Eat a variety of foods versus the same foods day after day. As we learn more about the importance of the gut microbiome, we’ve discovered that microbial diversity is an important marker for health. And microbial diversity is supported by consuming diverse foods. If we eat the same foods all the time, we are feeding the same microorganisms, but if we bring in different foods we are able to support different types of organisms in our system. Plus, when we eat different plant-based foods we are also getting different phytonutrients that can help support and balance our body.
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 “What We Can Do To Cultivate Our Mental, Physical, Emotional, & Spiritual Wellbeing”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Valencia Porter, MD, MPH, a leader in Integrative, Preventive, and Environmental Medicine, combining ancient wisdom traditions of Ayurveda, Traditional Chinese Medicine, and Herbalism with modern science. As a result of her research, clinical experience guiding thousands of patients through the Deepak Chopra Center’s signature detox program, and personal healing journey, she wrote “Resilient Health: How to Thrive in Our Toxic World” — a handbook for identifying and addressing physical, mental, and societal toxicities that are root causes of the chronic illness epidemics affecting Western society. Dr. Porter views pure whole foods to be a foundational building block for health and is an advocate for regenerative organic agriculture, nutritional medicine, and non-toxic cooking.https://content.thriveglobal.com/media/ca5c91a28a267b21c197017170cc27ab
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?
Growing up near Washington, DC with a Korean mom and neighbors from many different countries, I have always been open to multiple different perspectives. My passions were science and the performing arts, and I was in the first graduating class of our county’s Math, Science, Computer Science Magnet Program where I returned to teach Computer Science for a year after graduating from college. I was grateful not only for the high tech and accelerated education that I received but for my exposure to a diverse array of people, as my high school had students from over 50 countries. I was always curious and loved to learn and loved to create. I also loved nature and spent many hours outside studying insects or working in the garden with my mom. We went camping every summer.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.
My career path was not a straight one. While studying Computer Science and Cognitive Science at Tufts University, I became so intrigued by the intersection of computers and the human brain that I spent my senior year at Johns Hopkins University to continue studies in cognitive science and artificial intelligence. During that time, I was exposed to some amazing professors and as a research assistant, I performed neuropsychological evaluations for some of the initial Alzheimer’s drug trials which led me to fall in love with patient-care — I enjoyed getting to know the person behind the illness in addition to working on helping them with their illness. Ultimately, I decided to go to medical school to become a neurologist with the goal of helping people enhance as well as recover their brain function.
Around the same time, I heard Deepak Chopra speak at a Decade of The Brain lecture series put on by the Smithsonian Institution. At the time, what he was saying was considered alternative and different, and it piqued my interest in the mind-body connection and maximizing human potential. It wasn’t until nearly 10 years later that I would circle back and dive deeper into holistic medicine and eventually work with Deepak as a physician and lead educator at the Chopra Center for Wellbeing after shifting my career from Child Neurology to Preventive Medicine and Environmental Health and completing a fellowship in Integrative Medicine with Dr. Andrew Weil.
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?
My mother always encouraged me to be the best version of myself, no matter what. From supporting my decision to study ballet in New York City to dropping ballet in pursuit of my science education, she was there at every step — neither pushing nor resisting, just doing her best to be nurturing of my own unique expression.
Once as a child, I had collected a box full of perhaps 30–50 caterpillars that I gleefully brought home with the intention of watching them create cocoons and then observe the metamorphosis. My mother told me to put the box in the garage, and the next morning she opened the door from our house to the garage horrified to find that they had completely covered the door overnight. But she said nothing to me at the time to let me know her terror. She let me keep and observe these and many other insects. It was only as an adult that she told me that she hated bugs and that the caterpillar incident was “completely disgusting” to her. What would have happened had she squashed my curiosity? I am so thankful that she was always supportive of my curiosity and desire to learn more.
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?
