What is health?

Last updated: 21/12-2022

About Sweden – an orientation about Swedish society.

This text is about health. It describes physical and mental health and what influences you health. It talks about the harmful effects of alcohol, drugs and tobacco, and about the positive effects of sleep, exercise and healthy food.

It also talks about stress and traumatic events, and what you can do to improve your health.

Everyone is entitled to having the best possible physical and mental health. The right to health is important in realising other rights, such as to be able to work or go to school. Other rights also have an impact on the right to health. If you have nowhere to live, for example, or if you do not have a job, it will affect your well-being.

Everyone is also entitled to medical care. A person who is in acute need of medical care must receive it first. People who work in the medical care services have to respect the equal worth of all people. You are entitled to be received in a professional and respectful manner by medical care staff. This applies regardless of your gender, gender identity, ethnicity, language, sexuality, religion or education. But you do not have the right to demand to be treated by staff of a specific gender, ethnic background, religion or similar.

A graphic chart with semicircles, figures and text describing health.

The diagram shows how your health is affected by many different things, known as health determinants. At the centre are age, sex, and heredity. They are determinants which are difficult or impossible to influence. Close to the centre are relationships and networks, which are very important for your well-being. Farther out from the centre are determinants such as eating habits, exercise habits, and tobacco use, which are also important and easier to influence yourself.

What influences your health in a positive direction?

What influences your health in a negative direction?

Use examples from the diagram.

Physical and mental health

Being in good health means feeling well both physically and mentally. Good physical health means that your body is well. If you eat healthy food, exercise regularly, sleep enough, and avoid tobacco, alcohol, and drugs, you strengthen your immune system and reduce the risk of disease and illness.

Good mental health means having a balance between your positive and negative emotions. It also means that you feel content with your life and that you have a good relationship with your family, friends, or others you know. Your mental health influences your physical health, and vice versa. If your are not feeling well mentally, your body will often ache too.

An illustrated collage with a glass of water, a basket of fruit, people walking, one person with their eyes shut, one person sleeping, one person running and two people hugging.

How can you improve your physical health?

Here is some advice for what you can do to improve your physical health.

What you eat and drink has a major impact on your health and how you feel. Eating well and being active can reduce the risk of many diseases, for example cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer and psychiatric problems.

The body needs various substances. In order to get all the substances the body needs, it is important to eat a varied diet. If you eat breakfast, lunch and dinner at set times, it is easier to eat just the right amount.

The National Food Agency is a government agency responsible for matters relating to food. The National Food Agency gives the general public advice on healthy food. Among its tips:

  • Eat a lot of fruit, vegetables and berries. Root vegetables, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, beans and onion are particularly good.
  • Choose wholegrain products when you eat things like bread, cereal, grains, pasta and rice.
  • Eat fish and shellfish two to three times a week. Alternate between oily and less oily kinds and choose eco-labelled sources.
  • Choose healthy cooking oils, such as rapeseed oil or olive oil.

Vitamin D is an important vitamin that we get through food and by being in the sun. People who spend a lot of time indoors, people with dark skin, and people who do not eat fish may need to supplement their vitamin D intake, particularly in the winter. Children under the age of two and adults over the age of 75 should also take vitamin D supplements. They can be bought in pharmacies. Children under the age of two get them for free at the child health care centre (BVC).

Some products in supermarkets are labelled with a keyhole symbol. This symbol indicates that the food is nutritious and has less fat, sugar and salt. It also contains more fibre than similar foods without the keyhole label. Products with the keyhole label are recommended by the National Food Agency.

Eat less sweets, crisps, cookies, chocolate, and similar foods. If you eat too much of that type of food, you increase the risk of putting on weight. If you become overweight, your risk of disease increases.

Children need to eat nutritious food at set times. They are then able to grow and develop in the right way.

Breast milk or breast milk substitutes are the best food for infants. You can get more information about what food is good for children at your child healthcare centre.

