Laura Shiels of VidaLuz Development: “Live your life with integrity”

Live your life with integrity. Explore how you feel ethically about things in advance as much as you can, and be consistent with acting in what you feel is being a good person. Often there are ethical gray areas and hard choices we must make. Doing your best, being open to new information and refining […]

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Live your life with integrity. Explore how you feel ethically about things in advance as much as you can, and be consistent with acting in what you feel is being a good person. Often there are ethical gray areas and hard choices we must make. Doing your best, being open to new information and refining your positions on things can be consistent with being an ethical person. By contrast, doing something you know/feel is wrong because it would benefit you in some way (e.g. financially) is not only not living with integrity, but it is spiritually damaging.

Often when we refer to wellness, we assume that we are talking about physical wellbeing. But one can be physically very healthy but still be unwell, emotionally or mentally. What are the steps we can take to cultivate optimal wellness in all areas of our life; to develop Mental, Physical, Emotional, & Spiritual Wellbeing?

As a part of our series about “How We Can Do To Cultivate Our Mental, Physical, Emotional, & Spiritual Wellbeing”, I had the pleasure of interviewingLaura Shiels.

Laura Shiels has devoted her life to the Wellness field. She is Senior Vice President of Agriculture — Education, Research, & Community Programs at Vidaluz Development, LLC (, a startup company dedicated to transforming the way we live by optimizing wellness in our daily lives. Her work addresses wellness from a multitude of perspectives, including at the personal, community, and global levels with next-level, dynamic approaches.

Academically, Laura is an Ethnobotanist, a scientist who studies the way people use and relate to plants and the natural world, focused on exploring the best ways people can live in harmony with their environments. This includes but is not limited to medicinal plant use and resource consumption, with the goal of developing obtainable solutions to our world’s environmental and social challenges.

A graduate of the Southwest School of Botanical Medicine, she has practiced Clinical Herbalism and educating since 2004 through her own business Herbalmagik LLC (, and currently works with the dynamic healing cooperative White Owl Wellness Skin and Health Spa in Fort Collins, CO (

Education is crucial to Laura, who sees it as a way to empower emerging generations with the tools needed to forge positive change in the world. She earned a BS in Environmental Studies with a focus on Ethnobotany and Minor in Spanish from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and an MS in Botany, focused on Ethnobotany and Ecology from the University of Hawaii, Manoa. She has a long teaching career at the university/college level including at the University of Hawaii and now for the Integrative Health Professions Program and Natural Sciences Department at Front Range Community College in Fort Collins, CO where she teaches courses such as Anatomy and Physiology for Integrative Health, Herbalism, Integrated Science, and a certificate program in Aromatherapy that she redeveloped. She also regularly teaches in the community with all ages on topics related to wellness and organic gardening.

Giving back to her community is vital to Laura. She volunteers regularly and has served in many environmental organization leadership positions over the years, most recently on the Board of Directors of The Growing Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to Food Justice. She also worked as a Wilderness Advocate for the nonprofit Friends of Nevada Wilderness, regularly taught community wellness classes at The Greenhouse Hawaii, served as a science mentor for students in the Pacific Internship Programs for Exploring Science (PIPES), volunteered on many ecological and cultural restoration projects in Hawaii and elsewhere, including at Kahoolawe Island and Kalaupapa on Molokai, and served in leadership roles in environmental organizations throughout her high school, undergraduate, and graduate school years.

She also loves exploring her creative side, most of all through directing performance art pieces and fire dancing!

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

Thank you for your interest in my work! I’m thrilled to see wellness being appreciated, celebrated, and explored more deeply with your series, and I’m excited to be part of it and share my perspectives!

I grew up in the countryside of Santa Rosa, California with a doctor (MD) and nurse as parents. My earliest memories are of playing with wild plants, wanting to know what the edible and medicinal ones were, and making healing potions for my dolls with them. I’ve forever had an affinity for the natural world and wellness, as well as a desire to know the mechanisms of how the body works physiologically. I’ve always been very intuitive but also a total science geek ;).

What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.

I have built a multifaceted career and along the way sought out the support of quite a few inspiring mentors — too many to name and describe here, but I would like to start with my parents.

I was very fortunate to have a great childhood. My parents moved us from the city of San Francisco to the countryside of Santa Rosa when I was three so we could live in a farm atmosphere among plants and animals. That very much contributed to my appreciation of and connection to nature.

One of my early memories is my magical mother literally bringing a dead duckling back to life! My little sister and I had thrown the new ducklings into the kiddie pool because we thought they’d like it, but they were too young. One drowned and stopped breathing before my mom realized what we were doing. She gave it CPR, saved it, and it went on to have a good long life! I have to think moments like that really inspired me to be a healer.

