The 7 Pillars of Health: The Keys to Lifelong Wellness, Happiness and Longevity
BY TERENCE CARFRAE
photo: dev dodia
Imagine a 29-year-old woman named Emma. She has a stressful job and places great expectations on herself to excel at her work and to maintain her figure. Emma works hard at looking good—she regularly works out, doing high-impact classes and weight training. Her diet is strict, and she often eats on the go as her days are full. In the evenings to wind down she has a glass of wine and spends time surfing social media, often resulting in a later bedtime and less sleep than she’d like.
Emma is a typical client that I work with. Her way of living is a product of our current cultural norms and expectations. Her world is clearly not the same as the one her ancestors inhabited. Unfortunately for all of us, health is no longer something that can be guaranteed or relied upon, especially in the face of the increasing environmental and cultural stressors such as pollution, soil depletion, long work hours, economic hardship and markedly reduced daily movement. To experience vitality in the Western world, we must dedicate ourselves to a practice of inner health, not just aiming to look good on the outside but to feel good on the inside as well.
Unfortunately, many of the examples we see of fit and svelte bodies are inhabited by people who look terrific yet feel terrible. It is evident to many of us working in the health and wellness field that we need to look beyond simplified models of nutrition and exercise to guide people to a state of actual vitality. There is a need for a model that looks beyond simple measures of body shape and cardiovascular function and penetrates deeper into true health at the most fundamental levels. A model that is simple and easy to understand yet respects the incredible complexity of us as unique people with unique needs, minds, and bodies.
The Seven Pillars Model of Health and Wellness
The Seven Pillars of Health model arose from my decades of studies in the field of holistic health. I wanted to find a synthesis between the incredibly wise and effective traditions from China and India that form the basis of Eastern medicine as well as the scientific method of the West. It felt essential for me to view all things through the dual lenses of ancestral origins and the latest breakthroughs in health science, asking the question of, “Where are we going?”
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Pillar 1: The Mind and Emotions
To have a holistic view of health, we must consider the multi-dimensional nature of human beings. We are more than pumps, pipes, bones, and muscles. Our thoughts and feelings are massively impactful on our physical body and overall health. This inner world of our beliefs and emotions largely directs our outer world of the body and its actions. Considering this perspective, it is no coincidence that we placed this pillar first among the seven Pillars of Health.
Our mind is the home of our thoughts and, in turn, our beliefs. A thought that is repeated often enough and then held as true becomes a belief. In the space of our mind, we hold all the information about who we are…and who we are not. Basically, our constructed personality finds itself rooted in our mind. If we took away your mind, who would you be? Your personality is the aspect of you that chooses to identify with a set of beliefs: a specific religion, race, a health practice, or philosophy, etc. And if you are still alive, then you have been served relatively well by these beliefs. The question to ask though is: Are the beliefs you hold serving your health and vitality in a way that is ever more alive and exuberant?
All of our behaviors stem from choices that we make from the ground of our beliefs—our mind. These choices can readily propel our bodies deeply into states of distress and disease, or into states of blissfulness and health. The choices of where we live and who we live with, our vocations and avocations, our communities, our religions and diet, our exercise and sleep habits, are all a product of our mind’s beliefs and emotional proclivities. A person choosing to smoke cigarettes, drink excessively, never exercise, and only sleep a few hours each day is going to have a very different experience of health than someone who chooses not to do these things.
When a belief we hold to be true is reinforced or challenged, a corresponding emotional charge is created as a result. We may feel offended or insulted by a contrasting judgment, or feel validated and contented with an affirming judgment. Either way, out of defiance or loyalty to the ideas we hold, we experience an emotional charge—often anger or happiness—an emotional state that we ourselves must be responsible for, as we created it within ourselves based on our beliefs.
Our emotions are powerful influencers of our health. They are very intimately linked to our hormonal system and autonomic nervous systems; and since these two regulatory systems impact literally every physiological function of the body, including our brain health, it is imperative that we get a handle on our emotional state.
Any emotional charge is a clear signpost pointing us toward an underlying belief. When you experience a strong emotion such as anger, for example, try noticing what the internal source of the anger is. Rather than externalizing the responsibility, ask “What belief of mine is being challenged and why does this cause me to generate an emotion of anger?”
