Lianna Nielsen of Healthy By Lianna: “Improving Sleep”

Establishing good habits is necessary because if you take the time to do it correctly it will set you up for success and health for life. When healthy habits are ingrained the ability to make good choices is effortless — you do it automatically. The less effort you have to put into making proper decisions the more […]

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Establishing good habits is necessary because if you take the time to do it correctly it will set you up for success and health for life. When healthy habits are ingrained the ability to make good choices is effortless — you do it automatically. The less effort you have to put into making proper decisions the more energy and brainspace you have to be productive, creative, successful and happy. You are starting ahead of most people and making it easier and faster to go further in whatever direction you choose.

As a part of our series about “How Anyone Can Build Habits For Optimal Wellness, Performance, & Focus”, I had the pleasure of interviewingLianna Nielsen.

Lianna Nielsen is an Integrative Nutrition Health Coach certified through the Institute of Integrative Nutrition, with specializations in both gut and hormone health. She has a B.A. from the George Washington University and also studied personal leadership and development coaching under Kathleen Schaefer, founder of the Human Being Store. Lianna was inspired to become a health coach through her own healing journey. In her 20’s she developed an undiagnosable autoimmune condition. After seeing countless unhelpful doctors, which inspired lots of her own research, she discovered she could heal her body through food and lifestyle interventions. Lianna combines both her health coaching and leadership and development training with her own healing journey to teach people to listen and connect more deeply to their own bodies, creating health, vitality and clarity. She has a holistic approach to nutrition and strives to create balance in both physical and mental health, which leads to alignment in all other areas of life.

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?

I’d love to! I grew up in a beautiful little town in the woods of Maine on a gravel road that was actually called Hollywood Blvd…really. My dad is a dentist but his life passion is birds, which inspired exploration all over the world. My mom is from the Philippines and quality food and cooking have always been loves of hers. So from an early age I was exposed to different cultures, food, art, and adventure. I had a pretty idyllic childhood full of nature, fresh organic food, and travel. I attended the George Washington University in D.C. and, with the added stresses of college life (more processed food, alcohol, less sleep) I started to develop anxiety, depression, and an eating disorder. These followed me to New York post college where I landed to pursue an acting career. The fast pace and excitement of New York just compounded matters. By my mid-twenties, I was suffering from an array of health issues and seeing a handful of different specialists, none of whom were particularly helpful and all wanting to prescribe a different drug. I ended up getting a colonoscopy after a misdiagnosis of my intestinal bleeding and when the gastroenterologist still had no answers for me except to “come back in a year when things get worse and we can put you on steroids for the rest of your life” — I knew there had to be a better way. I was so frustrated with the lack of answers and the quality of help I was receiving from doctors I took matters into my own hands. I started doing research and making lifestyle and diet changes and seeing huge results.

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

At the height of my sickness, which doctors could never classify as anything more than an “undiagnosable autoimmune condition,” I became depressed with serious anxiety. I had developed food allergies to all raw fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds as well as fish. Plus my hair was falling out by the handful, my period stopped, my skin developed hyperpigmentation, I had gained weight that I couldn’t lose no matter what I did, I had adrenal fatigue (so I was perpetually exhausted) and last but not least, my intestines were severely bleeding every day. When that specialist suggested waiting a year for my symptoms to get worse, something inside of me clicked. I knew that I needed to find my own path to healing because the road I was on was leading nowhere. I took my colonoscopy results and just started googling. I educated myself on inflammation, which was the only diagnosis I was given, and it didn’t take long to learn that ALL of my symptoms were related.

Through my research I came across The Microbiome Diet by Dr. Raphael Kellman, which had a protocol for healing the gut. I devoured the book and took a leap of faith. I cut out all processed foods, sugar, gluten, diary, alcohol, caffeine and added a number of different supplements to heal the lining of my intestines and populate my digestive system with healthy bacteria. Only 12 days into this four-to-six month long protocol, I woke up to discover I was free of the depression and anxiety that I had suffered from for years. I felt like I was 10 years younger, I felt more positive, energetic, creative and optimistic than I had in years — it was shocking. I couldn’t believe how these small changes created such a profound shift — especially in my brain. I was fascinated! Over the course of the next few months nearly all of my symptoms subsided. I could not fathom how the many doctors and specialists I had seen in New York City could not help me heal when such simple diet and lifestyle changes could. I knew I needed to learn more, share my experience and help others. I looked into becoming a nutritionist or a registered dietician but not one school I came across was teaching anything about the gut-brain connection or the microbiome except for the Institute of Integrative Nutrition, so I immediately enrolled to become a health coach.

