin and glucagon work to between them balance blood glucose, so that both are important in this role, but equally both have other, and separate, functions. Hormones are simply chemicals messengers that provoke action in organs to maintain homeostasis, and as such, eating or behaving in a manner that creates imbalances can have drastic effects.
The integumentary system
The integumentary system is the skin, hair, nails, glands and nerves. This barrier protects the body, holds the body’s form and is key in eliminating waste products and fighting against disease. This system can experience problems if treated poorly, for example through sunburn, but can also exhibit symptoms brought about by problems elsewhere, for example certain rashes as a result of allergic reactions in the digestive system.
The lymphatic system
The lymphatic system consists of lymphatic vessels and nodes, along with the tonsils, spleen, adenoids and thymus. Among its functions is carrying fatty acids and fats as chyle, and transporting white blood cells to and from the lymph nodes and bones.
The muscular system
When talking about the muscular system, we include skeletal, smooth and cardiac muscles. The functions of some of these are autonomous, whereas others are within our control. There is often overlap between the two though. The muscular system works in conjunction with the skeletal system to produce all movement, maintain posture and maintain blood flow.
The nervous system
The nervous system transmits electrical signals around the body to coordinate movement. The nervous system can be further divided into two parts; the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) and the peripheral nervous system, with the peripheral being divided into autonomic and somatic systems. The autonomic system comprises the sympathetic (arousing) and parasympathetic (calming) divisions. The sympathetic division originates in the thoracic spine region and contributes to speeding the heart rate, among other things. The parasympathetic division plays a part in digestion, sexual arousal, urination and defecation. The somatic system is further split into sensory (afferent) and motor (efferent) nervous systems. Put simply, these are inputs and outputs.
The renal system
The renal system consists of the kidneys, ureters, urinary bladder and urethra. The kidneys filter the blood, removing waste products and producing urine. Levels of secretion and retention are dictated by several hormone levels, and vary according to diet, among other things.
The respiratory system
The respiratory system is made up of the nose, pharynx, larynx, trachea, bronchi and the lungs. The respiratory system has two main role; to bring oxygen into the body, and to remove carbon dioxide, the waste product produced by metabolic processes. You may also hear this system referred to as the pulmonary system.
The skeletal system
The skeletal system consists of 206 bones (in an adult) connected by a network of ligaments, tendons and cartilage. In addition to providing structural support, and enabling movement, in much the way a chassis does, it produces blood cells, stores calcium and regulates hormones. The way the system is laid out, also protects vital organs, most notably the heart and the brain.
Understanding the major systems is vital if only to help us understand that they are all interconnected, interdependent and mutually supportive. With that understood, the next thing we need to be aware of is that problems in one system may produce symptoms in another.
When discussing health, prevention of disease and illness, and safeguarding against injury, I consider it best to approach the whole and stop trying to cater to individual systems. If we eat a lot of fish, for example, because it is high in omega 3 fatty acids. This isn’t just targeting elevated triglyceride levels in the circulatory system, but can help with arthritis in the skeletal system, combat depression, Alzheimer's and dementia in the nervous system, and aid development in infants. In short, if something is ‘good’ for you, it tends to help in lots of areas.
This approach is born of the idea that targeting the cause of problems by avoiding things that exacerbate them, or by using methods known to stack the odds in our favour, is infinitely better than waiting for problems to arise, and then trying to deal with them. It’s probably worth noting at this point that we can suffer from two types of injury or illness; acute or chronic.
The health services tend to be exceptionally good at dealing with the acute, such as slicing your finger or breaking a bone, and much less can be done to safeguard against these. When it comes to the chronic, however, the health services aren’t at all so great, favouring treating symptoms over causes. We are much better placed to take care of ourselves, following the mantra prevention is better than a cure. Whilst fitness is integral to this prevention, in this article, we’re going to look at 4 main methods to improve our biological health, and safeguard against chronic disease.
- Better nutrition
- Better sleep
- Better movement
- Better recovery
This is probably where most articles on health would start, particularly biological health. That’s because what we eat is the single biggest contributing factor when it comes to our overall health, but also the area in which changes will yield the quickest results.
To understand what our bodies require to run on, we’re going to briefly explore the macronutrients that food consists of, and calories as a unit of measure. Conventional, long-standing advice has been that a calorie controlled diet, balanced between carbohydrates, fats and proteins is the best way to stay in shape and keep the body operating in an optimal manner. This, in its simplest form, is true, however when the information is misinterpreted deliberately or otherwise and circulated in its heavily distorted form, we end up with a web of confusion. To simplify, I’m going to outline some guidelines for the general population to help maintain a healthy weight, energy levels and well rounded health. These parameters can be varied greatly person to person for an array of reasons, so for further information, consult a nutritional professional, or safely implement a trial and error approach to your diet.
1) Work out how much protein your body needs daily. Work off roughly 1g for every 500g of bodyweight, 2g per kg. From here, add a little if your training is more intense, up to 2.5g/kg. For a 90kg male who trains 4-5 times per week, we’re looking at 180g of protein per day. This provides us with 720 calories, based on the fact protein contains 4 calories per gram.
2) The same male would usually require around 2500 calories per day. With our protein allowance removed, this leaves us with 1780 calories to play with. How you split these calories between carbohydrates and fats will largely depend on the type of training you’re taking part in. More endurance, longer, lower intensity based stuff, more fats, whereas if you’re more heavily into big lifts and intense workouts, more carbohydrates. This is a sliding scale, altered to suit. For this male, we’ll consider him somewhere between the two extremes, and allow him 800 calories from fat, and 980 calories from carbohydrates each day. With fats weighing in at 9 calories per gram, this gives him 89 grams of fats per day. Carbohydrates, like proteins, give us 4 calories per gram, so he’ll need 245 grams of carbohydrates.
