Do we think with our gut or our mind? Do we feel with our body or our soul?
As much as western thought likes to compartmentalize the different organs of the body into tidy systems [digestive system, immune system, cardiovascular system…] the truth is, it’s all interconnected.
Depression and anxiety- afflictions of the mind – often start in the gut. The latest research suggests the key to maintaining mood stability is a well balanced gut microbiota, which is shaped primarily by what we eat, as well as by physical, psychological, and environmental stressors. (1)
Acne, psoriasis, and eczema – eruptions of the skin – begin below the surface, commonly triggered by inflammation, gut dysbiosis, or imbalanced hormones. The foods we eat (or don’t), as well as psychological and environmental stressors, play key roles in our development of these imbalances.
The foods we eat serve as the building blocks for our cells, our blood, and our organs. The fact that we must eat to survive gives us immense power over our health and well-being. The human body is a perpetual construction zone. The foods we eat are the tools that afford us the ability to repair and rebuild. When we eat whole, unprocessed foods, such as vegetables, fruit, legumes, nuts, and organic animal products it’s as if we have the most capable construction crew inside us. When we choose a diet filled mostly with refined foods such as baked goods, sweets, soda, chips, and processed meats, it’s as if all our construction workers lost their tools and fell asleep on the job.
Our diet influences just about everything, including our weight, mood, and risk for chronic disease and cancer.
COVID has been a wake up call to pay better attention to our health – after all, 94% of COVID-related deaths are in those with an underlying diet-related chronic disease, mostly caused by excess body fat, including diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and chronic inflammation. (2)
When we talk about wellness – especially in a post-COVID world, we must start with food.
While the best diet for each of us is determined by our own unique biochemistry and health, for most people a plant-based paleo, or “pegan” approach is a great starting point. It’s primarily made of whole, plant-based foods, with a small amount of the highest quality organic meat and wild seafood. This diet is naturally low glycemic, high fiber, and anti-inflammatory. The number one tip I give people is to think of your plate as a pie chart, and aim to make 50-75% of it vegetables at as many meals as possible.
As powerful as food is, though, it’s not the magic bullet that will solve all health problems.
We also need to incorporate physical fitness, stress-reduction, community, and happiness into the equation.
Exercise boosts our mood, supports our immune system, lowers stress, balances blood sugar, and aids in elimination. Move your body at least 30 minutes a day, even if that just means a walk. In days of quarantine, I’ve taken to pacing my balcony while on phone calls to get my steps in.
Fitness apps and Youtube are overflowing with workouts by top trainers that can be done in your living room with minimal or no equipment. Where there is a will, there is a way.
Stress-reduction boosts our mood, decreases inflammation, improves our digestion, lowers high blood pressure, improves our cardiovascular health, and even improves the overall quality of our life. While meditation, mindfulness, and yoga are excellent ways to combat stress, the truth is, changing our perception of our stressors will have the most profound impact. No event in and of itself is innately stressful, it’s our perception of that stressor that makes it so. The book, Loving What Is by Byron Katie is an absolute game-changer for anyone who is carrying a great deal of stress (and who isn’t?).
Having a tight-knit community – a circle of friends and family you can rely on is a critical but often overlooked aspect of health and wellness. Strong relationships are cited as a primary factor of longevity in the world’s Blue Zones – areas where people regularly live past 100. It’s also a key factor in Dr. Dean Ornish’s “Undo It” program, the first scientifically proven program to reverse heart disease (along with diet, exercise, and stress-reduction). Fire up the zoom calls – social distance doesn’t have to mean social isolation.
And finally, a focus on fun and happiness is the next frontier of wellness. After all, the whole point of improving our health is so that we can live and enjoy our life to the fullest. It’s easy to turn wellness activities into a stress-inducing competition or cause for self criticism, when you can’t seem to master your headstand in yoga or give in to the French fries. But these thoughts are the antithesis of wellness, and we must release them if we are to be truly “well”.
Happiness starts from within, with an attitude of gratitude. Developing a daily gratitude practice – simply acknowledging the things you’re grateful for, whether in your head or on paper – trains you to constantly look for the positive instead of the negative. It’s a simple and quick exercise with profound effects.
What’s more, maintaining a child-like spirit and thirst for adventure will do much to improve your mood, mental, and even physical health. Make time to dance, and sing, and laugh. These were considered medicine before the rise of pharmaceuticals. Throughout Africa, ritual, song, and dance have been used for centuries to work through trauma. (3) Current research indicates that laughter has quantifiable positive physiologic benefits (4)
It’s not enough to rely solely on food and physical fitness, we must also pay attention to our mental and spiritual health because it’s all connected. The future of wellness will be less about following a prescribed checklist of wellness activities and more about remembering how to be human.
- Huang TT, Lai JB, Du YL, Xu Y, Ruan LM, Hu SH. Current Understanding of Gut Microbiota in Mood Disorders: An Update of Human Studies. Front Genet. 2019;10:98. Published 2019 Feb 19. doi:10.3389/fgene.2019.00098
- Maffetone Philip B., Laursen Paul B. The Perfect Storm: Coronavirus (Covid-19) Pandemic Meets Overfat Pandemic. Frontiers in Public Health Vol.8 2020 doi:10.3389/fpubh.2020.00135
- Monteiro, Nicole & Wall, Diana. (2011). African Dance as Healing Modality Throughout the Diaspora: The Use of Ritual and Movement to Work Through Trauma. Journal of Pan African Studies. 4. 234-252.
- Louie D, Brook K, Frates E. The Laughter Prescription: A Tool for Lifestyle Medicine. Am J Lifestyle Med. 2016;10(4):262‐267. Published 2016 Jun 23. doi:10.1177/1559827614550279