Another way to ask this is “What have I assumed to be true, and why is this ‘truth’ being defended by my ego?” This is fundamental in freeing oneself from the tyranny of limiting beliefs. When we can appreciate this emotional charge as the gateway into our deeper self, then we can see the event that triggered it as simply the messenger carrying a sacred message.
The essence of everything I am explaining regarding this first Pillar of Health is this: Thoughts that are repeated often enough become beliefs. Beliefs create emotions. Emotions like fear, anger, or grief can inhibit our normal functioning and create an internal environment conducive to the development of pain, disease, and great suffering. And, vice versa, positive emotions tend to support health and wellness on many levels.
By attending to these body messages of pain and disease and by understanding the roots of suffering, we can unwind this process. Is there an emotional root to the pain, suffering, or disease? (Hint: if you are unsure, answer “yes” here). What is the belief that is generating the emotion? What ideas or thoughts are creating and holding the beliefs in place? And the great final question is: In what way does this serve you?
Key Takeaways on How the Mind and Emotions Influence Your Health
+ Emotions strongly influence your physiology and brain health.
+ Your bodily aches and discomfort are a gateway into understanding your deeper emotions and beliefs.
+ Changing your beliefs can change your health and your life.
Pillar 2: Breathing
If we were to rate the importance of the Seven Pillars of Health on the frequency that they are present in our life, it is understandable that thoughts would be in first place, with around 70,000 thoughts arriving in our mind each day. We may consider respiration in second place, with around 26,000 breaths entering and leaving our body every day. The quality of the air you breathe and the way you breathe are very much a pathway to either vitality or disease.
Breathing clean air is such an obvious recommendation that it is almost ridiculous to mention as one of the Pillars of Health, and yet it is actually quite challenging to accomplish for most of us. The outside air in urban environments is often polluted with countless different chemicals, and sadly our indoor air is almost always worse with off-gassing from our carpets, furniture, paint, and cleaning products. Unless you have an effective air filtration system indoors, it is always best to keep windows open and allow air to circulate; this also includes your car, office, and any other contained environment. If you live where air pollution is bad, it may be useful to consider moving. I wouldn’t recommend that a fish keep swimming in a polluted pond if it had the option to relocate to a clean one. [Editor’s note: for more info on improving your indoor air quality, see our previous articles here and here.]
The Three Keys to Breath
Looking at breathing from the physiological perspective, there are three primary considerations for ideal respiration for optimal health and vitality:
+ Breathing through our nose (which is ideal) rather than through our mouth
+ Breathing with the diaphragm; that is, breathing into our abdomen, stomach, and intestinal area rather than our upper chest
+ The rate we breathe (slower is ideal)
If we breathe incorrectly, our autonomic nervous system, our bodies’ oxygen/carbon dioxide balance, our cranial shape, our brain health, and our posture will be negatively impacted as a result of a dysfunction in any of these three aspects. These changes will manifest in tight muscles, painful or deteriorating joints, under-functioning organs, poor posture, and unhealthy neural (brain and nervous system) tissue. In fact, I cannot think of any physical attribute of the human body that is not impacted—either directly or indirectly—by poor breathing—and consequently improved by proper breathing—it’s all a matter of degree.
The more you breathe through your mouth, the more you will suffer from poor dental health and encourage the above symptoms. The more you breathe in your chest rather than your abdomen and intestinal area, the poorer your digestion and detoxification will be. The faster you breathe, the greater the imbalance in your autonomic nervous system will be. Let’s take a deeper look at how to dial in this Pillar of Health.
Breathing through Your Nose
The desire of the body for oxygen to sustain life is incredibly high. A person deprived of air will fight tooth and nail to regain airflow, even it is means severing a limb. The impulse for breath is so high that even a slight restriction to airflow will force the body to adapt. People who are unable to breathe through their nose due to obstruction or chronic congestion are forced to breathe exclusively through their mouth. Chronic mouth breathing is very damaging to many aspects of our physiology and especially to our body alignment.
An interesting study on posture and nasal breathing was done on rhesus monkeys. The monkey’s nasal passages were blocked to force mouth breathing and, within moments, all monkeys jutted their head forward and rounded their upper back. This allowed for an opening in their pharynx to promote easier flow of air into the lungs. In this instance, the monkey’s entire bodily posture was compromised to facilitate easeful breathing. This postural distortion left unchecked would inevitably result in increasing the likelihood of pain and dysfunction, reducing health and wellness, and altering the physiology of the monkey over time.
