Health is defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”
As a health coach, this definition just doesn’t work for me. Personally, I prefer to think of health as “being in a state of homeostasis on a mental, physical and social level”.
What is Homeostasis?
You’re going to have to take a trip back to high school biology for this one. Homeostasis is defined as the functioning of cells, tissues and organisms within the body that allow for the maintenance and regulation of the stability and constancy needed to function properly.
Translation: Your body has preferences for how it wants be physically, mentally and socially and it’s always working to achieve these conditions.
A simple example of this is how human bodies strive to keep a temperature of 98.6°F (37°C). If we are above this, our body sweats to lower the temperature. If we are below this, then our body begins shivering to raise the temperature. This temperature, however, is just an average for all humans. The base temperature for an individual person can be anywhere from 97°F (36.1°C) to 99°F (37.2°C).
I prefer the idea of homeostasis as a definition for health because it allows that we aren’t always in a “perfect state of health” but our bodies naturally know how to move back to their ideal. It also allows for the fact that our own personal homeostasis differs to that of others. Health is subjective to our own personal genetic makeup.
There are two important takeaways from this:
1. Your health “homeostasis” will be different to those around you. Just like your body’s preferred base temperature can differ up to 2°F from the person next to you, other aspects of health like body weight and preference for social interaction will also be different to those around you which is completely normal and okay!
2. You will naturally ebb and flow around your “homeostasis” point. Just like your body temperature can rise and fall at times and your body will work to get back to its happy temperature, your weight and desire for social interactions will also naturally increase and decrease at different times.
It's extremely important to know and internalize these two facts before actively pursuing a healthy lifestyle.
Firstly, you need to know that your ideal health cannot be defined by looking at others. Obviously, human beings as a life form do have a restricted range of what is needed to sustain life, as pointed out in the temperature example. Within that range, however, you will find a “healthy normal” that is specific to you. This healthy normal cannot be defined by looking to anyone else or even to the human average. Trying to live someone else’s healthy normal will result in a lot of wasted time, energy and a whole lot stress on the body and mind.
Secondly, it’s important to know that fluctuations are normal and necessary for your health. Did you know that women’s weight naturally fluctuates throughout their menstrual cycle? During half of their cycle, hunger increases and weight is retained to prepare for a possible pregnancy. When the body realizes that there is no embryo, it proceeds to lower hunger cues and shed the extra weight naturally for the other half of the cycle if they aren't pregnant because the weight isn’t needed. Humans aren’t meant to be the same all day, every day. Focusing on retaining a specific number, whether it be temperature or weight, is impossible and very counter-productive!
Rest easy knowing that your body always knows how to get you back to your own personal homeostasis and it will automatically do so when given the chance.
What happens when we work against homeostasis?
When we constantly fight against our body’s effort to reach its specific homeostasis, things eventually go wrong. If a woman, for example, keeps her weight too far below what her body needs for too long, her body will eventually stop making certain hormones which will cause things like menstruation to cease. While not having a period can be enjoyable in certain phases of our lives, consistent menstruation every 28-35 days is an important sign of health and the lack of a period can have long-term consequences.
So, how do I find my own health homeostasis?
Health is a journey and our bodies are always changing. Your body at the age of 15 will look different than at 35, and it will again be different at the age of 75. It is a wondrous thing and its main goal is to fight to stay alive and reach optimal health at every phase. You don’t need to force your body to do anything, you simply need to support it in its mission.
I work with my clients to find their own homeostasis through self-acceptance and self-observation.
While there are a lot of incredible body positivity and self-love advocates out there, I prefer to focus on self-acceptance instead of self-love. Self-acceptance means recognizing where your body is at now and working to release any emotions, positive or negative, around that.
It’s a little bit like looking on the map when you’re driving somewhere. You can see your destination and your current position on the map. You don’t waste time focusing on where you are currently, telling yourself how great you are for making so far or cursing yourself for only being there; you simply take note of your position and figure out how you can make it to your destination.
If you can release any feelings and judgements about your body's current state, you will be able to release stress and free up a lot of energy and focus which can be utilized for getting you to your destination.
Self-observation without judgement:
Once you’ve accepted your body as is, you can begin to ask and observe what it needs. Is your body asking for a hard run or does it need a good stretch and some soft yoga? Is it asking for a green salad or a big steak, or maybe a slice of chocolate cake with friends. Each of these are valid needs that fulfill an important purpose to bring the body back to its physical, mental and social homeostasis. By listening to what our body wants without judgement, we can provide these things and support it in its journey.
Do you want help finding your own health homeostasis? Sign up for a free health history with me and we can discuss how to get you to your own mental, social and physical happy place.