I also became very intrigued with healing by going on hospital rounds and shadowing patient appointments with my dad and hearing my parents discuss medical cases. Moreover, my parents took me to pick wild blackberries and other fruit, something I think inspired a love for foraging.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?

I have had the good fortune of many incredible academic advisors and work supervisors. Dr. James Deacon, my undergraduate advisor, is one who immediately comes to mind. As an undergraduate I had ideas of what I wanted to do, but wasn’t quite sure how to realize those goals or how to embark on such a non-mainstream career path. I knew I wanted to dedicate my life to making the world a better place, environmentally and socially, and I was extremely drawn to medicinal plants, learning how to live in harmony with the environment, learning about the human condition and particularly indigenous approaches. After explaining all of this to Dr. Deacon, he said, “It sounds like you want to be an ethnobotanist!” I had never heard of that specialty and immediately went to the library to read up on it. The next morning I gladly reported to him that this was exactly what I wanted to do. Dr. Deacon was inspiring in so many ways, not only by being a great teacher and providing insightful, open-minded, and meaningful guidance, but in his own example. Relegated to a wheelchair following a research dive accident that left him mostly paralyzed, he continued to be a hugely inspiring force in the field of environmental studies, affecting the lives and career paths of students like me. Although he is sadly no longer with us, I often think back to how he was such a shining example of, and inspiration for, persevering through personal challenges and making positive change in the world by collaborating with and mentoring others. One thing you say to a student on one day can change that person’s life, career path, and impact on the world, especially if it’s based on a personal example of something that draws respect and admiration.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

One interesting experience I had, that I still think back to and consider, was during my MS fieldwork in Namibia. I was researching ethical natural product sourcing of an endemic plant (one that only grows in southern Africa), from a large variety of integrated perspectives (e.g. culturally, ecologically, socio-politically, globalism-caused change). I wanted to know if and how people used the plant beyond what was recorded in the literature so far; what the plant meant to people culturally and spiritually; who would benefit from its local harvest, value-added processing, and global marketing; how marketing this plant might change people’s lives and social dynamics; and what harvesting limits and parameters should be set for the seeds of the plant for ecologically soundness. I wanted to conduct interviews and get to know a sampling of people from all of the major cultural groups who lived off the land in the areas where the plant grew in Namibia, which included the Owambo, Damara, Herero, and Himba (still nomadic), as well as the San (still some nomadic). The nomadic Himba were of course the most challenging to find a way to work with on the timeframe I had (2 full summers), when the focus was more on the sedentary groups. I went to a town that was known for having a mix of cultures, and was a known stop-off point for some Himba. As I strolled down the street through the center of town, I was struck by the “Star Wars”/ “Star Trek” feeling of seeing people of diverse local cultures in their traditional outfits going about their business at this “trading post” of a town. The fully clothed Herero women with dresses buttoned up their necks and down their wrists with cattle-horn-shaped hats appeared in stark contrast to the barely clothed, topless Himba women adorned with shell jewelry and cow-leather skirts they made themselves. A history of colonial rule and missionary influence was the main difference between these very closely related peoples. Reputed by many to be the most beautiful women in the world, to which I have to agree, the Himba women glowed a beautiful red color and emanated an intoxicating scent along with their amazingly powerful, confident energy. They coated themselves in a mixture of red clay, cow fat, and special herbal mixtures for which each woman/family was reputed to have a unique blend, based in part on the seed of the plant I was studying.

Fortunately, I was able to start a conversation with an elder Himba lady. Luckily she, like many people in Namibia, spoke English (it became an official language when the country won independence from South Africa). She invited me to come back to the village where her people were briefly staying near the town to stock up on supplies. When I asked what to bring, we went to the store and she adamantly encouraged a large amount of sugar and ground maize. Although I had reservations about the processed sugar, that seemed to be by far the most important thing on the list to her. When I showed up to the village with all that sugar, I was happily welcomed and the sugar disappeared immediately. As we walked around the village, she introduced me to people and translated for me. I noticed some people eating large amounts of sugar straight from bowls pouring into their mouths. As a wellness advocate in my personal life, I immediately felt really bad that I had contributed to what had to be such an unhealthy practice. It felt like a mistake, but I’m actually still not totally sure what I would have done differently that day. I would still like the opportunity to spend more time with Himba to get to know them better, learn more from them, and contribute something healthier.

