Dawna Ara, L.Ac.

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Healthy Living Podcast #1: What is Health?

In the first episode of the Healthy Living Podcast Dawna talks about the different definitions of health and why you might want to think about what health means to you.

N: So Dawna, what’s on the agenda today?

D: As most of you know, the topic of health can get pretty confusing. Especially now, in the age of high speed internet there is just so much information out there. It’s very easy to suffer from information overload. For example, if you were to go online to find a remedy for a the common cold, you can get overwhelmed with pages and pages of conflicting advice and solutions. After researching and researching, as soon as you think you have found the right answer, you click on another link that tells you that the remedy you were about to use causes cancer.

How do we know who and what to listen to? For instance, one legitimate website tells us not to eat meat and lists 10 reasons why it is bad for your health, while another website lists 10 benefits of eating meat. You can spend hours and hours reading forums of personal stories of people talking about their experience and giving their opinions, but thats all that it is, personal opinions, not scientific research.

And speaking of scientific research, we have been told that once something has been proven then it is true. But is that true? Why should we believe research? Did you know that all researchers and the people funding the research have an agenda. All research is biased. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, I have my biases this podcast is going to be biased, we are all biased, and you will soon see that you have certain biases and ideas about health, and this is ok. But, you need to be aware that those who fund the research are out to get something proved or disproved. And also keep in mind that lack of proof is not proof against. Just because something hasn’t been scientifically proven doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. It just means that the system we use today to validate evidence is not able to prove it either way.

This is an exciting time because we are learning that a lot of stuff that we believed in and that has been ingrained in our culture for the past 50 years is now being debunked. Remember how we were told not to eat eggs because they are high in cholesterol and saturated fat which will make you fat and lead to cardiovascular disease and early death. Now we’re supposed to eat lots of eggs because of their above average health benefits and that they just might be the best source of protein and food on the planet. New research is coming out saying that saturated fat does not lead to heart disease. Well which is it, are they good or bad for us? Just tell us straight!

So my goal here is to help expose, bring forth, and dissect some of these confusing issues so you can be empowered and make educated decisions about what is optimal for you and your body type. I am going to answer some commonly asked questions that I get in my clinic and hopefully debunk some food and health myths. One thing I want to make clear is that no matter who you are, and where you are on your journey, you can get and maintain health on your own for the rest of your life. Good health doesn’t have to be expensive, it doesn’t have to be scary, complicated, or confusing. It is not meant to be a secret nor mystery. Good health is plain and simple. You are what you eat, you are what you think, and you are who and what you surround yourself with.

When I was preparing for this podcast I did a little survey and asked many people how they would define health. And the responses I got were interesting. Actually, I was surprised that most people didn’t know how to answer that question. It really stumped them, they kinda looked at me for a second and squinted their eyebrows, like I was asking them what the meaning of life was.. No one really thinks about health in this way. We all know that we want to be healthy, we are all striving to be thinner, but does being thinner equate to being healthy? We hear it on TV on the radio from our friends and family that it is something we should be attaining, but what the heck is it? Why should we have grilled chicken with veggies instead of hamburger and fries? Why shouldn’t we eat meat or gluten?

N: So, what is health and why do you want it?

D: Well first everyone should take a moment and think about what health means to you. Is it having low cholesterol? Is it being able to fit in your skinny jeans? Is it living without cancer or pain? Would you be able to spot health if you saw it? Can you tell if someone is healthy or not if you saw them walking down the street? Well, maybe so. What about people who are overweight, can they healthy? If you saw someone with a broken leg, would you say they are healthy or not healthy? What if you saw someone who appeared angry or was yelling and screaming, or sad and crying. Are those people healthy? When you go out to a restaurant, are you healthy because you are counting calories and limiting your sugar intake? Are you healthy because you said no to dessert? What about spiritual health? Can a person be spiritually healthy if they don’t believe in god? So, I guess this would be a good time to address some definitions of health. Natalie how you would define health?

N:Oh, putting me on the spot. I guess I would say health is the ability to do whatever I want.

D: The word “health” comes from the old english word “hal” which means wholeness, whole, well, or sound.
I actually have dictionary.com open on my computer and I’m just going to read the definition. It states that health is freedom from disease or ailment. So what if you have an ailment like hangnail or allergies to cats? Well by this definition you would be unhealthy. Another definition states that health is a general condition of the body or mind with reference to soundness and vigor.

