Like many of us, my own personal ‘health and wellness’ journey has been a long and windy one met by frequent challenges and countless setbacks that have made me feel as though I wasn’t making any meaningful progress towards achieving the sense of wellbeing I so desperately craved.
My interest in human health and nutrition reaches as far back as my early teenage years, meaning that I’ve been studying, learning, and experimenting with health for nearly 17 years! But despite this long journey, it wasn’t until I encountered and fully understood the concept of the ‘pillars of health’ that the penny finally dropped and I realised what it really takes to achieve optimal vitality and wellbeing.
I can remember to the day the first time I learned about the pillars of health – it was in one of my clinical practicum units in my final year of study in my bachelor of health science. A tertiary naturopathic qualification is 4 years long and although the philosophy of holistic health is covered again and again from day one, my mind needed a metaphorical framework to apply these learnings to before I could finally figure out the big picture for myself and for the people I was working with.
Now days, I consider myself to be a strong advocate for the pillars of health concept and cherish it as a wonderful model with which I can help others to learn about their own health by guiding them towards building a greater understanding of the ‘right size’ that fits their body and life (you may have heard me banging on about there being no such thing as a ‘one size fits all’ solution to our health or healthcare).
The pillars concept has also been a pivotal tool for my own health-actualisation, helping me to take a closer look at some areas of my life that I previously brushed under the carpet or neglected all together (*ahmmm.. stress…*), finally finding the perfect balance of health for myself.
The 5 Pillars – a brief overview
Depending on whom you ask, there are between 3 to 7 pillars of health, which sounds like a lot of variation, right? Agreed!
In my opinion, the 5 pillars discussed herein are more than adequate at covering all the essential elements required for optimal health. Those who reduce health to only 3 pillars are missing some key areas (e.g. sleep, stress), while those who extend the concept out to 7 pillars are often just splitting up one pillar into two different ones (e.g. stress management becomes breathing AND meditation).
So what are they?
In no particular order:
- Stress management
- Mental & emotional health
Image: The 5 Pillars of Health
The concept of the ‘pillars of health’
Just as the name suggests, the pillars function as a foundation that supports our health. If one pillar falls or becomes weak, there are 4 others that can continue to hold up our health, albeit now under more pressure.
If 2 pillars fall or become compromised, then all of the pressure hinges on just 3 pillars.
If 3 pillars crumble, the 2 remaining have to hold up the whole show, and so on and so forth, until 1 solo pillar is responsible for the impossible task of supporting the whole body’s health.
The more pillars that stand strongly as a foundation, the greater chance we have of maintaining good, stable health in both the short and long term.
The concept encourages us to consider the elements required for our body to function at it’s best and to pay closer attention to the areas of our life that we might need to look at to achieve this.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, chances are you’re cognisant of the importance of eating well for health. Each pillar provides plenty of room for a personalised interpretation, however, that can be both a blessing and a curse when it comes to nutrition. Figuring out the best way of eating for you can be both totally freeing and utterly confusing at the same time!
With countless ‘diet’ options available in the wellness sphere these days, it is increasingly more difficult to know which diet is the best one to follow. Ultimately, figuring that out is your responsibility, although sometimes a helping hand from someone with specialised training in nutrition (e.g. moi!) is needed to combat tricky stuff like identifying food intolerances or modifying your diet to treat specific diseases.
Don’t underestimate the power of self-experimentation with different foods and ways of eating to develop a greater understanding of what works best for your own body.
You simply must become your own diet detective.
Regardless of the ‘diet’ or eating philosophy you settle on, there are some fundamental nutrition basics that we should all aim to achieve, including:
- Eating enough healthful foods to provide your body with adequate (but not too much) energy
- Aiming for variety in our food choices to consume all of the essential micronutrients our body needs
- Don’t forget about the importance of other food-related compounds that support body function, for example, fibre and phytonutrients
- Drinking enough water to maintain hydration and eating lots of fresh wholefoods for other good sources of water
And if I did have to weight in on the ‘best’ diet, my personal and clinical experience has led me to become a huge fan of the SLOW diet – that is, eating Seasonally, Locally, Organically, and using Wholefoods, an idea I’ve adopted from naturopath extraordinaire Georgia Harding of Well Nourished (you can read more about SLOW eating here and here).
It is a totally non-dogmatic, accessible and sustainable approach to food and eating that has lots of room for personal preferences and creativity.
- Be active on most, if not all days of the week
- Accumulate 150-300 minutes (2.5-5 hours) of moderate physical activity or 75-150 minutes (1.25-2.5 hours) of vigorous physical activity each week
- Do muscle strengthening activity 2 days a week
But there is a lot of room for personal variation in these guidelines if you ask me.
Interestingly, the government guidelines above choose to use the language ‘physical activity’, and I (and others) refer to this pillar as ‘movement’ rather than exercise. Some might just consider this to be purely a game of semantics, but I believe there to be an important distinction between the choice of words.
Exercise feels like a prescriptive, narrowly defined word that, for many, conjures up associations with boring and repetitive ways of moving the body – some may even argue that it is an outdated way of thinking.
Now, we have countless options to choose from when it comes to being active. With the rise in health awareness and the increasing popularity of fitness culture, we are seeing growing diversity in what it means to ‘move’.
I think this is a pretty good representation.
