The Science Behind Making Us Live Healthier, Happier Lives

By Jackie Edwards

When it comes to health and happiness, science has one clear conclusion to be drawn: these qualities are intricately linked to the extent that it is difficult for one to exist without the other. A review by researchers at the University of Illinois found “clear and compelling evidence” that happy people tend to have longer lifespans and enjoy better health, than their unhappy counterparts.  The steps to physical health are not always the same ones leading to mental health. However, often, the two roads overlap and science has many fascinating findings on the matter.

How can Good Health be Defined?

Bloomberg’s Healthiest Country Index (which places Spain, Italy, Iceland, Japan, and Switzerland in the top five) equates good health with having a long lifespan and good access to general and specialist health care. While each country differs with respect to health care, one aspect all can work to improve is diet. Although there are many diets associated with good health, recent scientific studies have focused on one in particular: the Mediterranean Diet.

What Stops Us from Living Longer?

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for Americans; it causes one out of every four deaths in the United States, according to the CDC. Cancer is the second leading cause of death, and both can be prevented to a large extent by making the right lifestyle choices. Diet and remaining physically active are two of the biggest lifestyle choices that promote health and happiness.

Recent Findings on the Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet

A recent study by R Estruch et al, published in The New England Journal of Medicine, has found that to lower cardiovascular risk, the Mediterranean diet is the way to go. Comprising lean proteins, fruits and vegetables, pulses and cereals, and healthy Omega-3 essential fatty acids, it is actually more conducive to good cardiovascular health than low-fat diets. It can also help keep various cancers at bay. Researchers at the Ohio State University found, for instance, that a compound in certain plant foods ( apigenin) can stop breast cancer cells from surviving. Apigenin, found in abundance in celery, parsley, and chamomile tea, binds with around 160 different proteins in the body. In contrast, most pharmaceutical medications only have the ability to target a single molecule!

Findings on the Gut-Brain Connection

The Mediterranean diet does more than battle inflammation and provide the body with vitamins, nutrients, antioxidants, and amino acids. It also promotes good gut health, which recent scientific findings have identified as key to good physical and mental health. In one study published in Nature Microbiology, scientists found, for instance, that people who were depressed tended to have lower levels of two helpful bacteria in their gut (coproccocus and dialister). Another study, meanwhile, has found that people can grow healthy gut bacteria by consuming a varied, Mediterranean-style diet, which is rich in fiber. The latter is vital because it forms a kind of ‘bed’ or ‘scaffolding’ that is required for many healthful bacteria to grow.

Battling the Sedentary Lifestyle

here are countless studies on the importance of exercise for everything from cardiovascular health to good mental health. One University of Iowa study showed, for instance, that a single workout session can boost cognition and memory in some older people. To test their hypothesis, scientists asked participants aged 60 to 80 to take part in physical exercise. During the study, scientists measured aspects like memory (via tests) and brain scans. They were surprised to find that just one day of exercise already resulted in better cognitive and memory tests.

A Proactive Approach to Stress

Chronic stress is linked to Type 2 diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. Scientific studies have shown that one of the best ways to battle stress naturally is through holistic activities like yoga, mindfulness meditation, and Tai Chi. In a 2018 study, scientists recruited 14 people with anxiety. After just one mindfulness meditation session, measurements like heart rate, blood pressure, and arterial pressure were significantly improved and anxiety symptoms were reduced. The results are a powerful testimony to the ability of controlled breathing and awareness of one’s thoughts to affect various bodily systems.

The Role of Spirituality

Scientists have also honed in on spiritual matters to elicit their effect on mental health and wellbeing. In one study, they found that group worship was a unique activity in terms of its ability to promote long-term happiness. It beat fundraising and other charitable pursuits, owing to aspects such as the companionship, support, and meaning it can bring. 

Science has been a big help to the health sector, enlightening the way of health professionals and patients when it comes to achieving specific improvements in areas such as heart health, cancer prevention, and gut health. In many ways, researchers have found that physical and mental health overlap. This is true, for instance, in the studies on the benefits of physical activity, and holistic activities –  both of which benefit the body and mind. Health and happiness are a more attainable goal than ever, now that we know that it can be more easily achieved through a combination of a healthy diet, exercise, and proactive stress reduction.

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