Something profound recently occurred to me.
As I have been contemplating the collective experiences of a career in primary care medicine, I became aware of the fact that much of my work has been devoted to combating the impacts of three things: sugar, sedentariness and sleep deprivation.
With the notable exception of mental health disorders, much of the health-related suffering in Western culture is related to some combination of consuming a diet rich in highly processed simple sugars, inadequate levels of physical activity and a lack of quality sleep.
Not long ago, the No. 1 dietary culprit contributing to chronic disease was thought to be animal fats. While fat derived from animal sources is still a key player in chronic diseases, such as coronary heart disease, much has been learned about the relatively more significant impact of simple sugars on human disease.
Sugar not only stresses the capacity of the pancreas to make insulin, a physiologic process important to the prevention and control of diabetes, it has also been shown to be related to inflammation in the lining of heart arteries. A diet rich in processed foods containing refined sugar has been associated with changes in the variety of gut bacteria, which are now known to be essential to human health.
Sugar is found not only in obvious foods such as candy, snacks and soda pop; owing to its inexpensiveness and taste profile, it is frequently added to nearly every processed food we consume – from spaghetti sauce to yogurt. Moreover, when whole grains like wheat are deprived of their healthful fiber coating and ground into fine flour, the result is a form of refined sugar that becomes the basis for foods ranging from pasta to baked goods.
Sedentariness, or the lifestyle choice of inactivity, pervades our digital-age culture. Whether it is the habits of children trading outdoor play for indoor electronic entertainment or a service economy that leads so many of us to sit in small cubicles every weekday, inactivity takes its toll on our bodies.
Kids need at least 60 minutes a day of physical activity, while it’s is recommended that adults strive for at least 30 minutes per day. Compare this to the activity level of most Americans who get only a fraction of these amounts. Some of the health benefits of regular activity include reduced risk of heart attack and stroke, reduction in levels of perceived pain, lower risk of certain types of cancer and an improved sense of well-being, which can reduce risk of depression and anxiety.
Sleep deprivation is often overlooked for its impact on chronic disease. It comes in two main varieties. The first is poor sleep hygiene, in which the time, schedule, setting or dietary choice (think caffeine or alcohol) is not conducive to adequate rest. The second is inadequate restorative sleep resulting from unrecognized and/or untreated sleep apnea (think loud snoring and bouts of breathless sleep). Sleep deprivation has been linked to depression, obesity and a greater risk for developing dementia.
Dr. Matthew A. Clark is a board-certified physician in internal medicine and pediatrics practicing at the Ute Mountain Ute Health Center in Towaoc.