Around Christmas 2017, I developed an ulcer in my esophagus that seemed to come out of nowhere. Following an endoscopy, I asked the gastroenterologist what had caused it — and what I might do to prevent another one. “Just take these,” he said brusquely, handing me a prescription for a proton pump inhibitor. Then he was off to the next patient.
I wanted to understand and address the underlying problem, not just paper over the symptoms. Turns out that part would be up to me.
I finally got the insight and tools I needed to heal once I started working with a nutritional therapist. She suggested some simple nutrition and lifestyle adjustments to support my digestive health and helped me tap into a deeper understanding of my body. I felt empowered to take my health into my own hands, without relying on a prescription.
I know I’m not alone in my frustration with the limitations of conventional American medicine. “We have a fabulous healthcare system for saving your life, but it performs poorly in facilitating healing,” explains integrative physician Wayne Jonas, MD, author of How Healing Works.
Fortunately, we’re far from helpless. Many of the most prevalent chronic conditions afflicting Americans — including hypertension, type 2 diabetes, obesity, chronic pain, anxiety, and depression — can be treated with nutrition, movement, sleep, social support, and complementary practices, such as yoga, acupuncture, and massage.
Not only are these approaches safer and less expensive than drugs and surgery, but most of them don’t even require a visit to the doctor’s office. That’s a mercy, because the costs associated with those visits are high — and getting higher.
“We have a very expensive system of medicine,” says Kara Parker, MD, a functional-medicine physician in Minneapolis. “But it’s often chasing problems that are preventable and treatable upstream with lifestyle measures.
“Health is created in the home and at the grocery store in the course of day-to-day living. We’re blessed to have a medical system that backs us up, but our health is primarily in our own hands.”
With that in mind, these are some of the best strategies — free, low-cost, or investment-worthy — for taking charge of your health.
Committing to adequate sleep might be the best health investment you can make. Insufficient sleep has been linked to chronic conditions, such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. One study found that people who averaged less than seven hours of sleep a night were about three times more likely to develop cold symptoms than those who slept at least eight hours.
Integrative physician Frank Lipman, MD, author of How to Be Well, puts it bluntly: “Lack of sleep can make you fatter, biologically older, and more at risk for heart disease and diabetes.” It can also leave you wired for stress, with a nervous system primed for fight-or-flight reactions to everyday challenges.
It’s not just quantity of sleep that counts: Quality rest with phases of deep sleep allows the brain to protect itself from toxic proteins that accumulate throughout the day. Syncing your natural body clock by establishing a regular sleep and wake schedule, finishing your last meal two to three hours before bedtime, avoiding alcohol before bed, and being mindful of evening light exposure can all help.
We are made to move. “A hundred years ago, humans were up and moving around more than eight hours a day,” says Parker. “Now it’s reversed, and we’re spending that much time sitting.” One recent study found that a quarter of Americans sit for more than eight hours daily.
Sitting and rarely rising is hard on our health, she explains, noting that movement keeps blood and lymph flowing and delivers oxygen and nutrients to our cells.
Incorporate movement into your daily routine by getting out of your chair regularly or using a standing desk or a fitness ball that activates your core while you sit. Park farther from your destination when driving. Choose the stairs over the elevator.
“Design and embed movement into the routine operations of your life,” advises Jonas, who uses a walking desk for his daily work. “Don’t just rely on willpower, or it won’t happen.”
Although long bouts of sitting is bad for your health, intentionally sitting still and focusing on your breath can be a powerful tool for improving your well-being, counteracting stress, stimulating the vagus nerve (which affects everything from digestion to heart rate), and inspiring clearer thinking and better decision-making. Meditating for as little as 10 minutes a day can also yield profound cognitive benefits, according to Lipman: It improves memory, attention, and creativity, and it potentially lowers blood pressure and eases anxiety.
Apps such as Insight Timer offer free, guided meditations, as well as tools to track and log your daily practice. (For ideas on other ways to achieve a settled state of mind, see "Beyond Meditation".)
One of the basics of DIY healthcare is simply to drink more water, Parker advises. Hydration helps the heart pump blood to the muscles, facilitates healthy bowel function, and nourishes cells. Aim to drink half your body weight in ounces throughout the day, ideally from a filtered source to avoid any contaminants in your tap water. (This means if you’re 160 pounds, try to consume at least 80 ounces of water each day.)
Try Intermittent Fasting
A growing body of research highlights the power of intermittent fasting to help support healthy insulin levels, blood pressure, and liver function, as well as enhance cellular-repair processes and reduce inflammation.
The most common method involves fasting for about 16 hours between dinner and breakfast, explains Lipman. “This signals your metabolism to burn fat and allows your body to experience a longer-than-normal period of low insulin in the blood, which is a powerful reset.” (To learn more about this practice, see "Everything You Need to Know About Intermittent Fasting".)
Take Digital Breaks
Our devices are designed to tap into the brain’s reward system, triggering the release of tiny hits of dopamine with every notification we receive, leaving us simultaneously hyperstimulated and exhausted. Taking regular time away from screens can boost mental and emotional health, improve sleep, and fend off the physical side effects of constant digital immersion, such as dry eyes and spinal misalignment from hunching over phones and computers.
