The Four Life Pillars to Lift Whole Health

Pillars of Health

Boost your health and happiness with these easy to remember M’s: Movement, Molecules, Microbes and Mind! Practical tips with community and microbiome at the core.

Mind your body and food

Healthy living is simply about eating well and exercising, right?  Avoid sugary processed drinks and foods, and get at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise every day? This is the Cliffsnotes version of much of health & wellness advice, and this is helpful.  But there is more to health than food and exercise. Indeed, some will be quick to mention the importance of mental health as part of the full package which includes getting sound sleep and managing stress levels through validated approaches like mindfulness practices, meditation, and music. It turns out the mind body connection is real![1,2]

Get dirty!

But when asked what else is important for health, many people will be hard pressed to identify a fourth dimension. The least appreciated aspect of health is our microbiome; the healthy microbes that live on, in, and around us. Our relationship with microbes has largely been defined by bad bugs (i.e. pathogens) that cause infections and a society that is obsessed with cleanliness and sterility with bountiful antimicrobial soaps and disinfectants.[3] Only recently, with the advent of microbiome research, have we come to appreciate the importance of good microbes (i.e. commensals) in keeping our immune health strong,[4] optimizing metabolism,[5] and even maintaining a sound mind.[6]  

It turns out that growing up with pets and around animals on a farm lowers rates of asthma and allergy.[7,8]. Folks that garden have greater gut microbiome diversity a marker of health.[9,10] People that cultivate a healthy microbiome by consuming more fiber & fermented foods have greater diversity in their gut microbiomes, less inflammation in their body, lower rates of obesity and diabetes, and improvement in mood.[11,12]  

In short, we should all consider spending more time around healthy microbes in the company of animals and pets, in the soil growing gardens, and eating fiber and fermented foods! Quite literally, we all could benefit from a little more dirt in our lives and nurturing our gut microbiomes!

Columns of health

But back to where we started and looking at the whole picture.  A holistic approach to health can be summarized in the 4 coluMns of health: Movement, Molecules, Microbes, and Mind.  The M’s capture the physical, chemical, biological and psychological dimensions of a healthy body; and each column has two sides, the good and the bad.  Movement includes active and sedentary lifestyles. Molecules include healthy food and toxins.  Microbes include our protective microbiome and pathogens. Mind includes mindfulness/sleep and depression/stress.

It’s all connected!

It is helpful to think about these dimensions of life as four discrete columns.  It makes it easier for us to keep track of how to nurture each piece of the whole, but in truth they ARE a whole and highly interconnected such that each profoundly impacts the other, and nurturing the whole picture ultimately is necessary for lifting ourselves into health. The great thing is that a focus on just one or two will also impact the others and vice versa.  This is illustrated in some fascinating examples below.

Example 1: Molecules<->Microbes

The food we eat (Molecules) profoundly influences the microbes in our gut. The four “F”s are particularly important: fibers, phenols, ferments, and (good) fats (see Blog on the 4 “F”’s). These are all prebiotics that help nurture a healthy microbiome.  What is less appreciated is that our gut bugs (Microbes) also influence the foods we eat![13]  In fact in some ways, we are their puppets and at their whim. Through chemical signals like butyrate (see Blog on Butyrate) they tell us when we’re full and even impact our cravings.[14]

Example 2: Movement<->Microbes

We are also learning that our exercise capacity (Movement) may have something to do with the healthy bugs (Microbes) in our gut, and how well they limit inflammation and maximize lactate management.[15,16] Indeed, there are companies (e.g. Supersapiens) that are looking into developing prebiotics and probiotics that help enhance performance. On the flipside, our gut microbiome improves in diversity and decreases in pathogens the more we exercise![16]

Example 3: Mind<->Microbes

Our mental status (Mind) can also influence the bugs in our gut (Microbes). Stress has been shown to change the composition of the microbiome perhaps through cortisol.[17,18] But it turns out the healthy bugs in our gut also influence our mental state and may help with sleep, depression, and anxiety.[19,20] There is a burgeoning field of psychobiotics that involves providing probiotics (e.g. Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium) and prebiotics (e.g. fibers) to improve mental health.[21]  

