Taking the time and effort to exercise is an important first step. But, that’s only half the battle. Whether you want to lose weight, build muscle, or compete in your first triathlon, your diet is critical for success. The food you eat serves as the fuel for your workout and building blocks for your muscles. It would be a waste to follow the perfect fitness routine and ignore nutrition. The saying is true­—“You are what you eat”—especially with your pre- and post-workout meal.

Before you exercise, it’s all about fueling your fitness. But if you’ve looked into what to eat after working out or read about post-workout meals, it’s a different conversation. You might run across concepts like nutrient timing and carbohydrate-to-protein ratios. This article will highlight the research on when you should eat your post-workout meal, and the nutrients that you should focus on.

Nutrition for the Rest of the Day

When Should You Eat Your Post-Workout Meal?

Eating after exercise can be pretty intuitive. That comes mostly for one reason, you’re likely to be hungry. This is because your body just used a bunch of calories and wants to refuel itself. Exercise also breaks down muscle, and you need to eat protein to rebuild it.

The hunger you may feel after exercise isn’t the only guiding force for your post-work meal. Science also shows you should eat after exercise.

Some of the first researchers on the subject gave athletes chocolate milk post-workout (more about the nutrients in this “ideal” drink later). Chocolate milk improved energy and muscle recovery compared to those who had nothing after exercise. The timing of the milk was key to these benefits.

The window you have to eat after a workout for maximum benefit is referred to as “nutrient timing.” Most of the early research had test subjects eating their post-workout meal immediately after exercise, 15 minutes after, or 30 minutes after. This is why you might have heard people say you should eat within 30 minutes of your workout. However, most of these early studies didn’t do a comparison to more delayed time periods.

Recent studies have expanded on the early studies. Researchers tested eating one hour and up to two hours after exercise. They also examined the difference between fasted exercisers compared to those who had a pre-workout meal. The results turn out to be more involved than “eat within 30 minutes of your workout.”

What the Research Says

The results show a post-workout meal is more important in certain situations. It’s most important if you start your workout fasting or with only a small pre-workout meal. Like if you exercise in the morning, before breakfast.

A post-workout meal is also more critical if you’re on a calorie-deficit diet (losing weight). This means those trying to lose weight, should ration some calories for immediately before and after a workout.

The benefits are less pronounced if you started with a large pre-workout meal or your diet has a calorie surplus (gaining weight). But you still see some benefits from eating a post-workout meal, and should plan one.

The newer studies remove the urgency on the timing of your post-workout meal, though. So, you don’t need to rush straight from the gym to the kitchen. You can eat immediately, or wait up to two hours after exercise and still receive the benefits of a post-workout meal.

The Nutrients to Eat After Working Out

As you already know, your body needs food for energy and to use as building blocks. Physical activity increases those needs. But those needs don’t increase equally for all nutrients. Some play a much larger role in recovery and muscle growth than others.

Protein

Protein is the building block for the muscles in your body. Muscle is broken down when you exercise, and your body needs dietary protein to rebuild itself. Exercise also triggers extra muscle growth. That’s why weightlifting makes you stronger. This creates an even greater need to eat more protein and makes it one your top priorities after exercise.

Your protein needs depend on your size and the amount of protein you eat throughout the rest of the day. Aim for 20–40 grams (0.25-0.40 g/kg body mass) of protein after exercise. If you’re a smaller person, aim for 20 grams. A larger person would need closer to 40 grams of protein after exercise.

In addition to protein after your workout, you should try to eat that same amount of protein (20-40 grams) four to five more times throughout the day.

Focus on high-quality protein sources that contain all the essential amino acids. Some of the best sources of complete protein are milk, eggs, soy protein, and meat. Protein digestibility-corrected amino acid score (PDCAAS) is a tool for measuring protein quality. It will help you know which protein-rich foods to focus on.

Carbohydrates

Just as protein is needed to repair broken-down muscle, carbohydrates are required to replenish expended energy. Glycogen—stored glucose—is your primary source of energy for the first hour of exercise. The longer and harder you work out, the more your glycogen storage deplete. You will have to eat more carbohydrates to replenish it.

The research conducted 15+ years ago suggested consuming carbohydrates in 3:1 to 6:1 ratio compared to protein. While this is still valid, more recent research suggests you should take into account the exercise done and your overall daily diet.

Eating carbs can start before and during your workout. Eating them before exercise will help fuel your workout and maximize its potential. If you plan a long, difficult workout, also add some carbs along the way.

For post-workout carbs, you need to look at how many calories you plan to eat for the day. Refueling with carbs is important after a workout. But eating too many carbs right after a workout could quickly use up your day’s calories. This is especially true if you’re trying to lose weight. Prioritize protein first, then add carbohydrates as your calorie budget allows.

If you aren’t trying to lose weight and just finished a really hard workout, a few hundred grams of carbs might be appropriate. But you should eat fewer carbs (less than 50g) if your workout wasn’t particularly hard and you’re trying to lose weight.

Fat

Fat doesn’t play as direct of a role in exercise recovery as protein or carbohydrates. Too much fat can, in fact, slow down the absorption of the protein and carbs your body needs. That doesn’t mean you should avoid it, though.

Feel free to eat a mixture of high-protein and high-carbohydrate foods that also contain fat. Just don’t overdo it or worry about targeting a set amount of fat.

Chocolate Milk?

As mentioned above, some of the earliest research on recovery nutrition used chocolate milk. This research showed positive results in muscle and energy recovery. This lead many to turn to chocolate milk for their recovery meal.

Chocolate milk became so frequently used and referenced that many began to call it the “ideal” post-workout drink. It was also stated to have the “ideal ratio” of carbohydrates to protein. When you look into this ideal ratio, though, sometimes it is stated as 3:1 (carbs to protein), other times 4:1, and even as high as 6:1.

Why all the confusion? Well, different mixes of chocolate milk have different ratios of carbs to protein. The various researchers, nutritionists, and trainers also each had slightly different formulas they were using. And finally, as we have learned from additional research, there is no “ideal ratio.” Your post-workout needs are individual, and depend on your body, exercise, and diet.

Ask Yourself How Much You Sweat

Water is an important part of keeping your body running well. When you exercise, you lose some water through sweat. And it’s important to replenish it.

Make sure to drink plenty of water during your workout. The body can lose one to three liters of fluid per hour through sweat. Your post-workout goal is to replace any fluid lost that you didn’t drink during your workout.

And you lose more than water when you sweat. It also contains a large amount of sodium, which needs to be replenished.

The Salt in Your Sweat

Sweat rate: 1-3 L/hour

X

Sodium in sweat: 0.5-2 g/L

=

Sodium lost: 0.5-6 g sodium/hour

You can lose 0.5-6 grams of sodium per hour through sweat. You should replace that post-workout through the food eaten to get your protein and carbs. If your workout is longer, you should start replacing the essential mineral during exercise. This is why most sports drinks have sodium added.

Eat for Your Individual Needs

When deciding on your post-workout meal, it’s important to decide how much you will eat. And the amount is individual to you. That’s why the science moved away from simply telling you to drink a glass of chocolate milk. There is nothing wrong with chocolate milk post-workout, and it can be a part of your plan. But you might need something more or even something less.

Your protein needs are mostly determined by your body size. Your carb needs are decided by how many calories you eat each day, and what you ate before and during your workout. Water should be consumed throughout your workout, and continued through your post-workout meal.

All of these factors are different for you than others at the gym. So, consider these elements and listen to your body. That way you can maximize the hard work you’ve just done.

As soon as you get out of bed, your five senses are hard at work. The sunlight coming in through your window, the smell of breakfast, the sound of your alarm clock. All these moments are the product of your environment, sensory organs, and your brain.

The ability to hear, touch, see, taste, and smell is hard-wired into your body. And these five senses allow you to learn and make decisions about the world around you. Now it’s time to learn all about your senses.

Purpose of the Five Senses

Your senses connect you to your environment. With information gathered by your senses, you can learn and make more informed decisions. Bitter taste, for example, can alert you to potentially harmful foods. Chirps and tweets from birds tell you trees and water are likely close.

Sensations are collected by sensory organs and interpreted in the brain. But how does information like texture and light make it to your body’s command center? There is a specialized branch of the nervous system dedicated to your senses. And you may have guessed that it’s called the sensory nervous system.

The sensory organs in your body (more on these a bit later) are connected to your brain via nerves. Your nerves send information via electrochemical impulses to the brain. The sensory nervous system gathers and sends the constant flood of sensory data from your environment. This information about the color, shape, and feel of the objects nearby help your brain determine what they are.

What are Your Five Senses?

There are five basic senses perceived by the body. They are hearing, touch, sight, taste, and smell. Each of these senses is a tool your brain uses to build a clear picture of your world.

Your brain relies on your sensory organs to collect sensory information. The organs involved in your five senses are:

  • Ears (hearing)
  • Skin and hair (touch)
  • Eyes (sight)
  • Tongue (taste)
  • Nose (smell)

Data collected by your sensory organs helps your brain understand how diverse and dynamic your surroundings are. This is key to making decisions in the moment and memories, as well. Now it’s time to go deeper on each sense and learn how you gather information about the sounds, textures, sights, tastes, and smells you encounter.

Touch

Your skin is the largest organ in the body and is also the primary sensory organ for your sense of touch. The scientific term for touch is mechanoreception.

Touch seems simple, but is a little bit more complex than you might think. Your body can detect different forms of touch, as well as variations in temperature and pressure.

Because touch can be sensed all over the body, the nerves that detect touch send their information to the brain across the peripheral nervous system. These are the nerves that branch out from the spinal cord and reach the entire body.

Nerves located under the skin send information to your brain about what you touch. There are specialized nerve cells for different touch sensations. The skin on your fingertips, for example, has different touch receptors than the skin on your arms and legs.

Fingertips can detect changes in texture and pressure, like the feeling of sandpaper or pushing a button. Arms and legs are covered in skin that best detects the stretch and movement of joints. The skin on your limbs also sends your brain information about the position of your body.

Your lips and the bottoms of your feet have skin that is more sensitive to light touch. Your tongue and throat have their own touch receptors. These nerves tell your brain about the temperature of your food or drink.

Taste

Speaking of food and drink, try to keep your mouth from watering during the discussion of the next sense. Taste (or gustation) allows your brain to receive information about the food you eat. As food is chewed and mixed with saliva, your tongue is busy collecting sensory data about the taste of your meal.

The tiny bumps all over your tongue are responsible for transmitting tastes to your brain. These bumps are called taste buds. And your tongue is covered with thousands of them. Every week, new taste buds replace old ones to keep your sense of taste sharp.

At the center of these taste buds are 40–50 specialized taste cells. Molecules from your food bind to these specialized cells and generate nerve impulses. Your brain interprets these signals so you know how your food tastes.

There are five basic tastes sensed by your tongue and sent to the brain. They are sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami. The last taste, umami, comes from the Japanese word for “savory.” Umami tastes come from foods like broth and meat.

A classic example of sweet taste is sugar. Sour tastes come from foods like citrus fruits and vinegar. Salt and foods high in sodium create salty tastes. And your tongue senses bitter taste from foods and drinks like coffee, kale, and Brussels sprouts.

A formerly accepted theory about taste was that there were regions on the tongue dedicated to each of the five tastes. This is no longer believed to be true. Instead, current research shows each taste can be detected at any point on the tongue.