Breathing with Your Diaphragm
When people regularly engage in inverted breathing (i.e., the chest-breathing pattern), a consistent pattern of painful trigger points, neck tension, and poor postural alignment of the spine and shoulder complex inevitably develop as the body struggles to adjust to this suboptimal form of breathing. Furthermore, the lack of downward pressure on the abdominal cavity by the diaphragm deprives the organs contained therein of the regular pumping they need to receive for optimal health. This often leads to gastrointestinal distress arising from increased susceptibility to infection, poor digestive mechanics, and stagnation of vital fluids, as well as functional weakness in the muscles that support the low back and pelvis.
Chronic over-breathing, or hyperventilation syndrome’s main effect, results in altered concentrations of oxygen and carbon dioxide. This is epidemic in industrialized cultures due to our stress levels and has far-reaching and dramatic effects on our physiology and health. In our current culture of efficiency and fast-paced living, it is not more oxygen but the retraining of our tolerance for CO2 that we need. Adequate CO2 is vital to allow for ideal autonomic nervous system balance and healthy cellular metabolism—and most of us are starving for it.
Aiming to breathe around six to eight breaths per minute by practicing slow, reduced-volume breathing is one of the most impactful health strategies one can employ. Focusing on a slow exhalation rather than inhalation is a great strategy for attaining this. Another useful technique is to exclusively nose breathe while exercising. This will encourage you to develop a greater tolerance for CO2 and improve the ease of airflow in through your nostrils at the same time.
The beauty of healthy, conscious breathing (slow, nasal breathing with full abdominal expansion), is that you can control the stimulation or relaxation of your nervous system to your benefit. This back-door access into your nervous system is invaluable for health restoration and vitality enhancement. Aspects of our health that many of us believe are completely beyond our control like heart rate, blood pressure, immune function, and thermoregulation can be influenced consciously, through the breath, as I have described herein.
In summary, our breathing—the second Pillar of Health—is a potent access point into our health. By breathing predominantly through the nose and into the abdomen, you will experience an incredible spectrum of health benefits. Add to this the slow regulation of your breathing rate (six to eight breaths a minute), perhaps incorporating an intentional energetic breathing practice, and you will have an elixir of tremendous power for youthful vitality.
Tips to Improve Your Breathing
+ Breathe clean air. When indoors, open windows to circulate fresh air.
+ Breathe through the nose as much as possible. If you have some obstruction, then it is advisable to have it assessed and corrected.
+ Breathe deeply into the abdomen. Use the diaphragm muscle as your primary breathing muscle.
+ Breathe slowly. Six to eight breaths a minute at rest is a worthy goal.
Pillar #3: Hydration
High on the list of vital nutrients for the body is water. With around 60% or more of our body being made of water, we are inexorably tied to water as a source for our continued health and vitality. For this reason proper hydration is the third Pillar of Health.
All body systems are compromised by dehydration. Even mild dehydration will show significant reduction in the body’s ability to function effectively. Dark urine and dry mouth are often touted as early signs of dehydration; however, these markers are signs that the body has already made strong adaptive changes due to lowered water levels, and urgent rehydration is needed.
The sign of thirst, which is often muted in many people, is the ideal marker for the body’s need for more water. In the chronically dehydrated, regaining the sensitivity to changes in internal hydration levels is a necessary first step to effective hydration self-management. The difficulty is compounded by the time it can take to fully rehydrate the body at the cellular level. This process may take up to a week or more of committed use of hydrating agents like fresh water and fresh fruit and vegetable juices, coupled with the avoidance of dehydrating agents like soda, sugary drinks, coffee, and alcohol of any type to be able to fully regain optimal water levels in all systems of the body.
Dehydration and mineral depletion go hand in hand. Using water that has an adequate dissolved mineral content is key (think: spring water) to the rehydrating process. If the water is filtered instead of spring water, adding high-quality salt or liquid mineral supplements may be useful to ensure the water is optimally utilized in the body.
