For better health, simple elements can have a big impact

It can feel overwhelming trying to control all aspects of healthy living, such as eating well, getting enough sleep, coping with stress and exercising enough. However, Mayo Clinic Healthcare's Safia Debar, MBBS, explains that paying some extra attention to just one aspect of your health may improve other aspects.

Dr Debar, an expert in tailored medical exams, explains that by pulling any one "lever," or foundational element, of health, you can have a big impact on the other elements.

She says that our brains are usually in one of two states. Either it's in "rest, repair and relaxation," during which, if you're generally healthy, your body is functioning optimally, or it's in a state of stress. During this state, the body acts as if it's handling perceived threats. It puts aside other physical needs.

"Our brain does not distinguish," Dr Debar says. "The perception of threat and real threat are the same, so once that button is pressed, the same cascade ensues."

Stress can impact the other areas of good health, including eating, sleeping and exercising. For example, when the brain experiences stress, it focuses on the short term, wanting to feel better immediately. So when we feel stress, it becomes common to skip exercising and crave sugary and/or fatty foods. That's the brain telling the body it needs immediate energy, Dr Debar says.

"The brain wants to feel better right now, so it's not going to think about going to exercise and then feeling better afterward," she says. "It's all intertwined."

Each of the aspects of good health affects the others in similar ways. To give yourself a starting place to focus on, consider:

  • How are you sleeping? If not well, consider starting here. You may try an earlier bedtime, stop drinking caffeine earlier in the day or consider changing another piece of your sleep routine, Dr Debar says.
  • How does your digestive system feel? Optimizing your nutrition may help with some digestive problems, Dr Debar says.
  • What kind of social support do you have? That can affect mood, she says.
  • Are you feeling stressed? Try to discover the sources of your stress. For example, maybe checking work email at bedtime generates stress. Think about how to change those parts of your daily routine that add stress, Dr Debar says.
  • Are you exercising enough? If the answer no, try to find ways to incorporate more movement into your day, she says.

"By helping your gut, that might be enough for you, or helping your sleep, that might be enough for you," Dr Debar says. "It's those simple foundational elements that can have a huge impact. Be intentional about certain things."

Pulling these levers of health ourselves can feel empowering, she says.

"It's not, 'A doctor said I had to lose weight and sleep better and reduce my stress.' When you understand the foundations of health, it then doesn't become about you having low self-control, or procrastinating or not being disciplined," Dr Debar says. "Instead, how do we take what you have in your life and embed these practices in it?"

Media contact: Sharon Theimer, Mayo Clinic Communications,