N: Sounds like we are getting warmer, I like this one a little better.

D: Yeah, me too. With this one they took a slightly more general approach. Maybe you can have a hangnail but you can still be considered healthy.

The World Health Organization (WHO), by that name you would think they have the best definition, they define health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” Wow, this definition of health seems hard to obtain. To be in a state of complete physical well being means you can’t be healthy if you have that hangnail. This one doesn’t resonate with me as much because it seems to be a bit more rigid. So what this is saying is health is not just being at your ideal weight. It is having a healthy body, a healthy mind, having healthy emotions and being able to express those emotions in an appropriate way.

Keep in mind that health perception is heavily influenced by what culture you live in. If culture is a learned paradigm of beliefs, values, and behaviors then depending on what culture you belong to will shape your ideas around health.

Wanting to know nutritional breakdown of food, like how many calories are in ½ a cup of berries or the science behind how food breaks down in your gut is a very western way to think about diet. There are many cultures out there who never even think of diet this way and they are perfectly healthy.

Personally I would even go further and say Health is the ability to adapt to the environment, not just physically but mentally and emotionally as well. It’s being able to live in peace with yourself and your surroundings. It’s not just a destination that you will arrive at once you pass your yearly check up. It’s the entire journey. Health is a state of mind. If you believe you are healthy or have a positive outlook then chances are you will recover faster from an illness. This has been studied extensively. Having a positive outlook will help you recover from illness faster. Health is about acceptance. It’s being able to accept and adapt to circumstances that are out of your control. It’s being able to live your life in harmony, it’s being flexible, it’s growing, it’s feeling mentally and emotionally stimulated and stable. It’s accepting the aging process and living in peace with your ever changing and aging body. To me, it’s spending time with my loved ones and being able to enjoy life. If I don’t see my family and friends I start to get a little down. Personally I need my loved ones around.

Also I think that a healthy person wants and craves healthy things and I’m not just talking about food. I think when you feel good you are more optimistic, you are able to see and take advantage of opportunities and possibilities. Instead of feeling stuck in situations, you move and find creative ways out of them without drowning in depression. Doors really open when you are healthy. Your mind becomes clearer, it is easier to make good decisions, and you just feel better overall. mentally, physically, sexualy, emotionally, and spiritually. Healthy people are more confident. You are nicer to yourself and others and your relationships with yourself and other people improve. When you are experiencing health on the inside you are able to express this outwardly. Having a healthy relationship with yourself will allow you to have healthy relationships with your loved ones.

Again, you don’t have to become a radical food activist or fanatical workoutaholic, nor do you have to be a size 2 to be healthy. In fact that could actually be bad for you in in the long run! Don’t just think of health as something you have to obtain physically. Part of a healthy lifestyle is being able to enjoy the things you enjoy, and be yourself without feeling guilty, without stress, but at the same time using your own innate wisdom to guide you there.

N: Dawna, so getting back to the idea that health stems from beliefs, let’s talk about how this influences diet. Can someone be a vegan healthy?

D: Absolutely.

N: Can you be a meat eater and be healthy?

D: Absolutely. You know, there are cultures of people who live off a mostly animal based diet like the inuit people in Alaska. Their diet consists of mostly seal and whale meat, because that’s what they had available to them.

When it comes to diet it’s not about being 100% strict 100% of the time. It’s about learning how to make the healthier choice, most of the time. Keep in mind that it’s important not to get too wrapped up in what I call nutritional dogma and food politics. It’s very easy to be persuaded by other people’s beliefs, by loud and popular food politics, especially when they are coming from charismatic people who have written books on the subject.

Like today, I follow some pretty extreme food blogs some that are far on the raw-foodist vegan trail and others that have more to do with the Paleo or caveman diet as they call it. Both claim that eating the way they advocate is the healthiest diet for human consumption. If you just read one blog you would only be getting one sided research or opinions. I was just reading a blog about the dangers associated with consuming Kale smoothies. Just when you think you found a food that no one can say is bad for you, we now find out that too much of a good thing can be bad!

So again, listen to your own body. You are your best doctor.

