A-Z of wellness

Don’t get confused by all the latest health trends and fad words; we’ve got your back-to-basics guide to overall wellbeing.

In the busy world of health and wellbeing, where there is a new buzzword every week, it can sometimes be a little overwhelming to know how to look after yourself. The most important rule is to be consistently kind to your body, and not get distracted by fads or quick fixes, because it’s what you do every day that counts – not what you do occasionally. We’ve taken it back to basics, with reminders of what’s important in the long-term for our health. But sometimes we also just want practical tips we can start using today to help boost our energy and overall wellbeing, so we’ve got that too! Here’s our A- Z guide to looking after yourself – mind, body and soul.
A is for Attitude
Optimists live longer: it’s not just something we like to tell ourselves, it’s science! A study from University College London found that after suffering a heart attack or angina, pessimistic patients were twice as likely to suffer a more serious health condition – which includes a more severe heart attack, further heart surgery or even death – than those who had a positive outlook. It’s believed this could be partly because optimists are more likely to have stronger social support networks, which are a big stress reliever when things go wrong. Optimists are also more likely to seek out medical advice – and take it – than glass-half-empty types.
B is for Bowel cancer
Kiwi women have the highest rate of bowel cancer in OECD countries, and we have the highest rate of bowel cancer death in the developed world. It’s also the most diagnosed cancer in New Zealand – with over 3,000 diagnosed each year. But when was the last time you heard it mentioned? Exactly. Silence is the biggest issue when it comes to bowel cancer, because no one really wants to discuss their toilet habits with a doctor. Here’s what you need to look out for: bleeding, pain, change in stools, weight loss and painful lumps in your stomach. It’s most likely to affect those over the age of 50 but when diagnosed early, 75% of bowel cancer is curable.
C is for Cortisol
It’s a stress hormone, and chances are, you’ve got too much of it in your system. It’s supposed to kick in during a sudden crisis: keeping your blood pressure stable and your immune system protected. However, constant stress means our body is in a consistent state of ‘fight or flight’ – not good for our physical or mental health. And the very things we do to perk up our system can increase cortisol production and make our bodies more stressed out, like too much coffee and sweet foods. Even the good things like intense exercise, used by some to blow off steam, can increase your body’s stress levels. The key to battling cortisol is to keep calm, rather than carry on. Add more yoga into your life, get regular massages, meditate daily and get eight hours’ sleep a night. If none of these measures seem possible right now, then you definitely need them more than ever. Chronic stress is a major cause of mood disorders, anxiety, depression, weight gain, heart disease and more.
D is for Detox
We’re not talking the scary kind (see Q: Quick fixes), but more incorporating gentle ways of cleansing your system into daily life. Starting the day with a warm water and lemon is good for hydration, vitamin C and acts as a gentle diuretic for your system. You can also add a small amount of apple cider vinegar to your water intake during the day, as the acids bind to free radicals and toxins stored in cells and organs, helping to pull them out of the body. Even if you’re a die-hard carnivore, it’s worth taking a break from meat for 1-2 days a week, just to give your body a pause from breaking down all of those heavy proteins.
E is for Excess fat
There’s a particular type of excess fat that’s the most dangerous, and has nothing to do with your thighs. While there’s no such thing as good fat and bad fat, it’s the ‘hidden’ visceral fat that’s more life-threatening – and it’s just as likely to lurk beneath the surface of a thin person as it is a larger one. Visceral fat is the white fat that wraps around organs – including your heart – and works its way through underused muscles. It’s also the fat that can lead to insulin resistance, diabetes and heart problems. If you store a lot of fat on your stomach, you could be at risk – think more of an ‘apple’ body shape than a ‘pear’ body shape. Measure your waist around your belly button – for women, the healthy circumference is 90cm or less.
F is for Food
As Hippocrates said: “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”. With the latest health food trends harking back to traditional meals like bone broth (aka homemade stock) and pickled foods like sauerkraut and kombucha, it’s time to make food your friend. Here are some basic guidelines, courtesy of author Michael Pollan. His book, In Defence of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, keeps it simple: “Don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognise as food”, and “avoid ingredients you can’t pronounce”. There are arguments about flipping the food pyramid – what you should be eating more of and what you should be restricting – and a lot of how food affects you will depend on your body and your genetics. But real food, as close to its natural form as possible, is what you should eat most of the time.