So, during meals or snacks, your brain constantly receives information about the foods you eat. Tastes from different parts of a meal are combined as you chew and swallow. Each taste sensed by your tongue helps your brain perceive the flavor of your food.

At your next meal, see if you can identify each of the five tastes as you eat. You’ll gain a new appreciation for your brain and how hard it works to make the flavor of your food stand out.

Sight

The third sense is sight (also known as vision), and is created by your brain and a pair of sensory organs—your eyes. Vision is often thought of as the strongest of the senses. That’s because humans tend to rely more on sight, rather than hearing or smell, for information about their environment.

Light on the visible spectrum is detected by your eyes when you look around. Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet are the colors found along the spectrum of visible light. The source of this light can come from a lamp, your computer screen, or the sun.

When light is reflected off of the objects around you, your eyes send signals to your brain and a recognizable image is created. Your eyes use light to read, discern between colors, even coordinate clothing to create a matching outfit.

Have you ever gotten ready in the dark and accidentally put on socks that don’t match? Or realized that your shirt was on backwards only after you arrived at work? A light in your closet is all you need to avoid a fashion faux-pas. And here’s why.

Your eyes need light to send sensory information to your brain. Light particles (called photons) enter the eye through the pupil and are focused on the retina (the light-sensitive portion of the eye).

There are two kinds of photoreceptor cells along the retina: rods and cones. Rods receive information about the brightness of light. Cones distinguish between different colors. These photoreceptors work as a team to collect light information and transmit the data to your brain.

When light shines on rods and cones, a protein called rhodopsin is activated. Rhodopsin triggers a chain of signals that converge on the optic nerve—the cord connecting the eye to the brain. The optic nerve is the wire that transmits the information received by the eye and plugs directly into the brain.

After your brain receives light data, it forms a visual image. What you “see” when you open your eyes is your brain’s interpretation of the light entering your eyes. And it’s easiest for your brain to make sense of your surroundings when there is an abundance of light. That’s why it’s so challenging to pick out matching clothes in the dark.

To improve your vision, your eyes will adjust to let in the maximum amount of light. This is why your pupils dilate (grow larger) in the dark. That way, more light can enter the eye and create the clearest possible image in the brain.

So, give your eyes all the light they require by reading, working, and playing in well-lit areas. This will alleviate stress on your eyes and make your vision clearer and more comfortable. Also try installing nightlights in hallways so you can safely find your way in the dark.

Hearing

The scientific term for hearing is audition. But this kind of audition shouldn’t make you nervous. Hearing is a powerful sense. And one that can bring joy or keep you out of danger.

When you listen to the voice of a loved one, your sense of hearing allows your brain to interpret another person’s voice as familiar and comforting. The tune of your favorite song is another example of audition at work.

Sounds can also alert you to potential hazards. Car horns, train whistles, and smoke alarms come to mind. Because of your hearing, your brain can use these noises to ensure your safety.

Your ears collect this kind of sensory information for your brain. And it comes in sound waves—a form of mechanical energy. Each sound wave is a vibration with a unique frequency. Your ears receive and amplify sound waves and your brain interprets them as dialogue, music, laughter, or much more.

Ears come in a variety of shapes and sizes. But they share similarities. The outer, fleshy part of the ear is called the auricle. It collects the sound waves transmitted in your environment and funnels them toward a membrane at the end of the ear canal.

This is called the tympanic membrane, or more commonly, the ear drum. Sound waves bounce off the tympanic membrane and cause vibrations that travel through the drum. These vibrations are amplified by tiny bones attached to the other side of the ear drum.

Once the sound waves enter the ear and are amplified by the ear drum, they travel to fluid-filled tubes deep in the ear. These tubes are called cochlea. They’re lined with microscopic hair-like cells that can detect shifts in the fluid that surrounds them. When sound waves are broadcast through the cochlea, the fluid starts to move.

The movement of fluid across the hair cells in the ear generate nerve impulses that are sent to the brain. Amazingly, sound waves are converted to electrochemical nerve signals almost instantaneously. So, what begins as simple vibrations becomes a familiar tone. And it’s all thanks to your sense of hearing.

Smell

The fifth and final sense is smell. Olfaction, another word for smell, is unique because the sensory organ that detects it is directly connected to the brain. This makes your sense of smell extremely powerful.

Smells enter your body through the nose. They come from airborne particles captured while you breathe. Inhaling deeply through your nose and leaning towards the source of an odor can intensify a smell.

Inside your nose is a large nerve called the olfactory bulb. It extends from the top of your nose and plugs directly into your brain. The airborne molecules breathed in through your nose trigger a nervous response by the olfactory bulb. It notices odors and immediately informs your brain.

Higher concentrations of odor molecules create deeper stimulation of the brain by the olfactory bulb. This makes strong scents unappealing and nauseating. Lighter fragrances send more mild signals to your brain.

You need your sense of smell for a variety of reasons. Strong, unpleasant smells are great at warning your brain that the food you are about to eat is spoiled. Sweet, agreeable smells help you feel at ease. Odors given off by the body (pheromones) even help you bond with your loved ones. Whatever the scent, your brain and nose work as a team so you can enjoy it.

Senses Work Together to Create Strong Sensations

It’s rare that your brain makes decisions based on the information from a single sense. Your fives senses work together to paint a complete picture of your environment.

You can see this principle in action the next time you take a walk outside.

Reflect on how you feel when you’re out walking. Take note of all the different sensations you experience. Maybe you see a colorful sunset. Or hear water rushing over rocks in a stream. You might touch fallen leaves. Paying attention to the convergence of your sense means you’ll find it hard to go for a stroll without experiencing something new.

Here’s a few recognizable examples of your senses working together:

Smell + Taste = Flavor

Just like a walk outdoors brings together several of your senses, a good meal can do the same. Flavor is a word often used to describe the way food tastes. But flavor is actually the combination of your senses of taste and smell.

The five tastes talked about earlier don’t accurately describe the experience of eating a meal. It’s hard to assign sweet, salty, sour, bitter, or umami to something like peppermint or pineapple. But your brain doesn’t have to interpret flavor from your taste buds alone. Your sense of smell helps out, too. This is called retronasal olfaction.

When you eat, molecules travel to the nasal cavity through the passageway between your nose and mouth. When they arrive, they’re detected by the olfactory bulb and interpreted in the brain. Your taste buds also collect taste information. This sensory data from your nose and tongue is compiled by the brain and perceived as flavor.

With the tongue and nose working together, the experience of eating peppermint is more than just a bitter taste. It’s a cool, refreshing, and delicious treat. And a slice of pineapple isn’t only sour. It’s tangy, sweet, and tart.

You can see how smell affects flavor by plugging your nose while you eat. Cut off the path makes you notice a significant decrease in flavor. Conversely, you can get more flavor out of your food by chewing slowly. That way more of its scent can be detected in the nose.

 Senses and Memory

Certain smells can bring powerful memories to mind. This is an interesting phenomenon. Studies suggest that the position of the olfactory bulb in the brain is responsible for smells triggering emotional memories.

That’s because the olfactory bulb connects directly to the brain in two places: the amygdala and hippocampus. These regions are strongly linked to emotion and memory. Smell is the only one of your five senses that travels through these regions. This could explain why odors and fragrances can evoke emotions and memories that sight, sound, and texture can’t.

What Happens with Sensory Loss?

Sometimes people experience decreased sensation or the absence of a sense altogether. If this affects you, know you’re not alone. There are many people that experience life just like you do.

Examples include the loss of sight or hearing. Blindness or deafness can begin at birth or be developed later in life. It does not affect everyone in the same way. The important thing to realize is that you can live a full and rich life as a deaf or blind person.

Often, if one of the five senses is reduced or absent, the other four will strengthen to help the brain to form a complete picture of the environment. Your sense of smell or hearing might be heightened if you experience blindness or low vision. If you are deaf or hard of hearing, your senses of touch and sight may become keener.

There are great tools available to those experiencing sensory loss. Talk to someone you trust if you need help with your own decreased sensation. And be respectful of others who live without certain senses.

Support Your Five Senses with Healthy Habits

Your senses add variety and texture to your life. And it’s important to protect their health. It’s perfectly normal to experience some decline in sensation with age. But there are steps you can take to preserve your senses and take care of your body, too.

Here are four important tips:

  • Be cautious with your hearing. Long-term exposure to loud noises can damage the membranes in your ear that create sound. Wear earplugs at boisterous concerts and when operating noisy power tools. Listen to music at lower volume. Take the necessary precautions so you can enjoy good hearing throughout your life.
  • Keep your eyes safe from sun damage by wearing sunglasses. You can also help support your vision by eating foods with healthy fats, antioxidants (especially lutein and zeaxanthin), and vitamin A.
  • Protect your touch-sensitive skin with sunscreen and moisturizers. And drink enough water to avoid dehydration.
  • Develop a taste for a diet loaded with vitamins and minerals. Eat whole foods, fruits, and lots of veggies. Supplementation is also an easy, practical way to add to your already healthy diet, too.

You can put your five senses to work with activities like gardening, walking, and cycling. Take in the sights, sounds, and smells of your surroundings. Make healthy choices so you can continue enjoying life through your senses.

About the Author

Sydney Sprouse is a freelance science writer based out of Forest Grove, Oregon. She holds a bachelor of science in human biology from Utah State University, where she worked as an undergraduate researcher and writing fellow. Sydney is a lifelong student of science and makes it her goal to translate current scientific research as effectively as possible. She writes with particular interest in human biology, health, and nutrition.

How you wear your hair says a lot about your personality. If you want your style to set you apart, healthy hair care is the place to start. That’s because healthy hair looks good on everyone.

It doesn’t take a trip to the salon for expert hair advice. You can get the mane you want if you understand hair anatomy. Comb over this article and learn all about healthy hair, what hair is made of, and how to take care of it.

Your Hair Growth Starts Below the Skin

Hair is one of the defining characteristics of all mammals—yes, even whales have some. It grows all over the body, with few exceptions. The soles of your feet, palms of your hands, and your lips are the only places on your body without any hair.

The hairs on your head, arms, and legs all begin the same way. It’s part of the integument (the body system that includes skin, nails, and hair). Your hair starts growing in the deepest layer of skin, the dermis.

The portion of hair found in the dermis is called the hair follicle. The visible strand of hair that exits the epidermis (top layer of skin) is called the shaft.

Your hair grows from the follicle. These hollow tunnels of dermal tissue are supplied with blood and nutrients via blood vessels. At the base of the follicle is the bulb—the living portion of hair. The cells of the bulb grow and divide, eventually forming the hair shaft.

When cells at the base of the hair follicle die, they leave behind a tough protein called keratin. This process is called keratinization. As new cells develop in the bulb, this protein is pushed up through the follicle. Keratinized cells build up in layers and exit through the skin. This is the beginning of the hair shaft.

People often refer to hair as being dead. This is true of the strands of hair you can style and touch. The hair on your head is, in fact, the protein from dead cells that originated in the hair follicles. This is why it isn’t painful to cut your hair.

Three layers of keratin make up the hair shaft. The innermost layer is called the medulla. The cortex is the middle layer of the shaft. It’s the thickest layer, too. Outside the cortex is the cuticle. Thin scales of keratin overlap like shingles to form this outermost layer.

As strands of hair exit the follicle on their way through the epidermis, they pass over glands in the skin. These glands are called sebaceous glands, and they secrete sebum. This oil conditions and softens each strand of hair.