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?

Healing my gut healed my brain in a way I never would have imagined. I couldn’t believe how much it improved my creativity and confidence. I was still pursuing acting while building my coaching company and had been helping award-winning Broadway director and author Kristin Hanggi facilitate a writing class. I found myself doing the writing prompts along with the students during the down time and in one afternoon, outlined a holistic nutrition class for artists. Although, I thought it was kind of silly and maybe something no one would be interested in, I mentioned it to Kristin. She made me share it with the entire writing workshop — everyone was interested. She encouraged me to teach one workshop and on the strength of that one workshop I started to build a client base, got offered a permanent teaching position at an acting conservatory and the opportunity to guest lecture at NYU. Kristin encouraged me to listen to my inner artist and trust that what I was inspired to create was something that the world needed — and she couldn’t have been more right!

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?

Remembering this story still makes me laugh. I had a series of unsatisfying jobs in my 20’s while supporting myself as an actress, which led to the realization that I wanted to start my own business. Doing what? I had no idea, but I had the nagging feeling that I was meant to. One afternoon, while at an acting workshop, I started chatting with the girl next to me who shared that she had a successful mobile spray tan company. This company gave her lots of freedom, flexibility and of course money. I was intrigued. While I had never even thought of getting a spray tan (and quite frankly thought they were a bit silly), I was lit up by the idea of something so simple being lucrative. I immediately scheduled a spray tan with her. It was quick, easy and though I kinda thought it was gross to be covered in brown sticky stuff, I liked how I looked when it dried. I went home and called my best friend who also wasn’t thrilled with her part-time job and pitched her the idea. We found a spray tan training workshop in a Marriott an hour into New Jersey (of course) and signed up. We spent an afternoon learning everything about the different color mixes and how to spray tan with a bunch of enthusiastic hairdressers and recent high school graduates. It seemed so easy. We each invested about 1000 dollars on the spot.

The equipment came with a very convenient pop-up tent to spray your clients in but we quickly realized that even when you sprayed them in the tent there was inevitably brown mist everywhere. If you’ve ever lived in New York City you know that space is limited, so it didn’t take long to notice that our small apartments were becoming quite tan in the process as well — gross. Additionally, we both are extremely health conscious and realized that spending all day breathing in spray tan mist didn’t seem like a great idea (and after some research we discovered that it wasn’t). Within about two days we knew this was a mistake and, luckily, were able to return most of the products.

Starting a business takes work and needs to be something you are passionate about, so looking back it makes me laugh that I initially got so excited about something that I was completely disinterested in. It is much harder to be successful if you aren’t interested or invested in what you are doing. I had convinced myself that I would enjoy it because I liked working with people, I wanted a flexible schedule and to be my own boss and, most importantly, I was really passionate about making others feel good. While spray tanning technically does make people feel good, it is on more of a superficial level, and I always knew I wanted to have a deeper impact. So before you go investing in something, really take the time to do the research and ask yourself if it’s something that is truly in alignment with who you are, what you want, and what your goals are. It’s hilarious to me that as someone who doesn’t even like to eat non-organic vegetables I would be okay breathing in chemicals all day — no chance!

The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?

The best advice I can give anyone looking for success in their career (and life) is learn to cultivate a deep sense of listening and trust in yourself. This will help you to understand what you really want, what your true life path is, and how to achieve it. I’d spent so much time doing what I thought I was “supposed to do” (what my peers were doing or what I thought my parents wanted me to do). As it was happening, my career path felt like it was meandering all over the place, but in hindsight, I believe. it ultimately gave me the tools and experience to get to exactly where I needed to be.

The sooner you learn to listen and trust yourself, the more quickly you will achieve success. I see it with my clients all of the time. It does take courage. You need to be comfortable sitting quietly with yourself, listening to what your intuition is nudging you towards, and then to take action. This can be difficult because where our intuition/gut feeling leads us isn’t always in the most rational or logical direction, but it’s the ability to trust it anyway that makes all of the difference.

It can seem impossible to start your own business, write a novel or become a CEO, but if you stay present and connected to why you want those things, and then just take that right next step your gut is nudging you towards — before long you will look back and realize it has led you exactly where you need to be. This, of course, happens much more quickly when you are taking good care of yourself. It is especially important, if you are feeling lost or disconnected, unable hear your inner voice.

