A functional-medicine pioneer explains how to make small choices that build lasting well-being.
The elements that create or deplete good health are primarily the ordinary parts of life — food, rhythms, environment, and relationships. This means that both health and disease are largely the outcome of the small choices you make daily: You can eat the most pristine diet on Earth, but if you feel cut off from family and friends or you routinely exercise until you drop, true well-being can elude you.
As a physician, I use conventional and functional-medicine practices, as well as acupuncture, to treat patients. What I do is sometimes called integrative medicine, but I like to call it, more simply, good medicine.
My philosophy, developed during three decades of practice, employs a wide lens to look at health. It seeks fundamental causes of weakness and imbalance before throwing drugs and medical interventions at a problem. It asks a lot of questions: What are you eating? How are you sleeping? Do you wake up each day raring to go? How sedentary is your workday? Who cares about you, and how do you feel when you’re alone?
In my view, the best way to reach the larger goal of wellness is to start by thinking small.
One tiny success or one positive new habit paves the way for the next one. Slow and steady wins the race, because with each healthy change, you gain some energy, clarity, and confidence, which powers you on to develop the next healthy habit.
What’s more, when you improve your health through even the smallest positive changes, it creates a ripple effect that soon touches the people around you, inspiring them to make positive changes, too.
While cultivating good health can seem like quite a serious undertaking — because it is — it’s important to relax, take it slow, and be patient. Robust well-being is a process that starts with a single step, which leads to another, and another.
These are the key steps I recommend that my patients focus on first. They can all take you in a healthier direction, no matter where you are right now. Consider this your field guide.
1. Eat: Compose the Perfect Plate
If you’ve ever obsessively counted calories to stay healthy, give yourself a break. Instead, put that effort toward a simpler system: the Perfect Plate. It’s a failsafe visual guide that guarantees a healthier meal. It works because it helps you focus on quality over quantity. Healthy whole foods crowd out the problematic or even downright bad stuff, so it counters what tend to be the real causes of weight dysregulation: too many starches, sugars, and inflammatory ingredients, whether from factory-farmed or processed foods.
Pick the best-quality whole-food ingredients you can, then combine them in a ratio that gives vegetables the bulk of the plate. Make protein a smaller, palm-size component, and be sure to add a healthy dose of good fats — either as a condiment or part of a fat-rich protein source. The plate may be sizable in volume (from all those vegetables!), but with these proportions, you’re less likely to overeat.
Aim for this Perfect Plate breakdown:
50 to 70 Percent Nonstarchy Vegetables
Dark leafy greens, crucifers (broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage), summer squashes, onions, and garlic.
Vegetables deliver vitamins, enzymes, and phytonutrients. They give you increased energy and glowing skin, and support better natural detoxification. They help cool inflammation and reduce cancer risk. Fermented vegetables are a great source of the good bacteria that support a healthy microbiome.
10 to 15 Percent Best-Quality Proteins
Grassfed and -finished meats and organic or pastured poultry, wild-caught fish, pasture-raised or organic eggs, organic dairy (if tolerated), nuts and seeds, and bone broth.
The amino acids found in protein are the building blocks for your body; they give you strong muscles and support good immune function.
20 to 30 Percent Healthy Fats
Coconuts and coconut oil, olives and olive oil, avocado, nut butters, pastured butter, and ghee.
Not only is it unnecessary to fear good fats; it’s healthy to embrace them. Fat helps balance hormones and absorb fat-soluble vitamins, such as A, D, E, and K. It nourishes skin, supports the brain, lubricates digestion, and helps you feel satisfied after a meal.
2. Sleep: Close Your Eyes, Clean Your Brain
The next time you’re about to short yourself on sleep, consider this: Research is finding that slumber may be pivotal to avoiding early mental decline. When you sleep, your brain protects itself from toxic overload.
Like your body’s lymphatic system, your brain’s glymphatic system flushes cerebrospinal fluid through your gray matter to remove proteins — the byproducts of normal neurological functions — that accumulate during the day.