During puberty, overactive sebaceous glands can leave hair looking greasy. The glands slow down oil production with age, and hair can sometimes feel dry.

Lifecycle of Healthy Hair

Follicles grow hair at a pretty remarkable rate. Your hair can grow up to six inches (15 centimeters) each year. The only material in your body that grows faster than hair is bone marrow.

Hair grows in cycles. So every hair follicle isn’t active at the same time. The lifecycle of hair has three stages: a growth phase, transitional phase, and a resting phase. They are called anagen, catagen, and telogen, respectively.

The majority of the hairs on your head are in the growth phase, anagen. During anagen, the cells in the hair bulb are rapidly dividing. They push older hair up and out of the follicle.

Hairs in anagen grow about one centimeter every 28 days. They can stay in this active growth stage for up to six years. The length of the growth phase varies from person to person. People with naturally shorter hair have a shorter anagen phase. Long hair signals a longer period of growth.

Next is the transitional phase. Catagen is the part of the lifecycle when growth stops. This is the shortest phase—lasting two to three weeks.

Catagenic hairs are called club hairs. The bulb at the base of the hair follicle hardens and attaches to the root of the hair shaft. A hard, white tissue forms. You can see this club on a hair that has recently fallen out.

Hairs that find their way onto your brush, comb, or pillow are in the final stage of the lifecycle—telogen. During telogen, the follicle that was actively growing hair relaxes. Hairs are shed during this phase. This happens when club hairs are pushed out of the follicle by new hairs growing in their place.

Telogen lasts about 100 days. It’s normal to lose 25 to 100 telogen hairs throughout the day. You’ll notice them falling out when you run your fingers through your hair. Massaging your scalp while you shampoo can also loosen the telogen hairs.

Be careful with your hairs, regardless of which part of the lifecycle they’re in. Short, softer hairs are just starting anagen. Hairs that are more uniform in length are about to transition from catagen to telogen. Always be gentle when brushing and styling your hair. You don’t want to pull out any growing hairs.

Texture and Color: The Style You Were Born With

Lots of people use hair product and tools to make their hair look the way they want. But you were born with a natural hair style. It’s determined by the shape of your hair follicles and the pigment in your hair.

The shape of your hair follicle molds your hair and how it grows. It creates a unique look and texture. If you were to look at a cross section of your hair under a microscope, you would see the shape of your hair follicles.

A round-shaped follicle grows hair that is straight. Some elliptical or oval-shaped follicles grow straight hair, too. Wavy hair comes from elliptical follicles with a large diameter. Ribbon-like hair follicles create curly hair.

But what determines the shape of your hair follicles? Your ethnicity has a lot to do with it.

People of African descent have ribbon-shaped follicles that make hair curly. Those with Asian heritage have much rounder follicles that cause hair to grow straight. Caucasian people typically have more elliptical follicles that can grow straight or wavy hair.

As for the color of your hair, the pigment melanin is responsible. Melanin builds up in the cortex layer of the hair shaft. This is the same pigment found in skin cells (called melanocytes) that determine the color of your skin.

Lots of melanin in the cortex makes hair dark. The less melanin you have, the lighter your hair will be. Gray hairs appear as you age when melanin no longer forms in the cortex at all.

There isn’t just one way to describe all hair colors and textures. Hair grows on a spectrum, with different degrees of straight and curly, dark and light. You can see these variations when you look at the hair of your parents or siblings. No two heads of hair are identical. So, take pride in the unique look and style of your hair.

Your Hair, Skin, and Nails

It’s no surprise that your hair, skin, and nails are all part of the same body system (integumentary system). Since they’re made of the same material—keratin—they have a lot of similarities. Check them out:

  • The keratin in hair is just like what’s in fingernails and toe nails. This protein is what makes hair and nails so tough and strong.
  • Hair grows out of the skin. So do nails. Deep folds in the epidermis at the ends of fingers and toes push layers of keratinized skin cells to the surface. These are your fingernails and toe nails.
  • Skin cells called keratinocytes also produce keratin, which helps the skin work as a protective barrier.
  • Just like it doesn’t hurt to cut your hair, trimming your nails is painless. There are no nerve endings in your hair or nails.
  • Your hair color and skin color are determined by the same pigment, called melanin.

How to Get Healthy Hair

A healthy lifestyle is the best way to help your hair look its best. From your grooming to your diet, there are lots of ways to make your hair happy. It starts with good hygiene practices that keep your hair clean.

  1. Wash Your Hair Often

Shampoo and condition your hair on a regular basis—every other day is a good schedule. Washing your hair with shampoo removes build-up of oils and dirt that make hair look dull. Conditioners help add a natural softness and shine to your hair.

  1. Comb Your Hair Gently

Follow washing your hair with a gentle brushing. This will get rid of any knots or tangles that may work their way into your hair. Start de-tangling your hair from the bottom and work your way to the top. This reduces pulling on the growing strands of hair.

  1. Cut It Regularly

A regular trim from a professional hair stylist keeps the ends of your hairs beautiful and soft. When the ends of your hair are damaged, they can begin to fray. This can cause breakage further up the shaft. A haircut clips off the ends of hairs that are beginning to split, which prevents damage from spreading.

  1. Eat for Healthy Hair

When it comes to diet, there are foods you can eat that will help your hair look and feel beautiful. Focus on getting these essential nutrients daily:

  • Iron: You need iron in your diet to keep blood flowing to your hair follicles. Iron can be found in lean red meats, spinach, and iron-fortified grains and cereals.
  • Vitamin C: This powerful antioxidant supports collagen production. Collagen is important in your skin, and it can help strengthen your hair, too. Look for vitamin C in peppers, citrus fruits, and berries.
  • Vitamin A: If you want longer hair with natural shine, value vitamin A in your diet. Sweet potatoes, carrots, and spinach are full of vitamin A. This carotenoid helps sebum production, your body’s natural hair conditioner. Vitamin A has also been shown to support thicker, fuller hair growth.
  • Omega-3 Fatty Acids: These healthy fats help keep hair shiny and full. Look for omega-3s in fatty fish, nuts, seeds, and avocados.
  • Biotin: This B vitamin supports your body’s natural keratin production. And, severe deficiency has been linked to hair loss (along with other B vitamins, including riboflavin, folate, and vitamin B12). However, despite biotin’s popularity in supplements for hair growth, there’s no clinical research to show benefits for extremely high doses in healthy people. Beef, eggs, and salmon are sources of biotin.

Care for Your Hair

Good habits and proper diet are always in style­­­—and they’re the first steps of healthy hair care. You can keep your hair looking great with good hygiene and regular haircuts. Apply a heat protectant before styling with a blow dryer or curling iron. And supplement your diet with nutrition that works to maintain your natural beauty by taking care of all your body’s needs.

Feel confident with a hair-healthy lifestyle that’ll give you great hair days for years to come.

About the Author

Sydney Sprouse is a freelance science writer based out of Forest Grove, Oregon. She holds a bachelor of science in human biology from Utah State University, where she worked as an undergraduate researcher and writing fellow. Sydney is a lifelong student of science and makes it her goal to translate current scientific research as effectively as possible. She writes with particular interest in human biology, health, and nutrition.

Omega-3. Omega-6. Perhaps you’ve heard these terms bandied about, yet they’re still shrouded in mystery. Maybe they’re military call signs, social media slang, or something else entirely? Their cryptic names don’t give any hints. But fear not! You’ve come to the right place to learn more about omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids.

What are Essential Fatty Acids?

The world of dietary fats can be a bit confusing. Fad diets and conflicting information can make understanding fats difficult. This is especially true considering that “fat” is a catch-all term for a wide variety of compounds that can work for and against you.

There’s the healthy unsaturated cis fats that provide a good source of energy. And they help you keep your cholesterol in check (as long as it’s already in the normal range), and maintain normal, healthy blood sugar.

Then there are the trans and animal-based saturated fats. These can mess with internal processes like metabolism, blood flow, and hormone functionality. Steer clear of trans fats, and limit your intake of saturated fats. To expand on these points and refresh your memory, review this myth-busting article about dietary fat.

After that little detour, hopefully you’re in the know about fats and how they impact your body. So, let’s move onto the essential fatty acids you can’t live without.

You may have learned that polyunsaturated fats are beneficial for the human body. This is broadly true. But there are specific polyunsaturated fats called essential fatty acids (EFAs).

EFAs are a family of fat compounds that play important roles in your body. They’re called essential because, unlike other fats, your body can’t synthesize them. Instead, you get them from the foods you eat—like nuts, seeds, and fish (more on this later). There are two classes of essential fatty acids: omega-3 and omega-6.

Let’s take them on one at a time, starting with omega-3s.

Go In-Depth on Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are necessary for normal development and function, especially within the brain. More specifically, there are omega-3s that keep your body functioning well. These are eicosapentaenoic acid, docosahexaenoic acid, and alpha-linolenic acid. Alpha-linolenic acid is the only essential fatty acid of the three, but each play important roles in the body. (Eicosapentaenoic and docosahexaenoic acids are considered conditionally essential.)

Eicosapentaenoic Acid (EPA)

EPA is very important throughout your life. That’s because it’s a major component of your body’s cell membranes. It gives these membranes structure that also lends a protective quality. This protection happens in a few ways.

First, it inhibits cholesterol formation within the membrane, which optimizes membrane permeability to protect the cell.

Second, EPA helps protect the cell from damage by free radicals. Lipid peroxidation is an oxidative process that denigrates fats. It also creates damaging free radicals. This important fatty acid maintains cell health by keeping the membrane from undergoing this harmful process.

A recent study showed EPA-treated cells were stabilized in the presence of the fatty acid, even when other factors were thrown into the mix. For instance, the stability held under increasing temperatures, a condition that mimicked bodily processes. Additionally, in the presence of increased cholesterol levels—and therefore increased permeability—the same was true.

EPA-treated cells withstood the varying harsh conditions. So, researchers concluded that EPA’s impact on cell membrane structure and fluidity indicates an important role in maintaining cardiovascular and endothelial (cells that line blood vessels) health.

EPA has other ties to supporting cardiovascular health. One byproduct of EPA is an eicosanoid subgroup called prostaglandins, which are known for their positive effect on vasodilation. That’s a lot of big words. But it basically means one of the components of EPA helps support healthy dilation (widening and narrowing) of blood vessels.

Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA)

DHA is arguably the most concentrated type of omega-3 essential fatty acid found in your body. One study notes that DHA represents 97 and 93 percent of all omega-3s in the brain and retina of the eye, respectively.

DHA has been widely studied and its benefits are far-reaching. Decades ago, researchers studied a group of individuals from an Inuit population in Greenland and compared their diets and health issues to individuals from Denmark. The Inuit diet depended largely on fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids.

The study showed evidence in the Inuit group of maintained cardiovascular and joint health not found in the group from Denmark. Many of those outcomes have been attributed to the mechanisms of DHA working to support normal, healthy immune responses in the body.

Alpha-linolenic Acid (ALA)

It’s kind of surprising alpha-linolenic acid is essential. That’s because it doesn’t do much in the body in its native form. But once ingested, this acid can convert itself to EPA and DHA, the more active forms of omega-3 fatty acids. This conversion process isn’t highly efficient, so it’s important to consume enough ALA. Eating foods rich in alpha-linolenic acid, like walnuts, will help ensure at least a small boost in the other essential fatty acids.