It sounds so simple, but the best way to cultivate this listening is through self care (get quality sleep, eat well, move your body, etc.) and create time every day to check in with yourself. It could be meditating, breathwork, journaling, even going for a walk or run — spending some time in silence connecting to yourself. Then, even if you aren’t exactly clear where it is all leading, ask yourself what the next right step would be or what would feel good to you, and then trust yourself enough to take it. If you connect and just do one small thing a day, over time, you will have built a successful career.

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?

The Untethered Soul, by Michael Singer, helped me to understand I am not my thoughts, but rather the observer of my thoughts. That simple yet profound shift allowed me to become aware of what stories I was telling myself that weren’t serving me. It helped me to see how I was holding myself back and keeping myself small in ways I didn’t even realize. The mind is so powerful — so powerful that your body will even respond to what your mind believes by creating sickness or health. If you want to improve any part of your life, including your health, changing your thoughts and how you speak to yourself is a large part of that.

This book helped me to be separate from my thoughts and gave me the space to choose better ones. This is a habit that takes time but is one of the most important and helpful things one can do. Meditation is a great way to start to observe and pay attention to thought patterns. The more you can get quiet and observe your thoughts, the more space you create between an action/event and your reaction. Even if it is just the tiniest bit of space, you have the option to make a conscious choice and take more responsibility for your thoughts, feelings, actions and therefore the direction of your life.

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

One of my absolute favorite quotes is:

“How would your life change if whenever someone said something to you, no matter how it came out, you could recognize the love or need for love behind it?” — Sanaya Roman

Reading this a few years ago stopped me in my tracks. I absolutely love this simple yet profound way of looking at the world. I truly believe that, at the root of it, every decision we make is based on wanting to express or receive love. So, what is more freeing than realizing that when someone does something hurtful or upsetting, it simply stems from a need for love and has little to do with you? To me it’s also a reminder of how similar we are and how we all ultimately have the same needs — and anytime we highlight our similarities we create more empathy for one another.

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

I’m really excited about a new company I co-founded this summer with a good friend and colleague of mine, Alli Caudle, called Love Club. We created this company in response to the overwhelming need for guidance we experienced from clients, friends and family during the Covid-19 pandemic. Combining our experiences of holistic health and nutrition, psychology, and neuroscience, we have come up with simple tools that will help people create deeper self-love and connection to themselves, and find clarity so they can achieve their purpose. We’ve started a YouTube channel, we are co-authoring a book, as well as developing personal and corporate coaching workshops.

OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. This will be intuitive to you but it will be helpful to spell this out directly. Can you help explain a few reasons why it is so important to create good habits? Can you share a story or give some examples?

Establishing good habits is necessary because if you take the time to do it correctly it will set you up for success and health for life. When healthy habits are ingrained the ability to make good choices is effortless — you do it automatically. The less effort you have to put into making proper decisions the more energy and brainspace you have to be productive, creative, successful and happy. You are starting ahead of most people and making it easier and faster to go further in whatever direction you choose.

Take exercise for example. Say you create a habit where you automatically get up and exercise every morning before work, doing something you enjoy for at least twenty minutes. During that twenty minutes you are boosting immune function, aiding digestion, lowering inflammation and blood pressure, raising your good while lowering your bad cholesterol, reducing the risk of heart problems, maintaining healthy blood sugar balance and supporting a healthy metabolism — and that’s just in your body. That twenty minutes will also lower stress and anxiety, increase blood flow to your brain creating heightened alertness, clarity and creativity during and after, it will promote the growth of new brain cells and release feel-good hormones like endorphins, serotonin and dopamine. You will be starting off your day with a clearer, more focused brain as well as an elevated mood — the perfect way to begin a work day. You do that every week for the next twenty plus years and you are effortlessly building physical and mental health in your body and creating longevity in your life — without even thinking about it.

Or, what if you initiated a habit where you set aside a few hours every week to read, teach yourself something helpful to further your career or even work on starting a new business? Within a few months you would have a wealth of new knowledge to help support your goals or even a new additional form of income. I’ve seen clients do it all the time. It just requires making time to establish the new habit and showing up every day or every week until it becomes second nature.

How have habits played a role in your success? Can you share some success habits that have helped you in your journey?

