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They say, “You are what you eat.” But it turns out you are also what you watch, read and listen to.

Researchers are discovering that the information we consume through radio, TV, movies, books, magazines and the Internet can have a significant impact on our health. That’s why informed consumers are paying closer attention to their media-consumption habits.

According to Andrew Weil, MD, founder and director of the Program in Integrative Medicines at the University of Arizona in Tucson, it’s time all of us broadened our definition of good nutrition. It should include not only the foods we eat, he asserts, but also every piece of information that we take in and make part of our consciousness.

His reasoning? Much like the nutrients we digest, Weil says, the images and data we absorb have a very real and tangible effect on both our bodies and our minds. Weil has found that too closely tracking the news, for example, tends to make people more angry and anxious, and the resultant biochemical reactions may erode health or interfere with the natural healing process.

Violent sounds and images on film and TV can spike our blood pressure and heart rate, shift our brainwave patterns, and release a cascade of emotionally triggered hormones (such as adrenaline and glucocortisoids) into our system.

Of course, not all media are bad for us, and there’s no evidence that we would benefit from avoiding them entirely. But with new technology and information trends exposing us to more types of media in more places at more times, they have become more invasive and ubiquitous. That’s making it more important than ever for us to cultivate thoughtful media habits — and to reconsider mindless or addictive media consumption that may be doing us a disservice.

The News-Reality Gap

Television is the most popular source of news for most Americans, and many people stay current with the day’s events by tuning into local and national news broadcasts. But watching a great deal of TV news can elevate stress levels and, by extension, lower your vitality and mood.

It can also lead you to some false conclusions about the way things are. For example, if you watch the news regularly, it’s easy to believe that crime is rampant in America and violent crimes in particular are booming. In fact, U.S. crime rates have actually gone down in recent years. But sensationalism rules the majority of daily media, where “if it bleeds, it leads” remains the guiding wisdom behind most TV news lineups.

Meanwhile, because good news is generally considered “no news,” it simply doesn’t get reported. So when we take what we see on the TV news (or worse, crime shows) as an accurate depiction of life in general, we are almost inevitably seeing a bigger-than-life picture through a negatively distorted lens.

The trouble is, TV has an amazing power to influence the way we view the world around us — from the way we perceive public safety to the way we view people of different races, to our general sense of optimism or pessimism.

“People who watch a lot of TV news think the world is a more dangerous place,” explains Kareem Johnson, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia. Johnson, who studies how certain types of media images influence individual beliefs and attitudes, says that frequent TV news watchers are also “far more likely to believe they will one day be a victim of a crime.”

Such pessimistic attitudes contribute to our load of mental and emotional stress, as Johnson and other experts point out, and that stress can contribute to all kinds of body-mind ills — from high blood pressure and lowered immunity to disrupted sleep patterns and skin conditions. They can also lead us to feel unhappy, hopeless or downright depressed. This leaves us less well equipped to deal with the real challenges at hand.

Negative distortions aside, of course, there are plenty of real and important issues to be concerned about. The question is: Is the media you are taking in equipping you to become productively engaged — or just absorbing your time and energy, and upsetting you to the point of creating another layer of problems?

It’s worth considering whether the hours you are investing in various types of news and entertainment media are building you up or tearing you down.

Media Detox

Nothing about media is intrinsically destructive or evil, Johnson says. But the presence of so many potentially destructive media messages puts increased responsibility on us as individuals to monitor the impact of our media choices, and to make them as constructive and responsible as we can.

That takes real awareness, Johnson notes. “If you randomly flip on your television,” he says, “you’ll see an overabundance of shows that feed the negativity and bias that permeates our culture.” Of course, violence and prejudice aren’t the only negative and disempowering messages that  mass media send. Watching or reading about celebrity lifestyles might lead you to conclude that your own life is uninteresting by comparison. Listening to a meanspirited radio psychologist can leave you feeling peevish and reactive. Setting your life to a depressing, angry or disheartening music soundtrack can suck you right into a defeated mood.

On the other hand, under the right circumstances, these very same media might leave another person feeling perfectly content. The key, most experts agree, is awareness, moderation and balance. Be aware of how the media in your life are affecting you.

Moderate the effects of upsetting or depressing media with messages and experiences that you find enlightening and uplifting. Balance passive entertainments with active ones. And whatever you do, don’t get sucked into the idea that what you watch, read and listen to doesn’t matter. It does — at a mental, emotional and physical level.

Not sure whether your current media diet is a healthy one? Going on a one-day media fast is a great way to get some perspective on your own media habits and to begin consciously shifting them for the better.

In his international bestseller, Eight Weeks to Optimum Health (Knopf, 1997), Weil advises readers to consciously avoid all television, radio and newspapers at least one day a week.

Then again, maybe you’re ready for more — perhaps a week- or even monthlong media detox? Going without media altogether for a while may help you reconnect with your creativity, as well as your appreciation of quiet time, reading and conversation.

In fact, shutting off the computer, taking off the headphones and turning off the TV may just help you tune into your life in a whole new way.

Top 5 Symptoms of an Unhealthy Media Diet

  1. Antisocial Behavior. Are you turning down social engagements and ignoring callsfrom friends because you can’t bear to miss the latest episode of some so-called reality TV show? Pull the plug! Your reality is here and now, with real live people.
  2. Body Damage.  Spending too much time glued to a TV or computer monitor can mess with your metabolism and turn your muscles to mush. Sitting in front of the TV also makes unhealthy, mindless snacking way too easy. Take a look at how your media habits might be contributing to poor health and fitness patterns.
  3. News-itis Can’t go to sleep without watching the news? Do you spend hours a day listening to incendiary, polarizing political opinion? Are you sucked into watching around-the-clock disaster reports? You may have a news addiction that’s raising your stress levels and depleting your immunity. Try limiting or shifting your intake: Get a dose of the daily facts from a respected newspaper or public radio station, then dig into a credible newsmagazine for deeper reporting on the topics that most interest you.
  4. Bills, Bills, Bills. Those premium cable, ISP and subscription payments can really add up. Consider putting more resources into free, meditative time with yourself, or social time with friends and family. Invest in an active hobby or creative pastime instead.
  5. Doom and Gloom. Depressed about the state of human affairs? Drowning in dark thoughts? Consider building some comedy into your media diet. A few good belly laughs might help you feel inspired and hopeful enough to do some good in this world — and that sure beats sitting around the house moping.

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