I may have mentioned that I have some plans to write a series of articles on preparedness. It has been difficult to decide where to start. Yesterday I was reading Sherman House’s Civilian Defender blog and saw an article about personal health. It really resonated with me, and immediately I knew where to start this series. This series will proceed in a logical fashion, beginning to the most important, most urgent priorities. Let’s begin with preparing your body.
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Disclaimer: I am not a doctor an nothing in this article should be construed as medical advice. These are just the opinions of some dude on the internet with no special education or qualifications in chronic healthcare. Nothing here should supersede any medical advice given by your healthcare providers.
Why Preparing Your Body Matters
I don’t expect this to be a super popular topic. It is much more fun to make lists of gear and discuss the pros and cons of various rifles. The advice contained in this article also takes effort, and I freely admit that I am imperfect at applying my own advice. Unfortunately, I also believe that this is also perhaps the most important preparedness advice you can take.
Why is this information so important? I firmly believe in the philosophy of preparing for the most likely first. The mostly likely threat you face is not a gunman or the urgent need to ford rivers in your vehicle. It isn’t a super-volcano or nuclear war. Much more urgent to secure yourself against are heart disease, tobacco use, diabetes, and obesity. These are more likely by orders of magnitude than nearly any human-related threat. Not that we shouldn’t prepare against human threats, but we shouldn’t over-prepare to the point of failing to prepare for the imminent but mundane.
Secondly, preparing your body will make you infinitely more resilient in the face of an emergency. When food is short, clean water is a prized commodity, and a good night’s sleep is elusive, starting out healthy is immensely important. Good physical health means you probably have good immunity. It also means that when cortisol – the body’s stress hormone – is coursing through your veins you will be better equipped to continue functioning. You will be better able to move your body over, under, and around obstacles, over long distances, and in inclement weather.
Finally, as Dr. House’s article suggested, improving your health can also reduce the number of medications upon which you are dependent. Stockpiling prescription medications is difficult. They are very expensive. They have a shelf-life. They are controlled by prescription in many cases. There are workarounds for some non-controlled substances, but ideally we would all work to minimize the number of medications we require to basically function. I am not suggesting that you stop taking your medications. If you are on medication, you might want to consul with your doctor to see if the potential exists for your condition(s) to be controlled through behavior rather than expensive medication. It won’t always be the case, but it’s worth asking the question.
There are some things you can do to prepare your body that don’t require massive investments. These are “micro-preparedness” steps that don’t really require any major investment in time, energy, or money, but will make you better prepared.
Drink water: I don’t know how true this is, but it’s easy to find articles that claim Americans are chronically dehydrated. Anecdotally it seems true. Regardless, you can manage your own hydration simply be drinking loads of water. In the military we said, “the best container for water is your body.” Starting off any emergency with a full tank is massively preferable to starting off a little dehydrated.
Staying hydrated has all sorts of long-term health benefits. It helps fight hypertension, helps your cognitive function and energy levels, aids digestion and excretion. Your blood is 92% water. Even a slightly drop in hydration can begin to degrade your body’s performance. Fortunately the fix isn’t that difficult: drink water! Even better than drinking water: replace your soda with water. This is sort of a double-down: not only do you get the benefits of hydration, you also get the benefit of massively reduced sugar intake.
Wash Your Hands: You don’t want to find yourself in an emergency when you are sick. I had the flu last year and trust me – the fatigue and mental fogginess are not what you want to be dealing with when an emergency occurs. Contrary to popular opinion hand-washing wasn’t invented in March; it has long been recommended as the best way to rid your hands of pathogens.
Brush Your Teeth: I’m assuming everyone here brushes and flosses on a daily basis but I’ll say it anyway: brush and floss daily. Dental health is super important. We’ve forgotten how important thanks to the wonders of anesthesia and easy access to dental health professionals, but dental emergencies can lead to infection which can lead to death. To say nothing of the misery of living with an abscess or broken tooth. I’ll have more to say on this in a moment but take care of your teeth!
The steps above are fantastic steps, but they won’t get you there alone. Here are a few other health-related preparedness steps you should consider. Since these are all interrelated there is some overlap so please bear with me.
