Michelle Henning: “Get out into nature & get dirty”

Get out into nature & get dirty: It’s not a secret that being out in nature reduces stress and boosts your mood. Also, your body turns sunlight into Vitamin D, which is crucial for your immune system and feeds your microbiome. Speaking of which: Exposure to the friendly bacteria that live on plants, on pollen, […]

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Get out into nature & get dirty: It’s not a secret that being out in nature reduces stress and boosts your mood. Also, your body turns sunlight into Vitamin D, which is crucial for your immune system and feeds your microbiome. Speaking of which: Exposure to the friendly bacteria that live on plants, on pollen, in soil, and in the fresh forest air also increase your microbiome diversity and make you less prone to allergies.

As a part of my series about the women in wellness, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michelle Henning.

Michelle is a certified Nutrition & Health Coach, graduate of the Irish Institute of Nutrition & Health, and author of Grow Healthy Babies: The Evidence-Based Guide to a Healthy Pregnancy and Reducing Your Child’s Risk of Asthma, Eczema, and Allergies. Her articles on food, nutrition, parenting and health have been featured in WIRED Magazine, Pathways to Family Wellness, BabyCenter, and many other outlets.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers would love to “get to know you” better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?

Sure! I fell in love with food when I was a little child. My family lived in a tiny house in the back of my parents’ seafood restaurant on the coast of Ireland. I walked freely in and out of the kitchen like it was my living room. I have strong memories of sitting on the countertop next to my dad preparing meals, and him letting me taste the different sauces. The other chefs fed me brown bread ice cream — an Irish treat made from caramelized bread crumbs and vanilla custard ice cream. My dad had such a deep passion for food that it was impossible not to catch the bug! We made a habit of strolling through villages and towns and reading restaurant menus and delighting in the descriptions of new dishes. As I got older, I helped my parents with their home catering business, plating up food and talking to people.

At the same time, I hated school — like in many small Irish towns, it was a Catholic convent school run by iron-fisted nuns. It was rigid and uninspiring, so I rebelled and skipped classes and frequently got in trouble. When the nuns had had enough, I was asked to leave. I had to finish my final year of high school by taking two-hour bus rides to Dublin. The days were long, but the buzz of the capital energized me. I fell in love with food science and biology, and eventually signed up to study Nutritional Therapy at the Irish Institute of Nutrition & Health.

I loved every moment of my studies and hoovered up the information! At the same time, I had always loved singing — my parents had given me a tape recorder when I was a child, and I was always making up lyrics and melodies. When I had the opportunity to move to Paris and sing in a band professionally, I grabbed it and settled into a life as singer/songwriter, touring all over France and playing festivals in the UK and Ireland.

Yet I never lost my other passion — I occasionally wrote guest articles for a French food blog and worked part-time in a Parisian café called La Petite Cantine. I watched and learned and fell in love with all the traditional French recipes, some of which I still cook today.

In October 2011, I returned to Dublin to record a new album. At the same time, my future husband, Victor, was there to attend a technology conference, and a mutual friend of ours invited me over to the nightclub where the conference afterparty was happening. That’s where Victor and I met. He was a former scientist, and the company he had started was by then the world’s largest platform for scientific collaboration. We started talking, and I told him that I was working as a singer/songwriter but that I was a nutritionist by training. After he made an ill-advised joke about “prescribing carrots”, it was touch and go, but — long story short — we fell in love and moved in together in London.

A few years later, as we were planning to start a family, we were wondering how to prevent our baby from ending up with the allergies, asthma, and eczema that had plagued both of us since childhood. We combined our backgrounds in nutrition and science to look at literally hundreds of medical studies to find out what would really make a difference to our baby’s health. After we had done that, we looked at each other and said: “Hey, this would be pretty useful information for other expecting parents like us. Let’s put it all into a book!” And here we are — the result is Grow Healthy Babies!

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? What were the main lessons or takeaways from that story?