This system keeps your brain clear and healthy, but it operates only when you’re asleep — it’s as if you have a brain-cleaning crew that works the night shift only. If you deprive yourself of restorative sleep and don’t let it do its job, it’s like having a party one night and neglecting to clean up the mess the next day. And then having yet another party. Waste begins to accumulate, and the house starts to deteriorate.
Studies have linked this buildup to loss of neurological function. You might experience brain fog, poor memory, or absent-mindedness in the short term. Over time, studies suggest, this “trash buildup” may be a contributing factor to dementia and Alzheimer’s.
This means sleep is not a luxury; it is an essential act of daily maintenance, your ally in keeping your brain sharp and nimble. Don’t skimp on it.
If you struggle to get quality slumber, adjusting your exposure to light and dark is one of the most powerful ways to regain harmonious sleep patterns. Practice these daily protocols to restore your rhythms.
- Expose yourself to light in the morning. Take a morning walk daily. Your internal clock is especially sensitive to the energizing effects of light in the first two hours after waking. (For more on circadian health, visit “Get Your Groove Back.”)
- Get outside several times each day. Brief exposures to natural light will maximize alertness. Leave the sunglasses off sometimes so your brain registers the full intensity of daylight; this helps reset the suprachiasmatic nucleus, the brain’s “master clock.”
- Add a light box. If you can’t get enough outdoor time, spend 30 to 90 minutes a day in front of a full-spectrum light used to treat seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and other circadian-rhythm conditions.
- Simplify your evenings. Make your nights darker, as they were before artificial lighting extended the day. Power down screens a couple of hours before bed, use low-watt amber bulbs after dinner, and save demanding tasks for the morning hours.
3. Move: Get Active (as Much as You Can)
Mechanics are designed for many activities: to walk frequently and for some distance; to change physical planes (by standing, sitting, pivoting, turning, and lunging); and to pull, push, and hoist things regularly. These actions keep joints lubricated and tendons robust, and they ensure that skeletal and muscular systems move freely. They’re also protective, since movement causes muscle tissue to produce proteins called myokines that have important disease-preventive and anti-inflammatory functions.
Modern life is not exactly designed to make the most of your mechanics, but you can find more opportunities to move throughout the day. Below are a few to consider.
- Shift the way you work. Get a headset and a pad of paper and take your phone calls while moving. Stroll during meetings: Walking and other cross-body movements stimulate the exchange of information between the hemispheres of your brain.
- Refresh your social life. Try taking a walk, playing sports, or going to yoga with friends instead of catching up over coffee, happy hour, or dinner.
- Walk before lunch each day. Not only does this get you outside for some natural light; it decompresses your digestive system and resets your nervous system in preparation for your meal. It also makes you more alert, and thus less likely to crave pick-me-up sugars.
- Embrace micro-sessions. Do any kind of movement for five to 10 minutes, at least once or twice a day. Ten minutes can change your state of mind completely — and it’s as easy as dancing to three songs on a pop playlist. (If you think you don’t have 10 minutes, sacrifice checking your social-media feeds and reclaim that time.)
4. Protect: Address Your Toxic Burden
We live in an environment of stressors that our bodies have not evolved to handle. Our detoxification systems exist to clear as many toxins as possible, but they get taxed to the max dealing with the thousands of chemicals, carcinogenic compounds, and invisible electromagnetic frequencies that we’re exposed to in a day.
We’re only starting to understand the impact of chronic exposure to these multiple stressors, and no one has yet fully studied how they interact in our bodies. What we do know is that this ongoing exposure to low-dose chemicals almost certainly plays a role in the surge of chronic diseases, from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) to cancer.
Removing as many of these damaging influences as you can helps. Replacing them with simpler, cleaner alternatives gives your body more of the conditions it needs to be well. This is my manifesto for handling today’s toxic environment successfully.
- Follow the Precautionary Principle. If something’s not fully proven safe, whether it’s a chemical in your shampoo or the habit of carrying your cell phone in your pocket, don’t take a chance with it. (Find safety ratings for personal-care and household products on the Environmental Working Group website: www.ewg.org.)
- Avoid GMOs in everything you eat. While there is a great deal of public debate about the safety of GMOs, we know they haven’t been proven harmless.