“Having space and time when you’re not interrupted and can be present in the flow is more and more essential as our digital lives creep out of work and into our home and vacation spaces,” observes Parker.
Lipman advises creating dedicated tech-free periods during commutes, turning off distracting notifications, leaving your phone at home while you go for a walk or run errands, and observing a tech fast for one full day each weekend.
Practice an Elimination Diet
Eliminating certain foods from your diet can be an effective — and informative — strategy when you’re not feeling well and suspect that a food sensitivity or intolerance may be the cause. “Everyone wants a quick, easy answer from a lab, but the gold standard for detecting a food sensitivity is to eat an easy-to-digest basic diet and then progressively add back in various food categories to see if you get a response,” says Parker.
If you discover a sensitivity to a food or ingredient, like gluten, you’ll know enough to temporarily avoid it to relieve your symptoms. And a few months without it might be all you need to fix what was plaguing you.
“If you have celiac, that’s one thing,” says Parker, “but [for others] if you change the health of your bowel, reduce leakiness, and holistically repair the gut and reduce stress, oftentimes your diet can once again be expanded.” (For more on elimination diets, see "The Institute for Functional Medicine’s Elimination Diet Comprehensive Guide and Food Plan".)
Just two and a half to three hours a week of moderate to vigorous exercise can help prevent heart attacks, strokes, and cardiovascular disease, as well as bolster cognitive health.
“We need to regularly work through our reserves, and then restore them,” notes Parker. “Balance, stretching, strengthening, aerobic exercise — they’re all important, and everyone can choose their own combination to focus on at different stages of life.”
Where you fall on the intensity spectrum isn’t as important as exercising in a way that you truly enjoy. Do what you can to stay regularly active, and any additional workouts you can integrate into your weekly routine will be supportive.
Use Health-Supportive Apps
If there’s any upside to our increasingly symbiotic relationship with our smartphones, it may be the potential they hold to nudge us in the direction of desirable behavior changes. Apps such as Smoke Free take a science-backed approach to smoking cessation, using evidence-based techniques to help users manage cravings and kick the habit. Insight Timer and similar apps offer guided meditations of various lengths, focusing on a variety of issues, including fostering sleep, easing anxiety, and increasing self-confidence. (Many apps offer in-app or premium options that come at a cost.)
Eat Whole Foods, Organic When Possible
“Breaking free of the grip of processed food is a must if you want to claim and own your health,” advises Lipman. Processed foods containing sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, artificial sweeteners and flavors, preservatives, and unhealthy fats have been linked to type 2 diabetes, cancer, and heart disease.
By contrast, organic, non-GMO vegetables and fruits offer essential fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients our bodies need to thrive.
When selecting whole foods — especially produce — opt for organic varieties whenever possible. Pesticides and other agricultural chemicals can be hazardous to both physical and cognitive health. Each year, the Environmental Working Group publishes the Dirty Dozen, a helpful list of the most pesticide-heavy produce, which includes strawberries, apples, spinach, kale, potatoes, and more.
Eating clean becomes more important when you eat high on the food chain, says Lipman, noting that antibiotics, hormones, and pesticides tend to concentrate in conventionally farmed meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs. Though organic foods are often more expensive than their conventionally grown counterparts, think of them as an investment in your health that may help avoid costly medical bills down the road.
Try joining a local CSA (community-supported agriculture) group for locally grown, organic produce, or look into services — such as Imperfect Produce — that deliver affordable, organic, cosmetically marred but nutritionally robust produce right to your door.
Massage and hands-on healing techniques energize and rejuvenate us, increasing our sense of well-being while easing stress, says Sheila Patel, MD, chief medical officer for Chopra Global.
“Massage is a very underutilized tool for pain management,” she explains, noting that it can stimulate the release of mood-enhancing neurotransmitters, improve circulation to the muscles and connective tissue, and encourage lymphatic flow and drainage. Studies have demonstrated that it can also reduce stress, pain, and muscle tension. “In addition,” Patel notes, “Ayurvedic massage that incorporates energy work and acupressure can help optimize the body’s internal communication via nerve signals, create energy flow, and enhance immunity.”
To enjoy the benefits of massage in a budget-friendly way, try reaching out to a massage school, where students often offer discounted rates. Or take advantage of DIY approaches, such as foam rollers or Ayurvedic self-massage. (For more on becoming your own massage therapist, see "Be Your Own Massage Therapist".)
Buy the Right Gear
Investing in the proper equipment for your chosen activity will make you more likely to participate and less likely to suffer avoidable injuries. Choosing the best shoes, for example, is a must. You’ll also be more likely to ride your bike on your morning commute if it fits you properly, rides smoothly, and is equipped with lights and a rack. Purchase a sturdy helmet that’s comfortable to wear. And for those days when you can’t make it to the health club or gym, get the best set of kettlebells you can afford so you can maintain your strength-training routine at home.
In short, if you invest in the appropriate gear, you’re likely to use it a whole lot more. (To check out the library of how-to workout videos from Experience Life, visit www.experiencelife.com/videos.)