The most interesting story might be how my husband and I managed to write a book together yet still stay married! *laughs*

I was diagnosed with severe dyslexia and ADHD at age 21, and until I had a child, I had never even read a book for pleasure. I’m completely disorganized and hate working on a computer — it’s all paper notebooks for me. I think best while talking out loud and free-associating at 100 miles an hour. My husband is hyper-focused and practically thinks in algorithms, and he hates nothing more than paper notes because he can’t file them away neatly on his computer. He can only work in complete silence and, at his company, put a wall of comically tall green plants around his desk so that nobody could intrude into his thinking bubble.

So, we have two completely different styles of working, and we’re both very strong-headed characters with specific ideas about how we want things done. On top of that, while writing the book we became first-time parents, moved house five times, and countries twice — first to the Netherlands, then on to Norway! It was a pretty stressful time with lots of hard moments.

The lesson that both Victor and I learned from this is: If you want to work in a successful partnership in which you care deeply about the other person, you need to confront your inner demons at some point. Then you realize that the things that annoy you are actually not in the other person, but in you. For me, it was dealing with the fear that I wasn’t good enough to write a book, that my dyslexia would stop me, that I should just abandon the project. For Victor, it was realizing that he tends to get annoyed when others aren’t immediately able to do things which he finds easy, conveniently forgetting that his experience includes an MBA, a Ph.D., and running a company.

Both of us had to learn to recognize our inner narrative, and in fact externalize it so we could challenge it. The phrase that really helped us is “The story I’m telling myself”. When discussions would get heated, we’d try to pause and say: “The story I’m telling myself is that you (…), but now I see that maybe I (…).” It helps you realize that your ego is making up a story, and lets you gain some distance and perspective. As for myself, challenging my inner narrative has taught me that yes, I can do this. Even though I may approach things differently because of my dyslexia and ADHD, that doesn’t make my approach wrong. I can do difficult things if I do it in small steps. Everybody starts at zero, and people that are further along have just had more practice.

Can you share a story about the biggest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I first started studying nutrition, I believed in absolutes. I took everything that I learned as fact that was set in stone. I didn’t understand how the science of nutrition, and our understanding of the complex interactions of diet and lifestyle in our body, are constantly evolving. I’m wiser now and don’t believe that there is “one best food” or “one best diet”. Health is individual, it depends on so many factors. The most important thing is finding what works for you, not your neighbor or friend or what some blog says is the hottest new diet.

Of course, there are underlying principles which are emerging from the wealth of research. These insights are more solid and less prone to be thrown out by a single new study or fad. For example, take the crucial role of the microbiome — the friendly bacteria in your gut — to your health. In researching the book, I learned how the microbiome helps to program your body’s immune system, and thus how your immune system reacts to the environment; how the microbiome is probably the largest driver of epigenetics, meaning it can change the genetic information passed on your children by regulating the activity of genes that control inflammation and health; and what foods or diets in contribute to a healthy microbiome. In general, that means a diet rich in plants, fiber, fermented foods, and healthy fats like olive oil, avocado, and fish.

These principles enabled me to better control the inflammation in my own body, which also helped calm my ADHD. But the specific foods and diet that worked for me may not work for you. I strongly believe that the future of health will be in individual diagnostics and treatments.

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?

Again, that would be my husband and partner in crime, Victor. I had longed to write and teach and do so many things in life, but lacked confidence because of my dyslexia and ADHD. I had struggled through the school system and the reading requirements for college, and I was full of self-doubt and self-criticism. So out of fear of failure, I built my own walls and obstacles that prevented me from even trying to do certain things.

When I met Victor, that changed. He showed me an unconditional love that allowed me to break down my own barriers and face those fears. He made me realize that failing and pushing through difficulties is a normal process in learning. I stopped being so hard on myself and beating myself up for mistakes. I allowed myself to follow my curiosity and ask questions without fear of being judged. Victor has a faith in me that I’m learning to have in myself.

Ok perfect. Now let’s jump to our main focus. When it comes to health and wellness, how is the work you are doing helping to make a bigger impact in the world?

I hope that our work is going to free many children and their families from the burden of chronic disease, all around the world. That motivates me so much!

