Midlife is a fantastic opportunity to take stock of our health. With the menopausal transition, it seems a natural time to take a good look at the lifestyle and health habits we are maintaining (or not maintaining) as well as the overall condition of our health. As we start to think about our retirement years and goals for that stretch of our lives, we should consider reevaluating our health practices and revising our actions with our older self in mind.
I believe a holistic approach is best, and most definitely a way to achieve a solid foundation for the years ahead. If put into place, these practices will provide us with a solid platform of health to build on as we travel forward on our life path. If we create a lifestyle of behaviors that will support these pillars of health, our bodies and minds will provide us with the fortitude we need to continue to follow our life path, desires and dreams and to feel energetic, joyful, strong, hopeful, and vibrant along the way. Following are the foundational pieces to consider.
Plant-Based Diet. Plant based diets consisting of whole foods, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, seeds, nuts, herbs, healthful sources of protein and healthy fats have shown over and over to produce the best health results. Research shows a Mediterranean or Vegetarian diet including 25- 30 grams of fiber daily, low levels of saturated fats, sugar, processed and refined foods, and healthful protein sources such as legumes, seeds, nuts, and fatty wild caught fish are most likely to produce the best health results.
Bone Health is crucial in the middle and later years as we become more likely to lose bone density. To maintain bone density and reduce our risk of fractures., dietary sources of calcium are best. I typically recommend 3-4 adequate servings (think of a handful as one serving) of calcium containing foods or beverages every day and a calcium supplement if dietary sources are not adding up to about 1200 mg daily. Calcium supplements containing vitamin D, vitamin K2, and magnesium are best absorbed and utilized by the body. Along with adequate calcium intake, weight bearing exercise is also critical for bone health. A bone density test is recommended every two years beginning at age 65.
Gut Health is becoming recognized as a crucial component of our overall health. A healthy gut supports a strong immune system, reduces inflammation, supports brain and mental health, and reduces risk of cancer. Probiotics in fermented foods/drinks such as yogurt, kombucha, kimchee, miso, sauerkraut and prebiotics found in some foods support a healthy microbiome. In addition to the microbiome, the integrity of the gut lining is also important for maintaining good health and the effects mentioned above.
Water is crucial for the health of our body. While this is common knowledge, many of us do not consume the recommended amount for optimal function. I typically recommend drinking 1/2 of body weight in ounces of water daily. And I find it helpful to assist women with strategies for building this habit into their daily lives. See my blog post on Water Inspiration for more tips and strategies.
Regular Activity is what our bodies are designed for. We are meant to move! Sadly, this is often a habit that falters in the middle years. The current recommendation for cardiovascular health is to achieve at least 150 minutes (about 2 and a half hours) of exercise weekly. Flexibility and muscle strength along with cardiovascular fitness are also crucial for maintaining a physical ability that will support healthy movement in our middle and later years. There was a study done in Brazil that found ability to perform a sitting-rising test can be a predictor of longevity. This study highlights the importance of both flexibility and strength in the middle and older years. See the Washington Post article written in March of 2019 about this. And try the test yourself. – there is a video demo with the Washington Post article. https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/wellness/this-anxiety-inducing-fitness-test-purports-to-tell-you-how-long-youll-live-we-investigated/2019/03/18/0a1d06fe-4035-11e9-9361-301ffb5bd5e6_story.html
Regular Time in Nature. Nature is healing for the body, mind, and spirit. Nature teaches us and leads by example. Ideally, we should spend regular time in nature, and this is becoming increasingly important as our society and world become more mechanized and more reliant on technology. Time in nature is needed to balance out the effects of these rising and consuming trends that can have negative effects on our physical and mental health.
**Proper Breathing**. The breath is obviously crucial for our existence. Where we often fail, however, is that most of us breathe too shallow and are robbing our bodies of the oxygen we need. Most of the time, we are not aware of this downfall, but it can have a drastic effect on our health. Breathing techniques can be practiced and will result in improved oxygen exchange in our body. it is amazing how much of a difference this simple act can make in how we feel. I would encourage you to watch the TED Talk by Lucas Rockwood titled “Change your Breath, Change your Life.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_QTJOAI0UoU
Sleep has a profound impact on our health as most of us have come to know. This has become a big topic as increased research findings divulge the impact on our health quality and quantity of sleep can have. Sleep is a complicated issue and impacts us in so many ways and on so many levels. In midlife, if we do not get the sleep that we need, our body becomes stressed and will be more likely to hang on to weight or gain weight, produce more cortisol which is the stress hormone that can cause adrenal fatigue, affect our moods, our energy level, inflammation, hormone levels and function, and even our gut health! Good sleep is a very important habit to establish.
Brain Health and nervous system balance reduce the risk for cognitive decline and mental illness. It is important for midlife women to support cognitive function and brain health with a healthy diet, adequate sleep, stress management, and regular physical and cognitive activity (like reading or doing crossword puzzles). I often recommend a vitamin B complex supplement as well to support brain and nerve function and mental health. Mind body techniques such as yoga, Tai Chi, Pilates are great for the brain and for mental health. Energy work such as Reiki and acupuncture can calm the nervous system and help balance the autonomic function. Meditation can do the same. In this age of increasing dementia, brain health is important!
Connection has certainly been challenging for many during the COVID pandemic, but is a crucial aspect of holistic healing and often one aspect that is left out of the traditional western medicine approach. Relationships with friends/family/community/pets can provide a sense of connection. Spiritual connection can be found through meaningful work, activities that we enjoy, gratitude practice, meditation, and spending time in nature. All of these types of connections support our soul and our spiritual health and often go unrecognized for the role they play in overall wellbeing.
Detoxification Our bodies are exposed to so many toxins that most of us have stored unhealthy levels in our bodies and this can cause our liver and other organs to overwork and eventually decline in ability to function well. The result can be chronic bothersome symptoms or illnesses. Toxins can enter our bodies from the air through our respiratory system, from chemicals in foods, beverages, plastics, as well as medications through the GI tract, and from skin care and hygiene products through the skin. We are bombarded with toxins that can cause unhealthy toxic load in our body. For this reason, it is important to stay mindful of what we are exposing ourselves to, what we are putting into our bodies and on our skin, and the quality of air that we breathe. I believe that a once or twice yearly detoxification process for the body and the home environment can be helpful.
Cancer and Chronic Disease Screenings. In midlife, it is important to maintain the recommended screenings for chronic disease and cancer. These include blood pressure and blood sugar checks, mammograms, Pap tests, bone density tests, colonoscopy, depression screening and an overall physical exam. Most of the time, this is addressed during an annual wellness or preventive exam.
Dental Hygiene is very important for overall health and is becoming a routine recommendation among health care providers. Poor oral hygiene can lead to unwanted bacteria entering the body through the gut and the bloodstream. This in turn can cause inflammation in the body as well as an unhealthy microbiome. Inflammation is the cause of many chronic diseases and can also affect our body’s ability to fight disease through our immune system. Regular oral care and dental visits throughout life will contribute to a reduced risk of inflammation in the body as well as better gut and microbiome health.
These 13 pillars of foundational health are a good place to start when attending to midlife health and looking forward to the older years in life. Attention to these areas will result in a strong foundation to support quality of life in your retirement years and beyond.
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