December 14, 2017

Health Behaviour

By Anu Dev

“Rest when you’re weary. Refresh and renew yourself, your body, your mind, your spirit. Then get back to work.” – Ralph Marston

Back when I was rotating through Family Medicine, we had a lecture on 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. Makes you sympathetic with those who believe there had to be a “master watchmaker”!! And think 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, warding them off, 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 with nary a thought as to what is happening to our body that evolved over hundreds of thousands of years being quite active. 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 if 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 thus defines health: “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, 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. One medical expert, in the book, “Lives of a cell”, hazarded a guess that it might be as high as 50%!
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 well-being 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 eat. 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 preventative measures to prevent ourselves from getting these diseases.
Let’s try adjusting our health behaviour, because prevention is always better than cure!