Monday, September 16, 2013

The Cavewoman's Guide to Good Health

But in our society, there’s such a focus on always being up, productive, “happy” that I worry that we’re removing the truest parts of ourselves in the interest of fitting in and keeping up with our friends, significant others and coworkers. Always remember: If you need antidepressants, take them! And never, ever stop taking them without first talking to your doctor. But also know that there are effective nonpharmaceutical ways to help regulate your mood. In clinical research, psychotherapy has proven to be as effective as medication for mild to moderate depression. And don’t underestimate the transformative powers of a healthy lifestyle: I tell my patients that if they’re eating plants, sleeping well and doing cardio a few days a week, their mood will absolutely improve. I can guarantee it.
The point? Mother Nature knows best. Follow what comes naturally for you as a human animal and you’ll be calmer, happier, more energized—and, most important, you’ll stay off my couch.

6. Connect With Others—in Person
Most primates are inherently social beings; we tend to bond in pairs and troops. This might help explain our striving to constantly keep up with Facebook groups and total strangers on Twitter. Ironically, while Americans are more “connected” than ever, we’re also increasingly cut off from each other. We feverishly text and e-mail away, but have less and less quality face time with people we really care about. Our virtual reality is devoid of the essential primal elements of bonding, namely touch, eye contact and the processing of pheromones. Early research suggests these chemicals produced by our bodies help us communicate with other humans through scent. So I’m not surprised to read that there seems to be a relationship between excessive Internet use and depression, according to research. At least a few times a week, do your primate self a favor and have face time with your friends, your mom or even the cute guy in accounts payable you IM with all day.

7. Get Your ZZZ’s Cavewomen needed sleep for the same reasons we do: to conserve and restore energy. OK, they may have had to outrun hyenas, lions and other predators, so we don’t need sleep for the exact same reasons. But getting a good night’s sleep—eight hours is my gold standard, but some people will need more—is critical to our twenty-first-century-woman survival, too. Many of us don’t get nearly enough sleep, and we end up using drugs, sugary foods and caffeine to compensate. All of that takes its toll. Sleep deprivation may cause irritability, sluggishness, cognitive errors and distracted driving, and is even connected to conditions like obesity and diabetes.
To maximize sleep, I tell my patients: no caffeine after noon. Give your system enough time to metabolize your morning coffee. That afternoon Starbucks run will only make you want to pop an Ambien later. And if you think you’re doing yourself a favor by mainlining decaf, know that decaffeinated coffee actually contains some caffeine, just less than regular. I usually advise my patients to go with herbal teas in the afternoon and evening instead.
Also, put away those computers, BlackBerrys and TV remotes at least an hour before bedtime. Staring at a glowing screen may suppress the natural production of melatonin, a hormone that’s critical to the normal sleep-wake cycle, research shows. Pick up a book, listen to music or gently stretch instead.

8. Create Some Healthy Downtime
It’s not just sleep modern women are missing out on. My patients tell me they’re so darned busy, there’s rarely time to sit—just sit—before they have to get back to doing, doing, doing. Many young women I see are suffering from a debilitating loss of downtime, of rituals and sanctified space where they can’t be reached by colleagues, friends and family, and thus are unable to recharge their own batteries. Sitting still and emptying your mind allows you to think more clearly later on, much as cleaning your inbox of spam helps you attend to important e-mails.
We need to incorporate daily “now” time as downtime. Unplug, unwind and go play, preferably outside. Go for a jog or walk. Take a yoga class. Or try mindfulness and meditation, which focus on being present and aware, and may help reduce stress as well as improve blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
Of course, developing healthy habits when you’re stressed out and need to blow off steam sounds easier than it often is. That’s why many of my patients tend to “unwind” and self-medicate through destructive habits. But I tell them to…

9. Party the Way Cavewomen did
At the top of the list of my patients’ damaging habits: binge drinking. While there is some evidence that drinking a little wine now and then could provide health benefits, I’m not aware of any studies that support your going out and getting smashed on Saturday night. My nine years working the night shift at Bellevue Hospital Center’s psychiatric emergency room gave me plenty of exposure to drunken behavior—trust me, there’s not much to recommend it. Binge drinking (at least four drinks in one sitting for women) can damage brain and liver cells, and contribute to sleep problems and poor eating habits, not to mention increased risk of STDs.
In some ancient groups, altered states enhanced communal rituals and gatherings. They were infused with meaning and spirituality. We should emulate that approach, rather than use substances to numb ourselves, zone out and escape.
So instead of getting your friends together to sit on stools and drink at bars all night long, try adopting a healthy group ritual of your own, like dancing—it’s a perfectly cavewomanly thing to do. Dancing is a time-honored tradition among humans. It’s also a great way to stay in shape and potentially meet a guy.

You can imbibe in moderation; just know you don’t need to get trashed to have fun. Your primate body will thank you in the morning—and for many healthy years to come.

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