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Creating a Healthy You

Dr Clara Russell
14th Nov. '18

As a GP I have seen a steady increase over the years in the number of patients, especially women, feeling ‘just not quite right’, maybe ‘not firing on all cylinders’ or telling me ‘I’m just not myself’.

To help my patients I would always work through a list of questions, examine and think about some relevant tests to conduct to try and see what the issue might be. More often that not, the tests are normal and the patient can be told ‘your tests are normal, everything is fine’ Good news!

Except for the patient it isn’t. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard the reply “So why do I feel like this then? What else can we do? Is this it?”.

Seeing patients like this and being unable to give much advice other than ‘let’s keep and eye on things, come back in a couple of weeks and see how things are going’ I became increasingly frustrated as a Dr and for my patients

This led me on a journey to learn more about how our lifestyles can have an effect on how we feel and increase our risks for developing certain diseases. Some of these are now well known, smoking and the risks of lung cancer for example, but some less so. For example, Cancer Research boldly campaigned earlier this year that obesity is the second highest risk factor for cancer. Having studied lifestyle medicine both here and in the US, there is a lot we still don’t know and ongoing work to be done.

However, here are some of the key things that I’ve learned that can help us all feel Better.

1. Bed – let’s start here, the message is clear- Sleep well, feel better, live longer. Sleep is a key contributor to our health- both physical and mental. It affects our weight, our energy our moods and even our risks for diabetes and depression. How to sleep well? Start with the basics- a dark room, no screens, cool temperatures, not eating close to bedtime, a worry notebook for things that are keeping us up or that last minute essential thing we must remember to do the next day. Most importantly prioritise it. If you are struggling, don’t’s just suffer as poor sleeping can easily become a habit. Ask for help- see your Dr and/ or look at alternatives- cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia can be an effective tool.

2. Eat – food and dietary information is everywhere in the media. Social media experts fill their feeds with what they eat and often the latest fad. The facts are that what we eat, the amount of it, when we eat it, how we prepare it and how we feel when we are eating it can all have an impact on how we feel. This is not always easy to factor in to our busy lives-our eating habits are often the first thing to be affected when we are stressed or under pressure. (It was mentioned in my medical school year book that my kitchen specialty was ‘just add water brownies’ so I am not likely to appear on Masterchef any time soon!) Thankfully I’ve made some progress since then and the more I learn about the importance of food the more I enjoy preparing and cooking it . To feel better we need to think about eating regular meals, limiting snacks, making sure we are eating enough protein and not filling our meals with starchy processed carbs, drink enough water especially if you are a coffee or tea or even green tea drinker, cut back or ideally stop all carbonated soft drinks even if they are diet (nothing good can come from these) cook not ready made when you can, eat more vegetables (especially green leafy ones) and think about your sugar intake- especially hidden sugars.

3. Talk – turns out the BT adverts were right, it’s good to talk. In the longest living healthy communities in the world- known as the Blue Zones- one of the key factors they have in common is that they prioritise family and social support. The old saying ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’ seems to be true. In depression and mental health talking therapy remains the first line most effective approach

4. Turn it off- everything, whenever you can. The phone the ipad the TV the Xbox the light. Our use of devices is leaving us tired but wired, especially as we use them late into the evening. Blue light from these devices disrupts our body’s melatonin production, which is the natural chemical that begins to tell our body its time to get ready for bed. Disrupt this and we confuse our brains about when it is time to sleep. And then we wonder why we don’t sleep well? And that’s just the blue light, not even the content of what we might be reading (a stressful work email/ a whatsapp group message you feel you need to reply to or a facebook post on your friends fantastic holiday pics can all get our minds racing and disrupt the all important sleep cycle)

5. Exercise- you knew this was coming somewhere didn’t you? If you like it lucky you. I don’t’ –possibly still traumatized from my poor PE experiences as a child- so this is tricky for me. Find a way of moving and do it every day. We sit too much, you may have heard sitting is the new smoking and that is because it transpires this is an independent risk factor for heart disease and cancer. So get up. Walk, walk some more, and move more than you want to every single day. For getting the heart rate up and bit more bringing on a sweat there is good evidence about HIIT- that short sharp work outs can bring as many if not sometimes more benefits than long drawn out workouts or hours in the gym. But the key thing is do something active and enjoy it, as much as you can.

6. Rest- not the same as Bed- manage your stress. Stress is pro inflammatory- what does that mean? It means that prolonged stress sets of physical changes in your cells that not only impact how you feel but might, over time, increase your risk of nasty things like heart disease and other chronic diseases. Little bits of stress are good, essential and part of this thing call life. But regular unmanaged stress needs addressing, We will all have different ways to manage this, and what you do today and what you do next week might be different but build up a list of things that work for you- a bath, yoga, a walk, running, a box set, writing a letter to someone you’ve not seen for a while, or of course meditation which has been shown to change our brain during regular practice- there are choices.

How we live makes a difference to how we feel. Small things can make a difference and we don’t have to do everything at once (although as women that is often our natural inclination!) Listen to yourself and your body- if you think you aren’t feeling as good as you want to, consider the possibility that some of your habits and routines might be part of this and see of any of these small changes might help you feel better.


Dr. Clara Russell is an Edinburgh based functional/preventative medicine enthusiast and mother. To keep up to date with Clara, follow her on Twitter!

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