Some signs that you may need to increase your uptake of mineralized water include:
+ Sugar cravings
+ Salt cravings
+ Feeling the need to drink a lot of water at one time
+ Sleep issues; falling asleep, waking in the night or early in the morning
+ Tension, nervousness, anxiety, or panic
Drinking a couple of glasses of high-quality spring or filtered water upon waking each morning is a practice that I recommend to all my clients to establish and maintain this Pillar of Health. This alleviates the water loss during the night, especially for mouth breathers. Also, 20 minutes prior to meals, a glass or two of water can help to stimulate the digestive processes and ensure adequate fluids are on hand to allow for saliva and stomach acid to do their work. Furthermore, it may be necessary to sip water regularly throughout the day to re-establish and maintain adequate cellular hydration.
A further step for proper hydration is to avoid any foods, drinks, or substances that are dehydrating. Alcohol, coffee and caffeine, sugary beverages, and sodium-rich foods will all act to squeeze the water from your body. A high-protein diet, dried or dehydrated foods, and excessive high-fiber vegetables will all draw fluids from the body into the intestinal tract to aid in their processing. Also, many medications and drugs can be dehydrating, as can exposure to toxic chemicals, poisons, and medications and supplements that require water as a carrier in the detoxification process.
Ways to Improve Your Hydration
+ Drink two glasses of water each day upon rising.
+ It can take time to rehydrate at the cellular level. Commit to maintaining good hydration practices every day.
+ Your water should be clear of toxins and have a good dissolved mineral content.
+ Learning to hear your body’s signals of dehydration is an essential skill.
Pillar #4: Food and Eating
This Pillar of Health is the one that I often see health-minded people focus on exclusively, as if it alone is the key to good health. For good reason, too; I have seen some of the most dramatic shifts in health and vitality through modification of food choices and eating behaviors. On the flipside, it has also been the pillar that many people get overly attached to and lose themselves in the minutiae of, neglecting many of the other Pillar of Health and Wellness that I have outlined in this article.
Beyond the Basics: Eating Hygiene
The basic rules here are simple: Eat high-quality, ideally organic, unprocessed food and intuitively listen to your body’s needs.
Obviously, the foods that we eat are incredibly important to our nutrition; however, the way in which we eat them is perhaps even more so. “Eating hygiene” is the term used to encompass the process of taking food into our body. The preparation of our mind, and hence our digestive organs, is incredibly important to the successful digestion and assimilation of the nutrients we ingest. Ensuring that our senses are fully engaged in the discovery of the food items that are placed into our visual, olfactory, and gustatory presence allows our gut and our cells to know what is in store for them.
Creating a quiet environment without distraction to sit or lounge, slowly eating your food, chewing it thoroughly, and focusing on the sensations that the food offers are just as important for health and proper digestion as the actual nutritional content of the food itself. Even with the most nutrient-dense diet, many people are deprived of these nutrients because they simply do not fully digest their food, and therefore cannot properly assimilate the nutrients due to how they are eating. Someone wolfing down their food while watching a screen and stressed about upcoming deadlines will be grossly ill-equipped to deal with the incoming nutrition and may well end up relieving a high percentage of its beneficial nutrients directly into the toilet!
The Three Keys to Food
Assuming that we have stoked our digestive fire and the food we eat is actually being absorbed into our body, the three main areas of consideration as to the foods you eat are:
+ The quality of the food
+ The proportions of the types of food
+ The amount and regularity of foods
These three primary areas need be addressed before additional supplements or specific nutrients are even considered alongside this Pillar of Health.
Eating High-Quality Foods
Food quality has been seriously compromised in the past century. Over the last few decades, the degree of soil depletion and reliance on factory farming and industrial agriculture has seen a precipitous decline in nutrient availability in our foods. The amount of minerals and vitamins, as well as the quality of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates is falling dramatically. Concomitantly, the levels of agrochemicals, hormones, and chemical fertilizers being sprayed onto and into our foods have steadily increased to maintain growth in the sub-optimal environments in which plants and animals are being raised.
Tips for Choosing High Quality Food
To obtain the highest-quality food, we must be proactive in understanding the practices with which our food has been raised.
+ Read labels and understand the ingredients that are in your food. The fewer ingredients, the better. If it sounds like it is a chemical, preservative, or synthetic ingredient in any way, it likely is and probably should be avoided.
+ Meet your local farmers and speak with vendors at farmer’s markets about their practices and produce.
