Stress

7 'Pills' for Health, Long Life, and Happiness

Mind, body, and spirit benefit from these 7 simple practices.

Posted Apr 30, 2019

Image by Pxhere, CCO.
Source: Image by Pxhere, CCO.

These “Pills” Are Pillars of Your Health

Do you ever wish you could just take a few pills and suddenly blossom into your best health? You can!

Well, okay, these “pills” aren’t exactly the kind that you swallow in a gulp, and that’s that. They are practices rather than, say, a vitamin. Still, all these recommendations are easy to follow and can fit snugly into your day. Moreover, they are completely natural and have zero to few negative side effects. And these seven pills are not fads: Overwhelming amounts of scientific research tell us that these pills are—forgive the pun—pillars of human health.  

The 7 pills are not “bitter pills,” the distasteful but necessary things or people that we sometimes have to tolerate in our lives. These pills go down easy, especially if you creatively adapt them to your own needs.

Some of these pills will not surprise you. But are you aware of numbers 1, 4, 5, and 7 below? Check out all seven, and be sure to see proposed Pill #8 as well: Some experts think this one might be the most important of all. It is certainly the most controversial.

1. The Nature Pill

Numerous studies have demonstrated that a “Nature Pill," a.k.a., "Vitamin N," such as hiking in a natural area or strolling briefly outside, is an excellent stress reliever. While some stress motivates you to meet the challenges of life, excess stress causes the body to produce the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol is strongly linked to health problems such as heart disease, depression, sleep issues, dementia, and many more. 

Smallest Dose: Even tiny doses of nature—such as having green plants in your office or looking out the window at the trees—seem to cause a measurable drop in cortisol, according to these studies.

Minimum Dose: A recent study found that a “dose” of nature of only 20 minutes was enough to lower cortisol to a healthier level. In this study, participants decided for themselves what kind of experience made them feel that they’d been in contact with nature. Then, using saliva samples to check cortisol, researchers found that participants who took a 20-minute Nature Pill lowered their cortisol levels significantly regardless of whether they sat or moved about in a natural area. 

Ideal Dose: Researchers discovered that 30 minutes immersed in nature was even better than 20 for lowering cortisol levels; after that, benefits continued but were negligible.

(Note: The fabulous phrase “nature pill” is from the research described here.)

2. The Exercise Pill

This amazing pill can…(take a deep breath--a long list is coming)…maintain muscle strength, prevent lower back pain, boost the immune system, strengthen bones, elevate mood, ease mild depression, lower blood pressure, reduce diabetes risk, strengthen bones, promote healthier brain functioning, keep you at a healthy weight, and even reverse some aspects of aging, among countless other benefits. Every day amazing new discoveries about the health power of exercise attest to the potency of this pill.

You may worry that a regular exercise regimen is just too hard for you right now. No problem! Exercise pills come in small, medium, and large, and almost any dose is helpful. 

Minimum Dose:  Many research studies have come to the same conclusion:  Even small amounts of exercise—aka, “exercise snacks”—can have powerful positive effects on mind and body.  The trick seems to be to move around for about 5 minutes every hour; this small “bite” of exercise can reduce your risk of “sitting diseases” such as diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and some cancers. (I am fascinated by small changes that can spark big differences in health and wrote a blog on the fun and value of exercise snacking here.)

Ideal Dose:  For moderate exercisers, the World Health Organization recommends 150 minutes of exercise per week (say, 30 minutes/day, 5 days/week) for adults.  Your ideal dose will depend on your exercise goals.  If your goal is to run a marathon, you will need a large dose of exercise.

Note: The Nature Pill and the Exercise Pill make beautiful health music together.

3. The Healthy-Food Pill

A Mediterranean diet has been linked in research to better brain health, reduced risk of heart attacks, strokes, cancer, and Alzheimer’s, as well as reduced mortality overall. To follow this healthy eating plan, eat mostly fruits, vegetables and other plant-based foods such as legumes, nuts, and whole grains; reduce use of saturated fats like butter and replace them with healthy fats like canola and olive oil; limit added sugars; use herbs instead of salt; eat moderate amounts of chicken and fish; and limit red meat. And don’t forget the tea and coffee: They, too, seem to promote better brainpower.    

I like the Mediterranean eating plan because no foods are forbidden. You just have to reduce your intake of unhealthy foods. This is difficult but possible.

Disease-reversing dose: Those who suffer from certain chronic diseases such as heart disease or diabetes may want to follow the Ornish diet. This plant-based diet, along with exercise, stress management, and social support, has been shown in many studies to reverse even intractable conditions such as severe coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, elevated blood pressure, high cholesterol, and obesity.

4. The Stress-Management Pill

Excess stress and chronic stress can cause multiple problems due to the impact of the stress hormone cortisol on your body.  For instance, stress can raise your risk of heart problems as shown in a recent study from Sweden (reported here). Stress also can cause mental health problems, fatigue, and inflammation. 