Establishing healthy habits has both changed my life and contributed to my success, by increasing and creating sustainable energy as well as boosting cognitive function, clarity, creativity thereby enhancing my performance and productivity. All of this has given me greater confidence and self-trust, enabling me to grow my practice to continue to have a wider impact.

Taking the time to learn and understand which specific habits enhance my performance is one of the best gifts I’ve given myself. It took some experimentation, but once I figured out how to optimize my body and mind by learning how much sleep I needed, what kind and how much exercise works best for my body, how to eat for sustained energy and mental clarity, as well as how to deal with stress in a healthy way — everything changed for me. Personally, daily morning meditation paired with journaling has been one of the greatest tools for cultivating a healthy mindset, creating focus and clarity as well as relieving stress and anxiety. It’s this practice that continues to keep me accountable to myself, my goals and my intuition. It helps me make the right decisions for my life and my business.

Speaking in general, what is the best way to develop good habits? Conversely, how can one stop bad habits?

When creating healthy new habits start by connecting to your motivation — your “why.” Do you want to make more money, lose weight, find partnership? Then start by consciously making at least one better decision a day, knowing that change takes time and that mistakes are inevitable but helpful for growth. Many people get inspired and want to change their entire diet or go from never working out to working out every day or trying to meditate for an hour — it’s just not sustainable. Start with one small improvement that you know you can incorporate. Maybe it’s cutting out a certain food group, showing up to work 30 minutes earlier, or starting the day with a three minute meditation. Start small so you don’t get frustrated and give up. If you aren’t sure where to start, check in with your gut and be honest with yourself. Ask “what is the one thing I could do every day to work towards achieving my goal?” My clients usually know exactly what they need to do to heal/grow/change/improve but just aren’t doing it. You only need to take one small step forward per day and it will start a ripple effect that will make it easier to create change, not just in that area, but in other areas as well.

Consistently getting more sleep for example (most adults need 7–9 hours) will not only give you more energy, clarity, focus, and a better ability to control your emotions, but it will also reduce sugar and carb cravings, lower inflammation in the body making it easier to lose weight, and keep your immune system healthier. That’s doing just one thing!

With bad habits, take time to find the root cause of where the bad habit came from. Why are you making the choices you are making? Is this something you grew up doing? Look into your belief system around these habits and choices that aren’t serving you. Once you have awareness around how certain activities aren’t serving you, it’s so much easier to make a better choice. Again, know that creating good habits takes time, and look at each slip-up as an opportunity for learning and growth. All it takes is one step forward, one small positive change per day, and a little bit of patience, to let go of bad habits and create new, better ones.

Let’s talk about creating good habits in three areas, Wellness, Performance, and Focus. Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum wellness. Please share a story or example for each.

The three areas that affect your health the most, and where I start with my clients, is improving sleep, customizing their diet and discovering what type of movement brings them joy.

Improving Sleep: At the height of my sickness I was bartending 3–4 nights a week so my sleep schedule was a mess. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was a huge contributing factor to the development of my autoimmune condition. Creating healthy sleep habits is so important because sleep is when your body heals: inflammation cools down, internal organs rest and recover, tissue gets repaired, and muscle grows. During sleep, hormones are released and help to regulate appetite, control stress, and support a healthy metabolism. Memory consolidation happens, which allows for the formation and storage of new memories, essential for learning new information. If you don’t get enough sleep you have a harder time controlling your weight and your emotions, and it can cause your immune system to suffer.

Customizing Diet: Food was also a huge contributing factor to my illness. Though I was eating what most would have considered a “healthy” diet: lots of veggies, whole grains, lean proteins and occasional dairy, it was actually making me sick. I had gained some abdominal weight and sought out a nutritionist for support. She made the mistake of telling me I was eating too many vegetables and encouraged me to eat more grains. Neither of us knew that I was gluten-intolerant, so the more of it I consumed the more inflamed my intestines got and the sicker I became. Many people can eat gluten with no consequences at all but for me it was poison. Learning what foods work specifically for your body is a key to long-term wellness. Taking the time to really investigate which foods work best for you is so important because food affects energy, cognitive function, sleep, digestion, mood and the immune system. When I eliminated processed foods, grains, sugar, and dairy from my diet, my body and mind began to heal rapidly. Those are foods many people can healthily enjoy, but for me, they were incredibly problematic.

