My Journey to Health: What I’ve Learned About Wellness
Disclaimer: I am not a doctor. These are not the words of Dr. Nancy Simpkins. This blog post is from a lay person. I’m also neither a journalist nor a writer. I’m just doing this for fun and to potentially help people. Please forgive spelling errors or bad grammar. But mostly, please enjoy! – Anonymous
I woke up in the middle night in the summer of 2007, unable to breathe. I had never experienced a loss of breath before so I quickly ran a hot shower to create steam with the hope of clearing some space in my airways to breathe. I didn’t realize it then, but that night was the beginning of a series of chronic lifestyle related health issues that have plagued me for most of the last ten years including: acid (non-acid) reflux, sinusitis, chronic fatigue, insomnia, and anxiety. To be clear, my issues have all been quality of life related but not life threatening. As a result, western doctors have largely ignored my problems. Western doctors are primarily focused on saving lives, rather than on quality of life issues, which makes sense. Doctors can have a much greater impact on society by protecting people from life threating illnesses than by helping people with annoying little problems that won’t kill them like acid reflux or chronic fatigue. Ultimately, I took matters into my own hands and have taken charge of my own health with great results. I’ve decided to write this article in an effort to use my experience to help other with chronic health problems like mine. I hope you enjoy!
Now, after ten years of struggling with various chronic ailments, I finally feel healthy most days. It has taken me nearly 10 years to begin the process of understanding my body and my mind that has led to me to my current state of relative health. I’ll break down my advice in the following three areas below: food / supplements, exercise and anxiety / stress.
Food / Supplements
Making the right food choices is one of the important and controllable aspects of the effort to achieve optimal health. People inaccurately attribute their flaws to outside influences in all aspects of their life, not taking blame for their own faults. But it is shocking to me how people do this with their food choices. The food you choose to eat is your choice and yours alone. We’re all adults, and no one is forcing you to make bad food choices. (I highly doubt someone shoved your head in a carton Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, forcing you to eat it) Rather, bad choices about food often have to do with stress, which I’ll address later in this post. Making unhealthy food choices when stressed compounds an already serious problem. How about this scenario: You come from a terrible day at work only to get into a petty fight with your significant other, largely caused by the stress of the day rather than a true underlying issue. Rather than cooking a healthy dinner you decide to order a pizza and have two beers to calm your nerves. You feel better after dinner and want to bury the hatchet with your significant other so you go out for ice cream and put some extra toppings on it.
If you’re like me, this scenario was far too common in my day to day life before I consciously decided to make a change about my food habits. There is nothing inherently evil about eating pizza or ice cream and drinking beer. The problem is that those foods are very unhealthy for us. In moderation they are okay, but if chronic stress drives us to eat unhealthy foods too frequently, these foods cause chronic inflammation and other insidious problems in our bodies. These foods may appease our stressed brain for a short period of time but in the long run, they make us less happy, more anxious and less healthy generally. My advice is to take a deep breath or two when you’re stressed and think about your food choices before you indulge, rather than instinctively making an unhealthy food choice. I now almost always turn to healthy food choices when I’m stressed. I now understand that eating healthy food is probably the single largest controllable contributor to health and wellness. See below my simple advice on foods to eat and foods to avoid with some book recommendations:
Foods to Eat:
- Vegetables – Vegetables are not optional. Eat as many as possible until you can no longer stomach them. Eat them at every meal. One of the few consistencies across all food research is that vegetables are a crucially important aspect of any healthy diet.
- Fats – Research on fats is mixed. But in my opinion all of the good research now indicates that eating healthy fats, particularly early in the day is extremely healthy for you. It fills you up and helps you absorb critical vitamins. My suggestion is to buy kerry’s irish gold, grass fed butter and MCT oil for your house. I use these products in my morning coffee (Bulletproof coffee) which I’ll get to later.
- Protein – Eat healthy proteins like free range chicken, grass fed beef, fish or turkey.