Because the conversion from ALA to other omega-3s is rather low, researchers have instead focused their investigative efforts on the impact of EPA and DHA in the body. But some suggest ALA’s impact may have been underestimated in studies in favor of looking more closely at EPA and DHA. Nonetheless, because of its close relation to EPA and DHA, ALA is still widely seen as a beneficial fat that should be included in your diet.

Omega-6 Fatty Acids, Twice as Good?

Not exactly. Just because the number goes from three to six, it doesn’t mean omega-6 fatty acids are any better. In fact, they have similar properties to those of omega-3 fatty acids. They’re just in different forms. Two most common omega-6s are linoleic acid and its derivative, arachidonic acid (ARA).

Linoleic Acid

If you’re seeking the main polyunsaturated fat found in vegetable oil, seeds, and nuts, you’re looking for the essential fatty acid called linoleic acid.

Like EPA and DHA, linoleic acid plays an important role in maintaining a healthy heart. Researchers based this conclusion on studies that swapped saturated fat for an alternative that’s high in linoleic acid. The result was that subjects saw optimized healthy, normal cholesterol levels.

Since vegetable oils are commonly used, it is easy to add this essential fatty acid to your diet. However, you should take a careful look at your intake before you make more substitutions to boost linoleic acid. As you’ll find in a moment, consuming too many omega-6s can have an undesirable effect.

Arachidonic Acid (ARA)

ARA plays many roles in the body. Structurally, thanks to its multiple cis double bonds, ARA is curved like a hairpin. This shape gives your cell membranes their flexibility. As you’ll recall, EPA gives cells structure. But, fluidity and flexibility within that structure is equally important. This flexibility allows for selective permeability, allowing important substances into the cell and keeping others out. Additionally, this characteristic allows ARA to play a role in cellular signaling and regulating ion channels.

When arachidonic acid is metabolized, it gets broken into prostaglandins. These metabolites, which you read about above, can help engage your body’s immune system to support normal, healthy function.

Keeping the Balance Between Essential Fatty Acids

While omega-6 fatty acids are important and have benefits, they only lend those benefits to a certain point. If omega-6s are ingested in high quantities, they no longer help your cells. In fact, if their concentration too far eclipses that of omega-3, they are associated with negative health outcomes.

Don’t be mistaken. Omega-6s aren’t bad for you. Remember, they are necessary, after all. So, you need them. But focusing on balancing your intake with omega-3s is a good idea.

Most scientists agree that the ideal ratio for omega-6s to omega-3s is around 4:1 or 5:1. The trouble is that the typical Western diet is two- to 10-times higher (between 10:1 and 50:1). So, make sure to keep your fat intake—like almost everything in life—in balance.

Putting the Fat Back into Your Food

Deficiency in these essential fats is not common. But boosting your levels of omega-3 fatty acids (ALA, EPA, and DHA) is always a good idea. Below, you’ll find tips on how to enrich your diet with these friendly fats.

  • Cold-water fatty fish are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. The next time you’re at your local market, ask specifically for herring, mackerel, salmon, and tuna. Here’s a clearer picture of what each type of fish provides:
Fish

(3 oz/85 grams)

EPA

(g/serving)

DHA

(g/serving)

Herring 0.77 0.94
Mackerel 0.43 0.59
Sea bass 0.18 0.47
Salmon (wild) 0.35 1.22
Salmon (canned) 0.28 0.63
Tuna (canned in water) 0.20 0.17
Yellowfin tuna 0.01 0.09
  • Nuts and seeds are a great option for getting a boost of alpha-linoleic acid. Both are great options for an afternoon snack. You can also reach for these for a fun addition to an existing meal, like a salad.
Nuts or seeds

(1 oz or 28 grams unless otherwise noted)

ALA

(g/serving)

Chia seeds 5.06
Black walnuts 0.76
English walnuts 2.57
Flaxseeds (1 tbsp) 2.35
  • For a boost in ARA, look to chicken and eggs. While it is present in other meats and seafood, chicken and eggs pack the biggest punch.
  • Vegetable oils are a smart substitute for butter and lard if you’re trying to get more essential fatty acids into your diet. When you’re pan-frying or sautéing a meal, reach for a veggie-based oil versus the saturated-fat options.
  • If the above options aren’t realistic for you based on dietary restrictions or preference, you can always lean on supplements to boost your intake of essential fatty acids. Fish oil supplements, like BiOmega, deliver a healthy helping of omega-3s EPA and DHA.

Mystery Solved

Now that the shroud has been lifted, you’re equipped with the essential knowledge on the essential fatty acids. With this knowledge, you can make educated decisions when it comes to your diet. So, start planning a few meals and snack substitution to balance the fat in your diet. Your cells, brain, and heart will be very happy with you for embracing essential fatty acids.

About the Author

Jenna Templeton is a health educator and freelance science writer living in Salt Lake City, Utah. After receiving a bachelor of science degree in chemistry from Virginia Tech, Jenna spent five years as a research scientist in the nutritional industry. This work fueled her interest in personal wellness, leading her to pursue a graduate degree in Health Promotion & Education from the University of Utah. Outside of work, Jenna enjoys live music, gardening, all things food, and playing in the Wasatch mountains.

Chances are good you, or the person next to you, dieted in the last year. Statistics show 49.3 percent of the population tried to lose weight by dieting in the last 12 months. Over the course of your lifetime, you’ve probably dieted at least five times—possibly more.

It makes sense. You live in a weight-obsessed culture. And, you know weight is closely linked to health. So, you try to lose the pounds. You may find yourself wondering, “what is a healthy diet”?

Paleo. Keto. Low-fat. Low-carb. Vegan. Fruitarian. Whole30. Wheat Belly. Jenny Craig. Dukan. Dubrow. Fit for Life. Carnivore. South Beach. Atkins. If you want to lose weight, you have a lot of choices. Each has its own pros and cons.

Here’s a sobering statistic: an estimated 95 percent of people who lose weight on restrictive, fad diets gain the weight back in one to five years. And, with all the different advice, it’s hard to know who to trust or how you should really eat.

Even if a restrictive diet fad helps you lose weight in the short term, is it a good idea to eat that way forever? To never give your body another carb? Or to stop eating fruit? Or to only eat fruit? What about loading up on butter and bacon?

It’s all mind-bogglingly overwhelming. And, looking at the statistics, it’s pretty hard to argue with the fact that fad diets simply don’t work. In the words of ‘90s fitness icon Susan Powter, it’s time to “stop the insanity.”

Say Farewell to Fad Diets Forever

Consider this: If it were impossible for your body to ever lose another pound, would that mean you should give up trying to eat healthier foods? Of course not.

Adopting short-term, fad diets for weight loss will almost always fail. The answer lies in turning your focus to eating for your health—for the rest of your life. It’s not restricting yourself for a short time because you’re trying to fit a number on a scale.

Health comes in all shapes and sizes. Regardless of your weight, you deserve to feel your best every day. Giving your body the nutrition that science has shown it needs to thrive comes with many rewards. You’ll glow with health. Your body will feel good. You’ll have plenty of energy. And, you’ll feel mentally and emotionally ready to tackle your goals and challenges every day.

Then there are the long-term benefits. Healthy eating patterns have been associated with maintaining the health of virtually every part of your body. This includes your heart, brain, bones and joints, and metabolic function, just to name a few.

The key to success is changing your behavior for a lifetime. Finding a way to eat that feels natural and that you can enjoy forever. A more positive relationship with healthy food will help you live a long, healthy life doing the things you enjoy with those you love.

Below you’ll read an overview of a healthy diet packed with foods science shows are most beneficial for health. You’ll also get guidelines and goals you can work toward to help you make a gradual, permanent shift in how you eat each day.

What is a Healthy Diet?

Most people have gotten it wrong. They eat foods that weigh them down and not enough of those that will help them live long, healthy lives.

A 2019 study found consumption of nearly all healthy food is below optimal levels. Researchers reported the healthy foods you don’t eat are as important, if not more so, as the unhealthy foods you may eat too often. They noted that “suboptimal diet is responsible for more deaths than any other risks globally, including tobacco smoking.”

Low intakes of whole grains and fruit were the worst offenders when it came to negative impacts on health. Not eating enough nuts and seeds, vegetables, omega-3 fatty acids, fiber, and polyunsaturated fats also had negative effects on quality of life. Overconsumption of salt was a serious issue for long-term health, too.

This study shines a light on what you need to add to achieve a healthy diet, instead of only focusing on what you need to cut out. Author Michael Pollan summed it up simply in his book, In Defense of Food, when he observed we should, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

Healthy dietary patterns are generally a variation of the Mediterranean diet (modeled after traditional dietary patterns from countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea). These diets emphasize whole, minimally processed foods: vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, and beneficial fats (especially from extra virgin olive oil).

This type of diet can be adjusted to fit most dietary, cultural, or ethical preferences. It can be healthy with or without animal-based foods. Although, careful planning is often required to ensure vegan and vegetarian diets are complete and balanced. Many people find that having some meat in their diet helps manage hunger better. But it’s a personal choice only you can make. You may also opt for organic produce and grass-fed or pasture-raised animal products.

And, plain old water is best to quench your thirst.

Chew on the Science of a Healthy Diet

There is abundant evidence that sticking to a whole-food diet based on plant foods supports the health outcomes that matter the most. That means more years in your life and more life in your years.

A healthy diet provides many of the nutrients you need for wellness. This includes omega-3 fatty acids, fiber, and antioxidants—along with a range of vitamins and minerals—that work together to deliver major benefits for health. These benefits have been proven in many studies, in thousands of people.

A study of 23,153 Germans aged 35–65 found high intake of fruit, vegetables, and whole-grain bread, along with low meat consumption, was associated with improved health. The results were even more significant in those who maintained a healthy Body Mass Index (BMI), never smoked, and exercised for three-and-a-half hours or more per week.

A study conducted by the World Health Organization found it’s never too late to start eating better. They saw a two-year increase in life expectancy at the age of 60 in those who adhered to healthy dietary patterns.

Dozens of studies and clinical trials have shown a Mediterranean-style diet helps maintain:

  • healthy waist circumference and body weight/BMI
  • normal cholesterol
  • healthy blood glucose
  • normal blood lipids/lipoproteins
  • healthy blood pressure and circulation
  • normal cognitive function

The Lowdown on Glycemic Index and a Healthy Diet

Generally, a healthy eating pattern consists of food with a low glycemic index or load.

When it comes to the glycemic index, common sense should dictate your decisions. The goal is to limit nutrient-poor, processed foods with refined starches and sugars. Not foods from nature. Many starchy vegetables, such as carrots, and fruits have a higher glycemic index.

But there’s no evidence these foods are harmful.

In fact, a 2018 review showed dramatic benefits linked to eating multiple servings of whole fruit. This is thanks, in part, to their fiber content and prebiotic effects (i.e., how well they feed the good bacteria in your gut). Benefits were seen in cardiovascular, digestive, metabolic, respiratory, and bone health. Plus, eating fruit improved measures of psychological well-being and skin health, too.

A Day in the Life of a Healthy Diet (for Adults)

Now you’ve digested a good overview of what a healthy diet includes. So, let’s look more closely at how those foods could shape your daily eating.

The following standards reflect commonalities and differences of the most well-established healthy eating patterns. These include the Mediterranean diet, Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (commonly called DASH), Mediterranean-DASH-diet Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay (MIND), Flexitarian (or semi-vegetarian), and USDA Dietary Guidelines.