There is so much to learn from people who still live from the land, and it really does take spending a large amount of time with people to understand the nuances of such a relationship without thinking “paternally” about it. I also think that’s true of seeking solutions to environmental and social challenges in developed societies such as our own — really understanding people, their own perspectives and challenges, and building reciprocally beneficial relationships is of critical importance. You cannot just tell people what to do, what you think is best for them. You can work to make beneficial systemic change so that good and healthy choices are the natural, easy ones to make. Providing an appropriate additional income or trade source from an abundant natural product builds a safety net as well as capacity, infrastructure, and often a pathway for obtaining food and medical supplies when needed. This was the intention of my MS project to begin with — not telling people how to live their lives and what to eat after only a relatively short time together.

This relates to and influences the work I do to this day — for example at VidaLuz. I often think back to that and many other similar experiences working with a large variety of people throughout my career. Over time I have encountered indigenous, local, rural, disenfranchised and homeless adults and children, individuals and families living in food deserts, people living in environments like islands or dense areas like cities where a brief disruption of a supply chain means many would starve and devolution into anarchy would be likely. Providing appropriate education, capacity building, and infrastructure so that the easy and nurturing choice for people is to live in harmony with their environments and each other is paramount. So is local access to good food and medicine (particularly herbal medicine when pharmaceuticals might not always be available or trustworthy) if our global society is to keep functioning well and improve. These are real concerns within our societal conversation about global climate change, associated increased natural disasters and pandemics, and seemingly ongoing political turmoil. I think that diverse people getting to know each other, understanding each other’s cultural and social perspectives, naturally aids in social harmony. By living in diverse neighborhoods and getting to really know local people and their cultures when we travel we can ignite change. I feel lucky in my role at VidaLuz, to be encouraged to not only integrate these principles in developing our models for community living and travel stays, but also forward-thinking ways to accomplish our goals of integrating the best technologies in existence and on the horizon into our systems.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

In general, there are two kinds of books that have impacted me the most. The first group are sci-fi portrayals of realistic, beneficial technologies or pre-emptive lessons we should heed about the misuse of technologies and social systems (basically utopian and dystopian stories). The second are written by forward thinking environmentalists and ethnobotanists discussing better ways to think about our world and our role than what our mainstream globalized approach is at this point. Two books that inspired me deeply early on are Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, which I read in high school; and Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth by James Lovelock, which I read as an undergraduate Environmental Studies student.

Brave New World, though it is actually a very prophetic warning about how technologies such as CRISPR cas-9 could easily change what it means to be human, got me thinking about how technology like that was certainly going to be developed and impact our world in significant ways. We were already implementing basic genetic engineering technologies at that point, and I could see clearly the tremendous amount of good and bad that could, and likely would, be done with it. In the same vein, I also gave a lot of thought to the incorporation of robotics and artificial intelligence enhancements into people. At that point I wanted to pursue a career in biotechnology, to develop cures and solutions to our worst diseases and health afflictions, large flying insect vehicles that photosynthesized and didn’t need to consume fuel or food, didn’t pollute but rather created clean oxygen, photosynthetically-powered fuel cells that were part plant, part computer, and so forth. After reading a lot about GE technology and related concerns I joined a string of anti-GMO groups — not that I was necessarily against the technologies themselves, but I was incredibly concerned with how they were being implemented and where they could lead. Extreme monocropping, overuse of herbicides, reduced traditional seed saving of heirloom varieties co-evolved with people and the environment, social inequalities, disempowerment of small scale farmers, and other practices wreaking environmental and social havoc were apparent to me. Today with the ever-increasing accessibility of CRISPR cas-9 technology to the layperson anywhere in the world, including through online kits and IVF clinics, I think it is critically important for regulators to understand the technology well, for global agreements to be made directing its use, to teach it in school, and to explore the amazing potentials of it within a very ethical framework.

In Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, James Lovelock explores the “Gaia Hypothesis,” which proposes that the Earth is like a living organism, with all the parts important to the functioning of the whole. If it falls too far out of homeostasis, just as in a human body, the system will fail. I see us heading towards a type of threshold limit, falling too far out of homeostasis as a planet if we are not extremely careful and do not make bold changes immediately. We all need to live far more efficiently in terms of resource consumption and I believe we need to reduce the human population growth on our planet. It is not too late, but we absolutely need to be proactive, now.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?

“If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.” — Lao Tzu

As I have learned through working in my own communities and conducting fieldwork with various cultural groups around the world, I believe the best way to heal the planet and forge real positive social and environmental change is through appropriate education and associated capacity building and infrastructure that supports all aspects of wellness — the kind that integrates healthy local food production, regenerative technologies, culture, and creativity.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

To me, the work we do at VidaLuz is fulfilling a personal mission to make the world a better place. I’ve always thought that the structure around how people live is critically important — to make it easy and obvious for people to make good choices, to support their own wellness and the wellbeing of the planet.

