As modern men we all want to live as our best selves; fit, healthy, full of energy and mental exuberance. There’s a need for us to be at our peak, physically and mentally; more to juggle and less time to get it done. The corner stone to achieving this is optimising our diet, lifestyle choices, and focussing on our mental well-being. If one of these components lacks focus, the entire framework becomes unstable. With so much information available that will help us get ‘ripped’, there is very little good information concerning a holistic approach to men’s health. Maintaining an optimal mental state is simply not achievable with inadequate focus on what we put into our bodies, and how we move them.
It is a startling statistic that among men between the ages of twenty-five to sixty-four, the top two causes of fatality, are in many cases are preventable; these are suicide and heart disease. I strongly believe with the right knowledge, in the right hands, these statistics can be corrected.
I want to share some simple techniques surrounding each of the three components integral to holistic health: what goes in the mouth, how you move the body, and how you use the mind. We are defined by our routines, and the power lies with us to set the course of our health. Whether you’re struggling with sub-par physical and mental well-being, or are at your physical peak but lacking an optimal emotional state; you can always benefit from intentionally choosing to focus on these areas of your life.
The first step is always to address diet, in order to reap the full benefits of techniques used to help still the mind, and manage the emotions, the body needs to be in a place where it can support the brain. If I was to start my day with a bowl of sugar-laden, supermarket brand cereal, and was then asked to relax my mind and focus, I would have about 5% success. I can guarantee I would become a jittery, foggy and unhappy individual. Our bodies are simply not designed to function anywhere near their peak on such types of fuel.
This is a micro version of what most people are dealing with at a macro level. If we can feed ourselves foods that nourish and sustain, rather than fast burning insulin-spikers, we will find ourselves in front of a mind that is much more forgiving, and a body that is able to deliver when required. This is the first step. To achieve this we need to eat fresh, whole foods, avoiding processed foods and sugar; reduce alcohol consumption and increase our daily water intake.
Recent research is finally confirming what many have discovered on their own; mental wellness starts in the gut, and it is inflammation that is the primary contributing factor to sub-optimal states of mental well-being.
Many mental wellness issues are associated with decreased cortisol sensitivity; the stress hormone, which is also a buffer against inflammation; as well as elevated levels of cytokines. Cytokines are cell signalling molecules that mediate immunity and inflammation. Signals are sent to the nervous system that connect the gut and brain; cells within the brain are then activated in these inflammatory states.
To start to resolve this inflammatory state, and restore optimal gut health, we need to use a combination of methods. The best place to start is to eliminate grains, sugar, dairy and processed foods. The inclusion of more natural fats in your diet will also help to stabilise insulin, cortisol levels and thyroid function.
Introducing natural anti-inflammatories and probiotics are the next step; there are a wide variety of easily available foods with these properties.
Adding foods, herbs and spices that offer anti-inflammatory mechanisms will assist your body in stabilising and healing. Some good examples of these foods are: salmon, leafy greens, blueberries, fermented foods (more on this next) and garlic. For spices your best bet will be: turmeric, ginger, cloves and rosemary.
Curcuminoids, the active compound in turmeric, improve the body’s control of glucose, and insulin management; reducing blood-sugar levels. As well as distributing some of the most powerful antioxidants, turmeric is an adaptogen; assisting the body in balancing cortisol levels and preventing stress. It stimulates the gallbladder, and production of bile, which aids in the digestion of fat; while also useful as a natural remedy for indigestion, bloating and gas.
Another key component is adding a natural pro-biotic in the form of fermented foods. A few good examples of these are: coconut milk kefir, Greek yoghurt, kimchi, kombucha and sour kraut. Coconut milk kefir is a favourite of mine. It contains more beneficial strains of bacteria than kefir dairy alternatives; 32 different probiotics and antioxidants, and in its living form is the strongest natural broad spectrum probiotic.
Know Your Body
One of the keys to maintaining optimal health through nutrition, is to begin watching your body and its relationship to food. During your next meal, check in with yourself before you eat; how are you feeling; are your thoughts racing or calm, how do you feel emotionally; is your mind cloudy or clear (these are all check-ins modern men are capable of). How does your body feel; light or heavy; is there any pain; where is the pain; what is the intensity out of ten. Once you begin eating, pay close attention to any subtle changes in your body and mind. Ask yourself the same questions again, during and after the meal. What has changed?
Conscious eating has many levels and benefits, but this simple exercise alone can help you tune into your body, and allow you to refine your awareness of how food is affecting your moods, and physical health. If you pay attention you’ll be surprised what you will pick up.
