An expert guide to sleeping, eating, exercise and stress


Dr Safia Debar of Mayo Clinic Healthcare on how improving any of these components of good health can have a positive impact on the others

Sleeping enough, eating well, exercising and coping with stress are all components of good health. Focusing on all four at once while managing a hectic schedule may seem impossible, but giving a little extra attention to any one of these areas can improve the others, explains Dr Safia Debar, an expert in tailored medical exams at Mayo Clinic Healthcare. “By pulling any of these levers, you can have a big impact on your health,” she says.

It all starts in the brain. The brain can be in a state of rest, repair and relaxation, in which, assuming general good health, the body is functioning optimally. Or it can be in a stress state, in which the body’s primary concern becomes handling one or more perceived threats and other physical needs are relegated to second place, says Dr Debar. “Our brain does not distinguish. The perception of threat and real threat are the same, so once that button is pressed, the same cascade ensues.”

Dr Safia Debar of Mayo Clinic Healthcare

Dr Safia Debar of Mayo Clinic Healthcare

Stress can impact on sleeping, eating and exercising. For example, when the brain is in a stress state, it is thinking in the short term and focused on feeling better immediately. That’s why, when stressed, it’s common to crave sugary or fatty foods and not make the effort to exercise. The brain tells the body it needs immediate energy. “The brain wants to feel better right now, so it’s not going to think about going to exercise and then feeling better afterward,” she says. “It’s all intertwined.”

Similarly, sleeping, eating and exercising can affect how we handle stress. Key questions to ask yourself include:

— What is my sleep like? If it’s not good, maybe that’s where to place your attention, by going to bed earlier or changing another aspect of your sleep routine.
— How is my gut functioning? If you’re having digestive problems, it may help to optimise your nutrition.
— What is my social support like? That can affect mood.
— Do I find certain things are making me feel stressed? For example, if checking email before bed or immediately upon waking generates stress, think about how to change that part of your routine to maintain calm.
— What kind of exercise am I getting? If the answer is ‘not much’, try to find ways to incorporate more movement into your day.

“By helping your gut, that might be enough for you, or helping your sleep, that might be enough for you,” Dr Debar says. “It’s those simple foundational elements that can have huge impact. Be intentional about certain things.”

Pulling these levers of health ourselves can feel empowering, she says. “It’s not: ‘A doctor said I had to lose weight and sleep and reduce my stress.’ When you understand the foundations of health, it then doesn’t become about you having low self-control, or procrastinating, or not being disciplined,” she continues. “Instead, how do we take what you have in your life and embed these practices in it?”