3) Look to source predominantly medium chain triglycerides, found in coconut oil, with a smaller balance of saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Monounsaturated fats can be found in olive oil, avocados and nuts, polyunsaturated in fish and chia seeds. Saturated fats exist in meat and butter. Try to completely avoid trans fats, which are formed artificially and drive apart the HDL and LDL cholesterol levels. It is the ratio of these two that matters more than the levels.
4) The more high intensity work you do, the more carbohydrates you will need that sit higher on the Glycemic Index. These faster acting sugars can come from white rice (easier to digest than brown), sweet potato or some fruits. It’s important to not the difference between Glycemic Index and Glycemic Load, but that’s for another article!
5) The rest of you carbohydrate sources need to vary in colour, nature and be fibrous. These are providing your micronutrients; your vitamins and minerals, and variety is key!
6) Once you have established a base level of fuel you need per day, stick to it STRICTLY for at least two, preferably three weeks, to allow the body to adjust. After this, begin to monitor energy levels at different times of the day, performance during workouts, cognitive function, stomach upsets, headaches, lack of concentration, quality of sleep, and anything else you think matters. Then begin to make minor adjustments, one or two at a time, to suit your needs.
7) Losing too much weight? Add more food, but stick to your ratios. Flagging on long workouts? Switch your ratios more to fats. Struggling with fast and heavy workouts? Add more high GI carbohydrates into your diet. Still gaining, or not losing weight? Reduce your calories by 200-300 per day. Upset stomach or bowel problems? Remove grains and dairy.
8) Keep to high quality, single ingredient foods. Use organic, local produce where you can.
9) Keep in mind the guidance given by Greg Glassman; “Eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch and no sugar. Keep intake to levels that will support exercise but not body fat.”
10) Cook or prepare your own food.
11) Deviating once doesn’t mean you’ve ruined everything, in fact it’s fine. Get back to what works as soon as possible though.
12) Don’t eat things with ingredients you can’t pronounce, or don’t recognise.
13) If you can buy your food without packaging, do it. If you can’t, it’s not food.
14) Eat vegetables with every meal.
15) Keep the ratios of proteins, fats and carbs the same at all meals.
Sleep is tricky, because most of us have at least one or two major reasons why we can’t sleep as much as we’d like, or even when we’d like. In an ideal world, we’d sleep all the time it was dark, and during the lighter days of summer, we would nap in the shade in the hottest parts of the day. This is the cycle for which our circadian rhythm is adapted. External cues, such as light, impact our circadian, therefore making it entrainable. The external influences on this are referred to as Zeitgebers. Trying to live and work in accordance with this rhythm is nearly impossible in the modern world, but we can do a great deal to close the gap between where we are now, and the perfection we seek. The following are my tips for harmonising your schedule with your circadian rhythm, and maximising sleep as a recovery tool, from both training and life:
Try to go to bed and get up at a similar time every day. This includes weekends. Whilst you can vary this a little, the routine makes it easier to train the rhythm.
Try not to use electronic devices for at least 30 minutes before bed. The light emitted by the screens delay the release of melatonin (sleep hormone)and make it more difficult to fall into a deep slumber. Try setting your alarm well in advance, plugging your phone in to charge, and placing it on ‘do not disturb’, face down! If you don’t use it as an alarm, this can be in a different room.
Remove light sources from your room. Taking out an LCD alarm clock has made an instant difference to the restless periods I sometimes used to experience during the night, which I put down to the strong red light the clock emitted.
Maintain airflow. I understand that when it’s hot, we want to close the windows and fire up the air conditioner or fan, and when it’s cold, we want to keep them closed and turn the heating up, burying ourselves ever deeper into piles of blankets. This isn’t helpful to the quality of our sleep, or our broader health though. That dry mouth and stuffy nose you wake up with most mornings is most likely caused by a lack of fresh air. Struggling for breath through sniffling, and mouth breathing are both known to reduce sleep quality.
If you have to sleep during daylight, invest in some blackout curtains. The darker your room, the better you’ll sleep. Having worked shifts for long periods, I found the most difficult aspect trying to sleep during days off, especially hot, bright ones. Blackout curtains and possible silencing headphones could alleviate the problem.
Don’t snooze! I know, this one sucks. I know this because for FIFTEEN years, I have deliberately set a chain of three or four alarms for each morning I had to be up. I’ve only change this within the last 6 weeks or so, and I begrudgingly report to you now, it works! Bear with me here. If i set my first alarm for 6am, and actually get up at 6:15, I have in fact just disturbed the last 15 minutes of my sleep, whereas I could have just set my alarm for 6:15. I’ve also started my day with a period of procrastination. I’ve delayed and somewhat failed to achieve the first task of my day. That certainly doesn’t set us up for success. If you, as I do, struggle to wake through deep sleep, then simply place your alarm far enough from the bed that you have to get up to switch it off, and don’t get back in!
Avoid stimulation from food or exercise close to bedtime. This is almost true to the point where you’re better missing a workout, than compromising sleep to squeeze a late night one in. Tolerance and comedown times will vary greatly from person to person, and food to food, but as a guide, steer clear of high intensity workouts and caffeine etc for the two hours before bed. If necessary, stick to some light stretching, yoga and meditation instead. Hopefully this compromise will help.
Schedule tomorrow before bed. By writing down everything you have to do the next day, and laying your day out, this will keep worrying about things away from you thoughts as you try to sleep. An organised mind is a peaceful mind, and this is just another example of how a well managed schedule can directly improve your health.
Hopefully, these first two areas have inspired you to introduce some positive changes into your routine. If they have, please let us know what you’re trying, or have previously tried, in the comments. We’ll deal with movement & posture and recovery in healTHis biological part 2, coming soon!