Start with sleep. It’s no secret that sleep is vital to every aspect of health, but it’s one that many of us still don’t prioritize enough. One poor night of sleep disrupts hormones, affects neurotransmitters, and even gives a healthy person the blood sugar levels of a pre-diabetic. Simple steps like getting rid of artificial light in the bedroom, making sure the temperature is between 60–67 degrees and getting to bed by 10 pm can all make a drastic difference in sleep quality.
As a part of my series about the “5 Things Anyone Can Do To Optimize Their Mental Wellness” I had the pleasure of interviewing Katie Wells, CTNC, MCHC. Katie who thinks most bios are pretty boring, wants to live in a world where laundry folds itself, moms get to wear the superhero costumes they’ve already earned, and our kids never have to deal with the health problems our world is currently facing. A mom of six with a background in journalism, she took health into her own hands and started researching to find answers to her own health struggles. Her research turned into a blog and podcast that turned into an amazing community. Katie celebrates her 300th podcast episode of the Wellness Mama podcast, she’s written over 1,500 blog posts, three books, and was named one of the 100 most influential people in health and wellness. Right when you think she could do no more, here Katie goes again with her latest wellness venture Wellnesse. This time she’s whipping up her own tried and tested products made with the safest and cleanest ingredients possible.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
This path was never my “plan.” In fact, my career path didn’t even exist when I was growing up! I had hopes of a legal or political career, but that all changed when I decided to get married pretty young and I had my first child in 2006.
When I sat in the doctor’s office for my infant’s six-week follow-up appointment, I read in a magazine that “for the first time in two centuries, the current generation of American children will have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.”
That hit me like a ton of bricks as I sat there nursing my tiny newborn baby and it was at that moment I resolved to change that statistic. With a background in journalism, I turned to research.
The timing lined up with me as a was also suffering from the early symptoms of Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis. I shared my journey at WellnessMama.com as I worked toward my own health and as I tried to create a healthy start for my kids.
Who would have thought I’d end up on The Skinny Confidential talking about all things wellness and parenting?
The Wellness Mama community grew as many women and moms realized the uphill battle our children were facing and struggled with health problems of their own. For years, I shared DIY recipes and beauty tutorials and realized that many people simply are not going to have the time to make all of these products from scratch.
After perfecting our DIY recipes and realizing the demand and need, Wellnesse.com was founded to create the highest quality personal care products for families.
The fact is it’s tough to find high-quality products that work as well as “regular” alternatives and people aren’t willing to sacrifice effectiveness to use a natural option.
The Wellnesse team’s mission and vision is to create products that do both: work as well as conventional alternatives while maintaining safety and clean ingredients. Most don’t realize we absorb most of what we put on our bodies, and we’ve turned this on its head. Not only avoiding anything harmful but adding beneficial ingredients to nourish the body from the outside in.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
It all started with a cold plunge. I recently visited Lapland in northern Finland with one of the companies we partner with. Saunas are popular there and I knew we would have the chance to visit a sauna and try a cold plunge on the last day of the trip. All week, I was nervous about that cold plunge. I hated the cold and I considered chickening out several times. Even more than that, I was traveling with a bunch of super-fit people and dreaded wearing a swimsuit in front of them with my post-six-kids body.
When the time came, we all walked into the sauna (that was over 200 degrees) and sat as long as we could. I knew the cold was coming so I lasted a long, long time in that sauna before I braved the 20-yard walk into the 24-degree water (with air temperatures in the -20s).
My “Dear Self was what I did not expect. The first round was biting and I only made it a few seconds before retreating back to the sauna. The second time, I lasted a little longer, and the third and final time (you finish on the cold), I had a long talk with myself about facing the tough things and resolved to make it a whole minute in the cold. I walked back into the hole cut into the arctic lake and watched the clock tick down until those sixty seconds were up. Emerging victorious (and bright pink from the cold), I realized the real victory wasn’t in facing the cold, but in facing my own body insecurities.
I focused that day on what my body could do, and not what it wasn’t or its physical flaws and I found in the frozen lake in Finland a new outlook on life and a strength I didn’t know I had.
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?
On the first day of junior year of high school, I walked into my AP European History class to find my teacher, Coach Adair (also the soccer coach), dressed in a Viking helmet and a cape made of a deer pelt.
He told us that his class was not easy and that he would push us, teach us the material, and that we’d emerge with a good score on the AP exam and a thorough understanding of the topic, but that we should be prepared to work. He wasn’t joking. The AP exam included an essay portion, and he spent a lot of time honing our writing skills and teaching us to write quickly and clearly to fit within the allotted time window. I learned more about writing in this class than in any English or writing class. That class is one of the reasons I considered studying journalism in college and is one of the reasons I can write quickly (even on my busiest days as a mom). I still have such fond memories of that class. Coach Adair probably has no idea how dramatically he impacted my life all those years ago.