G is for Gut health
Flatulence, indigestion, fatigue, headaches, sinus issues, rashes. If you’re getting any of these symptoms regularly, the state of your digestion could be what’s behind it. Factors like stress and your environment can affect your microbiome, the unique collection of bacteria that live in and on your body. Eat fermented foods like kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi and kombucha for added good bacteria. Organic yoghurt is also good for your gut flora, as well as your stress levels. A 2013 UCLA study found eating yoghurt twice a day made a significant difference to overall calmness.
H is for Honey
It’s good for your skin, your throat, your body. But not all honeys are created equal, and New Zealand’s own manuka honey is well known for its health-promoting and soothing benefits. Honey is also great when added to hot water and lemon for a morning detox drink, and can be used to settle digestion for those with food intolerances. Raw, organic honey is jam-packed with antioxidants and a healthy way to add a little sweetness to meals.
I is for Iodine, Zinc, Magnesium and Selenium
The nutrients that are missing from our soil that we need to keep an eye on. All countries have soil deficiencies that need to be taken into account, because even if you’re buying fresh-as-a-daisy organic produce, you still might be missing out on these vitamins. Magnesium is key for anxiety and good sleep, keeping our muscles healthy and our body relaxed. If you’re someone who often suffers from muscle cramp and twitches, this is a common sign of magnesium deficiencies. Selenium and iodine are big ones for breast health – one theory is that the high levels of seaweed in the diets of Japanese women could be responsible for the country’s low rates of breast cancer. Iodine is also crucial for thyroid health, and low levels can lead to infertility and ovarian cancer. Zinc is important for immunity, for everything from the common cold to infections, and can also help with skin conditions like psoriasis and acne.
J is for Joy
You can’t put a price on happiness, and a lack of joy can be more concerning for your overall health than almost anything. Our mental health is often overlooked in favour of more pressing needs, but if we ignore it for too long, the consequences can be dire. Feeling overwhelmed, hopeless, always exhausted, having a noticeable increase in negative thoughts and finding that sad moods are starting to interfere with work or home life are all warning signs. A study by the Cooper Institute in Dallas found three hours of regular exercise a week reduces the symptoms of mild to moderate depression as effectively as antidepressants. So pick an activity that makes you sweat and smile, and you’re on the right track.
K is for Keep it consistent
We are the sum of what we do most of the time, not some of the time. Going for a walk every other day will be more effective than going for a run once a month. Eating a mostly healthy diet, with the odd bit of pizza and cake, is better than eating rubbish most of the time and then trying to undo it with a week-long juice cleanse. Aim for a general rule of 80/20. So 80% of the time you do your regular exercise, eat vegetables, lean meats and organic fruit, limit alcohol intake, and don’t eat junk food. The other 20%? You eat out, you say yes to a second glass of wine, and yes, you definitely would like to see the dessert menu. Treating your body like a 24/7 party is a bad idea long-term, but all kale and no cake is no way to live either.
L is for Lifestyle diseases
We can be as highfalutin about holistic health, eating organic and whatnot, as we want but the reality is, the biggest risks to your health are not a surprise. Smoking, poor diet, lack of exercise and too much alcohol are responsible for 68% of global deaths, according to the World Health Organisation. Lifestyle diseases include obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke and some cancers, like lung cancer. So if you know you’re falling down in one of these areas, then it needs to take priority when looking at your overall health and wellbeing.
M is for Meditation
Global companies like Ford, Google and Target have all introduced meditation into their businesses, claiming lower stress levels and fewer sick days. US health insurance company Aetna estimates introducing meditation to its staff saved about $3000 per employee in healthcare-related costs – while gaining more than $4000 per employee in productivity. The easiest way to start meditating is to sit still, in silence, and concentrate on your breathing. Every time your mind wanders (which will be a lot to start off with), acknowledge it and then move back to focusing on your breathing. It becomes easier to limit –
or even pause – your train of thought with practice.