Joy in Movement: Because weight gain was a side effect of my illness, I was exercising harder than ever. I was running a ton, I had hired a personal trainer and was lifting weights and nothing was happening — if anything I felt I was gaining even more weight. What I didn’t realize was that when you are already inflamed (and many people are), exercise can make things worse. My body was working so hard to heal that it didn’t have the extra energy to expend. I was creating more stress, which was making me more inflamed and therefore sicker. What I should have been doing was sleeping more and doing gentle exercise, such as restorative yoga. In addition to being over-tired I also wasn’t enjoying exercise. I was going to the gym to punish my body for the way it looked. All of this led to adrenal fatigue and I wound up in bed for close to six months with no energy and doctors orders not to exercise at all while my adrenal glands healed. Just like finding the specific foods that work for your body, it’s so important to find the types of exercise and movement that bring you joy and are appropriate for your body and goals. When you are enjoying what you are doing your body responds in a much different way: you will be more mindful and present, see results more quickly and have an easier time avoiding injury.

Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?

Sleep: These are some wonderful habits to adopt that help optimize sleep:

  • Keep your bedroom cool and dark.
  • Take a warm shower or bath before bed.
  • Avoid alcohol: though it can make you fall asleep faster, it diminishes the quality of your sleep.
  • Limit or avoid night-time blue light exposure: decrease screen time and try blue-light blocking glasses.
  • Don’t sleep with your phone in your bedroom.
  • Limit caffeine — especially later in the day.
  • Stop eating at least an hour before bed.
  • Eat more fiber and omega-3’s and reduce sugar and carbs. Inflammation from sugar and carbs affects the quality of sleep, while eating fiber can promote deeper, more restful sleep.

Diet: My favorite tools for helping clients learn more about how their body responds to specific foods are elimination diets and detoxing from sugar. Elimination diets are useful if you are curious about how one type of food affects your body. They are extremely simple: completely eliminate the food in question for 21–30 days then reintroduce it two to three times per day in a simple form for 72 hours. Pay attention to how you felt without those foods and also what happened after you reintroduced them.

The sugar detox is by far my favorite tool. It eliminates from you diet all sugar and foods that behave like sugar. Since sugar is addictive and hijacks your hunger hormones, cravings and taste buds, cutting it out for ten days essentially resets your body to its factory settings. Your hunger cues normalize, you can actually trust your cravings and you start to see where you might be using food to manage stress or emotions.

With both elimination diets and the sugar detox, I suggest you approach it like it’s a science experiment on your body. Pay attention to your energy, digestion, mood, focus, and sleep. It is amazing what you learn about yourself. Once you know which foods are best and which foods you should skip, it’s a very simple and effective way to optimize your body and mind. A solid understanding of what your body prefers will set you up to be healthy for life. Once you experience how great it feels to consume the right diet, it’s impossible not to want to continue to live that way. Cultivating that awareness is one of the easiest ways, in my opinion, to build healthier eating habits. The great thing about knowing exactly what makes you feel good is that if you ever stray and start feeling badly again you know exactly what to do to fix it. You don’t have to have the perfect diet, you just need an understanding of what the perfect diet is for you.

Movement: If you don’t enjoy exercise, start thinking about what you loved to do as a child. Experiment with all sorts of different things until you find something you love (or at least like). If you hate running and going to the gym, then never do it. Engaging in exercise you hate will never lead to a body you love and you will tend to avoid doing it. When you find something you enjoy, you will look forward to it, so not only will it be healthy for your body but it will lower stress and bring joy to your life. The happier you are the easier it is to stay healthy and balanced without much effort. To find a type movement you enjoy — just follow the fun!

Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimal performance at work or sport? Please share a story or example for each.

The things that aid you the most in terms of wellness (sleep, the correct diet and appropriate exercise) are also going to help you perform better in all areas of your life, as everything is connected. As far as performance goes, additional helpful tools I use are: positive self talk, visualization and establishing a self-care routine.

Positivity: When I was an actress I spent a great deal of my time auditioning, which I initially hated. I would get so nervous and, a majority of the time, decide I was going to bomb the audition before I even got into the room. Inevitably, I would. I spent hours memorizing my lines, convinced I would forget them during the audition. I would tell myself right before I entered the room that I hadn’t worked hard enough and then, of course, I would go completely blank. It wasn’t until I realized how negatively I was speaking to myself and changed the narrative that I stopped forgetting lines and started to love auditioning and began booking roles. The way you talk to yourself directly affects your performance. Your body and mind listen to your thoughts and they create your reality. Make sure you are telling yourself the right things.