Guidelines for a Healthy Diet
Food Group Number of Servings
Whole Grains 6–8 per day
Vegetables 5+ per day from a rainbow of colors

  • 1 or more from dark, leafy greens
  • 1 starchy vegetable (examples: white potato, corn, green peas, plantains, cassava, green lima beans)
Fruits 3–5 per day

  • Include berries at least 3 times a week
Protein Sources *Meet your target range in grams* (see below)

Aim to increase the protein you get from plant-based sources, including legumes and beans, soy foods (tofu, tempeh), unsalted nuts and seeds

  • Up to 7 eggs per week

 

If you eat meat, limit to 6 servings per week from a variety of sources:

  • 2–3 fish/seafood per week (6 oz. serving)
  • 2–4 lean meat / skinless poultry per week (3 oz. serving)
Dairy 1–3 low- and non-fat dairy per day
Fats and oils 2–3 teaspoons per day

  • Limit to 1 serving or less that’s not from extra virgin olive oil or another plant-based source
Sweets Sparingly, should only be 5–10 percent of daily calories

  • Try dark chocolate that’s at least 70 percent cacao or higher and keep an eye on sugar content
Beverages Water, enough to stay hydrated (you may want to aim for 8 glasses a day)

Coffee and tea, as desired

1 serving wine/alcohol per day if desired

Salt ~1 tsp TOTAL per day (this includes salt in prepared foods, so watch your food labels)

1,500–2,300 mg of sodium

No foods are off limits—everything can fit into a healthy diet. But that comes with a stipulation: some foods should only be consumed on a very limited basis. Let’s call them “special occasion” foods.

Generally, special occasion foods are the worst for your waistline and your health. Truly savor them without guilt when you indulge. But reserve these foods for only a few times a month:

  • Desserts and sugar-sweetened foods
  • Chips and processed snacks
  • Refined grains, like white bread or pasta
  • Fried or fat-laden dishes
  • Processed and cured meats (bacon, salami)
  • Sodas or fruit juices

It’s all about finding the balance that works for you. To find what you enjoy, pay attention to the signals from your body, not just your taste buds. What does your body like? How do certain foods make you feel? Writing down the answers to these questions in a food journal can help.

Try new things, but don’t force yourself to eat foods you dislike. Your best diet is the one that’s made up of the healthiest, most nutritious foods you will love eating for life.

Mind Your Macros

Experts generally recommend certain ratios of macronutrients in your daily diet. Don’t get too hung up on the numbers. If you eat a healthy diet, like what’s listed above, you should be able to come close to these ranges with a little planning.

Carbohydrates and Fiber

  • 45–65 percent of your dietary calories should come from carbohydrates (mostly from whole grains, fruit, and vegetables)
  • 25–37 grams of fiber per day

Protein

  • Aim to consume .8 g–2 grams of protein for each kilogram (kg) of body weight, spread evenly throughout the day. (Mature individuals, people who want to lose weight, and very active individuals should consume protein at the higher end of the range.)
    • To calculate your weight in kg, divide your weight in pounds (lbs.) by 2.205, then multiply that amount by .8 and 1.2 to get the range.
    • For example, if you weigh 150 lbs.
      • 150/2.205=68
      • .8(68) = 54
      • 2(68)=82
      • Your range is 54–82 g protein per day
    • 15–25 percent of your dietary calories should come from protein

Fat

  • 20–35 percent of daily calories come from dietary fats
    • Unsaturated fats should be 90 percent of dietary fat intake
    • Saturated fats less than 10 percent of dietary fat intake

A Lifetime of Wellness Starts with a Healthy Diet

A healthy diet is only one of the eight pillars of holistic health and wellness. This article summarizes how variations of the Mediterranean diet are proven to support vitality and well-being. Other aspects of the Mediterranean culture are also essential parts of a healthy lifestyle: getting plenty of exercise and adequate rest, along with maintaining strong social relationships.

Each day and every meal are full of chances to make good choices. Establishing positive habits is the key to long-term success. So, commit to saying farewell to fad diets forever and breaking the cycle of unhealthy eating. Start by setting small goals and use the science of self-motivation to begin your journey toward a lifetime of good food and good health today.

To learn more about how to adopt a healthy, whole-food diet, download the USANA® Food Guide. Inside, you’ll find a list of healthy foods, smart swaps, a week of sample menus, and serving sizes. There’s also a suggested shopping list, along with blank shopping lists and meal planning worksheets, and much more.

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Your body has a large, complex, and well-trained security force protecting you from the constant barrage of foreign invaders trying to get in. You call it your immune system. And it’s a network of cells, tissues, and organs working together to provide full-time, full-body protection. Without your knowledge, your immune system identifies and attacks a wide variety of day-to-day threats. All while distinguishing these pathogens from your healthy tissues. But this amazing system is sometimes tripped by less evil objects, like pollen. And that’s where your seasonal allergies start.

The symptoms of allergies—running nose, watery eyes, and sneezing—make sense when you consider the role your nose, mouth, and eyes play. They’re easy entry points for invaders, so your tears and mucus are equipped with an enzyme called lysozyme. It’s capable of breaking down the cell walls of numerous bacteria. Your saliva is armed with antibacterial compounds. And your nasal passages and lungs are coated in a protective shield of mucus and lined with mast cells—a type of white blood cell.

Any bacteria or virus that wants to gain entry through these passageways must first successfully navigate through these important defenses. Harmless substances—those that do not pose a threat to your health—also get caught up in these defenses. They are mistakenly targeted for destruction by your immune system. And that’s only the most basic answer for what causes allergies.

But there’s so much more worth exploring, especially if you’re familiar with the runny, watery, sneezy world of allergies. Let’s dive deeper.

Seasonal Allergies: What They Are and How They Happen

An allergen is typically a harmless substance that can trigger an immune system response that results in an allergic reaction. This is considered a type of immune system error.

A seasonal allergy (also called allergic rhinitis or hay fever) is your immune system overreacting to harmless substances in the environment during certain times of the year. Hay fever originally received its name because of the symptoms that people experienced during the summer months when hay was harvested.

Pollen is the most common allergen in sufferers’ seasonal allergies. This fine, powdery substance is produced by trees, grasses, weeds, and flowers mainly during the spring, summer, and fall. Pollination is the transferring of pollen grains from a male part of a plant to a female part so that reproduction can occur. This works when pollen is released into the air, picked up by wind, or carried by insects, bats, and birds to fertilize other plants of the same species.

Pollination is a very important step in the life cycle of many plants. But pollination can be miserable if you experience seasonal allergies.

These tiny, harmless pollen grains float around in the air and can find their way into your nasal passages. This can trigger an immune response inside your nose. That could lead to sneezing, runny or stuffy nose, teary eyes, and an itchy nose, or throat. While these symptoms may sound and feel like a cold, they are not caused by a virus. It’s just your immune system overreacting to that “harmless” plant pollen.

While it can be confusing to determine if you have seasonal allergies or a cold, there are some unique differences:

  • Seasonal allergies do not cause a fever.
  • Any mucus secretions you may experience are typically thin, runny, and clear.
  • Your nose, throat, and ears may feel itching and you may have rapid bouts of sneezing.
  • Seasonal allergy symptoms usually last longer than seven to 10 days as they are tied to pollen production and counts.

How Do Seasonal Allergies Develop?

You weren’t born with seasonal allergies. But you can develop them over your lifetime.

It all begins with exposure to an allergen (molecules with the potential to cause allergy). You’ve been around them all your life without difficulty. But suddenly your body decides a certain allergen is an invader that must be destroyed.

When this happens, your immune system studies the allergen and makes highly specialized proteins called IgE antibodies to act against it. That’s just in case another exposure occurs. Once your body is sensitized, your immune system maintains a lasting memory of that allergen. This process is called priming.

At your next exposure, your previously made antibodies recognize the allergen and turn on special immune cells to fight and destroy it. These IgE antibodies are specific to a particular antigen. For example, if it is ragweed pollen, the IgE antibodies produced by your immune system only attack the pollen from ragweed.

The chance of developing an allergy starts in your genes. While you can’t inherit specific allergies from your parents, the tendency toward developing allergies is passed down. Children with one allergic parent can have up to a 50-percent chance of developing allergies. And with two allergic parents, it can be an 80-percent chance. Anyone can experience allergies, but children tend to be affected more often than adults.

Allergies can take years to develop. And having one allergy can make you more likely to get others. There’s also a threshold for people who have allergies. So, you can handle a small exposure, but too much launches your body into an allergic response. That activates mast cells in nasal tissues and triggers the release of the histamine from basophils and eosinophils (types of white blood cells).

Histamine is an organic compound that causes the symptoms most often associated with allergies. They’re responsible for the itchy nose, throat, or skin; watery eyes; sneezing; cough; and a runny or stuffy nose.

Seasonal allergy sufferers are familiar with antihistamines. These medications are often used to block the effects of histamines. And it’s the most popular way to deal with the symptoms of seasonal allergies.

The Dreaded Season of Allergies

Allergy season is determined by where you live, and what you’re allergic to. Those with pollen allergies likely dread spring, summer, or fall seasons when pollen counts are at their highest levels.

But what pollen producers are most closely tied to what season? Here’s a quick, simple guide:

  • SPRING: Trees (like oak and birch) are the significant source of pollen during spring months. In some areas, they can begin producing pollen as early as January.
  • SUMMER: During the summer months, grasses (like ryegrass and timothy-grass) are a top source of allergy-causing pollen.
  • FALL: Weeds are the top allergy offenders during the fall. This is especially true for ragweed, which grows in almost every environment.

Having one allergy makes you more likely to get others. So, if one year your ragweed symptoms seem more severe than usual, you may also be reacting to another allergen that’s sharing the air.

How Seasonal Allergies Can Cross Over to Food Allergies

Allergies can interact in other unexpected ways. For example, up to a third of people with certain pollen allergies also develop allergies to foods that contain similar proteins. This is called pollen-food syndrome, or oral allergy syndrome.

It’s caused by cross-reacting allergens found in both pollen and raw fruits, vegetables, or even certain tree nuts. It means that you could experience an itchy mouth; a scratchy throat; or lip, mouth, throat, and tongue swelling.

The symptoms of pollen-food syndrome are usually confined to the mouth and throat. That’s because these proteins are sensitive to gastric enzymes, so they are rapidly degraded upon ingestion. That limits the extent of the reaction. In addition, these proteins are sensitive to heat, so cooking the offending food doesn’t cause the same reaction. In most cases, the symptoms subside once the offending food is swallowed or removed from the mouth.

Although not everyone with pollen allergies experiences pollen-food syndrome, the following are the commonly associated pollen allergens and foods:

  • Birch pollen: apple, almond, carrot, celery, cherry, hazelnut, kiwi, peach, pear, and plum
  • Grass pollen: celery, melons, oranges, peaches, and tomato
  • Ragweed pollen: banana, cucumber, melons, sunflower seeds, and zucchini 

All About Allergy Testing

You may have a guess about what causes your allergic reactions. But testing is the only way to know for sure.

Allergy testing can be done as a skin prick or through blood testing. Both methods are used to help determine what substances you may be allergic to. These tests are provided by medical doctors specializing in the immune system and the treatment of allergies. And they are given in addition to a thorough physical exam and health history.