N is for Neck compression
If you suffer from headaches, your neck could be the culprit. There are a whole host of things that increase tension in our upper bodies – driving, sitting at a computer, picking up children, looking down at a smartphone, gym work… heck, if you’ve ever slept badly on your neck, you’ll know what a difference it makes. Your head weighs around 5kg, so neck alignment is very important. Keep your shoulders down, tucked far away from your ears, and slowly tilt your head to one side until you feel a gentle stretch. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat on the other side. The key with neck stretches is to move very slowly, hold them for a while, and be extremely gentle.
O is for Osteoporosis
Bone density is one of the most important ways to keep our bodies fit and strong as we age and there are three important lifestyle choices you can make to ensure this happens. Firstly, eat a balanced diet that includes good-quality dairy, green leafy vegetables, almonds, oily fish and eggs. Secondly, get 30 minutes of sunlight on your body a day to keep your vitamin D levels high (be careful that it’s not at the height of the sun’s strength, morning sun is the safest for your skin). Finally, include plenty of strength-building exercises like yoga, swimming and tai chi, and avoid excessive movement that can load up your joints too heavily.
P is for Polyphenols
Polyphenols are antioxidant chemicals that are incredible for long-term physical health – lowering blood pressure and cholesterol, as well as lowering overall inflammation in the body and preventing cell damage. And the even better news? You don’t just find them in green vegetables. They’re in actual fun stuff like red wine, chocolate and champagne. A 2010 Swiss study found pinot noir, in particular, carries the highest amount of antioxidants, which are linked to reducing the risk of heart disease, obesity, cancer and even wrinkles. Cheers!
Q is for Quick fixes
“Nothing will work unless you do”, are the wise words of Maya Angelou. The short story of any radical health or weight loss quick fix is they don’t work. The long story is they can have long-term negative effects on your body. Drastically cutting your calorie intake can play havoc with your metabolism for a long time, and studies prove that those who lose weight too quickly are more likely to gain that weight back – and then some – faster than those who take the slower path to weight loss. US nutritionist Linda Bacon sums it up best in Health at Every Size: “There’s absolutely no benefit to fasting… Extreme diets are simply bad for you and they don’t work. But every year people engage in magical thinking.”
R is for Raw
Cooking is one of life’s simple pleasures and it’s a fact nutrients like beta-carotene (plentiful in carrots) and lycopene (in tomatoes) are made much more accessible by cooking. It’s also true, however, that upping your quotient of raw fruit and vegetables does wonders for your wellbeing. Boiling, roasting and microwaving fresh produce can destroy vital nutrients and enzymes. Increasing your raw fruit and veg intake, meanwhile, has been linked to better sleep, increased energy, improved skin appearance, the loss of excess weight, improved digestion and the reduction of chronic diseases like cancer, diabetes and heart disease. Nutritionist Gena Hamshaw advises those who want to up their raw quotient not to agonise over complicated recipes. “Just eat a big, chopped salad and you’re on your way.”
S is for Sex
Some great between-the-sheets action provides a cocktail of feel-good hormones for your body, including dopamine and oxytocin (known as ‘the cuddle hormone’). It also releases endorphins, which act as a natural painkiller – studies have shown endorphins can reduce pain from headaches and period cramps. A Biological Psychology study found that sex also has a lasting effect when it comes to helping us manage stress and even a solo session can help ward off depression. While it doesn’t count as strenuous exercise (in most cases), sex is also shown to help keep your cardiovascular system healthy.
T is for Thyroid
The thyroid gland sits in the front of the neck and though it may be small, it can have a big effect on our body – particularly on weight and energy levels. A thyroid that is working inefficiently can be responsible for a range of symptoms including fatigue, weight gain, depression, infertility and digestion issues. Lack of iodine can be one of the catalysts for this, but there are other nutrients you need to include in your diet as well. The first is selenium, so adding a couple of Brazil nuts to your diet is a great idea. Seaweed, coconut oil, eggs and avocado also aid thyroid function.
