A review published this year gives us a framework to evaluate the question, "what is health?” Health is typically described as being the lack of pathology, a negative manner of description relating to the absence of disease. However, this definition is impractical due to the multitudes of hidden conditions that contribute to disease and pathology. Rather, health should be defined in a manner that highlights “signs of physical and mental fitness coupled to normal functions of all organs measurable by specific medical exams.” In short, redefining what health means using positive terms and clear health hallmarks.
The review, entitled Hallmarks of Health gives us a solid foundation to define what these hallmarks are, how they affect our body, and what we can do to improve them. More than just indicators of health, these hallmarks have a direct role in “homeostatic maintenance, filling the requisites of 1) being associated with the “healthy state,” 2) it’s disruption should be pathogenic and 3) it should have “broad pro-health activity.” While they all have their own distinct role in the human organism, the hallmarks can be sorted into three larger categories; spatial compartmentalization, maintenance of homeostasis and responses to stress.
Spatial compartmentalization deals with the barriers our bodies create to protect internal contents and create electrochemical gradients across cellular membranes that are necessary for life. Not only is the creation of the barriers important, but the maintenance and repair of these barriers when they are damaged play a huge role in the health of the individual. They can range in size from the membranes distinguishing the organelles within our cells, all the way up to our largest organ, the skin.
When functioning properly, these barriers are responsible for keeping unwanted foreign entities out, allowing the diffusion of gasses and metabolites across membranes, chemical gradients that drive physiological processes and communication between the cells and organ systems as well. However, when these barriers are damaged, it can cause a dangerous waterfall effect that triggers poor health and a laundry list of diseases.
Maintaining good gut microbial health not only directly benefits the intestinal barrier, but also has many disease-fighting influences throughout the body. Hydration and a nutrient rich diet will also help barriers; from your skin to your mitochondria. Additionally, any action taken to aid immune response, wound healing and reduce senescence all contribute to the second hallmark of health.
Maintenance of Homeostasis
Homeostasis is the natural set-point our physiology depends on to function properly. It is a deeply interconnected web of cells and organs that affect everything in our body. To maintain homeostasis is a full time job that our body is constantly working at and requires several moving pieces working in sync to be successful.
Every single day our body is undergoing renovations, from the shedding of dead skin, myelinating neurons, or renewing organelles within our cells, the human machine is constantly churning, which means every cell in our bodies needs the ability to be recycled and replaced.
- Autophagy is one of the most important mechanisms that helps maintain this equilibrium. It promotes organelle renewal and clearance. While it is always working at a baseline level, as we age it slows, which leads to the build up of cells. There are several ways to trigger this process, however, including dietary interventions like fasting and caloric restriction, but also pharmacological interventions, like spermidine, that target nutrient sensors. The key role autophagy plays in maintaining equilibrium in the cells makes it “the most important cytoplasmic recycling mechanism” that has demonstrated positive effects on both healthspan and lifespan.
- The communication between the strata of every level in our bodies is another important piece of the homeostatic puzzle. These complex levels of communication can vary between cells, organs and external stimuli that affect bodily functions.
- The third and final piece, rhythmic oscillations, controls the various cycles within our body, the most well-known being the circadian rhythm responsible for our sleep/wake cycles.
When any one of these three pieces becomes disrupted, it throws the entire homeostatic system out of balance and results in several negative consequences, like accelerated aging, cancer, autoimmunity, psychiatric disorders, and an overall reduction in health.
Sustaining a healthy digestive flora by eating a well-balanced diet with probiotic foods is a sure-fire way to keep your belly bacteria happy, which will help keep your whole body happy as well. Additionally, caloric restriction, intermittent fasting and pharmacological interventions have been shown to trigger an increased rate of autophagy in the body, which slows down the process of aging and contributes to better overall health. When coupled with these diet practices, regular exercise will only exacerbate the effects seen and ultimately the benefits from these lifestyle choices.
Stress is an inevitable part of everyday life. It’s how our bodies overcome these stressors that makes or breaks our health. Resilience, regulation and regeneration are the key words when it comes to our body’s stress response.
- Homeostatic resilience, or the ability to snap back to equilibrium, allows different physiological processes that may be thrown out of whack from different stresses to rebound to healthy levels. This prevents diseases caused by homeostatic imbalance like cardiovascular disease, depression, cancer and immunological disorders.
- Regulation of hormesis is an equally important part of the protection against damage from prolonged stress. Hormesis is the process our body uses to develop a tolerance to toxins we may be exposed to on a daily basis and protects us from exposure to greater levels of these toxins.
- The repair and regeneration of cells and structures that are damaged from both internal and external sources is considered the third hallmark involved in stress response. Autophagy also plays a huge role in efficient regeneration of proteins, mitochondria and other organelles that require regeneration. Any lifestyle that promotes autophagy will have positive effects on not only repair and regeneration, but stress response and longevity as a whole.
Despite establishing 8 individual hallmarks of health, they are highly connected at multiple levels and there are very easy lifestyle changes we can make to improve these areas and our health as a whole. For instance:
- A healthy diet that includes fiber, fruits, veggies, seeds, nuts and probiotics will aid in gut health which has far-reaching benefits throughout the whole body, as well as proper immune response, energy and the building blocks needed to repair and replace damage caused by internal or external factors.
- Regular exercise, aside from improving strength and cardiovascular fitness, can relieve unnecessary stress, improve immune response and release feel good hormones to help fight depression and illness.
When in doubt, the three requisites for these hallmarks are a great guide to follow for the best results in health and well-being; things associated with a “healthy state,” disrupting anything pathogen and anything that promotes “broad pro-health activity.”
As the promise of this new year and all of its potential unfolds, the continued focus on individual health and wellness can overwhelm some. In a market oversaturated with baseless claims for weight loss and magically improved health, these hallmarks help to not only give a clear definition of what health and being healthy means, but also redefine health in a positive light in an attempt to change the traditional medicine of disease to a more proactive practice centered around the medicine of health.