Skin allergy testing is the most common. It’s considered a reliable method to test for certain types of allergens. For this procedure, a tiny amount of select allergens are put into your skin by making a small indentation “prick or scratch” on the surface of your skin.

The skin allergy test determines specific allergies based on how your skin reacts. And the results show up pretty fast. Reactions on the skin occur within about 15 minutes.

If you have allergies, a little swelling and redness will occur where the allergen(s) were placed in your skin. For example, if you are allergic to birch pollen, but not ryegrass pollen, only the birch pollen will cause redness, swelling, and possible itching. The spot where the ryegrass pollen was applied will remain unaffected.

If you’re tired of the seasonal allergen battle, these tests can help determine which allergens trigger your symptoms. And testing can help determine what steps you need to take to avoid your specific triggers. It also helps identify prevention measures or treatments likely to work best for you.

Train Your Immune System

Depending on the type of allergy you have, it’s possible to train your immune system to become less responsive to certain allergens over time—with the help of an allergist or immunologist. Desensitization or immunotherapy is a preventive treatment for allergic reactions to certain substances, including pollens.

Immunotherapy involves giving gradually increasing doses of the immune-offending allergen either under the tongue or as an injection into the skin. The incremental increase in dosing changes the way your immune system reacts to the allergen over time. This can help reduce the symptoms of an allergy when the allergen is encountered by your immune system in the future.

Before starting treatment, it is important for your allergist to help you identify which pollens or other substances trigger allergy symptoms. Skin and sometimes blood tests are performed to confirm the antibodies to specific allergens before therapy can begin.

For those tired of seasonal sneezing fits and constant doses of antihistamines, immunotherapy is a long-term way to address the way your immune system responds to allergens.

Tips for Seasonal Allergy Avoidance

If your nose is driving you crazy, what can you do? Pollen can be difficult to dodge. But avoidance remains one of the best ways to control exposure to allergens during allergy season.

To minimize your exposure to pollen:

  • Stay informed of your local pollen counts by checking the internet or other community sources
  • Remain indoors when pollen counts are high
  • Avoid exercising outdoors early in the morning
  • Keep car windows rolled up while driving
  • Avoid gardening or yard work when pollen counts are high
  • Wear a pollen mask when outdoors
  • Consider investing in a home air purifier
  • Stay indoors on windy days and during thunderstorms
  • Keep doors and windows closed
  • Wear sunglasses while outside to keep pollen out of your eyes
  • Vacuum often to keep allergens out of your home

Beat the Allergy Season Blues

One of the best ways to combat the impact of seasonal allergies is through knowledge, preparation, and action. Knowing what pollens you’re allergic to, controlling exposure, and treating the symptoms before they become overwhelming can help you navigate the perils of pollen season.

Just like a powerful computer, your body is always taking in data and using it to make decisions. But you have nerves instead of a circuit board and a brain rather than microchips. Together, your nervous system directs your body’s functions according to the messages it receives.

Think of the central nervous system as a biological command center. It integrates information from your surroundings and tells your body how to react. And the nervous system does all this while letting you focus on living your life. So, you don’t need to consciously worry about responding to every stimulus you encounter. That would be exhausting.

To save you the mental energy, you need your nervous system to perform voluntary and involuntary actions. Without it, you couldn’t control your arms and legs, maintain a steady heart rate, or breath.

Here’s some other involuntary reactions that rely on your nervous system:

  • Vision
  • Blinking
  • Sneezing
  • Fight-or-flight responses
  • Withdrawal reflex (pulling your hand away from a hot stove)

Your nervous system also helps you:

  • Walk
  • Talk
  • Clap your hands
  • Brush your hair
  • Exercise

The reach of your nervous system is enormous. Every part of your body is hardwired with nervous-system tissue. You can pick up information from your hands and feet, as well as your joints and gut.

Now it’s time to plug into your nervous system and get a sense of how much it does for you. And also learn about the parts and mechanisms that make your nervous system function.

Anatomy: Nervous System Parts

At its most basic level, your nervous system is a collection of specialized cells called neurons, and supporting cells called neuroglial cells or just glial cells. A neuron can conduct electricity and secrete chemical messengers called neurotransmitters. Each nerve cell can pass on information, and receive information from stimuli inside and outside your body. Glial cells surround neurons. Their role is to provide support and protection for neurons.

Neurons have a cell body—just like all other cells. This is called the soma, and it’s surrounded with tiny, finger-like extensions. These are called dendrites. And they receive stimulation from the nerve cells next door.

Protruding out of the cell body is the axon—a long projection that carries electrochemical impulses. Axons are surrounded by a fatty tissue called the myelin sheath. This insulates the axon and speeds up signal transmission. Think of the myelin sheath as the insulation that surrounds the wires in your electronic devices.

The neuron ends at the axon terminal. That’s where signals created inside the nerve cell are sent to the next neuron. Nerve impulses are transmitted from the axon terminal of one neuron to the dendrites of the next. The space where nerve cells meet up and exchange information is called the synapse.

Neurons link up between their dendrites and axon terminals and create a thick, rope-like shape. This bundle of neurons is called a nerve. They pick up signals from your internal organs and outside world and propel the messages towards your brain.

There are thousands of nerves in your body. And they vary in size. The longest nerve is called the sciatic nerve. It stretches from the base of your spinal cord to your foot. The trochlear nerve is one of the smallest. It’s in charge of the rotational movement of your eye.

After neurons and nerves come the bigger organs of the nervous system—the spinal cord and brain.

The spinal cord is essentially one large, thick nerve with a direct connection to your brain. The bones in your spinal column provide structure and protection. That allows messages to travel uninterrupted to and from your brain along the spinal cord.

If you think about your nervous system as a computer, then the brain is the system’s hard drive. It receives every message gathered by your nerves via the spinal cord. Then it interprets that information and initiates a response.

When you want your body to perform an action, it’s your neurons that start working first. They send electrochemical impulses to the brain through the nerves and spinal cord. Your brain returns the necessary instructions to complete the task along the same nerves.

In the next section, you’ll learn more about this process, the role of nerves, and the actions your nervous system can help you accomplish.

How the Nervous System Works

Your body is great at tackling the hard work of your everyday life. And the nervous system is no exception. It divides up the job of sensing and responding to stimuli between its two parts—the central nervous system (CNS) and the peripheral nervous system (PNS).

The CNS is the control center of the nervous system. It includes the brain and the spinal cord. All the nerves that branch out from the spine are part of the PNS. Though they operate in tandem, it is important to highlight them independently. That’s because each section of the nervous system has a unique role and function.

Central Nervous System

Your CNS is the boss of your body. It is responsible for coordinating the messages it gets from the PNS to provide the appropriate physical response. This process is called integration.

The wire-like nerves in your body get stimuli from your environment and send those signals to your brain. But the nerves in your hands and feet aren’t plugged directly into your brain. Instead, your spinal cord makes a single connection at the base of the skull.

Protected by bony vertebrae (the bones of the spine), your spinal cord is the cable that collects the information from all over the body. Acting as one large conduit to the brain, your spinal cord can deliver large amounts of data from a single port, rather than thousands of smaller ones.

This makes it easier for your brain to integrate all the sensations you experience with the right actions and movements. And when it’s time to respond to messages, it can send out instructions in bulk. This takes some work off your brain’s plate by leaving the sorting and delivery work to the spinal cord.

Peripheral Nervous System

All of the nerves in your body (except the brain and spinal cord) are collectively known as the peripheral nervous system or PNS. It’s the job of the PNS to use nerves to sense information about your environment. Your voluntary and involuntary actions, reflexes, and intentional movements are initiated by the PNS.

The PNS communicates back and forth with your brain and spine and lets the central nervous system know what the rest of the body is doing. The PNS does this with specialized nerve cells called afferent and efferent neurons.

Afferent neurons are also known as sensory neurons. They send messages to your CNS. They deal in sensory information like sound, taste, touch, and smell. When you touch sandpaper, or smell a cake baking, your afferent neurons take that stimuli to your brain.

To respond to those sensations, your PNS uses efferent neurons. These carry messages and instructions away from your CNS. Efferent neurons can also be called motor neurons. They do just what their name implies—triggering muscle contraction and movement. Motor neurons make it possible for you to scratch your fingers against the rough sandpaper. They also allow you to take a bite of that delicious-smelling cake.

Both afferent and efferent neurons are present in nerve fibers. So, your PNS can send sensory information to your brain and receive a motor response along the same nerve. You need this kind of back-and-forth communication for voluntary movement.

The nerves of the PNS also manage things outside of your conscious control—involuntary reactions to your environment.

A major example of your PNS at work is your fight-or-flight response. This kicks in when you perceive that you’re in danger. It can also turn on when you’re worried and scared. At that time, your body experiences involuntary changes when you feel stressed.

Take speaking in public, for example. As the moment approaches, you might notice your heart start to race and your palms sweat. Your mouth might even get dry.

These symptoms indicate that your peripheral nervous system is working as it should. Salivary glands, skin cells, and your heart muscle get messages from your brain via the PNS to adjust their behavior to keep you safe. When you take a couple of deep breaths and settle your nerves (pun intended), your heart rate returns to normal. You feel safe and are no longer afraid.

The peripheral nervous system operates a complementary response to fight or flight, often called rest and digest. Your nerves send instructions down from the CNS to calm your body when it’s not in any danger. So, your breathing is steady and your muscles and gut are relaxed when you’re not experiencing stress.

Again, all of these changes occur on their own. You can thank your PNS for running on autopilot so you don’t have to worry about elevating your heart rate when something makes you nervous.

And without a peripheral nervous system, decisions and directions made by the CNS would have to be carried out directly by your brain and spinal cord. The central nervous system may call the shots when it comes to responding to sensations and stimuli. But the PNS is the link between your body and your brain that gets the job done.

Nervous System Technical Support

It’s pretty wild to think that electrochemical impulses are shooting up and down your nerves as you pause to read this article. Your nervous system is always working. So, make sure you’re doing your part to keep your electrical wiring up to code. There are a couple great ways to support and protect your nervous system.

Minimize Stress

Remember all the work your nervous system does to prepare your body for fight or flight? When stresses from work, school, or family life don’t let up, it can be hard for your nervous system to ease out of this involuntary response.

If your mind feels clouded with worry, it can be hard for your brain to efficiently integrate all the messages from your nerves. Sometimes this stress can even manifest itself in physical pain.

Combating stress and returning your body to the rest-and-digest phase will give your nerves a break. Deep breathing, mindful meditation, and exercise are all great ways to take a load off. If possible, try easing your mental strain by eliminating unnecessary work or burdens. And ask for help from family and friends when you need it.

Eat Whole Foods with Healthy Fats and Antioxidants

The myelin sheath covering the axon of your neurons are made of fatty tissue. So is your brain, the head of the central nervous system. That’s why you should choose food that reinforces these important structures.

That means healthy, unsaturated fats, like omega-3s. These are liquid at room temperature, but are also found in solid foods. You can find these healthy fats in avocados, nuts, seeds, fatty fish, and olive oil.

Another great way to protect your brain long-term is by eating foods rich in antioxidants. Berries and other brightly colored fruits and veggies are excellent sources. Antioxidants help protect brain tissue from damage by free radicals. They also support memory and cognitive function.