Check Out Complementary and Alternative Medicine
Conventional Western medicine leans heavily on costly pharmaceuticals, but many traditional healing modalities have incorporated herbs and nondrug therapies — considerably more affordable ---— for thousands of years.
“Supporting the body with gentle herbs can be very effective, with fewer side effects than many medications,” says Patel. If you have a complex medical history or are already taking prescription meds, consult with a professional before adding herbs. But if you’re seeking gentle support for better sleep or easing stress, try an adaptogenic herb on your own. (For more on herbal anxiety relief, see “Herbs for Anxiety”.)
“The beauty of herbs is that they’re supportive, not suppressing — they encourage our natural mechanisms for sleep, calming, and healing,” she says, noting that herbs are most effective when used in combination with lifestyle practices, such as healthy eating, meditation, and yoga.
Other complementary approaches, such as acupuncture and reiki, may also help manage pain and address chronic issues like insomnia and depression. Look into community acupuncture (services provided in a group setting, often on a sliding scale) for a more affordable option.
Invest in a Health-Club Membership
“Strength confers resilience, longevity, and protection against disease,” explains Lipman. Weightlifting and body-weight regimens can reduce risk factors for a variety of chronic conditions, including cardiovascular disease. But starting a workout routine from an unconditioned state or without learning proper technique can backfire, causing injury.
Many health clubs have qualified personal trainers who can help design a strength-training program for your level and goals, and most clubs are well stocked with the equipment you need. All the better if you join a club with a sauna; taking saunas has been shown to offer neurocognitive and cardiovascular benefits.
Consider Lab Tests
For the majority of common ailments, diet and lifestyle modifications can put you on the road back to health. But when you have a stubborn set of symptoms and the interventions you’ve tried aren’t working, it may be worth the investment to ask a functional-medicine doctor to run a few lab tests. They can peek under the hood to see if there are any clues to be found in your levels of thyroid hormones, iron, or vitamin D, or if there are other deficiencies or imbalances.
“Testing can be a useful secondary measure if a person is struggling,” notes Jonas. “I always start with the things we know contribute to the vast majority of health and healing, but if I find someone needs an assist in getting there, or there are lingering challenges, then some selective testing might help get them over the hump.”
Stool testing, for example, can be helpful for stubborn GI problems; these tests can detect parasites and other microbial imbalances that may be the culprit. Likewise, comprehensive thyroid testing can reveal hormonal imbalances that contribute to unexplained fatigue, weight gain, and hair loss.
Let’s face it: Fun often isn’t free. The best things in life — love, relationships, leisure, adventure — may not have a price tag, but the things that nurture them often do. Whether it’s family vacations or dinners out with friends, investing time and money in activities that support relationships and our own sense of fun and enjoyment is rarely a bad idea.
Relationships are key to better health, and experiences inspire greater satisfaction than material things. So the next time the check appears after a night out with friends, raise a communal toast to the positive investment you just made in your health.
Seek Out a Health or Nutrition Coach
We often look to our healthcare providers to give us the tools we need to stay well, but medical professionals aren’t always the best sources of actionable insight. “As doctors, we’re trained to tell you what to do but not how,” explains Jonas, noting that advising someone to lose 100 pounds isn’t necessarily helpful.
Health coaches, on the other hand, are often trained in behavior-change science. Whether your goal is adjusting your diet, moving more, or improving your mental well-being, a coach can help you develop skills and achieve successes that you can build on. (Find a science-based health coach at www.wellcoaches.com and a functional-medicine-trained coach at www.ifm.org.)
Nutrition coaches, meanwhile, can pinpoint specific dietary issues and help create a food plan designed to support your particular needs.
Get a Pet
Research has shown that dog owners tend to live longer and experience lower rates of cardiovascular disease than those without a dog. Canines can enhance our microbiomes, improve our immunity, encourage us to exercise, and support our mental health.
But it’s not just dogs that offer benefits for human well-being. Parker likes to watch her pet snake move over her skin. “A pet can be a great way to add stillness and meditation to your life,” she notes. “If you spend five minutes petting any animal, you’ll enhance your parasympathetic balance.” The benefits of the companionship a pet offers can be especially profound for those who live alone.
Live your Purpose
A Harvard study found that the top predictor of a long and healthy life was not whether study subjects smoked or ate a lot of vegetables. It was whether they were regularly engaged in activities they found meaningful. The most powerful health benefits of all came from doing positive things for others.
“Start by figuring out what matters to you in life,” Jonas advises. “Why do you get up in the morning? Why are you here?”
Meanwhile, a purpose-filled life doesn’t always lead to the biggest paycheck — and sometimes a hard-driving career is the thing that’s harming your health the most.
Committing to health may require abandoning a career that’s no longer aligned with your personal mission, or a work schedule that doesn’t allow you to partake in meaningful activities, such as spending time with family, making music or art, or practicing self-care.
If you can afford to take a pay cut but feel afraid to do it, consider reframing the move as a worthwhile investment in your health and
After all, you can’t buy back your time in a healthy body, but you can invest in it now.
This originally appeared as “Invest in Yourself” in the March 2020 print issue of Experience Life.