- Coffee / Green Tea – I love coffee but I decided to quit drinking it for awhile because of what I thought was acid reflux, which actually turned out to be non-acid reflux which is a result of the weakening of the lower esophageal sphincter. The problems I have had with coffee are the “yo-yo” energy effect that it gives me, resulting in very quick highs and very deep lows of energy. I recommend Dave Asprey’s Bulletproof Coffee to solve the energy “yo-yo” problem associated with coffee. You don’t need to buy it from him but you can. Basically its just single origin, organic coffee from central or South America, blended with grass fed butter and MCT oil. It tastes incredibly smooth and gives you even energy throughout the day. I recommend a cup of “Bulletproof Green Tea” in the afternoon before 2pm rather than a second cup of coffee, which is just the same drink, except you make it with green tea instead of coffee.
Foods to Eat Sparingly:
- Carbs – If you don’t eat any carbs you’re probably going to feel like crap, but eating too many carbs in the morning will also make your energy systems and hormones go haywire. Does this scenario sound familiar? You wake up to your alarm after snoozing for 20 – 30 mins, rush to get your clothes on for the day and head out. You quickly grab a bagel with butter and a cup of mediocre cup of coffee from a local bagel shop and head to work. You have great energy for two to three hours but then you crash right around lunch time. It’s a busy day at work so you grab a sandwich and another cup of coffee and keep powering through your busy day. You feel ok until about 4pm but then crash severely and have limited to no productivity through the end of the day. Well, that describes the way my day went for years. But now, I try to live by the basic mantra of “fat is for breakfast, carbs are for dessert” from Dave Asprey’s Bulletproof Diet. Basically fat gives you sustained energy throughout the day without a crash. Carbs are good at night because the crash occurs when you’re asleep. I recommend rice or sweet potatoes with dinner.
- Fruit – Fruit is one of the more contentious areas of modern food research. I know Dr. Simpkins disagrees with me here so please don’t associate my views with hers in this regard. But, I advise that you eat fruit sparingly and in the evening. Fruit undoubtedly has many nutrients that are crucial to support health, but fruit also has a ton of sugar which has the potential to screw you up a bit.
Foods to Avoid:
- Alcohol – When people ask me for advice about how to lose weight the initial advice is usually extremely easy. Avoid or drastically reduce your intake of alcohol and refined carbohydrates. Alcohol is basically sugar and poison that makes us fat, dumb and poor. It is not a health food, despite what the “big beer” and “big wine” marketing dollars want you to believe. The theory goes something like this: We don’t know why French people live so long (French Paradox) so it must be the Resveratrol in all the red wine that they drink. That theory is total crap. While we still don’t clearly know why the French live longer than most, my strong suspicion is that they French live longer for three basic reasons: i) low stress levels, ii) a lot of walking for exercise and iii) significant amount of healthy fats in their diets. If you want to get reservatrol take a supplement or eat grapes. Alcohol is ok to drink sparingly but it is certainly not a health food. I want you to ask yourself a few questions: i) When is the last time I had a drink, ii) What is the longest period of time as an adult that I went without drinking, and iii) Why do I drink. My theory on alcohol is that most of us unconsciously self- medicate with the substance that we have been trained to think is harmless because its legal and big companies tell us its good for us. We have a tough day and we split a bottle of wine with our significant other. We have a tough week and have 4 -5 drinks at the bar. But alcohol doesn’t solve our problems. In fact, it does the opposite. Think about your biggest fights with your family or significant others and how many of them involved the use of alcohol. Think about your worst life decisions and how many of them involved the use of alcohol. My guess is that in certain times in your life, you used alcohol in excess and made your problems worse. My advice here, try taking a night off from drinking and see how you feel. If you absolutely can’t do it, ask yourself why not. No one is forcing you to drink so you may have a problem with alcohol. A good next step is to just have one or two drinks rather than six. Having one drink vs. six is much healthier and cheaper, your wallet and stomach will thank you.
- Soda (diet or regular) – Soda is terrible for you. Don’t drink it. Diet too. The chemicals in diet soda are bad for you and make you hungrier.
