June 14, 2024

5 Key Markers of Good Health We Should All Know About

Maybe it’s the wellbeing editor in me, but I find there’s nothing quite like some cold hard statistics to really inform the way I lead my life. While intuition and leaning into how you feel (in body and mind) should be a priority, on a recent visit to Mayo Clinic Healthcare in London, I had a health screening, which saw Dr Safia Debar, a GP in executive health, and her team actually test some key markers of my health.

health

Photo: Otto Masters. Vogue Arabia, June 2022

Super enlightening and (for me, a self-professed hypochondriac) reassuring, during the couple of hours I was there I learned about some key health factors that play a part in good physical function. Our bodies are constantly changing, but thanks to a process called homeostasis, continually work to maintain balance, so it can be helpful to have periodic blood tests and overall check-ups to see how things shift. As a 33-year-old woman, I intend to use my own test results as a positive benchmark against which to compare future results, as I continue through my fertile years to perimenopause and so on.

Of course, the below isn’t an exhaustive list of things that can be helpful to know about our health, they’re just the key markers I discussed with Dr Debar during my visit, and those I know are often discussed in scientific research. Many are easily measured by a trip to your GP – you can ask for a blood test to measure your vitamin D levels, for example – but a private screening like the one I had at The Mayo Clinic is excellent if you can afford it. And, it goes without saying, if you’re concerned about your health in any way, make sure to visit a healthcare professional.

Hormone health

“A lot of people get their hormones checked, but the results depend on whereabouts in your cycle you are, because they fluctuate,” explains Dr Debar. For example, oestrogen (which is responsible for thickening the uterus lining) is highest just after ovulation, and then drops, alongside progesterone, just before your period starts.

All women should seek to understand the different hormonal phases of the menstrual cycle. “We need to see each month as made up of different seasons,” says Dr Debar. “When you’ve just stopped your period, you have more energy and muscle strength, so that’s a great time to do HIIT or go to events. We can tailor our workouts, nutrition, sex life, productivity – everything – to our menstrual cycles.” Once you are aware of how your hormones work and how they can impact you mentally and physically, you can adapt your routine accordingly.

Follicular phase, days 1-14

From the first day of your period until ovulation, when oestrogen and progesterone levels are low. You might experience increased libido, higher risk of migraines and fuller breasts, as well as increased energy and a better mood.

Ovulation, day 14

This is when the egg is released and you’re most fertile. Alongside a raised body temperature, you might experience egg white-like discharge, which helps to support sperm.

Luteal phase, days 14-28

If the egg isn’t fertilised, it’s during the luteal phase that you might experience PMS, which happens because progesterone – which has a calming effect – is low.

Vitamin D

Our vitamin D levels are incredibly important for how we function and feel, with low levels linked to low mood and energy, loss of bone density and even heart disease and cancer. While many of us are deficient in the UK due to a lack of sunlight, studies show that vitamin D supplementation works to improve our health, plus it’s inexpensive and well tolerated.

The blood test results showed that my own vitamin D levels were low, which proves that supplementation isn’t just essential in the dark, winter months (it’s typically recommended between September and April) but in summer too. Dr Debar advised I take 5000 IU for three months, then switch to 2000 IU a day thereafter. “Vitamin D is a fat soluble vitamin and the body stores it, unlike B vitamins where your body takes what it needs and then passes the rest out through the urine,” she explains. “So I tend to over-supplement.” Try to choose supplements that combine vitamin D3 with K2, for optimal absorption.

Bone density

During the screening, I had a DEXA body scan, which showed that my bone density – and strength – was good for my age range. Why is that important? Because our bone density naturally drops as we get older due to a decrease in oestrogen, which is what helps to strengthen them. “When we have low oestrogen – for example, if we over-exercise, or our periods stop due to excessive weight loss – our bones are affected,” Dr Debar says, adding that genetics, low vitamin D and calcium levels also impact bone health.

The healthier your bones are when you’re young, the better you’ll fare as you get older, because brittle or weak bones lead to higher fracture risk in older age. As well as vitamin D supplementation, a healthy, balanced diet full of calcium-rich foods will help: “The best source of calcium is sesame, I find,” says Dr Debar. “Think tahini and hummus, alongside dark greens.” Weight training is also key, so ensure you’re going as heavy as you can on the weights front to build muscular strength and bone density.

Hip-to-waist ratio

Scientific research has found that waist circumference is a significant predictor of general health and, according to Dr Debar, is often more important than BMI. “I am not so concerned with how much you weigh because you can be super healthy and active and still have a high BMI,” she says, adding that muscle weighs more than fat. “What is most important is our waist-to-hip circumference – your waist circumference is a marker of how much fat you have around your organs.”

When organs such as the liver are surrounded by fat, they can’t function as well. Not to mention that fat stored around the middle – also known as centripetal fat deposition – is also linked to high levels of cortisol. “Forget the Kardashians, forget what we deem ‘sexy’… from a physiological perspective, the waist should be smaller than the hips,” says Dr Debar.

While I had mine measured in a high-tech scanner, you can easily measure this metric at home – for women, a healthy ratio is 0.85 or less.

Something that came up a lot during the screening was how I manage stress. It is well reported that stress negatively impacts our health: chronic levels can lead to issues like heart disease, obesity, diabetes, stroke and high blood pressure, to name a few. While many of us are well aware of this, our collective stress levels nonetheless continue to rise. Dr Debar explains that breathwork is key for helping to reduce cortisol levels (I am a big fan of Wim Hof’s 10-minute sessions on YouTube), but she also emphasises the importance of how we speak to ourselves.

“We should act from a place of love and do things for our bodies and minds that make us feel good,” she says, using the gym as an example. “If you’re at the gym in a bid to lose weight or get healthier, then self-talk matters. Instead of looking in the mirror and saying ‘I hate what you look like’ or berating yourself for having a ‘cheat meal’, know that this just leads to raised cortisol. Then, when you exercise, cortisol goes up even more and you don’t reap the benefits of the workout.” Instead, step out of your own way and start being nice to yourself – not only will it help with cortisol levels, and subsequently how much fat you store and so on, but it’s also a much better way to live life. Amen to that.

Originally published on Vogue.co.uk

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