Everyone needs a daily stress reduction technique.  Possibilities include some combination of the following:  deep breathing, yoga, meditation, exercise, reframing, or the Nature Pill. 

Part of the harm of stress comes from our perception that stress is overwhelming. So reframing the issues that you face can be an essential quick-fix solution. “Reframing” can be as simple as telling yourself that you face a “challenge,” not a “problem.” In addition, learning to pause in the midst of conflict or stressful situations to take a few deep breaths can help you make better decisions, protect your most important relationships, and protect your health by reducing cortisol. 

A major superpower of stress reduction techniques is that they lower blood pressure. In fact, one study found that meditation helped 40 out of 60 patients lower their blood pressure enough to reduce some medications, as reported here by NPR. 

Smallest dose: One deep breath. Amazingly, just one deep breath can turn down your flight-or-fight response and give you an ounce more of calm.

Recommended minimum dose: Just 10 minutes of stress reduction per day is helpful, according to the Harvard Health Letter

Creativity and problem-solving dose: Take a 20-minute break. During the break, your brain will release chemicals that counter the stress response, enabling you to shift into a more creative mode of thinking, as described more fully in this blog.

5. The Relationships Pill

In our individualistic society, we often forget the importance of social support.  But countless studies have shown that good relationships promote health, happiness, and longevity, and reduce the incidence of depression, loneliness, and early death.  In one such study, the Harvard Study of Adult Development, over 700 men were followed from 1938 to the present (about 60 remain from the original 724).  Researchers found a strong association between close relationships, happiness, and health.

Why? Safe and supportive social relationships help calm our stress-response system, according to an article by Karin Evan here.  Lower levels of stress hormones (cortisol again) mean less wear and tear on the brain and body, longer life, and more joy in daily living.

Dose: May vary with your personality type. The general idea is: Find good people, stay connected with them, and join support groups. Maintain your social safety net by keeping up with friends, colleagues, and relatives, and by mending frayed relationships when you can.

6. The Sleep Pill

Shakespeare was right; sleep does knit up the “raveled sleeve of care.” But lack of sleep increases cortisol, that problematic stress hormone mentioned several times above. It also leads to unhealthy inflammation, and, of course, contributes to physical and mental fatigue. In general, longer sleep duration is associated with greater longevity, as reported in detail here.  Specifically, six hours of sleep or less is linked to shorter telomeres (those caps on your chromosomes that protect them from deteriorating), while nine hours of sleep is associated with longer telomeres.

Dose: Most health professionals recommend that adults get 7-9 hours of sleep each night.

7. The Gratitude Pill

Gratitude, along with its cousins, happiness, and purpose, can provide a powerful infusion of emotional health for most people. Numerous studies suggest that a “gratitude practice,” such as the iconic “Three Good Things” exercise, is a powerful contributor to happiness. The exercise is simple: For five minutes at the end of the day, think or write about three good things that happened to you and whether those good things were due to luck or to something you did.  Doing this exercise for just one week raised participants’ happiness levels for six months. Six months! The “gratitude attitude” has been linked in research to other positive emotions, such as joy, enthusiasm, and optimism, not just to happiness, and even seems to boost greater self-control.

Minimum Dose: Five minutes. Five minutes of a gratitude practice daily for just one week can boost your happiness level for six months...and maybe get you into a healthy habit that lasts for a lifetime.

(For more on the keystone habits of gratitude and exercise, click here.) 

The Eighth Pill: Healthcare for All?

With exceptions, the 7 practices above are within the control of most people.  It’s wonderful that we can choose to prevent certain diseases or enhance our health and vitality with such simple activities. 

But even though we may work hard at keeping fit and healthy, our genes, bad luck, and the aging process can trip up our efforts.  In addition, people may be in the pink of good health and still become victims of accidents, diseases, and personal tragedies. It is at such times that we may realize that excellent health is not just a matter of individual effort but of protective social resources.

That’s why we need an eighth pill for health and happiness—a Healthcare-for-All Pill. Without it, many people cannot hope to live a long, fulfilling, and happy life, because they must scramble for basic medical and dental necessities, often in times of personal crisis and confusion. Moreover, those without health insurance live a stressful life, lacking a basic pillar of psychological safety—a healthcare safety net. 

The United States does not score near the top in global surveys of longevity, health, and happiness. While these surveys must be taken with grains of salt and a little perspective, in general, they tell a disturbing story of American inadequacy in these areas. To summarize: In longevity, the United States ranks 31 in a 2015 World Health Organization survey. In the 2018 United Nations World Happiness Report, the U.S. ranks 18. On the Bloomberg Global Health Index of 2019, the U.S. does not even make the top 25. 

The trends are not positive, but they could be reversed with a sustained national effort. 

The Missing Pill

Did I miss anything?  If you have an idea for a pill that everyone needs to take for their best physical and mental health, write it in the "Comments" area below.

Note: This blog provides general health information. For specific health recommendations, consult your health care provider or see a mental health professional.

© Meg Selig, 2019.  For permissions, click here.