In the last ten years or so, I’ve become increasingly interested in health and wellness. In light of my own health issues, I’ve wanted to learn as much as I can about how to be as healthy as possible, and how I can assess my own health outside the doctor’s office. As it turns out, though, there’s a ton of conflicting information out there.
Some say weight and health are perfectly correlated, but others don’t. There’s a veritable cornucopia of opinions on what good digestive health looks like, and only a handful of those assessments line up in agreement. And let’s not even get started on the issue of what constitutes a healthy diet!
In an effort to lock down some solid information, here’s what physicians, researchers, and other folks in the know have to say when it comes to indicators of good health.
Full, lustrous hair
While brittle, dry, or thinning hair can be signs that something might be going awry (such as hypothyroidism, stress, or nutrient malabsorption), the reverse is also true: healthy hair is an indication of a healthy body. “Hair is a barometer of your overall health,” says British Science Corporation in New York City’s hair and scalp expert, David H. Kingsley, Ph.D.
“Good hair depends on the body’s ability to construct a proper hair shaft, as well as the health of the skin and follicles,” writes Today show health expert Joy Bauer, MS, RDN. “Good nutrition assures the best possible environment for building strong, lustrous hair.” Nourished by key components of your diet like protein, vitamins, and healthy fats, healthy hair reflects that you’re eating well and absorbing all the good stuff from your food.
Another window into your health is, one might say, right at your very fingertips: it’s your nails! (Forgive the pun. As I gradually turn into my parents, my attempts to resist the allure of dad jokes is increasingly futile.) “Your nails are a very good reflection of your health. Many things can occur in the nails that can signify systemic or skin problems,” says dermatologist Christine Poblete-Lopez, MD, of the Cleveland Clinic. According to Dr. Poblete-Lopez, just like stress can affect your hair, your nails can also reveal signs of strain on your body.
A pink nail bed without lines or discolorations, as well as strong nails without pitting, lines, or weakness, are all signs of good health. However, if your nails undergo changes like discoloration (whiteness or brown marks in the nail bed) or start to look pitted, it could be a sign that something is amiss. “Changes in the nails can be a sign of a local disease like a fungus infection or a sign of a systemic disease like lupus or anemia,” according to Joshua Fox, MD, director of Advanced Dermatology and spokesman for the American Academy of Dermatology.
Healthy teeth and gums
Oral health is also a key barometer of health and wellness, according to the Mayo Clinic. Strong teeth and healthy, pink gums that aren’t inflamed play a key role in staying healthy, as does proper oral hygiene.
Just like other areas of your body, such as your skin and intestines, your mouth is full of bacteria. While most of them are totally harmless or even beneficial, according to the Mayo Clinic, “Normally the body’s natural defenses and good oral health care, such as daily brushing and flossing, can keep these bacteria under control. However, without proper oral hygiene, bacteria can reach levels that might lead to oral infections, such as tooth decay and gum disease.”
It’s also possible that those run-amok oral bacteria (bacteria gone wild?), along with the inflammation that accompanies a severe form of gum disease called periodontitis, may have a role in the development of other problems such as cardiovascular disease and, among women who are pregnant, issues like premature birth and low birth weight. Moral of the story: floss often (even though it’s quite possibly *the* most onerous of hygiene tasks), and visit your dentist regularly.
Happily, Body Mass Index (BMI) is falling out of favor as a means of measuring health. BMI, which measures weight relative to height and is often used to evaluate the amount of excess fat on a person’s body, has long had its detractors, and those objections have picked up steam in recent years.
For example, a UCLA study published in the International Journal of Obesity noted that after examining how peoples’ cardiac health correlated with their BMI, “Nearly half of overweight individuals, 29 percent of obese individuals and even 16 percent of obesity type 2/3 individuals were metabolically healthy. Moreover, over 30 percent of normal weight individuals were cardio-metabolically unhealthy.”
Nowadays, physicians are leaning more towards waist circumference as a key health indicator, according to TIME. According to recent studies, accumulating fat in the abdomen poses a greater health risk than simply being overweight by BMI standards ─ in fact, a 2008 study indicated that even among people who were not considered to be overweight, a larger waist was correlated with a greater risk of early death. Research suggests that this may be because fat that accumulates in the midsection is more metabolically active than fat that sits beneath the skin, so it secretes hormones and other cells that affect the body’s biochemistry. Even in people whose BMI is normal, “having a large waist may mean that they are at higher risk of health problems than someone with a trim waist,” according to the Harvard School of Public Health.
You get enough sleep
We all know how not getting enough sleep is ─ to put it mildly ─ absolutely wretched. According to the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), lack of sleep puts people at higher risk of all sorts of less-than-fun conditions such as diabetes, weight gain, and heart disease, and can even decrease a person’s life expectancy. As the NHS states, “It’s now clear that a solid night’s sleep is essential for a long and healthy life.”
Even though researchers haven’t yet fully grasped why we sleep, Harvard Medical School’s Division of Sleep Medicine notes that “scientists have gone to great lengths to fully understand sleep’s benefits. In studies of humans and other animals, they have discovered that sleep plays a critical role in immune function, metabolism, memory, learning, and other vital functions.”
One theory that has gained a great deal of traction and support recently is that sleep is a restorative process which allows the body to repair and rejuvenate itself. “The most striking of these is that animals deprived entirely of sleep lose all immune function and die in just a matter of weeks,” writes Harvard’s sleep medicine program. “This is further supported by findings that many of the major restorative functions in the body like muscle growth, tissue repair, protein synthesis, and growth hormone release occur mostly, or in some cases only, during sleep.” So, needless to say, getting enough sleep ─ and feeling well-rested, rejuvenated, and energized when you wake up ─ is a sign of good health.