The next topic I want to talk about is what I believe to be the most important concept you should learn and understand and it’s super fascinating field of epigenetics. Epi means above and genetics is the study of genes. So epigenetics means above the genes.

Ok, before I dive straight into epigenetics, I want to to backtrack a bit and talk about DNA. If you can remember from biology class DNA is kinda the map or blueprints that contains a set of instructions to your unique makeup. The individual instructions on the DNA map are what create your genes. This map is wound up and folded up really tightly in the nucleus of every cell in our body. Each and every cell in our body has the same copy of one of these maps that contains the same directions of how to make you. Every cell, including brain cells, bone cell, nerve cells, muscle cell, stomach cell, all have the same map, but the key is, these different types of cells are responsible for carrying only a small portion of the instructions on the map. Even though each cell has the same genetic material, certain genes in those different cells can be turned on or off. So these genes that contain genetic information, can be expressed or not.

N: How do these genes get turned on and off?

D: Well this is where epigenetics comes in. Your genes may be fixed, but the expression of those genes are not fixed!

N: What kinds of things influence gene expression?

D: Well food is a major contributor to gene expression. Say you have one of the genes that code for obesity. Well you may never get fat if you eat healthy and exercise. But if you are eating nutritionless food, bread, junk food like ice cream, fast food, packaged food then the likelyhood of getting obese is now increased! Other things that influence gene expression are your emotions, Exercise, behaviors, trauma, environment, pollution and toxins, the people you surround yourself with, what you do on your spare time, drugs. Want to be healthy? then eat healthy.

So ever since Watson and Crick discovered the double helix DNA in 1953, we have been told that genes are responsible for who we are, they were passed on from our folks, and it’s what we will pass on to our kids, for them to pass on to their children. And this has been a fairly common accepted theory around genetics. You have the gene or directions of how to make blue eyes, then physically you will have blue eyes. Epigenetics comes in and sort of messes this all up. Epigenetics tells us actually no, we are not our genes. This is how we differentiate nature versus nurture. If our genes are nature, then epigenetics is how we nurture those genes.

N: So how would you define Epigenetics?

D: Epigenetics is the study of how and why these genes are getting turned on and off. It’s the ways in which activities of genes can be controlled for long periods of time in stable ways without making a change in the genes itself. So it’s not just your beautiful blue eyes that get passed on to your offspring, your experience here during a lifetime as well as your response to it can be passed on to future generations without causing a change in DNA sequence. So the DNA is still the same. The map is still the same map with the same instructions, but what changes is, which instructions get turned on and off.

N: What causes these genes to get turned on and off?

D: You do. Your thoughts, your behaviors, your emotions, your diet, your environment, and how you respond to your environment. So in other words, you are responsible for epigenetic changes. So let me say that one more time. What we do now, in our lifetime, how we think, how we feel, what we eat and drink, who and what we surround ourselves with will not affect our genes, but it will affect the genetic potential of our offspring. Epigenetics is the transmission of behavioral experience across generations.

N: Whoa! Ok, that’s deep.

D: Well it kinda is and it kinda isn’t. If there is anything I want people to take away from my blog and podcasts is that we are not victims! We have control over our health. You are not destined to get the same diseases your ancestors did. You can change the path by simply eating healthy, and living a more simple and natural lifestyle.

N: I don’t even know what a natural and simple lifestyle would look like.

D: Eat more fresh whole foods, go to bed when the sun goes down, wake up when it rises, practice positive thinking, exercise out in the sunshine, find ways to cope with stress, cultivate loving relationships, ride your bike or walk to work and the grocery store, work less and spend more time with family and loved ones.

N: Ok Dawna, thank you so much I think our time is about up again. I really appreciate the information, I’m sure lots of women and couples out there will appreciate it too. It’s been a pleasure, thank you so much, and everybody out there, thank you so much for listening to this episode of Dawna Ara’s Healthy Living podcast. If you would like to learn more about fertility and other topics related to health and wellness, please visit her website at dawnaara.com and sign up for the free newsletter.

About Dawna Ara
Dawna is an acupuncturist, herbalist, functional medicine practitioner, a mom, wife, writer, nature lover, chef and whole foods advocate. She teaches how to live a healthy lifestyle through her website Eat Play Work Sleep.