Example 4: Mind<->Molecules

Lastly, trauma, stress, or poor sleep (Mind) can impact the food we eat (Molecules).[22] When we’re stressed or sleep deprived, cortisol levels are higher and our appetite increases. On the flip side, we are learning that the perception of stress, depression and insomnia may have a lot to do with poor food choices that lead to gut, body, and brain inflammation![23]  

The fifth dimension:

The above discussion would be incomplete though without adding one more important element of health, perhaps the most important of all.  It is implicit in the interconnectedness of the M’s and captured in the C of Column’s, Community (our sociological dimension). As the 4 M’s are highly interconnected, so too are we in our relationships with family and friends. Without community, a sense of belonging, and purpose; the four M’s of health have little meaning. Similarly, without our health supported by the 4 columns, we would have little energy to participate in community. It really is a chicken or the egg phenomena all around!

Baby steps

So if it’s all interconnected, where do we start?  

  1. Self assessment:  I would suggest a self assessment. Where do you think your strengths and weaknesses lie? Are you surrounded by a supportive community? Are you staying active, eating healthy foods, and embracing good sleep hygiene and mindfulness practices? Are you exposing yourself to and cultivating healthy microbes?
  2. Begin with a tweak: With identification of your strengths, stand proud and strong in these areas! With your less strong areas, focus on incremental, achievable baby steps that you could easily add into your life. Perhaps choose TWO from different columns that work together!  Here are some examples from each column to consider. Movement: Always take the stairs wherever you are, park as far away from the store entrance as you can, or take a regular after dinner stroll. Molecules: Switch out whole grain for white bread and brown for white rice, swap oatmeal for breakfast cereal, and/or add a prebiotic fiber supplement to help you get the recommended 30 grams of fiber that nurtures the good microbes in your gut. (See Blog on Fiber) Microbes: Add a daily fermented food, adopt a pet, or start a garden! Mind: Take 15 minutes of down time each day to listen to your favorite calming music or find your pillow 15 minutes earlier each night.
  3. Embrace Community:  Lastly tap into your community for support! Folks are a lot more successful at achieving their goals when they have a friend or family member joining them hand in hand on the journey and holding them accountable.

The life spark!

Whether your goal is weight loss (see Blog on Managing Healthy Weight), gut health, immune health, or mental health; the beauty of starting incrementally is it gives you an achievable goal, sets you up for success, and builds your confidence. You might also start to see the direct and indirect benefits of your practice as one column starts to lift up another. With that comes a new spark in your life and added vitality to incrementally take back control of your health!

More Articles & Resources

If you enjoyed this article, please feel free to visit gutbites.org where you’ll find more practical food and microbiome digests to improve gut health and lift your whole self! Would love to hear your comments below too!

1. Khoury B, Sharma M, Rush SE, Fournier C. Mindfulness-based stress reduction for healthy individuals: A meta-analysis. J Psychosom Res. 2015;78: 519–528. doi:10.1016/j.jpsychores.2015.03.009

2. de Witte M, Pinho A da S, Stams G-J, Moonen X, Bos AER, van Hooren S. Music therapy for stress reduction: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Health Psychol Rev. 2022;16: 134–159. doi:10.1080/17437199.2020.1846580

3. Watts G. The defence of dirt. BMJ . 2004. p. 1226. doi:10.1136/bmj.38075.565822.55

4. Kau AL, Ahern PP, Griffin NW, Goodman AL, Gordon JI. Human nutrition, the gut microbiome and the immune system. Nature. 2011;474: 327–336. doi:10.1038/nature10213

5. Nieuwdorp M, Gilijamse PW, Pai N, Kaplan LM. Role of the microbiome in energy regulation and metabolism. Gastroenterology. 2014;146: 1525–1533. doi:10.1053/j.gastro.2014.02.008

6. Mörkl S, Butler MI, Holl A, Cryan JF, Dinan TG. Probiotics and the Microbiota-Gut-Brain Axis: Focus on Psychiatry. Curr Nutr Rep. 2020;9: 171–182. doi:10.1007/s13668-020-00313-5

7. Kerkhof M, Wijga AH, Brunekreef B, Smit HA, de Jongste JC, Aalberse RC, et al. Effects of pets on asthma development up to 8 years of age: the PIAMA study. Allergy. 2009;64: 1202–1208. doi:10.1111/j.1398-9995.2009.02016.x