- Candy / dessert (refined carbs) – Don’t eat candy, its terrible for you as well. The exception here is dark chocolate (85%+). Have a little bit in the afternoon to appease your sweet tooth. Your brain and stomach will thank you. If you need to splurge, you should do it with sweets sparingly. They’re not healthy for you but decision fatigue will set in if you constantly reject foods that are “fun” to eat, causing you to totally abandon an otherwise healthy diet.
- Fried Food / Eating Out – Don’t eat fried food or eat out too much. Fried food is terrible for you and your gut. Eating out is bad for multiple reasons: i) you can’t control the ingredients and ii) its expensive. Learn to love to cook your own food
- Dairy / Cheese – Probably not that good for you to eat dairy that is not grass fed butter or ghee. If you have bone density issues, a calcium supplement or milk may be required for you to sustain optimal health for your body.
I generally think supplements are crap and snake oil but there are a few that I have found useful that I wanted to share. Please don’t take a multivitamin unless your doctor tells you to. They don’t have a high enough concentration of any helpful vitamins and generally cause more harm than good. I’m basically going to list the supplements I’ve found helpful at times and you can look up the functionality on your own if you’re interested. This is not at all intended to be a recommendation or a doctor’s endorsement of these supplements. This is just a list of supplements that have helped me in my experience.
- Vitamin D
- Krill Oil
- Vitamin K
- Apple Cider Vinegar – Particularly useful for fighting acid reflux or non-acid reflux
- Magnesium Citrate
- Baclofen (actual RX) – Helps with non-acid reflux. This is an off label indication but if you think you suffer from non-acid reflux its worth looking into taking this at night.
Book Recommendations: If you like what I’ve written about food I highly recommend “The Whole 30” (Melissa Hartwig, Dallas Hartwig) and “The Bulletproof Diet” (Dave Asprey). The authors of those books are way more knowledgeable than I am about food and supplements.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a distance runner. Recently, I completed a marathon, running many miles per week in training and running almost every day of the week. Completing the marathon was a great physical accomplishment and demonstration of fitness. Unfortunately, during my training I felt awful. I was constantly tired. I required a substantial amount of sleep but never felt rested and I chose to consume a lot of unhealthy food to get enough calories to sustain myself. Most people would be shocked to hear that after completing a marathon I was probably the least healthy I have ever been but its true. The reason that people would be surprised is that most people incorrectly correlate fitness with optimal health. In many cases fitness and optimal health are in fact inversely correlated as the athlete over stresses the system to achieve a physical accomplishment. My advice to anyone who wants to compete in a long distance endurance sports is to ask yourself the following questions: i) Do I have the time and energy to commit to this event? and ii) Am I prepared to make sacrifices both of my relationships and my health to compete in this event? I’m still a huge fan of professional distance running but I do not believe it’s the best way to achieve optimal health. My exercise recommendations are: i) walk every day (try to do at least 10,000 steps); ii) lift weight 2 – 3 times per year; iii) try yoga or some form of flexibility training; and iv) try light jogging / biking or swimming 2 – 3 times per week. Exercise is extremely beneficial to your health, just don’t overdo it like I have in the past.
Stress / Anxiety
One of the biggest contributors to my health problems (and the health problems of many others in the 21st century) was chronic stress. Chronic stress is quite different than acute stress. Acute stress is an important adaptive mechanism that we developed to deal with challenging situations (eg being chased by a bear). Chronic stress in people is a relatively new phenomenon that has been exacerbated by many aspects of modern society including social media, television, the 24 hour news cycle, email and constant connectivity to work and bad food. Reducing chronic stress is admirable goal but the goal needs to be achieved gradually. Chronic stress has likely evolved in you over the course of many years and will likely unwind in your over the course of a similar time period. See below my suggestions on tackling chronic stress:
- Eat healthy food – Making healthy food choices is the single most controllable way to begin the stress reduction process. Start there and read my section on healthy food.