Try to incorporate these nutrients—and others, like magnesium, iodine, and a variety of vitamins—in your diet. Switch out foods with unhealthy fats (fried foods and prepackaged foods) with healthier options (grilled salmon or walnuts.) Make a brain-boosting smoothie with lots of berries and green veggies.

There are plenty of tasty ways to take care of your nervous system. And your hard-working brain, spinal cord, and nerves deserve the love.

About the Author

Sydney Sprouse is a freelance science writer based out of Forest Grove, Oregon. She holds a bachelor of science in human biology from Utah State University, where she worked as an undergraduate researcher and writing fellow. Sydney is a lifelong student of science and makes it her goal to translate current scientific research as effectively as possible. She writes with particular interest in human biology, health, and nutrition.

Humans crave companionship and camaraderie. That’s why social health is one of your pillars of overall health. And friends are great and important. But being a social animal has drawbacks—more than just the social pressure to go to that party you’d rather skip. Peer pressure can create or reinforce unhealthy habits and behaviors.

That’s right. Peer pressure doesn’t stop existing when you get older. The connections it has to health are important throughout your life. It extends from avoiding the wrong crowd as a teen to finding your tribe of healthy friends as an adult.

Studies have found that teens and adolescents crave acceptance from their peers more than adults. These social pressures produce big emotions in teens that can alter decision-making.

The good news is that people generally get better at dealing with or rejecting peer pressure as they age. But the resistance doesn’t change much between 18 and 30. And research is also uncovering interesting connections between adult peer pressure and health.

A study of adult Australian women found strong connections between health and peer pressure. It showed how much of an impact social norms and support can have on diet and exercise. The results suggested that women who are around healthy people were more likely to exhibit healthier behaviors in diet and activity.

These connections between social pressures and health holds true in the smallest group, too—married people. Studies have consistently found partners who make healthy choices together have more success in sticking with them. But being married also correlates with weight gain.

So, maybe the focus for adults shouldn’t be avoiding peer pressure. Instead, you should seek out or create situations where positive peer pressure can work in your favor.

This is probably most important in diet and physical activity—two areas that have wide-ranging impacts on health. So, let’s take a look at two scenarios where peer pressure and health intersect, focusing first on food choices and then on activity levels.

The Why and How of Peer Pressure and Diet

You already know how important it is to eat a healthy diet. The kind that provides a balance of whole grains, healthy fats, fiber, and plenty of protein. But it’s not always easy.

Some of that difficulty could stem from what people are eating around you. It’s much harder to stick to salad when others are indulging in delicious treats. Willpower only goes so far.

But the opposite scenario is also true—when you are around healthy eaters, you feel pressure to do the same. That’s the positive side of peer pressure. And it’s backed up by more than intuition or experience.

Science supports the fact that healthy eating is contagious. One review from the University of Liverpool—which analyzed 15 studies—says these kind of healthy eating behaviors are “transmitted socially.” This was done through the dissemination of eating norms to participants. And the researchers suggest using this positive peer pressure to change behaviors around healthy eating.

Basically, what your peers—friends, family, or coworkers—are choosing impacts what you choose. If you’re around big eaters choosing high-calorie, high-fat foods, your choices may follow suit. But the power of social norms and peer pressure make it less likely you order the fries when everybody gets a salad.

You want to be part of the group and identified as normal. In fact, you don’t even have to see these behaviors from your peers. Simply viewing the social norm in one way—healthy or unhealthy—is likely enough to push you in one direction.

How can you use this to your advantage?

Start by thinking differently and asking questions. You might be bombarded with ads for fast food and unhealthy foods. That can make you think those foods are what normal people eat. Change your perspective by focusing on the healthy options people choose around you. Even ask your friends what their daily diet looks like. It’s probably healthier overall than the choices they might make at a party or restaurant.

This shift in perspective might be enough to nudge you toward the healthy option for dinner. That’s something you can build on to cement healthy habits.

But if that isn’t enough, you may have to flip the switch yourself. That means creating the positive peer pressure you’d like to see in your group of friends. When you have the option, choose healthy. It’s your turn to host the dinner party, so opt for a plant-based meal. After a while you might see these healthy-eating choices reflected back.

Now you know how peer pressure affects diet. Use it to your benefit and steer the social norms of your peer group toward healthy behaviors.

How Activity is Affected by Peer Pressure

Physical activity is another extremely important piece of your health puzzle. The impact of moving your body extends from your weight and heart health to your bones and joints.

And social pressure can shape your exercise and activity in many of the ways it does your diet.

Nobody wants to be left out. The fear of missing out (or FOMO, for those in the know) is a powerful force. It can push you to go hiking when you’d really like to be watching TV instead. And consistently using that positive peer pressure can help solidify a healthy lifestyle.

Research shows these tendencies start early and extend to adulthood.

One study in children showed close friends provide the biggest impact on activity levels. Another in adults found that couples influence each other’s fitness levels. So, no matter your age, if the people closest to you are active, you’re likely to be, too.

You can apply the tips from above about peer pressure and diet to activity and exercise. “Be the change you want to see” is good advice in many cases. So, you can always start a fitness craze in your group of friends. But there are more options when it comes to peer pressure and fitness.

You probably wouldn’t just sit down to dinner with random people you see eating healthy. That’s outside of accepted social norms. But you can more easily surround yourself with a fitness-based community.

Here’s some ideas to explore:

  • Join group fitness classes at work or a local gym.
  • Get involved in an activity-related group—a running club, recreational sports league, or yoga studio.
  • Seek out online fitness communities for support.
  • Follow social media accounts around activities, sports, and fitness.

Whatever you decide to pursue, talk about it with your spouse and closest friends, and invite them along. Maybe they’re looking for a push, too. So, you can help create an active atmosphere that can pick you up when you need it.

Applying Positive Peer Pressure to Other Aspects of Overall Wellbeing

Your whole life can benefit from a boost of positive peer pressure. It can move the needle across the spectrum of holistic health and wellness—mentally, emotionally, intellectually, and financially.

It all starts by surrounding yourself with people who support your goals. That includes people who will push you to be your best in every aspect of your life. You want to be around people who exhibit the behaviors you want to achieve.

Want to achieve great heights in your career? Join groups and make friends with high achievers. It’s just like hanging out with fitness fanatics to boost your activity and exercise.

Making a wide assortment of friends and creating a varied social network (in real life and online) is key to leveraging peer pressure for your benefit. And now that you know the secrets of positive peer pressure, you’re empowered.

All you have to do now is act. Start using the boost of social pressure to push you in the direction of a healthier lifestyle—and take your friends with you, too.

https://www.webmd.com/diet/news/20131230/peer-pressure-may-influence-your-food-choices

https://www.hhs.gov/ash/oah/adolescent-development/healthy-relationships/healthy-friendships/peer-pressure/index.html

https://fit.webmd.com/teen/mood/article/peer-pressure

https://www.womenssportsfoundation.org/health/peer-pressure-can-help-kids-exercise-more/

https://articles.extension.org/pages/71199/how-peer-and-parental-influences-affect-meal-choices

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/12/101206201233.htm

https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/318837.php

https://www.uwhealth.org/news/dealing-with-peer-pressure-when-youre-an-adult/46604

http://www.mentalhealthcenter.org/how-to-deal-with-peer-pressure-as-an-adult/

To do list in a car on driving wheel and hand holding phone - busy day concept

To do list in a car on driving wheel and hand holding phone - busy day concept

The bad news: Your relationship with time is more than likely toxic.

You’re overscheduled, stretched too thin, and find it difficult to focus on the present moment. You probably respond with, “busy,” when people ask how you’re doing. The worst part? You don’t feel like you have the power to take control of your time.

Whether you joined voluntarily or not, you’re a card-carrying member of the cult of busyness—the ever-growing group of people whose anxiety is rising because they don’t feel like they have enough time to get everything done. You’re among the hordes of multitaskers who scramble to squeeze the most out of every minute, rolling through life as a ball of stress, only to collapse into an exhausted heap at the end of every day.

How Busyness Took Over and Why it Keeps Getting Worse

It’s not your fault. You weren’t born to be a slave to your schedule. You just got swept up in an unhealthy cultural trend.

But how did so many people become obsessed with time and productivity?

When the world was filled with agrarian (or farming) societies, the passing of time was indicated by the sun and the seasons. Leisure time was a marker of wealth. But with the rise of the Industrial Revolution, the measurement of time became inextricably connected with productivity. Time was money. And the more a person worked, the more valuable he or she was perceived as being.

The technological era has again reshaped people’s relationship with time, creating a driving need to optimize as much of your life as possible. There are the same 24 hours to work with in every day as our agrarian and industrial ancestors had. So, society had to get smart about maximizing people’s skill sets to accomplish more moment-to-moment. With productivity reigning supreme, moments of leisure, rest, and relaxation are often looked at as wasteful or lost opportunities to accumulate wealth.

The result? Many people are held captive by their schedules. You might feel compelled to be seen as productive and, by extension, valuable. Put simply, your lack of time has become a primary marker of your worth. Signaling to others how busy you are implies you’re highly in-demand.

With most people having a digital device at their fingertips around the clock, it’s easy to feel like (and perpetuate the feeling) that everyone else is being productive around the clock. So, you need to compete. Ever had a coworker send emails at midnight? Do you receive group texts from your friends at 5 a.m.? Previous rules of decorum around personal time have been obliterated by both a compulsive need to be seen as hard workers and the variety of ways to communicate instantaneously.

Scientific Evidence for the Cult of Busyness

When someone messages you at odd hours, it triggers a feeling that you need to respond—out of good manners and to show that you, too, are available and productive around the clock. When you’re stuck in a cycle of responding to various stimuli, you don’t feel in control of your time. It’s dictated by others.

Experts studying the evolving relationship with time refer to this feeling as “time poverty.” But contrary to how time-starved many people feel, in reality, we have more free time than any previous generation.

“There is a distinction between objective time, which you can measure, and subjective time, which is experiential,” explains philosopher Nils F. Schott, the James M. Motley Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities at Johns Hopkins University.

When you’re preoccupied with the tug of war between what you want to do and what you should be doing, you’re missing opportunities and the ability to enjoy the moment. And you’re likely spending too much time on tasks you feel are urgent—regardless of their importance—and too little time on tasks that are important in the long run, but lack in-your-face urgency. For example, you might respond immediately to an email that pops into your inbox, but put off exercising for weeks (or months, or years).

Some studies show that busy people make better health choices (the thought being that having limited time forces better planning). But it’s no coincidence that as schedules become more hectic, the number of people who say they feel stressed and anxious has increased.

Feeling time-starved, like you’re always behind and will never catch up with life’s demands, can lead to stress, increased feelings of anxiety, and mental distress. Anxiousness can negatively impact sleep quality, which leads to poor planning and decision-making. Thus the cycle continues.

Reclaim Your Time with These 5 Tips

Finally, it’s time for some good news: Experts say there are ways to reverse the harmful effects of time poverty.

Simply put: do less.

Yes, that’s easier said than done because it requires understanding and protecting your priorities. Time is a precious resource, one worth fighting for. Recognizing that you have the power to control how you spend your time is the first step to reclaiming it.

