Optimize your sleep — Quality sleep is potentially one of the most critical keys to optimal mental health. There is still a lot we do not know about the impact of sleep on the brain, but research shows sleep supports mental and emotional resilience. We do see the overall impact a lack of quality sleep has on our cortisol (stress hormone) and this can cause an assortment of mental health challenges like brain fog, brain inflammation and neuroendocrine imbalances. Testing for melatonin and cortisol levels and addressing any level imbalances can greatly help assist in achieving an optimal sleep cycle.
As a part of my series about the “5 Things Anyone Can Do To Optimize Their Mental Wellness” I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Melissa Gallagher, a Naturopathic Physician (ND), founder of Natural Health Resources and medical advisor to Sovereign Laboratories. Dr. Gallagher has over a decade of clinical work and training in the fields of nutrition, digestive health, lymphatic disorders and neuro-endocrine balancing. For the past 15 years, Dr. Gallagher’s focus has been working with individuals addressing digestive disorders, hormone balance, detoxification therapies and primary and secondary lymphedema cases through lymphatic decongestive treatments.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
In my early 20s, I experienced a health crisis that exposed me to the gap of solutions-oriented care within the traditional medical model. I was struck with a severe case of Epstein-Barr virus and it changed everything. There was no pill or quick fix to remedy my viral infection and I sought out natural medicine by way of a Chinese medicine doctor and acupuncturist. She introduced me to the world of natural healing and incorporated an assortment of healing arts and functional medicine to help me recover. Ultimately, she became my first mentor and encouraged me to get my master’s in nutrition and my doctorate in naturopathic medicine. While it did not realize it at the time, my healing crisis was my personal and professional paradigm shift. I am healthier and happier as a result of its blessing.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
One day in early April 2011 as I left my clinic for the day, I had forwarded the clinic phone line to my cell phone. Within an hour, I received a forwarded call from the clinic line asking for a therapist to come and work with Serena Williams on the set of HSN in between her on-air breaks. My clinic was a mile away from the HSN studios and worked with on-air talent, models and HSN corporate executives frequently. I honestly thought the call was a prank by one of my staff. We always had fun with each other. And about a minute later, I realized that this was no prank and began an amazing experience working with tennis’ top athlete on her own healing journey. Within months of our time together, she was back at her peak winning Wimbledon.
Can you share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson or take-away did you learn from that?
One of the more humorous mistakes I made when I first got started — now looking back — is the degree of complicated systems and multiple steps involved in patient intake, scheduling and even shipping products I had employed to help me run my business. I tried to do it ALL myself. Operations and smoothness of operational procedures is not my forte. I made things often more complicated than they needed to be and luckily hired folks who were better at things like operational process than I. Outsourcing things I am not good at has been a great lesson to learn -no one is a specialist in everything. Concentrate your energies on what you excel at and outsource everything else.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I have been blessed by being surrounded by amazing business leaders, entrepreneurs and business professionals who have always supported and enriched my professional life. The one person that truly held the biggest key to my success was my Grandmother. It was her support and unconditional love that allowed me to take the major leap of faith to move back home and begin my business. She opened her home to me, fed me and cheered for my success as I embarked on entrepreneurship. She was an amazing woman. I moved in when she had just turned 93. She was such a good sport. She let me change her diet, attend her doctor appointment visits and we ended up getting her completely off insulin and other medications. She lost weight and began walking several miles a day with me around our local lake. It was such an amazing mutually beneficial experience.
What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?
My recommendation to my peers to avoid burnout is to seek balance in your life. As caregivers to our patients, it can be easy to put a lot of our energies into the care of our patients and our businesses. It is also critical to nourish our own wellness and mental health. Investing time in family, our pets and our fitness plans is my best advice for anyone who wants to avoid burnout. Also — don’t forget to take your own advice.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
One of the things I learned early on was that people enjoy working for people who value them and create respectful work cultures. I remember my own experience with a boss who made us post “I am replaceable” notes on our office cubicles. It was absolutely demeaning and was the beginning of my emotional detachment from her as a boss and the company. I understood she was trying to motivate us, but it was not the right way to do so. When I had my first job in management, I made an effort to cultivate continuing education and employee appreciation in our business model. Investing in others is one of the best ways to cultivate a positive culture. In my wellness center, we had annual stipends for therapists to invest in their continuing education and encouraged their own wellness investments. We also significantly discounted wellness services and products so that they were their healthiest selves.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Mental health is often looked at in binary terms; those who are healthy and those who have mental illness. The truth, however, is that mental wellness is a huge spectrum. Even those who are “mentally healthy” can still improve their mental wellness. From your experience or research, what are five steps that each of us can take to improve or optimize our mental wellness. Can you please share a story or example for each.
- Heal Your Gut — The gut-brain connection is much greater than we even realize. Incorporating liposomal colostrum therapy, prebiotics, probiotics and anti-inflammatory omegas into your daily wellness program can directly impact the healing of neuroendocrine imbalances. Particularly your happy hormones. If you experience any gut imbalances — you will experience brain imbalances. Sometimes this may register as brain fog, mental fatigue, lack of memory, concentration challenges and hormonal imbalances.