There are many aspects of our lives that we might not realize drastically affect our wellness as individuals and as a society. Our dynamic team works together to implement a multifaceted model of healthy living — supporting wellness at the individual, community, and global levels, exploring the best new and upcoming technologies to develop eco-communities and travel destinations with wellness as a primary focus. At VidaLuz our wellness-supporting initiatives include but are not limited to: wellness centers, on site space- and nutrient-efficient farming of food and herbs for use within the community, clean energy, composting, education, living in communion with nature through cutting edge, ecologically supportive building design and landscaping, interacting with, learning from, listening to, and supporting local communities and creating jobs, environmental and humanitarian volunteer opportunities, and so much more.

Our agriculture Team is working on developing cutting edge regenerative food growing techniques to meet some critically important goals. The intention is to be more harmonious with the environments in which the food is grown; providing local, nutrient dense, culturally appropriate food that reduces the ecological footprint of agriculture; providing solutions for food deserts and the undernourished; wisely using technology, seed saving, indoor and outdoor growing practices, composting, nutrient recycling to bolster efficiency and eliminate pollutants, and more. For example, did you know that phosphorus not only causes eutrophication when it finds its way into waterways, destroying ecosystems and creating toxic conditions for humans too, but it is also a much more limited resource than most people probably realize? This is poised to have drastic negative consequences for our ability to practice agriculture as we know it in the near future if we don’t make dramatic changes and address this pressing issue now. That is just one of a myriad of environmental and social issues we address with our approach, and that allows me to apply the education and experience I have on a wide variety of topics to create real positive change.

OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. In this interview series we’d like to discuss cultivating wellness habits in four areas of our lives, Mental wellness, Physical wellness, Emotional wellness, & Spiritual wellness. Let’s dive deeper into these together. Based on your research or experience, can you share with our readers three good habits that can lead to optimum mental wellness? Please share a story or example for each.

1.) Regularly use and challenge your mind. Always be learning, regularly apply the knowledge in your brain that you value the most, seek variety, read and watch intriguing and inspiring media, and push yourself to utilize your mind in new ways. It is sadly so easy to forget things that you don’t regularly think about.

Stay mentally up to date with current events as well as deep thinkers about the human condition and where we are going as a species. Read creative pieces. Also watch documentaries, films, shows, and video clips (e.g. Youtube, being selective of course), but don’t let that totally take the place of reading. Physically reading is important for your brain.

I also think doing things with your brain, such as following complex choreography (perhaps as part of an aerobics class or following along with Youtube videos) uses a really important and often neglected part of the brain.

Personally, I love how teaching, working with herbalism clients, collaborating on teams, and the work I do at VidaLuz developing new technologies and approaches to problem-solve social and environmental issues keep my brain always working. As you get older, it’s especially important not to let yourself get mentally lazy — to keep yourself always actively exercising your mind.

2.) Create. Make art, write, and otherwise nurture creative outlets for yourself. Even keeping a journal where you reflect on things is super valuable. I personally love co-creating ideas for new wellness and sustainable living approaches and technologies as part of my work at VidaLuz, crafting unique herbal potions for clients in my Clinical Herbalist practice, creating lesson plans and active learning activities for my students, generally making art, and writing, directing, and performing in circus/fire dancing shows.

3.) Keep your brain physically fit by eating the right diet, including brain-supporting foods and herbs, keeping your body fit, and avoiding toxins that dull your thinking and might even cause brain damage. When you consume foods that are not right for you, they can cause brain fog and worse. Many foods and herbs tend to support brain health, such as fish high in Omega-3 fatty acids, things high in antioxidants and polyphenols (such as blueberries, green tea, cruciferous vegetables, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, ashwagandha, and my favorite — dark chocolate), that are anti-inflammatory (such as turmeric), and/or that promote blood flow to the brain (such as gingko biloba and gotu kola), and so much more.

Do you have a specific type of meditation practice or Yoga practice that you have found helpful? We’d love to hear about it.

Yes. I do some yoga every morning and mindful meditations when I wake up, just before bed, and throughout the day. I make sure to get in at least five minutes of my own yoga routine every morning no matter what. It is amazing what a difference it makes, helping me focus on doing the best with my day and feeling great. I think it is something everyone can fit into their routine. Before the pandemic, my gym routine varied, including some focused work based on hatha yoga, but over the last year I’ve integrated a variety of practice elements that I use depending on my needs that day.

I also start out every Integrative Health class session I teach with a mindful centering and grounding breathing meditation to set the tone and intention for class, helping students develop the ability to quickly ground and center as needed in life and prior to seeing clients. The energy you express to others affects them and your interactions with them, so I think it is good to be mindful of that and focus it in positive ways. Control of one’s breathing in conjunction with mindful, positive meditation is a very powerful technique for pulling yourself into parasympathetic (“rest and digest”/ “chill energy”) vs sympathetic (“fight or flight”/ “crazy energy”) mode by stimulating the vagus nerve and creating mindfulness of the energy you feel and exude. Again, this is a technique that can work quite quickly and make a huge difference in your life. I actively use it whenever I am about to see an herbalism client or start a professional meeting as well and find it incredibly valuable.

