Is it really true that how we live affects health? The research certainly says so. More and more studies keep pointing to sensible eating, regular exercise, no smoking, minimal alcohol and less stress as the best ways to control disease and enjoy a higher quality of life.
Nutrition is more than the food you eat. It’s also how you digest, absorb and metabolize these nutrients. But assuming your body uses food well, there’s ample evidence showing that what goes in your mouth has a good deal to do with your health and life expectancy.
Fiber or roughage, the undigested portion of plants, continually proves itself to be an invaluable part of a healthy menu. Upping your fiber intake, particularly with the water soluble fiber found in dried beans and oat bran, is an inexpensive and safe way to lower blood cholesterol (1). Dietary roughage also wards off constipation, improves diabetic symptoms, helps treat hypertension, decreases the risk of colon cancer and generally fills you up.
Decreasing the fatty foods you eat is an excellent way to battle heart disease, some cancers, high blood pressure and maintain a more slender waistline. Even immunity is compromised if you eat too much fat (2). However, some fat is necessary to maintain health. Fish oils and essential fatty acids (EFAs), found in vegetable oils, are beneficial in the right amounts.
An example of how diet affects health is the ongoing 10 year old China-Cornell-Oxford project. Researchers discovered that Chinese who eat low-fat, high-fiber foods and exercise a lot have less cancer, obesity and heart disease (3,4,5).
Without vitamins we become very sick or die. Most vitamins come from our food; others are produced by our body. Vitamins K, B12, thiamin and folic acid are manufactured by micro-organisms in our intestine, while our skin uses sunshine to make vitamin D.
No one questions that vitamins are necessary for good health. However, scientists and doctors continue to debate the kind and amount of nutrients we need, and how vitamins really affect disease. In a perfect world food is the ideal source of vitamins. Unfortunately, cooking, storage, processing, refining, synthetic fertilizers, herbicides and nutrient-poor soil all steal some of food’s nutrition. Stressful living conditions, pollution and inadequate eating habits demand that most of us supplement our diets with additional vitamins. In addition, your size, sex, age, health, physical activity, biochemical make-up and where you live all create individual vitamin requirements.
New research says that vitamins’ effect on health is even more far reaching than we thought just a few years ago. Antioxidant vitamins, most notably C, E and beta-carotene, seem to protect against some cancers, heart disease and other illnesses. Vitamin B6 helps those with PMS, carpal tunnel syndrome and diabetes. Osteoporosis may be prevented with vitamin K. Most importantly, immunity, the body system that governs health in general, is affected by vitamins A, E and B6 (6).
Washers, dryers and all the other labor-saving devices we’ve come to depend on have made life easier and getting exercise harder. Some have accepted this trend and lead sedentary lives. However, regular exercise, whether it’s aerobics class, walking or gardening, is essential for good health.
A very large study followed the exercise habits of more than 13,000 men and women for eight years. Less fit individuals died, mainly from heart disease and cancer (7). In other research, exercise has been shown to help prevent osteoporosis (8) and some forms of diabetes (9), treat high blood pressure (10) and painful menstrual cramps (11), and control weight (12).
Part of the problem, of course, is encouraging people to exercise. Some employers have taken it upon themselves to offer their workers fitness programs. The results are positive. Not only are employees more fit, but the company saves money with less on-the-job injuries, reduced absenteeism and lower health care costs (13).
One way people try to control stress is by smoking. This short term solution, however, has many life-long consequences, not only for you but your offspring as well.
Past studies have linked cigarette smoking during pregnancy to behavioral problems (14) and impaired intellectual development (15) in children. A 1994 investigation from the Universities of Kentucky and Wisconsin confirmed that it’s not just smoking that harms unborn children but how long the mother smokes. Undoubtedly non-smoking mothers deliver fewer low weight and premature babies than smoking women. However, women who quit during their first trimester, have healthy infants than women who smoked throughout pregnancy (16).
Adults who decide to smoke live shorter and sicker lives. Besides cancer, smoking increases your risk of heart disease, peptic ulcers, problems with pregnancy (17), decreases insulin effectiveness (18) and impairs immunity (19). Those who elect not to smoke, but are exposed to second-hand smoke suffer almost as much.
Parents who smoke around their small children have been accused by some of child abuse. These kids suffer from more ear infections, colds, pneumonia and illness in general than their unexposed playmates (20).
In adults, passive smoking increases your chance of heart disease. Recently, researchers at the University of California in San Francisco offered one explanation for this. Scientists placed rats in a smoke filled cage for six hours a day, five days a week. The longer the rats breathed in smoke, the larger were their myocardial infarcts, necrotic areas in the heart (21).
Alcohol is another substance we use to temporarily relieve stress. While research says that the occasional glass of wine decreases the incidence of coronary heart disease, in the larger scheme of things alcohol is anything but health promoting.
Almost 25 years ago, a group of New York investigators explored why alcoholics are more susceptible to sickness than the general population. One reason for this, they discovered, was diminished immunity (22). On top of this, alcohol tends to wash away nutrients, damage various organ systems such as the liver, cause some cancers, promote hypoglycemia (particularly in diabetics), and, ironically, hurt the heart when consumed in large quantities.
Early alcohol exposure, as in the womb, can result in fetal alcohol syndrome, a condition where a small brain, low IQ and poor judgment are evident. This disorder continues on into adulthood (23).