+ Seek organic, biodynamic, and natural whenever possible. However, be aware that unlike organic and biodynamic, natural is an unregulated term and oftentimes it means very little. If you want to be sure the food you are eating is free of pesticides, chemicals, and added hormones, seek organic or biodynamic foods only.
+ Source the freshest, most local produce. Nutrient levels decline continually after food is harvested and the fresher you can eat it, the better.
Tips for Understanding Your Body’s Signals
Furthermore, developing your bodily senses with food is vital to support this Pillar of Health.
+ Trust your taste buds and your intuitive urges for food.
+ Develop your palette and sense of smell.
+ Listen to your gut during and after eating.
+ Notice your mood, energy levels, and sense of satiety an hour following meals.
This will greatly aid in your gustatory satisfaction, your connection with your food, and your understanding of your body’s needs and reactions to the food you eat. If something makes you feel bad or negatively impacts any of the above markers, you may want to avoid it.
Something else to consider is increasing your budget for your food. This will help you to increase your own vitality through increased nutrient content of your food, as well as contribute to the cultural change of sustainable, intelligent farming that is making high-quality foods more readily available for everyone.
Getting the Proper Proportions
Food proportions, especially in the form of macronutrients (fats, proteins, and carbohydrates), are an important second consideration when it comes to the fourth Pillar of Health. The correct balance of macronutrients from meal to meal, day to day, and season to season is an innate skill that has been forgotten in many of us.
In pre-agricultural times, our genetic ancestry combined with the availability of food in our lived environment would have largely instructed the way we eat. For example, an Inuit from the arctic region would have had a meat- and fat-dominant diet, both out of necessity and availability. It has been shown that the typical macronutrient profile for these people is around 90% protein and fat and 10% carbohydrate. Contrast this with the inland aboriginal peoples of Australia; the hot desert conditions had them eating around only 30% fat and protein and 70% carbohydrate. Each population group studied around the world has differing macronutrient proportions that are dependent upon season, climate, availability, genetics, and activity levels.
The genetic lineage you have inherited will undoubtedly influence your biochemical needs for food. Your ideal ratio of macronutrients will also shift with changes in the weather, your mood, and your activity levels. When you experiment and learn to listen to your body’s intuitive messages, you will quickly discover what your unique personal needs are.
Key Takeaways on Macronutrients
+ Your body is unique and your needs for food are unique.
+ Macronutrient ratios will change from meal to meal due to your activity levels, genetics, and seasonality.
Eating the Right Amount of Food for You
Lastly, the amount of food we eat is the third of the three considerations. In the not-too-distant past, getting enough food was the primary concern of many people. These days, learning to eat moderately has become a real issue for many people. Within the context of the amount of food we’re consuming is how regularly we’re eating—how many meals we have during the day and the timing between these meals.
The focus on calories has lead many to the implicit understanding that food is simply fuel. This oversimplification of the purpose of food was the fertile ground from which most weight-loss diets were formed. These calorie-restrictive diets have proven over time to be ineffective (long term) for most people and disastrously detrimental to the health and vitality of millions of followers.
When we see food as not simply energy but as a source of nutrition and life force for the body, and when we have the listening tools to hear when our body’s requirements for these are being met, we will eat in accordance with these messages. This may not arise in the form of a hunger signal but in the form of subtle, inexplicable emotional arousal, mental fatigue or lack of clarity, agitation, low energy, or a myriad other personal signs that our nutrient and life force needs are not being met.
Ensuring that the body is content with its level of nutrients and life force from its food is essential for vitality. Having nutrition readily on hand during a high-stress or rejuvenation phase, by eating every three to four hours, and listening to the subtle signals of the body that tell us when nutrients are required, is a wise path for all wanting to feel more aliveness. This return to a more intuitive approach to eating will lay the foundation from which greater states of sustained vitality can be promoted. Techniques such as various forms of fasting and cleanses are valuable tools to use, but without a solid foundation of health to work from, they can cause more harm than good.
Our diet is one of the most intimate relationships with ourselves that we will ever have. What can be more intimate than taking something from the outside world, bringing it into our body, and making ourselves out of it? I have found that the way we relate to eating is a beautiful mirror to how we relate to ourselves.
Tips for Intuitive Eating
+ Eat as often, and only as much, as your body needs. If you are in a rejuvenation phase, eat every three to four hours.
