I’m sure you have heard people say, “I am on autopilot,” or “I could do it in my sleep.” Quite literally, once something becomes a habit we are automatically doing things without thought behind them. The thought was there once, but may no longer be there when we do something habitually. From smoking to eating and beyond, habits can be broken but this is much easier said than done.
Learning to walk is a dangerous escapade, one in which parents have to painfully watch while their little one falls over and over until their nervous system learns how to react. Once those neurological connections are made it becomes habit. I bet you didn’t think twice about how you walked to your car today! So, what if for instance, you pick up cigarette smoking as a habit. At first, you’re choking on smoke and trying hard to look like you know what you are doing. After a while it becomes less awkward to hold the cigarette and it becomes easier to manipulate up to your mouth. Soon, you are smoking before and after meals, when you wake and before sleep, in the car and when stressed.
Charles Duhigg, the author of “The Power of Habit,” states that routines are made up of a “habit loop” comprised of a cue, behavior and a reward. A trigger initiates the brain to go into autopilot mode, then routine develops, then a reward will tell the brain to remember this “habit loop.” The area of the brain utilized in habit forming is also in control of making memories, remembering patterns and for emotional response. Once a habit is in place, the brain is able to literally go into sleep mode, which saves energy for other important tasks.
Have you ever sat down after dinner to watch some television with a bag of popcorn and before you know it you’ve devoured the entire bag? This is habit at its finest, automatically multi-tasking eating while zoning out mentally. Research has shown that when in the same environment, we are able to repeat a behavior in the same manner. When on vacation, this is when a habitual behavior can change, a break from routine breaks habits or starts to bring awareness to your habitual behavior. So how do we use this to our advantage when wanting to discontinue a bad habit.
First, bring awareness to the habit. Write down what you eat for an entire day, count how many cigarettes you smoke in a day, keep track of how many steps you take or how many hours you sit in the day. Bringing awareness to your behaviors is the basis for starting the changing process. Next, find a less caustic but similar replacement for your habit. Instead of picking your cuticles or biting your nails, wear a fun “fiddle ring” to play with instead of your fingernails. Chewing gum, breathing techniques and meditation practices are all great ways to redirect and distract yourself from unpleasant habits.
In Naturopathic Medicine, there are 5 determinants of health that we focus on with every patient. There are a lot of poor habits that lead us to ignore or develop imbalance in one of these determinants of health, leading to dis-ease in the body. Let’s address these determinants and ways to implement health habits to keep proper balance.
1. Lack of Sleep
There are many reasons for not getting enough sleep, many of them are simply bad habits or poor planning. As mentioned before, first priority is to bring an awareness to the habits that are keeping you up at night. Are you up late watching television? Are you playing on your phone instead of winding down? Often, evening hours before bed are the only time in the day you get to yourself. An overly scheduled day leaves little room for fun or creativity. Trying to pencil in a small amount of time in the day for “fun” can help reduce the urge to binge on TV or other stimulating activities at night.
Before bed is also when the mind can wander and the stress list comes into the forefront. Instead of ignoring stress, addressing it earlier in the day through yoga, counseling or exercise can allow the mind to quiet more easily at night.
Staying away from electronics for at least an hour and a half before bed allows the body to increase melatonin levels, the hormone that helps promote sleep. In some cases, melatonin levels may still be low due to stress, medications, nutritional deficiencies or other hormone imbalances.
Create a sleeping space that is serene, calming and relaxing. Removing electronics, setting up an aromatherapy diffuser and having inviting comfortable bedding can help your mind prepare for sleep and has actually been shown to improve the quality of sleep.
2. Food Choices
Did you know there is a science behind snacks? From the creamy yet crunchy Oreo to the salty crisp corn chip, a lot of research goes into how the brain reacts to food. Foods are linked to memories, thus linked to emotions. Certain emotions can cause us to crave particular foods. Comfort eating is driven by the bodies’ craving for endorphins. Endorphins are the bodies’ way to improve mood, similar to a “runners high” food can often simulate the same areas of the brain to gain an endorphin rush, therefore, addressing underlying emotions and implementing coping mechanisms is essential.
The problem with these comfort foods is much like other self-soothing behaviors, you steal tomorrow’s happiness for today. Salt, sweet and sometimes just an excess of calories can initially create a chemical high but the sugar crash, dehydration and weight gain that ensue obviously take away from health moving forward.
Noticing patterns of eating can help create change. Overeating typically happens when fatigue and stress are higher, often at the end of a work day. Often poor choices happen when we aren’t paying attention to what we are eating: in front of the television, eating out with friends or fiddling with our phone. Simply paying attention to what you are doing when you are eating has been shown to help reduce poor choices. Slow down and pay attention to how your body feels, what you are thinking about, why you are eating and how it’s making you feel.
Setting yourself up for success is a big part of changing food habits. Unlike smoking cessation or starting to exercise, you have to eat multiple times a day. Planning ahead includes creating a meal plan and goals/restrictions. No one makes a good decision when they are tired, hungry and have no plan for re-fueling. Smaller plates and smaller portions help slow down overeating and make you reassess how full you are before eating more. Lastly, taking a moment before eating to set your intention for your meal and check in with how you feel can make a difference.
In Dr. Batmaghelidj’s book, “Your Body’s Many Cries for Water,” he outlines all the benefits and health conditions that can be improved by hydrating the body properly. He states you are not just what you eat, but what you drink. Not only is it essential for life to have water, it is needed for optimal cellular communication. Why is this important? Do you want to think more clearly, improve endurance and energy? Would it be nice to have more hydrated healthy skin? All of these things improve with adequate hydration.
