Let’s face it, taking responsibility for your health, initially, can feel painful. It requires withdrawal from your favourite foods; time away from lounging on the couch and watching the bachelor (admit it you watch it); it often means you have to learn to pre-plan meals and perhaps adopt the habit of carrying a snack-pack full of celery (yummy) just in case hunger strikes at an inopportune time or place. Then of course, there is that social factor. It’s not uncommon for those around you to so generously provide you with ample opportunities to display that willpower you have been so actively exercising. It’s not bad enough that you have to convince your brain that you are enjoying that celery as much as your co-worker is enjoying that glazed donut they are stuffing down their face. It took a lot of self reflection to come to a place in life where being called a “rabbit” for eating salad didn’t retard my progress by making me feel a sense of shame. By the way, if you would take great offence if someone referred to you as a slightly larger, pink barn-yard animal with a snout and curly tail, then chances are that that person doesn’t appreciate being labelled as a “rabbit’ or any other barn-yard animal either–just saying.
Perhaps my all time favourite is when, while stuffing their face with that donut, one says “Well, I’d rather eat this and die happy.” A brief moment of deep panic sets in as you fear you may not have your priorities straight. Not only is Mr. Donut-Face more up-to-date with today’s important current events–like who the bachelor picked–but he has also somehow convinced you that you are going to wither down to the size of a rabbit and may die a miserable old hag! Oh, ya “I’d rather die happy” why didn’t I think of that? Well, if eating whatever your heart desires makes you happy, then who can argue with that? Oh wait… that’s right, I can!
Unless you are planning on dying in the next few minutes with that said donut in your hands, then you will not die any happier than the person who learned to say no to instant gratification. In actuality, if your goal at the end of your life is to in fact “die happy”, then you need to very carefully step away from the donut and arm yourself with a few new habits instead.
5 Ways to Die Happier
We are all aware that over-consumption of sugar is a primary factor in developing type 2 (insulin resistance) diabetes. You may also know that type 2 diabetes can rob you of many of the joys in life, for example sight or mobility. Diabetes can ultimately lead to blurred vision, nerve damage and loss of feeling in your feet, but what many of us aren’t aware of is that researchers have known for some time that there is a strong link between type 2 diabetes and dementia. The research estimates that you are 125% more likely to become demented in your later years if you have diabetes. I don’t know about you, but I would assume that it would be pretty hard to die happy if you can’t remember any of the things in life you are happy about.
The old adage “Use it or lose it” very much applies to your brain. Continually using your brain and learning new things has proven to keep your mind sharp well into your older years. Take advantage and double up by educating yourself on what it truly takes to live longer and happier starting here, with 4 more facts you didn’t know about your brain and body.
In a past post, “Say No to Crack” I explain how a high sugar diet leads to increased abdominal fat. Studies show that those with increased abdominal fat are at greater risk of developing heart disease. While I have been fortunate enough to have never had to experience watching someone die of a heart attack, I’d would say it’s probably fairly safe to assume that they didn’t die smiling. People with belly fat tend to have higher levels of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, which would indicate that not only are they no happier, but they are actually more stressed out.
The good news is that a whole-food, high fibre diet, rich in essential fatty acids can actually decrease your risk of developing heart disease.
The nutrients you get from your diet are what your brain needs to make “happy hormones” like serotonin or dopamine. Nutrient deficiencies can mean that your brain literally cannot produce the chemicals that evoke good feelings. Even one missing nutrient can pose a threat. It’s kind of like baking, you leave one thing out and the whole recipe is write-off. You may say “Can I eat a salad and then eat the donut?” The truth is…not really. Because refined foods are stripped of their nutrients, they can actually steal from your body the nutrients they need to be metabolized. Many of the nutrients missing in refined sugar–that it then loots from your body–are the exact nutrients your brain would need to make these pleasure inducing chemicals.
You can increase absorption and assimilation of nutrients by working on digestive health. Eliminating refined or processed foods; eating a variety of whole-foods; drinking plenty of water between meals; thoroughly chewing your meals; eating only when you are actually hungry (not bored, craving or overeating); and keeping a peaceful state mind at meal time, are some of the most effective ways to support the digestive system, making it easier to obtain adequate levels of nutrition for all your body’s biochemical processes.
The reason why one might initially feel happy when they eat sugar is largely because sugar causes large amounts of dopamine to be released in your brain. When large quantities are released at once–or all day long for that matter–the dopamine receptors in your brain then down-regulate. Fewer dopamine receptors means, your brain needs to release even more of this hormone than it would regularly need to, just to feel normal. The result is you feel depressed, until of course, you get your next hit. Just like any highly addictive pleasure-inducing substance, overtime you need more and more, not only to feel the same high, but simply just to feel normal.
Exercise is a healthy and effective way of making sure your brain releases safe levels of these pleasure-inducing endorphins. In addition, physical exercise provides your brain with the neurochemistry that adds new neurons in the area of your brain that is paramount to your memory and attention–which can help you with #1 and #5 ways to die happier.
In order to get up off the couch and want to exercise, you need motivation. How does one feel motivated? Oh ya, that would be dopamine again. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that regulates motivation. So in other words, no dopamine = no motivation. This is why depressed individuals tend to have little desire to even get up out of bed in the morning. To add fuel to the fire, there are two sides to your prefrontal cortex in the brain (right and left). Recent studies have shown that people who are generally enthusiastic about life and have a positive outlook, also tend to have increased activity in the left prefrontal cortex–this area of the brain is activated when we are focused and goal oriented. On the flip side, those who lean towards a depressive state, or heightened anxiety, have increased activity in the right prefrontal cortex–which is the area responsible for daydreaming and ruminating. Lack of motivation to do anything, makes it highly likely that you are not spending much time using the left prefrontal cortex and spending too much time using the right prefrontal cortex, exasperating and already miserable state.
Luckily, there is something that can be done about this. It has be proven, that you can change your emotional set point by simply making an effort to practice activities that require presence and focused attention. You can simply start by writing down your goals, and then taking action steps towards them. It makes it much less of an uphill battle if you do what truly inspires you. Overtime, this practice rewires your brain and eventually makes it easier to adopt the new habit of acting with purpose, thus increasing activity in the left PFC, leading to a generally more positive outlook and passion for life.
So there you have it, when it comes to your health, ignorance is not bliss. I’m no human happy calculator, but more sickness, less memory, more belly fat, more stress, less motivation and purpose doesn’t add up to more happiness to me.
I do realize that this was a long post, as it also took a lot of time and effort to write it, but I did it because I think there is no worse fate than being trapped in a miserable body. If you would agree, then try implementing these 5 things, and join me in my quest to die happy.
Sending love and happy vibes from Sydney.