19 Milestones To Achieving Optimal Health
How would you rate your own health? Most people rate their health as “pretty good” – even the ones coming to see me. And yet, when I dig a little deeper, asking about medications and symptoms, sleep quality and energy level and mood, I find that many of them are in far less optimal health than they realize. I think what most people mean when they say their health is “pretty good” is that they feel “all right,” as in, “I don’t need to go to the emergency room at this moment.” But that is hardly what I would call health that is “pretty good.”
In reality, how we feel is (perhaps surprisingly) a relatively poor predictor of our health quality. For the first time in human history, chronic disease has surpassed infectious disease, and these types of illnesses – like chronic heart problems, digestive disorders, autoimmune diseases, mood problems like depression and anxiety, and even cancer – often go under-the-radar for years.
If how you feel isn’t the best measure of your health, what is? I’m glad you asked! Achieving optimal health is not only possible, it’s something I see and guide people towards on a weekly basis in my functional medicine center. I have boiled down the basics into 19 signs you’ve achieved optimal health. Here’s what to be striving for:
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1. Inflammation is at normal levels
Inflammation is at the root of most chronic health issues, but this chronic, low-grade inflammation isn’t the same as the acute variety that you might experience if you get an injury, so pain isn’t always present when inflammation is ongoing. The best way to determine your inflammation levels is by getting lab tests for inflammation, such as C-reactive protein (CRP).
2. Your microbiome is balanced
Inside and on your body, you host trillions of bacteria, and the balance of those populations are super important to your health, immune system, and digestion. Imbalances like SIBO and candida yeast overgrowth are increasingly common. A sign that your microbiome isn’t what it should be is that you are having (and pardon me while I get personal) at least two healthy bowel movements a day that resemble snakes (not pebbles or soft serve), and do not suffer from bloating, constipation, or diarrhea.
3. "Longevity traits" are part of your personality
Some exciting research looked at the personality traits that are most commonly found in people who live long, healthy lives. This is what they possess:
- Emotional stability
- Emotional expression
- Energy and stamina
I find that my patients who are lacking in these six categories tend to have a more difficult health journey, but you can consciously cultivate all of these.
4. Your brain fog is cleared
Muddled thinking and forgetting names and words are so common today that these brain blips are considered a normal part of getting older. Not so! Brain fog is a clue that something is wrong. You have more brain cells than there are stars in the galaxy, and you need to take care of every single one. If you’re struggling with brain fog, here’s my guide to reaching mental clarity.
5. Your hormones are on point
Hormones play a major role in many crucial operating systems in your body. If your endocrine system (the system of all the organs and glands that produce your hormones) isn’t carefully balanced, you will feel it in your mood, energy, and symptoms. When your balance is off, you can suffer from adrenal fatigue, thyroid problems, and the many uncomfortable symptoms that come from estrogen and progesterone imbalances. Your doctor can test you for hormone imbalances.
6. You aren't deficient in nutrients
If you lack any of the essential nutrients your body needs to conduct its biochemical symphony your cells can’t function optimally. Your doctor can test you for common nutrient deficiencies like vitamin D, and magnesium, and imbalances between copper and zinc. Correct those and your body will thank you.
7. Methylation problems are addressed
Methylation is a biochemical highway system that keeps your brain, gut, and hormones at peak performance. But methylation impairments such as the MTHFR mutation are super common and interfere with essential processes like folate metabolism and dopamine uptake. These are not widely considered in conventional medicine, even though these mutations can have a profound impact on your health and mood. A simple genetic test can discover any methylation mutations so you can better support what your body doesn’t do very well.
8. You are no longer "hangry"
If you get irritable, weak, or shaky if you miss a meal, chances are your blood sugar is not balanced and you are familiar with the state of being “hangry” (hungry and angry). Blood sugar stability is one of the most basic and crucial aspects of optimal health. If you aren’t sure about yours, you can get a fasting blood sugar test from your doctor. Also, here is my advice on 15 signs to look out for, plus exactly what to do for better blood sugar health.
9. You have a healthy libido
Low sex drive seems to be an unfortunate but ubiquitous condition these days, and just like brain fog and fatigue, people often assume their low libido is just a “normal” part of getting older or being busy. Again, not true! Just because something is common doesn’t make it normal. If you are rarely ever “in the mood,” your doctor can do some tests and assess the underlying cause for your depressed libido.
10. Your weight doesn't fluctuate
If you’re at optimal health, your weight should stay relatively stable and be healthy for your height and build. If your weight fluctuates significantly over the course of weeks or months, you likely have a problem with hormones, inflammation, or both. Leptin resistance is another common problem for people who can’t seem to lose weight even with dieting and exercise.
11. You enjoy healthy food
Clean eating really can become a way of life and it is a transition that every successful patient of mine has to undergo. If you are truly healthy, your tastebuds will adjust and you will see healthy eating, not as a chore but as a privilege. Yes, you can actually learn to love it!
12. Unnecessary medications are a thing of the past
Many people take a lot of medications, both prescribed and over-the-counter, and oftentimes they are unnecessary. If you immediately reach for a pill bottle for even the slightest discomfort, try phasing that out for more natural remedies like deep breathing, fresh air, and a more nutrient-rich diet. I also encourage anyone on prescribed medications to have an open, honest discussion with their doctor about options. Here is a list of some common medications that I find to be overprescribed including their potential health-impacting side effects.
13. Your skin is clear
Your skin is your largest organ, and it speaks to you through its condition, so what’s it telling you? Problems like acne breakouts, psoriasis, eczema, and rashes are a sign that something’s not working well. The first think I look at when my patients have skin issues is the gut-skin connection.
14. You sit less than walking or standing
You may have heard that sitting is the new smoking, and there are good reasons to support this dramatic claim. Prolonged sitting increases your risk for a wide range of diseases, especially diabetes and heart disease, and it is also associated with a shorter lifespan. If you’ve been considering a standing desk, wait no more, or at least get up for more frequent walking breaks.
15. You don't stress often
Chronic stress affects just about every system of your body and can undermine your most puritanical health efforts. Making time for self-care, mindfulness, and other methods for stress management is essential to optimal health.
16. You sleep through the night and wake up refreshed
Just one night of poor sleep can spike inflammation levels and interfere with optimal thinking and functioning. If you are not getting eight to ten hours of high-quality, uninterrupted sleep every night, you won’t achieve optimal health. If you aren’t waking up refreshed, your sleep quality may be poor. Talk to your doctor about assessing and improving your sleep quality.
17. Simple activity doesn't wear you out
If walking up stairs, carrying groceries, or getting dressed leaves you out of breath, you are not investing enough time or attention to your physical activity. Healthy people move vigorously on a regular basis and don’t get winded doing simple activities.
18. You have an exercise routine
Speaking of fitness, most of us should be sweating about six times each week. Whether it’s a brisk walk in nature, yoga, or HIIT training, exercise increases something called BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), which regenerates brain cells and keeps you younger longer.
19. You don't crave junk foods
Intense food cravings are a sign that something isn’t working correctly. Something is off – hormones, blood sugar, stress level – and all of these can sabotage your good intentions and quest for optimal health.
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BY DR. WILL COLE
Dr. Will Cole, IFMCP, DNM, DC, leading functional medicine expert, consults people around the world via webcam and locally in Pittsburgh. He received his doctorate from Southern California University of Health Sciences and post doctorate education and training in functional medicine and clinical nutrition. He specializes in clinically researching underlying factors of chronic disease and customizing a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. Dr. Cole was named one of the top 50 functional medicine and integrative doctors in the nation and is the best selling author of Ketotarian and The Inflammation Spectrum.
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