June was Men’s Health Month! I wanted to write about it. But I couldn’t muster the strength. I was recovering from my trip to India, where both my father and father-in-law were healing. Maybe I was in denial about male illnesses or just burnt out. I don’t know. But having lost two friends from my boarding school – both men who were extremely fit and loved by many – I feel compelled to write about men’s health. Because we need to shift the narrative that wellness is more than physical fitness, clean eating, and diligent workouts.
In late summer/early fall of 2021 my friend Puneet died of a heart attack. He was one of the most beloved people I knew. Puneet was a teetotaler with not an ounce of extra fat on him. Heart attack got him. In June 2022 I lost Abhay, a senior from my boarding school. Abhay practiced yoga daily, and he didn’t drink. He was extremely fit and the star athlete when we were growing up. In inter-school sports, the hills of Mussoorie would echo with all of us cheering him on by his last name. “Ojha! OJHA! Ojhaaaa.” He was extremely successful in his career. In fact, the news of his cardiac arrest was all over the Indian media.
Everyone remembers Abhay as this ambitious guy, doting husband, and generous friend. I remember him as the fabulous human being who helped me and my mom – two strangers to him. She and I were in New Delhi for my entrance exams to my boarding school. The exam was to be followed by a group interview. I was a kid who felt flabbergasted at the idea of sitting indoors all day; my mom was overwhelmed by the vastness of the space and lack of visible signs pointing to the right rooms. Abhay was around that day, and he took my mom to the office and walked me to the exam room. I was told that seniors haze their juniors in boarding schools.
But Abhay assured my mom that I was going to be fine in Mussoorie. He kept his word and checked in on me even after I joined my boarding school.
Abhay and Puneet were classmates and got the top grades in the class. Abhay and Puneet looked fit on the outside. These bright minds were successful, healthy, and happy. How is it that they both died of heart issues in their forties? No underlying conditions and… Bam! They were gone in moments.
As a friend and junior, I have grieved their losses; as an Ayurvedic counselor, I ask bigger questions: how was the balance levels in their life? Meaning, how was their stress level? What were they doing to navigate the stress in their lives?
Is Stress All Good or Bad?
Stress is a natural physical and mental reaction to life experiences. Everyone gets stressed from time to time. A little stress can be a motivator. What many people don’t realize is that when we are constantly dealing with inordinate amounts of stress, our mind and body can be negatively affected. The digestive system, hormonal system, cardiovascular health, the nervous system, immune system as well as the reproductive system can get damagingly affected because of stress. Western medicine reminds us that chronic stress symptoms can look like irritability, insomnia, anxiety, depression, and headaches.
Ayurveda and Stress
From an Ayurvedic perspective, stress can be tridoshic. Vata individuals are likely to develop vata-aggravated stress reactions, such as anxiety or fearfulness. You can’t discount phobias or anxiety neurosis either. High pitta individuals react to stress in the form of anger. Some may even suffer from high blood pressure, ulcers, ulcerative colitis, and many other conditions. Stress in a kapha person might look like slow metabolism, demotivation, under active thyroid functions, or pre-diabetic condition. Some kaphas might indulge in stress-eating and that might lead to weight gain, which brings its own set of health issues.
I might sound gender-biased, but I believe women are more proactive in addressing their well-being than men. Men are more focused on physical fitness. Some men might avoid carbs and sugar or not drink/smoke. But that’s the extent of it. Most of my clients identify as women. They reach out when something feels off. They don’t wait for things to reach a tipping point or for a full-blown disease to occupy their mind and body. Most of my male clients started to work with me when things get really ugly. I constantly remind them that our mind and body are connected. I wonder if it’s the social pressure of being masculine that stops men getting the help they need.
Ayurveda reminds us that a disease doesn’t develop overnight. There are signs but, as a society, we are trained to pop pills for that heartburn or acid reflux, constipation, loose motions, or headache. You get the picture. When my husband and I go for Panchakarma, the Ayurvedic doctor on duty always comments on how I am aware of minute fluctuations of my breath and 60 minutes aren’t enough for our consultation; on the other hand, my husband answers questions using minimal words and, like most men, seems quite okay being disconnected from his body.
I urge every man reading this essay to answer this question: How are you taking care of yourself? Is stress playing a bigger role in your life than usual? What are you doing about it? I understand that what is stressful to one person is not necessarily stressful to another. But have you noticed a difference in your mood, emotions, sleep, desire for sex, energy levels, patience and more? Are you more irritable than usual? How tired are you? Do you get 7-8 hours of sleep every night? What time do you go to bed? What kind of company do you keep? What does your digestion feel like? Do you notice an extraordinary amount of twitching? Are you making time for rest and recovery? What are you doing to prevent burnout? Are you the types to never ask for help, must always have your way, or can’t ignore the small stuff?
A healthy lifestyle is critical to your physical and mental well-being. Don’t ignore the importance of wholesome well-being because there is no business without wellness. Ignoring your well-being is not a sign of masculinity. When you take care of your health, you are protecting your family and their future and ensuring you are there for a long time. Real men rise to real occasions.
“Because of its impact on wives, mothers, daughters, and sisters, men’s health is truly a family issue.”
For more such stories, check out The Balanced Life on SEEMA.com