Thank you for that. Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum physical wellness? Please share a story or example for each.

1.) Consciously and regularly make good life choices. For example, get enough sleep, avoid stagnation in the body, get enough of the right exercise, stretch and move your body frequently, don’t smoke, regularly do things you enjoy, engage in positive, supportive relationships and interpersonal interactions,).

Getting enough quality sleep is something I used to not prioritize when I was younger, and I think that is common in our culture, but I would like to really emphasize the importance of it. Apparently scientists have now found that a person can survive longer without food than without sleep, largely because the body neutralizes oxidized compounds/free radicals that are byproducts of metabolism during sleep. These free radicals literally rip us apart from the inside. It’s also why it’s important to consume a diet high in antioxidants — natural food chemicals that neutralize free radicals. The brain also sorts things out while you sleep, helping you figure things out, creatively explore ideas, solve problems, and otherwise organize itself to reduce stress in your body.

Moving your body around regularly and getting regular exercise where you get your heart rate up is also really valuable for staying healthy. Relevant to our current pandemic, your immune system relies on your lymphatic system flowing well to work optimally. That in turn relies on you moving your body around, using skeletal muscles, and stretching them. The lymphatic system is part of your circulatory system in your body — basically is a series of vessels (like pipes) running in parallel to your blood vessels, but without a central pump like the heart to move things around. Using your skeletal muscles aids this a lot. It picks up the fluid around your cells that your blood vessels can’t handle, is full of white blood cells (immune system soldiers) and little stations (lymph nodes) where these immune cells hang out and check for pathogens, signs of cancer, and so forth. Exercise is also important for your heart health, and generally for feeling your best and keeping your mind at its clearest. Running, hiking, biking, aerobics classes, exercise machines like elliptical trainers, various sports, martial arts, and so forth are great ways to get exercise. It’s good to find something that you enjoy and that is feasible for you to do, and to do a variety of things. Hatha yoga is a great way to not only stretch the body, but it also benefits the mind and spirit. Weight lifting/weight bearing activities (including running) are also important for maintaining good bone mass. You use it or lose it, especially as you get older…

2.) Eat a healthy, balanced diet that is right for you. The food you eat not only forms the building blocks of what you are, but contributes to one’s health in other fundamental ways, acting as medicine in the body.

A diet that works really well for one person might not be the right thing for another person. We all have a unique background of evolutionary adaptations and ways that we use our body. For example, milk might be a great protein source for one person (whose ancestors evolved to digest it well into adulthood through a genetic mutation), while another person might be intolerant or even allergic to it. Food allergies create inflammation in the body and can even damage organs, including the brain. Mild food allergies are not always obvious but can still cause a lot of harm. Also, a triathlete will require a different diet than someone who does not push their body as hard. As you age, and even seasonally, your dietary needs change.

Probiotics are a huge contributor to health. When you consume live fermented foods, such as yogurt, kombucha, sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, etc., you introduce beneficial microorganisms into your intestines. You will have little guys living there whether you like it or not, so it’s important to choose your symbionts wisely. A big part of who you are and the health you maintain can be traced back to your microbiomes, including the entire outside of your body. Good microorganisms such as bacteria and yeasts help you digest your food, release beneficial compounds into your bloodstream (including serotonin release), maintain the structural integrity of your intestines, and more. They also hold space so that harmful microorganisms and pathogens find it much harder to make a home there and to infiltrate your body. The inside of your digestive tract is actually the outside of your body, and the ability of your intestines to allow the right things through and keep out the wrong things is huge for maintaining your health.

Before spending time in Namibia, I had been very intolerant of milk my entire life (as is my whole immediate family). My body did not seem to make enough of the enzyme lactase to break down lactose (milk sugar). During and after my first summer there when I was on the doxycycline antibiotic the whole time as a malaria prophylactic, I consumed all the probiotics I could get my hands on. When I got home, I started growing and consuming large quantities of my own kombucha and fermented vegetables. Miraculously, I have had no problem digesting milk since then, along with other foods I used to have issues digesting, or from which I used to feel a little off after eating.

3.) Use herbs regularly and appropriately. Herbs literally add “spice to life” and they affect your body’s physiology in really valuable ways. They can also often (but not always!!) take the place of pharmaceuticals, having less side effects, and helping with subclinical issues (ones that your doctors might tell you they can’t do anything about, at least until they get worse). It’s also very empowering to take charge of your own health and not be completely reliant on the globalized medical-corporate complex. You can grow and wildcraft your own medicine in many cases.