- Take a Digital Time out — Disconnecting from social media, tv, news programming and our phones is necessary for our mental health. Limiting screen time is so important — especially now during the pandemic as many of us have moved into the visual space. One of the best investments one can make is to buy blue light blocking glasses and screen covers for common use tools like phones and computer screens. Social influences on social media can trigger depression and comparisons that are unhealthy for our mental wellness. Disconnecting and taking a walk in nature, playing with a pet or exercising is a good way to imply a digital break.
- Feed Your Brain Water & Fat — Our brains are made up of water and fat. Hydration is critical for optimal brain health — a dehydrated brain is a dysfunctional brain. Similarly, healthy fats are absolutely critical to the function of both our brain and neurotransmitter-endocrine health. When we look at underlying mental health illnesses — we often see diets in low fat as being a factor for a lack of the precursory nutrients and building blocks necessary for healthy brain function. Healthy fats from avocado, coconut oil, chia seeds, almonds, walnuts, cashew and fatty dense fish like salmon and sardines are extremely beneficial for brain health.
- Exercise — Getting the blood flowing in the body is fundamental for optimal brain function. Exercise makes both your heart and blood vessels stronger. Healthy blood flow increases the nutrients that feed and nourish the brain. Our brain has tiny microvessels and keeping them strong with better blood flow shows it helps keep the brain memory and learning centers alert and functional. In fact — exercise that one enjoys can slow age and stress-related hippocampus (part of the brain that controls memory and learning) shrinkage.
- Optimize your sleep — Quality sleep is potentially one of the most critical keys to optimal mental health. There is still a lot we do not know about the impact of sleep on the brain, but research shows sleep supports mental and emotional resilience. We do see the overall impact a lack of quality sleep has on our cortisol (stress hormone) and this can cause an assortment of mental health challenges like brain fog, brain inflammation and neuroendocrine imbalances. Testing for melatonin and cortisol levels and addressing any level imbalances can greatly help assist in achieving an optimal sleep cycle.
Much of my expertise focuses on helping people to plan for after retirement. Retirement is a dramatic ‘life course transition’ that can impact one’s health. In addition to the ideas you mentioned earlier, are there things that one should do to optimize mental wellness after retirement? Please share a story or an example for each.
Retirement can be a HUGE milestone many retirees work so hard to get to and then when it arrives it is quite often a stress-inducing paradigm shift. I see this professionally more so with my male baby boomer patients than the lady boomers. A lot of one’s worth and value comes from the professional realm and when retirement changes both the daily schedule and the purpose for which one wakes up it can be life-altering. And sometimes not in the best ways — boredom, a lack of purpose and even changes in socialization can lead to depression.
What I recommend for my retiree population of patients is to create and stick to a new consistent daily schedule. Take up and hone in on a hobby that gives you joy. Schedule time for travel, visiting with family and friends and finding a new purpose in this amazing “work” free life. I have witnessed this is my own life with loved ones who fall into retirement either intentionally or unintentionally. It takes about 6 months for folks to get their retirement legs. The ones who make a successful transition are ones who utilize the time to create joy and happiness in their lives. Taking up new hobbies, reinvigorating old hobbies, learning new skills and being more active via fitness and broadening one’s social circle are ways to ease into this transition. This phase of life can be enriching and rewarding and sometimes it takes a little change in perspective and purpose to optimize this time.
How about teens and pre teens. Are there any specific new ideas you would suggest for teens and pre teens to optimize their mental wellness?
Tweens and Teens are bombarded by a social world in ways no other generation has had to deal with and this is the root cause of a lot of mental health challenges of this younger population. Social media has been one of the core sources for imbalances in the mental health of our youth. Another is the over scheduling of kids’ lives. Engagement in too many extracurricular activities and overwhelming importance on academics has them overly stressed out, anxious and depressed. As a mom to a little, I don’t have personal experience in raising a tween or teen, but I see a lot to young patients who have imbalances in cortisol levels — the stress hormone that plays a fundamental role in their reproductive health as well as their neuroendocrine health. The tween and teen years lay the neuroendocrine pathways for their adult lives. It is extremely important for parents to actively address the stress levels of their children and to recognize the nonverbal symptoms and signs of stress and anxiety in their lives. More than half of all chronic mental health illnesses begin by age fourteen.
Behavioral changes, changes in eating patterns, mood swings, changes to the sleeping pattern, social changes and changes in appearance are all signs to look for in this age group. Parental vigilance is essential as these kids often are not going to outwardly express feelings in traditional ways. Parents should incorporate and demonstrate digital-free time in each day, limit the extent of social extracurriculars, actively connect with their kids daily and add in supplementation like a teen-specific multi-vitamin, adaptogenic herbs like rhodiola and holy basil as well as healthy omegas for brain growth.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?
Louise Hay — Heal Your Body — this book was a GAME CHANGER in my life. I read this during my health crisis. Making the connection of my thoughts and my dis-ease was mind-blowing. I still implement these lessons in my own life and recommend them in the lives of my patients.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
If there were one movement I would trigger — it would be to encourage folks to listen to their intuition and getting more in touch with the internal voice, we all hear but often ignore. Our sixth sense is our intuition. It NEVER lies! It is there to protect and guide you.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
My favorite life lesson is a quote from Mark Twain: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do? So, throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” This is a quote that I continually reference throughout my life. It encourages getting past the barriers of self-doubt and encourages taking risks and making paradigm shifts. I always love the idea of asking myself — will I regret this if I don’t do this? That is the basis of how I live. I do not want to get to my 90s and look back saying “I wish I would have, when I could….” No regrets!
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Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!