Both Victor and I grew up with asthma, eczema, and allergies. When he was a toddler, his parents had to call an ambulance in the middle of the night because he couldn’t breathe. Asthma can be really scary, and it’s the now the most common chronic disease in children worldwide, as well as one of the leading reasons for children being hospitalized. Allergies are also on the rise — I couldn’t believe the numbers when I read them. Across the US and the EU, 40–50% of all kids are being diagnosed with an allergy! I have friends who are living in constant fear that their child might die from anaphylactic shock, just because somebody eats a peanut butter sandwich near them. As for eczema, while it’s not as dangerous as asthma or allergies, it can have a more severe impact on the child’s quality of life. Having a bad eczema flare-up makes you want to crawl out of your skin, literally. It can also have a severe psychological impact — many kids feel ashamed of showing their patchy, scaly, blistered skin in public. Victor and I certainly felt that way.

And it doesn’t have to be this way! The studies in our book show that the majority of asthma, eczema, and allergy cases — perhaps as many as 9 out of 10 — could be prevented with certain diet and lifestyle changes! Moreover, even if a child is already suffering from these chronic conditions, the same diet and lifestyle changes can lessen the symptoms, and in some cases even get rid of the condition. For example, did you know there was a trial in Australia which cured 82% of children from their peanut allergy with a probiotic treatment?

That’s what I want people to know: They’re not powerless, they can dramatically affect their children’s and their own health with some simple, common-sense changes.

Can you share your top five “lifestyle tweaks” that you believe will help support people’s journey towards better wellbeing? Please give an example or story for each.

There is lots of great general wellness advice out there, including on this site, so I’m going to be a bit more specific. Here are my top five “lifestyle tweaks for reducing inflammation” in your body, and thus reducing both the symptoms of any inflammatory diseases (like asthma, eczema, and allergies) and the risk of passing them on to your baby.

1) “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants”: I think you can’t put this more succinctly than Michael Pollan did! What it means: Eat whole foods and cook from fresh ingredients. Try to avoid processed foods with long ingredient lists. Don’t overeat — just make smaller portion sizes, or try using smaller plates! Ideally, follow a mostly plant-based diet with lots of fiber and healthy fats like olive oil and fish. Fiber feeds your microbiome, which turns them into anti-inflammatory, cancer-fighting short-chain fatty acids; olive oil and omega-3 fats from fish are also super-anti-inflammatory. The easiest, tastiest way that I know of to achieve this: The Mediterranean diet!

2) Don’t eat or snack late in the evening: This gives your body time to reset, clear the gut, and switch to “repair mode” at nighttime. Any time that your body is fasting — and that includes short-term, intermittent fasting between dinner and breakfast — your body slows down the release of inflammatory immune cells called “monocytes”. Victor and I immediately notice how, if we eat or snack after 9pm, our allergy and eczema symptoms flare up overnight and are worse the next morning. The more carb-y or sugary the snack, the worse the inflammation!

3) Go to bed early and get enough sleep: This is a big one for us — in our family, if anybody doesn’t get enough sleep, we’re dealing with a gremlin the next day. For Victor and me, “not enough” typically means less than 7 ½ hours a night. We get cranky, moody, and our allergies and skin flare up. We need 8 hours to feel properly rested and recharged. If you think that you can get by on much less than that: Are you sure? Matthew Walker’s book “Why We Sleep” shows that pretty much everyone’s cognitive performance and immune function declines dramatically if they permanently survive on less than 7 ½ hours sleep per night.

4) Replace scented cleaners & cosmetics with more “natural” options: Raid your cleaning cabinet and your cosmetics drawer, and toss out anything that’s heavily scented or can be sprayed. The worst are spray cleaners and “air fresheners” — a funny name for something which gives 20 percent of the US population headaches and breathing difficulties! These two are the worst for causing “indoor air pollution” that irritates your lungs and causes airway inflammation. Products that are heavily scented almost always contain hormone-disrupting phthalates that have been found to cause allergies, asthma, and worse. Most supermarkets and drugstores now stock a range of “natural” cleaning products and cosmetics. As a rule of thumb, choosing those products over the “regular” ones should be an improvement for your wellness and health. Lastly, you’d be surprised at how many cleaning and personal care products you can make at home using super-cheap, non-toxic, everyday ingredients. With a bit of googling, you can find simple recipes for homemade cleaners, body lotions and scrubs, or hair styling products. I forced my husband to swap his hairspray for a homemade beeswax + coconut oil putty. He actually loves it: It works better, smells better, and is much cheaper.