It is very important to note that herbs must be used with respect for the power they can have on your body. They can always have contraindications (reasons to not take them) and can do real harm if not used properly. It is a really good idea to meet with a professional clinical herbalist to figure out the right and wrong herbs for you and correct ways to take herbs.

Herbs tend to follow a “food-medicine-poison” continuum, meaning that a low of a dose might add flavor to a meal or make a nice beverage, while not necessarily exhibiting much physiological activity on the body. In the just right dose, herbs can be very beneficial to one’s health, and in too large a dose, can be toxic or even lethal. For example, peppermint is an herb that many people consider to be pretty innocuous. a little bit of peppermint tea might make a nice beverage. If you have a tummy ache, its anti-spasmodic properties can help the smooth muscles of your digestive tract unclench themselves and soothe the problem, helping you feel better. If you have too much, or if you suffer from an esophageal reflux disorder, it can relax your esophageal sphincter, the muscle keeping your stomach contents from coming up into your under-protected esophagus, thus acid-burning it. Peppermint can also affect how certain enzymes in your liver metabolize certain medications, which can become an issue with large doses of this herb. Compounds found in grapefruit, bergamot (the citrus family one, not the mint family one), black pepper, and other herbs can also dangerously affect drug metabolism in the liver by affecting Cytochrome P450 enzyme activity.

Please don’t ingest essential oils. While diffused into the air or diluted into a carrier oil and applied to the skin, they can be incredibly beneficial, they are very concentrated and are much more likely to harm you than to help you when eaten.

Herbs also have immense energetic properties beyond their physiological properties that contribute to wellbeing, but it is important to be aware of contraindications and dosing issues so as to not harm oneself.

Do you have any particular thoughts about healthy eating? We all know that it’s important to eat more vegetables, eat less sugar, etc. But while we know it intellectually, it’s often difficult to put it into practice and make it a part of our daily habits. In your opinion what are the main blockages that prevent us from taking the information that we all know, and integrating it into our lives?

I think many people do intend to eat well, but they get busy and the goal suffers. I find that forethought can make all the difference. First you must figure out the best diet for yourself — what foods make you feel your best in the long term, meet your nutritional requirements, don’t cause you allergies or intolerances, aren’t loaded with toxins (e.g. pesticides, toxic heavy metals, unhealthy processed food additives, etc.) and that you really enjoy and “feed your soul.”

Next, very importantly, you need to know yourself and consider your lifestyle to make it easy to set a routine for eating well. Some people regularly have time and motivation to focus on cooking extravagant meals. But many of us don’t. Thus I find “healthy food hacks” to be a good way to go. One is that you can set aside one day a week, or even a month, to spend time planning and preparing meals you will really enjoy, packing them into containers (e.g. pyrex glass tupperwares) and freeze them. One thing I like to do is to eat a lot of soup. Especially in the colder months, this is a perfect food! I keep a lot of organic broth on hand in my pantry and great things to add to it in the freezer, such as veggies, dumplings, and pre-chopped fresh spices like ginger and garlic. I also premix spices (or you can buy fun spice mixtures or sauces — just read the labels to make sure they are healthy and don’t contain MSG, artificial colors, etc.) to add healing qualities and give it character. The same soup could be Indian one day and Thai the next, just by changing the spices you add. Spices such as ginger, turmeric, garlic, onions, and so forth add a lot of healing power to a meal.

I also like to ferment vegetables, not only for their probiotic benefits, but also because it preserves them fresh in a very tasty way, so I can add them to quick meals for an instant healthy boost. For example, I’ll take some carrots and jalapenos from my garden or from the store, slice them up, put them in a clean glass jar, add chopped garlic, ginger, onions, and perhaps other herbs, fill it with brine, and it’s now going to be a yummy, preserved, probiotic treat that I can add to my soups and other meals for an instant addition of fresh veggies, herbs, and beneficial bacteria. Please note there are a few other important things to know before embarking on wild fermentation at home, so I encourage you to take a class on that if it’s of interest to you.

Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum emotional wellness? Please share a story or example for each.

Practice mindfulness, especially these aspects:

1.) Make, refine, & pursue goals. This includes how you want to feel and how you want your interpersonal interactions to happen. Always have goals and something bigger you are working towards — something challenging to tackle.

2.) Carry a growth mindset and face your fears: don’t get down on yourself when you make mistakes, but rather learn from your mistakes to keep improving. Tackle challenges that you know you might not succeed with the first time, learn from the experience, and try again and/or apply that lesson to other future situations. Know from the outset that you won’t be upset with yourself if you don’t succeed, but that you will keep trying until you feel satisfied, or at least learn an important life lesson that you will carry forward with you for the rest of your life and make better decisions.

