There is a most unusual phenomena happening in the world of medical science today. Researchers are not only working on cures for terrible diseases and viruses that afflict the human race, but also searching for a fundamental truth regarding our daily existence, through experiments and medical studies. The most basic human needs are being pondered and studied, in order to understand how the human psyche works in the ways that it does. Why does one need sleep? Why does one need water? Why are we in need of physical activity? How does food affect our physical and emotional states?
The teachings of the Rambam, (Maimonides) one of the greatest Torah scholars and medical doctors ever to have lived, codified Jewish law in an easily accessible form, so that the laws could be studied separately from the philosophical aspects of the Talmud. From his works, we learn what the Oral and Written Tradition expects of a Jew, regardless of age or background. A good portion of what is written has to do with the physical and mental health of the human body, and how to preserve health in order to be able to live as long as possible. Why live as long as possible? In order to raise the spiritual level of the world through doing good deeds and learning what the Torah teaches us.
Throughout history, Jews who observed these precepts stated by Jewish law, retained high levels of physical, emotional and spiritual health. Plagues affected their communities less severely than other neighborhoods and villages, and the overwhelming majority of Jews maintained close, emotional bonds to friends and family, and most were known for their honesty and piety.
Modern medical studies, conducted over the last 25 years, have been proving, over and over again, aspects of Jewish tradition that relate to physical health and the mind-body connection. The greatest proofs of all come from studies that address the interface between our four basic physical needs—food, water, sleep and physical activity. The delicate balance between how much sleep we get and when, how much food we eat and when, how much we drink and when, and how much physical activity we get and when—all create a network that works our bodies and minds to a state of optimal health. The Rambam spoke about these exact issues at length in his Hilchos Deios in the Mishna Torah. And interestingly enough, the Rambam lived almost 1000 years ago.
As parents, we have been put in charge of not only our own bodies and souls, but have been assigned guardianship over the bodies and souls of every one of our children until they reach adulthood. Let's take a moment to look at what medical studies have proved in the last quarter of a century:
- Eating habits are developed very early on in childhood, and can accompany a person for the rest of his life, for reasons both emotional and physical. Poor eating habits lead to chronic malnutrition, diabetes and obesity, digestive disorders and diseases, as well as severe mental health problems. One should not go to sleep immediately after a full meal. A breakfast of whole grain cereals is necessary for proper brain function during the day.
- Sleep affects anger management, focus and concentration, memory recall, school performance, proper hormone function, and helps to retain the physical beauty with which a human being is endowed. Lack of proper sleep induces obesity and diabetes, lack of motivation and mood swings, and is one of the leading causes of fatal car accidents. The minimum a person needs is 7-8 hours per night. The darkness of the night produces more melatonin, the hormone that induces deep, refreshing and healthful sleep.
- Drinking enough water and cleansing with enough water brings physical and emotional resilience, strong immune support, proper mood and appetite regulation, energy and focus. Lack of water brings on chronic fatigue, anxiety and depression, migraines, easy bruising and breaking of bones. Washing with water throughout the day prevents disease, infection and death.
- Physical activity provides mental and physical balance, affects flexibility and life expectancy, assists in proper hormone regulation, proper digestion and proper sleep, and aids humans in detecting their own feelings of thirst. Sedentary lifestyles bring on various chronic diseases
That is but a small summary of how crucial these basic needs are for any human being. For a child being cared for by adults, it is imperative that caregivers—be they parents, teachers, babysitters, or grandparents—understand that the balance of these “powers” can affect many, many states, from how well a child does in school to how nicely he plays at home and listens to his parents. Before scolding a child, it is wise to first make sure that he is neither hungry for nutritional food, nor thirsty for water, nor tired, nor in need of releasing stress through physical activity.
The Rambam discussed these basic needs at length, and by just looking at even a partial list, we can see how revolutionary the Torah has always been in protecting those who followed its teachings, for thousands of years until today:
- Food must be healthful, eaten in a calm fashion, never eating more than ¾ full.
- Even if a person eats healthfully, but is not active, he will become weak and remain sickly.
- Drinking water should be done freely, only between meals, in order to allow digestion to occur without diluting the mouth’s or stomach’s juices that aid digestion during mealtime.
- A person must wash his hands at least 5-6 times a day—upon awakening, before eating, after elimination, after scratching and touching dirty items (shoes, bugs, animals).
- “By the sweat of his brow, shall man eat his bread”, also means that exercise is necessary to warm the body before eating a meal.
- Exercise should occur before meals, not after. Walking further to one’s morning prayers is proper and commendable.
- Sleep should occur 2 or more hours after meals.
- 8 Hours of sleep (in adults) is necessary for learning and proper functioning.
- Healthful sleep occurs at only at night, in darkness.
- Eating whole grain bread before the end of the morning hours is necessary for proper functioning.
- Emotional health is greatly dependant to a healthy digestive system.
- Overly heavy and processed foods strain the digestive tract and are unhealthful.
- Straining the digestive tract is the basis of a majority of diseases…
And the list goes on and on… When, what and how much we take these basic needs into consideration, will determine the difference between a calm, happy household, and an upsetting, unruly dynamic. Due we not owe it to ourselves and to our children to get onto the right track to proper physical and mental health? Do we need more than modern medical studies and our ancient teachings to support these facts, and prove that there are some un-bendable truths in the world?
THIS WEEK: Words and actions that come from the heart, enter the heart. Take the simple cycle of food-water-sleep-physical activity to heart. It will affect your household’s heart and soul, your physical and mental balance, and can help bring you and your children to an optimum level of emotional happiness and physical health you thought could never be possible.