What is the right amount of fluid intake for you? There is a lot of talk around this, but the recommendation is always around half of your body weight in ounces, in addition to what you get from food. Include all things that do not contain caffeine in this total. Water, herbal teas, coconut water to name a few. We often hear, “I just don’t get thirsty,” or “I just don’t care for the taste of water.” In this case, make water more palatable by adding fruit to the water, adding more liquid to a smoothie blend or finding an herbal tea that can be watered down to improve water intake.
Invest in a reusable water bottle. Not only is this better for the environment, but it is a great way to gauge water intake in the day. Start the day with a big 12-16oz glass of water before you drink coffee or eat anything else. Make it a goal to finish a bottle of water before you commute to work and on the way home. Whatever you do, it is best to think out the easiest way for you to slip extra water into your day and make it a point to be consistent.
The dreaded exercise topic. I think the biggest reason we hear for people not able to keep up with a healthy movement program is time. “I have no time in my day to be able to exercise.” Let’s reframe what we think of as exercise.
First, we have to drop the guilt of letting ourselves get out of shape and deconditioned and especially drop the body shaming. This is very difficult to do when our subconscious negative self-talk takes over reminding us that we are less than perfect. As with any habit, negative self-talk cycles are hard to break, but it can be done. A good counselor or hypnotherapist can help to pinpoint triggers and bring awareness to how to circumvent negative talk, because first and foremost you are worth it!
Second, realistic goals need to be set. It’s ok to have physical appearance goals, however, we also need other reasons and goals to be implementing movement into our lives. Goals like improving mood, energy, time in nature, time with family or pets, prevention of chronic back pain. Whatever the goal or reason, it is best to write it down, then you can return to your list and make sure you are gaining benefit in all areas you set out to.
Lastly, make exercise fun! Exercise is inherently challenging. If something is challenging but also fun, we are more likely to stick to it. Invest in a new exercise wardrobe, properly fitting shoes and bright fun comfortable clothing can really help with motivation. Join a team or exercise class where it becomes a social event and you are more likely to go to something if someone else is counting on you. Challenge yourself to stick to your routine no matter the climate or weather. Don’t let snow slow you down, try snow shoeing. Experiencing your “regular routine” exercise in a different way can be just the change you need to keep it interesting.
5. Stress Management
Stress is arguably the single biggest cause for poor habit development. We feel we deserve a few beers after a stressful day. We stay up hours too late to study for a big exam. We skip workouts and healthy eating habits when our schedule gets too busy. Stress causes us to do all sorts of things we wouldn’t normally do and while our bodies are meant to handle stress, when stress is chronically driving our health decisions it becomes damaging.
If you think about it, ironically, the four previously discussed health habits all help to reduce stress. You can’t be a dehydrated, sugar eating, insomniac who never moves their body and expect your body to handle stress in any sort of positive way. Life is stressful enough, we do not need to self-sabotage!
Now that we have discussed the five determinants of health and ways to keep them in balance, let’s talk more specifically about other healing modalities to specifically support the body.
Habits often can have an underlying driver or subconscious belief that is underpinning the behavior. Maybe there’s an association you have to food, smoking or exercise that is making it harder to change. The smell of baking rolls reminds you of cooking with your grandmother, the relaxation you feel from the first sip of alcohol that you have forgotten how to achieve without the substance, or quite possibly there is a negative self-talk cycle telling you that you might not be worth changing or working on. Whatever the root of the habit, it is essential we get to the true cause. Hypnosis is a safe, non-threatening and effective way of identifying underlying beliefs and creating change.
Habit loops can sometimes manifest into an addiction, a mental or physical dependence on a behavior or substance. Acupuncture has been studied in the treatment of addiction, specifically a form of acupuncture known as NADA auricular acupuncture for detoxification. It has been studied to be effective for substance abuse as well as anxiety and depression. A simple five points in each ear reduces cravings, withdrawal symptoms and stress associated with making change in one’s life.
Accountability and support make a huge difference in creating change. Connecting to people with the same values and goals will help reinforce any changes you hope to make. Accountability with family, friends and others will help with moments where old habits want to return. Reading blogs, attending lectures, listening to podcasts and other ways to immerse yourself in a community making healthy choices can help reinforce new neural pathways and new habits. Additionally, counseling and addressing stress hormones can support a more successful outcome when attempting to break unwanted habits. Fatigue and stress can sabotage anyone’s best efforts to create change.
The ultimate message is that to change a habit is not about will power. It is not being weak or strong, good or bad. Changing a habit is about setting yourself up for success by creating a plan, building a team, supporting yourself and honoring the underlying causes that prompted that behavior in the first place. Often times people yo-yo diet or “quit” for a few months before reverting back to previous patterns when they simply try to use will power. When revisiting a habit that needs to be changed, the message should be to dig deeper and reach wider, but certainly not to give up. Health is a journey with lessons, setbacks and successes and the one truth is that your body has the ability to change and the wisdom to heal.
Dr. Lauren Young and Dr. Ashley Burkman are two of the founding physicians of Collaborative Natural Health Partners, an integrative clinic offering osteopathic primary care, naturopathic medicine and acupuncture. They collaborate with patients and physicians to offer individualized care using advanced functional medicine diagnostic testing and personal care. For more information, visit: ctnaturalhealth.com or 860-533-0179.