Our bodies were designed for movement. This applies to old people as well as young people. Exercising more and sitting still less brings many positive effects. You will feel better and increase your chances of living a long life if you are physically active. Many diseases and conditions can be improved with exercise. It can also alleviate both pain and gloominess. It is never to late to start exercising.

Children and young people should be in physical movement at least 60 minutes per day. Adults also need to exercise every day. A good way is to take a fast-paced walk lasting 30 minutes, five times a week. Other good options include dancing, running, or going to a gym. Your health benefits from training your muscles – twice a week is a good amount. It is important to do balance training too, particularly for people over the age of 65.

It is important to sleep well if you are to feel good. An adults normally needs to sleep for between six and nine hours per day. Children and young people need more sleep.

If you have trouble sleeping, it may be due to various things, including smoking, alcohol, snoring, illness, anxiety, and stress.

You can improve your sleep if the room you sleep in is dark, quiet, and cool. You may also find it easier to sleep if you avoid eating just before going to bed. If you go to bed and get up at around the same time every day, that might also improve the quality of your sleep. Relaxation exercises can also help when you have difficulties sleeping.

If your sleeping difficulties continue for a long time, it may be a good idea to seek medical care.

What are your eating and drinking habits today?

Can you change any of them to improve your health?

Alcohol, drugs, and tobacco

Drinking alcohol and using tobacco and drugs harms your body. These substances are also addictive.

Under the Child Convention, every child is entitled to good health and to be protected from the illicit use of drugs. It is the responsibility of adults to protect children from using or growing up in a setting surrounded by tobacco, alcohol, and drugs.

A person who wants to buy alcohol in Sweden must be 20 years old. Alcohol is sold by Systembolaget, which is owned by the Swedish state. Drinks that only contain small amounts of alcohol, such as some types of beer and cider, are also sold in supermarkets. You have to be 18 years old to buy drinks that contain small amounts of alcohol. You also have to be 18 years old to order alcohol in a restaurant. It is illegal to buy alcohol for people who are under 20.

Drinking alcohol for a long period can lead to depression, anxiety and sleeping problems. If you drink a lot of alcohol, there is a risk of you becoming addicted. There is also a risk that you will develop diseases or injuries.

All narcotics are illegal in Sweden. It is illegal to sell and buy narcotics. It is also illegal to possess narcotics for private use, i.e. to have narcotics that you are going to use yourself. Crimes involving narcotics have severe punishments, often imprisonment.

People who use drugs often have difficulties giving them up on their own. Most people who are addicted to drugs need help from medical care staff to quit.

The most common drug in Sweden is cannabis (hashish, marijuana). Other drugs that occur include cocaine, ecstasy, amphetamine, and heroin. Khat is also a drug.


Smoking can cause many diseases and can make people die earlier than they would have if they had not smoked. Cancer, lung diseases, cardiovascular diseases, and ulcers are some of the diseases you can get from smoking. When you are in the same room as someone who is smoking, you are also inhaling their smoke. This is known as passive smoking and can cause you to get the same diseases you would risk getting if you yourself smoked.

You have to be 18 years old to buy cigarettes, snuff (snus), and other products that contain nicotine.

Hookah or shisha

Smoke from hookahs or shishas contains poisonous substances just like the smoke from cigarettes, is addictive, and can cause cancer and lung diseases. Since the tobacco used in hookahs or shishas is sweet, many people think it is less harmful, but it is not.


Snus is tobacco that is paced under the lip. Snus can cause injuries and diseases of the mouth and can lead to cancer.


An e-cigarette is an electronic cigarette consisting of a mouthpiece, a battery, a heating element, and e-liquid. E-cigarettes are a way of absorbing nicotine without smoking tobacco and contain several other substances besides nicotine that can harm your health.

Smoking e-cigarettes can affect your airways, harm your oral health, and increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Help is available

If you are addicted to alcohol or use drugs, help is available. Help is also available for you if you have a member of your family who is addicted to alcohol or uses drugs. This help is provided by the medical care services or the social services. Help is also available from some voluntary organisations and the Church of Sweden. Another option is to call for healthcare advice on the number 1177.