Other people: My husband Seth first suggested I should start a website 13 years ago. He predicted that blogs would rise in popularity and saw with my background in writing, it was something I would enjoy. Starting WellnessMama.com also pulled from both of our strengths and created a synergy that would lead to the most extensive website for naturally minded moms. His background was in tech, and he was running an agency that did website design and SEO. His knowledge of tech and my love of writing allowed us to grow to what Wellness Mama is today.
Another that comes to mind is Dr. Alan Christianson. Years ago, I knew something was wrong with my health and had been to a handful of doctors but left without any answers. I met him at a conference, and within minutes, he was able to tell based on symptoms and history I likely had Hashimotos. Follow up tests confirmed this, and working with him was the first step in turning my health around.
In hindsight, I’m so grateful for those health struggles because they taught me to listen to my body, and they ignited a passion for research that has now helped thousands of women take control of their own health.
What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?
I wish I could say I’d never dealt with burnout because I had robust strategies from the beginning, but this is far from the case. A few years ago, I struggled with significant burnout and considered walking away from WellnessMama.com entirely.
I was exhausted and overwhelmed with trying to balance motherhood, running a household, and work. In one particularly stressful moment, I realized I was rarely stressed in business yet often stressed at home. It occurred to me I was much more intentional about my work time than my personal time, and perhaps this was the reason. While at work, things ran on schedules and systems, had KPIs and goals and were well defined, I was trying to manage everything else in my life in my head. I applied the same strategies and systems I used in business to my home life and started solving for the variable of reduced stress by systematizing and automating anything I could.
Through this, I realized the importance of work/life integration (not just balance). I found that in many cases, it isn’t actually the tasks that cause stress, but the overwhelm of thinking about all of the tasks we need to do. By giving everything a defined time and place, it takes the stress and mental energy out of the equation and allows us to be present for each task at its given time.
I also find we often fill whatever time we give ourselves for an activity. If we are supposed to work eight hours a day, we will find things to do for that amount of time. Many of us start with work and try to schedule everything else around work time. I tried the opposite. The most important priorities for me were things like family dinner, spending time with my kids, sleep, and self-care, so I scheduled these things first and scheduled work time in the time slots left over. I became much more efficient at work due to the systems and shorter work times, and much happier because I had more time for the most important things.
Finally, I think it’s essential to be intentional about mental inputs leading to good mental health. For me, this means making time each day for things like gratitude, journaling, and drawing. These have a noticeable impact on my creativity, focus, and mental state. I find my mind is happiest when constantly challenged with new ideas, so I also make time almost every day to read for at least half an hour.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
Extreme ownership: This concept was popularized by retired Navy SEAL Jocko Willink. As a team leader, I’m responsible for the outcomes and operations of that team on every level. That doesn’t mean I am responsible for handling every task. Far from it. But it means that while I can delegate decision-making and jobs, I can’t ever delegate the responsibility for these things. If someone on my team misunderstands directions or carries out a task incorrectly, it is my responsibility as a leader to be more precise.
Admitting when I’m wrong is more important than being right: To focus on growth and to create the best product possible, I have to let go of the need to prove that I’m right. Leadership is rarely just about how much I know, and focusing on this creates a culture where team members are afraid to make mistakes or will make excuses and knock each other down to appear correct. Conversely, when I’m able to admit mistakes and talk about when I’m wrong, it sets an example, and lets team members do the same. It also fosters an environment where everyone feels confident in trying new things and sharing new ideas. Additionally, I can learn something from every situation and person I encounter and that entering every interaction with an open mind makes it much easier to learn.
Minimize meetings to increase productivity: In our company, meetings are mostly culture and connection more than for tasks. I think many companies overuse in-person meetings when automation and systems would be more efficient. For accomplishing tasks, I try always to ask what could be simplified and automated in each instance. With a wholly distributed virtual team, our video and in-person meetings are for bonding and culture building and not for discussing mundane tasks.
Focus on autonomy: I have a parenting rule that I won’t do anything for my children that they are capable of doing on their own. Ironically, this same lesson was one of my hardest to learn in business. As a recovering Type-A control freak, I had a habit of hiring people and then not letting them do their jobs because I was afraid things wouldn’t get done correctly. I had to learn that not only could my team do things as well as I could… in many cases, they could do better because they were specializing in that particular thing while I was trying to balance it all. I shifted the focus to empowering them to own and be autonomous in their roles, and the team flourished.
Praise publicly and offer feedback privately: As a leader, there are times when I need to provide constructive feedback to a team member. I had to learn to navigate this in a way that didn’t make anyone afraid to take future risks, and that encouraged growth. I developed a system of offering praise and positive feedback publicly and reserving any less-than-positive feedback for private conversations. This way, everyone felt encouraged to take moonshots or work hard on projects because it might lead to public recognition and not afraid to take risks because any negative feedback comes kindly and privately.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Mental health is often looked at in binary terms; those who are healthy and those who have a mental illness. The truth, however, is that mental wellness is a huge spectrum. Even those who are “mentally healthy” can still improve their mental wellness. From your experience or research, what are five steps that each of us can take to improve or optimize our mental wellness. Can you please share a story or example for each.