If your physical fitness sucks you should work to improve it. Being physically fit improves literally every aspect of your life. Let’s look at a few of them. It helps you lose weight. Carrying extra weight around is hard on your joints, increases your risk for certain types of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, stroke and plenty of other problems. Being physically fit helps you sleep. I am going to talk more about the importance of sleep but for now I’ll just say it is hugely important to your overall health. Being physically fit improves your sex life by improving your body’s function, boosting levels of sex hormones and by making your more attractive to potential partners. Exercise is one of the most effective ways to fight depression. I could go on and on but being physically fit is so important to your health.
And of course – since this article is about preparedness, after all – being physically fit helps you in an emergency. It helps your brain cope with stress hormones more effectively. It helps you perform under stress by making your body able to move quickly, over distance and obstacles. It helps you endure the ravages of decreased (or decreased quality) food and sleep over longer term emergencies.
I am certainly not an expert on physical fitness. My ideal, however, would be a combination of strength and cardiovascular fitness. Many Crossfit/HIIT-style workouts now focus on a combination of both explosive strength and cardio endurance. I’m not recommending any particular program because, to be honest, if you already know what you want to do you’re probably already working out. But find something that improves your fitness – even if it’s just walking to the end of your street every night – and do it routinely.
Sleep is one of those hugely overlooked things. We Americans seem to love the idea of the motivated go-getter who forgoes sleep to get into the office early and burns the midnight oil. It’s really, really unhealthy, though. Sleep is critical to your body’s recovery. Sufficient sleep is really important to immune system function and high cognitive functioning. Getting plenty of sleep may help you prevent depression, fight inflammation, and even lose weight. Chronic lack of sleep has been associated with higher incidences of heart attack and stroke, and any number of other maladies like diabetes.
Getting plenty of sleep isn’t that hard as long as you make time for it. You can help yourself by making your body tired (through exercise, see above) and a good system of sleep hygiene. Make your bedroom dark. Really dark. Tape over all the little charging lights and close the blinds, and if you can’t make the room dark, consider a sleep mask. Make your bedroom cold. Humans have adapted to a drop in temperature along with a drop in the sun and only in recent decades have we enjoyed year-round climate control. Make your room quiet, and failing that, consider ear plugs or a white noise machine. Consider leaving your phone and other distractions outside the bedroom. Finally, get eight hours a night. Apps like Apple’s “Bedtime” can help you track your sleep patterns.
You can also help yourself by improving your diet. I’ll talk about that more in the next section. Most relevant to this section, though: avoid alcohol and caffeine before bedtime. They interfere with your sleep, no matter how “used to” caffeine your body is you are still subject to the basic laws of nature, and stimulants still interfere with your sleep. Though I will occasionally have a couple beers in the evening, I don’t drink caffeine after noon. I don’t drink soda at all (it’s coffee, water, or beer for me).
Interrelated with physical exercise and sleep is diet. The notorious “western diet” is chock full of artificial ingredients, preservatives, and salt, sugar, and fat (I highly recommend the book Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us). I am not a doctor or dietician, and there are a million conflicting opinions about diet. I will share some insight about my eating habits, though.
I basically follow Michael Pollan’s Food Rules: eat food (minimally processed, unpackaged, as close to natural state as possible), mostly plants (not all, but mostly), and not too much. Most of my friends tend to get hung up on the second one and take it to mean I’m advocating for vegetarianism. I’m absolutely not, but we all probably need more fresh fruits, vegetables, and leafy greens – and less bread, pasta, and potatoes – in our lives.
Basically what those food rules mean to me is eat mainly fresh meat and fresh vegetables. If I eat sweets it’s generally something my girlfriend or I have made, in our kitchen, from raw ingredients that we know and recognize as food. We don’t really cook anything that comes in a box or a package, or has a laundry list of ingredients. We also attempt to moderate our intake and get plenty of veg and fiber into our meals.
Again, I’m not a doctor or dietician. I’m sure my take isn’t as popular as Adkins or Paleo or Keto or whatever is cool this year. But it’s very sustainable and very adaptable over the long term. I recommend you do some reading on your own and figure out your own path. Some books that influenced me heavily are The Omnivore’s Dilemma (for deeper background) and In Defense of Food (for more literal, step-by-step) by Michael Pollan, the aforementioned Salt, Sugar, Fat by Michael Moss, and How Not to Die by Dr. Michael Gregor.
