Health, Vitality, and Courage
How does physical health or the lack thereof impact our state of mind? In this article, I use my own enlightening experience as a means of providing a personal but arguably universal answer to this question. I also impart to my readers the essentials of nutrition that should prove helpful in designing a wholesome diet. Finally, as an addendum, I impart to my readers some basic notions related to exercise and the pursuit of fitness.
During the dark years that followed my diving accident, I deviated from my wholesome eating habits. This deviation was partly due to my limited control over my diet, as I lived in a hospital or a group home. It was also due to my reduced health-consciousness. Largely disgusted with life, I was proportionally hedonistic and suicidal. I sought consolation in gustatory pleasure at the risk of undermining my health. To be more precise, I often overindulged my fondness for fatty and savory foods or sweet ones, with the result that I gained weight and lost my edge – that is, part of my vitality. This loss was ominous. It took a wealth of vitality to accept and overcome the difficulty of attaining happiness. The more I was devitalized and consequently weak, the more I was likely to be daunted by this difficulty.
Devitalization was the worst form of impoverishment. In a state of weakness, it was tempting to deny that happiness was possible or worth the effort and choose the easy option: idleness and carelessness or death. I never gave in to this morbid temptation, but my overindulgence in fatty and savory foods or sweet ones caused my vitality to lessen and my depression to worsen, thereby reinforcing my hedonistic and suicidal tendencies. I had entered a vicious circle, or rather a downward spiral that led to hell.
Fortunately, before it was too late, I became disgusted with my way of life, as opposed to life itself. I was less a victim of circumstances than a fool who brought about his own misery, on account of his negative attitude and self-destructive behavior. I began my uphill journey to wisdom and health.
Health is the basis for every human achievement, even when it is poor, in which case it provides a lot less vitality and longevity than when it is good. I pledged to do everything possible to be healthy to maximize my potential to live and love.
In fact, health is not just a matter of vitality and longevity; it is also a matter of sanity. A sound mind is a complement to a sound body. Furthermore, the one is dependent on the other. This dependence had dawned on me with dazzling clarity a few months after I had moved into my apartment and improved my diet. By then I had studied many health books. They had helped me define and meet my nutritional requirements much more wisely.
My body needed a balanced and moderate amount of carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, minerals, and vitamins to function well. Correlatively, the foods containing these nutrients had to be properly chewed to aid digestion and absorption (this did not apply to fiber: a type of carbohydrate that the body can neither digest nor absorb). Proper chewing reduces foods to mush and proportionally increases the effect of the digestive juices on them or the availability of the nutrients that are ready for absorption. I thoroughly performed this simple chore, at the center of life.
To start with, carbohydrates are simple or complex sugars that I generally obtained from fruit, honey, milk products, beets, rutabagas, potatoes, legumes (beans, lentils, or peas), nuts, seeds, whole grains, and the bread, cereal, or pasta made from these grains. Simple sugars and digestible complex sugars serve as an energy source and participate in the synthesis of DNA and RNA molecules: the genetic information and the genetic messengers that enable the organism to regenerate and reproduce. Indigestible complex sugars, better known as dietary fiber, are capable of promoting the elimination of waste through the intestine. Refined foods are depleted of this fiber, without which constipation is a predictable outcome that bodes ill. Except on festive occasions, I resolutely avoided them.
Lipids include two main subdivisions: saturated, monounsaturated, or polyunsaturated fats (with a phosphoric component in some of them – i.e., in phospholipids versus triglycerides that are pure fats) and cholesterol, which is a singular fatty compound. Like simple sugars and digestible complex sugars, saturated fats and monounsaturated fats serve as an energy source. In addition, they contribute to the integrity of the body tissues. Polyunsaturated fats and cholesterol also contribute to this integrity and are used for a variety of vital functions involving the cardiovascular, digestive, endocrine, and immune systems.
A distinctive feature of polyunsaturated fats is their instability. When exposed to heat, light, or air, such as in processing, intense cooking, or prolonged everyday use, they can suffer damage and become harmful. In view of this fact, I was careful to eat the foods that contained them – for example, walnuts and seeds, and the oil extracted from either – in their most natural (unprocessed and if possible uncooked) form and fresh (unspoiled) state. When cooking was necessary, as in the case of fish or tofu, which numbered among these foods, I resorted to steaming or baking in preference to frying and proceeded with caution, while avoiding the pitfall of undercooking. I applied the same basic principles to the foods that contained monounsaturated fats, like peanuts, almonds, olives, and avocado, and the oil extracted from any of them, though these fats are less unstable than their polyunsaturated counterparts. As for cholesterol, found exclusively in animal products, and saturated fats, found mostly in land animal products, they have a reputation for causing arterial blockage and organ dysfunction if consumed without restraint. I limited my intake of them by following a largely vegetarian diet where animal flesh was the exception, not the rule. Actually, I exercised restraint in my consumption of polyunsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats as well. The opposite, like any lack of moderation, is a health hazard.