5) Get out into nature & get dirty: It’s not a secret that being out in nature reduces stress and boosts your mood. Also, your body turns sunlight into Vitamin D, which is crucial for your immune system and feeds your microbiome. Speaking of which: Exposure to the friendly bacteria that live on plants, on pollen, in soil, and in the fresh forest air also increase your microbiome diversity and make you less prone to allergies.

If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of wellness to the most amount of people, what would that be?

*laughs* A movement to “Grow Healthy Babies”? That’s really why we wrote the book. Just imagine, what if we could stop chronic diseases before they happen? How many children would grow up happier, healthier, with a better quality of life? The statistics are pretty clear: The current projection is that, by 2025, more than half the EU population will be suffering from an allergic disease. That’s more than 250 million people! Being chronically ill is becoming the “new normal” in Western society.

The costs are enormous — on the affected children’s quality of life, on their families having to pay for treatments and health insurance, on society having to cope with the strain on the healthcare system and lost productivity. And again, the science suggests that perhaps as many as 90 percent of asthma, eczema, and allergy are preventable with fairly simple diet and lifestyle changes! That’s 225 million people in the EU. You just have to get to them early enough! *laughs again*

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?

1) Beware of “nutritionism”: There’s always a new fad of why a certain nutrient, food, or food group is either an amazing “superfood” or terribly bad for you. Most of the time, these fads are just oversimplifications. You really need to zoom out and look at the big picture, because nutrition and our bodies are so complex.

2) Nutrition is highly personal: As I said earlier, what works for me might not work for you, and vice versa. Other than general principles — eat mostly plants, eat healthy fats — you really need to find out what your body likes, and what diets you enjoy eating. What’s the point in following someone’s supposedly “healthy” diet plan if you can’t enjoy the meals? Sure, choose healthy foods, but also choose foods that bring you joy.

3) The science of medicine and nutrition keeps evolving: You can’t rest on what you learned in college 10 years ago. There are so many exciting new findings coming out all the time that shed new light on the interaction between our environment, our lifestyle, our diet, and our health. Some big ideas which everyone believed until recently turned out to be wrong, like “saturated fats will give you heart disease”.

4) Don’t write books with optimist perfectionists: I’m joking — but Victor thought we could write this book in a year (that’s the optimist in him), but it took us five (because he insisted on finding dozens of scientific studies for everything we said). So, our book now has over 660 references. To be fair, it was worth it.

5) The real work starts when a book is finished: This one wasn’t clear to me before! I thought once the book was finished, that was most of the work done. I didn’t realize how much there is to do to actually get it out there: Creating a website and social media content, recording an audio book version, getting the book onto platforms other than Amazon, pitching journalists… it’s a lot! But I’m learning a lot, too, so it’s fun.

Sustainability, veganism, mental health and environmental changes are big topics at the moment. Which one of these causes is dearest to you, and why?

Sustainability, and in particular the sustainability of our food system and the benefits of organic farming. Our food choices impact the world we want to leave to our kids. Because of our heavy pesticide use, insect populations are crashing on a global scale, which threatens not just human food supply but all living things that rely on them for food and pollination. Moreover, we are facing climate change that will bring drought, floods, and extreme heat.

Organic farming can help the world avert both of these disasters: Industrial agriculture and pesticide use are the main reasons for the decline in insect numbers, so by switching to organic farming, we can reverse the trend. Likewise, it might help us cool the planet! Organic farming restores degraded soil, and as the soil recovers, it actively starts pulling carbon dioxide from the air. Studies estimate that a large-scale switch to organic and regenerative farming methods could offset in the range of 10 percent, and perhaps as much as 40 percent, of annual carbon emissions.

What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?

@growhealthybabies on Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/growhealthybabies/) and @growhealthybbs on Twitter (https://twitter.com/growhealthybbs).

Thank you for these fantastic insights!

My pleasure — and thank you as well!

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