Dr. Tieraona Low Dog’s new book, Life Is Your Best Medicine: A Woman’s Guide to Health, Healing, and Wholeness at Every Age, draws on her diverse background in midwifery, massage therapy, herbal medicine and Western medicine to present a holistic approach to healthy living. Here, she writes about the devastating effects loneliness can have on health and offers tips for making healthy connections.
Mother Teresa once said, “The most terrible poverty is loneliness.” I agree. As a physician, I know relationships are important for our health and well-being. Relationship, from the Latin relationem, means to “bring back” or “restore.” Being in relation restores our spirit and brings us back to a community where we can feel safe and accepted.
Without our clan or tribe, loneliness and isolation can break our hearts, not just metaphorically but literally. In one of the largest studies ever undertaken, researchers found that being socially isolated or depressed increased a woman’s risk for having a heart attack more than smoking, having high blood pressure or being obese. Researchers at Brigham Young University reviewed 148 human studies and found that being socially disconnected was equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes per day or being an alcoholic. It was twice as harmful as being obese.
You’re probably asking how? Well, we now know that prolonged loneliness turns on the genes that promote inflammation, which is a major driver for chronic health problems such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer. And a lack of close relationships impairs our immune response and adversely affects our nervous system, making it more difficult to handle stressful situations. Being healthy is more than eating the right foods or getting enough exercise—it means maintaining strong and meaningful relationships.
What can you do?
1. Make relationships a priority. There’s no question that time is one of our most precious commodities. Make your important relationships a priority. Don’t take them for granted.
2. Tune in to others. Turn off the TV and cell phone. Give your partner, child or spouse your full attention for 20 to 30 minutes every day. Keep the lines of communication open. Be a good listener. Ask others what’s going on in their lives.
3. Schedule something fun at least once a week. Invite friends or family to go on a picnic, hike or to spend an afternoon playing cards or a board game. If getting together for dinner seems impossible, make a date for breakfast. The point is, get it on the calendar and do it!
4. Find ways to meet new people. If you need to widen your circle of friends, take up a hobby or join a class where you can meet people with similar interests. Volunteer at a local food bank, hospital or animal shelter. Not only can you meet new people, serving others can make us feel more grateful for our own lives.
5. Spend time with animals. Having a dog or cat can ease the consequences of separation and loneliness, and bring comfort and gratification. Consider fostering an animal if you don’t want a long-term commitment. There is a deep and powerful bond that exists between humans and animals.
6. Remind yourself of the wonders of the world around you. Light a candle and say a prayer for those who are sick or suffering. Look up at the stars or into the eyes of a child and take in the wonder of the universe. Experience awe. It’s hard to feel lonely when you remember you are part of creation.
Learn more about Tieraona Low Dog, MD, at drlowdog.com.
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