In addition to being a Western-trained MD, I’m also trained in Ayurveda which is a traditional system of medicine from India that dates back thousands of years. A main approach to Ayurveda is to bring balance and harmony back to the body and mind to help restore and optimize functioning. One time I used this approach when my husband had been suffering from chronic sinus suggestion and finally asked for my help. As part of the treatment to bring back balance, I was giving him a lot of heating herbs — ginger, garlic, hot pepper. And we both love spicy food, so we were spicing up our foods, drinking ginger tea, steaming the sinuses, etc. Well pretty soon his sinuses cleared up, but since we enjoy spicy food we kept going. But pretty soon things were getting heated and I even noticed that we were actually getting irritated and tempers were flaring. I realized we had not been mindful of the current state which had adjusted and thus we had gotten ourselves out of balance in a different way. The lesson learned was to stay mindful and observant of the current state of balance or imbalance — we are dynamic beings and when things change, we sometimes need to make adjustments.
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?
I went through a difficult period during medical school — having moved across the country and not knowing a soul in Los Angeles, dealing with an intense course load, and working with people in extremely difficult situations at LA County Hospital. A friend recommended “A Return to Love” by Marianne Williamson, which was just the right antidote and sparked my interest in the spirituality of love. Through reading this book I got in touch with the power of divine love and developed a deeper understanding of my purpose and calling. I even considered going to Theology School based on this reading that led me down a more spiritual path.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
I came across the quote “See all things through the eyes of compassion” at one point and made a sign for myself that I read daily. As I approached the world with this attitude — to look at everything through the lens of compassion — my heart shifted, embracing acceptance over judgment, and my life shifted as well.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
I am excited to partner with people to make healthy whole foods easy, affordable and tasty. Together with a zero-waste, regenerative organic urban micro farmer and a regenerative chef, I’m not only teaching people the principles of food as medicine but also promoting sustainable systems to reduce our impact on the climate as well as bring fresh produce to urban environments which are often food deserts where residents’ access to affordable, healthy food options (especially fresh fruits and vegetables) is restricted or nonexistent due to the absence of grocery stores within convenient traveling distance. If we can address some of these underlying factors for chronic illness that includes access to healthy, clean whole foods, creating local jobs, and helping the climate, I’d be thrilled!
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. Do you have a specific type of meditation practice or Yoga practice that you have found helpful? We’d love to hear about it.
I’ve practiced various types of meditation for nearly 25 years, but what is most familiar and simple for me to implement is a mantra-based practice where the repetition of a Sanskrit mantra helps to transcend thoughts and activity of the mind. I’ve meditated under the Bodhi tree in India, in airports, and even reverted to my mantra during natural childbirth despite having trained during my pregnancy in hypnobirthing. I had to make it a priority and now it just comes naturally.
As for yoga, I’ve also tried many different styles of yoga and love my hatha yoga practice. As a trained ballet dancer, I’m drawn to Vinyasa and Ashtanga but have come to really appreciate a meditative and restorative Hatha practice.
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.
- Align your body with the rhythms of nature.
I’m a huge fan of technology, however, with these advances we have also become increasingly disconnected from nature. With the ability to have light at any time and the overwhelming exposure to blue light from many of our screen devices, our day-night rhythms that regulate our sleep and our wakefulness can become quite disrupted. This is one of the core rhythms that drives many health and disease processes, so I encourage people to get up with the sunrise and start to wind down when the sun sets, getting to sleep around 10 pm. And I have such immense gratitude for the shift workers out there who are performing essential functions while most of us are sleeping because while we can usually compensate for occasionally going off of the natural rhythm, doing so on a consistent basis has been shown to take a toll on your health.
I would also recommend paying attention to seasonal rhythms — in addition to our physiology changing with circadian rhythms, our bodies adjust to other natural rhythms — including regulation of metabolism and activation of digestive enzymes. For example, in the wintertime when it is cold, it makes sense to eat more warm, cooked and nourishing foods whereas in the summertime when it is hot, it might feel better to eat colder and lighter foods like a salad or other raw vegetables.
2. Move your body regularly.
Our bodies are designed to move, and yet over the last century we have become increasingly sedentary which we’ve learned can be a huge health risk. And new studies have shown that exercising for just a short portion of the day may not be enough to counterbalance a sedentary lifestyle. So, I encourage people to find movement regularly throughout their day. Take regular movement breaks to stand up, stretch, walk around. These breaks don’t have to be long to be effective. Even just a few minutes to break up sitting for an extended time can be helpful.