There are others, for example, those in the ‘movement culture’ created by Ido Portal, who interpret movement to be both a physical and almost spiritual or philosophical venture, blending the two into an artistic expression of physicality (check out some of his YouTube videos – they’re pretty awesome). I also see the value in this way of thinking about movement.
Ultimately, at the end of the day, no matter how you choose to define movement, exercise or physical activity, the most important thing we can do is actually just move our bodies. This sentiment is something that is echoed by studies of ‘Blue Zone’ populations – select groups of people around the world who achieve longevity like no other group; one thing these groups have in common is that they move daily and move naturally.
In short – figure out how you enjoy moving and just get bloody going!
As with nutrition and movement, this one is a no-brainer and the importance of good quality sleep is well beyond debate at this point in time.
There are different ways to quantify ‘good quality’ sleep, including:
- The duration of sleep – 5 hours, 7 hours, etc.
- The time it takes to fall asleep – aka sleep onset
- Whether you wake throughout the night and how long it takes you to get back to sleep
- The number of uninterrupted sleep cycles in one night.
Technology is helping us to understand these factors more and more each year, and we can even now perform our own self-experiments at home with sleep monitors or sensors that log our sleep and provide us with cold hard data each morning about the true nature of our overnight naps (give it a try – it’s an eye-opening experiment!)
As with the other pillars, there is no ‘one size’ solution to figuring out the best sleeping routine for you. Instead, you have to pay attention to your body to figure out the best size for you. Start by noticing how you feel on waking, and how your mood, cognition, and energy levels are across the day. Over time, you will understand how these feelings relate to your sleeping patterns – you may need more sleep, or in some cases, less sleep, or better quality sleep to function at your best.
Stress management is often one of the pillars forgotten by those who more narrowly define the concept, but I believe it is equally as important as the other pillars in our busy, chaotic modern day lives.
On a daily basis, we are faced with perpetual insults that trigger physiological, psychological, or both kinds of stress reactions in the body.
Whereas in the past, our stress centered largely on survival – i.e. coming face to face with a predator, finding shelter, or battling starvation, these days those threats have been replaced with a plethora of other stressors, some of which are obvious and some of which are much harder to identify.
Today, some of the stressors we face in our daily lives include:
- Emotional aspects – worrying, anxiety, fear, sadness, grief, anger, trauma
- Actually physical threats – being in danger, accidents, injuries, illnesses, abuse
- Perceived psychological stress – work-related deadlines or worries, relationship troubles, time-management issues, general ‘busyness’
- Dietary stressors – non-nutritious food choices or lack of nutritional adequacy, preservatives and additives, food allergies or intolerances, high sugar intake, overconsumption of caffeine
- Lifestyle elements – smoking, drinking alcohol, not getting enough sleep, always being on the go, sedentary lifestyle or over-exercising
Now, a little bit of stress is ok, in fact, it’s healthy – it keeps us in a sensitive state where our body can respond appropriately to our environment. To add, there is emerging understanding that, particularly in the case of emotional stressors, the way stress is perceived dictates the physical response in the body.
The real problems arise when stress is ongoing, unrelenting, and chronic.
Thinking about the list above, nearly all of us are exposed to multiple stresses in our day, if not constantly through every day of our week.
Over and over, I see individuals in my clinic, including children and adolescents, who are suffering from illnesses that are caused (at least in part) by the adverse physical effects of chronic stress. And while it is true that we all have different tolerance points for different levels of stress, no body can sustain a life filled with unwavering stress.
Finding a way to either limit or manage the stress you constantly face is an absolutely necessity for achieving and maintaining optimal health over the long term.
Mental & emotional health
This pillar is described differently by different people – some call it ‘joy and life satisfaction,’ others call it ‘spirituality,’ while others again refer to it as ‘attitudes, beliefs, and perceptions’.
It is probably the most widely defined pillar of the five, and can include elements such as:
- Mental health & mood
- Level of optimism and hope for the future
- Sense of spirituality or purpose in life
- Amount of joy and satisfaction derived from work and other hobbies and ventures
- Social connection
- Mindfulness and meditation
- Attitudes and perceptions about life events
- Beliefs and values
This pillar is definitely the one most open to personal interpretation because, as the list depicts, there are many ways to decipher the metaphysics of being a human.
It is probably a discussion that requires it’s own dedicated article, so for the sake of simplicity, I’ll just drop my two cents in quickly; regardless of the angle you come at it, this pillar usually involves coming back to finding a sense of contentedness with yourself, your life and place in the world.
So, as you can see, great health only requires 5 simple things – good nutrition, movement, high-quality sleep, stress management, and balanced mental/emotional health.
Ok, so they might not be that simple, I get it!
But at least you now have a map with which you can start to navigate your way towards better health. Use this concept as a framework to bring greater awareness to the areas of your life that might need some love and attention – after all, we can’t fix what we don’t realise isn’t working!
Personally, I’ve found the Pillars of Health to be a hugely helpful tool for my own health journey – maybe it will be helpful for you too.
FREE DOWNLOAD - 5 Pillars Poster
Download your copy of the ‘5 Pillars’ poster and start working towards strengthening your own pillars so that they can support your health now and for many years to come.
If you’re anything like me, you like having reminders around you to prompt you to take action and focus on achieving the things you want. It is the perfect poster to put on your fridge, in your bedroom, or on your office desk – anywhere to give you that little reminder to pay attention.