Even though these small lifestyle changes seem easy, we often put them off (and off, and off) because we don’t realize the big impact they can have. If you aren’t seeing the results you’re hoping for with the Paleo diet, chances are one of these areas needs some work.
Studies show that adults need seven to nine hours of sleep every single night. Getting enough sleep reduces the effects of stress on our bodies and has a tremendous positive impact on our hormones, metabolisms, and insulin sensitivity. On the other hand, shortchanging your sleep by even a small amount, even a few times a week, can have terrible consequences for your health. The regulatory arm of our immune systems works primarily while we’re sleeping, so just plain not getting enough sleep causes inflammation. The importance of adequate and consistent sleep cannot be underestimated. And while seven hours may seem like a doable minimum, if you’re battling a chronic illness, chances are your body needs more than that.
The single best thing that you can do to prioritize sleep is to have a regular bedtime—and make sure that bedtime is early enough that you can get at least eight hours of sleep (or more, if eight hours isn’t enough for you to wake up feeling refreshed and energetic). Having a bedtime is such a simple thing, but it’s one of the hardest things for adults to implement. Everything seems to be more important than sleep: going out with coworkers after work, watching that amazing new television show, checking Facebook, doing the laundry . . . . But sleep needs to come first, and not just in the initial healing phase of our health journeys but for the rest of our lives.
What else can you do to make sure you get good sleep? Spend some time outside during the day and keep your indoor lighting dim in the evenings—this helps maximize production of melatonin, the hormone that regulates sleep, in the evenings. Sleep in a cool, dark, quiet room. And avoiding anything stimulating (work, exhaustive exercise, arguments, and emotionally intense, scary, or suspenseful television shows and movies) in the last two hours before bed. It can also be helpful to avoid evening snacking.
Stress has a direct impact on immune system function. Being under chronic stress (the kind that most of us struggle with) both increases inflammation and undermines the regulatory arm of the immune system. Stress is a major contributor to chronic illness, and when stress is out of control, it worsens your prognosis. When it comes to stress management, there are two factors: stress reduction and resilience.
Reducing stress simply means removing things from your life that are causing stress. Even if individual responsibilities aren’t causing undue stress on their own, the sheer number of them on your plate may be creating stress. Whenever you can, say no, or ask for help to help reduce stress. And there are as many ways to reduce stress as there are stressed people—it’s up to you to figure out what works for you. Have a critical look at everything you do and how it impacts your stress level, and determine where you can small changes (or big ones!) to reduce stress.
Resilience refers to how your body responds to stressors in your life. This is different from reducing stress—instead, it’s about implementing strategies so that the stressful aspects of your life just don’t get to you as much. Activities that improve resilience include getting enough sleep, being active, meditating, social bonding, connecting with nature, laughing, and playing. Making time for these things can have a direct impact on both your health and your sense of well-being.
We all know that we’re supposed to exercise, but what is much less well-known is that gentle movement throughout the day and daily weight-bearing exercise (like walking!) has a bigger impact on your overall health than a sweaty session at the gym five times per week. Yes, building muscle has all kinds of health benefits, and including some exercise sessions in your week definitely has benefits, but when it comes to the immune system, it’s most important to simply avoid being sedentary. That means not sitting all day!
There are lots of ways to add movement to your day, but the simplest strategy is to set a timer to go off every twenty minutes during the part of your day where you typically sit (at work and in front of the television, for most of us) and then, whenever the timer goes off, get up and move around for two minutes. You can jump rope, do some push-ups, stand and stretch, or do some yoga poses—whatever works for you! Yes, studies show that just two minutes of movement for of every twenty that you’re sitting is all it takes. Of course, you can ramp this up with treadmill desks and bicycle desks if you have access to those sorts of things.
There are also tremendous health advantages to one of the simplest and most accessible activities out there: walking. Walking helps build muscle, improves cardiovascular health, strengthens bones, helps improve resilience to stress, improves brain health (everything from mood to memory to cognition) and reduces risk of problems like dementia, improves hormone health, and can even help you sleep better! If all you do is make time for a thirty-minute walk every day (in addition to moving every twenty minutes throughout the day), you are doing great!
More intense activity is awesome, too. If you love to lift weights, participate in a sport, or get your groove on at the gym, those activities are all worthwhile. It’s important to emphasize, though, that even the hardest workout can’t make up for damage sitting all day does to your health. Even if you sweat up a storm for a couple of hours each day, moving around every twenty minutes is still essential for health. And another word of caution: exhaustive, strenuous, and overly intense exercise can actually undermine your health by harming your immune system, gut health, and hormone health.
An often-underrated lifestyle factor that directly impacts our health is community. Connecting with others, whether a spouse, child, friend, family member, or pet, helps regulate hormones and neurotransmitters that directly impact inflammation. Plus, this social bonding improves resilience to stress and generally improves mood, which makes every other change you’re working on seem a bit easier.
There’s a practical aspect to connection as well. When we have people in our lives whom we can depend on and ask for help, we have resources to help us reduce stress and put other priorities, like getting enough physical activity and sleep, at the top of our to-do lists. And having a companion for your health journey, whether it’s a walking buddy, a friend to meet up with at the farmers market, someone to watch your kids while you do whatever it is you need to do, or a family member to batch cook with on weekends, having support while you tackle the job of healing is better than Mary Poppins’s spoonful of sugar.
For some people, making community a priority requires effort and dedication. It can be easy to let social media sites provide us with the illusion of connection without having actual meaningful interactions with our friends and family. It also can be easy to let every other item on our to-do lists supplant quality time with the people we care about. If you’re struggling to find time for connection, see where you can combine social interaction with other activities, like exercise, play, shopping, and even cooking!