Visualization: Another great tool for optimal performance is visualization. I would use it all the time before big auditions, performances and large speaking engagements, to ensure they went well. My favorite story about visualization however, comes from one of my best friends, who was a semi-pro soccer player. Before going pro he played in college and at the end of his senior year his team had a huge game against their biggest rival. Winning this game meant his team was the best in the league and this would make him more attractive to potential pro-soccer teams. He had a vison of scoring the game-winning goal and tearing off his jersey to reveal a shirt underneath that sported his favorite mantra hand written in Spanish across his chest. A few days before the game he made the shirt and then spent time in the days leading up to the game visualizing scoring the game-winning goal, ripping off the jersey and jumping into the stands. The big day came and he was thrilled that the end of the game went exactly how he’d envisioned it. He still has the shirt as a reminder of the power of the mind and what you can achieve. Visualization or mental rehearsal is an amazing tool because it stimulates the same regions of the brain that would be stimulated if you were to actually perform the action. Visualization impacts an array of cognitive functions, so your brain is actually being primed for the performance, presentation or game, before it happens. This allows you to feel more comfortable and the action to feel more familiar, which makes it easier to get into a state of flow. It also has been found to increase confidence, motivation and self-efficacy.

Self-care: Self-care routines and habits sometimes get a bad rap but if you find the right combination of tools that work for you, it makes all of the difference. When I first started acting, right out of college, my auditions were so inconsistent. Some days I would completely nail the audition and others would fall completely flat. During that time I was also so inconsistent with sleep, diet, exercise — you name it, I was all over the place. I had no idea how much of what I consumed and how much I slept impacted my performance. It wasn’t until I got sick and was forced to become a lot more aware of how I treated my body did I notice the correlation between little things like what I ate for dinner and how clear my mind was the next day. Certain foods and types of exercise definitely affect how confident I feel. Once I learned what worked and what didn’t, I found I had so much more control over my performance in all areas. Of course enough sleep, healthy food and exercise is helpful — but it’s finding the right combination for you — that is the key.

Now when I have something important to prepare for, I know exactly what I need to do. The day before and day of, I eat very cleanly: tons of non-starchy veggies and healthy fats with a modest amount of clean protein. I avoid sugar, grains, dairy, processed foods and alcohol. I make sure I get at least seven hours of sleep the night before and am asleep by 10:30 or 11:00 pm. I exercise the day before and include a visualization in my meditation that day as well, especially right before bed. On the day of, I start with a five to 20-meditation and visualization, depending on what I have time for. If I have time to exercise I will (barre, yoga, hiking and swimming make me feel the best). I’m not normally a breakfast person but I will eat something very simple before, like some raw nuts, an egg with some avocado and/or greens, or a simple form of animal protein. If it’s an event where I need to speak or perform, I either avoid caffeine altogether since I can tend towards anxiety, or have a small amount of green tea or matcha because both contain L-theanine in addition to caffeine. (L-theanine promotes relaxation and lowers anxiety which helps it to balance out the caffeine. When I was acting I would occasionally take an L-theanine supplement before a big audition or performance to help calm my nerves). Finally, I give myself extra time to get ready and to arrive at the location on time because rushing and being late makes me feel nervous and scattered. I know this combination of activities makes my brain the clearest, sharpest and most fouced. It makes me feel the most confident, positive and energetic, and all of this sets me up for success.

Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?

Meditation is a wonderful tool for observing how you speak to yourself. Just spending three to five minutes per day in silence for a week will give you insight on this. It’s not uncommon for us to be the hardest on ourselves. Most people wouldn’t dream of telling their mom or their best friend half the things they tell themselves on a daily basis. A great trick for turning the thoughts around is: when you notice a negative thought — pause — then tell yourself the complete opposite. With my auditions, when I noticed that I wanted to tell myself the narrative that I was underprepared, I would stop, take a deep breath and release the thought. Then I would remind myself how prepared I actually was. It feels a little strange in the beginning, but if you continue to practice it you’ll notice your negative and self sabotaging thoughts and behaviors diminishing.

The key to mastering visualization is creating a highly specific goal. Set aside some time and sit in a quiet space where you won’t be disturbed. Picture yourself achieving your goal. Be as detailed and specific as possible: How do you feel? What do you smell and taste? What are you wearing? What does your environment look like? Who else is there? Make sure the mental imagery is from a first person perspective. If any doubts surface, just let them go and refocus on achieving your goal. It can be a bit difficult to remain focused initially, but if you set aside a few minutes every day, it will become easier and easier. Practicing your visualization the night before or a few days leading up to the event will ensure the most success, but this is a practice that is always wonderful to do as it also enhances focus and concentration.