I also encourage people to move their bodies in a way that is enjoyable to them. If you dread going to the gym, for instance, try other ways of moving that make it less of a chore and more of a joy. For me, that’s dancing — whether in a class, at a club, or just dancing in my living room with some fun music, I get to move my body in a way that I love and that makes it so much easier to do consistently.
3. Eat a variety of whole foods including plenty of vegetables.
Over the decades, I have tried and researched many different types of diets addressing many different types of health concerns, and while I believe that there is no one diet that is good for all people I can absolutely say that eating vegetables can benefit everyone and most Westerners do not eat enough. In my practice, I work with each person to tailor their diet to their individual needs, but there are a few key things that I recommend to everyone:
a. Eat whole foods that are as close as possible to their natural form versus processed or artificial foods.
b. Choose organic as much as possible and really think about the source of the food and how it arrived at your plate to ensure that your food is the least toxic, most nutritious, and most environmentally sustainable as possible. I encourage everyone to look at the Environmental Working Group Dirty Dozen list to avoid eating the most pesticide-laden produce by choosing organic. I have had numerous patients who have benefitted from switching to organic foods.
c. Eat a variety of foods versus the same foods day after day. As we learn more about the importance of the gut microbiome, we’ve discovered that microbial diversity is an important marker for health. And microbial diversity is supported by consuming diverse foods. If we eat the same foods all the time, we are feeding the same microorganisms, but if we bring in different foods we are able to support different types of organisms in our system. Plus, when we eat different plant-based foods we are also getting different phytonutrients that can help support and balance our body.
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?
The main obstacles that I see are convenience/lack of time, cost, and lack of support from those around us. If healthy foods were fast, cheap, and easy, I know that many more people would incorporate healthy eating into their lives.
Another issue is that many people use food to manage their moods — eating has more meaning and power to it beyond just chewing and swallowing. We connect over food, we have memories associated with foods that we eat, and that often creates emotional triggers that can be tough to unwind. Especially when we are stressed and tired and are craving comfort foods, it can be easy to reach for processed, packaged, or fast foods that may provide quick satisfaction versus taking the time to buy and prepare fresh whole foods that ultimately make us feel better in the long run. The key is to find ways to make healthy eating more convenient and have that be the default versus the exception.
Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum emotional wellness? Please share a story or example for each.
- Let go of the stuff that no longer serves you.
When we cling to things that no longer serve us, we can become stuck and stagnant, and it can be difficult to move on, to grow, and to thrive. Whether it is physical clutter, unhealthy habits, unproductive thoughts, or non-nurturing relationships, letting go of our attachment to the things that no longer serve you can lighten your load and allow space for behaviors, beliefs, and connections that are supportive of your physical, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing.
An example of this is a client of mine who had a severe autoimmune illness that required very invasive treatments. We worked together to help restore her physical health — by healthy and clean eating, by supporting detoxification and her immune system, and she did feel a whole lot better. But it was only when she finally addressed a toxic relationship that no longer served her wellbeing that she unlocked the rest of her healing, and today she is thriving and is a fine example of reclaiming her total wellness.
2. Nurture healthy connections.
Healthy connections can be made with friends, family, teachers, colleagues, mentors, neighbors; in groups such as religious organizations or affiliated with activities that you enjoy; and many other places. Humans are social creatures and emotional connections are an integral part of our health and wellbeing. Some of these connections may be deep and some may be more superficial, and you don’t have to have many to benefit. The key aspect is to care and to feel cared for in some way. And if you haven’t found the right people to connect with yet, studies have found that forging a bond with a pet can also benefit our mental as well as our physical health.
3. Practice gratitude
A simple practice of writing down one or more things that you are grateful for each day can have a tremendous impact on our mood, increase our feelings of happiness and satisfaction with life, enhance resiliency and make us less likely to experience burnout, and even improve our physical health! Its simple, yet powerful.
Do you have any particular thoughts about the power of smiling to improve emotional wellness? We’d love to hear it.
The act of smiling can improve emotional wellness in a few ways. One way is that the physical act of smiling causes your brain to release feel-good neurochemicals that can improve your mood and reduce stress — even if that smile is fake! The other is that if other people see you smiling, it also causes them to smile. And then when you see them smile, that can reinforce your smiling in turn. I’ll admit when I heard this research, I decided to make an effort to have a “resting smile face” versus the alternative.