- Spirituality / Meditation – I highly suggest that you embrace spirituality and begin some kind of meditation practice. The app started by Andy Puddicombe called headspace is an excellent, user friendly place to start. The process of beginning to understand your mind and motivations is often daunting but can be extremely rewarding. Most of our stress that is chronic comes from a feeling of wanting the world to be different in some way. Which would be ok, if we could fix all the issues that are worrying us. But of course we can’t. So instead, we ruminate and stress over issues that we have absolutely no power to change, causing stress in the body and the mind. Does this situation sound familiar at all: You wake up with a weird feeling of angst after having a weird dream. In the dream you were locked out of a classroom in your high school and you couldn’t take the final exam so you didn’t graduate from high school. After waking up in a tizzy, you grab a cup of coffee and start a conversation in your head. You’re having an argument with your boss, in this imaginary conversation, explaining why his ideas are stupid and the company should be run your way instead. You then get to work, and are unnecessarily cold to your boss who in turn, is passive aggressive towards you because he feels that you were rude for no reason. That situation happened to me constantly before I started meditating and actually trying to empathize with everyone around me. We all think our perspective is inherently correct and others don’t understand our view which is 100% accurate, but that’s not right. (watch Rashomon or read 7 Habits of Highly Effective People to better understand perspective) My advice is this: try to find your sense of self confidence so that you have the power to empathize with those around you. Then, try to eliminate that sense of self completely in your mind and recognize that many of your stressors are caused by clinging to an invisible and ever changing concept of “I”. Ask yourself this question: How many times have I been stressed because of: “my money”, “my promotion”, someone disagreeing with “my idea”, “my hairstyle”, “my clothes”, “my apartment”, “my lifestyle” etc. If we could all just stop clinging to our ideas and possessions as absolute and genuinely consider the ideas of others, we would all be a lot less stressed and a lot happier.
- Exercise – Do if often but don’t overdo it. Exercise is a very healthy stress release. Turn to exercise instead of alcohol.
- Reading – Focused reading in a hard cover book is one of the best ways to reduce stress. TV, internet and other forms of media are bad for your brain, cause stress and allow marketers to influence your decisions.
- Limit News Consumption (including social media) to Once Per Day – Preferably Reading an Old School Print Newspaper – Think about if this situation sounds familiar: You wake up and immediately grab your phone, you check your email and your facebook and you immediately read a tragic story that gets your worked up. Maybe the story’s a human rights violation in Africa, maybe it’s an earthquake in California, or maybe its that your local politician misappropriated tax payer dollars. You start your day worked up about the issue and head to work and proceed to stress over the issue all day, checking updates on twitter, posting several times about the story on facebook, and surfing the internet for recent news updates, in the meantime you have totally ignored your responsibilities at work or to your family. I used to do this all the time. Its hard not to in today’s society. I’m still tempted to obsessively track upsetting stories, even when I know that I have zero influence to change the outcome. For example: there was recently a story in the press about an othrodox jewish man in Israel who stabbed several people at a gay rights parade soon after being released from jail for a similar offense that was perpetrated over 10 years ago. This story seriously upset me both as a Jew and a gay rights supporter but I read the article and moved on with my day, knowing that I had no opportunity to influence the outcome of the situation. That behavior may sound insensitive but its not. When we obsess over situations that we have absolutely no control over, we lose out and people in our lives lose out because we are not at our best. Don’t martyr yourself to show that you care, read the news once in the morning to be a good citizen and then move on with your day.
- Sleep – Develop good sleep habits. Turn off email / phones an hour before bed, read / talk to significant others in that time and begin to unwind. Target 7 – 8 hours per night.
- Laughter / Fun – Have fun and laugh often. So important. You need to do certain things a few times per week that are just fun. Whether its watching football with the guys, watching reality TV with your friends or just walking the dog in the park, its important to lose yourself in a fun activity.
- Relationships – Embrace all relationships, friends, family, and acquaintances. Treat others with respect and kindness and you’ll likely receive kindness in return.
- Don’t take yourself too seriously – This is self explanatory. Learn to laugh at yourself and embrace your flaws as part of you and you will ultimately become a lot happier.
I hope everyone found this advice helpful. Remember, achieving optimal health is a journey that takes time. There are many ups and downs along the way but the journey is well worth the time. Best of luck!