The Impact of Our Environment, Relationships, and Thoughts on Our Health
Many following natural health are familiar with the term, “food as medicine.” Recent advances in scientific methods have proven this to be true at the cellular level. This is through the study of how food interacts with our genes, nutrigenomics. It has been found that nutrients, along with other environmental (epigenetic) factors such as lifestyle, mind-body medicine, and chemical exposures, have the ability to directly influence how DNA, the blueprint of our biology, is “read” and “expressed.” (source, source, source, source, source)
All these factors are part of our exposome, the sum of environmental exposures from conception to present that complement our genome. (source, source, source, source) We are just beginning to piece together the complexities of how these unique differences and our predispositions correlate with environmental exposures to effect individual health outcomes. Studies on genetic variants, or single nucleotide polymorphisms, in the metabolism of environmental chemicals, immunity, lipid metabolism, and hemostasis are further providing us with the insight and power to alter our genetic destiny by specific interventions and the choices we make every day… for the better or worse. (source, source)
For several weeks, I’ve been sharing evidence that our thoughts, perceptions, relationships, and cultural beliefs also have a profound impact on our physiology by modulating our genes. This concept that “thoughts are things” may be hard for some to grasp.
These neuropeptides, or “molecules of emotions,” as coined by Dr. Candace Pert, “The Mother of Psychoneuroimmunology”, do in fact store in our mind-body and are real. (source) The research on this continues to emerge on specific mechanisms and is quite compelling. This includes:
- evidence of the influence of placebo and nocebo effects
- mind-body practices
- sociogenomics, the concept of how our relationships and culture impact our genetic programming
This means that we don’t just change our health through perceptible external factors such as diet and exercise, but also by feeding ourselves with the non-tangible.
The Missing Links in Healing
I believe that nourishing thoughts, relationships, and empowering beliefs are the environmental factors that are the missing links in healing today.
Below are two reasons that support this.
Although these clusters of centenarians exist in various regions in the world and all have different diets, movement practices, and environmental exposures, they all have a few things in common. They all have a reverence for their relationships, kinships, and cultural traditions. They also honor the need to move, rest, and enjoy life. They don’t obsess and stress over life or the “perfect” diet. Food is seen as part of a celebration and a time for gathering and togetherness.
2. The Pitfalls of Healthism
Healthism is a belief that there is a morality around health. This is a cultural norm prevalent in our society today. As a result of this sociogenomic factor, many are obsessively focusing on diet and exercise as a means to gain social recognition and status.
The problem with this is twofold:
(a) it doesn’t work
(b) it can cause harm
Two Big Dangers of Viewing Health Obsession as a Moral Issue
1. Tossing Aside Old Friends
In the name of “health,” many may decide, or, are even encouraged to sacrifice previous loving relationships and a contented life that valued things beyond macros and the perfect abs. They may feel that they must shun others who don’t “believe” or conflict with their specific diet culture tribe (vegan, paleo, keto, etc.). This is so they will surround themselves with positive influencers and not be tempted off their path by their previous friends who don’t understand the importance of diet and exercise for achieving the ultimate body.
This makes me worry, especially at this time of year where togetherness is reverenced by our society. How many will skip out of Thanksgiving meal with their families due to the fact that the turkey is not organic and/or vegan. Is their perfect-meal seclusion worth the trade-off of the healing aspects of human connection and being with their “tribe” and “culture?” Yikes!
2. Damaging Body Stigmas
The current societal memes around body size and using it as a measure of health is problematic due to the fact that these are: (1) unscientific and confusing causation for correlation and (2) causing damage to many individuals due to harm from stigma, biases, and disparities in health care treatments based on BMIs.
As part of the integrative health community, I am very disheartened by this current obsession with weight loss and “fighting obesity.” I too used to subscribe to the belief that diet and weight were very important determinants of health. Although I still believe that food can be medicine, healthy behaviors and choices alone result in better wellness outcomes, they aren’t necessarily related to changes in weight. They should bring people together for more satisfying relationships, not cause more divisions.
I also now feel that prescribing regimented dietary protocols in the name of health or weight loss may be contributing to eating disorders. Poorly nourished bodies are coming to a practitioner for health advice and many are advocating more eliminations. Nutrient suggestions should be carefully considered and only applied when a patient’s relationship with food is balanced. Many health providers are not aware of the prevalence of eating disorders and that they exist in all different body sizes. This condition has the highest rate of mortality of any mental illness. I regret that I too wasn’t knowledgeable about all of this until recently. I now realize that praising a larger bodied person for behaviors that would cause a small framed person to be brought to treatment for an eating disorder is hypocritical, unscientific, prejudiced, and harmful.
Truly Practicing How to Be Together for a Healthier Nation
I feel practitioners should be encouraging health, in all physical, emotional, and relational dimensions, as a tool for enjoying a more fulfilling life without restrictions, not causing more.
Changing friends and relationships to achieve better health based solely on dietary and exercise practices (which are ever conflicting and changing) could be encouraging more harm through isolation and rejection.
I previously discussed the impact of isolation and how it is the number one risk factor regarding mortality outcomes in heart conditions. Not only will this shunning impact the family or friend who severs long-term ties, it will also cause the recipient to feel rejected and that is damaging for their health as well. (source) (I will explore this concept of rejection more in a follow up article.)
Cultural “health” norms can be helpful or harmful. For example, it is beneficial to seek out and learn from others who have emotional patterns that result in wellness in a holistic way. However, cultural and social influence are to our detriment when many feel they must reject, or are being rejected, based on different viewpoints and health practices.
For now, let’s all take a sniff of gratitude and embrace the physiological and emotional benefits of how plants can be honored and used by all for holistic wellness, regardless of one’s health beliefs.
We can also use blends that nurture acceptance if we, as aromatherapy and essential oil lovers, have friends that choose not to sniff our beloved secondary metabolites. We can love them, enjoy their company, and bask in the other forms of nourishment they bring to our table.
This material is for information purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, treat, or prescribe for any illness. You should check with your doctor regarding implementing any new strategies into your wellness regime. These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. (Affiliation link.)
Disclaimer: This information is applicable ONLY for therapeutic quality essential oils. This information DOES NOT apply to essential oils that have not been tested for purity and standardized constituents. There is no quality control in the United States, and oils labeled as “100% pure” need only to contain 5% of the actual oil. The rest of the bottle can be filled with fillers and sometimes toxic ingredients that can irritate the skin. The studies are not based solely on a specific brand of an essential oil, unless stated. Please read the full study for more information.
Thanks for the images, Pixabay!