September 27, 2016

Health behaviour

“To keep the body in good health is a duty… otherwise we shall not be able to keep our mind strong and clear.”

– Gautama the Buddha

Last week in one of our Family Medicine clerkship classes, we discussed the concepts of “Heath behaviour” and “illness behaviour” which I believe may be useful to the general reader.

Heath behaviour refers to any action a person undertakes to promote, maintain, or protect health. And illness behaviour refers to the actions taken when sick to get better.

It made me remember that at the beginning of med school I was struck by how finely balanced all our regulatory systems are, ensuring that all of the processes in our body are in sync. And by how elaborate our immune system is to prevent us from getting sick all of the time. There are an awful lot of bacteria and viruses out there launching attacks on us, but we don’t spend every waking moment sick, do we? That’s because our immune system is fighting off the invaders all the time.

And I realised how much we take these things for granted. We eat what we want, when we want, not caring about what the nutritional content of the food or our irregular eating times might be doing to our bodies. Or we adopt a sedentary, couch potato lifestyle. And while we take in the car every 3000 miles for the oil and filter change, we don’t make regular check-ups with our doctor just to check that the systems are OK. Until we get sick, that is. We place more importance on our illness behaviour than our health behaviour.

But being healthy isn’t just about being physically healthy. The WHO defines health as, “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” And you’d be surprised as to how many “physical” illnesses are cause by “mental” disequilibrium.

There might be interminable arguments by philosophers about where the mind might be located but there’s no question mental health is as important for normal-functioning as any of the other aspects of health. Mental health is defined as “a state of wellbeing in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.” (OK…that one’s from the text! But it’s pretty complete.)

What about social health…we are social beings, aren’t we? Well that deals with your lifestyle choices. Do you want to die early from lung cancer? Then by all means, keep chain-smoking those cigarettes. But secondary smoking is even deadlier to those around. So just quit! Smoking and drinking excessive amounts of alcohol are all lifestyle choices that you should say no to, if you (or those around you) want to stay healthy. Remember alcohol and domestic violence are highly correlated in our culture.

Other decisions you can make about your lifestyle are about the food you each. Eat smarter, eat healthier. In Guyana, we’re at high risk for diseases like hypertension and diabetes. These diseases don’t have absolute cures, just ways to manage the illness. So let’s take preventive measures to prevent ourselves from getting these diseases.

Let’s try adjusting our health behaviour, because prevention is always better than cure!