The Triangle of Health | Part 1:
3 Obstacles (and 3 Solutions) to Unleash Your Body’s Ability to Heal.
Dr. Aaron Hartman
September 5, 2023
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published as a four-part series. The content has been edited to make it easier to find and read.
Why Gut, Stress, & Sleep?
You may be asking yourself, “Why those three?”
Perhaps you’ve seen lists from other doctors. At RIFM, we often refer to the 5 Foundations of Functional Medicine. So, why do I focus on these three, in particular? Why do gut, stress, and sleep make the difference? What is the magic in this formula?
To answer that question, I first need to walk you through two other “lists.” I arrived at the Triangle of Health after working with two important systems:
The Blue Zones
In his book The Blue Zones, Dan Buettner surveys areas of the world containing the most long-lived individuals. He uncovers seven underlying factors, “blue zones,” common to those living in these areas.
For those familiar with Functional Medicine, these seven principles of health and resilience may sound familiar. The “Blue Zones” underpin the Foundations of Functional Medicine.
Which is our next list.
The Foundations of Functional Medicine
The Institute for Functional Medicine developed its foundation model for the delivery of health care, and it closely mirrors Dan Buettner’s research and what ancient cultures have already taught us. But unlike Buettner’s seven-point model, the Foundations of Functional Medicine focuses on five essential leverage points in people's health.
Both the Blue Zones and the Foundations of Functional Medicine illustrate the interconnected nature of our health and lifestyle. I call this Connected Health. Both can be helpful resources.
But let’s be honest with one another: managing seven blue zones in your life is too much. Managing five foundations is better, but that’s still too much. If you are starting from a place of health, you might be able to manage five foundations. But as I have walked alongside people fatigued and in pain, I realized managing seven blue zones or five foundations is too much of an added burden.
But there is a simpler way.
If you focus your attention on your gut, stress, and sleep, you will experience dramatic progress in your health. Gut, Stress, and Sleep are the primary obstacles preventing your body from healing itself. And if you focus on these three things, the rest of the interconnected nature of your health will come along for the ride.
“I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”
I used to say this myself. I was wrong. Not sleeping actually speeds up the process to being dead.
During my medical school and residency, I didn’t have much of a choice. I generally worked a minimum of 80 hours a week, and 100 – 120 hours was normal. A typical “workday” was a 30 – 36 consecutive hours. My longest workday during my internship was a 42 hours. By the third year of my residency, I managed to achieve working 60–70 hours per week. I was in heaven. It felt like a part-time job compared to what I was used to.
But it’s what I had to do, right? I just had to do what I had to do; I had to learn what I had to learn. It’s what all doctors have to do.
But this isn’t just common in medical school. It’s becoming the new normal in high school. High school students are staying up late to study; then waking up early to get to get to school. The average American sleeps six and a half hours a day. If the average is six and a half, that means you have people like me sleeping eight, and you have people balancing me that are sleeping 4–5 hours a night. That’s literally killing us.
In the mid 1800s, the average American slept eight and a half hours a night. What’s going on? Is that two hours we’re losing everyday important. Is it affecting our health? Should we do anything about it?
The answers are yes, yes, and yes.
Why Sleep Matters
It’s worth acknowledging that we are only just beginning to understand why we need to sleep. We still don’t actually know what occurs during sleep. But we know what happens when you don’t get it. Your cortisol levels are elevated. Your memory is affected. Your hormones are dysregulated and your mental health becomes a mess.
Not sleeping (or not getting adequate sleep) affects our body systems, our mind’s sensibility and leads to all kinds of sicknesses. It’s the three S's of not getting enough sleep.
Tragically, it’s become a badge of honor for many of us. It was for me. I bragged about how much I slept in college (8–8.5 hours a night). Then, I bragged about how little I slept in medical school and residency (3–6 hours a night). The corporate world isn’t any better. And mothers often feel the need to one-up each other with their tales of sleeplessness. Now, there may be times and seasons when sleep deprivation is necessary, but isn’t it odd that mistreating our bodies becomes a badge of honor?
But why is this important? Why should you make sleep a priority?
Because sleep affects everything. Sure, that’s a sweeping claim. How? Sleep affects our ability to handle stress. If you don't have adequate sleep, your body’s ability to handle stress greatly diminishes. That, in turn, affects your gut … which is the beginning of both health and illness.
You can see the Triangle of Health at play, here.
During sleep, our immune systems re-regulate; our memories become cemented in our brain. And most of our primary brain and liver detoxifying events occur while we sleep.
So, if you’re someone who wants to optimize your health to lower your risk of heart disease, lower your risk of cancer, help your diabetes, help your sugar and insulin resistance, manage your weight, or just to live as long and healthy as possible … sleep is vital for all of these.
10 Tips for Better Sleep
The most important step is simply to prioritize sleep. It’s a bigger deal than any of us have given it credit. Assuming you want to sleep but have difficulty getting enough quality sleep (at least 8 hours), here are 10 tips to help you sleep better.
Focus on the three corners of the Triangle of Health, and you can too can “unstuck” your body’s ability to heal.
If you found this article helpful and would like to take a deeper dive into the healing benefits of The Triangle of Health, I encourage you to enroll in the first of my three signature pathways: Connected Health: Gut.
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