Like any aspect of health, mental health exists on a spectrum. There isn’t a threshold of “healthy” vs “not healthy” when it comes to mental health or physical health, and we can all work to optimize both continually. I’ve found a few strategies that help to improve mental wellness:
Start with sleep
It’s no secret that sleep is vital to every aspect of health, but it’s one that many of us still don’t prioritize enough. One poor night of sleep disrupts hormones, affects neurotransmitters, and even gives a healthy person the blood sugar levels of a pre-diabetic. Simple steps like getting rid of artificial light in the bedroom, making sure the temperature is between 60–67 degrees and getting to bed by 10 pm can all make a drastic difference in sleep quality.
Another easy and free way to improve mental wellness is to use sunlight to your advantage. Even on a cloudy day, sunlight triggers specific receptors in the eye (in ways indoor light can’t) and signals essential hormones in the body. Getting outside for 30 minutes within an hour of waking up can have a noticeable and measurable effect on stress hormone levels and on sleep. I try to sip coffee or spend time with my kids outdoors shortly after waking up. It’s also helpful to avoid artificial light, which often includes blue light spectrums and signal the brain that it is daytime, after sunset.
Cultivating a grateful attitude is one of the best steps we can all take to improve several aspects of health continually. Not only are there physical benefits, but the effects on mental health are well documented too. Some practical tips: start a gratitude journal, write letters of gratitude to those you love, and do daily acts of kindness.
The science is solid on the importance of close relationships and community for health. Not only is it as physically important as not smoking or as regular exercise, but it is also one of the things most tied to good mental health. Unfortunately, our modern world doesn’t always optimize for these types of connections. Prioritize them by making time for in-person time with those you love, starting a group of some kind in your local area, or having dinner parties with close friends.
Harvard Health reported that exercise is an effective treatment for depression and many studies show the numerous ways that exercise boosts mental health. For best results, I focus on movement and not exercise and make time for lots of natural movement, like walking, each day. Bonus points if you do this with a friend and in the sunlight!
Much of my expertise focuses on helping people to plan for after retirement. Retirement is a dramatic ‘life course transition’ that can impact one’s health. In addition to the ideas you mentioned earlier, are there things that one should do to optimize mental wellness after retirement? Please share a story or an example for each.
I think building a strong community and relationships are even more important after retirement. Another factor often overlooked is the importance of finding a purpose or motivating factor outside of oneself.
Many people devote themselves to work for the majority of their lives and it is not just a source of income, but also of community and fulfillment and focus for them. When they retire, they gain more time freedom but need to be intentional about filling those important needs in a new way.
How about teens and pre-teens. Are there any specific new ideas you would suggest for teens and pre-teens to optimize their mental wellness?
I am now mom to a teenager and learning how to navigate this phase. The most important realization for me so far has been that teenagers have a psychological need for independence and separation. This is important and good but it’s easy to resist as a parent when teenagers start pulling away. Instead, we can realize that this step is important to their mental health and work together to find ways to foster their independence and decision making in healthy ways.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?
Early in my career, I read The Four Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss. It had a much more dramatic impact on the trajectory of my life and my business than I realized at the time. It changed my idea of what was possible and helped me focus on optimization and systems from the very beginning. I re-read it recently and realized just how much I was still using in my daily life.
The book The Four Agreements also had a big impact on my career and my mental health. For such a simple and short read, it makes some profound points and I find that when I keep those four ideas in my mind, I’m much less stressed.
The ideas are simple:
- to be impeccable with my word,
- to not take things personally,
- to always do my best, and
- not make assumptions… the implementation is profound.
I find that when I run opportunities, projects, and any actions I take through those criteria, it is clear if they’re a good fit or not.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I’ve always said that moms are the most powerful force on the planet. Not only are we raising the next generation, but we control the majority of the purchasing power and have mastered multitasking.
I believe the movement bringing the most good to the world is uniting moms around our commonalities rather than our differences.
It’s easy to self-divide into factions based on our choices about birth, and breastfeeding, and feeding our kids, and screen time. But we share a very important common interest in creating the best future for our kids and if we united and focused on that, I think it would change the world.
The division also leaves many of us as moms feeling overwhelmed and isolated, and the antidote to this is a connection, community and a common focus on the good.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
“Just keep in mind: the more we value things outside our control, the less control we have.” -Epictetus
This goes back to the idea of extreme ownership, not just in business, but in all aspects of life.
I find the more I focus on improving the things within my control: my attitude, my response to events that happen, the actions I take daily to build habits… the more successful and happy I can be in those areas.
Focusing on things outside of my control (what others do, why things happen, even the news) is a recipe for stress and chaos.
Aristotle famously said “we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” I believe this habit starts with taking responsibility for the things within our control and letting go of the emotional attachment to the things we can’t.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
You can find me here on:
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!