Another extremely important factor to remaining balanced and clear is exercise; the physical and mental affect it has on our body is tremendous. Not only for the mental short term benefits, but building a sustainable exercise routine is crucial to long term physical health. As we age, maintaining a good amount of lean muscle ensures we not only avoid mobility issues, but assists in keeping us out of risk groups for a host of degenerative diseases and ailments. Maintaining normal glucose, insulin, and leptin levels are key to achieving optimal health; exercise rebalances our insulin receptors, improving their sensitivity.
When we exercise, and the blood starts pumping through our bodies, our endocrine system begins to release hormones that positively affect our physiological and mental state. Our pituitary gland releases HGH (Human Growth Hormone) telling our body to increase muscle, tissue and bone production. The thyroid gland releases hormones responsible for increasing alertness and focus; while another subset of hormonal signals are released that regulate our blood pressure, heart rate and core temperature. The adrenal glands release cortisol into the bloodstream; cortisol (commonly known as the stress hormone) also affects our blood pressure, glucose blood level and has a very important role to play in the control of inflammation. The adrenal glands also distribute aldosterone, which regulates our hydration levels and heart rate. The pancreas takes care of the regulation of glucose (blood sugar); transporting it throughout the body to the muscles and tissues that require glucose for energy.
Better Moods, Better Sex, Better Sleep
These chemical processes enhanced by exercise result in improved sexual function, mood, sleep and the ability to modify how our genes express themselves. It is our lifestyle choices and emotional state that regulate which genes are switched on and off; this gene expression is within our control – as epigenetics states; our health and weight are determined by the expression of our genes, not simply by changes in the DNA sequence.
Incorporating exercise into your routine can be as easy as walking daily, then progressing to light jogging and running. If you’re a swimmer the ocean is incredible, not only will you get a full body workout and the release of endorphins from exercise, the salt water is also incredibly cleansing. High intensity training is the most effective type of training, for health benefits and time management; work up to this if you are just starting. The key is to take small steps that lead to larger ones. Build a routine that you can sustain, and push yourself that little bit further at every junction.
The Art of Discipline
We cannot mention diet, exercise and lifestyle choices without touching on discipline. Discipline is perhaps one of the greatest attributes that also gets one the worst raps. Often it conjures up images of authority, pain, and sometimes aggression. Yet discipline is incredible, and has nothing to do with authority or having to suffer. Think of making a work of art, sailing a yacht, executing a complex kata or writing a novel. All of these things when executed with mastery can be the vessel to losing the self; melting into the connectedness of all things, while working in the flow of your craft. What could be better? There is such beauty and strength in discipline, through its practice we are brought to the essence of existence; what an awesome opportunity that is.
Once we have our body running on the right fuel, and are incorporating the benefits of moving the body, we can really begin to take the most advantage from mindfulness practices. We can certainly incorporate these practices at any point, but as discussed in the nutrition section, we will be able to take the most advantage once our minds aren’t being thrown into array from poor nutrition and lack of movement.
Mindfulness is a practice free of any religion, that can be executed as part of a discipline we already execute, as part of our everyday living and as a separate practice in itself.
Changing the way we interact with our thoughts and emotions is crucial to handling life’s ups and downs. You will be truly amazed at how much flow (in life and work) the modern man can achieve, when we have some simple tools and practices to lean on. Simply by building a good routine, putting aside just 20 minutes a day, life can be transformed.
Be Here, While You’re Here
This is a simple technique to help bring you into your body and out of your mind. Whenever you are in a situation that requires waiting, resist the urge to pull out your phone, or solve life’s problems in your head. Instead, take a few conscious breaths; breathe in and out slowly while watching the breath, and look around you. If you’re standing in a queue, look at the environment and people surrounding you (soft gaze; we don’t want to scare anyone); as you soften your gaze, look at everything as if you were a kid again, as if you were seeing everything for the first time. By looking at things without thinking about them, simply observing, you are brought into the present moment. Use your other senses to assist in this process; listen to the sounds around you, without naming them; feel your posture, and sensations on the skin. In this space of being here and now there is a freedom and expansiveness. With practice you will find more of the present seeping into your normal day; as we are more present with ourselves, our family and our mates, we offer more to the world - with no time adjustment.
Incorporating small changes that lead to larger ones; bringing focus to your diet, lifestyle choices and mental state, will enable you to move through life as a fine-tuned modern man. Capable of navigating the roughest of terrains, with an open mind and open heart. We all require support; this is something the modern man embraces. Lean on your mates, and encourage them to lean on you. It is up to us to redefine the antiquated idea of the man; it is fundamental in turning the tide on the growing statistics directly affecting each of us.