Dental health is probably one of the most overlooked items in preparedness literature. I almost never see it mentioned (maybe I’m just not reading the right stuff). As I mentioned earlier, dental problems can be life-threatening problems in a long-term emergency. In a short term emergency they can make you miserable, be a massive distraction, and render you completely ineffective.
My recommendation (and again, one that I am imperfect at following) is to stay on top of your dental health. That means get any issues fixed as soon as possible. It means staying on top of cleanings and check-ups and more importantly, accepting responsibility for your own dental health. Quitting or moderating intakes of sugary soda, tobacco, and other foods that prematurely wear teeth is a good start, along with brushing and flossing regularly.
Alcohol & Tobacco
Alcohol and tobacco should probably be used mindfully or not at all. I freely admit that I am not perfect and I’m guilty of overusing both of these substances. Let’s talk about alcohol first.
Alcohol interferes with your sleep. Though you may feel that it helps you go to sleep, it actually sedates you. Sedation and sleep are not the same thing. When your body is sedated it doesn’t go through the same processes it undergoes during sleep, like dreaming. While sedation looks and maybe even feels like sleep, it’s not really sleep. Even moderate amounts of alcohol can interfere with your sleep by waking you up to go to the bathroom. And that’s not all.
Overuse of alcohol leads to all sorts of other chronic health problems, like increased risk for certain cancers, sexual dysfunction, liver damage, stomach problems, and of course, weight gain. I quite drinking for 90 days starting in December. Almost immediately I shed ten pounds with no real effort at all, leading me to believe beer was the main source of that spare tire. Make no mistake: alcohol is harmful.
Most of us can use alcohol in moderation, though. I’ll be honest: I absolutely love beer. Friends bring me beer from all over the world. I love the story of beer, the taste, the ingredients. I make my own beer and sample beer everywhere I go. But I’m making a hard effort to drink mindfully and in moderation. My personal strategy is to drink as much as I want on Saturday and Sunday (usually three or so beers) and not drink at all Monday through Friday. This seems to work pretty well, though now that summer is here the uptick in weekend SAR missions may interfere with my drinking!
Tobacco is not a substance that I can use in moderation. I quit using tobacco in November, after having used it for over twenty years. If you can use it in moderation then you’re a better man than me; one pinch of Copenhagen and I’m right back off the wagon with a can-a-day habit. I don’t think I need to explain all the ways that tobacco is bad. In all its forms it causes a variety of cancers. Tobacco can cause stomach problems and as a stimulant it can interfere with your sleep. It costs an insane amount of money (I have an article on that planned) and (especially smoking tobacco) can greatly interfere with your general fitness. In return it does nothing at all for you. I highly encourage you to give up tobacco if you use it.
But I’m Going to Die Sometime…
One common push-back I get when talking to people about health is, “but I’m going to die anyway. I might as well enjoy it.” There are two things wrong with that statement. The first is the assumption that you won’t enjoy good physical health. Trust me – you will. You will enjoy looking good and feeling good. Though I am not in the prime I was in my mid-20s to mid-30s, I’m in pretty good shape and it’s awesome. I’m one of the few guys in my age range that is “height-weight proportional.” I’m even in better shape than almost all of the much younger students in my paramedic class. I don’t eat every little thing I’d like to and occasionally deny myself something and – believe it or not – that kind of discipline can actually feel pretty good, too.
Secondly, “living” isn’t just about getting to the finish line. It’s also about quality of life en route. Yes, I completely realize that I am going to die of something. Now that I’m almost 40 I’m old enough to realize that I odds are good that I will live to a decently old age, a thought that was incomprehensible to me just a few years ago. Since it looks like I’m going to have to get old, I’d rather the last decade and a half of my life not be spent lugging an oxygen talk around, in and out of weekly doctor’s visits, and taking two dozen pills per day. I want to be able to enjoy those years to the extent possible
Even with the best exercise and diet, complete abstinence from tobacco and alcohol, and perfect sleep patterns there are no guarantees. I could be killed in a car crash tomorrow. I could be diagnosed with cancer. I could come down with any of a dozen other fatal conditions. But the odds are really good that I will be around for a few more decades, so I want to prepare for that possibility as well. Something to think about.