- Remember epigenetics. The environment around your cells influences whether disease-causing genes get switched on or stay off. Toxins and poor diet create one of the worst environments possible, but eating clean and reducing toxic exposure give your body the best chance to keep disease-causing genes switched off.
- Educate yourself. Seek out information about everyday hormone disruptors such as phthalates. These plasticizers have been linked to birth defects and are found in artificial fragrances, which are everywhere. Read up on the short- and long-term health effects of these and other chemicals.
- Dismiss the doubters. Others may disdain your efforts to reduce and replace the toxins in your environment. Ignore them and carry on.
- Demand change. Consumer action changes the market. Make your concerns about toxins in products known to manufacturers and regulatory agencies.
5. Unwind: Use Your Breath as a Pathway to Peace
Most of us live in a permanent state of “on,” by necessity if not by choice. The demands of work, relationships, and debt, plus the pressure to perform, produce, and perfect ourselves have never been higher. The powerful “attention economy” keeps us online and hooked into endless streams of information. It can be challenging to find points of stillness, to unwind, to touch peace.
Yet unwinding is central to healthcare in many wellness traditions, including meditation, mindfulness, breath work, and soothing touch. It’s imperative to let our nervous systems stand down on a regular basis, or we risk running ourselves into the ground.
You don’t need to escape to an exotic spa or Zen retreat center, though; simply make it a daily priority to carve out moments to relax, restore, and “be.” Just as night follows day, stillness follows activity — they are two sides of one whole.
Breathing is a surefire route to calming your mind and relaxing your body, though most of us take it for granted. True, breathing is a bodily function that is both voluntary and involuntary, but this action takes on new power and meaning when you use it intentionally.
Try these two breath exercises the next time you need to unwind.
- Place both hands on your belly, just below your bottom ribs.
- Rest the tip of your tongue behind your front teeth.
- Take a slow, deep inhalation through your nose.
- Draw your breath all the way into your belly, past your chest. Notice your diaphragm moving downward and feel your belly and rib cage expand.
- When you can take in no more air, exhale slowly through your nose until your lungs are empty — you’ll feel your belly falling under your hands.
- Repeat for 10 cycles.
As you continue, see if you can extend the exhale until it is twice the length of the inhale. Breathing this way helps quiet spinning thoughts and brings you back to your body in the present moment.
The 4-7-8 Breath
The next time you’re swept away by anger, fear, anxiety, extreme sadness, or other strong emotions, try using the 4–7–8 breath to activate your built-in calming system.
- Place the tip of your tongue behind your front teeth at the gum line.
- Purse your lips as if you’re going to blow out a candle, then exhale completely through your mouth, making a whooshing or sighing sound.
- Close your mouth and inhale through your nose for four counts, hold the breath for seven counts, and exhale through the mouth for eight counts.
- Repeat for 10 rounds.
6. Connect: Practice Appreciation for Your Fellow Beings
We tend to think of connection as happening only with people we know well, but small acts of kindness toward acquaintances and strangers also offer great health benefits and make us feel more secure. These gestures are more than just a boon to the recipient: They create a momentary connection between you and the world at large, an instant of intimacy that supports you while showing compassion to others.
Perhaps the biggest benefit of kindness is that it can shift you out of a single-point perspective, where it’s easy to be consumed by personal problems and obstacles, into a shared life experience. For that moment, you remember that we’re all in it together. Kindness is a universal language that crosses perceived boundaries, and it’s one of the easiest things to exchange — no backstory, explanation, or complex social dance required.
Random Acts of Kindness
Make a daily act of unsolicited kindness one of your health habits. Here’s how:
- Surprise someone with an authentic compliment about how they handled something.
- Listen closely to an acquaintance who’s in need of being heard.
- Lend a hand to a stranger.
- Say a genuine “thank you” to the conductor on the train or the cashier at the grocery store.
- Let another driver cut in front of you with a cheery wave.
- Check in on your elderly neighbor and share coffee and a laugh.
- Smile and make eye contact with a stranger.
With one random act of kindness at a time, we help each other become more present and connected — and healthier, too.
Excerpted from How to Be Well, by Frank Lipman, MD. Copyright © 2018 by Frank Lipman, MD. Illustrations by Giacomo Bagnara. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.