It’s hard to believe we’re at the start of another year, and with that, we often decide to make positive changes to make it our best one yet.
As you might guess, this time of year I often hear patients say that they want to finally kick their bad eating habits and get healthy. But so many struggle with ditching the bad patterns, embracing the good ones, or sticking with them over the long haul. There are physiological reasons our brains become conditioned to certain behaviors, but there are also many ways to change them.
Stress is a major root cause for participating in actions that provide temporary relief (like eating high-sugar, high-salt foods) but leave us feeling worse off in the long-term. That’s because of the dopamine release we get, giving the brain feel-good chemicals and thus strengthening our desire to engage in those behaviors again. So when we reduce stress and have a greater sense of calm, we’re able to stay more mindful and resist the pull of temptations we know don’t serve us. Meditation is a key part of my personal wellness routine when it comes to stress management; I also recommend yoga or some form of movement that allows you to have fun, let go of the ongoing to-do list in your head, and drop into the power of your mind-body connection.
Alongside the stress issue is sleep. We know that lack of high-quality sleep impacts our decision-making abilities. Think about it—that candy dish on your coworker’s desk is always more appealing when you’re tired. But if you slept well, got some exercise, and ate a good breakfast, it’s much easier to walk right by. Incorporate good sleep practices into your routine, like turning off screens a couple hours before bed and wearing blue light blocking glasses, to support your body’s natural circadian rhythm and boost your ability to have good judgment the next day.
One of the reasons I practice Functional Medicine is because I believe in treating the individual—we’re all so unique, it just doesn’t make sense to treat each person using a black and white approach. The same goes for changing your habits. You need to identify your personal triggers that lead to the habits you’d like to break. When you understand the cues, you can avoid the cascade of negative patterns.
Author Gretchen Rubin has created a framework that looks at the four underlying tendencies people fall into when it comes to how we respond to expectations. By understanding our personal reactions to different situations, we can find the right tools for success. For example, some folks do best when they have everything scheduled on the calendar because they feel good checking things off their list as they accomplish them. Some people find that being held accountable by others encourages them to stick to their desired habits. And some of us just need a little incentive to get the job done, like a massage at the end of a long week.
Take some time to understand the cues of your own bad habits, get very clear on why you want to change them, and learn more about what would give you the most motivation to get the job done.
Wishing you a healthy and happy New Year,
Mark Hyman, MD