8. Eriksson J, Ekerljung L, Lötvall J, Pullerits T, Wennergren G, Rönmark E, et al. Growing up on a farm leads to lifelong protection against allergic rhinitis. Allergy. 2010;65: 1397–1403. doi:10.1111/j.1398-9995.2010.02397.x

9. Brown MD, Shinn LM, Reeser G, Browning M, Schwingel A, Khan NA, et al. Fecal and soil microbiota composition of gardening and non-gardening families. Sci Rep. 2022;12: 1595. doi:10.1038/s41598-022-05387-5

10. Wassermann B, Müller H, Berg G. An Apple a Day: Which Bacteria Do We Eat With Organic and Conventional Apples? Front Microbiol. 2019;0. doi:10.3389/fmicb.2019.01629

11. Wastyk HC, Fragiadakis GK, Perelman D, Dahan D, Merrill BD, Yu FB, et al. Gut-microbiota-targeted diets modulate human immune status. Cell. 2021;184: 4137–4153.e14. doi:10.1016/j.cell.2021.06.019

12. Leeuwendaal NK, Stanton C, O’Toole PW, Beresford TP. Fermented Foods, Health and the Gut Microbiome. Nutrients. 2022;14. doi:10.3390/nu14071527

13. Alcock J, Maley CC, Aktipis CA. Is eating behavior manipulated by the gastrointestinal microbiota? Evolutionary pressures and potential mechanisms. Bioessays. 2014;36: 940–949. doi:10.1002/bies.201400071

14. Novelle MG. Decoding the Role of Gut-Microbiome in the Food Addiction Paradigm. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2021;18. doi:10.3390/ijerph18136825

15. Scheiman J, Luber JM, Chavkin TA, MacDonald T, Tung A, Pham L-D, et al. Meta-omics analysis of elite athletes identifies a performance-enhancing microbe that functions via lactate metabolism. Nat Med. 2019;25: 1104–1109. doi:10.1038/s41591-019-0485-4

16. Carey RA, Montag D. Exploring the relationship between gut microbiota and exercise: short-chain fatty acids and their role in metabolism. BMJ Open Sport Exerc Med. 2021;7: e000930. doi:10.1136/bmjsem-2020-000930

17. Michels N, Van de Wiele T, Fouhy F, O’Mahony S, Clarke G, Keane J. Gut microbiome patterns depending on children’s psychosocial stress: Reports versus biomarkers. Brain Behav Immun. 2019;80: 751–762. doi:10.1016/j.bbi.2019.05.024

18. Rosin S, Xia K, Azcarate-Peril MA, Carlson AL, Propper CB, Thompson AL, et al. A preliminary study of gut microbiome variation and HPA axis reactivity in healthy infants. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2021;124: 105046. doi:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2020.105046

19. Smith RP, Easson C, Lyle SM, Kapoor R, Donnelly CP, Davidson EJ, et al. Gut microbiome diversity is associated with sleep physiology in humans. PLoS One. 2019;14: e0222394. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0222394

20. Peirce JM, Alviña K. The role of inflammation and the gut microbiome in depression and anxiety. J Neurosci Res. 2019;97: 1223–1241. doi:10.1002/jnr.24476

21. Sarkar A, Lehto SM, Harty S, Dinan TG, Cryan JF, Burnet PWJ. Psychobiotics and the Manipulation of Bacteria-Gut-Brain Signals. Trends Neurosci. 2016;39: 763–781. doi:10.1016/j.tins.2016.09.002

22. Jesús Gázquez Linares J, Pérez-Fuentes MDC, Del Mar Molero Jurado M, Fátima Oropesa Ruiz N, Del Mar Simón Márquez M, Saracostti M. Sleep Quality and the Mediating Role of Stress Management on Eating by Nursing Personnel. Nutrients. 2019;11. doi:10.3390/nu11081731

23. Li Y, Hao Y, Fan F, Zhang B. The Role of Microbiome in Insomnia, Circadian Disturbance and Depression. Front Psychiatry. 2018;9: 669. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00669

3 responses to “The Four Life Pillars to Lift Whole Health”

  1. Look forward to your thoughts!

  2. Great resource! I’ll recommend this site to colleagues and friends interested in evidence-based material.

    1. Thanks Sarah! Thanks for the positive feedback. : )

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