+ Learn the signals of your body’s senses of nutrient need and satiety.
Pillar #5: Movement
Humans are without a doubt the masters of the movement kingdom. Our mastery of rotational movement of the spine has enabled us to perform some of the most amazing feats of acrobatic and endurance skill ever witnessed on our planet. Watching our top-level athletes flip, twist, sprint, leap, fight, and play is testament to our diversity of mastery in the movement arena.
Our dismally inadequate mainstream movement culture is primarily focused around exercise to change body shape, whether it is to reduce body fat or to increase muscle definition and/or mass. This limited focus on the aesthetics, rather than on the function of the body, is no different to me than buying a $500,000 sports car and using it only to parade around city streets. We have access to the single most amazing biological structure in the known universe, and to value it only for its appearance is to me a most pitiable debasement of life’s grandest achievement. Yes, the human body is that impressive, but often this Pillar of Health is overlooked.
Movement is the expressed art of life. Our form has evolved through desire and selective pressures over many eons of time to arrive at the pinnacle of current potential. Life seeks to constantly express itself and this potential in ever more effective forms of movement—movement that is inspired by our desire for safety, food, play, creativity, reproduction, and self-knowing.
The nature of all biological organisms is to respond and adapt to the stressors or stimuli of their environment. A simple demonstration of this is when we perform an arm curl with a heavy weight, we will stimulate the biceps muscle to adapt by increasing its strength capability. With no load, then there is no inspiration for growth. In fact, as maintaining muscle mass is an energy drain on your body, the muscle will actually atrophy to conserve energy—its adaptation will be toward atrophy rather than growth. Based upon this understanding, for us to respectfully engage in movement activities to enhance our physicality, we will need to offer stressors or stimuli or load to all of the various abilities of the body in a way that inspires growth or, at the least, maintenance.
Cultivating Intelligent Movement
The term bio-motor abilities, coined by famous Russian athletic coach Tudor Bompa highlights these various abilities. The eight bio-motor abilities are: power, speed, endurance, strength, coordination, agility, balance, and flexibility/mobility. All of which we want to develop within the fifth Pillar of Health. Effectively stimulating growth for each of these bio-motor abilities necessitates that we have great variety in our movement approach. Simply running on a treadmill or lifting a few weights in a gymnasium falls dramatically short of fulfilling the potential of human movement capacity, as does a once a week class of the latest exercise craze, no matter how complex or complete it is advertised as. To really master the fourth Pillar of Health, we need to build intelligent movement with ample variety into our everyday lives to stave off atrophy of our muscles and a decline in their various abilities.
Understanding our ancestral movement patterning affords us great insight into how to structure our modern movement approach. Realizing that we inhabit a body that was forged in an environment quite different than our current civilization is fundamental to this understanding. Chairs, pavement, stairs, and cars all represent the progression toward minimization of movement. Using a chair rather than squatting is devastating to your flexibility and posture. Walking on even pavement rather than uneven rocky ground is numbing to your balance and agility. Walking up stairs rather than climbing trees or a steep ravine, deprives us of a challenge to our strength and power. Riding in cars rather than walking or running removes an opportunity to develop our speed and endurance.
Our modern lives have left us bereft of all the wonderful built-in opportunities to continually hone our bodies into functional and capable movement vessels. To the degree that we modernize our lives, we will experience a need to consciously attend to the fifth Pillar of Health and supplement our movement. Our sedentary lives are killing us, with studies on sitting showing it to be potentially more impactful than smoking on overall health. Excessive movement, on the other hand, can be just as problematic as the stress from too much exercise can and will result in innumerable chronic conditions as well.
Finding that sweet balance between doing and non-doing, learning to listen to the needs and wants of the body, and developing a respectful, ancestrally based movement approach will offer a powerful foundation from which your body will be able to function well into advanced age. The seeking of daily opportunities to move in environments that replicate as closely as possible our natural world, in ways that we were designed to, has proven itself to me to be a rich addition to modern life. Squatting rather than sitting, walking rather than driving, moving in nature rather than in urban settings, and moving in new and challenging ways rather than what is habitual, will provide the body with the kinetic nourishment it craves.
Ways to Move More Intelligently and More Often
+ Seek opportunities to move in varied ways and environments.
+ Challenge your body enough to create a response but not too much that it breaks it down.