Finally, can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum spiritual wellness? Please share a story or example for each.
- Use mindfulness to recognize the interconnectedness of everything.
It can be easy to react to things or go about your daily routine without thinking about how one thing may be connected with another. Being mindful in our everyday thoughts and actions can help us to see relationships between things and the consequences of our actions that can lead us to make more conscious choices. For example, if your garden developed an insect infestation, it can be easy to grab a broad-spectrum insecticide that would kill not only the troublesome insect but all the other insects. And if those killed include pollinators such as bees and butterflies, that could mean that your plants do not get nourished and they end up producing less food for you as well as other insects and other creatures. Birds would not be able to feed on the plants or the insects and so you’d notice their populations dwindle off. Whereas before you might have enjoyed hearing the song of birds, a consequence may be that now they are no longer there. And you can go on down the line to see the consequences of that one action on so many interconnected things.
So to consider the relationships between everything in our world is a spiritual practice that can support more compassionate and more conscious choices.
2. Help One Person Everyday (HOPE)
When you help someone else, you go beyond yourself and aside from being a good person, many studies have shown that giving back boosts your health, happiness and sense of wellbeing. It doesn’t have to take much from you to make a difference in someone else’s life. Even just a smile can help.
I often recall an encounter that I had at the end of my trip to India. It was winter and I had pair of socks that I wore to keep my feet warm and clean as we removed our shoes to go inside the many temples that we visited across the country. As we came out of the temple one cold morning, we were met by a young boy who looked about seven years old, shivering in just shorts and a t-shirt with no socks or shoes. I thought surely this boy could use these socks! And what amazed me was the huge smile that beamed from him as he received the dirty socks from me and put them on his cold hands and then cradled his face with them. This taught me that you never know what you might have to offer someone in need.
3. Align your actions with your purpose, your dharma.
Many people on a spiritual path are seeking a deeper meaning, a purpose in life, or what can be called dharma. When you align your actions with this purpose, you are using your talents and your gifts to express yourself in the highest way possible and that contributes to your spiritual wellness. If you are able to align your dharma with your job or profession that is wonderful, but it is not necessary. I had one client who was really struggling because she felt disconnected to her factory job that she needed to pay the bills. As we discuss how much she loved animals, she decided to start volunteering with an animal rescue organization on her days off. As she found purpose and meaning from this volunteer work, her mood improved, her self-esteem improved, and instead of dreading her factory work, she now embraced it as a way that allowed her to express her passion through her work with animals.
Do you have any particular thoughts about how being “in nature” can help us to cultivate spiritual wellness?
I absolutely feel that being in nature and recognizing our inherent connectedness to nature can be helpful in cultivating spiritual wellness in addition to being a fundamental aspect of our wellbeing in general. When I look up and see the Milky Way, watch a beautiful sunset or sunrise, stand among the trees in a forest, observe the wanderings of a snail or the playfulness of dolphins, I think “Wow, what a miracle that all of these things are here with such diversity, such elegance, such intelligence.” And I think about how everything is connected on so many different levels, from the microcosm to the macrocosm — nature is full of the awe that can cause us to wonder about the deeper meaning of life and for me can also bring about tremendous peace.
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.
We are now facing a climate crisis that could be devastating in our lifetime, and we’re also aware that environment and behaviors can have epigenetic effects that can pass down through generations. With reverence to the Indigenous American (Haudenosaunee Confederacy) legacy, I would promote that each person considers how their actions as individuals as well as on larger levels will affect the next seven generations. As a Preventive Medicine specialist, I see so many health situations (physical, mental and spiritual) that could be averted if we consider and address the upstream causes and be more mindful of the potential downstream consequences of our actions. It takes thoughtfulness and care, but ultimately this would create benefit not only immediately but going forward to the future.
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 🙂
With my focus on Preventive Health, the environment, organic regenerative farming, and desire to shift from food deserts to urban pharmacy projects as well as a love of tech and biohacking, I’d love to be able to speak with Bill and Melinda Gates. I am very interested in the work their foundation is doing to address global health, agriculture, nutrition and Maternal, Newborn and Child Health and would love to discuss integrated solutions and how they could be applied in our urban environments.
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.