For example, if you say something in a professional meeting that didn’t seem to be taken the right way, spend time visualizing how you would do things differently if you could re-do the situation. Be mindful that you are learning a valuable lesson and are better prepared for the next time you are in a similar situation that you will be more likely to sound eloquent or express yourself more clearly. Never be hard on yourself, suggesting to yourself that you are just not good at something or not worthy of something — that only reinforces the behavior that you desire to grow beyond.

If you feel like you need to improve in a certain way, such as interviewing better, giving more impressive public talks, not appearing nervous or anxious when addressing a group, etc., put yourself into situations outside of your comfort zone in those regards regularly and actively work on improving those skills. I never thought I would be a teacher or enter a profession where I would give public talks when I was younger, as I felt very shy and unhappy with how it went whenever I was forced to give a presentation in school. Fast forward to today — where I love being a teacher and engaging with public audiences. I thrive on it and am so thankful for the situations that forced me to tackle that challenge and learn how to improve. It’s an ongoing process and every time I talk in front of people I mentally note how I will improve the next time. I also can share my journey and this approach to help others now — such as with my students who struggle with public speaking and expressing themselves in class discussions, and with clients who come see me for anxiety-reducing herbal potions.

3.) Engage in positive self-talk and reduce mental stress. This relates to how we frame our ‘”mistakes” to ourselves. Pay close attention to the way you “talk to yourself” and make sure it is kind, supportive, and stress-reducing. Be your own cheerleader and be aware of how you frame your experiences to yourself. Any time you feel the urge to use self-talk that is negative or increases stress, examine why that is and a more supportive and calming way you can think about things and talk to yourself. Also be mindful of how you talk to others about yourself and your life. If you tend to get worked up about things in a stress spiral, learn to catch yourself and be ready with a method to re-frame the thought into something more peaceful and proactive. Meditation can be a powerful tool for actively positively talking to yourself, out loud, setting goals, actively taking charge of room for improvement, and increasing your confidence that you will succeed in your goals.

Do you have any particular thoughts about the power of smiling to improve emotional wellness? We’d love to hear it.


A saying I came up with is, “When you think you are having a bad day, all it takes is a smile to make it a good day!” Things you consciously do with your body send signals to your brain to feel a certain way, to release certain neurotransmitters, hormone secretions, and/or to stimulate whole-body sympathetic (fight or flight, anxious, worried, stressed, upset) or parasympathetic (rest and digest, relaxed, chilled out, content) responses. Smiling is one of these! You have to start with mindfulness that you want to feel happy, then smile with intention. I do think that if you feel forced to smile for the benefit of other people and you feel like you are being “fake”/facetious, it could have the opposite effect. The intention of wanting to feel happy and well is an important part of it.

Finally, can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum spiritual wellness? Please share a story or example for each.

I believe that spiritual wellness is tied to living your life with integrity and passion, having and following a belief and moral system, having feelings of purpose and meaning in one’s life, and having values and ethics well-formed that you follow. Some people do feel drawn to religions as part of this, but it is not synonymous or a required part of it. Following practices like being mindful of your Mind-Body-Spirit connection, daily meditation, setting intentions before going to bed, or communing with nature can help nurture a feeling of spirituality.

Three habits that I have found to be particularly useful for cultivating optimum spiritual wellness include:

  1. Live your life with integrity. Explore how you feel ethically about things in advance as much as you can, and be consistent with acting in what you feel is being a good person. Often there are ethical gray areas and hard choices we must make. Doing your best, being open to new information and refining your positions on things can be consistent with being an ethical person. By contrast, doing something you know/feel is wrong because it would benefit you in some way (e.g. financially) is not only not living with integrity, but it is spiritually damaging.
  2. Help others. Generally be a helpful person, and cultivate an awareness for realizing when you could really help someone or your community in general in an effective, useful, and appropriate way. On the larger scale, it might take the form of the type of career you pursue, volunteering in your community, donating money or other resources to good causes, investing in socially and environmentally supportive endeavors or beneficial world-changing ideas, etc.
  3. Follow your passions (while upholding #s 1 & 2), avoiding spiritual stagnation as you always grow and learn. And commune with nature. And always remember to shine that special light that is you!

Do you have any particular thoughts about how being “in nature” can help us to cultivate spiritual wellness?

Connection with nature feeds our souls. It is a critical part of who we are and where we are going as humans. Our species has learned how to survive separated from nature by developing certain technologies, but that leads us down a very dangerous path for many reasons. The more separated we are from nature, the worse decisions we make about the health of our planet and ourselves. As Earthlings We are part of a whole and it is very unwise and arrogant to think otherwise. Problems such as global warming, climate change, resource depletion, overpopulation, social inequalities, reduced carrying capacities, and more grow out of this separation of people from nature and Descartesian approach to looking at parts of things rather than how they work together as systems with integrated synergies.