+ Walk more, squat more, and move in nature more.
Pillar #6: Sleep and Waking Cycles—Circadian Rhythm
The rhythmic movement of the Earth rotating on its axis and its wobbly progression around the sun has been a consistent force for this planet and the life flourishing here for billions of years. The stark contrast from daylight, with its warmth and light, to night, where the absence of the sun’s direct influence creates darkness and coolness, is something that many of us dramatically underestimate the impact of on our biology and physiology.
The human animal shows many signs of being clearly delineated as a diurnal (daytime) animal, as opposed to nocturnal (nighttime) or crepuscular (twilight hours). Our eyes are clearly designed to see during the day, and the photosensitivity of our skin triggers hormonal responses that elevate our wakefulness in the presence of light. Before the advent of electricity and artificial lighting, sunrise was the time when humans arose from their slumber and sunset was the signal for us to settle in for rest; and this has been going on for millions of years for humans and our immediate ancestors. To know what ideal sleep and waking patterns would be like for you, simply imagine if you were without electricity for a month. What would your cycle align with?
Sleep deprivation is a real problem. Our lifestyles of extending our waking life to be as productive as possible is devastating our health. Sleep is the most rejuvenative state we can enter and our greatest anti-inflammatory aid. Our modern lives, with stimulants and electricity, give us the illusion that we can easily be awake longer; but the hidden cost is one that I doubt you would knowingly pay.
This Pillar of Health is not simply about getting enough sleep. It’s about aligning ourselves with the most basic of rhythms that we are exposed to on this planet: the hours of light and the hours of darkness. When we do this, we can better align ourselves with the subtler ultradian rhythms that happen throughout this 24-hour period. We know that during the night we go through various stages of sleep, from REM sleep through to very deep sleep without dreams. These stages are cycled through four or more times each night. During the day we move through similar stages and cycles of wakefulness, as pointed out in traditions of the East and in current science around hormonal rhythms, as well as observed activity levels of people.
Our lives, both waking and sleeping, are a rhythmic symphony, or dance, where we progress through our four movements during our daily cycle of waking, activity, winding down, and sleeping, repeated throughout a year with the four seasons of Summer, Fall, Winter, and Spring. All life on the planet that is exposed to the sun will follow this same dance. Humans are one of the few that often defy this powerful influence on our physiology to great detriment to our health and vitality.
Ways in which our circadian dance is compromised are as follows:
+ Regimented work hours
+ Screens and artificial lighting—think cell phones, computers, TVs, electronic devices, and lighting of any kind
+ Stimulants and depressants like coffee, tea, drugs, and pharmaceuticals
+ Travel to different time zones
+ Irregular daily patterns of sleep, eating, and movement
The benefits we gain from keeping the beat in this dance are difficult to quantify, as they permeate all aspects of our physiology. Our delicate hormonal balance is likely the most directly improved from a return to natural cycles. Cortisol (our awakening hormone) rhythm disruption is at the root of many stress and hormonal disorders, and its relationship with the sun and light is well documented. It can lead the return to a calming of the chaos many of us experience in our hormonal profile. Our appetite, energy levels, healing response, digestion capacity, sexual desire, athletic performance, sociability, mood, cognitive performance, creativity, and mental clarity are all directly related to the balance of our hormonal system.
It is commonly understood that we need around eight hours of sleep per night on average. More in the winter months and less in summer months. Getting to sleep before 10:30pm and waking as close to dawn as you can is another solid guiding principle when it comes to the sixth Pillar of Health. As our peak cortisol levels are within 30 minutes of waking, it would also behoove us to kill the snooze button. In fact, doing away with alarms and training yourself to wake at the same time each day is one of the most effective ways to restore your rhythm. This ideal waking time is when the darkness of night gives way to the light of day, often 30 to 40 minutes before sunrise.
So, rather than just stomping the steps in time with the music of life, if we can gracefully feel the rhythm and move our entire being in harmony with the subtleties of the cleverly complex and ever-changing beat, then we can reclaim our instinctual knowing of the right time to eat, sleep, play, work, and create. Developing your “ear” and your intuitive “feeling” for these rhythms will serve you much more deeply than simply following the rules being offered to you from some external source.
Tips to Improve Sleep and Align with Natural Rhythms
+ Align your daily rhythm with the sun, waking with the sun and getting up when you wake up.