Now for proteins. They are various macromolecules that comprise a large number of amino acids (nitrogenous molecules that occur in twenty-two different forms). In the course of digestion, these macromolecules are broken down into these molecular components, which act thereafter as raw material or building blocks to produce new molecules or new macromolecules (polypeptides, smaller than proteins, or proteins) that suit our physiological needs in many areas: the metabolism, the blood, the mucous membranes, the skin and the tendons, the muscles, plus the endocrine, immune, and nervous systems. These molecular components act so if the body has enough carbohydrates and fats to satisfy its energy requirements. Otherwise, they are stripped of their nitrogenous part and mobilized into satisfying these requirements. This constitutes a waste of precious amino acids and a burden to the kidneys, in charge of eliminating the free nitrogenous part after the liver has transformed it into urea. As it happened, my main sources of protein – namely, legumes, nuts, whole grains, and the bread, cereal, or pasta made from these grains, together with milk products and eggs – were also rich in carbohydrates or fats. Here the fats that mattered were saturated or monounsaturated, whereas the polyunsaturated ones were not a favorable means of satisfying my energy requirements, given the many other important roles they played.
Lastly, minerals and vitamins are a group of some thirty substances that complement carbohydrates, lipids, and proteins. A deficiency in one of them can hamper a bodily function and jeopardize in so doing the health of an individual. Collectively, as precursors or components of useful agents, or as useful agents themselves, they assist in numerous processes: vision, nerve impulses and neurotransmission, muscle contraction, digestion and absorption, regulation of blood sugar and of the metabolic rate, respiration, energy production, regeneration and reproduction, formation and maintenance of bones and teeth, coagulation, protection against free radicals (noxious atoms or molecules), and immunity. My usual sources of carbohydrates, lipids, and protein already supplied me with minerals and vitamins, all the more since they were unrefined. Refining is a terrible refinement that depletes fibers and nutrients in foods. Nevertheless, to make sure I got enough minerals and vitamins, I rounded off these usual sources with additional vegetables: carrots, radishes, cauliflower, red cabbage, green vegetables, leafy or non-leafy, garlic, and onions. I drank plenty of water to boot, though not during or immediately after meals lest I interfere with my digestion by flooding my stomach. Drinking water typically contains a minute quantity of minerals. Much more importantly, it has the ability to replenish the bodily fluids and cleanse the system of undesirable substances.
The best thing about my improved diet was that in a few months my state of mind had taken a turn for the better in a big way. Never before had I thought so clearly and felt so enterprising. I was brimming with vitality and soon became immersed in the writing of my book on “vital efficiency.” It appeared I was a lot more capable of rationalizing and embracing the challenge of leading a fulfilling life, because I was a lot more alive. My energy level had risen dramatically. I could sleep three hours, rest another two hours, and go about my business for the remaining nineteen hours. In conjunction with this rise, my morale was unusually high. Circumstances alone could not account for this boost. My relationship with my girlfriend (an extremely kind and gentle, and rather pretty nurse) was in the doldrums and on the brink of termination. My new apartment, on the other hand, was a significant improvement; but what changed for the better during the few months in question was primarily the condition of my body, which impacted my state of mind. I was vibrant with health, notwithstanding I still experienced bladder problems that somewhat weakened me on occasion. This health was both physical and mental. I had a vigorous and joyous sense of purpose that kept me going and especially writing.
In the effort to be healthy, a reasonable diet is not everything. Fresh air and regular exercise ought to form part of this effort. There are two types of exercise; both require stretching, before and after, plus warmup and cooldown periods, to avoid injuries.
The first type of exercise is anaerobic, not dependent on the intake of oxygen. An example of anaerobic exercise is weightlifting. Done frequently, in vigorous workouts, it strengthens muscles and bones. The second and most beneficial type of exercise is aerobic, dependent on the intake of oxygen. An example of aerobic exercise is jogging. Done every day or a few times a week, for at least fifteen minutes (enough to markedly and sustainedly increase the activity of the respiratory and cardiovascular systems, responsible for delivering oxygen to the body tissues), it yields numerous health benefits. Besides strengthening muscles and bones, it raises endurance, improves the handling of stress, promotes good mood, boosts the immune function, reduces the risk of heart attack and stroke, and helps to prevent obesity together with disorders like diabetes and hypertension that often accompany this condition. In a nutshell, fresh air and regular exercise are important aspects of a wholesome lifestyle. They result in someone being stronger, feeling better, and probably living longer.