People who drink as grownups also risk brain damage. A Danish study confirmed what we’ve always suspected: chronic alcoholism destroys white matter in the brain. This damage may be reversible in alcoholics who quit drinking (24).
Last, but not least, there’s stress. Although we’ve come to know stress as an emotional or mental strain, it can also refer to an imbalance of any health habit: eating too much sugar or fat, exercising too much or too little, not getting enough rest. Or it can mean exposure to pollution, poisons or excessive noise. Whatever the cause, repeated stress can lead to sickness.
Although much of our knowledge about stress’s affect on health is anecdotal, research continues to be done on the link between disease and stress. Herpes (25), menstrual cramps (26), the common cold (27), angina (chest pain) (28) and even cavities (29) are aggravated or brought on in part by emotional or mental stress.
We can’t control everything about our health. Genetics, accidents, age and pollution are out of our reach. But we can make decisions about some things like diet, exercise, rest, smoking and drinking. The best life is made up of healthy choices.
- Glore SR, Van Treeck D, Knehans AW, Guild M. Soluble fiber and serum lipids: a literature review. Journal of the American Dietetic Association 1994;94(4):425-36.
- Nirgiotis JG, Hennessey PJ, Black CT, Andrassy RJ. Low-fat, high-carbohydrate diets improve wound healing and increase protein levels in surgically stressed rats. Journal of Pediatric Surgery 1991; 26(8): 925-29.
- Anon. The China-Cornell-Oxford Project on Nutrition, Health and Environment at Cornell University (handout).8 pp.
- SerVass C. Diets that protected against cancers in China. The Saturday Evening Post, October 1990: 26-27.
- Brody JE. China’s blockbuster diet study. The Saturday Evening post, October 1990: 30-32.
- Machlin L, Sauberlich HE. New views on the function and health effects of vitamins. Nutrition Today 1994, January/February:25-29.
- Blair SN et al. Physical fitness and all-cause mortality. Journal of the American Medical Association 1989;262(17):2395-2401.
- Nelson ME et al. A 1-y walking program and increased dietary calcium in postmenopausal women: effects on bone. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 1991;53:1304-11.
- Manson JE et al. Physical activity and incidence of non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus in women. The Lancet 1991;338:774-78.
- Somers VK, Conway J, Johnston J, Sleight P. Effects of endurance training on baroreflex sensitivity and blood pressure in borderline hypertension. The Lancet 1991;337(8754):1363-68.
- Golub BJ Exercise that alleviates primary dysmenorrhea. Contemporary OB/GYN 1987;29(5):51-57.
- Haus G, Hoerr SL, Mavis B, Robison J. Key modifiable factors in weight maintenance: fat intake, exercise, and weight cycling. Journal of the American Dietetic Association 1994;94:409-13.
- Gebhardt DL, Crump CE. Employee fitness and wellness programs in the workplace. American Psychologist 1990;45(2):262-72.
- Weitzman M, Gortmaker S, Sobol A. Maternal smoking and behavior problems of children. Pediatrics 1992;90(3):342-49.
- Fogelman KR, Manor O. Smoking in pregnancy and development into early adulthood. British Medical Journal 1988;297:1233-36.
- Mainous AG, Hueston WJ. The effect of smoking cessation during pregnancy on preterm delivery and low birthweight. The Journal of Family Practice 1994;38(3):262-66.
- Lowsinon JH, Ruiz P, Millman RB (eds). ®)9¯Substance Abuse: A Comprehensive Textbook®):¯ (2nd ed). Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins, 1992, chapter 25 (“Nicotine”).
- Facchini FS, Hollenbeck CB, Jeppesen J, Chen YDI, Reaven GM. Insulin resistance and cigarette smoking. The Lancet 1992;339:1128-30.
- Barton JR, Riad MA, Gaze MN, Maran AGD, Ferguson A. Mucosal immunodeficiency in smokers, and in patients with epithelial head and neck tumors. Gut 1990;31:378-82.
- Fontelo PA. Can smoking be child abuse? (letter). American Journal of Public Health 1993;83(3):429-30.
- Zhu B et al. Exposure to environmental tobacco smoke increases myocardial infarct size in rats. Circulation 1994;89(3):1282-90.
- Brayton RG, Stokes PE, Schwartz MS, Louria DB. Effect of alcohol and various diseases on leukocyte mobilization, phagocytosis and intracellular bacterial killing. The New England Journal of Medicine 1970;282(3):123-28.
- Streissguth AP et al. Fetal alcohol syndrome in adolescents and adults. Journal of the American Medical Association 1991;265:1961-67.
- Jensen GB, Pakkenberg B. Do alcoholics drink their neurons away? The Lancet 1993;342:1201-04.
- Schmidt DD et al. The temporal relationship of psychosocial stress to cellular immunity and herpes labialis recurrences. Family Medicine 1991;23:594-9.
- Sigmon ST, Nelson RO. The effectiveness of activity scheduling and relaxation training in the treatment of spasmodic dysmenorrhea. Journal of Behavioral Medicine 1988;11(5):483-95.
- Cohen S, Tyrrell DAJ, Smith AP. Psychological stress and susceptibility to the common cold. The New England Journal of Medicine 1991;325:606-12.
- Yeung AC et al. The effect of atherosclerosis on the vasomotor response of coronary arteries to mental stress. The New England Journal of Medicine 1991;325:1551-6.
- Sutton PRN. Acute dental caries, mental stress, immunity and the active passage of ions through the teeth. Medical Hypotheses 1990;31:17.