+ Allow your waking rhythm to follow your natural energy levels, respecting downtrends in energy.
+ Sleep as much as you need to.
+ You probably need more sleep than you are getting.
Pillar #7: Connection
Humans are incredibly social animals. We need connection to others with their touch, support, collaboration, and assistance for our survival and ability to thrive. A most basic example is how babies will suffer greatly, and even die, from a lack of touch. All humans tend to gather in family groups and historically we lived in tight-knit villages or tribes. Our need for closeness to members of our family, immediate and extended, is common to all races and groups of humans. In isolation people tend to fare poorly; in fact, isolation (solitary confinement) is one of the greatest punishments used in penal systems for truant prisoners. Forced exile was also used as an extreme measure of punishment in cultures throughout history.
In an ideal setting, the creation of connection with others is something that we are born into: there’s the connection with our mother, then our father and siblings, and as we grow, we learn to connect with our pets or neighbors. Once we begin our schooling, we learn skills for connecting with our peers, with authority figures, and so on. We learn to find our place in the village and to develop our unique gifts and personality in resonance or contrast with the connections we feel.
In our modern world this is seldom the reality and this important Pillar of Health is rarely valued. Our connection to each stage is often either broken or undeveloped. We may find ourselves disconnected from our birth family, our communities, and even from a sense of belonging in the world. Beginning with ourselves, we can forge new connections. We can move from a sense of separation to an experience of integration.
These connections are necessary for survival and for our well-being. We need connections to access food and shelter. Connections allow us to learn, grow, and be challenged. Connections teach us how to be independent and capable. And perhaps, more importantly than anything else, this Pillar of Health offers us an opportunity to begin to know ourselves even more deeply through our experience of others.
Connections are like living organisms. They require regular attention and nurturing. Whether the connection be to your spiritual path, your community, your family, or to yourself, time and attention are the necessary nutrients for these organisms to thrive. Learning to feel our vulnerability, exploring the moments of discomfort and challenge, and having the courage to reach out when our needs are not being met are tremendously important components of cultivating connection. Above all, offering our presence, demonstrating our respect, and expressing our gratitude serve to strengthen our connection to all aspects of our reality.
In light of the oneness of all things, the illusion of separation offers us this opportunity to reconnect with all the “other” aspects of ourselves. To me, we are like a vast mirror that has been shattered into infinite pieces. Connection is the journey of self-realization. It begins with identifying individual pieces, seeing ourselves in the image of the other, and then going about puzzling ourself back together in a way that fits absolutely perfectly.
Connection is not just about our relationship and closeness with the people in our families and communities; it is also about our relationship to our small self and to the greater Self. We are each an intrinsic and inseparable part of the land that we are created from, the planet that we call ours, and the cosmos that we journey through. We are undeniably a part of existence, and for me existence is a perfect tapestry of infinite woven threads, one of which is you and one of which is me—and without us the tapestry would, quite simply, no longer be whole or complete. Connection is a reality that we have denied ourselves in order to rediscover it in every interaction.
Ways to Improve Your Connections
+ Connections require nurturing.
+ Understand that you have connections to yourself, your family, your community, this planet, and all existence.
+ Connection is the bridge between the ideas of self and other.
The Environment that You Inhabit
The pursuit and study of holistic health has been my teacher for many years. It has led me on a journey of understanding that I am so very grateful for. It continues to unfold and reveal itself in many layers of commingled simplicity and complexity, similar to the Seven Pillars Model of Health and Wellness that I’ve just presented. What I have found thus far is this: The environment that we exist in—whether by choice or not—will inescapably impact our health for better or for worse. The truth that I have found in health is that when we, to the best of our ability, claim responsibility for the environment in which we exist, then we are able to purposefully direct the course of our health. You see, it really does come down to you and the choices you make from moment to moment.
About The Author
Terence Carfrae is a dedicated seeker of truth, especially in health. As a vitality coach, his primary aim is to help his clients expand their capacity to experience life ever more fully. His pursuit of understanding health spans multiple disciplines, with formal training in biomechanics and orthopedics, functional medicine and naturopathy, psycho-emotional coaching and spirituality. Synthesizing these into a uniquely holistic model, Terence offers his insight in his private practice, through workshops and at special events.