As far as creating self-care routines, it’s basically trial and error. Learn how much sleep is best for you and find out which hours are the best (hint: the hours before midnight are more valuable since they keep us in our circadian rhythm). Discover which foods keep you feeling light with sustainable energy (it’s probably not a lot of diary, sugar or processed foods). Develop a mindset practice: whether it’s a few minutes of meditation, breathwork, journaling, visualization, a gratitude practice, an intention setting — something where you are quiet, connecting to yourself and the goal you want to achieve. Play around with different combinations of self-care practices until you find out exactly what works for you. It can take a little bit of time to discover but it is 110% worth it.

Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimal focus? Please share a story or example for each.

The best habits to create optimal focus aremeditation or mindfulness practices, avoiding certain food, and eating for blood sugar balance.

Meditation/Mindfulness Practices: Meditation is by far the most helpful habit to get into to achieve optimal focus. I had been reading about the health benefits of it for years before I finally developed a consistent practice and the benefits have been extraordinary. As an actress I made most of my money doing commercial work. Though they weren’t the most glamorous jobs, I did a lot of corporate training videos and industrials which involved confidently reading pages and pages of boring sales and/or tech jargon off of a teleprompter. The more technical and dry the writing was, the easier it was for my mind to wander. The ability to focus and stay present with the material was the key to success. In the beginning of my career, if I started to make mistakes, it would get in my head and I would beat myself up over it. It would become harder to focus and I would just become worse and worse until it felt like I couldn’t even read. I was hired by one company twice and in the two years in between the jobs I had gotten very serious about my meditation practice. When I showed up for the shoot the second time I couldn’t believe how much more quickly everything went. I nailed the scripts and was easily able to move on from mistakes quickly. The director and producers even noticed and complimented me at the end. I was the most amazed because while my first performance was good, what happened two years later was excellent and went so much faster. It was exciting to see how much meditation had allowed me to change the shape of my brain, control my thoughts, and optimize my performance with my new laser sharp focus.

Meditation is amazing for both your brain and your body. Just a few minutes a day of any style of meditation can rewire your brain to enhance cognitive function — especially focus and concentration. Additionally, it helps with emotional regulation, decision-making skills, increases empathy, decreases inflammation and stress hormones, enhances our immune system, promotes healing and even weight loss. If you could sell meditation in a pill form it would be a multi-billion dollar industry.

Avoiding Certain Foods: I touched on this a little before, but certain foods can completely destroy your ability to focus. The key here is to figure out which ones make it harder for you specifically. I didn’t realize I was gluten intolerant (and many people actually are) until my late 20’s. For years I would start my day with either cereal, toast or a bagel and I would struggle to feel awake, focused and productive for the first half of my day. It wasn’t until I cut it out completely did I notice how much my focus, productivity and creativity increased. I rarely eat it now, and when I do, I wake up with a bit of a foggy hangover the next day. This is how gluten can affect certain people. Processed grains, excess sugar and inflammatory oils can also impair the brain’s ability to be clear while other foods like coffee, green tea, matcha, ginseng, healthy fats and clean proteins will promote focus. Experiment with what works for you.

Eating for Blood Sugar Balance: Though it may not sound like it, eating for blood sugar balance is another great way to improve as well as maintain your focus throughout the day. We’ve all had the experience of eating a big carby lunch or having an afternoon sugary snack that gives you a quick boost but then ultimately results in a huge crash. After eating something high in sugar or carbohydrates our blood sugar shoots up quickly, which then forces our body to release large amounts of insulin, which causes the blood sugar to then drop quickly. Our focus, mood and concentration are hugely affected by the rise and fall of our blood sugar, ie: getting hangry. So if you want to have sustained focus and concentration throughout the day, it’s best to eat for blood sugar stability.

Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?

