I feel pretty safe in saying literally no one loves being sick, probably because being sick is the absolute worst. If you’re anything like my husband, as soon as the sniffles hit you’ll make about 52 billion comments about feeling “like death” and then do just about anything to nip it in the bud and get back to being healthy. If Jay Leno were to hit the streets for a “Jay-walking” segment asking “how do I not get sick”, I’m pretty sure most people could come up with washing your hands, cover your mouth when you cough, and don’t drink the water in Mexico. But what if I told you there is more to being healthy than just not being sick?
The World Health Organization (WHO) knows a thing or two (or three) about being healthy and tells us health is “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” Um… how many of us can say we are currently in a COMPLETE state of physical, mental, and social well-being? I mean, I’ll speak for myself and I’d be first in line to buy a one-way ticket on that train. Also I’m imagining “health” as some place sunny and warm where the dishes are always washed and there’s no such thing as a bad hair day.
In the last couple decades of the 19th century, healthcare was turned on its head by Germ Theory. Germ Theory is the concept that microscopic organisms can invade and infect the body causing specific diseases and prompted the priority placed on handwashing, hygiene, and public sanitation. As a result of these oh-so-simple preventative measures, infectious diseases decreased dramatically in the 20th century. And I think we can all take a moment and give thanks that the practice of tossing sewage into the streets was nixed. However, just as infections like smallpox, cholera, and influenza were on the relative decline, we started seeing more and more people with chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
The fact of the matter is every person is in a dynamic relationship with his or her environment and factors in that environment affect our well-being. These health-affecting environmental factors can be technological or natural, including physical agents (temperature, electromagnetic rays, radiation), chemicals (cleaning products, heavy metals, carbon monoxide, pesticides), or biological in origin (bacteria, insects, venoms, viruses). If you want to be healthy as the WHO describes, it’s not enough to ONLY wash your hands and drink bottled water in Mexico. Those things are important but you also have to consider things in your everyday environment like air quality and cleaning supplies. This holistic approach to health and causes of disease is dubbed environmental medicine and like Germ Theory, can be a game changer in public health and prevention, especially when it comes to chronic disease.
If you’ve paid attention to popular media, scrolled through Instagram, or ever eaten avocado on toast, you’ve probably noticed a cultural shift towards the “healthy lifestyle.” Words like organic and non-toxic are everywhere and industries like food and beauty are evolving with “all natural” or “green” lines. Despite an American fetish with all things organic, awareness of the risks associated with environmental hazards is generally lacking. It can be hard to slog through all the often conflicting information out there and let’s be honest, ain’t nobody got time for that.
Some studies estimate that 24–33% of disease in the ENTIRE WORLD is attributable to environmental factors, and the environment plays a role in nearly 85% of ALL disease. Say wha?! The costs of environmental effects on health are more than the GDP of some small countries. One study estimates that environmental pollutants result in annual costs of nearly $55 billion. That is a lot of sick people and a lot of moolah.
Health experts have identified 11 core areas of environmental health: air, water, radiation, food safety, emergency preparedness, healthy housing, infectious disease and control, toxicology, injury prevention, waste and sanitation, and weather and climate change. The awesome thing about environmental health is as a consumer, you have a lot of power over exposure and can really take control of your environmental health by being savvy about the products you choose. Small changes in any of these 11 areas can yield healthy results in both the short and long term.
What you can do about it
If you want to get on board the health train and begin creating an environment geared toward health, the best place to start is where you spend the most time: at home. There are 3 key areas you can get started on right away to head in the right direction:
- One of the best things you can do is start reading your food labels. Companies are pretty savvy at marketing and designing products to get you interested so you need to be just as savvy at determining if a product is right for you. The ingredient list is key. The fewer and more pronounceable ingredients the better. Ideally, I like to see less than five ingredients, most or all of which you could have grown in your backyard. Definitely avoid things like artificial sweeteners, nitrites/nitrates, high fructose corn syrup, and hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils.
- Shopping the perimeter of the store is a great way to focus on whole foods and making sure you get you daily dose of fruits and veggies. Using the “Dirty dozen and Clean 15” as a guide can help you make smart choices about which foods you may want to splurge on for organic and which foods it probably doesn’t matter quite as much. They even have an app for handy access while you shop. Decreasing your intake of pesticide residues can be helpful all around but especially in people with hormonal disorders like diabetes, fertility issues, and thyroid conditions.
- Water is essential to health and most of us aren’t drinking enough. Unfortunately, our water sources are often not as clean as we would like. A great resource to check out your local water quality is the Environmental Working Group’s National Tap Water Database. When I put in my information I found at least seven contaminants above healthy levels including hexavalent chromium which is the chemical made famous by the movie Erin Brockovich. Drinking filtered or purified water can go a long way to making your water, and therefore you, healthier. Using the information you learned from the database will help you choose a water filter that will work best for your needs. Even a simple Brita or Pur filter pitcher you can stash in your fridge is a step in the right direction.
- Some of the popular products you use every day like cleaning supplies or makeup likely have toxic chemicals in them that aren’t doing you any favors. As you use up your current supplies you can start to replace them with more health-friendly options. As luck would have it the Environmental Working Group is a great resource for this as well. They have guides for cosmetics and cleaning supplies that will help you assess your current products from mascara to laundry detergent and choose different products if you need to. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll be able to spot problem ingredients like phthalates and fragrance in a flash and be well on your way to a healthier environment.
World Health Organization: definition of health. Geneva: WHO; 1948. Constitution of WHO
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