If you want to quit smoking or using snuff, contact your medical care centre. You can also try to quit by using nicotine pads and other products that you can buy yourself in pharmacies and some supermarkets. It is a good idea to speak to your doctor first.

Stress and traumatic events


Moving to a new country is a big change. Perhaps you were forced to flee your homeland. It is normal to feel anxious, sad, or stressed.

All stress is not bad, though – stress can be helpful too. Stress can give you extra strength to cope with difficult situations. But a lot of stress for an extended period of time can be bad for your health. If you feel stressed, it is good to try to understand why. If you do, you can also try to change your situation.

Too much stress can make you sleep badly and feel sad. It can also make it harder for you to concentrate, make your memory worse, and give you stomach problems, headaches, or aches in other parts of your body. A lot of stress over a long period of time can lead to depression.

Traumatic events

If you have experienced or seen frightening events, such as accidents, war, or sexual or physical violence, you may get nightmares, have difficulties concentrating, or become irritable. This condition is known as post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. If you have PTSD, it is common that you get recurring strong memories of what happened – also known as flashbacks. It feels as if you are experiencing the frightening situation again. With the right treatment, many people with PTSD recover. Contact a medical care centre if you have experienced terrible events and do not feel well.

Dealing with difficult memories

Having difficult memories of war or of fleeing can affect your health. You may find it hard to concentrate and to sleep. Those are problems that have an impact on your everyday life, and even though they may not be easy to tackle, there are things you can do:

  • Try to see other people.
  • Try to have a schedule for your days – getting up at the same time every day and having breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
  • Do not watch films or video clips of war and violence.
  • Do not watch the news from your homeland too often, and particularly not at night.
  • Do not use your computer or watch TV just before going to bed. Doing that makes it harder to fall asleep.
  • Talk to someone whose job it is to listen, such as a counsellor or psychologist, about the things you think about. It does not help straight away, but after a while, it can. You will not forget the events, but thoughts about them will become less intrusive.

How can you improve your mental health?

There are many things you can do yourself to feel better. It is important to sleep and eat well and to be physically active every day.

You may feel bad occasionally without needing medical care, but if you feel bad for a long time and have difficulties coping with everyday life, you need to seek help. If you feel that you do not want to live any longer, you also need to seek help.

When you are feeling bad, it can seem as if everything is boring and meaningless. Even if it feels difficult, it is good to do things and to see people. Do things you remember liking before and which have made you feel good.

It is easier to deal with stress and anxiety if you sleep well. Try to be awake and active during the day and to sleep at night. Remember to wind down before you go to bed, and try not to think of things that worry you when you are in bed.

How you feel physically affects how you feel mentally. It is important to eat healthy food and to exercise often. When you exercise so that your pulse increases, your body releases a substance that calms you and makes you feel better. It is a good idea to exercise outdoors, in daylight. Being outdoors in sunlight is also good for you. Habits and routines can help you manage stress and gloominess better.

It is common for people to avoid other people when they feel bad. It can feel like a struggle to meet other people when you are not feeling well. We all want be by ourselves sometimes, but it should not be for too long, otherwise you miss out on the support and joy that other people can provide. A feeling of connection with family and friends and shared interests in associations or internet groups can all help and support you, and create meaning in your life.

Seeking help

If you feel your mental well-being deteriorating, you should contact your medical care centre. They can help you with advice, support, and counselling. They can also prescribe medication if you need it.

If you or someone else no longer wants to live, it is serious. A person who does not want to live must get help. There are psychiatric emergency wards for adults and for children and young people (Barn- och ungdomspsykiatri, BUP). Psychiatric emergency wards are usually open around the clock every day, just like ordinary emergency wards.

Can you think of examples of when stress is good?

Can you think of examples of when stress is bad for your health?

Can you think of examples of when someone has been helped by the medical care services?

Can you think of examples of when someone needed help but did not get it?