We all know what the word health means. However, if someone were to ask you “What is health?” you would be puzzled for a while…”Hmmm…health? I suppose it has to do with being healthy!” If the person persist in asking what being healthy meant, you would say something like, “Means you’re not sick! So you’re healthy!”
Generally, that is the perception most people have that health relates to the absence of illness, and when you are sick you for treatment to a clinic or a hospital depending on the severity of your illness. Health systems around the world have, however, realised that it is much more efficient to ensure that people stay healthy, rather than just treating them when they are sick. Consequently, came this movement to target efforts at maintaining a state of wellness in the population and the World Health Organisation encapsulated this in its definition of health as a “state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”. Some have extended this further to also cover spiritual well-being.
How do we then maintain good health or strive for better health? Various strategies have been put forward, but my favourite is Craig Hassed’s “ESSENCE” of health. ESSENCE of health? You are more familiar with chicken essence and some of you may have even heard of the book with the title “Chicken soup for the soul”! Well, actually, this has nothing to do with chicken! Hassed actually focuses on the seven important aspects of health that we need to focus on, with each letter in ESSENCE standing for a word. So the seven aspects are Education, Stress, Spirituality, Exercise, Nutrition, Connectedness, and Environment.
Education is the first area of focus. Education here in fact does not refer to getting a university degree or the like. It is to do with educating ourselves on different aspects of health. It is important that we understand some basic features of any illness or condition that we may have. For example, if we have diabetes, we need to know what causes the disease, the possible complications of the disease, so that we will know what precautions to take to minimise these complications. Or if you are pregnant, you need to know that there are certain medications that you should not take in the early stages of your pregnancy that could affect your baby.
Stress is the next important component that has a huge impact on our health. Apart from leading to high blood pressure, stroke and heart disease, research has shown that it can affect almost all our body systems, can worsen many diseases and conditions, and can even lead to damage of our genetic material which can have dire consequences. Hence, management of our stress will go a long way towards preserving our state of wellness.
Spirituality and religion can also have a bearing on health. For instance, studies have shown that people who have regular spiritual practices tend to live longer. Spiritual commitment tends to enhance recovery from illness and surgical operations. A person’s spiritual beliefs can help also him/her better cope with disease and face death.
Exercise is something that we all know is good for health. The very conditions that high stress levels can lead to can be prevented, or at least the risk of getting them can be lowered by exercise! These include heart disease and stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, back pain and osteoporosis. In addition, it has been found that exercise can improve your mood, and even help you to manage your stress. For those who already have high blood pressure, exercise can help lower your blood pressure. We all know that exercise is essential to develop and maintain healthy bones, muscles and joints. Thus, it would also help older people become stronger and move about better with less risk of falling.
Nutrition is yet another important component that leads to better health. Like exercise and stress nutrition too has been linked to many diseases. For example, research has shown that certain food we eat can affect the functioning of the genes in our body, but although the exact mechanisms of this are still not clear, links have been established between diet and cancer.
Nutrition also has a role in high blood pressure – it is common knowledge that people who have a high salt intake have a higher risk of developing high blood pressure. Other conditions linked to nutrition are diabetes and obesity, heart disease, stroke, osteoporosis, dental disease and diseases of the stomach and intestines.
Connectedness (also called social connectedness) refers to a person’s number of close friends, trust and degree of interaction with family and friends, and level of participation in community activities or volunteer events. Connectedness plays a role in supporting our well-being and can influence our health both directly and indirectly. For instance, studies have shown those with high levels of connectedness have lower blood pressure, better immunity so that they do not fall ill so easily, and have lower levels of stress responses, all of which have been shown to prevent diseases like stroke, heart disease and diabetes.
Environment is the last in this list of seven but is yet an important component as well. The environment here refers not just to the physical environment that we are familiar with but also encompasses chemical, biological and social factors in the environment all of which can have a bearing on our health. Air, food and drinking water also can be included under environment. The consequences of poor environment or how environment affects our health is probably the best known, but there are still some areas that are not so well known, for example, the ill effects of asbestos on our lungs.
This in brief is an overview of the seven important areas that we need to focus on to ensure that we stay healthy or if not at least delay the onset of disease for as long as possible. Let us all strive for better health.
DR SIVALAL SADASIVAN MBBS (INDIA), PGDHHSA (Lond), AMN MEDICAL DIRECTOR 社区卫生