Cultivating a meditation practice can seem intimidating initially. Clients always tell me that they are the one person who just can’t sit still and focus, but in reality, everyone deals with that. The key is to just keep practicing. You won’t be good at it initially, but be patient. Find the style that is best for you: guided meditation, observing your thoughts, using a mantra, counting or observing your breath, or you can even count to ten over and over again or simply stare at a candle. Whatever style you enjoy (or at least can tolerate) will be the one you’ll actually do, so figure out what that is. You will inevitably lose focus, repeatedly, and your mind will wander — the key is when you catch yourself wandering to just refocus on the meditation. In a matter of weeks, the act of doing this will quickly increase your ability to focus and concentrate. Try three to five minutes first thing in the morning while you’re still in bed — make it as easy for yourself as possible. Try it for a few weeks without judgement about how it’s going. The key is just showing up as frequently as possible and being patient with yourself. If you can do that, the results will be amazing.

Play around with your diet. Try cutting out processed foods, especially those with a lot of grains and/or sugar. Add more healthy fats, greens and proteins to see how you feel. Some people do really well with coffee, others better with green tea, and some people focus best without any caffeine at all. When you eliminate items and/or incorporate new foods, do it slowly and one at a time to ensure you know what’s working and what isn’t. Pay attention to not only how you feel right after you eat, but how you sleep and how you feel when you wake up the next morning. Food directly affects how you think and feel, and the sooner you find out what works for you, the sooner you can learn how to optimize your focus to achieve your goals.

Eating for blood sugar balance is simple: just aim to balance protein, fiber, greens and healthy fats at every meal. This will keep your blood sugar sustained for longer periods of time without huge spikes and crashes. The more stable your blood sugar is, the easier it is to concentrate and stay focused. The ratios of how much of each type of food is best for you depends on your specific body, so you will need to experiment. You will know you’ve found the right balance when you feel full for four to six hours following a meal. Healthy fats (olive oil, avocados, nuts, etc.) and clean protein both create satiety, so if you find you are getting hungry prior to four hours, try adding more of those first. Avoid eating carbs and sugary things alone as they cause the largest spike and then crash in blood sugar.

As a leader, you likely experience times when you are in a state of Flow. Flow has been described as a pleasurable mental state that occurs when you do something that you are skilled at, that is challenging, and that is meaningful. Can you share some ideas from your experience about how we can achieve a state of Flow more often in our lives?

The flow state can be most easily achieved when you are consistently taking care of your body and when the major elements of your life are in balance. As you create optimal physical health, your brain becomes healthier, and brain optimization makes achieving a flow state much easier. When you take care of your mental and emotional health by managing stress, engaging in mindfulness practices, cultivating healthy relationships and finding work that fulfills you, you create balance and effortless health in the body. With both mind and body healthy, flow comes naturally, easily and more often. Additionally, the more you engage in the activity you wish to reach a flow state in, the easier it will be to achieve it as you are creating the neural pathways that will make that particular activity familiar. Both meditation and visualization can be extremely helpful in this pursuit as well, as they support both focus, enhanced cognitive function, and the creation of new neural pathways.

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.

If I could inspire a movement that would bring the greatest amount of good (health, wealth, satisfaction, happiness, and so on) it would be for people to take the time to prioritize and cultivate self-trust. Learning to listen and trust your internal voice, intuition, inner knowing — whatever you like to call it. If people stopped looking for answers outside of themselves first, and got into the habit of slowing down, listening and trusting the information they received, everyone would be much happier and healthier. More people would realize what their life purpose was and would find more enjoyment in their work and therefore their lives. There would be less jealousy and competition, as you would know that your path is unique and specific to you and needn’t look like anyone else’s. It would be easier to attract the right people into your life because you would know yourself better. People would require fewer external things to be happy and have fewer vices and addictions because they would be satisfied with their lives. It would be easy to know which foods were healthiest for your body and how best to care for your mental health so chronic illness would be less common. As a society we would be happier, healthier, more productive and kinder to each other and the planet.

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 🙂

These days I’m extremely interested in neuroscience and am very excited by the work of Dr. Joe Dispenza. After a serious bike accident, he was miraculously able to heal his own body through the power of his mind. This inspired him to study the brain and he now teaches people how to rewire their brains to heal their bodies and achieve success through meditation techniques. His patients’ recovery stories sound like science fiction movie plot lines. As someone who has also healed her own body (although not quite to the extent that he did) I am fascinated by his work and how profoundly he helps others.

The longer I work with clients, helping them to cultivate new habits to achieve health and success, the more amazed I am with how powerful our belief systems, subconscious and true positive thinking are. Our brains are amazing and when we learn how to optimize them, the sky’s the limit. I don’t know anyone I’d love to sit and chat more about all of this with then Dr. Dispenza.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

For more info check out or follow HealthyByLianna on Instagram!

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

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