There is also a very special spiritual connection to and instincts we have with nature that would be very sad to lose…

Some ways for spending more time in nature include: gardening, getting outside regularly, exercising outside, hiking, biking, sports such as skiing and snowboarding, learning about the nature around you, paying attention to the nature around you. Learn how to identify the plants and animals you see when you go outside. If your town has a naturalist program, going on those excursions can really help with that.

Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I’d like to see the VidaLuz model of regenerative, culturally and socially supportive living and travel become a global movement.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂

People who want to geek out with me brainstorming the best technologies to improve and “save our world” and those generally with resources to see through the development and implementation of such technologies are people with whom I would love to meet and collaborate! This would include but of course not be limited to aligned impact investors for VidaLuz. I thrive in think tank teams supported by the proper resources to push technological developments that will affect tremendous positive global change in the realms of regenerative and culturally and socially supportive living. I feel extremely fortunate to be part of such a team at VidaLuz and am focusing tons of energy into manifesting our goals.

I do have to say that while sharing a meal is better than nothing, I think developing a real professional relationship with someone and ongoing idea/project development is a lot more effective. As I’ll point out below, I have actually had a few casual, meaningful (to me) conversations with people I find very inspirational and influential, but it is not the same as goal and results-oriented, active tackling of an idea or problem together.

One specific person who comes to mind who I’d love to have major brainstorm sessions with is Elon Musk. I love how he is forward thinking, expresses a desire to bring “sci-fi” technology aimed at betterment of the human condition to fruition, and has resources and approaches to make that happen. I think he will cause real, valuable change and creation if he continues to bring the right minds together, and I’d love to be one of those minds/collaborators in some way.

Someone who I’d love to talk more with about the ideas of renewable energy and applications of space tech to better regenerative systems for Earth is Henk Rogers. Although he’s probably most famous for making Tetris everyone’s favorite video game back in the day, he’s been a great force in our community in Hawaii (where I formerly lived and still spend time) in a number of ways, including through his work with the Blue Planet Foundation.

I also think exploration of ideas through media such as books, films, shows, animations, and games can be super powerful for exploring where we are going as a species, what technologies we should develop more and which ones we really need to think hard about how to control misuse/misdirection. For example, shows like the reimagined Battlestar Galactica should open our eyes to the need to be cautious with artificial intelligence (AI), and the show The Expanse depicts how humans will likely inhibit the entire solar system at some point and the technologies and social issues likely to develop as a result as people live and evolve in different environments. Related to this, another person I have had casual conversations with but am interested in chatting with more about this stuff is G. B. Hajim. His animated film Strange Frame I saw at the Palace Theater in Hilo, Hawaii when it was first released was incredibly amazing. It explored something I have been contemplating since reading Brave New World in high school — how genetic engineering technologies are likely to alter the human condition, and how it is really important to think through that possibility and put safeguards in place now. I was really inspired by how he created opportunities for local kids to contribute to the animation of Strange Frame, how it explored important themes of diversity, as well as where our tech could very likely lead us as a species if we are not careful, in a captivating story with beautiful and unique animation.

Others I would love to brainstorm with include Bill and Melinda Gates, Oprah Winfrey, Dr. Andrew Weil, and Dr. Mark Hyman.

I find the work of Bill and Melinda Gates on vaccines around the world very commendable, and our recent pandemic should make the importance of that type of work clear. For years I have talked to my Anatomy and Physiology students about how society has been perfectly set up for major global pandemics to hit hard, something this couple has been talking about as well. Unfortunately their foresight on this matter was not translated well into global preparedness, but I bet they have solid ideas about how to move forward now about which I’d love to brainstorm with them.

Oprah Winfrey is a hugely inspirational figure with a far-reaching voice. I grew up watching her show with my mom and have always been really impressed with her. She has been great at calling attention to important issues and causing social change.

Dr. Andrew Weil has been a long-time influence on me. I think our medical system in the US needs a great deal of transformation, and his ideas and influence are an example of a good direction to head. I really like how he has an MD but follows and teaches a holistic path.

Similarly, the way Dr. Mark Hyman speaks about how food is medicine in our bodies, how choosing the right foods and eating strategies for oneself is really important for health, and the importance of maintaining a healthy microbiome in your body is very aligned with how I think about it.

As we further develop our wellness, agricultural, and community programs at VidaLuz around the world, I anticipate reaching out to these and other inspirational folks to seek collaborations and areas of mutual interest.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.

Thank you so much for the interview, it’s been my pleasure!

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