Here are five practical tips to escape the cult of busyness:

  1. Track your time. It may seem counterintuitive to pay more attention to your time in order to free yourself of its suffocating restraints. But it’s only by knowing where you’re devoting your minutes and hours that you can begin to reclaim them. After listing all of your activities in a diary, you’ll likely find that you have more free time than you think you do. That big-picture look can also help you prioritize what’s important, so you can focus more time on that. Time tracking can also help you pinpoint the time-sucking activities you need to eliminate.
  2. Stop multitasking. It’s bad for your brain in the short term—and possibly lowers your IQ in the long-term. You may feel like you’re accomplishing more, but studies show multitasking is less productive than devoting your focus to one task or project at a time. And it will negatively affect the quality of your work and could diminish your cognitive function to that of an 8-year-old. To kick the multitasking habit, look to the results from your time diary to identify the window of time you’re most productive. Schedule your most mentally challenging tasks for this period of time. Remind yourself that a majority of the time, what doesn’t get done today can wait until tomorrow.
  3. Ditch the guilt. Give yourself permission to opt out of the rat race. Set boundaries for your time and don’t feel bad for enforcing them. Feeling like you’re failing as a parent because you aren’t spending enough time with your kids? It’s time to let yourself off the hook. Parents today spend more time with their children than parents did 40 years ago. Instead of feeling guilty about the time you aren’t spending with your family, focus on making the time you do spend with them as high-quality as possible. Leave work at the office as much as possible and use your paid vacation time to make memories. You’ll set a great example to your children of what it looks like to honor your priorities and live mindfully.
  4. Choose the right kind of rest. It may be tempting after a hard week to spend the weekend on the couch binging your favorite shows. But your mind won’t register that passive activity as rest. Instead, choose a more mindful form of rejuvenation: read a book, take a walk, meditate, do yoga, practice hygge, call a friend or family member. As is typical with any form of self-care, however, if it’s not scheduled and prioritized, it can become the first thing cut when your schedule gets extra unruly. Remember to book time to refill your tank. It’s also a good idea to have the occasional “device detox,” where you put the phones, laptops, and tablets away and enjoy the company of others. The texts and emails will be there when you return.
  5. Take baby steps. Choose one time-reclaiming activity to implement. Use your time-tracking journal to help you identify areas in your life that consistently encroach upon your personal time and start there by creating realistic boundaries. Maybe you’ll decide to turn email notifications off or not to check texts after 8 p.m. After you’ve successfully incorporated that habit into your daily routine, choose another area to tackle. Keep going until you feel like you control your time instead of the other way around.

The Time is Now

The tornado of tasks sweeping you up—and your anxiety about dealing with all of them right now—isn’t all your fault. You’ve been sucked into the cult of busyness like so many people today.

Unlike others, you now understand how people end up paralyzed by productivity, and how technology has accelerated the perception (and reality) of busyness. And you have time-management tips to help you reclaim your time.

Don’t wait to take control over your schedule. Step off the non-stop treadmill of emails and projects and other people’s needs. Your time is invaluable and finite. So, reclaim your time and wrestle back dominion over your days.

Describing mindfulness can be hard. So, let’s do a little thought experiment and try some mindful living for a minute.

Imagine you’re walking through a city, enjoying the fresh air, and delighting in the bustle and energy of the streets. You take a seat on a bench near a busy intersection, safely tucked away from traffic. You’re happy to rest for a moment and take in the sights and sounds. What goes through your mind as you witness the traffic?

You might notice the make, model, and color of each car that passes. Perhaps you take note of how fast a particular car whooshes by. Maybe you see another car run a red light. You allow yourself to observe these visual cues and understand them as information, without the need to interpret them as good, bad, wrong, or right.

This basic analogy is what many practitioners use to describe mindfulness. Let’s unpack it to dig deeper into this important, but elusive concept.

What is Mindfulness?

If you imagine the busy street as your brain, then the different cars represent your thoughts. They could be about your worries, fears, or stressors. They might represent your hopes, wishes, and desires. People in your life may populate your thoughts. All those thoughts are cars traveling on the street of your brain.

Mindfulness is immersing yourself in that moment-to-moment awareness, free of judgment. It allows for these thoughts to enter your mind, move through, and disappear without wreaking havoc. That means as you think of a worry, hope, or person, you do so without judging yourself for thinking about it.

An example of mindful living might help clarify things. You feel worried about missing an impending deadline. Mindfulness would suggest that you acknowledge the deadline and your body’s reaction to it with a bit of emotional distance.

Most people don’t practice this detachment. That allows negative thoughts to loop. If the loop continues uninterrupted, the result can be anxiety, stress, worry, and preoccupation. But, if you aim to witness your thoughts in the same way you would a harmless car driving safely by you, you’re likely to avoid those negative pitfalls. Additionally, allowing a bit of space from emotions provides clarity of mind and mental focus.

Mindfulness is about staying in the present. So, returning to the car metaphor, mindfulness is not craning your neck to see if the car that passed will turn off the road up ahead. It is also not turning to see how far traffic has backed up. When you’re simply observing each car as it enters and exits your field of view, you’re practicing mindfulness.

The Benefits of Mindfulness

As the modern world continues to blaze by, many are turning to mindfulness to slow life down. The recent growth in the popularity of mindfulness has created a call for research to investigate the benefits of more mindful living.

Practitioners have long claimed many benefits for mindfulness. Among them are stress reduction, less emotional reactivity, freedom from rumination, mental focus, and relationship satisfaction.

Researchers have started to test these hypotheses. They do it by assigning study participants to a mindfulness-based intervention or a control group. Then researchers take various measurements to determine the effects of each intervention.

In one investigation, researchers looked at nearly 40 studies that include mindfulness-based interventions. They found mindfulness programs helped reduce stress, anxiety, and depression in patients with psychiatric disorders. In certain studies, they also concluded that mindfulness practice, paired with traditional therapy, is effective in preventing relapse into depression for certain patients.

Another study has shown promising results for regular practice of mindfulness through meditation. In this particular case, participants learned how to meditate over a two-month period. Researchers took images of participants’ brains before and after the program and found changes in the amygdala, an area of the brain responsible for emotional processing. The scan showed that the amygdala was less active after meditation. Then participants were shown emotionally charged images and the same brain scan was repeated. Comparing pre-meditation scans to those taken after viewing emotional images revealed something interesting.

Researchers saw that the decrease in activity of the amygdala held, even when the participants weren’t actively meditating. This finding is promising, as it shows that the benefits—in this case, less emotional reactivity—are long-lasting, even when meditation or mindfulness is not being actively employed.

Another group of researchers studied attendees of an intensive mindfulness retreat. After the 10-day retreat, the participants, experienced less rumination—when compared to a control group who didn’t attend the retreat. The retreat group also exhibited better attention and focus when assigned to a performance task.

It’s not uncommon to hear about a new trend from a friend and be skeptical. Even if your friend shares a personal, compelling anecdote, it may feel too good to be true. But when the trend in question is mindfulness or mindful meditation, the jury’s no longer out. Science shows that health benefits of mindfulness do exist. So, hesitate no longer and hop on the bandwagon.

Tips for Mindful Living Every Day

  • Slow down. It’s easy to move through life on autopilot, going through the motions without consciously connecting with each action, decision, or person you encounter. One trick is to think about the transitions throughout your day and how you can move through them more slowly and intentionally. This could be the moment after you wake up and before you get out of bed. Maybe it’s the moment after you finish one work task and start the next. When these transitions are rushed, it divorces your mind from your body, turning autopilot back on. In these transitional moments, pause to breathe and check in with your mind and body. This will give you a chance to collect your thoughts and ready yourself for whatever comes next.
  • Use all of your senses. Mindfulness doesn’t just have to be turned on when life gets stressful. Tuning into your body and all of its sensations can help you stay engaged in mindfulness. Listening, seeing, tasting, touching, and hearing fully can help you stay grounded in each moment. With this mindset, an ordinary task can turn into a sensory experience. For example, take gardening. What does the soil feel like? Does this new sprout have a smell? Consider the vibrancy of the colors throughout the plant. If it bears fruit, what does it taste like? What sounds do you hear as you’re outside tending to the garden? When you stay in the moment and ask yourself these questions, it’s nearly impossible to ruminate on the past or worry about the future.
  • Keep a gratitude journal. Start by jotting down three things you were grateful for each day. This practice will encourage you to slow down and reflect on your day. Consider why you’re grateful for each list item, how they make you feel, and how they add to your life. Journaling can help you curate a more positive outlook and perspective. If this resonates with you, create longer lists or expand each entry.
  • Focus on brain health. Mindfulness is all in your head—focusing your brain on the present and striving for non-judgment. So, it’s also a time to think about supporting your brain. That means eating foods rich in B-vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, antioxidants, and vitamin E. And your brain also has to be exercised to keep it in tip-top shape. Practice being mindful about using your brain each day. You can do that by playing a musical instrument, taking classes (anything from cooking to math), learning a new language, memory games, playing a new sport, and more.
  • Practice self-compassion. Non-judgment is the key to mindfulness. But requiring your mind to be present and non-judgmental can feel like a tall order. You may not do it successfully every time. And that’s OK. Be forgiving and kind to yourself. It’s the best way to ensure you’ll come back to the present and continue forward.

Another Taste: Eating Mindfully

In the modern world of busy schedules, traffic, and technology, it’s hard to find time to focus on eating well. When time is short, meals are often the first thing to take a hit. It means a meal might start in a drive-through lane and finish while you’re driving. Or perhaps it’s a plate of leftovers quickly reheated in the microwave and eaten standing up.

Not giving yourself moments to slow down and eat in peace will only add to the rushed pace of the day. And unsurprisingly, the result might leave you feeling stressed, anxious, and with an upset stomach.

When you take the alternative approach and choose to eat with dedicated intention, you unlock more opportunities to practice mindfulness. It doesn’t matter whether you make a meal from scratch or you pick up one that’s prepared. Eating mindfully calls on all of your senses, bringing you into the present.

What does it smell like? Does the aroma transport you to another place or memory? If you’re eating with your fingers, what does it feel like? Is it soft, crumbly, or flaky? What does it feel like once you put a morsel in your mouth? Does it melt, dissolve, or bubble? What does the food taste like? Does it make your mouth pucker or hit your sweet tooth?

Engaging all of your senses requires that you take your time and tune into each sensation. This behavior makes for a more enjoyable, relaxed meal. An added benefit is that eating slowly will allow you to sense when you’re full more quickly. This means you’re less likely to overeat unintentionally. That’s a bonus whether you’re trying to lose, gain, or maintain your weight.

Paying attention to the general feel and feedback from your whole body will help you remain in touch with what your body needs and when. When did you last eat? How does your body feel? What cues is it giving you and what are they saying? Remember that your body knows best. It only asks you to listen to its cues.

Make Mindfulness Your Mantra

Mindfulness requires a subtle shift in how you move throughout your day. While the change is seemingly small, the impact can be large. Being mindful allows your body and mind to let go of stress, negative thought patterns, and associated behaviors.

When you toss aside those patterns and distractions, you liberate yourself. You’re likely to find more creativity, productivity, and energy. By committing even a few moments a day to mindfulness, you start a habit that sets you up for a healthier day and overall lifestyle.

About the Author

Jenna Templeton is a health educator and freelance science writer living in Salt Lake City, Utah. After receiving a bachelor of science degree in chemistry from Virginia Tech, Jenna spent five years as a research scientist in the nutritional industry. This work fueled her interest in personal wellness, leading her to pursue a graduate degree in Health Promotion & Education from the University of Utah. Outside of work, Jenna enjoys live music, gardening, all things food, and playing in the Wasatch mountains.