U is for Urine
The colour of your urine can give big clues as to your wellbeing state and in particular your hydration levels. Ideally, your urine should be pale yellow or clear – anything significantly darker than that could mean you’re not hydrated enough. Drinking water is one of the best – and easiest – things you can do for your body, your brain, your mood and your exhaustion levels. It flushes out your system, keeps your skin clear, keeps all your skin functions working perfectly and makes you feel energised. Water and oxygen are what our cells need to make energy and if you’re running low on water, you’ll feel it everywhere. Start your day by drinking two glasses of water and it will make a bigger difference to your energy levels than a cup of coffee – we guarantee it!
V is for Vagina
Look, nobody likes getting a smear. On the roll-call of unpleasant maintenance that the female human body requires, it’s at the top of the list. But it’s a lifesaver, so make sure you keep up with your regular screenings. It’s also important to pay attention to any unusual symptoms – strong-smelling discharge, irregular bleeding, abdominal pain, lumps or changes to the colour of your skin down there. Here’s another thing you should do with your vagina: Like it. Chances are, even though things change a little with age, your vagina is perfectly normal. If you need a little more proof that what you’ve got down under is a-okay, Google ‘The Great Wall of Vagina’. British artist Jamie McCartney took plaster casts of 400 different vaginas to prove there is great variety in our private parts and the results are both eye-opening, and reassuring!
W is for Worry
Your life is never going to be perfect, and neither are you, but it will continue anyway. The amount of time you sit and stew and stress and sweat about a particular issue isn’t going to make a damn bit of difference in the long run. Once you get to a certain age, you’ve seen some stuff go wrong – maybe in a small, annoying way, maybe in a spectacularly atrocious way. And the next day the sun still rose and everything still continued as per usual. If you can remedy a situation through action, then do it. But worry is a waste of energy and if you keep it up long term, it will take a bigger toll on your wellbeing than whatever the original problem was. In the words of Frozen’s Elsa: “Let. It. Go.”
X is for e-X-ercise
Moving every day is good for your body and great for your mind. There seems to always be a new trend or recommendation for the exercise you should be doing but the reality is, the best exercise for you is whatever you’ll actually do. Incidental exercise totally counts as well; if you’re an avid gardener, you’ll know how much work goes into your legs from all that bending. Walking the dog? Great! Dancing around the house to your favourite tunes? Amazing. Find an activity you love, then do it for 20-30 minutes a day. Listen to an audio book while you take a walk, go for a swim at the beach, run up and down some stairs five times in a row. It doesn’t have to be long, or hard, or costly – and the easier it is to get it done, the more it will become a habit.
Y is for Yoga
It’s basically the broccoli of the exercise world – the health benefits of yoga are so wide and varied. It lowers your heart rate, it lowers your blood pressure, it increases strength, flexibility and circulation while literally twisting tension out of the body. It’s the antidote to the stresses of daily life and there’s a variety out there to suit everyone. Go along to your local community centre or gym and trial a class (yogis are way less intimidating than your general gym buddies as well), or find an online teacher so you can give it a go in the privacy of your own home. Yoga is one of the few exercises that reduces the body’s stress responses from the word go, calming down our sympathetic nervous system (the ‘fight or flight’ part of our body) and putting us into a ‘healing’ state.
Z is for Zzzzz
If all else fails, a good night’s sleep will make the biggest difference from one day to the next. So how do you ensure you’re getting enough – and that it’s good quality sleep? It’s all about your melatonin levels – that’s the hormone that controls our sleep-wake cycle. The easiest way to keep it healthy is to stick with nature’s timetable, so try to get a lot of sunlight during the day, and ensure you have total darkness at night. This also means banning the blue flicker light from electronic devices after 9pm, as this can play havoc with your brain as it tries to wind down. Keep your bedroom slightly colder than normal to ensure you stay asleep, and stick to a consistent sleep schedule to help your body fall into a routine. Seven to eight hours of sleep a night is what you need to function at your peak, so if that means saying ‘no’ to a second episode of your favourite TV show and turning in early, your body will thank you.
Words by: Emma Clifton
Photos: Thinkstock and Getty Images

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