Have you ever considered your relationships when thinking about how to improve your health?
When I first started studying Nutrition and Functional Medicine, I approached the whole subject of health and illness in SUCH a left brained way! I wanted all the hard science and biochemistry and none of the fuzzy emotional, spiritual or ‘hippy dippy’ side of things thank you very much.
But as the years have ticked past, and I have continued to study, I have learned more and more about how the brain, the immune system and the body work. I have also learned over the years in clinical practice from my dear patients, who have taught me more than any school ever could. I have massively deepened my understanding of what influences our health and physical function. And what I now understand is that we need to take the whole spectrum into account if we want to change the way our body is working in a meaningful and long term way. The brain has TWO sides to it in each person and both need to be acknowledged. My not recognising the emotional aspect of health is compartmentalisation in the same order of conventional medicine – where the body is divided into organs and nothing is considered connected. You see a gastroenterologist if you have a gut problem, and immunologist if you have an immune system problem and a neurologist if you have a brain problem and if you have an issue where the immune system, gut and brain are all affected you are in trouble because they will all be addressed and considered separately.
Over the last years, I have developed a deep respect for the impact that friends and family, coworkers and even very old relationships have on one’s health and ability to get better.
We are designed to be tribal.
Human beings are social creature who are meant to form intricate networks of friends and family. So much so, it’s believed by scientists that the primary reason our brains are so large is precisely because we need all that brain power to interact with the world around us. Socialising, communicating, and experiencing emotions are very complex activities. We even get boosts of endorphins and feel-good hormones when we spend time with people we love and care about.
The power of social interaction goes beyond the good feelings you get after you spend an evening laughing with friends – it directly impacts your health. Surrounding yourself with people who care about you can improve your health, reduce your risk of disease, and even influence how much you weigh.
Research has found time and time again that if you want to live a long, healthy, and fulfilling life, the most important factor is your relationships. The longest running study on happiness by Harvard Medical School has found that the “key to healthy ageing is relationships, relationships, relationships.”
Also, not only do the number of social interactions play a major role in your life but the quality of these relationships are also important. Empathy and attachment are two factors that elevate the importance of a friend or a family member – for your life and your health.
On the other hand, loneliness and social isolation negatively impacts your health, and not in an abstract way. Studies have found that when you don’t spend enough time with others, your immune system and overall health pay the price. This can be a tricky situation, especially if you’re sick because it can be difficult to surround yourself with people when you aren’t feeling well. However, if you’re struggling with a chronic condition, encircling yourself with positive people could be exactly what you need.
Let’s take a closer look at what science tells us about the power of people in your life and what it means for you and your health.
Cancer is less likely to return if you have support
Research on cancer patients have found that social networks and community impact their survival rate. A 2016 study found that women with breast cancer who had fewer social ties to family, friends, and romantic partners had a:
- 43 percent higher risk their breast cancer would return
- 64 percent higher risk they would die from their breast cancer
- 69 percent higher risk of death from any cause
People in your life have significant power over cancer and disease. This study even recommended clinicians suggest support groups to patients as a result of their findings. Support groups have been shown to be extremely helpful to those going through a health crisis.
Support groups improve disease recovery outcomes
If you are facing a major illness, I strongly recommend that you join a support group. Support groups bring people together that share a common struggle. It helps counteract isolation and can make you feel less alone. Plus, statistically support groups have the ability to enhance your chance of improvement and your quality of life.
The National Institute of Health even recommends social support during moments of greatest stress. This support is even more powerful if it occurs among people who can relate to your situation. This is because it creates a circle of empathy. I’ve seen firsthand the power of group settings, which are especially strong when dealing with illness. In my group sessions, people will be able to connect on a level that they sometimes can’t get with family or friends.
The power of the people in your life can be astonishing! This is why I also recommend examining those closest to you when you’re facing significant health hurdles, you may need to distance yourself from some relationships or influences that drain your energy or leave you feeling negative, angry or stressed.
Your weight is influenced by those around you
Social interaction and support can be powerful in the face of disease, but who you surround yourself with daily can affect you on a more basic level. Did you realise your community influences factors like your weight and eating habits?
Well, research has found that the weight of those around you is a greater determining factor of your personal weight than your socioeconomic status. This is because you’re influenced subconsciously by those around you. When you’re aware of this, it’s easier to make necessary changes to improve your health. Additionally, you can counteract this effect by joining a group focused in health improvement.
A fascinating example of this is The Daniel Plan – a lifestyle program that focuses on the power of social interactions within a church. This program harnessed the power of community and now has impacted thousands to help them with losing weight and making huge health changes.
The power of those around you is worth considering. Think about the five people closest to you… how could they impacting your health?
Bottom line: Social relationships reduce risk of mortality
A meta-analysis of over 300,000 people called, Social Relationships and Mortality Risk, found that your relationships play a role in your risk of dying in a magnitude that is comparable to smoking, obesity, and exercise. The connection is so strong that researchers called on physicians, educators, and media to recommend the strengthening of relationships and encouraging participation in support groups as a major factor for a healthy life.
Support groups are true examples of the ‘strength in numbers’ phenomenon. The science is clear and it’s a very big part of why I offer group sessions. While one-on-one health coaching has its benefits, there’s a certain kind of magic that happens in group scenarios. In the group setting, I’ve repeatedly seen support, accountability, and empathy occur in levels that are precisely more powerful because they happen on a group level.
Join me and my tribe!
My 2018 group class will launch in April and I am taking early-bird bookings if you think you’d like to join. Sign-up for information on them here. This will keep you up-to-date on the latest developments.
You don’t have to go through tough times alone, no matter what the cause might be. May you find peace, happiness, and good health through the support and community of others.