‘Let it go.’
Surely two of the most trite and irritating phrases to come out of the 20th century – I mean, talk about easier said than done! – but behind the bumper sticker slogans lies some sage health advice.
What do you think are the most important elements of a healthy lifestyle? Exercise? Good diet? Not smoking and laying off the booze? All of these are hugely important, but there are two other cornerstones which are frequently overlooked and without which everything else is out of kilter.
I’m talking about elimination and rest. Letting it go, and chilling out.
When the human digestive system is sluggish, waste accumulates and festers. (Eeuw, I know, but it’s true.) Your body wants to get rid of that waste because its comprised of dead cells from the various systems, un-needed digested food, as well as toxins that the body is clearing out to keep itself in good working order. You really don’t want that hanging around in your body any more than you’d leave a smelly bag of rubbish by the door and not take it out to the bins. Harmful bacteria flourish, causing or exacerbating bowel and lower digestive tract issues ranging from the uncomfortable to the serious, and you feel sluggish, bloated and weighed down. So good elimination is vital to good health and energy levels.
– We all know that plenty of fibre is important. Personally I find that processed fibre-sources like wholemeal bread and cereals make me feel stodgy, but that’s just me. Beans, lentils, grains and nuts are great. By eating loads of vegetables and sensible amounts (2-3 portions a day) of fruit you’ll get lots of fibre – just leave the skins on things like apples and spuds where possible – and no, sorry, juices don’t count as the fibre is removed. Whole fruit and veg beat smoothies too, which are useful if you’re in a rush, but you need to watch the fruit content as they can get very sugary; and as digestion starts with the chewing process, you skip an important, enzyme-releasing step if you drink the goodies.
– Cut down on meat (especially processed meat, which we now know is a total disaster for your bowel). Eating a mostly plant-based diet is dietary gold for your digestion. A personal tale: a little while after adopting a vegetarian diet, I fell off the wagon and succumbed to the lure of roast ham for one meal. (I always loved the taste of roast chicken and ham, and just because I’ve chosen not to eat them doesn’t mean I don’t salivate when I smell them!) But reader; things did not operate effectively in the digestive department for almost a week. That was all the proof I needed. Hey, we all have different systems and preferences, and I’m not here to get hardline about anything like going veggie. But eating less meat is an all round winner for your body, your wallet, and the planet.
– Drink more water. Your colon has the job of extracting and reabsorbing water from the waste material before it passes out of your body. But if you’re even a little dehydrated, your colon will have to extract more water to make up the difference, leading to hard, dry, difficult-to-pass stools. So get glugging and make sure there’s enough to go around!
– Stimulate peristalsis. The urge to ‘go’ comes from a wave of motion along the alimentary canal and digestive system called peristalsis. (Think of a snake swallowing its food and you’ll get the idea.) This urge is stimulated by the arrival of a decent quantity of food or drink in the stomach. The best trick I have ever found for this is to have a pint of water by the bed when I go to sleep, and to drink it all upon waking. It works. Eating reasonable sized meals (so your system gets the message ‘hey, guys, incoming!’) as opposed to grazing also helps this process.
– Eat chia seeds. Just trust me on this one! Add a spoonful to muesli, yoghurt or salad, or soak them in coconut milk to make chia porridge, and make sure you drink plenty of water as they absorb lots of it.
– Get moving. Being sedentary makes the bowel sluggish as the surrounding muscles aren’t moving; so if you have a desk job, get up and walk around whenever you can.
– Finally, if you have a yoga practice, twists are excellent for stimulating the eliminative process. Twist first with the upper body to the right (to stimulate the ascending colon) then to the left (descending). If you have a more advanced practice, Agni Sara and Nauli are excellent practised first thing on an empty stomach, but seek the guidance of a qualified teacher to learn these techniques.
Sweet dreams are made of this
Western society has little time for taking rest. We’ve been trained to ‘go go go’ on the hamster wheel, to value work, competition, busy-ness and accumulation of stuff, and to pay minimal heed to our natural animal cycles. At the end of the year when we could do with slowing down and hibernating a little, what do we do? We party like it’s 1999! Then we stagger into January feeling depleted, knackered, and like we need a holiday to get over the holiday. And then we do it all over again.
When did things get this crazy? Isn’t it time we revisited true relaxation, of the sort that leaves you feeling centred, calm and re-energised? (Hint: I’m not talking about collapsing in front of Netflix here. That definitely has its place, but it’s not going to restore your vital energies).
If you wake up in the morning before the alarm, feeling rested and calm, and greet the day full of joy and enthusiasm, then read no further; you’ve got it sussed. If that doesn’t sound quite like you, then maybe I have some food for thought.
Adequate rest – and that might mean 6 hours sleep for some people and 10 for others, we’re all different – is the other great pillar of health. If you continually operate on a half-empty tank, it takes its toll. Your body’s stress response becomes chronically activated, leading to all sorts of problems, including but not limited to cardiovascular issues, depression, obesity, impaired immunity and accelerated ageing. Your productivity is diminished, your concentration is poor, and you get snappy and irritable. If you’re not sleeping well, life’s challenges feel like walking uphill through treacle.
Rest and restore
– Limit screen time in the evening, and switch screens off in the hour before bed. (I know you know, but do you do it?) If you use your phone as an alarm, set it early in the evening so that you don’t get tempted to check email or social media right before sleep…. or go old-school and get an alarm clock. That blue light is very stimulating to our brain waves, and it’s the polar opposite of what we need when we’re winding down. If you have friends who text you late at night, explain what you’re doing and ask them to keep it to before a certain time, or put your phone on silent.
– Get into a bedtime routine. We give children the bath/hot milk/bedtime story treatment, but when was the last time you did that for yourself?
– Don’t eat too late. We need at least 2 hours between the last bite of food/sip of wine and bed, preferably more. That might not be do-able every night, but the more you manage it, the better you’ll rest.
– If you’re waking up tired, you need more sleep. And if life dictates you can’t sleep later, you need to get to bed earlier. Again, maybe that’s not realistic every night, but try going to bed an hour earlier 2 or 3 times a week. It makes a difference!
– Do you wake up in the night, your brain starts chatting, and then it’s hard to get back to sleep? Try focusing on your breath and making your exhales longer than your inhales. Simple, but massively effective.
– Try learning this full body relaxation practice to help you drift off.
So there we go…. I’ve talked crap and hopefully sent you to sleep! Happy experimenting and let me know if these tips worked for you. Sweet dreams!